Archive for Tag: grammar

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 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.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Students in the Land of Grammar: The Use of Discovery Techniques

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

“No, no, definitely no comma here,” insisted my student Tania, who immediately followed her confident statement with an enthusiastic, “We do need that information to know which tourists we’re talking about!” Her group mates nodded in wholehearted agreement. “Yes, Yes! It’s not extra information. It’s necessary information,” added Claudia, who, out of sheer excitement, almost sprang out of her chair.

Who would have thought that working on rules governing the punctuation of defining and non-defining relative clauses could generate such excitement in nineteen-year-olds? All right so we’re not talking El Dorado, but such rules can be quite valuable discoveries to most students.

For me, allowing students to become “grammar explorers” brings several benefits:

1. Because of their “mystery-solving” quality, discovery-based activities can capture and hold students’ attention as effectively as most interactive presentations can, and they demonstrate to students that working with grammar does not have to be dull;

2. Because of students’ personal involvement in exploratory tasks, discovery techniques help them remember rules more easily;

3. Because of their analytical character,these techniques actually show students ways to approach other, unfamiliar grammatical structures;

4. And, perhaps most importantly, because of the independent work requirements integral to discovery tasks, these activities prove to students that they can recognize a rule by themselves, and that they can be active “explorers” of the language even outside the classroom.

I recently came across a very informative article by Pavel V. Sosoyev entitled Integrative L2 Grammar Teaching: Exploration, Explanation and Expression in which he not only discusses the benefits of discovery techniques, but also shares a sample lesson as well as a questionnaire which he created to explore his students’ views on inductive learning.

And here are four of my own discovery-based lessons:

It seems to me that discovery techniques have various merits, but they are rather time-consuming and I ordinarily manage to use them only intermittently in a course.

Which grammar structures or concepts do you think might be taught naturally by way of discovery techniques? Do you use exploratory techniques in your classroom? If so, have you found them to be effective usually?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why I Teach the Parts of Speech

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

Actually, I wanted to write about phrases and clauses and about teaching them as adjectives and adverbs. However, that reminded me how many teachers I’ve run into over the years who disagree that the names of parts of speech should be taught to students. I argued with a publisher over this for at least three years, actually, before being “allowed” to teach the parts of speech in a textbook for lower-level students. So let me take a brief diversion to defend this position.

The arguments against teaching the names of the parts of speech are mainly that the terms are too difficult for students to learn, and further, that they aren’t helpful. I disagree with both of these arguments.

Minimally, I think students should know noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, and article. With advanced students I might add in determiner. OK, that’s seven words. Is that too high a vocabulary load, especially when most of those concepts exist in the learner’s native language? I think if they can learn seven objects in the classroom, or seven modes of transportation, or seven irregular verbs, then seven parts of speech isn’t going to short out the brain.

A larger issue is whether they’re helpful. This depends, of course, on whether the teacher uses the labels. I use them all the time. I use them to talk about

  • different word forms (accept is a verb, acceptance is the noun form of that verb);
  • the placement of different parts of speech (Your sentence “Is late again,” is missing a noun or a pronoun as the subject); and
  • the functions of subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases and so on.

And now I’m back to where I wanted to be . . .

It seems to me that one of the challenges of forming correct and elegant sentences in English is in knowing where to put the different elements. Where does the subject go? Where does the verb go? How about the direct object? And those are the easier things to teach.

Where my more advanced students trip up is in knowing where to put longer elements, such as

  • in the morning,
  • running for the bus,
  • while on his way to the bakery, or
  • on the corner.

The problem is that students don’t know what these elements are—that is, how they function. Therefore, they can’t place them correctly in a sentence.

Pretty much, they’re adjectives and adverbs—more correctly called adjectivals and adverbials, but I use adjective phrase and adverb phrase with my students at first, and then just adjective and adverb, once we’re all on the same page.

Suppose we have a simple sentence:

  • He fell.

Even lower-level students have probably seen the structure subject + verb + adverb, and might be able to write a sentence such as

  • He fell slowly.

However, the most common adverbs are actually NOT the one-word ones that end with ~ly, even though those are the easiest ones to identify. An adverb tells us where, when, why, or how. If students know that phrases can be used to talk about when, where, why, or how, then they can write

  • He fell to the ground.
  • He fell when he tripped.
  • He fell as soon as he tried to stand up.
  • He fell with a strange choking sound.

The trick is in knowing that to the ground (where?) functions as an adverb, as do when he tripped (when?) and as soon as he tried to stand up (both when? and why?) and with a strange choking sound (how?). English allows (and even encourages!) one to combine adverb phrases and clauses, as in

  • He fell to the ground with a strange choking sound as soon as he tried to stand up.

Getting this concept down is huge. It doesn’t bother me terribly much if a student writes

  • *He fell at the ground.

Or

  • *He fell as soon as tried to stand up.

Those sentences contain errors, of course, but the basic pattern of subject + verb + adverb is still there.

Adverbs are movable elements, more so than most others. But students need to know that adverb clauses and phrases move as units, and where they move to—for instance, to the beginning of a sentence:

  • As soon as he tried to stand up, he fell.

To take another example: A student who is writing short, careful, simple sentences and wishes to expand them might wish to add some adjectives. Students are usually taught simple one-word adjectives (that answer the question What kind of? or Which?) that come before a noun.

  • She went to the bakery.
  • She went to the new bakery.

But how much more interesting if we can describe the
bakery with some prepositional phrases; note that these come after the noun:

  • She went to the bakery on the corner.
  • She went to the bakery with the jumbo strawberry creampuffs.

Again, an error in choosing the correct preposition doesn’t bother me if the student is able to modify the noun with a phrase.

This is the way I like to address syntax, especially in reading and writing, with at least intermediate and advanced students—and some beginners as well. And that is why my very lowest level students learn the names of the parts of speech—so that we can talk about what the parts of speech are and how they function.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It Just Sounds Right

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

“This is so hard.”

I am sure all L2 instructors are familiar with the frustration students feel when studying another language. I feel particular sympathy for ESL and EFL students (and their teachers) because English grammar is especially aggravating. English grammar is often illogical and native speaker use of it is fickle.

It must be so annoying for students to spend hours mastering a new grammar skill only to hear a native speaker using it incorrectly. For years, I diligently taught students that we did not use “love” in the progressive. Inevitably, the next day a student would point out that he or she heard “I’m loving it” on a Burger King commercial. Thank goodness many grammar books have since caught up with that one (I hated looking like a liar), but there are thousands of examples of grammatical choices that native speakers make that violate the “rules” in our texts.

Although the line that English as a “living” language that is always changing is comfortable for teachers to give, it doesn’t ease the burden our students carry. The bottom line is that English grammar is hard, and it just keeps getting harder as students learn more.

It just sounds right.

As a teacher, I often feel a bit helpless when I am faced with a student’s crinkled forehead and bewildered question, “But, why?” Even to my ears, the answer, “it just sounds right,” sounds like a bit of a cop out. However, often, we just say things in a certain way just because it sounds better. A word just collocates better with one word than another, although there is no real “rule” for students to learn. One verb tense is just a little more appropriate than another, although both are technically correct.

A (wonderful, inspirational) teacher I worked with in the US begins each semester with a lecture about how English grammar isn’t like math. Students can’t necessarily memorize grammatical “formulas” and expect them to work even most of the time. This is true, but don’t you wish it weren’t so?

Transition from learner to fine-tuner

When I reflect on my own experience as an English teacher, I find that students in the High Intermediate level tend to struggle with this frustration more than any others. Recently, one of my students from Poland admitted that she was finding the High Intermediate class frustrating because she felt as though she wasn’t learning anything. I have been her teacher for several semesters, so I knew that she wasn’t criticizing me. I understood that she just missed that learner’s rush that comes with “getting” a new grammatical concept.

Beginners and Low Intermediate students are usually happily caught up in a frenzy of learning new things; however, in my experience, the High Intermediate level is all about a move toward fine-tuning. This transition can be very wearisome for students, as it is time-consuming and lacks those “light bulb” moments. It seems, too, that High Intermediate is a hurdle some never get over; they have good enough English to be understood and that is enough for many of our students.

Familiarity breeds a good TOEFL score?

It seems to me that the students who do succeed and move on to an Advanced level tend to be the ones that can get beyond an obsession with memorizing grammar rules. They tend to have a more well-rounded approach to language learning that includes reading and listening to authentic input. They are the ones that have become so comfortable with English that they just know which words go best together and which tense to choose.

I used to teach a TOEFL Prep class in the US, and I help prepare students for the Cambridge Proficiency Exam here in Belgium. At that level, students need to have internalized most of the grammar “rules” (although explicit instruction and more fine-tuning is always helpful) and they should be choosing correct answers more by instinct. Unfortunately, it’s something I have not figured out how to “teach” in a few months of class, but for the students who get to that point, English grammar doesn’t seem so hard, after all.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tenses: They Work Well in Groups

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

When I heard that by the end of the EFL class in which I was enrolled I would have learned sixteen tenses, I had ambivalent feelings. The number sounded discouragingly huge, but comfortingly specific. At the time I imagined that the challenge of mastering them all would lie in remembering their various forms and meanings. A few tenses later, I realized that the difficulty lay rather in deciding which tense to use on a given occasion.

Timelines and lists of time adverbials commonly used with specific tenses definitely cleared up some of my confusion. Still, differentiating between the two Present Perfect tenses, for example, was a Herculean task. Can I blame my puzzlement on, as Ralph Walker points out, “the nature of these two tenses, which are neither wholly present nor wholly past, but paradoxically both present and past”? (http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/33/e5/f1.pdf )

Do your students struggle to understand the use of Present Perfect tenses as well? What truly helped me sort out my “tense confusion” were activities which combined the use of various tenses.

Going Beyond Tense Pairs

Teachers often use activities which contrast two related tenses, but it seems that tasks requiring students to use three, four, or even five tenses can do the trick more effectively. Students not only practice the forms and demonstrate an understanding of the meaning of each tense, but, by having to switch tenses, they learn when each is appropriately used.

Five Tenses: Sample Activity

One of my favorite “tense-decision” exercises is based on an information gap activity created by Nick Hall and John Shepheard more than fifteen years ago. In this activity, called “Ups and Downs,” students work with four tenses. In my slightly modified version of the task, students practice five tenses: Present Perfect, Present Perfect Continuous, Present Continuous, Simple Past, and Future Perfect.

Students work in pairs and are given two versions of a line graph presenting one trend, such as a trend in DVD sales, inflation rates, road accidents, crime rate, or online shopping, but each version is missing some information. (Here is an example: tenses.chart.pdf) The students’ task is to complete both versions of the graph so that each is identical to the other and so that it is clear what trend the chart represents. While working on the task, students need to decide which tense they should use when asking their partner questions about the missing information. Here are a few sample questions and answers.

Q: What happened to the crime rate between 2007 and 2008?
A: It rose dramatically.
Q: What has happened to it since 2008?
A: It has changed since 2008. It has been falling steadily.
Q: What is happening this year?
A: It is continuing to fall.
Q. What will have happened to it by 2010?
A. They predict it will have decreased slightly by 2010.

Do you think we could include more tenses in this exercise? Do you know of other activities which combine more than, let’s say, three tenses?


Monday, May 4, 2009

Teaching Grammar with Songs

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

What better way to liven up a grammar class than with a little music?

Instructors new to the idea of using songs as a teaching tool may be reluctant, as I once was, because they worry that some of their older, more “serious” students (usually found in an IEP or college program) will perceive songs as trivial, a waste of time and money. But we can successfully use songs with these adult students as long as we have specific lesson objectives and convey that songs are simply another source of authentic language input.

There may also be evidence, which will delight even the dour rocket scientist in your class, that language learned in songs is more readily retained and memorable. (Think about how we sing our ABC’s.) Finally, I’ve found a great way to ease into songs with my adult students is to inform the students that the song is a grammar lesson disguised as a break. (“You’ve been working really hard this week, so listen, enjoy…..and learn.”)

While there are many ways to use songs in language learning in general, many grammar instructors use song lyrics as sources of authentic language models of specific grammar points. Searching for lyrics that utilize the structure being taught is a time-consuming process, but luckily there are already some linked grammar/song sources available.

There are seven different songs lessons for low level grammar structures, nine intermediate lessons, and ten more advanced structure lessons right here on the Azar Grammar site in the collection of classroom materials. These lessons involve completing cloze exercises, sequencing, completing charts, analyzing and discussing grammar usage alternatives and meaning, listening for specific words and structures, using lyrics as a model for spoken and written production, and other activities.

Lyrics can be found at any one of many sites, like SongLyrics.com, but be sure to check the lyrics with the version of the song you are using because of slight variations in live vs. studio recordings and errors in lyrics transcribing. I frequently use YouTube as a free source of many songs, and the video is sometimes a stimulating source of discussion as well.

As you listen to the radio or when you pop in a cd at home, listen to songs with an ear for grammar and you’ll likely stumble across a song that you can use for a future lesson — just don’t forget to jot it down! If you are “always” searching, you’ll save a lot of time, as opposed to pouring over song lyrics searching for a specific structure the day before you plan on teaching it! The songs on this website provide an excellent jump start to your own collection as well as offering some activity ideas that can be reused on any song you come across. Have fun!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More on Oral Correction

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

At a Sunshine State TESOL conference a year or two ago, I attended a session given by a professor from the University of Central Florida about methods of correcting of oral grammar. The paper presented was the result of a survey given to 80 community college students in Florida. They were asked which type of correction they preferred to receive from an instructor.

While I can’t remember the sample sentence used in the survey, the correction choices given to the students were as follows:

Student says “I go to the store yesterday.”

The choices:
  1. Rising intonation question (You go to the store yesterday?)
  2. Recast (I WENT to the store yesterday.)
  3. Explicit (Don’t say “go” for the past- say “went”)
  4. Metalanguage (Are you talking about the past or present? What has to change in your sentence if you are talking about the past? And, so, what is the past tense of the verb you want?)
The preferred correction method by a wide margin was method 4: metalanguage explanation. It seems that walking the student from the error through the correct answer is seen by students as being the most effective and the most “enjoyable,” if correction can be enjoyable.

We might jump to the conclusion that the preferred method was culturally related; however, the study included students from all different cultures, both low and high context. That got me thinking that maybe the preference bias had to do with educational level and goals. Maybe the fact that all the students were in community college meant they had developed a sense of what worked for them, or maybe being in community college meant they were getting strong and direct grammar instruction so the metalanguage was comprehensible and meaningful.

Personally, I use all four methods in my classes depending on the situation. Although I would never say “DON’T DO THAT — DO THIS,” but rather “Try this instead.” The metalanguage method logically seems that it would have the most permanent effect on learning, since students would know the “why” behind constructs and thus be able to correct themselves better in the future. It’s kind of like the Band-aid or surgery metaphor: going through a Socratic metalanguage approach addresses the root of the problem while an explicit correction or a recast merely puts a band-aid on the problem which will likely “erupt” again at another time.

The only problem I have with the metalanguage correction method is that it tends to single out a single erring student for what could be a long and tortuous questioning. I have gotten into downward spirals where I ask the student a leading question and he can’t answer. So I ask a more basic question, which it turns out he can’t answer either. Then I try a question from a different approach. By this time, the student just wants the ground to open up and swallow him, so I have probably now opened up the question to the entire class, trying to make it a class lesson instead of the single person focus it started out as. Still, that’s a pretty arduous process to be repeated X number of times in a 53-minute class!
My blogger colleague, Tamara Jones, recently related this experience:

“For the first several weeks of my French class, I repeatedly said “dans les Etats-Unis” when I referred to my life in the USA. My teacher patiently recasted and recasted and recasted: “aux Etats-Unis.” It was almost like a running joke in the class, but for some reason, I just could not get it right … until one glorious day when I just remembered. The entire class applauded, and since that day, I have said it correctly. Although researchers have often doubted the effectiveness of recasts, I am living proof that our patience is not in vain.

I pose this for consideration:

What if one day, like a random quantum misfire, Tamara correctly said “aux”? This resulted in thunderous applause, in other words, positive reinforcement, which led to correct use of “aux” from that point forward? What if her new behavior wasn’t a result of the recast after all? Let’s face it — just because it’s “common sense” that correction will result in modified behavior . . . well, we’ve been wrong before! For a look at that very possibility, read What’s Wrong With Oral Correction.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Final -S Problem: Does Teaching Grammar Help? Students Still Make Mistakes

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I’d like to explain what I call “The Final -S Problem.” For a lot of teachers, it goes like this: “I teach my students when to use a final -s, and they can do it fine in a controlled exercise, but then when they talk or write freely, they go and make final -s errors!” Whereupon the teacher throws up his or her hands in despair and determines that teaching grammar does no good because there is no immediate transfer to internalized language.

It seems to me that those who would expect immediate mastery of grammar patterns perhaps confuse teaching language with teaching arithmetic — though, even in arithmetic, students get to make repeated mistakes without all arithmetic teaching judged to be ineffectual.

What gets missed in this equation is that grammar teaching provides a foundation for processing, for conceptual understandings of how a language works, and for developing skills — sort of the way music lessons provide a foundation for learning to play the piano. Learning a second language is far more similar to learning to play a musical instrument than it is to learning arithmetic.

In learning to play the piano, certain students — especially adults who are literate and educated — find cognitive understandings of concepts such as musical key and notation helpful to the process, despite the fact that no amount of cognitive awareness is going to make anyone able to play the piano immediately upon being given abstract information about it. Can you learn to play the piano without cognitive knowledge of musical form? Yes. But is such awareness helpful for many adult students, and does it speed the process for them? Yes, indeed.

“The Final -S Problem” is a metaphor representing the idea that students learn grammar rules and practice them, but then make mistakes using these rules in their output.

Here are the questions I ask myself about “The Final -S Problem,” and my answers.

Q: Is it harmful for students to know when a final -s is supposed to be used?
A: That seems highly doubtful.

Q: Do students want to use final -s correctly? Do they care?
A: In my experience, yes.

Q: Is grammar information about the use of final -s helpful to students?
A: Yes. On a practical level, it helps students self-monitor, understand marked errors in their writing, catch a recast (students with a grounding in grammar often show that they “get” a recast with a look that says, “Ah, right.”), use a writing handbook, and make sense of dictionary notations such as mosquito, n., pl. –toes, –tos. More importantly, attention to final -s raises students’ awareness, making them more likely to notice it in what they hear and read.

Q: Are grammar concepts such as singular and plural useful?
A: From my observations both as a language teacher and a language student, yes. If I were to undertake learning Urdu, I know that I would like to understand how singular and plural are marked. And I also know that I’d like to be able to find that explicit information without having to figure it out completely by myself.

Q: Does information about using final -s help students reach fluency and accuracy in its usage?
A: In my experience, ESL students in my freshman English class who had spent four years at an American high school with no grammar component and with fossilized ungrammaticality underperformed (in accuracy within fluency, as well as rhetorical skill in writing and ability to comprehend academic English in readings) compared with students who had had a grammar component in their home countries (as well as in our IEP prior to their enrolling in freshman English). So, in my observation, the answer to the question is yes.

Q: Are there longitudinal studies showing that students who have grammar instruction in the use of final -s develop better usage than those who do not?
A: I think longitudinal studies are very much needed in the area of eventual (not immediate) mastery of grammar structures, comparing ELLs with no grammar component in their long-term instructional program with those who do have a significant grammar component.

Q: Is practice helpful?
A: Practice in a classroom context can instill confidence, encourage risk-taking, give students opportunities for experimentation, and lead to successful communication experiences. (A grammar base can easily lead to communicative activities. A lot of meaningful communication goes on in a grammar-based class.) But does practice guarantee mastery? No. (If it did, I wouldn’t still be hitting F-natural when I should be hitting F-sharp on the piano.) Grammar teaching simply lays the groundwork and helps speed the process in adults and young adults. Anyone learning a second language as an adult (which is different in a number of obvious ways from a child learning a first language) needs lots of input and experience using the language. Grammar-based instruction provides just a little help along the way.

Monday, March 30, 2009

If Not Mastery, What?

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

I am often confounded by how much time to spend in class on a grammar point. My early training taught me to focus as much time as needed for students to get it–”get it” meaning being able to call up and meaningfully use the structure in free production. However, from further study, different books and papers I have read, and from lectures from instructors and researchers far more knowledgeable than I, it seems most experts in the field agree that students don’t “master” a grammar point at the time it is presented but rather in their own time.
Yet even if the students are able to use the structure fairly well in class by the third lesson, that doesn’t mean they use it error-free for the rest of their lives. We’ve all had advanced students write or speak lower level mistakes. Does this imply that if the majority of my students are able to form and use a grammar structure at the end of three lessons, that I shouldn’t waste my time spending four or five lessons on it? After all, we are on a fixed semester and have a curriculum to cover.

Clearly the structure won’t become automatic after three hours, nor is it likely to after five hours. If my goal can not be mastery (that is, repeated and automatic production of a grammar point without delay from obvious monitoring), what is my new goal? When is good enough. . . good enough?

I don’t buy the argument that learners will never be error-free. I’ve had non-native speaking professors who conducted classes for hours without a single spoken error and we know famous personalities who speak accented, yet grammatically perfect English. So I’m not talking about giving up my early dreams of student “mastery” because it is unattainable. It is, however, very impractical.

Life’s reality is that students don’t have unlimited time to reach the level of English they need for a goal--a job, college entry, grad school, whatever. As a result, instructors perform a kind of linguistic triage, deciding either at the classroom or the program level, what grammar to teach when. But surely we have to rely on more than a calendar to help us decide when it is time to move on to a new grammar point in the class, leaving behind one that may get a bit of recycling over the remainder of the semester.

Curriculum, assessment, objectives. Objectives, curriculum, assessment. It’s not as smooth as the teacher training books imply. There’s a lot of egg-chicken-egg going on. But since I have relinquished mastery as my goal, I remain stumped at how to define success. Is passing a test going to become the end goal of my course? Or perhaps increased awareness of grammar? Or maybe the ability to produce structures in class under guidance? How will I know if my students have been successful in my class?