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!