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Form, Meaning, and Use
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In the language classroom, teachers should strive to balance form, meaning, and use. Students should understand not only the mechanics of the language, but also the hows, whys, and wheres a particular structure, word, or phrase gets used.

For example, in a lesson on the past perfect tense, students need to learn the sentence structure. The teacher first drills past participles on a variety of verbs (eat / eaten, swim / swum, buy / bought). He then plugs the past participles into the grammar structure, with students then further practicing the material via example sentences and more drills.

However, the class also needs to learn that the past perfect places actions or events in order for the listener or reader. The grammar serves as a marker of when events happened. This is especially needed when the speaker forgets some information and has to backtrack in the story. This is also important when information needs further clarification.

Let's look at the following in more detail, which will also clarify the concepts of form, meaning, and use.

Form: This refers to the mechanics of the language, either in terms of grammar or vocabulary. With regards to grammar, students must understand the sentence structure of a specific grammar rule. In the above example on the past perfect tense, this would be:

subject  | had  | past participle  | object/complement

So whenever students want to use the past perfect tense, they have to follow this specific structure.

With regards to vocabulary, students must understand the pronunciation of a word. If in a written text, then students must know how to spell a word. Prefixes, suffixes, and roots are also important, especially at the intermediate and advanced levels. Students should be able to breakdown the components of a word to guess at the meaning. Take the following prefixes:

biannual  -  "bi" means twice, so the new meaning is "twice a year"
distrust  -  "dis" means not, so the new meaning is "not to trust"
submarine  -  "sub" means under, so the new meaning is "under water"

With an understanding of prefixes and suffices, students don't always have to scurry for a dictionary every time they encounter an unknown word. However, students should also learn to readily recognize that the word may be a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb. This is becomes possible by devoting a portion of the lesson to form.

Meaning: This is the mental image/comprehension that is generated by the grammar or vocabulary. Students connect the grammar structure with the meaning. For example, the past tense signals events in the past, the past perfect signals earlier actions/events in a narrative. Once the teacher has presented the structure, he should talk about the meaning too.

When vocabulary is the focus of the lesson, students connect the form of the word with its meaning. This occurs both at the micro- and macro-levels. At the micro-level, the word stands alone. Students understand the image triggered by a specific word. However, at the macro-level, a word may have a different meaning because of the sentence in which it appears. There is often nuance or some other concept generated. In addition, when someone uses a word, there may be other associated word choices selected or triggered.

Use: Last comes how the grammar or vocabulary gets used. For example, the past perfect tense isn't used in every sentence but rather in conjunction with the past tense. One sentence appears in the past perfect to order events, and then subsequent sentences appear in the simple past. Take the following short narrative:

Tom had studied English for ten years. As a result, he got a great job in England last year.

However, use also takes into consideration phrases or certain structures that might appear more conversational, others more formal, and yet even more than a few used only in very specific industries or situations.

Vocabulary follows the same concept, as some words are more often used in writing. Others are more often used in speaking. And many words have specific uses and appear in written communication like academic essays or business correspondence. Students must understand these points for effective vocabulary use, especially at the higher-levels when they acquire words with less concrete meanings. In addition, students must also realize what words or types of words are commonly associated with the vocabulary.

Of course, if the teacher tried to cover form, meaning, and use in every lesson, ensuring that students know all the ins and outs of a grammar structure or word, then not much would get done. What's more, the class would likely be quite boring. Consider the following ideas for effectively covering form, meaning, and use in the classroom:

1: Keep the explanations brief. A simple comment that the past tense refers to events in the past serves as an adequate explanation. The same holds true of a few comments on the past perfect, or any other structure. A visual diagram and several examples also further highlight the target language.

2: Limit the explanation to the task/lesson at hand. There may be several exceptions to the rule. There may be times when the language isn't used for some situation or with some medium. Yet this is all extraneous information. The teacher wants to provide just enough explanation for the students to practice the language correctly and purposefully.

3: Consider devoting several lessons to a specific grammar or language point. This allows the teacher to address and practice the rules and exceptions, yet not overwhelm the class with too much information. The teacher can also practice different skills/mediums, yet return to the same language point.

4: Address grammar and vocabulary again and again. The teacher should provide several opportunities to acquire the target language during a course of study. Just because students have studied the target material once doesn't mean they can use it well. By revisiting the target structures, then students who grasped the form have a second chance to grasp the meaning and use of the target structure. Students who grasped the meaning have a second chance for the form and use.