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Old 05-20-2008, 01:09 PM
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Default How much time? What is goal?

I am often confounded by how much time to spend in class on a grammar point. My early training told 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 different books and papers I have read, and from different lectures I have attended, 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. So even if the students, by the third class focusing on a specific point, are able to use the structure in a class environment, 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 all my students are able to form and use a grammar structure at the end of 3 lessons that I shouldn't waste my time spending 4 or 5 lessons on it? (After all, we are on a fixed semester and curriculum.) I mean, clearly the structure won't become automatic after 3 hours, but nor is it likely to after 5 hours.

If my goal can not be mastery (automatic appropriate production of a grammar point without too much delay from monitoring), what is my new goal?
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Old 05-21-2008, 01:41 AM
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Default My Meanderings — No Answers

Dear Maria,

I share your confusion and frustration. I teach adult non-credit ESL, and, unlike most of my coworkers’ classes, my classes are almost always grammar based. I usually begin by presenting some grammatical point, and, if I teach well, they end with a production exercise that is open-ended, if not realistic. I, too, teach any given grammar point until the majority gets it. In my case, getting it may mean “being able to call up and meaningfully use the structure in free production,” but it may only mean being able to use it in relatively close-ended practice. And my yardstick is my gut feeling.

I hope that this is not the case for you, but often one of the most depressing things for me as an ESL teacher is revisiting something that we did at the beginning of the session and having the students look at me as if to say, “What in the heck are you talking about?” Which makes me wonder if whatever time we spent on that point was wasted. I have no idea how to answer your questions, but this is how I manage to live with myself.

I teach what I consider the core points in depth, and I, also, give them a relatively superficial introduction to a wide range of other points. I have very unscientifically chosen my core points for Level 2 students to know — including, Yes/No Questions, WH Questions, the simple present, the present progressive, the simple past, the past progressive, and the main functions of these structures. I do not just teach these points once, we go over them many times each session — especially forming WH questions. In addition, I also touch on many points that are far beyond anything in the textbook or my coworkers’ classes. (My students sometimes tell me that they use notes from my class in their Level 3 class.) By pushing them to do more than is required, I hope that they, at least, get what is required.

My rather crude summary of my results is that there are some students who have both the “raw talent” to acquire a language and the time and inclination to do so. They tend to do quite well. There are, also, some students who lack one, or more, of these qualities, and they usually don’t do very well. And for all my talk of grammar, I suspect that my role as an enthusiastic coach is more important than what I teach: they can see that I dig what I do; they feel free to ask virtually anything; and I push them to do more than they would likely otherwise do.

I know that this isn’t what you were looking for, but I hope that it was, at least, interesting.

Sincerely,
Sam

Last edited by Sam Simian; 05-21-2008 at 02:51 PM.
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Old 05-21-2008, 03:20 PM
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Default Is this hyperbole?

"[E]ven if the students … are able to use the structure in a class environment, that doesn't mean they [are going to] use it error free for the rest of their lives. We've all had advanced students write or speak lower level mistakes."

Dear Maria,

I think that you’ve had much better results as a teacher than I have. On a good day, only the slimmest majority of my students can usually use any structure error free in class, and, with minor exceptions, I never assume that any of my students are going to use any structure error free anywhere else. Even if they spend the rest of their lives in the U.S., I assume that virtually all ESL students — including the very best students — are always going to "write or speak lower level mistakes." I consider that the rule, not the exception.

Sincerely,
Sam

Last edited by Sam Simian; 05-22-2008 at 01:07 AM.
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Old 05-21-2008, 10:34 PM
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Default

Betty talks about this dilemma in her essay The Final -S Problem: Does Teaching Grammar Help? Students Still Make Mistakes. “The Final -S Problem” is Betty's metaphor for the idea that students learn grammar rules and practice them, but then make mistakes using these rules in their output.

However, she doesn't really answer Maria's core questions. Given the fact that mastery is not a useful goal, what is the goal and how do you gage how much time to spend on a grammar point?

Sue
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Old 05-22-2008, 01:54 AM
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Default Too Simplistic?

“[If] all my students are able to form and use a grammar [point] at the end of 3 lessons [, does] that [mean] I shouldn't waste my time spending 4 or 5 lessons on it?”
— Maria Spelleri

Before enlightenment, chop wood carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood carry water.
— Buddhist Proverb

Dear Maria,

I’d say that you shouldn’t waste your time spending 4 or 5 lessons on a grammar point if the majority — let alone everyone — gets it after 3 lessons. However, if you decide that a given point is one of the “core points” (most important points) for your level, do not spend any more time on it after the majority gets it, but go back and review the material repeatedly in the future. If it isn’t a core concept, don’t spend any more time on it. Period.

Mastery will still be your goal, but you know the limitations that that term has. How much time will you spend on any given point? Again, if you're talking about a core point, spend however much time it takes for the majority to get it, and, later, review it as many times as you think the students need for the concept to stick with them. Enough time for the concept to “stick with them” has nothing to do with error free performance. The concept sticking with them is a matter of students generally understanding a given grammatical structure’s function whether they make mistakes (which is likely) or not, and it’s a matter of students saying, “Oh, yeh! That’s right,” when you point out a mistake. If it isn't a core point, spend however much time it takes for the majority to get it, and then you're done.

I think that teachers begin with a certain amount of naïveté: “I’m going to mold all of my students into native speakers. We’ll cover every point until they get it, check that point off our list, and move on to the next point.” However, teachers often end up with a sort of “enlightened naïveté”: “They’re never going to really get each point as I teach it — if ever, but teaching that way seems to produce the best results. And because they often forget stuff — especially if they don’t use it, I should review the important stuff so that it sticks with them.”

Sincerely,
Sam

Last edited by Sam Simian; 05-22-2008 at 07:20 AM.
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Old 05-22-2008, 04:55 PM
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Default not hyperbole!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Sam Simian View Post
"[E]ven if the students … are able to use the structure in a class environment, that doesn't mean they [are going to] use it error free for the rest of their lives. We've all had advanced students write or speak lower level mistakes."

Even if they spend the rest of their lives in the U.S., I assume that virtually all ESL students — including the very best students — are always going to "write or speak lower level mistakes." I consider that the rule, not the exception.

Sincerely,
Sam
Well, I guess it depends on if you are talking about, say, an error every 10 minutes of speech or an error every 2 minutes of speech. I've certainly had many professors from other countries who spoke error-free. I know college grads, former students who passed through the EAP program who speak error-free as well. I have also evaluated hundreds of TWE essays and have seen some incredibly eloquent and error-free timed writing by ESL students. My experiences would never allow me to assume there will "always" be mistakes.

Most lower level mistakes need to be ironed out if a student is going to succeed in college. Some errors that are problematic for many years are often overlooked by college instructors- problems like prepositions and determiners- as long as the errors do not impede comprehension of the paper too much. So if a student for whom English is a second language is writing in a college humanities, psychology, or astronomy class, for instance, and makes a few preposition errors, they will likely be overlooked. If the student makes a few article errors that do not really impede comprehension- overlooked. One or two forgotten 3rd person -s- overlooked- can happen to anyone. One or two incorrect verb forms that do not cause confusion- overlooked. However, if these were all on ONE paper, I know the instructors at the college where I teach would not consider this student college ready.
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Old 05-29-2008, 01:00 AM
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Default trying something new

I think I am going to try something new next semester. Every time we work on a structure in class, I am going to have students check it off on a list. We are going to work on noticing the grammar we cover in class in authentic or near authentic text or dialogue, and build up what we notice every week or so. Rather than thinking about success in the class as production, I am going to try to shift the emphasis to awareness and the ability to chose the correct grammar when faced with choices, something a bit more passive, but hopefully, more truly acquired.

My only concern is that students have to write in their writing class, so they still have to "produce" correct grammar- even if it isn't in my classes. Maybe focusing on awareness and correct choice will enable them to self-edit better even if they write with errors in the draft.

What do forum members think? Will this backfire? Will my students have wasted their semester?
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Old 05-30-2008, 01:35 AM
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Default I think it’s a perfect solution.

Dear Maria,

I think that your awareness raising methodology is the perfect solution — especially since you are going to examine “authentic or near authentic text or dialogue.” My semi-educated hunch is that even native English speakers need some conscious awareness of grammar in order to write well because the register of most written English — especially "Academic English" — is different than the register of most spoken English. It's hard to describe the difference simply and intelligently, but I would say that spoken English usually allows certain things — for example, fragments, false starts, repairs, and ellipsis — that written English usually does not allow. In other words, I do not think that your plan will backfire because I do not think that most students will ever be able to write well without that grammatical awareness that you are going to help provide.

I’m hardly a language maven like Safire or our own Grammar Guy. I couldn’t be one if I wanted to because they have both probably forgotten more than I will ever know. In fact, I think that the only reason that I know a little about Prescriptive English rules is because I teach ESL. (Even though I am a native English speaker who majored in English for more years than I will mention in public. As for spelling, I include the people who developed spell check in Word in my prayers every night.)

I agree with you when you write, “Maybe focusing on awareness and correct choice will enable them to self-edit better even if they write with errors in the draft.” My writing is OK, but that’s only because I read and reread what I’ve written a jillion times. Don’t you? If your first drafts aren’t littered with structural, spelling and grammatical errors, I’ll go buy a hat and take it off to you.

Sincerely,
Sam Simian

Last edited by Sam Simian; 05-30-2008 at 06:48 AM.
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