Recently, one of my students desperately told me this:
“Yes, I know the rule and I know that I should have used ‘was reading’ in this situation! I’ve studied several grammar books but I still keep on making mistakes when I speak, despite knowing the rules…”
Her situation is quite common. There are lots of students who have mastered advanced vocabulary, normally getting high scores on their grammar tests, but keep making mistakes when they are speaking.
Why do you make mistakes in speech, even if you know the rules of grammar?
Let’s look at everything you need to do when speaking in a foreign language. Simultaneously, you are thinking of:
- What you would like to say to start a conversation or respond to one.
- How you will say it using appropriate vocabulary, grammar and the correct pronunciation.
- Monitoring our partner’s reactions to our words. Are they pleased, interested, annoyed or confused?
Usually, you focus on what you would like to say and focus on your partner’s reaction. Not that much energy is left to consider what grammar you need to use.
On the other hand, when practicing grammar exercises, you do not have the pressure of starting the conversation in the correct way and keeping your partner engaged in what you’re saying. This means you can calmly focus on choosing the appropriate structure.
Understanding grammar rules can be enough for grammar tests - but it is often not enough for avoiding mistakes in actual speech. To use correct grammar in speech, you need to automate the structures so that you can converse without much conscious effort. You can then concentrate on making the conversation engaging, just as you would when speaking your native tongue.
One of the method which will help you in achieving this automation of basic grammar patterns is re-telling stories.
Re-telling is prepared speaking, this means: you don’t need to make up a story on the spot. You are just reproducing a story you already know. Since you should know the content of the story well, you can direct more energy to improving any grammatical problems you are want to improve.
When re-telling a story, make sure you aren’t just reading from a text. With this activity you should be more focused on grammar than on spontaneous speech, as you will consciously be thinking about what the correct grammar is that you need to use.
If I have convinced you to practice re-telling stories to improve your grammar, you should be aware that not every story is good for automating your grammar patterns in speech. What we’re aiming to do is grammar focused re-telling.
- How to choose a story for grammar focused re-telling?
1. Feel comfortable with the vocabulary in your story
You are working on grammar with this exercise - so you should focus on grammar. If you are overwhelmed or struggling with new words, you will be thinking of what words you need to use, and not about improving your grammar in speech.
2. Use lots of examples of your grammar structure
Choose a story which is stuffed full with the grammar structures you want to improve. The more you repeat the pattern, the better. For example, if you are practicing past simple irregular verbs, the story must be full of phrases such as:
- ‘he took’
- ‘they went’
- ‘everybody ran’
- ‘she saw’
- ‘later she forgot’
3. Focus on one problem at a time
I know how it feels when you have problems with irregular verbs, future tenses, passive voice, and conditionals. The mere mention of the past perfect may make you panic. But you can’t effectively improve all these aspects if you practice them at the same time. Choose a story that contains only one problem (or two) for you to focus on in one go.
Here’s what you could do. Take your time and devote two sessions for improving the past simple. After that, spend one more lesson remembering how to use was and were in the past progressive. The next step would be to practice using the right tense from the opposite tenses: past simple and past continuous. Then practice past simple and past perfect. Only after you are confident on all of these should you choose a story containing all the three tenses.
4. Have fun!
Choose stories with dynamic plot, unexpected twists, lots of suspense or drama. Pick what you will enjoy most! Positive emotions will increase productivity. It is a great idea to use podcasts and other ESL learning sites for inspiration. If you struggle with the past simple and past continuous, I would recommend listening to oomongzu.
Once you feel confident enough about the past simple and past continuous, add the past perfect tense and visit Luke’s podcast. Check his Narrative Tenses episode - it is perfect for grammar focused re-telling!
After you have chosen the right stories to practice your grammar, ask your italki teacher to focus on correcting the mistakes in the grammar patterns you’re practicing. Don’t worry if you make a lot of mistakes at first. If you start worrying about the wrong pronunciation here, using an incorrect preposition there, and forgetting to use an auxiliary verb elsewhere, your attention will disperse and you will be neglecting the grammar pattern you decided to improve.
Practice grammar focused re-telling of stories for at least 15 minutes everyday and you will be surprised with the results in less than a week.
Good luck and let me know about your progress / results with this method!