Archive for September, 2009

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Putting Grammar into Context: A Response to Program Director’s Dilemma

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Okay, you’ve shown your students how to form the present perfect aspect. You’ve explained to them how since and for are used with this form. You’ve had them practice affirmative forms in statements, negative forms in statements, interrogative forms in questions. You’ve gone over long answers and short answers. You’ve had them use verbs in parentheses to change them into the present perfect and fill in the blanks of sentences.

You’re bored. You’re eyes are getting heavy. Your students are bored and feeling a bit numbed by it all. Congratulations! You’ve succeeded in treating that grammar point like it’s a fish out of water. You’ve made that grammar point into something like a formula in a chemistry class. But this isn’t chemistry. It’s language! It’s got vitality! It’s a living thing, for Pete’s sake! So let’s treat it like that!

Any grammar element you want to deal with will only be meaningful if it’s put into context, into something real and relevant and motivating to you and your students. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching fourth graders or college students. What matters is that they get to see how a point of grammar works in context, not just in disconnected sentences. The students need to claim it as their own and run with it. And the best way to accomplish this is by figuring out which context will be optimum for dealing with that specific grammar point.

Since the example cited here is the present perfect, let’s stick with that. Our objective today is to get the students to understand basic uses of this form, that it means something began in the past and continues up into the present or that something happened in the past and may happen again in the future. Now what kind of context will lend itself to using lots of verbs in the present perfect?

If you’ve got those fourth graders, how about introducing a discussion on how they have or haven’t helped their mothers at home from some point in the past that you decide on till now? “Clarita, how many times have you made your bed since the beginning of the week? Have you made your bed every day? What about you, Pepito? Have you taken out the garbage for your mom? You haven’t? Why not?”

If you’ve got college students, how about a discussion on movies? “Does anybody know how long movies have entertained the public? Do you know which Hollywood movie studio has made the most pictures? How many movies have you seen this month? Has your country produced lots of movies?”

Any and all of the questions above can get a good discussion going amongst your fourth graders or your college students. And backup material can be at the ready: teacher-made reading passages based on the topic at hand; written exercises full of context; hands-on activities for your students to do in class or out of class, such as conducting short interviews on the topic and reporting back to the class, or writing a short, personal narrative on the topic and reading it to classmates.

As long as your students keep using the present perfect appropriately in the discussions and in the activities you’ve devised for them to do, you’re doing your job and doing it well. You’re using the grammar point as a tool to accomplish clear communication with the focus on that overall use of language rather than just that element of grammar. And there’s a bonus to this way of elegantly working a specific grammar point into context. Your students will be forced to use other grammar points they’ve learned as well and build on their previous knowledge of grammar. It doesn’t get much better than that.

So make it real, make it meaningful, and make it live! Lift that grammar point out of isolation and put it into context. You’ll see how dynamic your grammar classes will become!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Skill Integration and Alignment: A Response to Program Director’s Dilemma

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


An IEP director in Kuwait wrote with a dilemma: She feels the IEP curriculum is grammar-heavy and that the emphasis is impeding student progress.

First, some background. Students come into the IEP after having been exposed to English grammar instruction in their regular schools. The IEP instructors also put a lot of emphasis on grammar, but this work doesn’t seem to have a significant effect on reading and writing scores. The director feels that the amount of grammar in the program, and more specifically, the way it is largely being addressed (“300 plus pages of fill-in-the-blank practices”) is not the most effective way to teach English.

Do Course Outcomes Support One Another?

One of the challenges of discrete skill programs (a class for reading, a class for writing, for speaking, for grammar, etc.) is that we instructors sometimes get territorial and forget the bigger picture–how all these elements need to fit together in a “complete communication” package. I wonder if the instructors at the IEP ever look at their program curriculum across a level, rather than up and down a skill? In other words, how do the outcomes or standards for Reading 4, Writing 4, Speaking/Listening 4, and Grammar 4 complement each other and reinforce each other? Or is each skill truly in isolation within the level?

When instructors in the program where I teach started to discuss this, we found ways we could support each other’s curriculum. The first thing we did was exchange our course outcomes. We then spent time brainstorming ways we could support another instructor’s outcome in our class. We did this informally; however we recognized the benefit of mutual curricular support. We each started by just trying to approach a single objective of another course from the perspective our own skill class.

For example, one of our Reading 4 outcomes states “Student will understand sentence connectors and signal words that aid in their comprehension of a text.” As a Grammar 4 instructor, I saw a way I could complement that outcome. Instead of teaching coordinating and subordinating conjunctions at a sentence level (i.e. sticking with the book exercises alone), I searched for an interesting paragraph that students would not only enjoy reading and discussing, but that also contained the target grammar. We then studied the grammar with the context of the reading.

It’s even easier to go the other way, meaning the writing and speaking instructors can easily support the outcomes of the grammar course. When our level 4 Speaking instructor uses a rubric that includes accuracy, she pays particular attention to errors in the grammar structures being taught in Grammar 4 and also to structures students should have learned in Grammar 3.

Holding the students to a level of cross-skill competency emphasizes the importance of learning grammar for actual use as opposed to learning it for book completion or test success. (Have you ever had a student complain “But why did you mark me down for spelling in my answers? This isn’t writing class–this is reading class!” Viva cross-skill competency! )

In addition to skill integration, formal or informal, I would suggest to the IEP Director that she examine how well the program’s textbooks support the course objectives. (“The reading and writing courses use a grammar correction text and the listening and speaking use either the black, red, or blue Azar.”)Work backwards from the course objectives. Does the exit test for the course directly test those objectives? Does the course textbook or other learning material directly address both the test and the course objectives? For example, if a program were grammar-heavy, would Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Azar work best as the speaking/listening text or as the grammar text?

Do Texts Support the Course Objectives?

Also, are the course objectives independent of the textbooks? Or is the curriculum simply “what is in the book”? The latter would certainly lead to instructors feeling like they had to cover every exercise in the text book. (“Some of the instructors hold fast to the notion they must complete every grammar exercise in the book in order for the students to acquire and learn English language.”) Our program also uses the Azar series, but our grammar curriculum at each level is not an exact match to the content of the Azar books. There are some chapters or charts we omit and some grammar we include that is not in the book. However, our course objectives are our guiding light, not our textbook.

It’s hard to get objectives, exits, curriculum and textbooks aligned. It’s a multi-semester, multi-person project, but it is oh-so-wonderful when these elements click into place. Teacher frustration lessens, there are fewer student complaints all around, and best of all, there’s a general improvement in exit results.

While I agree with the IEP director’s wish not to micro-manage, I would suggest that curriculum development and alignment of course objectives, tests, and textbooks isn’t micro-management at all, but basic program structure and development, which rightly comes top-down. But as Barbara Matthies said, getting faculty ownership of changes is the key to making it happen (and may I add–without a revolt.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Program Director’s Dilemma: Too Much Grammar? Part 2

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

betty@azargrammar.com

Last week I posted a letter I received from an IEP program director requesting guidance about changing a grammar-heavy curriculum to a more balanced approach. I referred the request to my friend and colleague, Barbara Matthies. Barbara is an ESL/EFL teacher, administrator and consultant (now retired) who also was my co-author on the teacher’s guides for the grammar series. She’s written an excellent response:

Dear Margaret,

Your struggles with the role of grammar in a language course are familiar to anyone who has dealt with matters of curriculum design, textbook use, and proficiency training. Theories of language learning clash with the constraints of time, available materials, and measurement techniques. Students and instructors bring varied biases and motivations to the classroom based on prior experiences with language learning and teaching. The program director is expected to demonstrate success by means of objective test scores on skills that are not really indicative of effective communication ability. What to do?

First, especially in a foreign (not second) language environment, one must deal with the fact that students have had K-12 English teachers who were probably not native speakers of English and thus were more comfortable teaching grammar and vocabulary than larger chunks of discourse. And what they taught, they tested. So, students learned to perform well on grammar and vocabulary tests. You have seen this reflected on your own placement tests.

Secondly, your description of the IEP curriculum and materials shows them continuing this emphasis: “The lab is equipped with interactive online grammar program and vocabulary builder software. The reading and writing courses use a grammar correction text and the listening and speaking use either the black, red, or blue Azar.” And further you state: “Some of the instructors hold fast to the notion they must complete every grammar exercise in the book in order for the students to acquire and learn English language.” Of course, the curriculum does include reading, writing, listening, and speaking, but how do the learners integrate these separate foci into a developing proficiency? (That is a somewhat rhetorical question for researchers to ponder.)

Thirdly, if we want course outcomes to show measurable improvement in learners’ overall proficiency, then we have to design/find tests that do indeed measure that proficiency. The ability to understand and use a language is not the same as the ability to score well on an objective test. And a test used for diagnostic purposes is very different from a test of outcomes. But who has time or resources to develop appropriate tests? (Some excellent ones do exist, but they are proprietary and very expensive or even impossible to obtain.)

What to do? An ongoing series of in-service or professional development workshops for instructors is always productive, especially if they are paid for their time and contributions to its usefulness. Topics could deal with effective use of grammar textbooks, integrating the content of courses across the curriculum, developing alternative ways to report outcomes, etc. Often the stated goals are not immediately achieved, but seeds are planted that can produce some changes of focus or emphasis in individual classrooms or the program as a whole. The best strategy is for the program director to solicit input about the topics, set up the schedule, designate a recorder for each session (with ground rules about how much detail to report), then step aside to encourage interaction among the instructors, and read their report carefully. Follow up on good ideas by finding ways to release instructors’ time to develop solutions—microteaching demos, revised course outlines, supplementary materials, new types of test items to pilot, etc.

The more the instructors have “ownership” of the curriculum, the better they and the director can shape it to the needs of the students. This is an ongoing process—one that should never be considered complete—just like learning a language.

I hope my responses prove helpful.

Sincerely,
Barbara Matthies

The only thing I might add to this sound advice is to repeat what I’ve been saying for years and years: teaching grammar is not an end in itself. It’s only a little help along the way. Adult (and young adult) students usually find it helpful to see how English works, how the patterns fit together to create meaning. Terminology is just a temporary tool to aid student-teacher communication. It should be kept to an absolute minimum and never tested.

I would hope the teachers in this IEP program might get a clearer view of the role of grammar in second language teaching by reading my explanation of Grammar-Based Teaching on the website.

From Margaret’s letter, I would say in simplest terms that the students seem to have too much book learning and not enough experiential learning. Getting students and teachers into new pedagogical patterns can indeed be difficult. Some teachers approach L2 teaching as though they were drilling multiplication tables or teaching subject matter such as history. Some students think they’re wasting their time if they’re just sitting around in groups talking and problem-solving.

I suggested Margaret discuss with her teachers how teaching/learning a second language is different from any other kind of teaching and can’t be approached as an academic area of study. For students, gaining communicative experience with a new language is much more crucial than learning something a book says.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Program Director’s Dilemma: Too Much Grammar? Part 1

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series
betty@azargrammar.com

I’ve been contacted by an IEP program director outside the U.S. with an all-too-familiar dilemma: how to change entrenched ideas about the role of grammar in the curriculum. She is looking for guidance on how to help her faculty members find the right balance of direct grammar instruction and experiential teaching to meet students’ needs. She writes:

Dear Ms. Azar,

I am currently the Director of an IEP program, but I was an ESL instructor for many years. I have a dilemma and request guidance.

Our IEP is located outside the United States; therefore, most of the students are exposed to English within the classroom and not in the community. All of the students in our program have had English grammar in the public government or private schools. On the initial placement exam prior to admission and in the diagnostics test administered the first week of class, the students fare better in the grammar skills test than in writing, reading, or listening skills tests, substantially better. For example, a typical grammar skills test score for the lowest level course on placement is 65% and in the diagnostic test is 68-70%. On the writing skills test, the students will score 48% on the placement test and 25% on the diagnostic tests. The students have the same placement and diagnostic results in reading and listening as in the writing. The results of the testing appear to indicate the students are aware of grammar rules and patterns but cannot apply the rules and patterns to their productions in writing.

Students attend 20 hours a week, four hours a day, of classroom instruction in reading, writing, listening, speaking, vocabulary and grammar. Additionally, the students are required to attend one hour of lab daily. The lab is equipped with interactive online grammar program and vocabulary builder software. The reading and writing courses use a grammar correction text and the listening and speaking use either the black, red, or blue Azar.

All of the faculty have at minimum a masters in TESOL or a related discipline. I attended the 2008 TESOL convention in New York and I attended the panel discussion with Azar, Swan, and Folse. I shared the panel’s comments on grammar teaching in relation to communicative teaching and grammar teaching in general (the communicative approach is only one of several methodologies used in our classrooms). Some of the instructors hold fast to the notion they must complete every grammar exercise in the book in order for the students to acquire and learn English language. While I recognize the need for grammar instruction to enhance student learning of English through the use of structure and patterns, I have not been able to convince some of the faculty that 300 plus pages of fill-in-the-blank practices does not result in student learning how to apply the grammar to speaking or writing. What I have been unable to instill in the instructors is the need to prioritize the grammar skills needed within their classroom for their student population and disregard exercises that are not essential. I have not been able to persuade some of the instructors that grammar terminology is not an outcome of the course; therefore, terminology is not a tested skill.

As the director, I can mandate what is to be covered or not covered in the classroom but I do not want to micromanage the classroom instruction nor control the curriculum delivered by the instructor who is better able to judge the needs of the students within their classroom. I do need the students to meet the learning outcomes of the course and the program. Grammar terminology is not an outcome but a working ability of standard American English in essays and presentations is. Many of our students do not meet the learning outcomes in speaking, reading, and writing because of the amount of grammar taught. We use another version of the placement exam as the exit exam, and find once again the grammar skills benchmarks increase more than reading, speaking, or writing. What are your suggestions?

Thank you in advance for your attention.

Margaret Combs
Director, Intensive English Program
American University of Kuwait


I’ve consulted with a friend and longtime colleague whose areas of expertise are well suited to addressing Margaret’s quandary. I’ll post her response next week. In the meantime, I’d like to hear your thoughts. How would you advise Margaret?

Please leave a comment or email me at betty@azargrammar.com if you’d like to publish your response as a blog article.