Rethinking grammar

It’s been way too long since I managed to post anything here. The last few weeks have come and gone in a bit of a blur: new writing projects, a new term at work, a plenary at the wonderful Poland IATEFL conference and so on. Anyway, yesterday my co-author and partner in crime Andrew Walkley and I gave a talk at University of Westminster, where we both work. The talk was part of our ongoing series of Teacher Development talks and was entitled RETHINKING GRAMMAR.

Rather than write about it, I decided to make a video of the Powerpoint and narrate the thing more or less as we did it last night.

Hope you enjoy it and look forward to reading your thoughts and comments.

19 responses

    1. Thanks for sharing it Paul.
      Glad you enjoyed it sufficiently!

  1. Reblogged this on robert adams and commented:
    The lexical approach to grammar is the way forward for me and my students. In Poland it is proving quite difficult to change the students’ way of thinking from their need to have rules written on the board to accepting that grammar isn’t just a set of rules but is a part of the language used. Wish me luck !!!!

    1. Hi Robert –
      Thanks for reblogging it and spreading the word!

      I hear you loud and clear on how hard it can sometimes be to wean students off what they think they need and to persuade them that maybe another (more example / context driven) approach may actually be more beneficial, but I think that switch from teachers seeing the main source of their authority as lying in their ability to lecture on grammar and to show grammar forms and meanings to it lying on their ability to show language as it’s generally used is potentially a very powerful one!

      It’s also a shift in perspective that maybe students are keener for than you might think. We recently got an amazing message through facebook from a young Polish student who’d been using Innovations Advanced. here’s some of what she said:

      HI there –
      I’m sorry to be a drag, but I just wanted to say THANK YOU for the “Innovations”.

      I’m an 18-year-old student from Poland and I have already completed two language summer courses in Embassy CES, London.

      I won’t go into the whole story, but basically I’d been filling in the gaps with Present Perfect Simple and Present Perfect Continuous for nine years. Not only did I see no progress, but my language abilities even plummeted. It was a real blow as my folks splashed out on many language courses. The school lessons were just deadly dull and my teacher just kept rambling on and on about grammar. It was a complete and utter waste of time, to tell the truth. I had it up to here with this lot and it really made my blood boil until I came to London there and then and out of the blue get to know about the CHUNKS. I hadn’t had the foggiest idea about them. This course was my ticket out of the limited way of thinking I’d had so far. I just got hammered with them during the classes and I’m really chuffed to bits because of that now. At the moment the language seems to be so cut and dried.

      If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have got the gist of understanding language and I still don’t know a lot and I’m fully aware of that fact.

      There you go.
      If that’s not sufficient encouragement to plough on, I don’t know what is!

      Let me know how you get on and if there’s anything I can help with or advise on, OK?

    2. One other thought I woke up with Robert . . . none of what I’m saying explicitly refutes sometimes looking at forms and meanings in the traditional way that students might expect. Not necessarily saying it’s a good idea to write RULES on the board, especially as they’re usually in the book students are using anyway, and the board can be more usefully be used to record extra common examples instead. All I mean is there clearly IS a place for such things, particularly early on in students’ language learning, but that place cannot be centre stage and teachers need to bear in mind the fact that once students have seen the rules and studied the form, then that’s done and they’ll need NOT more of the same, but rather something else to put them on to greater fluency.

      I can’t remember if it’s mentioned in the talk or not, but simply knowing that the present continuous is I am, You are, he/She is . . . + -ing and that it’s used to talk about temporary actions, actions started but not yet finished, will NEVER allow students to say things like:

      He’s always trying to undermine my authority.
      It’s bucketing down outside.
      Prices are soaring all across the Asian markets.
      You’re having a laugh!

      and so on.

      That kind of production can only come from loads of input and loads of noticing of structures in action, in different contexts, interacting with lexis.

      1. Hi Hugh,
        Have paid considerable thought to this issue that we seem to have with Polish students and have had some great response from my students and fellow teachers regarding my new way of thinking. I am running a couple of workshops at Accent this weekend focusing on scaffolding lexis and bridging the gap between rules and lexis in teaching and revising grammar. wish me luck 🙂

      2. Hi Rob –
        Lovely to hear this has proved such food for thought for you.
        Would love to hear more about what you do in the workshops.
        Also hoping that I get to come out to Accent sometime next year to do some more work with your teachers there!

  2. I thought it was an excellent talk, one of the best ELT lectures I’d seen (I was the guy that asked about implications for teacher training at the end) and will be recommending this post highly!

    1. Hi Jon –
      Well, that’s very kind of you to say.
      Makes it all worthwhile.

      As Andrew said, there are clearly quite profound implications for teacher training (and possibly even more for teacher development!). At the crux of things though is a basic belief that what will really make you a better teacher is NOT more games, more tricks, more recipes, but instead a better understanding of what it is you’re actually employed to teach: language!

      1. Hello Hugh,

        What an apt comment about teachers being employed to teach English language and not new games and tricks. I initially taught mainstream English but then taught EFL for around three years before opting to give private lessons again. Whilst teaching EFL I met some really amazing students and would like to think that I helped them to overcome their fear of speaking English and also set them on the right track towards becoming more fluent.

        However, I left TEFL because I really wanted to teach and to see my students progress and I wanted to feel that sense of satisfaction at the end of the year when exam results are published. I was fed up of being expected to waste my time and energy on silly games or being an agony aunt etc…..and particularly upset that I came in for a lot of criticism (at one particular leading local EFL school) that I corrected pronunciation, got students to read (from Innovations!!!) short paragraphs and sentences out loud etc….. I am not sure whether you have ever done any workshops/presentations re. the above but should you get to Malta next year, this might be a topic you may wish to consider. I say this because locally there seems to be this misconception that teaching English to foreigners should be tackled in an entirely different manner to “Normal” teaching. Ironically, my EFL students would gaze out of our classroom window and ask me what was going on in the adjoining class and when asked point blank whether they would like to do something similar, none of them wanted to. I think games are fine for young children and possibly teenagers but teachers need to realize that this approach does NOT go down well with mature students.

        In my opinion there is no wrong or right way to teach. We all have our own individual styles and ultimately the results speak for themselves. I think that all this negativity towards different teaching approaches needs to be addressed. Moreover, having taught mainstream, EFL and also children with learning problems such as dyslexia, I honestly don’t see any real difference between the three……..At the end of the day one is still teaching English!

  3. I love your down-to-earth and practical approach to teaching English language. I agree with you entirely that native speakers pick up whole phrases/collocations/colligations and that vocabulary is a far greater problem than grammar. Wonderful to come across someone who thinks that there is more to teaching English than grammar and who is prepared to challenge the Establishment. Unfortunately, here in Malta the norm is that children spend far too much time on grammar and working through Murphy (although I must admit that I do use this book as a reference book or to explain one or two grammar points). As you so rightly said, many teachers just don’t know any better and I consider myself lucky that I was actually taught by enlightened teachers….or perhaps there was a different approach to teaching English in the seventies when I was a child? I remember using a book called “Discovering English” at secondary level and this book seemed to have a bit of everything in it but don’t remember doing all the exercises they do these days. I must say that when I taught EFL, I loved using the Innovations series because it wasn’t just about grammar and I was always able to start a good discussion having read one of the texts. Although I no longer teach EFL, I often use material from your Outcomes series (Advanced and Upper Intermediate Workbooks).

    Hoping to see you at the 3rd Malta EFL Conference in October (?) 2014!

    1. Hi Anna –
      Thanks for finding me here. Lovely to have folk from Malta on board, as it’s a place I’ve always massively enjoyed visiting and working in.

      To respond to a few bits and bobs in your comments: firstly, I think it’s not only natives that pick up whole phrases, collocations and colligations. Clearly, fluent non-natives do too, or else there’s no way they’d ever be able to use the language to such a high degree. In fact, I’d argue that it’s this ability – to notice and start picking up these kinds of items – that ultimately decides whether students move off the (Upper) Intermediate plateau or not.

      Secondly, I think you’re right and that in ELT terms there was window of opportunity and possibility in the mid-to-late 70s, and that this window soon got slammed shut, initially by the runaway success of Headway and English Grammar In Use (the combined use of which essentially laid down a blueprint for much English teaching around the world after the mid-80s) and then by the successive generation of atomistic, grammar-driven mini-mes that have followed in the wake of this success. That brief window did very much represent another way of thinking about how language might work and an attempt to start working out some of the implications of how notions and functions and so on might be realised in classroom material. I’ve probably said it before elsewhere, but the Leo Jones CUP books from this era were a huge influence on me when I started out writing what went on to become INNOVATIONS.

      Still, (and to use a pattern described in this talk!) just because a window has been shut it doesn’t mean it can never be opened again!

      Glad you’ve enjoyed using our books over the years and yes, I’d LOVE to be able to come over to Malta again next year for the conference. I must remember to contact Daniel Xerri and see if that might be possible!

      Cheers for now

  4. Hi Guys, I consider myself lucky having you both as teachers/ mentors. I have been studying English since I was seven and I had different kind of teachers different approaches towards learning and teaching English.
    Using a more´holistic´approach towards language, grammar, words and context, treating English as a language spoke by many (Lingua Franca) with all the tips you gave me during the training at Westminster University and the lectures and letters you post on your blog have proven to be a great asset and in the majority of the cases my students and I are achieving great results here in Brazil, a big ´THANK YOU´, great lecture 🙂

    1. Ooops!!! spoken 🙂

    2. Hi Crislei –
      Thanks for the kinds words. In all honesty, we were lucky to have such great students the year we ran that course, and you should make sure you’re giving yourself the lion’s share of the credit for whatever successes your students may now be having. As with all this things, we just did the teaching, whereas you did the hard bit – the learning.

      Anyway, really good to know that things are going well for you and that you’re noticing your students benefiting from your insights into how language works.

      Keep up the good work.

  5. I agree with your points. In my country, grammar is taught in isolation. That’s why many students hate grammar. It should be in context. I do a lot of grammar games and use authentic materials to see that grammar is part of language.

    1. Hi there Justin –
      Thanks for your comment.
      Where are you teaching?

      I think there are actually several reasons why many students end up with a deep hatred and fear of grammar: it’s often used as the source of the teacher’s authority in class, and students are kept in their place, as it were, with lengthy explanations, none of which really help them USE the grammar better; the study of grammar is often very analytical, which appeals to a certain kind of student, for sure, but does nothing for the majority of students who simply want English as a useful tool, in the same way as they learn to drive without necessarily understanding everything about the mechanics of the vehicle. They also study grammar in isolation for hours, weeks, years even – as you said – without seeing a real boost in their communicative competence. Grammar doesn’t exist in isolation and to try to teach that way is to not only distort the true nature of how language is used, but also to deny students access to more realistic ways of putting different structures together to achieve particular communicative aims.

      Anyway, I’d be interested to hear more about your own context and how you’ve tried to combat things.

  6. Wow! It’s a brilliant presentation! I’ve been wanting to watch it for nearly two months and now at last I’ve found some free time. That was really really great! I enjoyed every minute of it! Thanks a lot!

    1. Hi Tatiana –
      Really glad you managed to find time to watch this – and pleased too, of course, that you felt it was worth it!
      Makes it all worthwhile to know people are finding all this stuff useful.

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