Sunday, February 22, 2009

Too Soon Success?

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

In an article by Jeanette Corbett, What is Grammar and How Should We Teach It?, there is one point in particular that stopped me dead in my tracks.

It states that “success happens too soon” for students using strictly communicative language learning techniques (from reading the article you can deduce this refers to no explicit grammar instruction at all in a 100% task-based/situation-based learning environment). By this the author means that once students are able to get a point across with some degree of comprehensibility on the part of the listener, the student is less motivated to learn and correct his or her grammar, and in fact, “…any subsequent language input appears secondary and unnecessary to the learner, as they have already communicated their message” (Corbett p. 1).

Wow! How true is that for those of us teaching in English speaking countries? Many immigrants don’t have the chance to take formal English lessons until they have been in the new country for several years, meanwhile learning English “off the street.” Or sometimes students have attended conversation based classes that focus on fluency and have rarely or never had their grammar corrected. These students are the most challenging to me because of, ironically, their success as English language users! When they get to a place in their lives when they register for formal classes, it is very hard for an instructor to “undo” what has worked all right for the student over the years.

Naturally, we may question whether we really want to or need to “undo” anything at all. After all, we can understand the meaning of “I going now” or “I no like this” or “You want?”, so if the learners are getting their needs met using this level of English, who are we teachers to tell them they are wrong?

The key here, I believe, is the condition “getting their needs met.” If everything was peachy for the students, they wouldn’t now be sitting in our classes. Clearly they recognize something is lacking in their self-learned or wholly communicative approach. This dawning may come after not getting a promotion at work, or not being able to get a better, non-physical job. Or perhaps the learner’s child needs more from the parent in the English speaking world than the parent can currently provide.

However, just because these students are now in our classroom doesn’t mean they truly believe they need to be there. Some students may feel vaguely insulted and defensive like their success hasn’t been recognized, and after all, their English has served them well so far, so the problem must be with their instructor, their boss, or the English speakers they need to interact with- you know the kind of student that elicits this exchange:

Student: My son has twenty years.
Teacher: Oh, your son is twenty years old?
Student: That’s what I say. (slight roll of eyes) My son he has twenty years.

In my experience, to help these students rev up a burning desire to improve, I need to rather directly demonstrate to them how far their actual speech is from the English required to get to the next level in their lives. Including direct grammar instruction in my lessons – with rules, drills, and guided practice – has given me modest success with many fossilized adult learners.

Maybe this sounds a little harsh, but direct grammar instruction shows the students what they don’t know, and this bit of cold water in the face proves to them they are not wasting their time in class, that there is indeed room for improvement. Combined with recording or transcribing students so they can hear themselves, direct grammar instruction gives the students tangible structure and schema on which to base and note their progress – unlike when they learned “from the street” or in a strictly communicative setting.

And while it can be a challenge to loosen up the fossilized language mechanisms of these learners, it is a great advantage to have at least one in every class. Because of their heightened fluency, they can be counted on to explain new vocabulary to others and generally to get any discussion off to a great start!

Comments

Comment from Tamara
March 3, 2009 at 8:59 am

This posting came at an interesting time for me! Not a week before, I had a conversation with a Japanese student who had married an American years ago. Her English is fluent but packed with grammar errors. Both she and I appreciated the new take on the reason for her fossilization. We’ll keep working on it! Thanks!

Comment from Naleeni Das
August 5, 2010 at 11:17 pm

This is validation for what I work on and believe in.

Thank you!

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