16. Grammar for Language Teachers

This entry has the struc­ture of a sem­i­nar pre­sen­ta­tion. It was just that,  for Chi­nese teach­ers of Eng­lish in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China, May 2008. I hope that you find it provoca­tive enough to be use­ful.

Abstract: 1. What are we doing when we do gram­mar ? / 2. So what is grammar?/ 3. Where do the rules in book gram­mars come from ? / 4. So is gram­mar just about the links between words ? / 5. Lan­guage gram­mar always hap­pens at the same time as lots of other things in your brain / 6. What should gram­mar teach­ers teach ? / 7. Do stu­dents learn use­ful lan­guage con­trol from study­ing gram­mar books? / 8. Can teach­ers teach gram­mar? / 9. How can lan­guage teach­ers be most use­ful? / 10. Do gram­mar mis­takes mat­ter? / 11. Is accu­racy more impor­tant than flu­ency?


Think about the fol­low­ing –

1. What are we doing when we do gram­mar ?

1.1. Ducks _ _ _ _ [add one word / add one word / add one word …. com­plete this sen­tence ] (class game)

1.1.1. Why did you choose those words ?

1.1.2. Would native speak­ers choose the same words as L2 speak­ers on aver­age?

1.1.3 Would Aus­tralians choose the same words as Amer­i­cans?

2. So what is gram­mar?

2.1 Organic (nat­u­ral / cog­ni­tive) gram­mar is not the stuff you find in text books.

2.2. Organic gram­mar is a kind of knowl­edge your brain has about prob­a­bil­i­ties.

2.2.1 The prob­a­bil­i­ties are how likely one word is to fol­low the word in front of it (strongest con­trol), and how likely it is to fol­low all the other words which came before it (weaker). And …..

3. Where do the rules in book gram­mars come from ?

3.1 Mostly book gram­mars just copy exam­ples from other book gram­mars, even going back to the 18th Cen­tury.

3.2 Book gram­mars claim to state “rules”. How­ever, these are not rules about “how to make sen­tences in the future”, but descrip­tions about “how many sen­tences have been made in the past”.

3.3 Book gram­mars do NOT describe how ALL sen­tences have been made in the past. If you lis­ten to native speak­ers care­fully, you will find that they often make sen­tences in ways you won’t find in a gram­mar book !

3.3.1 “Nice day eh” is a pretty com­mon Eng­lish sen­tence. Most gram­mar books will tell you that it is wrong : it has no sub­ject. [More exam­ples of this later].

3.4 Book gram­mars CAN be use­ful if we under­stand that they are just exam­ples of SOME sen­tence pat­terns.

3.5 If you learn ALL the rules in a gram­mar book, you still will not be able to speak that lan­guage. Why? Because the gram­mar rules just state some AVERAGE PATTERNS. A native speaker knows many thou­sands of pat­terns not in any book.

4. So is gram­mar just about the links between words ?

4.1 No ! Gram­mar is also about the links between words and larger, non-lan­guage con­texts.

4.1.1 If I walk up to you and say with­out warn­ing : ” No that’s crazy. Onions are blue with red spots” … then you will think my lan­guage is crazy.

4.2 If I keep talk­ing like this, and you don’t have a con­text to put my onions in, you will stop lis­ten­ing. I’m not just mad, I’m bor­ing. This is exactly what gram­mar exer­cises do to the feel­ings of many lan­guage learn­ers.

4.3 If we are both watch­ing a TV show about onions on Mars, and we dis­agree about what we are see­ing, then my sen­tence might have mean­ing.

5. Lan­guage gram­mar always hap­pens at the same time as lots of other things in your brain

5.1 Why do cer­tain words come out of your mouth?

5.1.1 The words which come out of your mouth come from a mix of things in your brain :

a) Sen­sory per­cep­tions : what you are see­ing, hear­ing, etc.

b) The mem­ory of past events and expe­ri­ences

c) The habits of using cer­tain word pat­terns (gram­mar)

d) The pres­sure in your mind to say SOMETHING.

5.2 The mix of things in your brain which leads to talk varies a lot !

5.2.1 Peo­ple don’t just talk to com­mu­ni­cate ideas, or to describe the world.

5.2.2 Often peo­ple are unable NOT to talk. The lan­guage machine takes over their brain, and may get them into trou­ble. That is why mobile phones are addic­tive. They might really not have any­thing impor­tant to say.

5.2.3 The SECOND LANGUAGE machine in the brain of learn­ers is usu­ally very weak. There­fore the “bal­ance” of lan­guage they pro­duce (between a, b, c & d) is very unnat­u­ral, and the “bal­ance” of what they hear is also unnat­u­ral. At this moment, you Chi­nese speak­ers are strug­gling to lis­ten to me. It is very exhaust­ing, right?

6. What should gram­mar teach­ers teach ?

6.1 Teach­ers should teach what is LEARNABLE, not just what is TEACHABLE.

6.2 Many school gram­mar books are very teach­able. That is, they are neatly orga­nized, and the teacher knows exactly how to fill up the time in each lesson.

6.3 Most school gram­mar books are not at all learn­able. Would you read them in your spare time? Would you even read them on a long train trip? Of course not. They are bor­ing. They are frag­mented. There is noth­ing in them which is MEMORABLE.

7. Do stu­dents learn use­ful lan­guage con­trol from study­ing gram­mar books?

7.1 Some­times they do learn, depend­ing upon the stu­dent. Actu­ally, there is evi­dence that about 80% of stu­dents do not learn any­thing use­ful at all from doing gram­mar exer­cises. The knowl­edge mostly does not pass to the (sub­con­scious) part of their brain which pro­duces real lan­guage.

7.2 The main prob­lem is that we are ask­ing stu­dents to REVERSE ENGINEER real lan­guage from a few exam­ples of book gram­mar. This is ter­ri­bly inef­fi­cient.

7.3 In my expe­ri­ence, gram­mar books for learn­ers are most use­ful to CONFIRM some­thing they have already guessed. You should read a gram­mar rule and say “aha, I thought so!”.

7.4 In my expe­ri­ence, gram­mar books are least use­ful when you use them like a cook­ing recipe book : “hmm, now the book says I have to put a verb after this noun ….”

8. Can teach­ers teach gram­mar?

8.1 Teach­ers are gen­er­ally poor at teach­ing gram­mar for many rea­sons.

8.1.1 Most teach­ers have lit­tle idea of what gram­mar really is, and almost no idea of how the brain actu­ally makes lan­guage.

8.1.2 Most teach­ers do what they are told to do. Usu­ally that means, work­ing through a series of exer­cises in some assigned text book. This is hor­ri­bly inef­fi­cient.

8.1.3 Most teach­ers don’t want to spend the time to make up new mate­rial. If they are work­ing in L2 this is very dif­fi­cult any­way.

8.2 Suc­cess­ful gram­mar teach­ing is all about EXPLAINING to a stu­dent how to fix their real com­mu­ni­ca­tion fail­ures. It only works when the stu­dent WANTS to know why they have failed to com­mu­ni­cate suc­cess­fully.

9. How can lan­guage teach­ers be most use­ful?

9.2 Teach­ers can be most use­ful when they give stu­dents very inter­est­ing, but planned projects to do.

9.2.1 Life is not just about doing a gram­mar exer­cise in iso­la­tion, and nei­ther is real lan­guage learn­ing.

9.2.2 Gram­mar, vocab­u­lary, phonol­ogy, read­ing, writ­ing, lis­ten­ing etc. are cut up into “sub­jects” to make them “teach­able” and admin­is­tra­tively easy to mea­sure. This is dis­as­trous from a “learn­able” point of view.

9.3 All lan­guage teach­ing is a sim­u­la­tion of real life com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Real life com­mu­ni­ca­tion involves all modes, as the need arises.

9.4 A lan­guage teacher might plan to “focus” on some gram­mar point (for exam­ple) in a lesson, but from a stu­dent point of view, the lesson should not be about that gram­mar point. Stu­dents, usu­ally, have no inter­est in “gram­mar rule X”. They want to play the lan­guage game, not talk ABOUT it.

9.4.1 Lessons should be about some com­mu­nica­tive task – a story, a project, a dis­cus­sion, a busi­ness meet­ing, a nurs­ing pro­ce­dure … what­ever.

9.4.2 If the teacher is clever, she might trick the stu­dents into prac­tic­ing some lan­guage point by dis­guis­ing it, e.g. as a game.

10. Do gram­mar mis­takes mat­ter?

10.1 Native speak­ers appear to make huge num­bers of gram­mar mis­takes, if we com­pare their speech to what you find in text books.

10.1.1 Native speak­ers rarely notice each other’s gram­mar mis­takes, because they are lis­ten­ing for mean­ing. In fact, the listener’s brain “cor­rects” many errors auto­mat­i­cally with­out the lis­tener her­self notic­ing.

10.1.2 Native speak­ers are much less tol­er­ant of L2 speak­ers’ gram­mar mis­takes. Why? Because as soon as they hear a non native accent, they EXPECT the speaker to make mis­takes !

10.2 Every­one learn­ing a lan­guage makes mis­takes con­stantly. Some mis­takes are LOCAL ERRORS which don’t inter­fere with mean­ing much. Some mis­takes are global errors, which means the lis­tener con­fuses the mes­sage.

10.3 Most lan­guage teach­ers spend much more time cor­rect­ing local errors than they spend cor­rect­ing global errors. This is stu­pid. Teach­ers do this because local errors are easy to explain from text books.

11. Is accu­racy more impor­tant than flu­ency?

11.1 The first step in lan­guage learn­ing is to gain some con­fi­dence in using the lan­guage. That is, the learner needs to gain some flu­ency.

11.1.2 Up to inter­me­di­ate stage, flu­ency often comes at the expense of accu­racy. This is OK, in my view. The accu­racy can come later. How­ever, inac­cu­racy is hard for teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors to accept, because they don’t know how to give marks for mere flu­ency.

11.2 After inter­me­di­ate stage (espe­cially) teach­ers need to encour­age some accu­racy in stu­dent lan­guage use. This doesn’t have to be in every lesson. In sports train­ing, we have hard runs fol­lowed by easy runs to relax the mus­cles. It needs to be the same with lan­guage learn­ing. Some lessons can be very focused on accu­racy. Oth­ers can be more relaxed.

Gram­mar for Lan­guage Teach­ers
copy­righted © Thorold (Thor) May 2008
all rights reserved, http://.thormay.net
thor­may AT yahoo.com

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