Long-term learners often experience the feeling that although they know a good deal of words in their second language, they are still using them on a somewhat shaky foundation. They are most aware of this shortcoming when they are asked to use their English outside of a particular comfort zone. If they are used to talking with friends, for example, then asking them to draft a professional letter will make them nervous even if they are aware of how to write it simply and effectively.
When faced with this problem, a lot of learners react by booking another course in the classroom to ‘brush up’ their grammar. This usually results in repeating the same ground in heavy-going grammar-focused lessons. This approach, however, can be mostly ineffective as it does not allow the learner the freedom they require to eradicate error and improve accuracy in a new situation.
Language learning is not a constantly soaring line of progress, but rather, a series of u-shaped peaks and troughs. Although, on the surface, a grammatical concept can be taught and embedded fairly quickly, it takes countless examples to reinforce it against other concepts and use it accurately away from the training environment.
Taking a fix and build approach with students draws a line between what they know and what they don’t know. ‘Build’ lessons are those where a learner has not encountered a grammar point before. They should be characterised as:
However, if a student has already encountered a grammar point before, it is rarely worth going over the same old ground unless the trainer can see that the point was mistaught in the first place. Instead, the trainer and learner should aim to talk freely and flag examples of a particular point within that conversation. This allows the learner more insight into how and when a tense comes up in natural conversation and how it might be used to contrast against other tenses. A ‘fix’ lesson should be:
Passive correction (notes)
Allowing space for a learner to work on confident and meaningful delivery
Distinguishing between these two needs helps trainers and students to manage their expectations and make genuine progress. While a grammar point can be taught relatively quickly, it can take hundreds of examples through many hours of natural conversation to take ownership but there is no reason why this should be a painful process if both trainer and student understand what is needed from each other.