Do no harm?

As no one seemed to think we TEFLers have much to learn from Evidence Based Medicine, I’ve been wondering for a while whether we can take something else from the knowledge of our medical friends and at least make sure we do no harm. Shouldn’t be difficult hey- a grammar explanation ain’t gonna lead to accuracy in the near future, but it could help and at least isn’t likely to have negative effects years down the line like taking the wrong kinds of drugs. Or is it?

“When Schooler did this experiment with a whole sheet of insight puzzles, he found that people who were asked to explain themselves ended up solving 30 percent fewer problems than those who weren’t. In short, when you write down your thoughts, your chances of having the flash of insight you need in order to come up with a solution are significantly impaired- just as describing the face of your waitress made you unable to pick her out in a police lineup”

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell pg 121

If that does extend to language learning, that would mean teaching students a rule for the Present Perfect would hold them back in making their own subconscious rules. My own experience is that grammar rules help me test and improve my internal subconscious ones, but still worth thinking about.

Anyone here who does think that conscious grammar instruction could have negative long term consequences and so not match “Do no harm?” Any other candidates for things to be avoided just in case? Here are some (in no particular order):

1. Being forced to speak too early, i.e. not having a silent period

2. Getting used to just communicating and so allowing errors to become fossilized

3. Learning too much vocabulary before you regularly produce the language and so searching for the perfect word all the time

4. Too much correction

5. A teacher who put you off the subject forever

6. A teacher or whole education system that concentrates on one thing, e.g. grammar, too much

7. Being introduced to a particular factor of the language, e.g. formality, too late

8. Reading Shakespeare

9. Reading a lot in English without much listening and so getting wrong pronunciations stuck in your head

10. A chronic hit to your confidence

11. Translation

12. A bad dictionary

13. Wrong but easy to remember grammar rules

14. Things that were wrong but you were taught over and over in school, e.g. “drunken” for “drunk” (one my own students don’t seem to be able to get over)

15. Using a particular wrong thing, e.g. a false friend, for years without being corrected

16. Harry Potter

17. Starting the language too late

18. Starting language learning in general too late

19. Having English on in the background and so getting the subconscious idea that it is something that can be safely ignored

20. Ditto for not needing to concentrate in school English lessons

21. Getting a subconscious connection between English and boredom and therefore switching off

22. Getting too used to fun activities, e.g. classroom games, and so not being able to get down to the hard slog of language learning

23. Overusing one successful method of language learning that you then find you can’t give up even though it doesn’t take you any further

24. Picking up such a perfect Glasgow accent that only Glaswegians can understand you

25. Ditto for Belfast

26. Using a method where you eventually understand every word, e.g. watching the same episode of Friends over and over, and so losing the ability to cope with unknown language while listening

27. Association of English with a hated nationality/ class/ political system/ TV show

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11 Responses to Do no harm?

  1. SandyM says:

    Blue?! You’ve gone all Tory on us, Alex. Shame on you!

  2. You can hardly expect me not to say something here because it is so bleeding obvious. The problem is not that we give them the present perfect… one rule, one situation – answers easy.

    But it’s not one rule, now is it because language is all bendy and twisty and relies so heavily on context.

    That’s not it though, why we limit our students from stretching and reaching potentials (that is those who go page by page through their course books)…

    The harm, Alex, is in the
    week 1 present simple
    week 2 present continuous
    week 3 past simple
    week 4 past continuous and past simple
    week 5 present perfect
    week 6 present perfect and past simple
    week 7 first conditional
    week 8 second conditional

    alright, I’m exaggerating… but really, really?

    Why do teachers do this? Why not hang about in present simple ’til it’s gone from learning to normalization and that 3rd person s problem’s disappeared…

    Do we really need to toss them out of their hospital bends and rush the “healing” by moving on to the next bitter pill.


  3. Alex Case says:

    “Why not hang about in present simple ’til it’s gone from learning to normalization and that 3rd person s problem’s disappeared…”

    because it’s going to take years for them to get the third person s anyway, so there’s no point spending more time banging on about it

    Do you really think a grammar syllabus as you describe is going to leave them permanently scarred, as is the topic of this post?

  4. Yup.

    And I disagree – I think that the teachers don’t hang about to bang about because they’re bored of it – not the students.

    In fact, I’d go as far as to say that basically “beginner” level students should never move beyond the three simples + the continuous until these are so ingrained and normalized that they do them at a snap without thinking.

    We don’t build houses by doing half a construction site and hope it’ll turn into a beautiful mansion all by itself. I say make sure the foundation is firm before looking for which colour curtain will best match the couch.


    So yes, it does great harm to move our students on so quickly because we have a syllabus or the textbook says it’s time to discuss the next grammar unit.

    And actually, that’s one of the reasons I rely so heavily on the dogme and leave the books altogether: FOCUS = communication not some random exam they’ll pass or fail by correctly guessing a) b) or c). I want my students to understand and then to use the language as if it were natural.

    Back in the day, when using Vicki Hollett’s Business Obj/Opps books she spent some time exploring the language: back and forth, back and forth – but there’s no way the books are doing that today, it’s all flash and dash and crowded pages: hate ’em.

    But you know that.


  5. Oh by the way, sorry for the typos – potentials, hospital beds etc 😦

  6. Wendy Shaw says:

    Present simple is so bloomin’ complex compared with past simple, for example. I think it is damaging to keep banging on with something that is of marginal use to the beginner (do you really go round telling people your daily routine, I mean – how useful is that?) when they can be doing something easy – I played, you played, he played, she played, it played…we all played – and actually engage in real communication, like they do in their native tongue.
    Time constraints in school usually mean grammar teaching has to be rules based because that’s quicker, but I think that the rule should be pointed out after the item has been acquired (at beginner – intermediate level at least).
    But that’s just me.

  7. Alex Case says:

    I’m imagining Karenne hasn’t explained herself very well, because at the moment I’m taking it the same way as you Wendy and it makes no sense to me at all.
    – Does anyone take the language learning as house building metaphor seriously? Wasn’t this what PPP was supposed to be guilty of imagining the process consisted of?
    – Third person s is late acquired. There is little you can do about that and little point in trying, because it has zero communicative function in the vast majority of English sentences (and anyway disappears if the next word starts with an s)
    – It takes time off a grammar point (etc) for it to get comfortable in your subconscious and you may as well spend that time doing something else

    My objection has nothing to do with anyone getting bored, as I’ve got fun Present Simple speaking activities coming out of my ears. In fact, I think I’m usually guilty of spending another lesson on a topic just because I have an interesting thing we can do with it, when actually it would be better to move on and let them ruminate on the point, see it in context, experiment with it, and mix it up with other forms when they are concentrating on something else. My objection is that what you have written there (which again I am hoping just needs clarifying) doesn’t match anything I’ve read about language learning or experienced myself as a language learner.

    Do agree with modern textbooks though. It all started with short courses for the UK EFL market, where it kind of makes sense to rush through the language and have the time to let it sink into your subconscious when you get back home. Mix in Spanish students asking for new grammar rather than grammar practice, plus some other market research crap, and there are the modern textbooks. More recycling they most certainly do need, but not by sticking on one point. Here’s my own idea on how proper recycling would work:

  8. Wendy Shaw says:

    Not sure what it was I wrote that needs clarifying…What I mean is just that when students get the hang of past simple there’s no stopping them – it’s like a whole world of meaningful communication opens up for them which they can pretty much achieve with tools already at their command. They’re much more likely to offer info like ‘I played football last night’ than ‘I often play football after school.’ The latter is (I think) part of a more sophisticated discussion and not the sort of thing a ten year old is going to need.
    I’ve grown to loathe the way courses present present simple and then contrast it with present continuous and expect students to be able to use it. Getting to past simple is like a bresh of fresh air – just add ‘ed’ and you can actually tell your teacher something that is real for you as a learner. Plus, you can then do irregular verbs on a need-to-know basis.
    I’ve read research which suggests that teaching first language grammar inhibits language production, although obviously one is fully immersed in one’s native language, unlike the two/three hours a week in a foreign language classroom where a more formal structure is essential.
    I have an aversion to course books too – I tend to prefer guided theme or project based learning.

  9. I’ve got to get back to you guys – I found something somewhere and my bookmarks are failing me on the percentages of which tenses we use in most speech… when I find it I’ll come back.


    p.s. Alex add your subscribe to comments button 🙂

  10. Jonathan Aichele says:

    “Present simple is so bloomin’ complex compared with past simple, for example. I think it is damaging to keep banging on with something that is of marginal use to the beginner.”

    Does it have to be, though? I tend to find Lewis’ description of Present Simple a pretty compelling one, and quite elegant in its simplicity. It has gone over well every time I pitched it to students. [not that that necessarily improves their accuracy with the structure! 🙂 ]

  11. Alex Case says:

    Meant that Karenne needs to clarify, Wendy. Pretty much agree with what you put

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