Some reflections on the universal panacea

Last week I started teaching a six-week evening course at International House, London. For someone with such a keen interest in lexically-oriented teaching, the decision to go for the Focus on Grammar option may seem perverse, but I’ve long maintained that learning to look at language from a lexical point of view has made me more aware of how grammar actually operates and has made the grammar slots that I do more focused, useful and enjoyable. What follows is simply four short reflections on thoughts that came into my mind both during the class and after it, and this may perhaps form part of a string of short posts on similar themes that gestate over the coming weeks.

1 There’s a reason why doctors hate the Internet!

A doctor friend of mine recently mentioned what a curse the Internet has been to his profession in many ways as almost every patient he now sees self-diagnoses via Google in advance of appointments and thus come convinced they know as much as – if not more – than he does about what ails them. This frequently makes the conversations he then needs to have with them all the more convoluted and problematic.

EFL students don’t even need the Web to have self-diagnosed. Much of their learning experiences thus far have bred a deep-rooted fear of grammar into them and no matter what issues there are with other aspects of their language use or what their goals are (IELTS 6.5, a better job, greater confidence when travelling as a sales rep, etc.), it is more grammar that is seen as the panacea, the cure-all magic bullet. Obviously, this is great for schools marketing courses, but perhaps makes life slightly harder for a teacher interested in an analysis of their language as a whole, rather than an isolated – and really rather small – part of it.

2 A lot of grammar – especially at higher levels – is patterns outside the canon

We all – teachers and students alike – have a sense of what we think grammar is based on what we’ve seen presented and practised as grammar in coursebooks and self-study tomes such as English Grammar In Use. In general, this means verb tenses, conditionals, modal verbs and so on. However, much of what students struggle to produce falls well outside this traditional canon and, as such, is perhaps harder for teachers to be aware of and access under the time pressures of a class. To give just one instance, the student who says something like Tonight I have invite some friends to my house and I will cook for them the dinner could be seen as having problems with forming the present perfect, with over-use of will and with articles – or they could be seen as simply not knowing how to say I’ve got some friends coming round for dinner tonight. I prefer to see things this latter way and suspect they would also struggle to produce similar sentences like I’ve got my landlord coming over tonight to collect the rent or I’ve got some friends from Spain arriving next week.

3 What students don’t produce is often as significant as what they do

One of the worst habits of mind that my own initial training instilled in me was to listen to student output primarily in order to notice grammar errors that could then be corrected. In part, this stopped me from listening (and responding) first and foremost to the actual content of what students said, but also it led me towards a shallow, surface-skimming view of language that depended on students making errors with the canonical grammatical structures mentioned above. A younger version of myself would not have realised that Tonight I have invite some friends to my house and I will cook for them the dinner could be viewed as anything other than a series of errors with seemingly basic grammatical points, for instance. A further issue is the fact that with higher level learners, it’s actually often what’s not said, but that could – or should – have been that reveals the holes and the areas that need attention.Take, for example, a student who writes the following: I first came to London in 2009 with my brother, but as I liked it. Now, it may be that they went off to answer the door or make coffee at this point, forgot to finish the sentence and then simply moved on. Or it may be that they haven’t realised that as here means because and requires a result to be added. However, it may also be that this is all a clever and probably unconscious avoidance of using structures they’re not yet sure of and that maybe the feedback that is of most benefit is something along the lines of “As here means because, so you need to add a result here. Something like: I ended up staying. I think I’d probably write something like this, though: I first came to London with my brother in 2009. I hadn’t intended / planned to stay long, but I liked it, so decided to stick around / stay a while longer – and six years down the line, here I still am!

4 Past a certain point, explanations don’t help

I’d suggest that point is fairly quickly reached as well! Many areas of grammar that students continue to struggle with are things they’ve studied countless times before, that they could probably recite the basic rules for in their sleep and that no amount of further detailed explanation or controlled practice will really help to eradicate any time soon. These ingrained glitches seem to be the result of L1 interference coupled with the fact that their existence doesn’t cause sufficient communicative friction to force them to the forefront of the user’s attention. This latter point is at the heart of salience theory’s claim that what chiefly determines when something is acquired is how noticeable or relevant it is.

As such, a Polish student who already speaks excellent English, but who struggles with articles (which don’t exist in Polish), and produces utterances like I’m bank clerk or I’d like to do Spanish course probably won’t benefit greatly from being lectured for any length of time whatsoever about when and why we use the indefinite article or from being given a page of Murphy’s for homework. Correct use of such minutiae will take years, if it ever comes at all. It’s learned subconsciously through exposure, through what Hoey would call priming, and perhaps encouragement to explicitly notice may help, but at the same time, perhaps the learner will get through their entire life using English incredibly well, but simply forgetting to use articles. If this latter guess proves to be the case, rest assured the world will not cease to spin.

A bit of interesting extra reading

Selective Attention and Transfer Phenomena in L2 Acquisition ny Nick C Ellis in Applied Linguistics (June 2006) 27(2)

Rule Difficulty and the usefulness of instruction by Pawel Scheffler in ELTJ (2009) 63(1)

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