A discussion ensued on my last blog post about some changes we were implementing at my school. One of the issues that came up was how to approach grammar teaching. I’ve been meaning to start a series on this, so here is the first installment.
Assumption: Grammar-focused lessons, syllabi, and course books are the antithesis of communicative language teaching.
We need to stop deluding ourselves that teaching grammar and then asking the students to partake in an activity that uses the structure is actually communicative. It is not. It’s simply grammar instruction with a speaking component. This series will examine the many incorrect assumptions made about grammar and will take a look at actually applying the CLT approach and teaching communication.
Part 1: The Argument Against Advanced Grammar
One point that came up in the discussion is teaching “advanced” structures to lower levels. I think Karenne’s reply aptly sums up my feelings on the subject, mainly that language is “NOT math.” The picture above is a great example of how grammar can be made overly complex in a classroom. Will diagraming grammar like above help the students use the language? Certainly not. Well the same follows for all the time wasted explaining grammar to students with simpler but still overly complex language.
Understanding and using grammar are two different things. We want to teach our students to use the language, not to be grammarians. A very common mistake is to focus on grammar as form rather than grammar as meaning.
Well, here’s the question: should we teach structures like passives or present perfect or mixed conditionals to lower level learners? My answer is, in most cases, absolutely, if they are ready for it or it‘s appropriate.
The first critical point that Karenne brings up is that a step by step approach to grammar is nonsense and even insulting to some people’s intelligence. In an article by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings on Dogme and the coursebook, they state that, “there is no research evidence to suggest that such [grammar] lists match the manner nor the order in which language is learned. It is more probably the case that such language items “emerge” naturally in real language use, through repeated cycles of exposure, attention, output and feedback.”
I would strongly agree. My main language learning experiences are with Turkish and a bit of Vietnamese. While Turkish is worlds apart from English, I picked up the structures incredibly fast. As I lived in Ankara, a city somewhat notorious for cold people, when I first came to Turkey and because I was teaching all the time, I had few opportunities to practice my Turkish. Yet I downloaded grammar explanations online for most major grammar points and started amassing translations of important words. Not an ideal way to learn, but it’s all I had.
After a month in the country I had the opportunity to take a vacation to a different city. On that vacation I made friends with a couple of university students who were studying art. Neither of them spoke a word of English. However, I had no problem talking to them. I had the most difficult time understanding anything they said to me, because I had so little listening practice, but I got my message across with the scarce vocabulary I had available at the time. The thing I did not have trouble with was expressing passives, future plans, unreal situations, etc. This is all part of my language that I use every day. It’s not difficult to understand. Not only that, my language ability sky-rocketed with two days of practice compared to the small gains I had made in the previous month I had been studying on my own.
This has been my experience throughout learning languages. I progress slowly or I can’t get something, and then suddenly I get immersed in intensive speaking situations and my fluency shoots up in a very short time.
A very similar story goes for my experience in Vietnam although that was much easier as grammar was much simpler and closer to English. I would meet people who were shocked that I could make sentences in the past, present, future, and continuous in Vietnamese and they still couldn’t after months of Vietnamese classes. That’s because I took 10 minutes to look them up online rather than wait until the course thought it was appropriate. I not only knew these tenses, I used them in my interactions every day at the market.
The idea that our students can’t understand some grammar because it is too “advanced” is ridiculous. What is difficult is actually learning to take the grammar apart and explain it, but I’ll deal with that in a subsequent post.
Let’s take a look at some “advanced” grammar. How about passives? Should we really be able to teach this to beginners? Hmm. Let’s see…
Is he tired?
He gets dressed at 6am every day.
Well look at that, 3 passive structures that we teach almost immediately to beginner level students (Ok, you can argue the first two can be viewed as adjectives, but it’s a moot point because functionally the structure and the meaning are the same).
This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions in TEFL. Obviously if the students can get the above structures, we can teach any other grammatical point in the same way, passives or not. It’s all about meaning and using the correct language in the correct situation.
How about present perfect? Well, have you got some more time? A present perfect sentence most course books teach within the first few weeks. Why then do we wait until later to introduce this tense? Well, we could say there is no present perfect in many languages so it’s more difficult. Well, Turkish also doesn’t have a commonly used verb for “have” anyway either. Of course this use of present perfect is a bit simpler to comprehend, but you get my point.
Then we move on to mixed conditionals. What thel is a mixed conditional anyway? The only reason it’s “mixed” is that because somewhere down the line someone came up with the less than brilliant idea that there were only 4 types of standard conditionals in English. What egghead sitting in an office decided this I don’t know. Mixed conditionals are only difficult because our students have been told for years that there are only 4 types. Now you are mixing them? How about just not putting constraints on them in the first place?
I tell my students, if they ever ask, there are two main categories of conditionals, ones that deal with real situations and ones that deal with unreal. That’s the only point to even worry about. As for conditional types, anything goes.
Once the student is ready, they’ll attempt a sentence like, “If rain, I (hand motion for grab) umbrella.” Why would I not give the student the correct language he wants to use? What can possibly be more important than what the student is trying to say? I don’t need to create a context, the student already has it. He just needs the correct forms, “If it rains, I’ll take an umbrella.”
Now say the same level student comes out with the sentence, “If I rich, I buy very nice house.” Again, the student has the context, give them the language they need to say it. They’ve got it in their own language already. Do you want to clarify it for the rest of the class? Ok.
Teacher: So Mehmet, are you rich?
Mehmet: No teacher.
Teacher: Do you have a nice house?
Teacher: So this is real or not?
Mehmet: No real.
Teacher: Ok then, say, “If I was rich, I’d buy a very nice house.”
There, you just taught 2nd conditional to a low level class.
Will they remember it right away? Probably not. Should you spend lots of time on it and drill it? Again, I’d say probably not, it depends on the nature of the conversation or activity taking place. But now the students have been introduced and, when they are ready or when they see it again, they’ll be much more prepared.
Were a few of your students a bit lost? Ask for a quick translation and move on. You’re not going to waste time trying to explain something unless you really think your students are ready to use it or it’s appropriate for the activity. Once you really want to or need to dig into this kind of language, then really bring the points home, but if it’s just something that came up in class (which is the best way to introduce language anyway), quickly get students on the same page with a few well chosen concept check questions or a translation and move on.
We know that grammar knowledge does not equal acquisition. No matter how much you teach the students about the grammar, it will not translate over to proficiency and fluency, so why do it? Most students have had years of grammar instruction and it has not worked for the vast majority of students as we can see quite clearly by looking at our students. Why then do we continue to give grammar instructionwhen it so obviously hasn’t been working?
Present a topic very briefly, I usually say under 5 minutes like in the example above and then just give the students tons of practice opportunities in the form of conversations and tasks. Will everyone get it immediately? No. Is that ok? Most definitely. They will see it again and again, and – this is very important – when they are ready, they will pick it up.
This isn’t just theory. This is something I have seen work in my classes time and time and time again. For all the trouble Turkish students have with present perfect I can honestly say that my elementary students start to use it naturally without even realizing they’re using it after a while. Why? Because we don’t focus on the grammar. We just do lots of activities with excellent context that provide them language use opportunities.
I would argue that the only thing that should limit explicit grammar teaching, if it is explicitly taught at all, is size and whether it’s in the mother tongue or not. Obviously for a student that can barely get out “I live in Istanbul,” we’re not going to introduce “If I get a new job, I’ll move.” However, the student is hardly going to attempt saying something like that if he’s not ready for it. It should never be a problem.
Obviously beginners have less ability to keep long sentences in their head or to manipulate a lot of variables. It makes sense to teach present simple and future before introducing the 1st conditional because the conditional builds on the previous two. In the same way, students need to have a critical mass of vocabulary before dictionary use can be really effective. However, grammar that depends on other grammar is in the minority in the language, so this is rarely a problem.
The other constraint is the L1. It’s always much easier to learn something that is already present in your L1. I’ve been told Chinese does not have language for imaginary situations in the past, so 3rd conditional will be a struggle. Turkish students don’t have anything like the present perfect, so it’s more difficult for them to pick up. It doesn’t mean we can’t introduce it early on, it just means the students will need to spend more time working on it to acquire it.
To connect back to my last post. Stop worrying about what the book and the syllabus say and start worrying about what language your students need and are ready for.
What are your thoughts? Are structures like passives, perfect tenses, and wishes really any different from present tenses or possession? Is it really that difficult for an adult who may have a master’s degree and run a company to make a sentence with two pieces instead of one (i.e. I go vs. I am going). Do some classes focus too much on grammar? Are complex analytical explanations useful to students? I’ll be interested to hear what others have to say.