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Feb 15, 2015
Hugh Dellar

Further thoughts on teaching grammar

Last week, I posted up a few thoughts I’d had on starting to teach (at IH London) a part-time, six-week evening course called Focus on Grammar. Following the second lesson with my lovely class last Thursday night, here are a few more things that have been going through my mind about grammar, the way we teach it, and the problems students have when trying to use it.

1 Those looking for logic in grammar often seek in vain

My Korean student who learns that After I was graduated is wrong – as is It has been happened a few times – quite rightly wonders why. Logically, she has a point. You could quite easily argue that you are graduated by someone – the university authorities, the examiners – or that things happen due to the actions of those that make them happen; and presumably, in some languages (I’m guessing including Korean), they are seen in this way and thus take some kind of passive form. However, sooner or later, any particular user who relentlessly pursues what seems logical will experience the bemusement so familiar to Spock as he utters – again – his “Highly illogical!” trademark.

Time and time again, grammar fails to live up to its reputation for infinite malleability – and time and time again, it frustrates learners. Why do we say I’ve been wanting to see for that for ages, but not I’ve been fancying seeing that for ages? Why do we say I can’t stand her, but not I can stand her or I stand her? Because, young Vulcan, language is not always logical!

2 A lot of students over-grammar!

One of the biggest hurdles many students face when attempting to use language in a natural way is that they’ve been programmed to over-grammar. Their experience of English classes have led them to believe that answers need to be fully grammatical and need to repeat much, if not all, of the grammar of the question they’ve been asked. This not only makes conversation stilted and clumsy, but also causes more anxiety and results in more ‘mistakes’. A case in point:

Are you working at the moment?

> Yes, I do. No. I am. I am working. Yes.

Now, I see no reason why a straight Yes would suffice here, followed by what the asker really wants to know – the work you’re actually doing!

> Yeah, I’m a systems designer.

> Yeah, I work in a hotel near Kings’ Cross.

> Yeah. On a building site in south London.

If you’re one of those teachers who insists that students “answer in full sentences”, please stop it. You’re not helping them produce grammar better. You’re helping them sound like broken grammar robots unable to engage in the norms of conversation!

3 Life’s hard enough already

Many students find it hard enough to manage to commit to memory and produce automatically something like How long is it since you saw her? After all, there are so many possible variations hat seem to do a similar job, ranging from the directly word-for-word translated (Since when you did not see her?) to those that exist somewhere between L1 and L2 (For how long you have not seen her?). Anyone who’s spent any real amount of time around Intermediate and Upper-Intermediate students will know this. Yet still we persist in making the difficult even more complex than it needs to be by worrying about hair-splitting distinctions that in the greater scheme of things really don’t matter – especially in a world in which we’re supposed to take with at least some degree of seriousness the notion of English as a Lingua Franca.

If you’re anything like me, it’s possible that at some point in your teaching career, you’ll have fretted – and maybe even attempted to lecture students about – the supposed difference about the distinctions below (which represent but a small and obvious sample of the kind of thing I’m talking about here):

I’ve been living here for ten years / I’ve lived here for ten years

It’s going to cause problems. / It’ll cause problems.

It had been a major industrial city before the earthquake. / It was a major industrial city before the earthquake. 

Let’s get real! They’re all fine.

The contrasting pairs basically mean the same thing – and if any of my students many to produce any of them, I’d be happy.

So, I’d suggest, should you be!

4 Perhaps the best we can do is provide hooks

Being realistic, doing a few revision exercises on the perfect aspect, correcting some errors when they come up and giving some extra consolidation as homework may possibly help to refresh the memories or boost the confidence of students. It may even help to clarify a few old uncertainties. One thing we can be sure it won’t do, though, is lead to across-the-board accurate production of the items studied any time soon – if ever. Perhaps the best we can do is to provide hooks that embed themselves into students’ unconscious and that at some point start to echo around on the mind and aid production.

For the students who use the present continuous when they should be using the present perfect, we can simply repeat “from the past to now – HAVE been, HAVE done, HAVE seen”. To those who use the present continuous when the present simple would be preferred, we simply correct again and again and reiterate the core message: “Usually, generally, always. I go, I watch, I play” – and hope that one day the student will be speaking and want to express an idea from the past to now, or that’s generally true, and these prompts may come into their mind.

This means what’s maybe central when exploring grammar with students is keeping things stripped-down and simple. Over the years, I’ve gradually cut back on the meta-language I use to explain and now retain only a core three or four words to encapsulate meanings. It may not sound much, but perhaps it’s all that there is!


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