TEFL soundbite of the month

…is not strictly of the month at all, as it’s from a blog that was last updated in 2007, but it was such a great random find I thought I’d stick it up anyway:

“In education, as in most professional fields, methodologies and hot topics of discussion take their place on center stage, make head-turning fashion statements, and quickly disappear into dimly lit theater wings. But the teaching of grammar is one of those hot topics that never completely leave the stage; and methodologies abound for its teaching and even for its avoidance.”

and though it’s maybe more style than substance (actually a nice change in TEFL writing), the body of the same article has this interesting nugget:

“In 1999, Borg observed and interviewed five teachers of English as a foreign language. He wanted to find out whether they had pedagogical reasons for incorporating regular grammar lessons into their curriculum — specifically, did teachers believe their students benefited from grammar instruction? In all cases, teachers admitted they did not believe grammar instruction had any positive effect on students; nonetheless, they continued to teach it. They did so, concludes Borg, because students expect it”

That’s almost true for me too, and seems like a perfectly good reason. Anyone else got any comments on this or on whether or how we should teach grammar generally?

This entry was posted in Academic writing, Error correction, Grammar, links, Skills, TEFL, Writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to TEFL soundbite of the month

  1. Sandy says:

    Or rather, many EFL teachers claim in public that grammar does not aid language learning / aqcuisition, but continue to teach it because … they feel they’re probably wrong, but don’t want to say so openly.

    A case of inverted heretics?

  2. Alex Case says:

    Could well be that too…

    Another question I’d be interested in hearing about would be things you found useful in your own language learning but don’t use in class as a teacher. For me, that would be going through a reading text and explaining what every difficult bit means

    and probably some others which I haven’t thought of yet

  3. Andy Mallory says:

    When I learned French (which I did mainly in my late 20s – despite having a grade A at ‘O’ level which gave me some basic grammar and vocab I had zero speaking and realtime listening skills) my teacher recommended I used a good dictionary to look up every new word/expression in all the lesson materials and write example sentences using them – she emphasized that these sentences must truly express a fact or opinion that was important to me. I took this to heart and spent 3-6 hours a week working on the vocab from a 3 hour lesson!

    A huge amount of work but extremely effective for absorbing large amounts of vocabulary. I’ve recommended this to a number of students in passing, but have never tasked a whole class to do this. I just know 99% of learners are too casual about learning English to bother.

    I think people persist in teaching grammar because that is how most (all?) course books and therefore courses are structured. I usually go to the resources book and pull out the practice activity for the grammar point, then I point out the difficulties students are having and get them to self correct/peer correct for it. Finally, if needed, they remind me of the grammar rules or look in the grammar resource. I refer students to the workbook for extra practice if they have it, but I don’t believe this kind of practice is really very effective. If I used a workbook activity It’d be laminated, cut up and stuck to the walls while students walked round and did each one in pairs while I monitored for pronunciation and other errors.

    Students do need to learn grammar – but I think ‘teaching grammar’ is lazy and too often means PPP type lessons.

    As an aside, once when I was observing a TESOLcert course, they had the session on PPP and the trainees loved it! Here was a formulaic answer to all their lesson planning woes. At the end the trainer turned to me and asked what is wrong with PPP – my answer? Looks great, just doesn’t work.

    But PPP grammar lessons DO work in one important way – they fill up hours and hours of your working week with little or no preparation. Choose unit from Murphy et al, talk through the examples, students do questions, feedback….5 minute free practice activity in which the students studiously avoid the target language! Been there, done that – not going to do it again. Some teachers never even consider if this is a valid use of class time, others justify it because the learners are ‘still getting it wrong’.

  4. Troy says:

    I suppose you also have to consider why your learners are learning the language in the first place. If you’re teaching business English, maybe grammar is less important than functions or vocab, but if you’re teaching teenagers (the lion’s share of work here in Spain outside Madrid) who need to pass gap fill based exams at school, the paying parents won’t be too pleased if they don’t pass.

  5. nicky says:

    I’m with you Troy, most BE students are starved for vocabulary and are quite happy with lessons centered on their lexical fields/buzzwords of choice. From a grammar standpoint many times you just end up doing correction slot after correction slot trying to deal with fossilized errors. Thems the brakes…

    …and of course, with the teens, if the FCE is testing for, oh, I don’t know, past modals of deduction, well you spend an inordinate amount of time on those little things that, in other circumstances you might not consider all that important for their personal communicative goals.

    It’s all a matter of calling your spots, no? And in that respect a textbook, PPP-style lesson every now and again isn’t completely inappropriate. Far from it. The problem is that many times people think, “well, I presented non-defining relative clauses, they’ve done that, well then, let’s move on.” Maybe they studiously avoid the target language after they’ve first been exposed to it in one lesson; the challenge then is to continue to find new ways of bringing it to their attention and engaging them with it.

    Sounds so easy, doesn’t it :-/

  6. Alex Case says:

    The problem with doing error correction without ever sitting down to study grammar is- how can you explain why something is wrong if they have never studied the jargon or had the forms that you would contrast it with explained to them? And how is that error correction supposed to work if you don’t give them a chance to practice using the corrected form? And then perhaps you’d like to see them use it in free speaking. Hmm, presentation (by error correction), practice and then production, what does that remind me of??

  7. Andy Mallory says:

    Nearly all the students I’ve worked with have a lot of English grammar knowledge from school or self study (not always correct of course!). So there’s always been a few students who could try to explain why something is wrong.

    It certainly does depend who your students are and the comments about modals of past deduction really brought back some memories! Interesting thread.

  8. Alex Case says:

    Me too. And therein lies another very interesting question- are we making false assumptions about how our teaching techniques work in general because someone else is doing all the hard work of grammar teaching, explaining things in L1 and basically getting our students ready?

  9. Andy Mallory says:

    Absolutely! TEFL methods get students speaking and using language better than the lessons in L1 that most students get in school or university. But I’m suspicious that we are wasting a lot of time trying to ‘teach’ grammar using L2 only when it could be done far quicker in L1…

    Add to this the use of L1 in class or outside of class that helps students understand what we have ‘taught’. The same thing happens in regular school…the system takes credit for a lot of extra-curricula work done by parents, older siblings, private tutors et al.

  10. nicky says:

    Hmm, yessss…having spent lots of afternoon hours as a sort of glorified tutor for school-aged kids, I have had just this same suspicion (that someone else is doing all the hard work). In their case because it was patently obvious that they had other sources of grammar instruction–their teachers at school.

    (Of course, they always try to suck up by telling you oh, you explain every thing so much better than the teacher at school la la la…brownnosers!)

    But rich-kid private students aside, I suppose though that all students–excepting pre-school kids and pure beginners–have had some prior exposure to some type of English grammar, whether from their school days, other language courses they’ve done, or self-study. Very few times have I ever really come upon a true blank slate. Never, actually.

    To wrap up my contribution here, i’d just like to go back to something from the original post–the idea that teachers teach grammar because students expect it, and that that is a “perfectly good reason”. I agree wholeheartedly.

    I feel the key is the second P, the practice. Outmoded techniques for doing controlled practice seem to be what gives studying grammar (and the whole PPP thingy) a bad rap.

  11. Troy says:

    What about when the learners have studiously studied Bonk in Russian and got the grammar wrong!

    Sorry, a little bit of a twist there.

  12. Alex Case says:

    I’m not sure how bonking Russians messes up your grammar. Will I really regret asking how?

  13. Pete Swilks says:

    Like Latvians and the word for soup!

  14. Troy says:

    No need for regrets Alex…Though a good guess. While teaching in Azerbaijan, I was often told that all learners of English used to use a book by a man named Bonk during the USSR.

    In the book it said that the only way to express the future in English was by using ‘will’.

    Try tell a stubborn Soviet differently and watch your grammar lesson go up in smoke.

  15. Alex Case says:

    Aha, now all I need to clear up is how soup for Latvians is like bonking for Russians

  16. Andy Mallory says:

    Maybe like ‘do’ for Vietnamese??

  17. anonymous says:

    LIES AND SLANDER spread by alex lower case, that NOTORIOUS conduit of all that is BASE and VILe on the twittering blogostocks, put the idiots in the stocks and mock ABUSE and VILLIFY him that is YOUR strategy. IT WILL NOT WORK.

  18. Andy Mallory says:

    I thought Alex’s strategy was to allow the idiots a forum in which they could incriminate themselves…And that seems to be working all too well.

    I personally wouldn’t mind a delay between posting and a message appearing if it prevented some of the pointless comments like the above. Up to you Alex.

  19. Sandy says:

    Leave it out, Andy. Let the loonies have their day out, their walk in the park. You wouldn’t deny that simple pleasure to a senile bugger like Paul Lowe, would you?

    Anyway, it makes a nice contrast to all the serious stuff about the Russian Bonk (I’ve seen the books myself – they do exist!) and Latvian soup, dunnit?!

  20. Alex Case says:

    Don’t really have a strategy, just kind of making it up as I go along. My basic ideas are:
    – Attacks on me are better than attacks on others
    – The basic idea is to allow, with editing, deleting and banning being used minimally, and mainly for getting repetitive or completely off the track in a long series of comments
    – But I reserve the right to delete in a fit of pique whenever I like

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