Friday, September 11, 2009

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

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

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.

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.

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