Monday, March 30, 2009

If Not Mastery, What?

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

I am often confounded by how much time to spend in class on a grammar point. My early training taught me to focus as much time as needed for students to get it–”get it” meaning being able to call up and meaningfully use the structure in free production. However, from further study, different books and papers I have read, and from lectures from instructors and researchers far more knowledgeable than I, it seems most experts in the field agree that students don’t “master” a grammar point at the time it is presented but rather in their own time.
Yet even if the students are able to use the structure fairly well in class by the third lesson, that doesn’t mean they use it error-free for the rest of their lives. We’ve all had advanced students write or speak lower level mistakes. Does this imply that if the majority of my students are able to form and use a grammar structure at the end of three lessons, that I shouldn’t waste my time spending four or five lessons on it? After all, we are on a fixed semester and have a curriculum to cover.

Clearly the structure won’t become automatic after three hours, nor is it likely to after five hours. If my goal can not be mastery (that is, repeated and automatic production of a grammar point without delay from obvious monitoring), what is my new goal? When is good enough. . . good enough?

I don’t buy the argument that learners will never be error-free. I’ve had non-native speaking professors who conducted classes for hours without a single spoken error and we know famous personalities who speak accented, yet grammatically perfect English. So I’m not talking about giving up my early dreams of student “mastery” because it is unattainable. It is, however, very impractical.

Life’s reality is that students don’t have unlimited time to reach the level of English they need for a goal--a job, college entry, grad school, whatever. As a result, instructors perform a kind of linguistic triage, deciding either at the classroom or the program level, what grammar to teach when. But surely we have to rely on more than a calendar to help us decide when it is time to move on to a new grammar point in the class, leaving behind one that may get a bit of recycling over the remainder of the semester.

Curriculum, assessment, objectives. Objectives, curriculum, assessment. It’s not as smooth as the teacher training books imply. There’s a lot of egg-chicken-egg going on. But since I have relinquished mastery as my goal, I remain stumped at how to define success. Is passing a test going to become the end goal of my course? Or perhaps increased awareness of grammar? Or maybe the ability to produce structures in class under guidance? How will I know if my students have been successful in my class?

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