Just enough grammar and a spiral syllabus
In our last post on teaching beginner-level students, we stated this principle:
While there is a value in noticing and practising a particular aspect of grammar or vocabulary, it will not be mastered in that lesson. Accurate production of words or grammar in conversation / writing will be acquired for over time by multiple encounters in different contexts – sometimes over a very long time and actually often never! Particular examples of different forms may be mastered as phrases before the underlying grammar can be said to have been acquired.
It follows on from this that we want to ensure that we revisit and expand on what we teach over time. Rather than having one block followed by another block, we would suggest that we may teach a little about form A, followed by a little bit on form B (perhaps whilst also re-using what we learned about form A), followed by a little on form C (perhaps recycling something of A and/or B), before we return to study something more about form A, etc.
This is easier to do when the syllabus and the lessons are designed around conversational goals. That’s because conversations often restrict the forms that are required. For example, when we ask about directions to find a particular place, we can in the first instance restrict the grammar practice to Is there / There is. We do not need the plural form because when we want to change money or buy some bread, we don’t need to know if there are lots of banks or lots of supermarkets – one is enough! Nor do we really need to learn the negative at this stage – just no is fine, or perhaps I don’t know. I’m sorry.
In Outcomes Beginner, we teach some very basic ‘directions’. (Yes – down this street / on X street / on the next street / next to X). We then have a later lesson where we ask for recommendations and we teach are there / there’s / there are (Are there any good restaurants near here? Are there any nice places to visit?) and how to understand a receptionist explaining a map (We are here. There are some nice restaurants here . . . There are lots of shops here . . . The cathedral is here. etc). These two lessons follow work on verb be; plurals and common examples of the present simple like Where do you live? (Where is it? Is it far? Do you like it? How long does it take?) are interleaved with further work on adverbs of frequency used with the present simple (I always go …) and ‘Can …?’ (Can you help me? Can I open the window?).
Both these interleaved structures support the conversation on recommending, which we also support by teaching the word best (as opposed to teaching ‘superlatives’). Finally, we revisit there is / there are again in a later lesson where the conversation goal is discussing what’s good about your country. So they look at there is / there are in the context of countable / uncountable nouns (There are a lot good schools / There’s crime / the police are bad) and we also teach some quantifiers which they add (There’s (quite) a lot of crime, There’s (almost) no crime). We can leave some complications such as too many / too much till Elementary and Pre-Int – or until the students try to say them.
Similarly, to talk about plans, we can initially just present I’m/We’re going (+ place / action). Students don’t need to practise he / she / it / they forms at this point. We may teach What are you doing? / What time are you going? / Where are you going? as questions without practising similar questions with lots of other verbs. In the same way, we don’t need to work on negatives at this point. This is followed by a later lesson on What are you reading / listening to / doing? where we manipulate the -ing forms more with a bigger variety of verbs. It’s then followed by a lesson around waiting for people – Where’s X? She’s / He’s …-ing? where we can refocus on the be -ing, but additionally practice the he/she/they and negative forms. Another later lesson asks about the weather where we look at It’s going to rain / be nice, etc. – and we recycle conversations about plans. Each lesson is interleaved with work on other forms. (If you are wondering about the ambiguity around the uses of the present continuous / be going to – see this post and this post.
So to give an overall picture, if we give a letter to represent each tense/structure at Beginner level, a traditional syllabus in one coursebook is like this.
whereas the ‘just enough’ spiral syllabus in Outcomes looks something like this.
|A(B)||B||A/B/(C)||E/B/C||E/D||F/E||B/D||D/B||F/E/(G)||D (C) F||F (A/B/C/D/)||H/B(F/E)|
How a spiral syllabus helps – more exposure over time.
The encounters described in the tables above relate to exercises which specifically draw attention to a pattern. Note that the tables focus on the verb phrase. Some forms that are taught in both books such as ‘plurals’ or adjective word order have been excluded for simplicity. The tables also exclude instances in listenings, exercises and texts where the structure is encountered receptively.
In the traditional syllabus, the new structure is not seen or heard in any text before it has been presented and ‘taught’ by the book. In the Outcomes spiral syllabus, the same is also generally true, but the structures are systematically introduced earlier in a limited way so as to then be revisited over time. In addition, Outcomes introduces some structures as part of a phrase – here illustrated as brackets. Again, this focuses on the verb phrase and excludes things like phrases with ‘best’. By introducing these structures a little earlier, they can then be re-used in readings, listenings and exercises receptively before we refocus attention on them at a later date. The following represents the impact this has on exposure to different structures.
|there + be||55||200 (284)|
|be -ing||35||120 (191)|
The counts for coursebooks 1 and 2 were done by reading through the books and counting all the examples that appeared in all the main units, reviews, audioscripts and grammar exercises. There may be a bit of undercounting from reading over examples. The Outcomes figure comes from a search of the complete word document. The figures in brackets are the actual results from searches for there’s, there is, there are, there was, etc. This is an overcount as sometimes we have listening scripts which are repeated on the page, so there is some double counting, but then again there will be some gap fills which are counted, so the smaller number here is a more conservative estimate.
As you can see there are many more examples of each structure in Outcomes due to its spiralling syllabus. Furthermore, because both structures are presented earlier, these encounters are spread over eight to nine units rather than two or three. One other reason that there may be more examples is also that we as writers are consciously trying to exploit this because our belief that language is learnt through repeated encounters over time rather than in blocks. As such, we make an effort to include previously taught phrases and structures in listenings texts and exercises that have a focus on different pieces of grammar. Interestingly, one of the traditional books analysed above actually does introduce ‘I don’t know’ surreptitiously in the second unit, but it seems there is a certain embarrassment about it. Subsequently, I don’t know appears just three more times in the book. In contrast, once we’ve introduce I don’t know in Unit 1 of Outcomes Beginner, there are around 30 more examples across the rest of the book.
These are all encounters in the book. There should, however, be many more recognised encounters than that, because once students have noticed the form for the first time, it’s also more likely that they will encounter and notice it outside their course material through interactions with the teacher, with other students and when they come into contact with English beyond the classroom. Obviously, we think this will produce better results for students and teachers than a traditional beginner course, but we are not suggesting this will be some miracle cure . . . because (lest we forget) accuracy takes time and may never arrive! Students will not produce these forms productively in a consistently accurate way by the end of the course. What’s more important is the bigger range of realistic conversations we are enabling students to have (however ‘badly’ they actually do it).