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.

Comments

Comment from Mark Pennington
October 26, 2009 at 9:45 am

It seems to me that the key lines of division within grammar instruction (meaning syntax, word choice, usage, punctuation, and even spelling—a catch-all term that most English language-arts teachers use to describe the “stuff” that we “have to , but don’t want to” teach) have been drawn between those who favor part to whole and whole to part instruction. As a brief aside… isn’t this much akin to the graphophonic (phonics-based) and whole language reading debate? Anyway, here is my take on the assumptions of both positions:

Advocates of part to whole instruction believe that front-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language will best enable students to apply these parts to the whole process of writing. Following are the key components of this inductive approach.

1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar to provide a common language of instruction.
2. Identification of grammatical constructions leads to application.
3. Familiarity with the rules of grammar leads to correct application.
4. Teaching the components of sentence construction leads to application.
5. Distrust of one’s own oral language as a grammatical filter .

Advocates of whole to part instruction believe that back-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language, as is determined by needs of the writing task, will best enable students to write fluently and meaningfully. Following are the key components of this deductive approach.

1. Minimal memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar and minimal practice in identification of grammatical constructions.
2. Connection to one’s oral language is essential to inform fluent and effective writing.
3. Reading and listening to exemplary literature and poetry provides the models that students need to mimic and revise as they develop their own writing style.
4. Minimal error analysis.
5. Teaching writing as a process with a focus on coherence will best enable students to apply the discreet parts such as subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, clauses, sentences, and transitions to say something meaningful.

Of course, how teachers align themselves within the Great Grammar Debate (See http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/the-great-grammar-debate/) is not necessarily an "either-or" decision. Most teachers apply bits and pieces of each approach to teaching grammar. I take a stab on how to integrate the inductive and deductive approaches in How to Integrate Grammar and Writing Instruction (See http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/how-to-integrate-grammar-and-writing-instruction/).

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