Twenty things in twenty years part nine: the vast majority of mistakes really aren’t to do with grammar!
The world used to be so tidy. Back in the misty morning of my youth, I seriously did naively believe that the root cause of student error was essentially grammatical. If only students could somehow have the ‘rules’ for the use of specific grammatical structures drilled into their heads through repeated mini-lectures, homeworks, pages of English Grammar In Use, concept questions and so on, and if only they could correctly memorize and internalize the forms of all the structures we’d ‘done’ in class, then all would well, the occasional lexical slip notwithstanding.
It took me quite some time to realise that if the errors students are making are within the confines of tasks that only focus on and require the production of one or two grammatical structures, such as the old Harrap’s Communication Games classic Haven’t we met somewhere before? (wherein students got role-play cards detailing where they’d been at what times in their life and had to work out where and when exactly they’d met everyone else in the room, a task which inevitably forced errors along the lines of Yes, I’ve been in Australia in 1984), then the odds that these errors will essentially involve structural glitches are fairly high. The task creates and forces the mistakes it is designed to focus on. This is its purpose.
There may, of course, be a place for such a focus, though today I feel that the place really ought to be a far smaller one than that which I used to allow to exist. However, to extrapolate out from such experiences and to then believe that mistakes are mostly down to grammar is a fallacy of the highest order, albeit a fallacy I – and many many other teachers – have been suckered by, and that is still (implicitly, perhaps) propagated by The System.
If you want to become more aware of the real issues that students face when attempting to put their slow accumulation of knowledge into practice then a change of tack is needed – as is a focus on tasks which require the production of language outside the narrow confines of what are essentially grammar drills of varying kinds. Of course, one way of doing this is to listen to students as they speak and to pick up on things they struggle with or make mistakes with. This is all well and good and to be encouraged, I think, though I have a residual suspicion that what most teachers actually pick up during freer slots is grammar. This is what we’re most trained to focus on, and the way most of us are still trained to perceive error, and old habits die hard. In addition, of course, in the flow and flux of everyday conversation, with maybe 8 or 9 pairs of students all talking at once in class, it’s hard to notice much at all, let alone to notice it, think of decent ways of reformulating it, note this down somewhere or get it on the board somehow in a way that might later lead to you being able to do something interactive with it! No wonder we fall back into noticing what we’ve already been primed to notice. Even when we break through the filter of grammar and start seeing language in a broader sense, we all still come to the correction / recasting of student speech with our own schema, our own repertoires and bags of tricks that we know we can spin out into something of possible value, and all of this hampers us in our efforts to truly hear clearly and reformulate cogently and thoroughly.
Which brings us to an innovation I picked up from my co-author and colleague, Andrew Walkley. Both of us teach at University of Westminster and we both use the coursebooks we’ve co-authored, OUTCOMES. A few terms back, Andrew started using Vocaroo, about which I’ll say more in a future Talking Tech post, to help students get to grips with the weight of new lexis they encoutered in class. These were students studying 15 hours a week, and at the end of every week we record fifty chunks / collocations onto Vocaroo and send the link to all the students. They then write them down as best they can, like a dictation; we send the original list and students then write examples of how they think they might actually use each item – or hear each being used. These are emailed over and we correct them, comment on them, etc.
On one level, it’s a very sobering experience because words that you felt you’d explained well, given extra examples of, nailed as it were, come back at you half digested, or garbled, or in utterly alien contexts with bizarre co-text. Of course, what’s really going on is the new language is somehow slowly getting welded awkwardly onto the old; meanings in the broadest sense are largely understood, but contexts of use not yet clearly grasped. Grammar mistakes of a far more complex and unwieldy kind than I’ve been to Australia in 1992 rear their ugly heads, mistakes far less amenable to communication games; meanings are expressed clumsily and yet more fluent ways of expressing them are elusive or many, making cogent feedback hard to frame in places.
This should not surprise, of course. The fact that students have encountered new items in class, seen them once or twice or even three times in some kind of context, possibly translated them and more or less grasped their meanings is simply evidence of the fact that they’ve not yet been primed anywhere near sufficiently. For fluent users who’ve grasped new items, there’s been encounter after encounter after encounter, with item and with co-text in context; for learners, this process has only just begun, and as a result the odds of priming from L1 being brought over when it comes to using the new items creatively is very high indeed.
It also tempers the expectation one should have of the power and value of correction. I’m under no illusion that the detailed comments and extensive correction / recasting I carry out on student efforts (see below) will result in correct and fluent use henceforth. Rather, I see my work here simply as further efforts to prime and to draw attention to glitches, misconceptions, perennial misuses and so on; in short, I am merely a condensed and rather more focused part of the priming process.
What else you realise is the sheer futility of trying to explain much error through the filter of grammar. Take the first sentence shown below – The area has been deserted after a huge flooding 3 years ago. What’s a dogged grammar hound to do here? Point out that if we’re using AFTER when talking about something that happened three years ago,m we’d generally use the past simple, so if we want to use the present perfect, it’d be better to use SINCE? If we’re talking about flooding, it’s usually uncountable and thus kill the A? Even if you were to do this, you’d still be left with: The area has been deserted since huge flooding three years ago, which still sounds very stilted and forced. Often, the only real solution to the morass of oddness these sentences throw one into is rather severe reworking, with options sometimes given, questions sometimes asked, and explanations often proffered.
Now, of course, you could very well argue that the task here has created the errors, and to a degree that’d obviously be true. However, the range of issues students have with each item varies immensely depending on L1, how much they read in English, what they’re actually trying to say and so on, so the range of problems is also massively expanded in comparison to what emerges from controlled grammar practice activities!
As well as casting a fairly glaring light onto the complexity of fluent language use and the long convoluted process of attempting to integrate the new with the old, it all also suggests that when we’re teaching new vocabulary, we need to pay more attention and thought to how well we’re priming students. The more we insist on – and write up – single ways or short ungrammaticalised chunks / collocations – the less chance our students have of really coming to terms with the ways in which new items are typically used with previously learned grammar and vocabuklary, or the kinds of (often fairly limited) contexts in which items are used.
Any of you who ever have to deal with student writing as they prepare to do degrees or Master’s in English, where all the kinds of issues seen above are compounded with serious discoursal and structural issues, spelling problems, paragraphing anomalies, and so on will know what I mean when I claim that prevention is infinitely desirable to cure.
And that the medicine needed really isn’t all that much to do with grammar as we know it!
In the early years of my career, I was at one with many in my profession in that I suffered from an insatiable hunger for recipes. I devoured the resource books that were available in the staff rooms of the schools I was teaching in, and spent much of my hard-earned cash on investing in further similar tomes. I rushed through all manner of tricks, techniques, activities and games like a demented fusion food fanatic. The words “And here’s something you might want to try in your class on Monday morning” were music to my ears – and I prided myself on being an innovative, progressive teacher. The only problem was, of course, that I had little – or no – idea as to what all this endless innovation was actually FOR, apart from to pave a road to who knew where, to facilitate what I saw back then as ‘development’, and to ensure my classes were filled with ‘fun stuff’ for my students to do, ideally – as previously stated – stuff that kept students on a potentially endless riff of speaking.
Now, it may seem odd – willfully perverse even – for someone who’s co-authored a series called Innovations to question the value of innovation. After all, there I was just a few weeks back, gratefully quaffing the British Council’s free booze and hobnobbing with the great and the good at the annual ELTONs awards night, wherein the BC “recognises and celebrate innovation in the field of English language teaching”. Wasn’t griping then, was I, eh! Well, it’s not that innovation per se is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that it’s also not necessarily a GOOD thing, despite the way the notion of innovation is almost invariably used to describe positive developments in English – and despite the fact that its dictionary definition is simply ‘a new idea, definition or piece of equipment’. Nevertheless, the fact remains that for many of us the very idea of innovation suggests the thrill of the new and conjures up images such as these:
In classroom reality, though (and of course this is only something that has become clear with the benefit of hindsight), most of my early innovations had far more in common with the kinds of madness depicted below – familiar and yet twisted, entertaining and yet utterly pointless, transitory, fleeting, once tried and soon forgotten.
And I’d dare to venture that the vast majority of recipe-driven teaching out there falls into the same trap, sadly. Method ends up being valued over knowledge of the very thing we’re supposed to be teaching – language! The harsh fact of the matter is that unless it’s rooted in a theoretical view of both language and learning then innovation is simply change for the sake of change and is destined to result in teaching that’s of (often severely) limited practical utility to learners ninety-nine times out of a hundred. There’s an inverse correlation here that’s maybe less discussed too, though, and it’s that once you do have a theory of language and of learning that informs and feeds into your teaching, you will almost inevitably becomes LESS experimental, less driven by the need to find new things to do in class, and perhaps more static, more fixed. Yet out of this solidity can emerge the real wonder of the craft. It’s almost as if the disciplines you impose on your practice create something semi-routinised and thus then allow the mind to pick up on and notice what’s happening on the peripheries: the students’ interlanguage, the content of their output, the problems they encounter with the material they’re using – and the reasons for these problems, etc.
For me as a teacher and – later – as a writer and trainer, the thing that really allowed me to forge forwards and focus my classroom practice clearly and with precision was getting my head round the findings emerging from corpora research that suggested that language was often more fixed than we’d perhaps previously realised, that collocation was a key factor in fluent usage, that grammar and vocabulary existed in a complex intertwining, that co-text was at least as important as situation or context. Later, my ideas of what was important to be doing in the classroom were consolidated and further clarified by grasping the idea that competent usage emerges not – or at least only rarely – from a study of grammar rules and forms and of single words, but rather from having one’s knowledge, whether that be implicit or explicit, expanded via encounters with language in use, each and every one of which prime us to expect language to operate in certain ways again.
Which brings me more or less to where I am today: in a place where I believe that the main job of the language teacher is NOT to search out The Five Main Reasons To Use YouTube In Class or to feel somehow inadequate if you’re unable to recite in order The 12 Ways That Technology Can Enhance Your Teaching, but instead to continue first and foremost to learn and to think about language and the way it works and is used – in order to then be better able to teach students at least some of these insights. Our role is class is primarily to ensure students meet, whether through reading or listening, language that may be of use to them (and we do need to have thought about why – and, indeed, whether – what we’re teaching may be useful), to make sure it’s intelligible to them (explaining and exemplifying where necessary), to help them notice salient features of whatever language it is that comes up and to then ensure they use it in some way – and get to revise as much of it as possible at a later date as possible.
Of course, you can do all of these things and still try out new techniques and technologies.
But at the same time, you really don’t have to.
And if you don’t, you may well still be an excellent teacher who gets good results from their students.
Maybe this seems obvious to you. If so, it may simply be because the very fact that you’re hearing reading yet another post on my blog means you are by definition one of the converted. I’m preaching to the choir, as our American cousins would have it.
However, it may also be the case that by now you’re actually feeling guilty about the irrepressible desire you still harbour yourself for recipes. You may be starting to question where that thirst leads you and what function it serves. You may even be asking if the uses you’re making of your precious and limited free time are actually the best if you’re seeking to really facilitate advancement.
My suspicion remains that many teachers – though, of course perhaps not those that find their way here – will fall into the latter camp quite simply because so little emphasis is placed on language development in TD circles. When was the last time you saw a conference talk or a journal paper that focused primarily on language, and in particular on language as seen from the point of view of a language teacher having to deal with the kinds of questions language students ask as they process and digest what they’re given? Never could well be a safe wager!
Why bother with such deeply unfashionable notions when there are new gimmicks to flog, new hoops to get teachers to jump through, and new recipes to fill yet more ELT cookbooks up with?
To say that the CTEFLA that was my gateway into the world of English Language Teaching encouraged me to be output-focused would be an understatement. Like many teachers who’ve come through the British ELT system, with its roots firmly in that bare minimum of twenty days of training, and teaching practice from day two of your course, I had bred into me a deep fear of Teacher Talking Time (I can’t be the only one, for example, that was intimidated with lunatic Mathematics along the lines of ‘70% of the talk time should be theirs, leaving you with only 30%!’). This quite naturally engendered a desire to ensure that my students were kept talking at any cost. Indeed, so desperate was I to ensure that I managed to keep my students talking that for at least a year early on, this particular tome was my Bible:
It’s basically a recipe book full of activities designed to do what it says on the tin – keep student talking – and until tonight, I’d not looked at if for at least fifteen years. However, dusting my dog-eared copy down from the shelves, I see that I’ve highlighted several old favourites. There’s the aptly named MAD DISCUSSION for starters, which I believe I used to know as pizza or Paris, and which involves splitting the class into two teams, asking one member from each team to come forward and then have them talk about why their topic – picked at random from a bag – is better than that of their opponent. Pizzas or Paris, plastic spoons or zips, the wheel or detective novels, and so on. Then there was MAGIC SHOP, which involved each student getting three slips of paper, every one containing a different positive human quality (honesty, health, humility, adaptability, and so on). Students decide which qualities to keep and which to barter with others. They then get ten minutes’ bartering time before reporting back on which qualities they’ve ended up with and how happy this has made them! I could go on, but the urge to invent a time machine and go back and inflict serious damage on my younger self would start to become overwhelming.
Now, given the fact that a four-week course is never going to teach even the most remarkable trainee to really be able to do anything other than fake it, I suspect that much of the reason behind the relentless emphasis on STUDENT talking time is simply a fear that the novice teacher will start spouting rubbish given half a chance. I know for sure that I did, repeatedly, and I’ve seen plenty of other young teachers do the same, if not worse!
Instead, far better, the logic runs, to train the teacher to be some kind of all-singing, all-dancing entertainer who can magic fun out of anything available and who may not know much about language, but who sure knows how to get the party started. And once it starts ebbing, how to rekindle it and keep it burning all lesson long!
However, in reality, the fact that novices may well spout nonsense is actually an argument for introducing longer, more comprehensive and more language-focused teacher training courses for those entering the profession, or – at the very minimum – an argument for more serious discussion of what KINDS of teacher talk may be valid and what be more problematic, and why – rather than an argument in favour of endless activities and talking for its own sake.
Another argument put forward in support of an output-dominated pedagogy is the notion that if not here, then where? In other words, if students don’t practise in class, then where will they ever get the chance to do so? Interestingly, even more recent critiques of the state of affairs we’ve gotten ourselves into such as the Demand High idea propagated by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill still seems more focused on methodology and on what we as teachers can do in terms of classroom techniques to encourage our students to produce more and to stretch and expand their output.
The result has long been, continues to be and sadly will probably continue to be, for as long as CELTAs are still regarded as serious gateways into the profession, classrooms full of clowns with their bags of tricks, recipes, fun in large neon lights, and loads of hot air. Signifying very little indeed.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way at all, you know! It took me a while to work this out, but once I did, the blinding obviousness of the revelation almost . . . um . . . well, blinded me, I suppose. Anyway, here’s the secret. It’s this: students don’t actually learn language by chatting away using the language they already have, now matter how much fun they may have in the process. They actually learn language from language. Not images. Not blank spaces in coursebooks left in to lighten the visual load on a page. Not from running round the classroom in a frenzy. But from language.
Whilst it’s possible that some of the interaction students engage in with other students during a lesson may expose them to new input or encourage them to produce for themselves things that had hitherto remained stuck in the receptive parts of the brain, we need to accept that it also may NOT. This isn’t to say that there are no good reasons for still doing pair work: there are obviously plenty. It’s simply to state that linguistic development and enrichment are NOT among the activity’s prime functions!
To really get over the Intermediate hump and to progress anywhere near to Advanced level, students not only to practise again saying what they’ve already learned to say. They need to take on board large amounts – huge amounts even – of new language. They need to tighten up on their ability to use grammar, sure, but basically they need a ton of lexis: collocations, chunks, fixed and semi-fixed expressions, and so on. They need to meet these things repeatedly, they need to have certain salient features of them brought to their attention somehow and they need to do something – possibly, actually, they need to do almost anything – with them. Given that the teacher alone cannot be expected – or, of course, in most cases (my own included, I hasten to add!) be trusted – to provide sufficient relevant input themselves, via correction and teacher talk, then the issue of INPUT becomes perhaps the most pressing one that teachers have to think about.
Given that we seem to be living through the days of increasingly shrill rhetoric about flipped classrooms and that we’re constantly being told that technology now facilities exposure to English 24-7-365, many might argue that now more than ever the classroom should be output focused, but I would turn this on its head – or flip it, if you prefer (see what I did there!) – and ask if not in class, then where – and, more crucially, when?! The fact remains that for the vast majority of students, class is the one place where they have a hope of getting input pitched roughly at their level, which can then be mediated, explained, expanded upon, explored and revised by a professional – that’s us, kids – and that’s because most students who wind up in EFL classes, especially those who come as adults, are essentially failures in varying degrees. The lucky few, those who can learn a foreign language via interaction, are skipping class in favour of going out there and learning language through interaction! The rest of us miserable wretches all know what we ought to do if we really want to learn a foreign language well, but Lord knows that doing right is the hardest work there is on God’s own earth – and that it ain’t nowhere near as much fun as doing wrong.
If you’re honest, you know that most students don’t do much outside of class to push on from where they’re at. They do what we all do – take easy options and short cuts. They may well do some interactive stuff online, which is fine, but it’s not tackling new input; they may well try and tackle some insanely optimistically graded text of some kind – The Guardian, perhaps, or a two-hour movie that contains accents and language even native-speakers may well struggle with in places; but what all but the most motivated and focused few won’t do is read graded readers, do an hour (or even half an hour) a day from decent self-study vocabulary books, and so on. It’s too much like hard work.
And the fact that we not only have such an expression in English, but that it’s such common currency says much about the age in which we live, I fear!
Anyway, to wrap up for tonight, this is where the choice of material becomes crucial. Material we select for classroom use needs to take the weight of all these issues on its shoulders. It needs to amuse and entertain, for sure, but also it needs to push and stretch as well. On top of that, it needs to guide and shape awareness both of how language works and also of what needs to be done to get to the next rung on the ladder of linguistic competence. It needs, in short, to demand more of its users. And if we as teachers are serious about demanding high, then making sure our classes are focused first and foremost on input rather than output is not simply an option, but a must.
A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to go to Seville to talk at the wonderful annual Spain TESOL conference. Outside of fretting about my own presentation and trying to ensure I deliver it as best I can, and away from the obligatory intensive socializing, my usual approach to conferences is to try to see a mixture of the big-name presenters and the plenaries (partly to keep an eye on what could reasonably be termed The Competition, partly because these large sessions are generally seen by most conference goers, and thus provide talking points as you chat to folk you’ve not met before) balanced out by rather more left-field kinds of things. When you’ve been going to conferences for a number of years, it’s easy to feel that you’ve heard it all before, so it’s always a pleasure and privilege to stumble upon something that pushes you, enlightens you, informs you, adds to where you’re at already or simply manages to entertain whilst also being highly informative. In all honesty, these days I feel lucky if I see two or three things per conference that really hit the spot for me.
Anyway, one of the talks I caught in 2011 was on Second Language Acquisition and its possible implications for ELT. It was delivered by a guy called Geoff Jordan, who’s I’m delighted to announce is now the second guest poster I’ve had here. Geoff has lived in Spain since 1981, working at ESADE, Barcelona for 28 years, first as a language teacher and then as Director of Studies. Since 2004, he’s been freelance, doing English immersion courses from home, working with post-doctoral students at the Universitat Politecnica de Barcelona and on the Distance Learning MA in AL and TESOL programme at Leicester University. Geoff also has his own blog, aimed particularly at those doing postgraduate work in Applied Linguistics, but surely of interest to anyone involved in teaching EFL.
I’ll say a bit about why this particular struck with me by and by, but now without further ado, I’ll let Geoff talk for himself!
There you go.
Hope you enjoyed that and found something of interest within.
If nothing else, it should’ve sent you reaching for a scrap of paper and had you jotting down bits and bobs to now go away and read!
From my point of view, firstly, it’s always good to see people who’ve clearly read a lot more than you have. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m first and foremost a teacher; secondly a writer and thirdly a trainer. Whatever else I may be, an academic is not one of those things! I try to stay as informed as I can manage, but there are only so many hours in the day, which is why it’s great that there are people like Geoff out there who are able to distill a lot of reading and thinking into a fairly viewer-friendly / teacher-friendly kind of format. On top of all that, of course, it’s also always good to see something overtly theoretical that chimes with your own beliefs and practice. Here are just a few random thoughts I had whilst watching the presentation again this time around:
– I love the driving analogy. It’s a simile I’ve used myself before and I feel that there are many many similarities between learning to drive and learning to use a foreign language. In both, we have to internalize, proceduralize and then automatize before we can trundle along with any degree of comfort or competence. The role of the tutor in encouraging automaticity is one I’ve touched on several times before.
– Then notion that interlanguage doesn’t simply emerge – or at the very least doesn’t fully flower into something more recognisable as fluent use of the second language – of its own accord is one we would all do well to bear in mind. Interlanguage needs regular honing and restructuring if it is to be polished into something less odd or singular and more in keeping with mainstream use.
– The example of What’re you going to have? being learned and used competently as a chunk before being broken down and analysed, and then eventually,after some stumbling and falling and backsliding, being reconstructed in a range of different ways chimes very much with the idea of teaching grammar as lexis at low levels. The traditional idea has always been that you learn the parts first and build up to the whole but very clearly you can learn the whole first – or maybe it’s more accurate to say A whole first – and out of this, then learn how to build further similar examples.
– The idea that the door on anything approaching native-like SLA closes very young – around 14 – and that adults thus end up using entrenched L1 processing habits is very much what I was getting at in a recent post here. What seems to counter this entrenchment is not simply further exposure and comprehensible input, as Krashen once posited, but knowledge being made explicit, formal tuition, which can then feed back into improved acquisition away from formal instruction.
I could go on, but I don’t ant to steal Geoff’s thunder.
Instead, I’ll simply throw things over to you now and leave it up to readers to comment on what most struck you about the talk, what you agree with, what you’re unsure of, anything you vehemently object to, and so on.