Archive for Tag: direct grammar instruction

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Gift of Gab? – Part 1

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

I feel like I should start this post with a disclaimer. I love to talk. I love telling a funny story to a rapt group of listeners. I love the feeling of being the center of attention. For this very reason, I struggle with reigning in my Teacher Talk Time (TTT) in the classroom. After all, there is almost nothing more enticing to a gabber like me than a captive audience of students who laugh appreciatively in (mostly) the right places and appear to hang on my every word. So, because I can really get carried away, I have to work hard to avoid turning every lesson into “The Tamara Show.” That’s why, when I was given the opportunity to facilitate a professional development session for the Montgomery County Coalition for Adult English Literacy, I leapt at the opportunity to learn a bit more about strategies for keeping TTT in check.

A Bit of Background

In the literature I encountered, there seemed to be two camps when it comes to TTT. Opponents of TTT rightly point out that too much TTT discourages authentic communication. Teachers “speak more, more often, control the topic of conversation, rarely ask questions for which they do not have the answers, and appear to understand absolutely everything the students say, sometimes before they even say it” (Musumeci, 1996, p. 314). Does that sound familiar? It does to me.

Read more »

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Discussion about Communicative Language Teaching


By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

In a comment on one of my previous posts, “Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach,” a reader very kindly posted a link to a video of a discussion between Jeremy Harmer and Scott Thornbury about what we have gained and lost because of Communicative Language Teaching:

Two points in the discussion made a big impression on me; the first because I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement, and the second because I found myself shouting “No!” at my computer monitor.

Read more »

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 5: Fossilization

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

I love the visual that the word fossilization prompts, even though I hate the idea that students might be making the same mistakes in 10 years that they are making now. It’s almost as though these mistakes are frozen in time; the speaker keeps making them even though other aspects of his/her English have improved. According to Jack Richards, in his fantastic book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, fossilization refers to “errors that appear to be entrenched and difficult to eradicate, despite the teacher’s [and I would argue the student’s] best efforts.” (Richards, 2008) He further points out that a great deal of the research regarding fossilization put a large part of the blame on the communicative classroom in which fluency is valued over accuracy. In other words, students are encouraged to make meaning when they speak and write rather than focusing on being grammatically correct.

Irregular Verbs or Respiration Vocabulary?

In fact, reading this made me feel a bit worried. In my teaching context, I deal with students whose goal is to get out of EAL and into their mainstream Secondary classes as soon as possible. They matriculate gradually, as their English develops, but clearly, for me and them, the focus is on academic vocabulary at the expense of grammatical accuracy. To my great shame, I have long argued that students in Year 8 Science need to be able to talk about the Respiratory System in order to pass their classes rather than waste time memorizing irregular past participles. I think I even wrote it in an earlier post in this very series! After all, no one ever failed a Science test because they wrote “breaked” instead or “broke.”

Read more »

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.

Friday, September 4, 2009

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

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

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 if you’d like to publish your response as a blog article.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Too Soon Success?

By Maria Spelleri

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

In an article by Jeanette Corbett, What is Grammar and How Should We Teach It?, there is one point in particular that stopped me dead in my tracks.

It states that “success happens too soon” for students using strictly communicative language learning techniques (from reading the article you can deduce this refers to no explicit grammar instruction at all in a 100% task-based/situation-based learning environment). By this the author means that once students are able to get a point across with some degree of comprehensibility on the part of the listener, the student is less motivated to learn and correct his or her grammar, and in fact, “…any subsequent language input appears secondary and unnecessary to the learner, as they have already communicated their message” (Corbett p. 1).

Wow! How true is that for those of us teaching in English speaking countries? Many immigrants don’t have the chance to take formal English lessons until they have been in the new country for several years, meanwhile learning English “off the street.” Or sometimes students have attended conversation based classes that focus on fluency and have rarely or never had their grammar corrected. These students are the most challenging to me because of, ironically, their success as English language users! When they get to a place in their lives when they register for formal classes, it is very hard for an instructor to “undo” what has worked all right for the student over the years.

Naturally, we may question whether we really want to or need to “undo” anything at all. After all, we can understand the meaning of “I going now” or “I no like this” or “You want?”, so if the learners are getting their needs met using this level of English, who are we teachers to tell them they are wrong?

The key here, I believe, is the condition “getting their needs met.” If everything was peachy for the students, they wouldn’t now be sitting in our classes. Clearly they recognize something is lacking in their self-learned or wholly communicative approach. This dawning may come after not getting a promotion at work, or not being able to get a better, non-physical job. Or perhaps the learner’s child needs more from the parent in the English speaking world than the parent can currently provide.

However, just because these students are now in our classroom doesn’t mean they truly believe they need to be there. Some students may feel vaguely insulted and defensive like their success hasn’t been recognized, and after all, their English has served them well so far, so the problem must be with their instructor, their boss, or the English speakers they need to interact with- you know the kind of student that elicits this exchange:

Student: My son has twenty years.
Teacher: Oh, your son is twenty years old?
Student: That’s what I say. (slight roll of eyes) My son he has twenty years.

In my experience, to help these students rev up a burning desire to improve, I need to rather directly demonstrate to them how far their actual speech is from the English required to get to the next level in their lives. Including direct grammar instruction in my lessons – with rules, drills, and guided practice – has given me modest success with many fossilized adult learners.

Maybe this sounds a little harsh, but direct grammar instruction shows the students what they don’t know, and this bit of cold water in the face proves to them they are not wasting their time in class, that there is indeed room for improvement. Combined with recording or transcribing students so they can hear themselves, direct grammar instruction gives the students tangible structure and schema on which to base and note their progress – unlike when they learned “from the street” or in a strictly communicative setting.

And while it can be a challenge to loosen up the fossilized language mechanisms of these learners, it is a great advantage to have at least one in every class. Because of their heightened fluency, they can be counted on to explain new vocabulary to others and generally to get any discussion off to a great start!