Friday, April 3, 2009

The Final -S Problem: Does Teaching Grammar Help? Students Still Make Mistakes

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I’d like to explain what I call “The Final -S Problem.” For a lot of teachers, it goes like this: “I teach my students when to use a final -s, and they can do it fine in a controlled exercise, but then when they talk or write freely, they go and make final -s errors!” Whereupon the teacher throws up his or her hands in despair and determines that teaching grammar does no good because there is no immediate transfer to internalized language.

It seems to me that those who would expect immediate mastery of grammar patterns perhaps confuse teaching language with teaching arithmetic — though, even in arithmetic, students get to make repeated mistakes without all arithmetic teaching judged to be ineffectual.

What gets missed in this equation is that grammar teaching provides a foundation for processing, for conceptual understandings of how a language works, and for developing skills — sort of the way music lessons provide a foundation for learning to play the piano. Learning a second language is far more similar to learning to play a musical instrument than it is to learning arithmetic.

In learning to play the piano, certain students — especially adults who are literate and educated — find cognitive understandings of concepts such as musical key and notation helpful to the process, despite the fact that no amount of cognitive awareness is going to make anyone able to play the piano immediately upon being given abstract information about it. Can you learn to play the piano without cognitive knowledge of musical form? Yes. But is such awareness helpful for many adult students, and does it speed the process for them? Yes, indeed.

“The Final -S Problem” is a metaphor representing the idea that students learn grammar rules and practice them, but then make mistakes using these rules in their output.

Here are the questions I ask myself about “The Final -S Problem,” and my answers.

Q: Is it harmful for students to know when a final -s is supposed to be used?
A: That seems highly doubtful.

Q: Do students want to use final -s correctly? Do they care?
A: In my experience, yes.

Q: Is grammar information about the use of final -s helpful to students?
A: Yes. On a practical level, it helps students self-monitor, understand marked errors in their writing, catch a recast (students with a grounding in grammar often show that they “get” a recast with a look that says, “Ah, right.”), use a writing handbook, and make sense of dictionary notations such as mosquito, n., pl. –toes, –tos. More importantly, attention to final -s raises students’ awareness, making them more likely to notice it in what they hear and read.

Q: Are grammar concepts such as singular and plural useful?
A: From my observations both as a language teacher and a language student, yes. If I were to undertake learning Urdu, I know that I would like to understand how singular and plural are marked. And I also know that I’d like to be able to find that explicit information without having to figure it out completely by myself.

Q: Does information about using final -s help students reach fluency and accuracy in its usage?
A: In my experience, ESL students in my freshman English class who had spent four years at an American high school with no grammar component and with fossilized ungrammaticality underperformed (in accuracy within fluency, as well as rhetorical skill in writing and ability to comprehend academic English in readings) compared with students who had had a grammar component in their home countries (as well as in our IEP prior to their enrolling in freshman English). So, in my observation, the answer to the question is yes.

Q: Are there longitudinal studies showing that students who have grammar instruction in the use of final -s develop better usage than those who do not?
A: I think longitudinal studies are very much needed in the area of eventual (not immediate) mastery of grammar structures, comparing ELLs with no grammar component in their long-term instructional program with those who do have a significant grammar component.

Q: Is practice helpful?
A: Practice in a classroom context can instill confidence, encourage risk-taking, give students opportunities for experimentation, and lead to successful communication experiences. (A grammar base can easily lead to communicative activities. A lot of meaningful communication goes on in a grammar-based class.) But does practice guarantee mastery? No. (If it did, I wouldn’t still be hitting F-natural when I should be hitting F-sharp on the piano.) Grammar teaching simply lays the groundwork and helps speed the process in adults and young adults. Anyone learning a second language as an adult (which is different in a number of obvious ways from a child learning a first language) needs lots of input and experience using the language. Grammar-based instruction provides just a little help along the way.


Comment from Ismael Tohari
April 11, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Dear Betty,

I hope you are fine.

In your last column, you raised a point at the tail of the article on the link below.

You asked : “But does practice guarantee mastery? No”

I find it really so strange that practice doesn’t guarantee mastery. I can I agree with you on that when you practice the wrong way each and every time. Let me give an example to make make my point clear. We, the Arab, find it difficult to pronounce CORRECTLY the letter ‘P’. We need lots of practice to master it. But practice alone doesn’t work unless you have a model i.e. someone who shows you how to pronounce it the right way. Otherwise, we will keep practicing the wrong way and get nothing at the end of the day.

To make a long story short, my objection is to your generalization that practice doesn’t guarantee mastery.

What do you think?

Comment from Betty
April 13, 2009 at 2:13 pm

True mastery necessitates true internalization of language — a truly wondrous capability of the human brain, and one we do not in any way fully understand. My observation is that practice abets internalization but does not guarantee it. I’ve had students who have, for example, practiced final -s for years and years, and still slip up in spontaneous usage, no matter how good their models or how extensive their practice. When and how the brain will finally click in to automaticity of final -s with 100% accuracy is just not something we can predict or even precisely identify in the complex process of second language acquisition.

Practice is just one element in this truly amazing process of mastering a new language. Other elements important on the path toward mastery are quality and quantity of input from a variety of sources, perceived need and opportunity to communicate meaningfully, abilities for noticing and self-monitoring, willingness to take risks, understandings of basic patterns of the target language, ability to recognize and reproduce new sounds, etc. Saying that practice guarantees mastery would be a vast oversimplification of this awesome process of second language acquisition — but that in no way demeans the importance of practice. Practice is essential — as one teacher said, “You can’t learn to play the piano without touching the keys.”

Comment from Ismael Tohari
April 13, 2009 at 8:12 pm

What a wonderful reply!

Thanks a lot, Betty.

I have got this question:

You said, ‘True mastery necessitates tTrue mastery necessitates true internalization of language.’

I was wondering how, or what are the steps to achieve true internalization of language?

Comment from Nick Jaworski
December 9, 2009 at 6:25 am

It's not grammar teaching that is the problem per se, it's the overemphasis of it. Having worked in Turkey for quite a while and having seen a number of teachers use your books, you find that students and teachers tend to only look at the grammar. Knowledge of rules and the ability to do fill in the blank exercises supersedes actual language use and communication. Students English quickly begins to suffer. When they want to speak or write they can only remember rules and not how to actually produce anything. I've seen Turkish students fly through a KPDS exam by applying rules, yet they actually didn't understand a single thing they read on the exam. A language becomes arithmetic to them.

I wouldn't say that grammar instruction is needed as much as noticing on the students' part. Pointing out when final -s is needed only takes about 5 minutes. After that, students need to use it and be reminded when they make a mistake.

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