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Old 02-18-2008, 09:05 PM
Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz is offline
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Default meaning guides grammar and teaching

Betty says that one aspect of grammar teaching is “giving students the concept that language consists of predictable patterns that make what we say, read, hear, and write intelligible” (Betty’s comments on this site about David Mulroy’s book, The War Against Grammar).

I completely agree with Betty, and her statement leads me to a related consideration that I often face in my teaching of grammar and writing at Bellevue Community College (Washington State).

Many of my students get so focused on the correctness of their grammar, that I think they begin to overlook the importance of their intended meaning. When we work one-on-one, students often ask me about their sentence, “Is it correct?” They are, I believe, focused on the grammar of their sentence, as if this grammar somehow exists outside of the sentence's meaning.
Apparently, they don’t always see how these two are intertwined.

In these cases, I always respond to students by first asking, “Is the information that you wrote, what you wanted to write? Is it accurate according to what you know or believe?” Students often look at me in surprise when I ask this question, as if I’ve brought up an irrelevant point.

Then, I engage the student in a discussion about what they’ve written in order to make sure that it matches what they wanted to say. That is, we focus on their meaning, and on my understanding of their meaning based on what they’ve written.

This is often a slow process. However, it is always worth the effort. During this process, I ask students about their sentence, and I guess at their meaning, asking whether I’ve understood or not. If not, I try to give students options of ways to rewrite the sentence so that it matches their meaning more clearly. In this way, they are often able to “correct” their own grammar. In other words, they are able to align their words with their intended meaning. It seems to me that they enjoy this process, and sometimes, we even get a good laugh about the potential misunderstandings that are possible based on how a sentence is written.

In this way, I always seek to help students focus first on their meaning, and second on grammar as a tool for expressing their meaning.

I wonder if other teachers have similar experiences or observations to my own? And if so, what methods do they use to help students see this all-important connection between one’s intended meaning and one’s grammar?

Lynn S-Y
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Old 02-18-2008, 11:23 PM
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Sam Simian Sam Simian is offline
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Default Grammar and Meaning Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Dear Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz,

I’ve been teaching lower level noncredit ESL lately, but my experience has been somewhat similar. For example, I have a few dedicated students that I get together with once a week for a very informal conversation group at Starbucks. We’ve been getting together for about six months, but they will still sometimes say things like, “When I was a girl, I wanted … tried … hoped — which one is right?” I tell them that I have no idea what is right because I don’t know what they want to say. I explain that if they finish, then maybe I will understand what they mean. And if I understand what they mean, then I can help them say it.

In the classroom, it’s a little different because it’s harder to give individual students the time they need, but classroom instruction revolves around meaning, too. For example, after we’ve discussed the use of the simple present for habitual actions and present progressive for actions that are taking place right now, a student will often say, “Teacher, should I say, ‘I study English’ or ‘I’m studying English’?” I’ll say, “Well, that depends. Are you talking about something that you do every day, or are you talking about something that you are doing right now?” In a similar way, as we study new material, I try to show the students that different grammatical structures can often be used to talk about the same event; the choice is often up to them — how do they want to “describe” what they are talking about?

Speaking stereotypically, I’ve noticed that this focus on grammar without any concern for meaning is usually worse among Asian (Chinese, Korean, and Japanese) students. I’m not sure why this is the case, but my conversations with them lead me to think that it’s a product of their EFL (English as a Foreign Language) instruction. It seems as though grammar is taught in their home countries as if it were completely divorced from usage or meaning. They often tell me that EFL in their home country is, essentially, nothing more than preparation for a college entrance exam or a standardized test at work (in order to get a promotion).

I agree that meaning guides grammar, and grammar is important because it is one of the main ways that meaning is communicated. Your thoughtful post indicates that you see grammar and meaning as two sides of the same coin, and that just strikes me as common sense. However, one of Betty’s sample grammar questions in her post (WANTED: Questions about grammar teaching) suggests that common sense is woefully absent at some schools:
“I teach an advanced writing class in an intensive program. I occasionally mark grammar errors, but let most of them pass. I myself think I should include grammar instruction, but our curriculum director disagrees. What can I say to convince my director that my students need some grammar instruction?”
I don’t really know why some people in management are allowed to say such nonsense, but I’ve met some ESL/EFL management at some public and private schools who couldn’t teach grammar if their lives depended upon it, and I wonder if there’s any connection.

Sam Simian

Last edited by Sam Simian; 02-20-2008 at 08:02 AM.
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Old 02-19-2008, 12:00 AM
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Maria Maria is offline
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Posts: 130
Default Meaning First

Originally Posted by Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz View Post
In this way, I always seek to help students focus first on their meaning, and second on grammar as a tool for expressing their meaning.

I wonder if other teachers have similar experiences or observations to my own? And if so, what methods do they use to help students see this all-important connection between one’s intended meaning and one’s grammar?

Lynn S-Y
I try to follow the "meaning first" approach in writing classes. I have a set of revision guidelines that students use to peer review each other's first drafts. Not one of the guidelines has to do with grammar. They have to do with the content, components like a clear thesis, an obvious purpose for each paragraph, and sufficient explanation of each supporting point. The guidelines remind the peer reviewer to help the author identify parts that are unclear, undeveloped, or insufficiently explained. Only after the paper has been rewritten with meaning and content in mind do we address grammar issues.

I'll tell you, though, it is sometimes very hard to get the focus off grammar. I've even had students try to change their meaning to fit their grammar! I think that is why writing topics are so important. If students care about the topic, they will want their voice to be heard- not just whatever voice happens to be expressed by the grammar they've used!

Have you noticed that in both speaking activities and writing, the more meaningful the topic to the students, the harder they will work to make themselves understood?
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Old 02-19-2008, 06:13 PM
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Betty Azar Betty Azar is offline
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Default grammar as tool for expressing meaning

Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz wrote about helping students "focus first on their meaning, and second on grammar as a tool for expressing their meaning."

Exactly! What a wonderful description of the role of grammar: a tool for expressing meaning.

And that thought is echoed by Sam Simian when he speaks of grammar as one of the main ways meaning is communicated.

I used to do the same thing Lynn does with her students. When I was confronted with a grammatically iffy sentence with unclear meaning, my first question to the student was always, "What are you trying to say here?" First we sorted out the meaning; then we sorted out the grammar.

I was interested by Maria's approach of working on content and organization before addressing grammar. I never did it that way, but I would certainly experiment with her idea if I were still teaching a writing course.

One of the questions I believe the TESOL panel is going to address has to do with the best ways of dealing with writing errors. Thank you Lynn, Sam and Maria for giving me some more ideas to throw into the hopper!
Betty Azar
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Old 02-22-2008, 03:01 PM
S.A.R. S.A.R. is offline
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Hi, all!
This has been very interesting. One thing I'd like to mention to Sam Simian is that I'm amazed anybody in an intensive English program in higher education would not want to place some emphasis on grammar in a writing class. I can't help but assume that the students in that program are there for the most part to prepare to study in a North American college or university. Doesn't that mean their writing should be the best it can be with proper grammar? If this were an informal writing class, perhaps in adult ed. or in a continuing ed. program, then the ideas might be more important than the grammar, but since that's not the case, grammar has to be an important part of the writing curriculum in my opinion. Somebody needs to have a serious talk with that administrator, Sam.
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