Teaching grammar lexically
A week or so ago, I posted up my first experiment with narrating Powerpoint presentations, as i tried to run through a talk I did at our inaugural University of Westminster Lexical Conference. As promised back then, I’ve managed to make another similar kind of thing, this time using Camtasia and then uploading it directly onto YouTube, which this blogging platform then allows me to embed here!
Anyway, this was the closing plenary to the one-day conference, and is really a condensation of many of the thoughts I’ve had over the last twelve to fifteen years about why the way I was taught to teach grammar isn’t particularly useful or efficient – and how we might start to redress this and do things better henceforth.
It seems stupid to spend too long giving much of a preamble to a video where I get to talk for myself at, I’m sure some might say, considerable length, so I’ll cut to the chase and leave you to watch this yourselves. Hope you enjoy it – and I look forward to reading your thoughts and comments.
Talking Tech 1: Lingro
Like many of you out there, the institution I work in is engaged in a desperate – and at times highly unfocused – dash towards digital. We’ve invested quite heavily in Blackboard, an online learning platform that I’m guessing many of you will already be familiar with, and in order to feel that this investment was valid, there’s increasing pressure coming down from on high to ensure that Blackboard is somehow seamlessly integrated into all courses. In addition to this internal institutional pressure, there’s also obviously the external pressure on all language teachers these days to not only be excellent at dealing with language and dealing with students, and to know about and be comfortable with a range of pedagogy, but to also be teched-up, to be digitally literate and to be integrating tech in some way into everything we do.
I’ve blogged before about some of my concerns about the current state of affairs, and if I had to characterize my own attitude towards things at present, I guess I’d say I was skeptical, but curious. I think there’s a lot of snake oil being sold, there are plenty of administrators and bosses hoping (in vain) that tech will provide some kind of magic bullet and fast forward learning into some futuristic utopia and there are plenty of stupid and disparaging comments being made about the many excellent teachers out there who have not ’embraced’ technology in their classrooms, but who continue to deliver excellent classes to satisfied students. Personally, outside of a Coomber for playing audio CDs, I basically don’t use any technology in my actual classroom, and we’re moving increasingly towards a ‘No mobiles in class’ policy too, simply due to the perennially disruptive nature of the things, with students (and, let’s face it, ourselves also) increasingly hooked on being in constant contact with our friends out there – and texting furiously throughout lessons! That said, I’d like to be convinced that there ARE sane things going on INSIDE classes that utilise technology, and I do try and keep abreast of what’s out there and what other teachers are doing.
Also, obviously, I use technology outside of class for all kinds of purposes, both professional and leisure. I blog, as you can see; I’m on Facebook (twice! personal and professional profiles); I upload music onto YouTube; Andrew Walkley and myself are doing a university YouTube project, which I’ll say more about later; I occasionally use Twitter; I use Vocaroo with my classes; I’ve tried class blogs; my students have access to online workbooks that accompany the coursebooks we use; I send emails round after every class with links to things that came up in class, mostly of a cultural / global general knowledge ilk, and so on. Hopefully, I’ll be returning to some of these issues later on.
I also try to ensure I keep up with, as best I can, the many many recommendations for various tech-related sites that are out there. I subscribe to both Russell Stannard’s newsletter and also Nik Peachey’s, and I read whatever I can that comes by way via other gatekeepers of the digital realm such as Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockly. I feel grateful that I’m already fairly sensitive towards language and fairly au fait with methodology, because, as I’ve often quipped, one of my main fears for the language teachers of tomorrow is that keeping up with all the tech that’s out there, and developing critical faculties towards it, is so time-consuming that you really do have to wonder where they’re going to find the time to tackle language and classroom practice on top!
Anyway, to eventually get somewhere near the point, it seems to me that one real issue at present is that there amidst all the enthusiastic boosterism and the carving out of career space for the gatekeepers (and just to be crystal clear from the outset, I’m NOT knocking them for this. They clearly serve a similar function to the applied linguists who bring the results of their findings to the field and leave us as teachers and materials designers to unpick the implications), what’s sorely lacking is any real space in which teachers can discuss and critique the uses (and abuses) of particular sites and pieces of technology. There’s not enough critical engagement with what’s being touted – or if there IS, I’ve yet to see it (!) – and so what I’d like to try and do with this next ongoing series of posts is to explore and consider a range of different sites that I’ve spent time looking at after seeing them touted and praised.
To begin, I’m going to talk about a site I first encountered courtesy of Russell Stannard called Lingro. It modestly proclaims itself as “the coolest dictionary known to hombre“! And Russell himself was almost as enthusiastic, calling “this fabulous tool” “the best website” he found in 2011.
The basic gist is that it’s a site into which you can drag and drop other pages (in a range of different ‘mainstream’ languages) from the web, whether they be news sites, articles, blog pages, or whatever, and Lingro will not only provide a dictionary to help you understand them, but it’ll also give you the pronunciation and even keep a record of the words you look up, store them away and turn them into games for you to revise from later on. Surely the perfect site for our students to be practising their reading and developing their vocabulary! Sounds too good to be true, right?
Well, I’d argue that that is because it is! Below you can see a screengrab of the first time I tried to use the site. I entered a page from The Guardian’s website into Lingro, as I imagined my students might do were i to recommend the site, and started toying around. You don;t need to spend too long on the site to realise that whilst the dictionary may be ‘cool’ (even if it does say so itself), it’s also, to be frank, rubbish! I mean, look at what it tells you about WITHDRAWAL! Most students – and possibly many teachers – would actually need to use a decent learner’s dictionary in order to understand the definitions in 1 and 2, neither of which, of course, have anything to do with the meaning here. And as for the third definition, well it’s a piece of tautological genius! Slog through all three and you’re still no nearer understanding what on earth the word is being used to mean here, and have problem been sent off down all manner of random rabbit holes, guaranteed to derail your train of thought and your focus.
Let’s turn instead to a decent dictionary written by actual lexicographers that understand the way foreign learners process language and who write in a way that’s aimed at EFL students. Take the Macmillan Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, for example. The first definition you meet is this:
1 [C / U] the act of stopping something or taking something away
Their withdrawal of support forced the minister to resign.
1a the removal of an army from an area of fighting
Troop withdrawal will take place immediately.
Bingo! Even though it’s not as precise as the second definition, even the first gets close and gives a fairly clear indication of meaning and usage.
In the same way, the Lingro definition of delay used as a verb – to put off till a later time, to distract – is nowhere near as transparent as the Macmillan version – to do something later than is planned or expected, and again there then follow a series of excellent parallel examples.
Still not yet convinced of the sheer awfulness of the dictionary?
Well, thanks to Gavin Dudeney, I’m now using Camtasia at home and thought that as I’m writing about tech, I may as well prove I’m not a total Luddite by making a short movie of myself trying Lingro out this very morning. You watch the results below and chortle at my increasing disgust as I very quickly come up against the site’s (many) limitations.
So why is this happening? And does any of it really matter?
Firstly, the utterly appalling nature of the dictionary is down to the fact that it’s all based on Wiktionary. Wiktionary is the result of all of those sexy buzzwords that web-heads love to sling around: crowd-sourcing, networking, interactivity, the blurring of the lines between user and creator, all that . . . and it’s dreadful! And it’s not just me saying it. Here’s Jill Lepore writing in The New Yorker, back in 2006: “There’s no show of hands at Wiktionary. There’s not even an editorial staff. ‘Be your own lexicographer!’ might be Wiktionary’s motto. Who needs experts? Why pay good money for a dictionary written by lexicographers when we could cobble one together ourselves? Wiktionary isn’t so much republican or democratic as Maoist. And it’s only as good as the copyright-expired books from which it pilfers.” And there are plenty more such stinging critiques out there, should you care to seek them out.
Why this matters is partly because the craze and craving for the free, the online, the interactive is essentially – in this instance – a vote for plagiarism, for the mediocre, for a poverty of resources. On top of that, though, it’s also a nail in the coffin of real lexicography. All the major publishing houses are selling fewer and fewer dictionaries each year so every time you recommend any site that uses Wiktionary, you’re basically advocating the total amateur over the highly skilled professional. The longer this continues, the higher the risk of all serious lexicographers who’ve spent their entire working lives studying the language, discussing and debating how best to present the findings of their research. As if none of this was bad enough, you’re also encouraging an impoverished view of language, which will lead to students taking on similarly impoverished views themselves. I mean, this is a view of language which doesn’t even recognise phrasal verbs for God’s sake, let alone chunks, collocations, fixed expressions, idiomaticity, or the power of examples.
But wait, I hear you cry. What about the revision games the site makes? Surely that must be fun. And motivating.
Well, because my patience is wearing thin, I’ll spare you too many of the gory details, but here’s another screen grab of the kind of games it’s capable of making.
So basically it can save the key words – and really ONLY words – and turn them into very very basic flashcards that you use to test your memory. You look at the words and – in the instance above – check you can remember the Spanish, click on the ‘cards’ and check your answers. Well, we’ve already seen how poor the site actually is at even giving basic definitions of single words, so why on earth you should trust it to give decent translations of the meaning of the word in the context that you encountered it in is beyond me!
Just for the record, by the way, I’m really NOT saying the flashcards like this are a bad idea. They’re not. It’s just that these ones are very very poor. I make my own when studying Indonesian, but by doing it myself I can add in pronunciation and word stress, extra examples, collocations and add translations for all of these on the flip side. I can also customize these over time and test myself with them, which I do.
Philip Kerr has written well about using vocabulary cards to revise language you’ve encountered and I think this can be very very useful. Now, obviously, there’s no real reason why this couldn’t be done using technology.
It’s just that Lingro isn’t the place where you CAN.
Working exercises hard
Last weekend at University of Westminster, we held our first one-day Lexical Conference. This will hopefully now become an annual event, and we were greatly encouraged by the fact that it sold out and also by the wonderful speakers we had. Alongside myself and Andrew Walkley, we had Leo Selivan, Philip Kerr, Nick Bilbrough, Luke Fletcher, Richard Paterson and Katie Mansfield, Muralee Navaratnam and as special guests of honour Michael Hoey and Michael Lewis.
I did two sessions – a plenary entitled Teaching Grammar Lexically – and a workshop called Working Exercises Hard. I had a couple of folk email me to ask if I had an online version of the sessions, which I didn’t, but due to popular request (well, ONE request at least!), I’ve trained myself how to use a great site that allows you to upload Powerpoints and narrate them and below is the fruits of my labour.
Thought it’d make a change as a blog post and if it is well received, it may be something I try and do again.
Hope you enjoy watching this and look forward to your comments and questions.
Twenty things in twenty years Part Six: resistance is futile – but still remarkably widespread
When I was in my mid-20s living in Jakarta and trying to learn Indonesian, I reached a point where I felt I had to start reading more about Islam. Partly this was because so many of my students were – to varying degrees – Muslim; partly it was because the practising of the religion was so deep-rooted in the day-to-day life of so much of the country; and partly it was simply because I found it interesting to try and get my head round a worldview so incredibly different to the one I’d grown up with myself. Concepts and ideas from Islam were also obviously widespread in Indonesian itself, with the words for many more abstract ideas being derived from Arabic.
One of the more fascinating notions I grappled with was the idea that the word Islam itself originally means submission or surrender in Arabic, a fact more recently made more complicated and controversial by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali film Submission, and its subsequent enthusiastic promotion by those on the right. The root of the word Islam, though, is salaam, from which can also be derived the words for peace and safety. Now, many religions have a concept of surrender to God. In Jewish history, the ancient Hebrews had a long period of prosperity and stability when they obeyed God’s commands; in Christianity, surrendering to God is a way of putting your life into more capable hands. In this sense, the idea of obeying the commands and logic of a higher power and trusting in a wisdom that may not always be apparent to one can actually be a way of bringing about peace.
Now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all of this, aren’t you? Bear with me, OK. Despite the fact that any discussion of submission and resistance feels decidedly dodgy in a post Jimmy Saville / post-Operation Yewtree world, where every week another of the creepy celebs that were all over the TV of childhood like a bad rash is arrested and charged with some form or other of unsavoury retrospective sexual coercion, these two concepts are actually at heart of language learning!
To this day, I can still remember the almost physical sense of relief and the easing off of tension once I finally just stopped fighting it, stopped trying to impose my own pre-programmed system onto it and simply gave in to Indonesian and its own weird internal logic. For maybe the first year or so of my time in the country, I’d been unconsciously bridling at what seemed to me to be the peculiar sentence construction, the language’s stubborn refusal to express itself in ways I expected it to, the different ways in which divided up the world, the three different versions of I and You, the way we-but-not-you was one word, kami, and we-including-you another – kita, and so on. And then one day, suddenly, luckily, the fight just fell away and I realised that there was no way i was ever going to be able to change the way things were and that either I’d have to ship on out of the kitchen or else simply embrace things as they stood, submit, surrender. And in doing so came a kind of peace. And considerably faster and less stressful progress.
Now, I see signs of this resistance all the time in my classes – and I’m sure you do too, whether you’re conscious of it or not. The questions are never-ending:
“But why is it a football PITCH? Why not football field? I mean, you call the position midfield, don’t you? Not midpitch. In my language, we use one word for these two ideas.”
“Why do you say my wife and my NEW son? This is so stupid. So if I have two sons, do I say my NEW son and my OLD son? No! You see! Stupid!”
“But it’s the same: It’s a long time I haven’t seen you and I haven’t see you for ages. Why I need to change it?”
” You mean I can’t say Alex Ferguson is A FLAG? Like a FLAG of Manchester United? No? But that’s crazy. In my language we say it like this!”
And on and on it goes. These ones are just from the last few days with my Upper-Intermediate group and so are fresh in my mind, but you’ll recognise the genre no doubt. And the stiffer the resistance, the less learning takes place, as the students are constantly waging war against an implacable, uncaring enemy that will never bend even an inch to their own futile requirements. There will only ever be one loser in this war of wills, and it won’t be the language, for sure!
As language teachers, we have a key role to play in this ongoing struggle, as our students rub up against the different, the unexpected, the inexplicable, the frustrating, the downright weird and simply wrong (to their minds). Our job is to provide the oil, to smooth the lurching uphill journey towards greater noticing, more acquisition, more (linguistic) assimilation, more acceptance of norms – and to lessen resistance at every turn. Our job is to smile and say:
“There’s no reason why we have two different words where you have one. It’s just the way it is, OK. We say MIDFIELDER, but we play on a PITCH. That’s just the way it is. We also say PITCH for cricket and rugby as well. yeah, yeah. I know! You think cricket’s crazy too. There you go. What can I say?”
“Because maybe in this context the son is very young, so he’s new to the world. How do you say this idea in your language? How would you express this concept? OK, so it’s different, but that’s how it is in English. You can also say my new job, my new girlfriend, my new flat and so on. Don’t you use NEW in these contexts? It’s the same idea.”
“Of course people will understand you if you say It’s a long time I haven’t seen you. They’d probably understand you if you say It’s a long time I didn’t see you! But it’s not English. Not really. It just sounds like you’re translating, like you’ve not learned how to say I haven’t seen you for ages. I thought you were here to learn how to say things better? Yeah? Right. So this one’s better, OK!”
“I don’t know if you’d noticed, but English isn’t Italian! Sorry to tell you, but that’s a sad fact of life. I know what you mean, though. You mean like he’s a symbol of the club or something, right? We just don’t use the word flag like that. It sounds funny!”
It never ends, and it’s essentially a million ones of saying “I know! It’s different! Ha ha. Crazy English! Who knows why? To make life hard for you – and to keep me in employment!”
Which, mercifully, it HAS managed to do thus far.
Twenty things in twenty years Part Five: there really is no need for Needs Analysis!
One of the more ridiculous notions instilled in me on my month-long CELTA course taken twenty years ago was the idea that via a scribbled sheet of paper containing a few topics and some grammar structures I might somehow be able to discern the ‘needs’ of my subsequent classes. In retrospect, it now seems almost as mad to me as a novice medical student with a few weeks’ study under their belt asking a patient what THEY think the root of their medical condition is – and then treating them in accordance with this self-diagnosis. I dread to think what would’ve happened to me when I first slipped a disc in my early 20s after a particularly heavy session in the gym and yet only became aware of the issue due to a throbbing pain behind my knee (which I now realise was the result of inflammation of the sciatic nerve, the root of which had been trapped beneath the lapsed spinal disc). Might I have been given knee strengthening exercises to do? Told to run more? God only knows, but one thing you can be sure of is that I would not have been well diagnosed and that the treatment I would’ve received would almost certainly have done more harm than good.
It’s not just my CELTA course that tried to foist Needs Analysis onto me, though. The edition of Jeremy Harmer’s THE PRACTICE OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING that I read as part of the course also includes a section on the subject, albeit within the context of evaluating material that might be useful / relevant to students. We’re told to ‘describe’ our students by noting down their age, sex, social / cultural backgrounds, occupations, motivation/attitude, educational background, English level, world knowledge, and their interests and beliefs – and to then use these findings to draw conclusions about what material might best work. We’re then encouraged to get students to write the contexts and situations students will probably use English in at some future date, the order of priority for use of different language skills – and the percentage of classroom time that should be spent on each skill. Once you’ve collated all this information, you presumably do the maths – add up all the different percentages from all the different students in the class, divide by whatever number you have in the class and then divvy up your week’s plan accordingly!
Having spent at least the first few years of my teaching career engaging in this kind of deranged activity, I can officially report one thing with certainty: most students want to do more grammar! Even the really good ones who hardly ever make grammar mistakes still think they need to do more grammar. The endless study of structures – their forms and their meanings / uses – is still very widely seen as the yardstick by which students measure their own sense of progress. In addition to this, I can confirm that most students – and here I’m talking particularly about GENERAL ENGLISH students – have either very little idea of when and where they might end up needing to use their English, if indeed they ever will; or else simply know they’ll need to use it in their lives and that this could include any manner of contexts and conversations. As if this wasn’t already complex and confusing enough, there’s the fact that needs and wants may often be two very different beasts. A student may only NEED English in a very limited context – to read academic papers connected to dentistry, say – but their WANTS may include reading 19th century literature, chatting to foreigners they meet in the bar near where they live in Alicante, surfing websites connected to the Moorish influence on Spanish culture and understanding recipes in English! Take the overlapping, conflicting complexity of one individual and multiply it fifteen times and you have a normal class: one that it’s nigh-on impossible to assess or analyse the ‘needs’ of using any of these approaches!
Of course, if you’re teaching one-to-one or doing a very niche ESP or Business class, then maybe this approach works better. I still recall being sent out to teach in a factory in Tanggerang – in the sprawling industrial suburbs of Jakarta – armed with my CEC English Course, which we slogged through for a few weeks before my students plucked up enough courage to tell me that really this wasn’t what they needed and that actually the only reason they needed English was to understand the vast Suzuki manual they had to plough through in order to do their jobs properly!
Knowing this in advance would have saved us all time and stress, no doubt. Interestingly, in the edition of Jim Scrivener’s LEARNING TEACHING that I read as a novice, Needs Analysis is ONLY mentioned within the confines of a discussion about teaching Business English, which does make sense.
More recently, the concept of meeting students’ needs has formed a central part of the discourse around Dogme, as though simply doing enough talking with our students and plugging the gaps that emerge is somehow sufficient provision of language for all subsequent needs (as opposed to simply being an immediate finger-in-dyke-wall type operation)! The talking around any given task is in itself apparently the analysis and the recasting or reformulation of output, the meeting of the needs thus exposed!
Whilst there’s obviously much to be said for working from what students say and helping them to say it better, the claim that this meets needs seems to me only marginally less spurious than the idea that asking students which topics they wish to whizz through during their four-week stay at a private language school that has continuous enrollment – and which structures they most want to go over yet again in order to increase ever further their anxiety about them – helps us do the same.
My own teaching – and hopefully also my students’ learning – benefited greatly from abandoning questionnaires of the kind outlined above (and of the kind still to be found all over the web as well!) – and finally recognising that one of the things students pay for is a more expert analysis of what they need to do in order to get to where they might want to get to – which, let’s face it, often just means to the next level up! As previously mentioned, students themselves, as a result of their own learning experiences and notions about language, tend to see progress very much in terms of grammar. I can count on maybe one hand the number of students I’ve met over the years who, in tutorials or just whilst chatting, have been astute enough to recognise that the main thing stopping them from moving up past Intermediate, say, is their lack of lexis! It’s a rare learner indeed who perceives that it’s only the drudgery of taking on board another one or two or three thousand collocations, chunks, expressions, words is at the heart of what will push them on to FCE and beyond! And that’s where we come in!
Because REALLY what your General English students need MOST is this:
– repeated exposure to as many of the most frequent words in the language, the two- and three-star words in Learner Dictionaries, as can be managed in the time you have with them.
– greater understanding of how these words work with other words, and how they work with grammar.
– advice on how best to shoulder the huge burden of having to learn this much language
– to put this advice into practice and to take some responsibility for this learning at home, whether it be by reading graded readers, making revision cards, doing vocabulary self-study books or whatever
– to read and to listen to appropriately graded texts across a wide range of social, academic and work-related topics
– to have space to discuss their own responses to these texts – and to tell stories / anecdotes using the lexis studied – in class . . . AND then to have the teacher help them say these things better
– to become more aware (via repeated work on this) of how language sounds when spoken: the linking, the elision, the assimilation, the weak forms, and so on . . . and to get the chance to hear a broad range of accents, both native and non-native.
– to sometimes be corrected when they do make mistakes with language (including grammar) previously taught and to be made aware of why what they said / wrote was wrong
– to spend some time either consolidating or extending what they know about how structural grammar works, but less time than they spend on lexis, as lexis is far more at the root of communicative competence than structural grammar is
– to have a teacher confident enough to explain these needs to them, to explain why what they think they need may not actually be what’s best for them, and to guide them towards ways of more fruitfully using the little time they have available for the study of English in more fruitful ways
And THAT is never going to happen if we continue to send inexperienced teachers out there into the big wide world armed with photocopied lists of unit titles and topic headings from Murphy’s English Grammar In Use, is it?!