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Mar 13, 2015
Hugh Dellar

Thoughts on teaching grammar: part four

I finished teaching the Focus On Grammar course I’d been doing one evening a week at IH London last night. Like most teachers, I always hate that moment of goodbye at the end of a course, as you know you may well never again see the lovely people you’ve developed a relationship with. Despite that, though, I’ve found the actual experience of delivering twelve hours devoted more or less exclusively to grammar a very thought-provoking one that has churned up all manner of reflections. This had already resulted in three previous posts, which you can find here, here and here, and what follows are some final thoughts (for now) on the subject.

1 We tend to teach what’s easy to teach, rather than what’s truly needed

A good friend of ours, Leo Selivan, who has his own excellent lexically-oriented blog over here, recently recalled that the late Dave Willis once moaned to him that we tend to prioritise grammar that is neat and tidy and easy to distil into short PPP lessons over the things that students really need. This remains as true today as it has ever been. Now, partly this is down to a failure on the part of writers – and of the writers of grammar books in particular – to place sufficient emphasis and focus on items that fall outside the traditional canon, which remains rooted in tenses, with the additional spice of modals, passives, and conditionals thrown in for good measure,. However, it’s also simply due to the fact that much grammar is bloody difficult to define, describe, and get learners to practise. This is particularly true with the grammar found in written texts. Of my eight students, three basically wanted the course to help them with their academic writing. Yet look for just a moment at the extract below from a book I’m reading at the moment: From The Ivory Tower To The Schoolhouse by Jack Schneider.

Scholars in colleges and universities, mostly writing with and for each other, were hardly alone in exploring the practical uses to which the taxonomy might be put. Practitioners in the field of test design, whether in state departments of education, consulting firms, or private agencies, also saw in the taxonomy a means of advancing their work.

What can we begin to tell Upper-Intermediate students about these two sentences that will help them get anywhere near being produce them? That in written English we use complex nouns as subjects and objects, and that these have (often multiple) embedded clauses in them? That the subjects of both sentences above have embedded clauses between sets of commas before you ever get to the verb – which is in the simple form!? Sure, we can get students to identify core constituents of each sentence – Not only scholars explored uses of the taxonomy. Practitioners of many kinds did the same – and to underline key nouns; we can then look at how these nouns are built up in each case. Yet even if we do – and be honest, it’s a proposition that’s neither fun nor remotely sexy – how generalisable is what is learned? Not very, I’d suggest. Yet it’s exactly the kind of thing students need to learn in order to read – and maybe even to write – well.

2 The long, hard slog

We live in age in which simple is sold as a solution to life’s complexities. People demand quick and easy solutions, and companies proffer them – at a profit. Yet mastery of a language to the point that students can produce the kind of elegant sentences quoted above will never be deliverable in any quick or simply format. In the end, it results from doing the hard hours. Malcolm Gladwell has popularised the idea that mastery results from around 10,000 hours spent working on whatever it is you’re trying to perfect.

Irrespective of the exact number of hours, and accepting that different people learn at slightly different speeds, the basic fact remains: we can encourage noticing as much as we want, we can give practice activities, we can explore grammar outside of the realm of Raymond Murhpy’s books, but in the end, it’s only by spending thousands and thousands of hours immersed in the language that competence ever really develops. Sure, we can provide a decent pair of sneakers for the journey, and maybe throw in a decent road map, but the walking is done all alone.

The students who end up writing best do so because they’ve read a lot; those students who speak amazing English and sail through CPE? They’ve listened to a whole vast sea of language.


3 Bottom-up grammar causes students at least as much trouble as Big Grammar

I’ve written already in this mini-series about some of the interesting errors my students have made. Many of the mistakes they come out with are the result not of problems with the Big Grammar of things like the present simple or the passive aspect, despite perhaps initially seeming to be. Rather, I’d suggest they’re to do with a failure to have noticed and learned the grammar that attaches itself to words the students believe they already ‘know’. In other words, they struggle with how words they know the basic meanings of colligate – how they grammar or pattern, if you prefer. This is obviously exacerbated by the fact that much teaching still focuses on Big Grammar plus words, and is also the result of words patterning differently from one language to another.

My Korean student who tells me that a shop will be opened at eight tomorrow doesn’t have a problem with the passive; she has a problem with the word open and hasn’t yet noticed that in English it operates actively, even in situations – like this one – where the opening is obviously done by someone! When my French student says he is agree with me, it’s not a present simple problem: it’s a problem recognising the fact that the way the word agree grammars is different in English and French.

Given all of this, perhaps one of the greatest services we can do our students if we wish to further their ability to use the language well is to abandon the grammar plus words model and focus far more on showing how all the words we give them pattern with grammar and to point out, where we’re able to, how this may be different from L1 to L2.

4 When we’re teaching grammar, we’re really not teaching very much.

Think of all the hours of your teaching career you’ve spent working on the present perfect. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have probably spent hundreds of hours on the structure as it’s so notoriously problematic – and yet in essence, all we’re teaching when we focus on it hour after hour is the idea of already / before now. Without context and lexicalisation, the bare bones of have / has + past participle convey no more and no less than that.

Suggest to any sane teacher than they spend fifty hours revising the word already and they’d laugh you out of the room. Yet in our doomed pursuit of accuracy before it’s ready to fully emerge, we have all engaged in something not far removed from this. Most of the grammar we spend classroom time on can be reduced down to very simple meanings as that’s all the structures on their own convey: before a point in the past; started and not finished, and so on.

Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t be teaching them.

Just simply to remind ourselves that when we do, we’re not actually adding massively to learners’ ability to communicate.

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