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!

10 responses

  1. Reading your first paragraph I picture myself. Thank you for sharing!

    1. You’re welcome Beth.
      Glad you enjoyed it.

      I suspect there are many many other teachers out there who may well see a bit of themselves – or of their former selves (!) – in that opening paragraph as well.

  2. Thanks for a well-considered post.

    It seems the key to priming is exposure and usage in a range of contexts. The sequence of exposure, noticing activities, experimentation and form focus looks sound. What do the students do with the feedback you give them (the explanations, extensions, reformulations, questions)?

    1. Hi Derek –
      Yeah, I think you’re basically right.
      The key to priming seems to be a hell of a lot of exposure – and of course the classroom (and classroom materials) can shortcut that process to a degree, by intensifying input that’s specially selected for learners and by providing extra examples of new items.
      Teachers can also obviously help students notice better, which not only helps them get to grips with the particular items in hand, but also – theoretically, at least – then helps them notice better outside of class as well.

      As to what the students do once they get the feedback, well it depends.
      At the very minimum, they read it and hopefully at least ponder it to some degree.
      The feedback also hopefully further primes them, as I said.

      What we actually encourage them to do is to then rewrite the sentences ‘correctly’ and / or to record the ‘corrected’ versions.
      Once they have the recordings, they can download the soundfile onto their phones or whatever, and listen to their great examples on the way in to class, etc.

      All of which sounds ideal, but in reality only 1 or 2 students out of maybe 16-18 ever really bother doing this.
      And even they often lapse after one or two weeks!

  3. More good, sensible advice, Hugh, and more evidence of your “faith” in the need for lots of input. Very often, correction has more face value than practical value, and exactly how correction is done depends so much on local conditions that I think it’s difficult to do more than give general advice and leave the actual practice up to the judgement of the teacher.

    It does seem from research findings that, for oral tasks, negative feedback (specially re-casts) during the performance of some more or less communicative activity work best, Written feedback seems to be best as part of a process writing approach where students are encouraged to develop a text and where “errors” in grammar, vocab., plus issues of coherence and cohesion are dealt with fairly late in the process, after essential questions of “What do you want to say?” have been sorted out.

    When I did immersion courses here at our country house (sorry, I mean our modest house in the country!) I used to take notes through the day and ask the student (always only 1) not to take any notes. I’d get up early and write up all the notes I’d taken – the majority of which were to do with things other than grammar. After breakfast, the first session was always feedback on the previous day, when we’d go through my notes. We’d look at when she / he got stuck, during a task, vocab. that had come up, problems with comprehension that came up, etc.. At the end of the course, I’d send the student a .doc file with all my notes – sometimes 40 pages -and suggestions on how to work through them and how to build on what we’d done. The student would send me various bits of writing based on the notes. Again, I don’t know how much good all this did (I think the real trick was just working hard in a 100% hermetically-sealed English environment for 5 days), but it had very high face value and I THINK it did some good!

    1. Hi again Geoff –
      Thanks once more for taking the time to read and comment.
      Always appreciated.

      Correction clearly encompasses a very broad spectrum of activities and is also obviously dependent on many factors such as number of students you’ve got, time you have available / are paid to correct work in, theory of language the teacher holds, whether implicit or explicit, and so on.

      In my particular instance, I’m kind of lucky in that even though using technology is supposedly inherently motivating, doing more than just listening to the original dictations I sent is not something most of the class actually end up doing, and so the number of students whose work I have to mark is never more than around 25% of any given class, so maybe 3 or 4 per week of something like what I’ve shown above, where they’re writing 50 examples.

      Clearly, as I said, the way a teacher think about language will affect the way they correct and if a teacher basically approaches things thinking that really what they should be looking for is grammar errors, the correction may well be skimpy and may well also not really tackle to core issues for many of the kinds of sentences shown.

      Process writing with correction built in near the end of the cycles – presumably with the idea that student writers will then incorporate this advice into subsequent drafts – is all well and good, but in my experience simply unrealistic as hardly any students ever actually do second let alone third drafts. Given how few of my students – and let’s not forget, these are students studying full-time in the UK who often have real-world extrinsic needs for English, and so should theoretically be super motivated – even bother to get to the stage shown above, it doesn’t take a researcher to guesstimate what percentage would then be up for further work on their writing.

      I enjoyed reading the way you handled immersive one-to-one classes. In essence, it sounds fairly similar to the way I’m dealing with these students’ output, I think.

  4. Hi Hugh,

    When I was teaching in ESADE, there was 1 teacher who insisted that all his students read at least 100 pages a week of an English literature text (usually novels, but also George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia”; Sitwell’s Eccentric Victorians; even poetry anthologies. Depending on the level, he gave them lots of options and, as a class, they voted for 1 of them, and then the next, and so on. In the space of a 100 hour course, all his students were thus required to read at least 8 books. And 90% of them did it because he was so passionate about it and so persuasive of its benefits , and peer pressure and the rest of it. They said “I don’t read in my own language”, he said “That gives you more time to read in English”. They said “I haven’t got time”, he said “I promise you it’s worth it – find time”. He was almost unique; most teachers said what you say above about asking students to write: “it’s just not realistic”. Well he made it “realistic”; he got them convinced of the worth of massive extensive reading and they did it.

    The same goes for process writing, about which, as a teacher, I was passionate and convinced of its value. I have Zamel to thank for this. She did a 2 week workshop with us in the 90s and it REALLY impressed me. When I was teaching, process writing was part of my syllabus for every class I had: I made time for it in class and the vast majority of my students did lots of writing outside class in order to participate in the related class activities, where they would get into groups and discuss what they were writing. Just about everybody enjoyed these sessions and saw the value of them, and I dare to say that it was because they trusted me.

    You say ” it doesn’t take a researcher to guesstimate what percentage would then be up for further work on their writing” and you thus contribute to a self-fulfilling prophesy, like the one my friend Gerry, the one who believed in the practical utility of massive extensive reading, refused to accept and exploded. We teachers can do lots of great stuff and we can can persuade our students to follow us, just so long as they believe in us, and we believe in the value of what we’re asking them to do.

    1. I guess, Geoff, we all need reminding of how the years can jade us!

      I actually found this post surprisingly uplifting and inspiring, albeit in a slightly American carpe diem / Robin Williams sort of way!

      You are, of course, quite right to insist that if we believe something is possible, then we can make it so. personally, I’m more convinced of the value of extensive reading than I am of process writing, so maybe what I’ll take away from this little exchange is that I could still do more to get my students to read and that whilst there’s a comfort and consolation in explanations for failure, it doesn’t hurt to aim that little bit higher.

      So thanks for that.

  5. Thank you!
    I love reading your posts and insights.
    In all of my classes now there seems to be a little Hugh Dellar sitting on my shoulder talking into my ear saying “do it this way” .. Etc
    I love it. The students love it, but I do find that they LOVE the grammar focus. It is a little hard to bring them round at first.

    You are an inspiration.

    Thanks again

    1. Hi Paul –
      Thanks for the kind words.#the image of a mini-me that lurks on shoulders is slightly disturbing me, though. I envisage a small Gollum-like figure of some malignancy!

      You’re right about students loving and thinking they need grammar, in general, but what good doctor allows the patients to self-diagnose. The trick is giving them what they didn’t know they wanted in such a way that no tears are spilled and a greatter understanding of the real nature of language is engendered!

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