Twenty things in twenty years Part Three: kicking the grammar habit

In a sense, this post follows very hot on the heels from the one I managed to finish yesterday about teaching the probable rather than just the possible, and tackles similar issues. As such, please excuse me the repetition (though of course as anyone who’s ever graced the conference circuit will know, if a things’ worth saying, it’s worth saying again. And then again. And again after that. And eventually it may slowly start to sink in and make some small difference somewhere!). Hopefully, there’ll be enough here to make it worth your while ploughing through BOTH posts.

Anyway, on top of all that, it’s suddenly hit me that we’re already into the third month of the year and I’ve committed myself to twenty posts on pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned in my twenty years in TEFL, so I’d better start getting a move on, and something that cannibalizes myself is better than nothing at all in such circumstances!

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned on at least a few occasions elsewhere, my induction into ELT via a four-week CELTA at Westminster College (and, indeed, my subsequent year-long part-time DELTA) left me with that very same affliction that so many of our students still find themselves stuck with a bad case of: Grammar Anxiety. The whole main thrust of the course was towards enabling us to blag our way through when we got bombarded, as we most surely would, with questions about grammar during the PPP lessons we were encouraged to perfect. Having studied English Literature at university, I was interested in language and loved using it, savouring it, playing with it, but knew little about its actual inner workings. While a degree in Literature enabled me to discuss metaphor and simile and rhetoric and the like, it did little to tutor one in the intricacies of the present perfect simple or the zero conditional. I subjected myself to the usual crash course in intensive grammar training that most novice teachers endure, which mostly meant memorizing the explanations at the back of the book and using these as a shield against anything students might throw at me during grammar classes the following day! Students seemed to expect – if not always exactly relish – grammar-based classes and as I slowly started getting my head round the basic concepts, learning my timelines and concept questions and so on, I started to almost enjoy such lessons myself.

I say almost because in fact there are only so many times any sentient human being can teach some particular exercises before the will to live starts to drain from the very fibre of your being. I don’t think I’m being overly-optimistic when I say that materials have quite possibly moved on somewhat since the early-to-mind 1990s (even if, the realist in me feels compelled to note, many teachers – and training courses – have yet to move with them!), but much of what I was given to teach with when I was starting out in the field – the old CEC English course, Headway, Intermediate and Upper Intermediate Matters and so on – was steeped in the study of mindless grammar for the sheer hell of it! The class and I would slog through exercises where the focus was on minutiae such as these half-remembered gems:

Work in pairs. Discuss the difference between these sentences.

1a Jim only spoke to Jane.

1b Only Jim spoke to Jane

2a Mike didn’t really enjoy the party.

2b Mike really didn’t enjoy the party

and so on. And on. Right up until the point of brain death.

I’d gamely get students discussing these things as if their lives depended on it, and I’d then run through the answers. “Yes, in 1a, Jim ONLY spoke to Jane, so he didn’t speak to anyone else. Just Jane. And in 1b, no-one else spoke to Jane. Just Jim” – you’ll notice that at this stage of the game, incidentally, I was blithely unaware of the fact that no two words operate as true synonyms across the board and was quite happy to treat JUST and ONLY as utterly interchangeable – “and 2a? Right, yes. he didn’t really enjoy it. It was OK, but not great. Well, not even really OK. Just not terrible. And 2b? Yes, right. It was terrible. He hated it!”

By the time I’d been teaching a couple of years and had done this exercise – or similar ones – a few times, the mind rot had started and I’d ceased to care who these imaginary characters had spoken to at which imaginary party – or whether my students grasped the subtleties of their phantom conversations! I needed a change, but had no idea how to bring one about, or in what shape or form any kind of change might manifest itself. Enter one of the most memorable students I have ever taught, and a man whose impact on me was almost certainly far greater than any minimal impact I may have had on him: Francesco, an Italian guy who was probably about the same age as me when I had my Damascene conversion – 25 or 26. He was in one of my Upper-Intermediate classes when I was doing my second stint at St. Giles Central, and was the kind of intelligent, thoughtful Italian student equipped with a disturbingly large vocabulary of grammatical meta-language that successive generations of native-speaker EFL teachers have come to fear and dread!

We were working our way through a revision exercise that focused on narrative tenses and students were busy dissecting such gems as:

The phone rang while I had a bath.

The phone was ringing while I had a bath.

The phone rang while I was having a bath


The phone was ringing while I was having a bath.

The discourse was riveting – “In this one, the phone rang and I had the bath at the same time. Is strange, but maybe it can happen. In this one, I don’t know. Is past continuous, so maybe the phone continued. Hmm. But in the first one too, it continued, so why here is past continuous and here is simple. I don’t sure” – and I was being propelled towards the exercise’s grim denouement by a nervous tension born of concern that I’d get my timelines mixed up, mess up my concept questions or fail to fully nail the subtle shades of meaning conveyed by these gems of TEFL-ese. I’d started on my round-up and was clarifying the fact that one sentence was emphasising the continuation, stressing the duration, whilst another was merely stating the plain facts, time-lining away and so on . . . when suddenly the look on Francesco’s face turned from engaged interest to exasperation and he blurted out something along these lines: “OK, OK. I get it. Many things are possible. Grammar is choice, Depends on perspective and intention. Fine. But . . . which one of these four should I learn? Which is most usual? Which one do YOU say?”

And in one fell swoop, I was off the grammar.

Just like that. No cold turkey to go through. No cravings. No cold sweats or dead babies crawling across the ceiling. Nothing.

In a moment, I saw the error of my ways and the path forward became clear.

“Which one would I say? Um. To be honest, none of them. Francesco. In fact, the only possible conversation about baths and phones I can think of (bear in mind, by the way, that this was in the days before most folk – certainly most EFL teachers – had mobiles they could drop in the bath!) is something like: Hey. I tried to call you yesterday, but you didn’t answer! / Yeah, sorry. I was in the bath. That’s it. Anyway, enough of all this. Let’s move on and do something more useful, shall we?!”

And from that day on, I’ve tried as far as humanly possible when teaching – and when writing material for teaching – to ensure that any grammar I look at (and I’m certainly NOT saying we shouldn’t be looking at grammar, just so we’re clear on that) is based on what it is I say, and other people say, and Francesco might want to say – or might hear said.

And not only do I feel cleaner and less soiled within myself, but you know what else? I’m happier in my teaching, my students seem to be too, the collective levels of Grammar Anxiety have plummeted AND they’re actually better at using the language to boot.

To paraphrase slightly the way that Renton puts it in a scene from Trainspotting:

Thank you, your honor. With God’s help, I conquered this terrible affliction.


6 responses

  1. Brilliant, Hugh! So many of us have been to those places and it’s sooooo good to know that we will never have to return. (Unless there *is* a Room 101 where we will have to go through endless Murphy exercises for the rest of our born days.)
    My Murphys are languishing on the shelf here, too, never to be used again…
    I actually looked at the brand-new edition a while back at a teacher’s bookshop in Stuttgart and it was still the same. No good, in other words.
    When I was first asked to teach schoolkids, I used Murphy, but soon got tired of it, just like you.
    Nowadays, with my one-to-one schoolkids, I put together my own stuff or get them to write stuff with me. I don’t mind putting together slightly absurd sentences with them, though, if these will stick in the student’s mind as a core example of a particular structure.
    I also like to use pattern drills with the younger ones where they provide me with some information about their families (usually involving dissing siblings, that kind of therapeutic stuff!) and we weave that into a grammar exercise.
    Where possible, I try to make the examples I use as realistic as possible. If my students haven’t “done” a particular bit of grammar, I just tell them the German equivalent, rather than producing a tortuous sentence which is not in the least bit English, but is the “right” level.
    These methods seem to be helping my students, as far as I can tell. The fact that they contribute something, too, I hope has a beneficial effect on their being able to internalize these things. And, for me, it is a lot more fun than going through Murphy-style exercises!!!

    1. The writer part of me has respect for and admires the cleverness of the package with Murphy’s English Grammar In Use. The book pioneered the double-page closed micro-world approach where you present your theory and give a few examples on the left and let students try related exercises on the right. It creates a sense of being able to tick off the structures, to say that you know the grammar of the language, to develop a cosy illusion of progress, and yet of course it doesn’t work (or at least doesn’t work as well it could / should for a book that’s absolutely dominated the gram,mar market since the 80s!!) for all kinds of reasons I’ve talked about elsewhere, and may well blog about again at some point soon if I can manage to dig out an old talk I did called GRAMMAR IS DEAD! LONG LIVE GRAMMAR?

      Perhaps the biggest issue for me is the way the book distorts the reality of language in use (ironic, given the title) by implying that tenses don’t work with other tenses and that a question in one structure necessitates an answer using the same! The harm that alone does to countless students – and we’ve all met them – is immeasurable. “Where are you from?” / “I am from Japan” . . . “Have you been to England before?” / “Yes, I have been to England before” and so on! Grrrrrrrrrrrrr!

      As for stickability, I’m not convinced that weird or unusual is the way to go because at the end of the day, it’s the most mundane and everyday that you’ll need most. As such, surely HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN DOING THAT? is more ‘memorable’ simply because you’d need it more / hear it more / say in your own L1 more often than something wacky like, say, HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WASHING ELEPHANTS? or whatever.

      Pattern drills a good and overlooked thing since CLT took sway.

      It’s something Jeremy Harmer has talked about elsewhere and I’m in broad agreement with the importance of showing and teaching the whole and then playing with and toying with the parts.

      Within limits.

  2. I did a couple of sessions a while back, the first called “Grammar is Dead” followed by “Long Live the Lexical Chunk”. Think the Russian teachers I was working with are still digesting the idea, but they have invited me back so it can’t have been all bad.

    If there’s a potential advantage to the stickability of the weird, it’s the mental image that can be built up in the students. This can then be used to recall what had been learned. I remember way back going down the phone-ringing/bath-having route and and came up with another example about putting-body-in-fridge/police-arriving which turned into a lot of sketch-drawing.

    These lovely pictures were then innocently stuck on the wall with no real awareness of why or how they could become useful, but in subsequent classes they became an easy point-to. That lovely correction that you can do with just the slightest movement of an eyebrow.

    That must have been at least 15 years ago, but I’m tempted to do a little action research and bring the bodies back out of the fridge with my students next week.

    1. Hi David –
      That sounds very similar to a thing I did way back when in the early 2000s called Grammar is Dead! long Live Grammar?

      Amazing how long these ideas take to seep through to anything resembling an audience! Still, as you said, at least got a return invite to Russia, which is always an incredible place to visit!

      As for weird examples being memorable or allowing instant correction, I’m not convinced. I think often a focus on the weird gets in the way of the vast mass of the utterly mundane and the normal that still needs to be learned. And as I said, I also can’t see why an absolutely prototypical example of a structure such as I’ll pay you back tomorrow (WILL for promises) or I would if I could, but I can’t (for second conditionals) cannot provide the basis for subsequent remembering, expansion and guided correction.

      Why is I WAS PUTTING THE BODY IN THE FRIDGE WHEN THE POLICE ARRIVED more useful or more able to lend itself to subsequent development than, say WE MET WHILE I WAS LIVING IN INDONESIA. The latter has the same prompt / eyebrow-raising qualities as the first, surely, and yet is a far more realistic example of the structure in use. Students struggling with the past simple / past continuous simply get ‘remember. me. my wife. Indonesia?’ – and they self-correct. In theory, at least!

      Anyway, thanks for posting.

  3. This is great, Hugh – thanks very much. I didn’t get the blinding epiphany that you did about the futility of focusing on meaningless sentence-level grammar, but over the years (I’m also in my 20th year of teaching) I have moved away from this type of teaching and now focus far more on what language the students actually need to express themselves in the way they want to, and what they need to be able to understand what they are likely to hear.
    It is true that new teachers, particularly native speakers, are often very focused on grammar because they are aware that it’s a weakness for them and that they have had to learn these rules in order to become competent teachers. Maybe that’s why teachers often feel the need to teach like this too – because they equate learning English with learning grammar. But at the end of the day there are two ways of looking at language. Either you can regard it as a theory-based academic subject, which involves studying and understanding how it works, or you can regard it as a skill that you can put to good use in practical situations. Doing one may lead to the other, but I think it’s important at the outset to establish what the students are learning the language for and working from there. My current students are very focused on English as a practical skill, so that’s how I teach it. I focus on grammar but only when it comes up within the context of developing communicative competence.
    It’s taken a while since the term “communicative competence” was first coined (by Dell Hymes, I think) in the early ’70s, but materials are finally starting to reflect this and are moving away from grammar being the driving force of a course. Not so sure about teacher training courses though – what do you think?

    1. Hi Steve –

      Congratulations on also managing to reach your 20th anniversary! Hope they’ve been as fun for you as they have for me. Where would we all be without the broad church of EFL, eh?!

      Anyway, yes. I think the move towards what students actually need – or want – to say has obviously also been a strong influence on me. In part, it stemmed for having been lucky enough to do quite a lot of one-to-ones and Business English quite early on, and grasping then how predictable much of what students need / try to say actually is, and then thinking of ways to get that language to them, before later realising how applicable much of this was to General English too.

      My early mentor, Jimmie Hill, always used to say that teachers are reluctant to relinquish grammar because it’s what gives them their power base and authority, their (pseudo) academic validity in the classroom, which I think is true, and it certainly took me quite some time to realise that the way to get past this is to use the power of EXAMPLES – clear, simple, typical examples – as the source of my authority in class instead. Showing rather than telling, if you like.

      I think training courses, by and large, do also still exacerbate things as well. I’ve spoken to trainers who admit that their CELTAs, for instance, are based very much on a Chomskyan grammar-dominated paradigm despite the fact they no longer really believe this thesmelves. It’s simply that once you have the materials, they become the course, and changing things and adapting them to a new paradigm takes precious time that few have, and so the broken wheel rolls on and on.

      Hoey must be wondering if things will ever start to reflect his incredible work and insights during his lifetime or whether, as with so many visionaries, you have to wait till after you’ve gone to get the recognition you deserve!

      Anyway, cheers for now

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