Twenty things in twenty years Part Four: the way I was taught to teach grammar crippled my understanding of grammar!

I feel it best to warn you in advance that this is a post that could potentially spiral wildly out of control! It may also, I fear, contain themes I’ve entered into from slightly angles during other recent posts. This is down to the fact that this is a topic that’s exercised me mightily for a good number of years now, and one which shows little sign of reaching any kind of rectification or resolution in the wider ELT world as a whole, where demand for coursebooks that are based on and revolve around the presentation and subsequent unpacking of discrete grammatical structures shows little sign of abating. Indeed, where such demand remains so strong that publishers are generally reluctant to seek out and encourage those suggesting other ways in which language teaching might be conceived of and packaged. Or maybe that’s harsh. Maybe it’s simply that there just aren’t too many folk out there thinking along the same lines as me. Who knows?

Anyway, what is indisputably true is that the Murphy’s English Grammar In Use / Headway / English File template has long been – and will, I fear, continue to be – insanely popular and powerful within language teaching. The belief that mastering a language essentially remains a matter of being able to understand rules for a set of grammatical structures – predominantly tenses – that unfold in a predictable sequence, of being able to do form-focused exercises manipulating these structures, and of then learning plenty of single words to fill the empty slots in sentences generated by these structures is undoubtedly the dominant one within our profession, despite the fact it no longer has any theoretical validity and is thus deeply flawed, and in spite of other more theoretically valid approaches now being available.

The way many of us are taught to think about language is rooted in Chomsky’s ideas about Generative Grammar, perhaps best encapsulated in his meaningless – but possible – utterance Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. We are trained to see grammar as some kind of engine or machine that produces the bones or skeleton of our communication, with words being the bits we drop in to flesh things out, as it were.

Right from the very beginning of my career as a teacher, I was basically taught that what would make or break me as a teacher would be my ability to show grammar forms, explain their meanings – often in preposterously subtle (and spurious!) detail, a point I’ll return to in a later post – and compare and contrast similar but different usages. My understanding of grammar was based very much on the canon handed down to me on my CELTA and subsequently reaffirmed by the coursebooks I used, which generally saw grammar as essentially to do with tenses, with additional bits and pieces such as conditionals, passives, modals and so on tagged on. I was encouraged to base most of my grammar teaching around PPP lessons – Presenting the structure, getting students to practise it in narrow, controlled contexts (such as a Murphy’s exercise!) and then praying like hell they’d maybe be able to produce it in some slightly less controlled, but frequently still fairly contrived, speaking activity, which I’d listen to intently in the hope of hearing one or two slips with the structure so that I could round my hour off with a bit of form-focused correction. I’d then return to the staff room, talking about how we’d ‘done’ the present perfect simple, say, and gear myself to take on the present perfect continuous next lesson.

Many dialogues in many of the books I used to use were deliberately written to contain as many examples of one particular structure – in as many different shapes and forms – as possible, and far too frequently contained little if anything else. What follows is spur of the moment parody, but based on the memory of a text I’ve taught at least twice in the past:

A: So what’re you going to do for your holiday this year?

B: I’m going to go to Florida.

A: No, you’re not. You’re not going to go to Florida, because we’re going to change your holiday. We’re going to send you round the world on a cruise. You’re going to have the time of your life.

B: Wow! That’s amazing. So where am I going to go?

So where am I going with all of this? Well, the next big lesson I came to learn in ELT is that this way of teaching teachers to teach grammar is limiting, results in poor teaching and learning and cripples our understanding of how language actually works. I mean, let’s get real here: does ANYONE seriously believe any more that students actually learn how to use grammar in a wide range of different contexts by studying grammar rules and doing very narrowly-focused form manipulation exercises? And even if they do, what theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is this mad idea based on? Despite all this, though, as I’ve said above, the industry continues as though this were God’s own gospel truth and that there is no deviation possible from this One True Path! And we wonder why extreme counter-reactions like Dogme have come into being?!

The bad teaching – and poor learning – that results from this approach to grammar boils down to the fact that acquisition simply doesn’t work like this. All the evidence seems to point to the fact that accuracy emerges slowly – and it comes in fits and spurts; it’s far more to do with repeated exposure to typical examples of commonly used structures in everyday use, along with the ability – or encouragement  t0 – notice and pay attention to these examples, to both the context of usage and the co-text that exists alongside the structures in question. By insisting on one big block of time spent on each particular structure, usually explored in isolation, we misunderstand – and misrepresent this harsh reality, thus making it far harder for students as they generally don’t get the chance to explore structures in use from one lesson to the next, unless we impose some of ‘communicative’ revision game on them that forces use of particularly problematic structures.  This problem is compounded by our insistence on teaching lexis as single word items – or at best without much gramaticalisation / exemplification, thus further reducing the opportunities students have to see structures in action.

The dominant paradigm also assumes that most error is somehow easily diagnosed as resulting from malfunctions with structures already presented, when the reality is far more complex. What, for instance, are we to make of errors such as these, which my students have made over the course of the last few weeks?

It is forecasted that there might be a tsunami in this area caused by the former earthquake.

The area has been deserted after a huge flooding 3 years ago.

His family is really big and there are something like twenty members in his family.

They nearly froze to death when they tried to catch the northern light in Norway.

This book is very interesting and the highlights exist in every part of it.

As if this isn’t bad enough, the way language is presented to students in dialogues such as the going to + verb parody above distorts the true nature of language, where we are perpetually asking in one tense and answering in another, or answering without really using grammar at all. Why did you decide to do that? we ask – and get told Well, I’d been thinking about it for ages, to be honest. Have you spoken to anyone about it? elicits the response Not yet, but I will. Don’t worry – and so on! None of these are freak exceptions. They are simply the way language is when we use it.

These dialogues also deny the existence of natural patterns of conversation. How can it be, for instance, that so many Elementary students learn the question Where are you from? without every learning that almost invariably the next question they’ll be asked is Whereabouts? Because one practises present simple questions, the other doesn’t . . . so their contextual closeness is avoided! In the same way, students rarely get told that one very common follow-up question to What did you do last night? may well be How long’ve you been doing that?  Again, it’s patterns of single structures that drive the car, sadly, NOT patterns of discourse / conversation!

So all of this makes us stupid and makes us make our students stupid too. But it gets worse still. The fact that we’re presented with a canon of grammar – the Murphy’s canon, if you like – means that it’s that much harder for us to think outside of the canon and to become more aware of other patterns – and other grammatical forms – that exist within the language. The list of things excluded from the canon is lengthy, so just a couple of examples will suffice here. There’s the use of SO before an adjective to introduce a cause clause, which is then followed by a result clause – perhaps the most common way of expressing cause and result in spoken English (e.g.: I was so tired I just went straight to bed as soon as I got home); there’s the marking of lateness implicit in the use of NOT . . . . UNTIL – as in He was a bit of a late starter. He didn’t have his first girlfriend until he was 21; there’s the fact we often produce long turns by talking about an action – the kind usually focused on in the canon (I went to Spain, I’m going to a conference, etc.) followed by a time phrase (last week, for a few days) and then a reason / result (to visit some old friends of mine / to give a paper). It’s grammar, Jim, but not as we know it – or certainly not as we’re TAUGHT to know it. Until training courses develop a broader perspective on how language works, the only real way to learn more about these kinds of patterns is to spend more time looking at – and thinking / talking about – real language in use.

In addition to all of this, the way we’re taught to focus on forms and basic meanings blinds us to facts about even the grammar we’re supposed to feel most comfortable working on – tenses and the like. We persist in insisting that similar forms are somehow interchangeable – all those mindless and pointless What will you do if you win the lottery? versus What would you do if you won the lottery? lessons, all those active / passive transformations that result in students coming to class and uttering lines the classic “I know the passive. I walk the dog. The dog is walked by me!” There’s also the fact that co-text is at least as important as the structures themselves if we want students to actually be able to use the language communicatively and not just fall into the grammar robot trap of answering mechanically in a kind of Have you ever been to Greece / Yes, I have been to Greece kind of way! To respond in a communicatively competent manner to such questions, students need to know items like Yeah, quite a few times, actually / Yeah, I went there last year on holiday / Yeah, I go there quite a bit for work, actually / No never, but I’d love to one day – and so on. Grammar is also far more limited by context and lexis than we care to acknowledge. Take the future perfect, for instance. Because of the fact that there really are only a small number of things we’re likely to talk about being finished by a fixed point in the future, the possible – or at least probable – utterances using it are so limited as to almost be learnable by rote:

I’ll have finished by tomorrow.

I should’ve done it by nine.

I’ll have left by then.

I’ll have been here ten years next month.

He’ll have forgotten all about it by tomorrow.

You won’t have heard of it

And not many more! The same limitations exist with many other tenses, and yet are rarely discussed or explored on training / development courses.

So there we have it. My whole training and development did little to help me deal with the complexities of the language. Outside of instilling the kind of grammar anxiety into me that I then instilled into my students for too many years, and outside of drilling in some basic grasp of form and function of a limited canon, I’ve come to see it did more harm than good. It’s based on an outdated model of both language learning and language itself and until it’s replaced en masse by something more rooted in reality, we’re doomed to repeat the circle of abuse!

What that something may be – or at least what I believe it to be – is what I’ll come on to in the next part of the ongoing series!

25 responses

  1. First – yes I did read everything – and quite happily 😛 You bring up quite a few interesting points here! I especially like the final example with the Future Perfect. I mean, how often do we actually hear people using this form outside of the six examples you brought up? Though nothing is a complete waste of time – are we really focusing on preparing our learners for the world by hammering in Future Perfect grammar formulas? Yet this is something that every EFL teacher has surely covered at some point in their lives… and yes I agree… something that is rather pointless unless somebody is preparing for a gap fill test!

    I know that I sat at home plenty of evenings with Murphy’s in my hands that first year, trying to learn these different forms to perfection so that I would be prepared to teach my students “grammar”. With time & experience I feel I’ve left that all behind and focus only on what really matters – communicating internationally. Getting the point across first & foremost & being aware of intercultural difference, etc.

    However, reading a post like this helps us reflect. I like TO THINK I focus on communicating internationally and rarely hammer in grammar rules – but perhaps that is simply an illusion… as the inevitable question comes up or I hear myself correcting some mistake and happily explaining why when asked. The student is content feeling they have finally gotten a clear explanation – the feedback comes back very positive at the end of the course. However… honestly… did that grammar explanation really help them?? Did they file it away somewhere and automatically pull it up months later when needing to communicate? Am I really helping them by doing that? I have my doubts…

    A challenge here is that many learners WANT to learn these grammar rules – as they were once told somewhere that they NEEDED TO. Call it the academic background, or the fact that every language book they have seen has hammered away at these rules. They often say “I don’t like grammar” but then feel that the teacher should explain away.

    It’s getting them to see the point of Global Communication & framing it correctly from the beginning that is key.

    Wow… sorry for the rambling!! 🙂 That’s a good sign that you got me thinking!
    I’m interested to see where you are going….

    1. Hi Matt –
      Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment.
      Given the state of most of my posts, I’m in no position to comment on anyone else’s ramblings, really, am I!

      Your comment about attempting to hammer in the future perfect ad nauseum is very much part of what I was driving at, yes. Once I’d grasped the fact that around 80% of all verb tense usage in both spoken and written English is in either the past or present simple, I started to really question the amount of time I’d been spending on relative obscurities like the future perfect simple or past perfect continuous. They’re of very minor utility. I’m not saying this means we should never look at them, or even do controlled practice / form-focused exercises on them. This obviously depends on level. I’m just suggesting that we don’t fret too much about them, realise they’re not really what’s going to make students that much more fluent and that time spent working on things like this ad infinitum is time taken away from other areas of linguistic input that will be of more concrete benefit. It also sends the wrong message to students as it implies that REALLY what moves a student from Intermediate to Advanced, say, is far more to do with the accumulation of lexis than it is to do with mastery of obscure grammatical structures.

      In terms of fostering international communication, again it depends on level and on purpose. For students, say, who are looking to write in an academic style and to communicate academic ideas internationally, then they’ll obviously need to study some grammar formally, though less tense-based stuff and more complex sentence structures, extended noun phrases, embedded clauses and the like. I have no beef with that at all, so long as teachers realise that simply studying the rules and doing some controlled practice will NOT result in instant accuracy – or often even in anything resembling this. That takes time, exposure and noticing! But the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I think part of what I’ve come to do nowadays is have shorthand frames of reference for students to help hammer in concepts whilst correcting / reformulating, so if I want a student to self-correct something like I’m living here since six months, I might say FOR six months, so from the past to now (my shorthand for the present perfect) – and hope to then get I’ve been living here for six months. I think for most students this kind of mini-concept is sufficient and any more detailed analysis and examination of the minutiae of rules does little for the vast bulk of our learners. The shorthand approach (obviously based on the knowledge they’ve already ‘met’ these structures before, as most students have – at high school, etc.) will obviously still not be sufficient to ensure immediate improvements in accuracy, but don’t hurt, don’t take much time, and may just prime students to select certain items when thinking of how to express basic concepts – like from the past to now, etc.

      The issue of students thinking they want and need more of what they’ve had already, even if it hasn’t helped them much, and certainly hasn’t provided suitable development in recompense for the hours put in, is a tricky one and one we all need to fight. Part of our job is to be clear in our minds about what will – and what won’t – really help students develop and we need to be consistent and thorough in making these messages clear both to whole class groups and also to individual students!

  2. A mi parecer, la comunicación puede desarrollarse en varios sentidos.
    Empecemos simplificándola el sentido simple : “horizontal” y “vertical”; donde lo horizontal es lo que predomina y lo vertical lo que motiva a pocos.
    Por otra parte podemos hablar de lenguaje comunicativo verbal refiriéndonos a las palabras en sí, y el lenguaje no verbal como conjunto de señales no habladas, como pueden ser las miradas o los movimientos con las manos, por ejemplo.
    Más allá de lo que puede ser la pretensión simple de la comunicación, existen formas conscientes de comunicación en las que su uso en sí puede tener consecuencias (ya sean en sentido positivo o negativo) sobre otros factores comunicativos. Es por tanto que se tienen que medir muy cuidadosamente las palabras siendo ésta, la base explícita de la lengua en sí.

    Sobre ejemplificar casos concretos hablemos del tiempo, pero ¿tiempo en sentido hora?¿época?¿clima? ¿tiempo en sentido distancia? ¿Cómo podría pues describirse el tiempo?
    Es en este sentido donde nuestra gran amiga la palabra “contexto” hace su aparición, ya que sin el contexto, no puede entenderse el significado precioso de lo que se quiere decir.

    Pongamos un ejemplo,

    Esta noche me voy a Dinamarca.

    Estoy pensando en ir a Madrid.

    ¿Cuánto tiempo vas?

    Una semana.

    ¿Cuál es en este ejemplo la referencia contextual?

    Otro ejemplo: El aire. Aire en sentido ¿viento?¿humo?¿aliento? ¿aspiración? ¿inspiración? ¿expiración?

    Su significado únicamente depende de cómo y quien lo explique. Eso sí, “espero que nunca te falte el aliento”. En este caso, puede resaltarse que el significado de aliento puede tener un significado romántico (en sentido literal) mientras que el decir “Espero que nunca te falta el aire” puede ser, como mínimo, banal.

    Por otro lado, podría desarrollarse la idea de ¿un coche diesel, explota y explosiona? ¿A qué nivel de temperatura tiene que darse el hecho para que salte por los aires? ¿o se generan sólo pequeñas explosiones de combustible? ¿a qué se debe?
    El fuego no puede originarse sin la presencia de aire en el ambiente, de hecho puede demostrarse simplemente encendiendo una vela en un recipiente cerrado, que tras un corto periodo de tiempo la llama, al encontrarse exenta de oxígeno, acaba apagándose.

    Esta y muchas otras cuestiones pueden suscitar el interés por analizar el lenguaje en profundidad.

    1. I don’t speak much Spanish, sadly, so for those of you similarly afflicted here’s what Google Translate offered me when I entered this comment into it:

      In my view, communication can develop in several ways.
      Let’s start by simplifying the simple sense: “horizontal” and “vertical”, where the horizontal is what prevails and what motivates Vertical few.
      Moreover we can speak of verbal communicative language referring to the words themselves, and non-verbal language as a set of unspoken signals, such as the eye or hand movements, for example.
      Beyond what may be the mere pretense of communication, there are forms of communication aware you use it can have consequences (whether in a positive or negative) on communicative factors. It is therefore that must be measured very carefully the words being this, the explicit basis of the language itself.

      On specific cases exemplify talk time, but time in clockwise direction? Era? Climate? Time away? Sense? How would they describe the time?
      It is in this sense that our great friend the word “context” makes an appearance, as without the context, can not understand the meaning of what is beautiful means.

      To take an example,

      Tonight I’m going to Denmark.

      I’m thinking of going to Madrid.

      How long are you going?

      A week.

      What is in this context the reference example?

      Another example: The air. Air sense does wind? Smoke? Breath? Aspiration?? Inspiration?? Expiry??

      Its meaning depends only explain how and who. Of course, “I hope you never short of breath.” In this case, it may be noted that the meaning of breath can have a romantic meaning (literally) while saying “I hope you never need air” may be at least banal.

      On the other hand, could develop the idea of ​​a diesel car?, Explodes and explodes? What temperature level has to be done to make the jump into the air? Or are generated only small bursts of fuel? Why is that?
      Fire can not arise without the presence of air in the atmosphere, in fact it can be shown simply by lighting a candle in a closed container, which after a short period of time the flame, to be free of oxygen, just fading.

      This and many other issues can arouse interest in analyzing language in depth.

      1. Hi Maria –
        Thanks for this.

        I have to say, though, having run your comments through Google Translate, I’m not really sure what point you were trying to make, or how best to respond. It may well be a problem with the translation technology, but try as I may, I can’t really think of much else to add here, other than to say that I understand something different by the concept of HORIZONTAL and VERTICAL development of communication. It’s something I wrote about a while back:

        Anyway, I do share your opinions about the importance and centrality of context to teaching and to learning.

  3. Sorry for do not answering in English, but don´t have any time (maybe this is “enejante”).
    I imagine that translators are doing well their work.

  4. You can’t measure the temperature with a barometer and you can’t get people to communicate spontaneously by teaching them “stylistic” grammar that may be useful for writing, but not much use for speaking. When we speak, because of the sheer complexity of language (far more complex than anything you can find in a grammar book), we are using the right side of the brain, we don’t have time to think about rules and regulations.

    Teaching grammar for speaking is a bit like giving someone classroom lessons on bicycle mechanics and scientific lectures on how the body achieves balance through messages from the inner ear to the micro-muscles in the spine – and then expecting the student to jump on the bike and peddle round the yard. Pointless – the inevitable will happen and he/she will fall off, no matter how many hours of study they may have followed.

    Sure, we need a few rules. Repetition in order to master certain structures is always useful, particularly when the student only gets limited exposure (the case for most of our students). But with skills like riding a bike, speaking languages and sports, we mostly learn by watching, listening, imitating and doing (speaking) in meaningful contexts and we learn in chunks and spurts, almost never in any “logical” order.

    Children, for instance, often start using complex structures right from the word go, they don’t begin with the present simple, then move on to the present continuous, etc… Students rarely start mastering “do” and “does” until they’ve started handling “did”.

    The best context for learning a language, in my opinion, is in situ, in an immersive environment. That’s why intensive and immersion courses are systematically far more productive than extensive lessons once or twice a week, which are almost always a genuine waste of time, unless the student is backing them up with many hours of personal contact with the language.

    You do need to channel the exposure of a student, so they don’t get saturated too quickly and you do need to focus on the simpler and more frequent forms of communicative exchange at first, but I’ve seen people learning at more or less the same pace using every conceivable “method” : the success factors are generally to do with student motivation, frequency of exposure, inherent skills such as memory capacity and the ability to mimic, trainer’s ability to adjust the teaching to the student’s learning profile and to motivate them, etc…

    I have a friend who has learned 12 languages fluently, mostly using Assimil books. You can learn following a grammar method, but you learn not because of the method, but because of the exposure you’re getting to the language and the effort you’re putting in to master it.

    As a teacher, I would say I’m “in control” of 25-30% of a student’s learning – what I input rarely comes out the way I wanted it to, never in the same order and very often, students learn things I have hardly focused on and seem to have great difficulties with items I’ve been plugging away desperately at for hours.

    Many grammar “mistakes” are not due to misunderstanding the rules, but to the fact that the underlying structure the student is using in his thinking patterns is his native language. It seems blindingly obvious to say so, but student’s difficulties with a target language arise mostly when it differs from their native language. You can hammer away at the rules for hours, if you can’t modify that underlying pattern, the student will simply keep falling back on it as soon as he/she finds him/herself in a situation of spontaneous exchange.

    The only way for that to change is for the student to be exposed to such a high intensity of language in many different contexts that it “sinks in” and starts replacing the underlying mother tongue pattern.

    This of course leaves us in a difficult position as teachers : how can we organise our teaching to optimise a student’s learning, without relying on the structured grammatical approach we learned to perform?

    Looking forward to the next instalment therefore !

    1. “extensive lessons once or twice a week … are almost always a genuine waste of time, unless …”
      This is what some of my students tell me when they are new in my once-a-week classes, followed by “the only way to learn English well is to go abroad for a extended period of time.” If it was true, we could scrap all English language programmes outside English-speaking countries. I doubt it, though, and it’s not fair on all those teachers who try to make it worth their students’ while to come to these classes if that’s their only option. I agree that the process of aquiring the language can be sped up considerably by doing a lot of extra work outside the classroom. I won’t go with the “waste of time” claim, though. On the contrary, once I’ve won these students over they’ll tell me how much of a difference it makes to their skills whether they’ve attended a class or not (because they were ill or had to go on a business trip or something like that). I work with Innovations, by the way 😉

      1. The large number of people who’ve learned excellent English despite never having left their own countries, let alone spent time in native-speaker environments, proves the utter wrongness of this way of looking at things, clearly. There’s an additional complication which is the fact that loads of people do actually live in native-speaker contexts, often for years, and still don’t progress with their English, so whilst not living in situ doesn’t damn you to failure, neither does living in situ guarantee success!

        That said, expectation management is part of the game for teachers, and students need to be realistic about what can – and what can’t – be achieved if they’re only studying two hours a week and don’t have time to engage much with the language outside of class. It’d obviously be better to do, say, fifteen hours a week, but at the same time, it’s better than nothing.

        When time is tight, focused input in the classroom becomes even more important as does developing a deeper understanding of how language actually works, in order to help students notice better when they do have time to engage with English outside of class. Obviously, recycling also becomes central as there’s plenty of time between classes to forget in

    2. Hi Andrew –
      Apologies for taking a while to respond to this, but I realise now I was slightly over-awed by the length of the comment, which of course gave me pause to reflect on the potentially intimidating nature of some of my own posts!

      Anyway, I totally agree that part of what’s made life hard for learners in the past is the fact that much grammatical study has been based on something far closer to the grammar of the written language than that of spoken English. The stuff outside the canon that I refer to in my post above is all evidence of patterns useful when speaking but typically overlooked in many more trad grammars. Oh, and I also liked the analogy of lecturing students about bike mechanics and the body and then expecting them not to fall off their bikes whilst practising. It is very much like that, I think.

      I also agree that part of what makes language use so tough is the fact that speaking occurs in real time, and so you don’t have time to piece language together using the fallback plan of grammar plus words. This is why pre-fabricated items, fixed expressions, routines and repertoires already learned and rehearsed are vital as they allow us to launch ourselves into conversations without having to do this!

      There are obviously enough differences between learning an L1 and learning an L2 to ensure we should be cautious about claiming too many parallels, but you are quite right that kids start using some supposedly sophisticated grammatical structures well whilst still making seemingly basic mistakes. My daughter, who’s nearly four, can say You shouldn’t have said that or He shouldn’t have done that – but still says Her instead of She as a subject pronoun! I don’t see why the same processes shouldn’t also come into play for adult learners.

      I think the main point you’re making in your comment, though, is that input and exposure – along with basic noticing skills, motivation and so on – are the real factors that most affect learning, and that these are much more input than method adopted in class. I’d basically agree, although I obviously also believe that we can make things easier or more difficult as a result of both the input we give and the messages about what to focus on that come embedded in our input.

      I think there are real implications from all of this for how we organise teaching in order to optimise learning and would like to suggest some basic principles: input is more important than output; recycling and layering is central; guiding and focusing students’ self-study is also central; focusing on can-do sentences and on trying to help students do specific real-world tasks and on natural usage and on the interaction between grammar and lexis is also key. I could go on . . .

      I totally agree that many grammar mistakes are down to L1 interference rather than not having gone over rules and done form-focused practice. One final point to add here, though, and it’s one I’ll expand on later in another post, is that mistakes are also often down to not knowing the shortest and most direct way of saying something, and thus having to do more grammar work. As such, the student who says Your book is a new one which has been changed and is more up-to-dated isn’t really making a grammar mistake; they’re simply showing that they don’t know how to say Yours is the revised edition!

  5. Interesting thread.

    I’m about to step into my Elementary classroom where most of the students can quite capably throw out the “What did you do last night? How long’ve you been doing that? (including weak forms)” because I’ve been using this lovely book called Innovations 🙂

    At the same time, I don’t see why Murphy has suddenly become the target lately. I still use it as well, based on the SLA theory of “it worked for me”. It helped me to understand a lot of points in becoming a better teacher, and using a Czech Murphy-style grammar book, I’ve improved my understanding and ability to speak Czech.

    Based on my own experience, training courses have moved way beyond that described by Hugh as his CELTA experience 20 years ago. Are there any training courses out there still dogmatically preaching PPP? I know on our CertTESOL course we no longer even bother with mentioning PPP/ESA/ARC/TTT. It wasn’t helping and served simply to stress a new teacher out.

    Any trainee who comes along with a nice idea to teach ‘comparatives’ or ‘1st conditional’ is quite quickly steered in a different direction, or at least to carefully consider the contextualization of the language. Mind you, that might be driven more by the fact I can’t face observing another lesson on comparatives rather than any sound theory of learning/teaching.

    1. Hi David –
      Interesting that low-level students are actually quite capable of learning and using supposedly complex items of grammar like HOW LONG’VE YOU BEEN DOING THAT? – provided they learn them as lexical chunks / fixed expressions at this early stage and so long as both teacher and students don’t (yet) have any expectation of their being able to do anything else with the structure apart from use it in limited contexts correctly.

      It’s always struck me as bizarre that most teachers will quite happily on their very first lesson with Beginners teach chunks – What’s your name? / I’m . . . – without feeling the need to teach all other possible forms such as I’m NOT Andrew or What’re our names?

      Then, from the next lesson on, we bombard students with every possible use of the present simple, in all its different forms, and with little regard for communicative value, for the next 40 hours – in the belief that they need to ‘get the basics’ of the grammar!

      It’s not Murphy’s per se that I have an issue with. Well, actually, no that’s not strictly true. I guess I do have an issue with it for the reasons stated before: it over-simplifies language, it misrepresents natural usage, it places too much emphasis on relative obscurities, it instills in learners the notion that ticking off the cleverly-designed pages is the way to competence and fluency, and so on. More than that, though, my concern is for the huge influence the book itself has had on the way both students and teachers have come to view the task at hand. The Headway plus a page of Murphy’s for homework template has come to absolutely dominate ELT in certain markets and has, I would argue, stunted teachers’ abilities to really think in more depth about language.

      In terms of whether or not there are still courses out there preaching PPP and the like, I can really only go on what I see coming to us at the university in the summer, when plenty of newish youngish teachers come in from various different CELTA courses out there and frequently demonstrate a marked tendency towards PPP, self-made materials and a very limited concept of language in action, so I don’t feel able to share your optimism. That said, there clearly are also more people out there – such as yourself – NOT following this model too, which does give some degree of hope for the future!

      PS: I remain highly sceptical of the value of any SLA research predicated on the ‘It worked for me’ theory! 🙂

  6. I think (hope) things have moved on from courses specifying PPP (or anything) as ‘the way’ but would say that trainees need frameworks to help shape language lessons. Without at least an idea of PPP/ARC/TTT etc, it’s difficult to see how a trainee can go about shaping the stages of a lesson. I do agree though that the view of language presented in Headway etc. It’s reductive, positions the verb phrase as the basis of language, ignores frequency data and context and is just plain wrong at times. It may be simple to tell learners that there are three or four conditionals but when we all know that isn’t true, I’m not sure it’s helpful. We’ve tried to change the way trainees look at language in our situation by building from the ‘traditional’ forms they will meet in many coursebooks such as present simple etc and then encouraging them to consider context and how language works as discourse. We’ve described this here

    Click to access Pedagogic_176x250_INSIDES_Volume_3_(2).pdf

    It’s only a small start but it has helped, we feel.

    1. Hi Chris –
      Thanks for that link. Looks very interesting. I shall try to download it all later and find time to read through.

      I wish I shared your optimism about times having moved on from the days of relentless tense / form focus and PPP self-made lessons.
      The utter dominance of Headway and English File just suggests most folk have yet to move on from this dominant way of thinking about learning and language.

      I suspect what HAS happened, though, and I’m pleased to see it, is that pockets of excellence and innovation have emerged out there which have taken on board recent findings into the nature of language and started to work out ways on incorporating them into training and development.

      Finally, for INITIAL training courses at least, I’m not totally convinced that trainees do actually need to grasp PPP/ARC/TTT/OHE and so on. At these early, early stages I’d prefer to just see them get their heads round what’s going on with published material, developing a basic materials literacy and learning how to be aware of the language that’s potentially available to teach on any given page; to then think about how they’ll run each particular kind of exercise and how they’ll explore and expand upon language that’s there. Finally, I’d like to see them start to come to terms with listening to students and recasting their output into further input.

      That seems a quite sufficient set of goals for an initial training course!

    2. Do you have a different url for that course description, by the way, Chris?
      Cannot open or download the pdf from the link you embedded!

      1. I sent you a PDF of the article through FB – sorry the URL does not seem to work. Alternatively, google Waller, D., & Jones, C. (2012). Equipping TESOL trainees to teach through discourse. UCLan Journal of Pedagogic Research 3, pp. 5-11. It’s freely available.

      2. Great. Thanks Chris.
        Hope some others out there will also try and track it down as well.

  7. Great post, Hugh!
    Just one thought for now:
    Here in Germany, I get to see a selection of schoolbooks on a regular basis through tutoring schoolkids in English.
    The worst thing about the textbooks is not so much that they are particularly awful, but that they are now trying to do TOO MUCH!
    The core beliefs behind one series I’m familiar with is still very much the step-by-step grammatical approach you mention above, with obscure lists of verbs that take the gerund or “to infinitive” taught in a random bunch being the pinnacle reached by grade 9, for example.
    At the same time, I am seeing influences from the CERF coming into the textbooks, with students learning how to do “mediation”, i.e. mediating between a speaker of German and a speaker of English.
    A lot of the texts are full of natural “normal” everyday English, the listening texts use lots of different accents and are relatively well acted. The authors of the books put a lot of effort in these books and have tried really hard to find texts which engage young learners.
    The vocabulary sections of the books are really excellent, with lots of examples in context, translation tips and references to cognates from other languages the students may know, such as Latin or French.
    The problem is that this is all too much for the students! They are expected to master grammatical structures perfectly, learn collocations and chunks perfectly and are also expected to learn how to become consecutive interpreters.
    This puts the students and teachers under immense pressure because there is simply too bloody much for them to possibly manage – both teachers and students alike.
    If the grammatical obsession could be removed from these books and the other bits left in, then it would be much easier for all parties.
    As it is, everybody faces a mission impossible and almost certain frustration and disappointment.

    1. Hi Amanda –
      Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time to read.

      It’s astounding – and, yes, somewhat depressing – how much material out there still propagates the endless controlled practice of structures plus single words approach.

      I think the CEFR offers great hope because it asks us to redefine our concept of what we’re planning to do in class, and if the main goal is to achieve a particular communicative competence, then whilst grammar may play a part in this, we ought really to be focusing on in a limited manner and with lexis and co-text that will aid students as they attempt to do whatever task it is we set them. Thus, if students are to learn how to talk about travel experiences, they’ll need the present perfect, but probably only to ask Have you ever been to . . . ? They’ll also need loads of other common questions as well, though: When were you there? Who did you go with? What was it like? How long for? and so on – plus ways of answering these. This is certainly how we’ve gone about working on both INNOVATIONS and OUTCOMES.

      This way of allowing lessons – and input – to be driven by the communicative goal should really start to impact majorly on coursebook material, though the cynic in me suspects publishers will continue to just re-brand what they have in stock and call Elementary A2 level instead. Can-do statements in coursebooks already often show this kind of cynical appropriation as we’re told that after a lesson students will be able to . . . talk about experiences, compare things or tell stories – and all we relaly get is the present perfect simple, comparatives and narrative tenses in a newer guise!

      At some point, if I remember, I may post something up about the CEFR and the implications it has for materials and theories of language!
      Remind me if I forget!

      That said, I’ve actually no idea what ‘mediating between a speaker of German and a speaker of English’ might involve, or how one would structure input to help as it’s just so broad and formless. Mediating between them whilst they try to do WHAT exactly? And what does mediate mean here? Translate back and forth or what?

      In terms of overload, I hear you, and fear that on occasion we may well have been guilty of this crime ourselves.
      I think the real issue, though, is the expectation that everything we input will be turned into output.
      It’s just not going to happen!
      And I think teachers need to grasp this fact and make it clear to the students that whilst trying to remember everything is a good idea, it’s ultimately more important to focus on lexis and even if you spend the bulk of your time doing that, you won’t remember everything. Some things will stay buried in the bairn to be retrieved passively later, and it’s only really extensive reading and listening outside of class that’ll help to consolidate all the intensive input we provide in the classroom.

      We also have a duty as teachers to ensure as much revision and recycling as we can, which is something I blogged about here:

  8. In my opinion, is obvious such as individuals we can’t abandon our own interpretation of language as a form of recognition of context “latent”. Given the mention of the word “mediation”, much played in recent years around Europe, besides the word “interpretation”,

    taking into account the development of both horizontally, could be identified as communicative skills of language interpretation used in the context or meaning, in terms of Social Work, such us “Mediation the interpretation / understanding of the social context in forward order for the resolution of problems at the level of society as a whole of the problem explicit”.
    That a term or even a book could be considered “awful”, that’s simply show lack of intellectual level generated by educating students in a narrow context mentally, and of course, social.
    Obviously, the randomness of the group / context shows a shortage of objectivity in the choice of the same, whether in grade 9 or 19.

    On the other hand, speaking of communicative lenguaje if, either spoken or written, is palpable lack, in terms of books, either by the diffusion of these or censorship itself meaning that they want to express.
    Is spoke about “bloody” in this sense, arguably, out of context, making it impossible “as to me respect” to use of that reasoning description / definition of teaching speaking like the term of frustration.

    In summary, is nothing more than the prospect / vision of the context, plus the willingness to modify knowledge vertically, which makes a student to acquire the “sufficient” learning (“enough” because you can always improve ) to develop structures and teachings based on equality in social sense.


    1. Hi again Marian –
      Thanks for your rather unorthodox response again.
      I have to say, I don’t agree that if a student – or a teacher – describes a book (or anything else!) as AWFUL it somehow shows a lack of intellectual level.
      I’d like to think I have a relatively passable intellectual level, and yet I frequently call films, books, songs and so on AWFUL – and that’s just when I’m being polite!

      In terms of the necessary conditions to develop competence and accuracy in a language, you seem to be saying learners need to meet language in context and to somehow then be able to modify their understandings of things over time. if that’s what you meant, then obviously I agree!

  9. Ok, after having read through something like the NYtimes, long entries, I wonder how the old religion is still around if it is based on superstition? I think it has to do with the possiblity that language acquisition as it is, the real thing, not whatever theory we might have, is fairly forgiving. I suffered through grammar/translation with French, some communicative teaching with English and picked up my Spanish the natural way. Somehow the brain tolerates all kinds of rain dancing. Vegetation will grow regardless of the beat and style. I guess your goal as a textbook writer would be to create something that is in sync with language acquisition (as it is..). So, no more explicit presentation of structure, metalanguage, but rather lots of guided priming moments. Would that be a (the) way to go?

    1. Hi Thomas –
      Thanks for taking the time and effort to slog through the admittedly lengthy debate going on here!

      It’d obviously be stupid to deny that people acquire languages – often to remarkable degrees of competence – under all manner of weird and wonderful circumstances. However, I’d see this as acquisition occurring despite rather than because of the learning environment. It’ll be down to extended reading, decent innate noticing tendencies, a general sensitivity to language and so on.

      I’m totally fine with the idea that SLA research needs to be taken with a large pinch or two of salt, but at the same time it DOES seem to tell us that certain conditions do generally tend to produce better results than others – just as certain kinds of rainfall result in better plant growth than others.

      As a coursebook writer, I do of curse try my darndest to take all of this into account, but have to also be honest and admit – and accept – the constraints placed on us by the publishers, which they in turn will claim are the constraints placed on THEM by ‘the market’!! I think as many guided priming moments – and as much recycling – as possible is most certainly the way to go, yeah, and it’s what we’ve been trying to do with INNOVATIONS and OUTCOMES, but at the same time, we’re also aware of the fact that any attempt to ONLY do this – without any explicit grammatical presentation or meta-language – is total and utter commercial suicide. Trying to walk that tightrope as best we can, I suppose.

  10. I don’t have any issue with sensible use of meta-language, as long as it is not seen as an end in itself. I can’t see it as harmful for adult learners and may actually help with the noticing process. The evidence from SLA seems to be that explicit teaching of language works better than implicit teaching so this would also seem to be sensible, as long as ‘explicit’ is taken in the broad sense of making it clear what is being taught, not some kind of lecture about language rules.There have been a couple of big reviews of other studies fairly recently and both have come out in favour of explicit teaching:
    1.Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. (2001). Does Type of Instruction Make a Difference? Substantive Findings from a Meta-Analytic Review. In R. Ellis (Ed.), Form-Focused Instruction and Second Language Learning (pp. 157–213). Oxford: Blackwell.
    2. Spada, N., & Tomita, Y. (2010).Interactions Between Type of Instruction and Type of Language Feature: A Meta-Analysis. Language Learning 60(2),263-308.

    1. Indeed. They can often serve as a useful shorthand and allow for a shared frame of reference. I also agree that at least some degree of explicit focus on these things seems to work better than simply exposure – and I hold Krashen responsible for the nonsensical idea that the reverse might ever be true!

      It’s when teachers start judging students not by how much English they can actually use, but by how good they are at talking about the language they know that things start to go awry!

      I once had a colleague who came in after a class with some super-fluent Proficiency students ranting and raving that they wouldn’t know what a reduced adverbial clause even if one bit them on the nose – and this was despite the fact that their writing was full of them!

      It’s just the wrong worry, I’m sure we’d both agree.

      Thanks for the reading tips. I know the Norris and Ortega – and know of Spada, but haven’t read that particular piece, so will track it down!

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