It’s a traditional (down)loaded question, of course. How many ways are there to answer it “correctly”—linguistically, competitively, graphically, scientifically, practically, philosophically, intuitively, personally, spiritually, or what else?
Do the Grammar. And Do It in Order.
Language teachers and students in academic courses tend to ask the classic "Which Came First—the Chicken or the Egg?" question in this way: In what order should we sequence the grammar? That’s because some people believe that there’s a certain connected “logic” or “rightness” about the order in which grammatical topics and subtopics are best taught, practiced, and learned.
Whether directed at native or non-native speakers of English, every grammar text, series, or program of instruction seems to have a “Scope & Sequence.” This list or chart of consciously selected grammar points tells the order in which to introduce, apply, or master each pattern or rule before going on to the next targeted object of attention or piece of learning.
Here are a few downloadable articles on the subject of grammar sequencing. From a linguistic or pedagogic point of view, they reveal their authors’ rationale in structuring their grammar curriculum by putting targeted topics “in order.”
Use a "Real-Life Approach" to Sequencing.
But what if your teaching/study situation is not tied to an academic curriculum or standardized testing? Or your students are not “grammar nerds” acquiring sentence structure as general knowledge or just for challenging fun?
Here are some other possible criteria for making effective decisions on grammar sequencing. All are less related to grammatical structures, patterns, and rules than to other features or practical purposes of language.
1. Tie grammar points to competencies or language functions.
Start with what learners need to do right away, often, or regularly to survive: perhaps to respond to requests, ask for things, and express basic needs. These necessities may elicit basic instruction in topics like “Singular & Plural Nouns,” “Place Prepositions,” “Affirmative & Negative Imperative Verbs,” “Possessive Adjectives & Pronouns,” “Simple Modals,” and the like.
After beginning levels, learners will want to describe (situations, problems, places, processes, feelings, points of view, and more). Grammar to cover in logical order will include verb tense patterns for the present, past, and future—as well as question and answer forms, kinds of nouns, and functions of other parts of speech—in phrases and full sentences.
As language students advance, they’ll want to participate fully in work and life situations. Striving to converse, interact, and succeed will lead naturally to lessons on complex verb tenses, modal verbs, noun & pronoun markers, phrasal verbs, various uses of infinitives, comparison, and whatever else comes up when fulfilling “higher levels” of practical language functions.
Click on the following pages to see the Table of Contents of some Work/Life English Competency-Based Grammars. Chapter titles tell the contexts in which the listed grammar points come up—situations related to general subjects like “Things,” “Help,” “Getting There,” or “Relationships.” In each section. “grammar topics” coordinate logically with the “competencies” listed above. Text users will be able to complete necessary or desired tasks (functions) by using targeted structures and patterns and noting relevant “rules.”
2. Present what’s necessary just before it’s needed. Then build on it.
If a piece of knowledge is easier to attain after info is acquired on another topic, put relevant points in appropriate order. For examples, click on Chapter 1: Things, from Work/Life English: Lifeskills Workbook 1 to see how text users learn to “name, count, describe, and request things” in everyday settings. Along with typical vocabulary, the distinction between singular vs. plural nouns comes first. Next, to distinguish items from one another, learners get numbers + adjectives before nouns. Finally, they acquire the use of prepositions in noun phrases.
3. Sequence the points within a topic according to “level of necessity.”
“Necessity” is likely to depend on frequency of use in those contexts for which learners need certain grammatical patterns or rules. It may or may not be related to complexity. For examples of sequencing based on these criteria, click on Chapter 1: Getting There from Work/Life English: English in Everyday Life Grammar 2. These sections start with “the Imperative,” a grammar topic that reflects the prevalence of “Directives, Orders, & Rules” when a situation arises. But they also introduce the “base form of verbs,” the common element of all lessons in verb (tense) forms, verbals, and verb phrases. Next—to express ability and permission, there’s the simple modal can/can’t, which precedes base verbs. Finally, both grammatical elements are used in questions & answers.
4. Link grammar focus to the language skills learners will be using most.
These may depend on their fields of work or study and their responsibilities or activities. For instance, in Work/Life English: An Immigration Story (Grammar 2), Chapter 3: Transportation, text users learn to decide by understanding and expressing predictions, future possibility, permission, requests, desires, preferences, expectation, advice, warnings, and obligations. And what more efficient and effective way to accomplish these tasks than with simple modals—in statements, questions, and answers? Click on this chapter to see how well-planned sequencing of grammar points might work.
5. Choose the most effective teaching/learning activities first. Then match them to relevant targeted grammar points.
Beyond beginning levels, students are more likely to be engaging in interactive, expressive grammar activities than in receiving instruction or doing exercises. Once they’ve acquired the fundamentals of phrase and sentence patterns, it may not matter in which precise order specific points are presented. From (Still) Doing without the Photocopier, here are four typically generic ideas for eliciting and practicing various grammatical structures—usually sentences. Each contains a “Specific Grammar Topic” to work with as an example—as well as “Other Areas of Application” for that set of instructions.
- Idea E: Grammar Pictures offers steps to follow to elicit commentary on sets of visuals, probably photos or drawings. Depending on the kinds of images these display, participants will be motivated to practice simple or continuous verb forms, modal verbs of (im)probability, count vs. noncount nouns, and/or place prepositions.
- Idea F: Grammar Paraphrases is useful for practicing equivalent or associated grammar patterns. It focuses on ways to talk or write about the past (the simple, continuous, & perfect past tenses; used to/would + Base Verb). Even so, its procedures are suited to any kind of grammar that invites paraphrasing.
- Idea JJ: Grammar Video Writing makes use of broadcast or prerecorded moving visual images, usually with sound. To describe what they see (and hear), participants will need to put together verb phrases in one or more time frames, use noun subjects and objects appropriately, add modifiers, and—eventually, even put ideas together in clauses.
- Idea MM: Quick—What’s the Question? details the most obvious methods of eliciting well-formed informational questions—and answering them, of course. From the most basic to advanced, the quiz-game format is not only effective pedagogically but also motivates through competition.
6. Ignore the sequencing of grammar topics and points.
Want to save energy for facilitating grammar acquisition and enjoying learning processes? Then leave the careful (or even careless) sequencing of grammar points and topics to “the experts” who have already put in the necessary time and effort. Instead, just present, practice, and achieve mastery of the items in the official curriculum or (required or chosen) textbook or series in order.
Alternatively, let learners themselves choose the sequence of grammar topics they want to attend to. One “Use What You Have, Get What You Need” way of doing so is to set up a “Grammar Lab” (Idea G of Doing Without the Photocopier). The first step in doing so is to “unsequence” the sections or chapters of any grammar texts or references in your collection—and/or to download online lessons on relevant grammar topics. Remove some or all of the pages from books; print out digital lessons. Staple together parts or pages that constitute complete lessons that participants can complete on their own (or with help). (If there are not enough materials for everyone to work on simultaneously, duplicate those likely to attract the most attention. Set aside (copies of) the accompanying Answer Key, if any. Then let go. Make yourself available to anyone who needs help, insert “min-lessons” for individuals that want them, and let the learning dynamic propel itself.
Following are some of the Authors & Editors products suitable for “Grammar Labs” or other individualized, scaffolded, and/or group instruction in English grammar patterns and rules:
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