Pondering Grammar with Students and Scott Thornbury
– Ann Loseva
As I was preparing to write this post I did more “research” than I ever have done. I was looking for lines that I could read and nod in agreement, as well as lines that would make me stop right there and reconsider something. The reason for this acute need for digging in the topic is obvious – I don’t know how to manage grammar in my classes, either in those with a pre-set syllabus to follow or with an emergent one, which describes the majority of classes I give at the moment. The latter being my own voluntary choice, I struggle to make it work. It teaches me lessons I wouldn’t have a chance to learn otherwise, so I strongly recommend taking up the challenge.
I’d like to warn the reader that no well-tried grammar activities or successful methods to teach grammar will be shared in the text below, as much as I would love to see myself doing it. I’ve been buying grammar books for many years, every time sure this one will shed light, these exercises will be exciting, this approach will fit the logics of my class. At the moment, after almost nine years of teaching, I still don’t have my favourite grammar activity that works with all groups of students, and I’m beginning to think it’s hardly possible to have it.
I wanted to write this post in order to make an attempt at figuring out my confusion about teaching grammar. In doing that, I’d like to offer three lines of perspectives on grammar in English teaching and learning: one I gathered from my students, another one coming from myself, and finally, some ideas I’ve picked up from Scott Thornbury’s writing. It’s interesting to see how these will correlate, if at all.
Students on grammar
Grammar is a big word and every new student I get to teach, no matter what their level is, knows the big Grammar word. Interestingly, around a half of these students might not know the longer word – Vocabulary. The Grammar word is forever imprinted, and so are the fears, expectations and preconceived beliefs of its unquestionable superior status.
Students know something about grammar and that’s what I’ve heard them say:
“Don’t worry, my groupmates want more grammar exercises because that’s what they got used to at school, that’s what they know about English.”
“I can’t make myself do any page in this grammar book. I am prejudiced against it.” (A teacher’s side note – as, in fact, against any other type of course book.)
“I like learning about Passive Voice in the process, when I have the need to use it in my sentence and you tell me about it.”
“Let’s revise tenses next time.”
I’m equally puzzled with both kinds of reactions, whether my learners express a wish to do more grammar explicitly or to avoid exercises at all, because looking at a page filled up with gaps to complete makes them sick and remember wasted time of school English. At this point I start wondering just how much their expressed wishes correspond to their needs and abilities that I, as a teacher, should be addressing in the first place. Shouldn’t I know better and stand on the firm ground? As I’m moving on from term to term I’m examining attitudes of students, which are changing as generations of learners change. Attitudes of teachers I know remain the same. Isn’t this stability something I should learn from them?
My recent discoveries
Two months ago I started learning Japanese. It’s especially interesting to look at this experience now as it seems to be the first language I’m learning with sharp awareness of how and why I’m doing it and what the more effective ways to do it could be. There is no coursebook or grammar guide on my desk. It may seem sort of shocking for a teacher, but I’ve decided to try a different approach for now. I’m getting chunks and sentences which are quite beyond my level and then work by myself on figuring them out. From translation I get understanding, then notice patterns. I get them wrong, ask questions, get my answers, and then start all over again. These tiny pieces of Japanese grammar make their first, shy and teasing, appearance and then vanish. I need to point this out – they most often vanish. I can safely say that I only remember now how to say “This/that is …”, “Is this/that …?” or form an of-phrase. I’ve found myself in a new place where I’m learning how language works from chains of discoveries. I’m learning very slowly and with an outstanding irregularity and to this moment have made two major observations from this process:
- These linguistic discoveries need to go through cycles of repetition, to be re-discovered many times before I might hope for them to sink in.
- The more I learn, the more confirmed I become in that we desperately need vocabulary if we want to actually produce sentences. It’s the first thing to escape memory, too.
Insights from Scott Thornbury
In chapter 19 ”Do rules help you learn a language?” of his Big Questions in ELT a lot of what is said resonates with how I feel in my contradictions. One of the life examples that Scott makes is constantly present in my teaching. Many learners spend years of studying English going through Present Simple and Present Continuous again and again, from year to year. As university students join my class, they keep making fun of this fact, get sarcastic… and yet many appear to have a “conspicuous lack of success” with these basic forms. What nature do the reasons for that have? I heard some teachers say such learners are “grammatically challenged”, or plain slow. I ignore such voices and keep searching for the real reasons behind the problems.
One of the questions at the end of chapter 19 is this: Are rules that learners have worked out themselves better than rules that they have been given and why?
This makes me turn to Japanese again. I’ve mentioned that I’ve been trying to deduce some patterns in this language. It’s not easy, actually quite painful, and not at all memorable as in rules afterwards. I wonder how quick at grasping these same patterns I’d be if I had them handed over to me, like we as teachers so often do in our own classrooms. I’m left with an uneasy doubt that it makes no big difference in terms of future language use. I can just say that working out a rule by yourself looks more engaging and fun, if you aim for that.
Here are some more of my many puzzles and subsequent struggles within the topic, which some of you could probably connect with:
1) Grammar continuum in a coursebook-less class. I’m learning to organize what we’re learning at every lesson into a kind of a developing syllabus. Grammar is one of the bothersome stumbling blocks.
2) The discrepancy between lexis I teach and forms I want to put this lexis in. I’m questioning dividing grammar and vocabulary instruction as I see it done in my context. While I have to teach within these rules, filling this gap without damaging the general flow is my ongoing mission. I see teaching grammar as coming from emergent needs and so I face difficulties in keeping up with the syllabus.
3) The Careless Teacher puzzle. How sloppy will you allow a student’s speech to be, both in written and spoken production? I fear that I’ve recently been forming for myself a distinction between little grammar and serious grammar. I’ve already tried to give it a thought in my post here. My main point of concern is how my lax approach impacts students and their decisions to choose this or that form, to remember or forget a rule.
Having said all this, I’m no less confused and probably have confused you a bit, too. I’m thinking of this former student of mine. His/her eagerness to communicate a message in English no matter what is impressive, even though grammar is inaccurate. This attitude can be seen as a good sign. However, I wish I could say that this apparent lack of norms in his/her short sentences doesn’t impede the message he/she wants to get across…but it often does. And this is how I keep pondering grammar.
These are just three of several inspiring posts I’ve marked as favourites while sifting through blogs looking for something that spoke along with my tune.
Connect with Ann, Adam, Alexandra, Arzu, Rose, Miguel, and other iTDi Associates, Mentors, and Faculty by joining iTDi Community. Sign Up For A Free iTDi Account to create your profile and get immediate access to our social forums and trial lessons from our English For Teachers and Teacher Development courses.