Archive for Tag: fossilized learners

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Error Correction and Fossilization

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

I recently received an email from a teacher concerned that exposing students to incorrect language usage in error correction exercises will lead to fossilization of the incorrect usage.  Below  is my response to him, which I thought might be of interest to others as well.

“Fossilization” means that usage errors have become embedded (i.e., habitual) in L2 learners’ language production.  It occurs when learners get no corrective feedback.  In some cases, L2 learners with fossilized language patterns are able to communicate successfully enough for their immediate purposes and thus have no immediate motivation to change.   Other times, L2s have no resources available to help them improve their English usage.

L2 learners who come to our classes, however, do not want to emerge with fossilized language.  That’s why they are in our classes, trusting us to move them forward during their interlanguage period as they reach toward a higher level of communicative competence.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Overcoming Fossilized Language: Difficult But Possible

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I recently received a request from a paralegal instructor looking for a way to help a non-native student whose writing skills are inadequate to her academic goals and chosen profession. He describes her as a reasonably conversant, bright student in her twenties. She had satisfactorily completed most of the paralegal program’s sequence of classes as well as two ESL courses. He writes:

Throughout the semester, she “stumbled” with the language on her written assignments. And when it came to the drafting of the memorandum, she mauled the grammar and the syntax; she had numerous comma splices and sentence fragments; she incorrectly used punctuation. She understood the assignment and she knew what was expected, but what I read was inarticulate.

Always allowing her to write, rewrite, and rewrite again after returning an assignment, I had hoped that, after my numerous marginal comments, she’d conquer some of her problems. This was not to be. Alas, the same problems abundantly peppered her memorandum. I gave up. I told her to find a friend who was willing to spend the time to go over the mechanics of her writing. She did. I gave her a passing grade.

All of this brings me–at long last–to my point. What can I do to help this student?

What the instructor describes is typical of a second language learner who missed getting a solid foundation in grammar and mechanics during her acquisition process. Our colleges and universities are, unfortunately, full of such students today. I had many such students in my own writing courses.

Bringing her language skills to an acceptable academic level is not going to be easy for this student — but she can do it as many before her have done. It’s hard but possible.

Motivation is key

The most important ingredient is the student’s motivation. I’ve had students whose previous teachers had just passed them on and who felt their English was fine for university level — until they hit my class and I apprised them otherwise. So the first step is raising the student’s awareness of his or her poor language skills.

Next comes an understanding of the consequences of having poor language skills. In my case, I told students they could not possibly pass my course with their current language skills, and without passing my course, they could not graduate from the university. That either got their attention or undying enmity. But I could not in good conscience pass students on to my university colleagues with inadequate college-level writing skills.

Students who realized the importance of having good language skills for their academic and career aspirations were then ready to listen to me and do whatever was necessary.

No shortcuts, just lots of hard work

Since I was an ESL teacher as well as a writing teacher, I offered these students the opportunity to sit in on my ESL grammar classes and do one-on-one tutoring with me twice a week. In addition, I recommended a private tutor — often one of our part-time teachers.

The student wrote a paper for me twice a week, and then we talked about it. For each error in grammar or mechanics, we referred to a grammar book (mine, actually). I explained each problem in great thoroughness and sent the student off with homework. It’s a slow process.

For a student without a basic understanding of how English is put together, a teacher just writing notes in the margins of a student’s paper isn’t enough.

The ideal tutor for this student would probably be a law student who has taught ESL or is thoroughly versed in English grammar. But, unfortunately, even among native speakers these days, precious few know
much about English grammar (due to an ideological misdirection taken in our field beginning in the 1960s).

Judging from my experience, I’d say it would take a year for this student’s English to advance sufficiently. But she’d have to be very motivated and find a good tutor. There are no shortcuts that I know of. And students lacking motivation and self-monitoring skills never seem to make it out of the rut of their fossilized language.

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!