Should I focus
more on grammar or meaning?
teachers introduce students to both the form of the language (that
is the structure of the sound and spelling system, and the
grammatical rules of the language) and how to understand and use
the language (that is how to make meaning and communicate in the
Students need to understand the form of the target language. It’s
important for them to learn the patterns and rules for using the
language accurately. It will be quite different from English. For
example, here are some words and sentences from Ash, Giacon,
& Lissarrague (2003) Gamilaraay-Yuwaalaraay Dictionary (p.
268-269) which show that in this language, as in many Australian
languages, word order does not affect meaning the same way it does
The following sentences
all mean, the echidna will eat the ants. Although the word order
changes, all of the sentences are grammatically correct. Changing
their position just changes the emphasis.
Bigibila-gu buurrngan dha-li.
teachers explicitly explain differences such as these to students
(especially older students) so that they can develop skills to
analyse the structure of the language. Often these explanations
are given to the students in English. That is, the teacher talks
to the students in English about the language.
Although the grammar and form of language is important, language
is also a social process in which speakers engage with each other.
They have an endless number of reasons for communicating with each
other, for example greeting, introducing self and other people,
exchanging personal information, seeking and giving information,
instructing, giving commands, directing, apologising, asking
permission, allowing, refusing, requesting, offering, inviting,
accepting, declining, describing, joking, expressing sympathy,
apologising, explaining, complaining, negotiating, discussing,
complimenting, accusing, denying, identifying, reporting,
recounting, retelling, narrating, entertaining, gossiping,
arguing, insisting, promising, agreeing, disagreeing, suggesting.
Teaching programs for languages are often partly organised around
such language functions and purposes for communicating.
The text below was created by the Wiradjuri Council of Elders and
is used in both spoken and written forms. People incorporate it
into their Welcome to Country speeches and the Dubbo
College Stage 4 Wiradjuri program is built
around it. Through the text the Elders are giving advice, guiding,
recommending and challenging.
language teaching leads students to use their knowledge of the
form of the language to develop skills for talking and listening
to each other, reading and writing to each other. Language
teaching includes both grammar
and people interacting in meaningful ways. It is a balance between
correct grammar and using language to communicate. Keeping
in mind language functions and purposes (such as the ones above)
is one a way to ensure your teaching program includes
communicating in the language.
you going to live?
yaambul yala. Dhulubul ya-la.
tell lies. Speak the truth.
people. Love each other.
together and empower the people.
and gracious to strangers.
each other. Share with each other.
honour and respect to all people.
quarrelling to stop.
for justice and peace without fighting.
garray-gu bila galang-gu.
the land and the rivers.
garray-bu bila-galang-bu nga-nga-girri nginyalgir.
land and the rivers will look after you all.
Should I teach
the components of the language or take a whole language
two broad ways to think about how to teach language. One is a
synthetic approach, in which the teacher begins with the
smallest components of the language (the sounds and spelling) then
moves to individual words, then to phrases, utterances/sentences
and finally to longer spoken or written texts. In this approach it
may be several months or years before students are introduced to
spoken or written texts in the target language.
There is something about the order that seems logical, as if you
are building up the blocks of language. It appeals to people for
this reason. It is important for language learners to understand
these separate components of the language, but it is not the best
or only way to start to teach a language. Language teachers also
take an analytic approach. That is, the teacher often turns the
order on its head, and presents a whole spoken or written text to
the students first up. All components of the language are
presented together in context, even though the students may not
understand every word at first.
An analytic approach allows students to hear and read
language in a more natural form. If the teacher has chosen the
text carefully (or constructed it), to match the students’ level,
they will be able to work out the general meaning. At the same
time they can develop skills which help them to analyse the parts
of the text they are unsure of. For example the students will be
able to guess some of the meaning from the title, people, things
and events in the whole text. If a written text is accompanied by
pictures, and if spoken text is accompanied by actions and
gestures, these provide clues to help the students to work out the
meaning. If the students have the opportunity to listen to or read
the text a number of times, each time they will be able to
understand a bit more of the detail. Students can also learn how
to use dictionaries, word lists and other resources to find out
about words in the text they are not sure of.
This analytic approach is based on spoken and written texts which give
students access to language in meaningful contexts.
or fluency more important?
need to develop both accuracy and fluency in the target
language. Teachers balance development of their students’ correct
use of the language with their confidence in using the language.
Some activities focus on getting it right; for those activities
accurate use of the sounds, word and grammatical structures of the
language is important. Other activities focus on getting the
language ‘out there’ even if the students make mistakes; for those
is more important than perfection.
What is the place of
revival languages programs don’t grow and progress because the
students are only ever given the opportunity to learn single words
(usually nouns) in isolation. Programs can sometimes get stuck on
family and body part terms, animal and plant names. Although these
are very important words, communication in the language can only
begin to happen if the teacher develops
their own understanding and use of the grammar of the
language so that they can build up these skills in the students.
Using grammar involves knowing about various levels of the
structures of the target language:
students are second
language learners, they need to be taught the grammar of the
target language, and ways it differs from English, for example in
a series of sentences such as the following:
of word formation, e.g. the suffixes that can be added to
nouns and verbs,
sentences are put together, e.g. how questions, statements,
commands are made,
- how spoken and/or written texts are
structured, e.g. conversations and other interactions between
people, how stories are told.
The boy is at the river.
English has prepositions at, for and with, those meanings would be
expressed in Australian languages in suffixes added to the nouns
(river, cousin, black bream and line). When teachers highlight
patterns such as these, students can understand and begin to use
the grammatical structures in the language they are learning. The
set of sentences above could be an oral language game (with
students sitting in a circle and adding to the length of the
sentence) or designed as a reading and writing activity in a
teacher-made worksheet or interactive white board exercise.
Language teachers are mindful of their approach to teaching grammar.
The boy is
at the river fishing.
The boy is
at the river fishing with his cousin.
The boy is
at the river fishing with his cousin for black bream.
The boy is
at the river fishing with his cousin for black bream with a
How can I
incorporate grammar into my teaching?
teachers feel more confident about the grammar of their
language they can begin to incorporate it into their teaching.
Teachers devote parts of lessons to explaining patterns and rules
in the language, for example grammar can be taught explicitly
practice exercises. However, unlike older approaches to
grammar teaching, these days the students are taught grammar in
ways which enable them to participate in interactive activities.
Teachers select and focus on specific grammatical features in
particular lessons, and present examples of those structures to
the students. They design activities in which the students have
the opportunity to see and learn the patterns and rules in the
language. Students then manipulate those structures to communicate
meaning and express ideas.
The following example is featured in the Board of Studies NSW
languages K-10 assessment for learning in a standards referenced
framework CD ROM. The students’ task was to work in pairs to
construct a dialogue in Gamilaraay-Yuwaalaraay using a number of
language structures they had been taught, e.g. what and where
questions, verb suffixes for present tense and continuous action,
first person subject and possessive pronouns. The students’
dialogue is based on the language patterns they have just learned.
They are also able to incorporate vocabulary they have learned in
Student A: Yaama dhaadhaa. How are you
be taught through songs which repeat a language structure over and
over, e.g. the Dhaga wambuwuny song below in teaches
locative suffix patterns in Wiradjuri. It is from the Wiradjuri
language songs book created
by Stan Grant Senior and John Rudder:
B: Gaba birray, nginda? Good boy, and you?
A: Gababula. Minyanda gimbildanha? Good too. What
are you doing?
B: Yinabildanha ngaya. I am fishing.
A: Minyaaya baagii? Where is grandmother?
B: Wii wiimaldanha nguu. She is making a fire.
A: Minyaaya walgan ngay? Where is my aunt?
B: Dhuwarr yilamaldanha nguu. She is cooking
A: Minyaaya wambanhiya ngay? Where is my cousin?
B: Gaawaaga gubiylanha nguu. He is swimming in the
A: Minyaaya baawaa ngay? Where is my sister?
B: Wii nguu dhiyamaldanha. She’s collecting wood.
A: Minyaaya garruu? Where is uncle?
B: Dhaldanha nguu. He is eating.
A: Minyaaya dhagaan ngay? Where is my brother?
B: Giirr dhanduwiylanha nguu, ngarragaa birray. He
is sleeping, hopeless boy!
A: Yanaawaanha ngaya gundhigu. I am going home.
B: Ngaayaybaay birray, gaba yanaaya. Okay boy, go
A: Baayandhu ngarralay ngali. Bye.
dictation can be a fun way to teach grammar. The teacher chooses a
short passage and pins just one copy up on the wall at the front
of the classroom. The class is divided into teams of 3-4 students.
The first student in each group runs to the passage, memorises the
first sentence, runs back and dictates it to the scribe in their
group. A student may need to run back and check if s/he hasn’t
been able to remember the whole sentence. The second student in
each group runs to, memorises, runs back and dictates the second
sentence; and so on until each group has completed the passage.
The teacher then gives each group a copy of the passage so that
they can compare how accurately they have written it down. The
repetition in this activity gives the students an opportunity to
revise the vocabulary and structures they are learning.
|Where is kangaroo?
Where is kangaroo?
In the grass. In the grass.
Kangaroo’s in the grass.
|Where is koala?
Where is koala?
In the tree. In the tree.
Koala’s in the tree.
|Where is emu?
Where is emu?
At the nest. At the nest.
Emu’s at the nest.
|Where is platypus?
Where is platypus?
In the water. In the water.
Platypus is in the water.
Grammar can be taught through speaking, listening, reading or
writing activities. It can also be taught incidentally, for
example in the middle of a class students may notice, or the
teacher might point out, a certain pattern in the language which
is found in the spoken or written text the students happen to be
using or analysing. On a daily and weekly basis teachers also give
students oral and/or written feedback on the accuracy of their use
of the language.
I learn more about language teaching?
about good teaching for reviving Australian languages is one of
the main purposes of this website. To make it more accessible we
have arranged it under the following headings:
This page was first
published on November 22, 2013 and was last updated on
July 30, 2021. All material is copyright to the
individual authors unless indicated otherwise.