Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"English Naturally"

By Pete Marchetto

This is an idea I've come up with; if anyone else wants to follow this as a blueprint then go ahead. I should be interested to know how you get on.

I set up the 'English Naturally' idea in the first instance with printed sheets giving a broad outline of the idea for circulation amongst the students; if they email me this is what they get in return:


Two English people once told me how they learned French. They had gone to a college in France and the two of them - sharing a room - decided to try doing EVERYTHING using French and French alone. They only spoke French with each other and with other students who would let them do so. They watched French television and listened to French radio. They only read French books.

They didn't know much French before they arrived at the college and at first their idea proved a considerable strain. For a few months they fell over their words and their grammar, became frustrated, were tempted to stop altogether and start speaking English again... but they persevered. At the end of that few months they realised - to their surprise - that using French had become perfectly natural for them. They thought in French, spoke French without realising it, had come to enjoy their own favourite French television programmes and reading their favourite French authors - they were using French naturally as part of their daily lives as if it was English.

I know that many students on campus have tried to follow similar ideas with English but failed. That failure, again and again, comes from the fact that too many other students in their classes and dormitories are not willing to persevere with the idea. It's hard enough to do as it is at first, without trying to do it in a room with everyone else there speaking Chinese!

Although there are easily enough students on campus who are willing to persevere to make the idea work you are all in different departments and don't know one another. The idea of 'English Naturally' is to put you all in contact with each other.

Once you've made contact then it's up to you. You can arrange to meet other members for lunch or dinner in the canteen; meet together of an evening in the square; arrange a football or basketball match; go shopping with one another at weekends; meet one another in the holidays if you live close enough or email and telephone each other; anything you can think of, doing it all with the agreement that, whatever you do, you do it in English. The idea is not for all of you to meet as a group - though that would be good from time to time - but for all of you in the group to know who one another is and to agree that your friendships with one another are to be in English only. You can all make a list of the English language books, videos, tapes, VCDs, magazines etc. that you own so that other members can borrow them, finding things that interest them that they want to see, read or hear. There are dozens of things you can do with other members of 'English Naturally'; anything, in fact, that you would usually do in Chinese, only doing it in English instead.

That, however, is an important point - to do things in English you would usually do in Chinese. 'English Naturally' should use English NATURALLY. Don't set up speaking competitions, conversations with set topics, study corners or exchange text books; use English to communicate what you WANT to communicate; to read things you WANT to read and watch things you WANT to watch; to meet people when you WANT to meet them to do the things you WANT to do. Use 'English Naturally' to use English as you would use Chinese and not to do more work. Use it for fun and fun alone. It will help your studies, of course - tremendously if you do it enough - but don't think of that while you are doing it; just enjoy it.

'English Naturally' should be arranged BY students FOR students. It will be up to all of you to find other people who want to join in and to arrange things for yourselves. If you are dedicated enough to the idea it should work really well but you must be willing to BE dedicated. Start speaking Chinese with 'English Naturally' members and the whole thing will fall apart.

For 'English Naturally' to work, your commitment is everything. If you have felt the need for an English environment, now is your chance to help create one but you must do it properly and be willing to focus your time and energy on it. Remember, 'English Naturally' doesn't involve more work as such; all it means is you doing things you would naturally do - playing games, going shopping, chatting in the canteen, reading books, listening to the radio, watching VCDs - only in English and not in Chinese.

If you've always wanted an English-speaking environment then now is your chance but remember - it's not for me to create it. It's for you.

Handling troubles with the job

By Ruth McAllister - Guangzhou, China

One teacher said on working in China: "...the best you can do is let go of assumptions and expectations and just go with the flow, even when it feels as though you should swim against the current!"

I think it is also important to not be taken advantage of in China or in any other job anywhere else. For example, if the school suddenly says you MUST teach 10 extra classes per week, it would not be a good idea to go with the flow. Then all subsequent teachers there would be expected to accept sudden huge changes in work load without complaining. Yes, sometimes the Chinese teachers labour under such loads. But there are also heads of dept who get by with a couple of classes a week.

I prefer to think of teaching in China in this way. Be a person with a backbone, not a jellyfish or a brick wall. Barbara Coloroso says this about parenting as well. Bend when need be but show strength when unfairness is evident. Contracts need to be respected by both sides.

Group work organization

By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan, Anhui, China

In my first year in China I was really disappointed in how my students (mostly college freshmen) were doing group activities - or not doing them! I was stumped as to how to manage the classroom to achieve anything better. Various people gave lots of suggestions, and I want to say thank you again for all the help.

This semester all my classes are college freshmen - many barely able to say anything. This semester I got the college to get us the Cambridge Skills for Fluency Speaking (2) book, which I’m now using with them. It’s a task/activity book, unlike anything they’ve ever used or done before, and there are lots of group activities in it. I have 7 classes, all of 30 to 35 students. Each class is now divided into 5 groups, on the basis of their exam marks from last semester’s oral classes. Each group has a manager, a secretary, a monitor (responsible for collecting and returning any written work, etc), a timekeeper and a coach. For a couple of weeks this all felt a real uphill struggle, but suddenly they’re getting their heads round this way of working and the classes are working much better. I’m asking groups to do many activities ending up with a presentation to the whole class, which I tape and mark, and which they’re getting better and better at both doing and listening to.

During the activities I can spend a few minutes with each group, and a bit more time with one particular group. But what’s really nice is that I’m able to relate much more to the students as individuals this way - even though there are exactly the same number of students in the classroom. In their small groups, I can relate to them much more personally, and even though it’s only ever for a short time, it seems to have much more effect than when they were either in the whole class group, in pairs, or in changing groups (i.e. different people in a group from week to week). I feel that they’re developing a different sort of working relationship with me now, as well as my getting to know each of them better. This has been an unexpected bonus and helped me greatly to start to get my head around how to teach using group-work as well as using task-based activities as the dominant method.

This experience has also made me think about some of the recent discussion about our various training courses and qualifications (or lack of them). I did a CELTA course and have about 7 years teaching experience, most of which has been TEFL. I’m in my second year here in China. On reflection, I think my CELTA course assumed group activities would work, it certainly didn’t go into any depth about how to literally train students to work in this way. I think I’d have only got that sort of depth of training on a one-year full-time sort of teacher training course. In Europe I’d used group work and used it successfully. I’d never before had classes entirely of students with no experience of this as a way of working, and didn’t really appreciate how alien it would be to them. My students are not high-scorers in the college entrance test, so will possibly have taken longer to get their heads around this than maybe students will in some of the places other people are teaching. But nevertheless, I’m having to learn as much as they are as regards methodology - and I do wish I’d got more training, not less.

Foreign teachers in China

By Don YD Chen - Liuzhou, Guangxi, China

I have been working with foreign teachers working in Chinese institutions for many years and have alway been in good terms with them. I, as a Chinese teacher of English, fully understand their situations in this vast land, where the culture is so diverse that one can hardly avoid continuous shocks such culture shocks, food shocks or shocks of whatever one can imagine, in the first few months (or a year). Worse, there are students whose enthusiasm shrinks soon after they discover that foreign teachers are not good at teaching them 'to pass exams'.

Get ready for China

By Leslie Sirag/R.L."Seth" Watkins - Olympia, WA, USA

The first and most important thing we learned about China in our first year of teaching there is that everything we thought we knew was wrong. I don't think anything can really prepare you--the best you can do is let go of assumptions and expectations and just go with the flow, even when it feels as though you should swim against the current!

Speaking of elision

By Karen Stanley - Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

I work with students teaching them elision on a regular basis right from the very beginning. Most listening-speaking books and pronunciation books include lessons on at least recognizing elided sounds starting with the lowest levels. It is possible to introduce it in an organized way, focusing on different parts of the whole system of elision. With the exercises I do, I often end up commenting on a mix of different aspects of pronunciation even though the specific lesson itself may have focused on just one or two.

One important aspect is that stress and intonation on both a sentence and word level are very important in English to being comprehensible, and if students elide their words just as ALL native speakers do ALL the time, we understand them better. Elided speech is not "slang" - it is a *regular* feature of all spoken English, although I've had native speakers tell me "I don't do that" just before doing it in their own speech.

I have found that students who have difficulty with final consonants, often because of coming from a language with a CV (consonant-vowel) syllable structure, become much more comprehensible when they use elided speech because much of English, when it is spoken, actually moves into a CV structure. That is, final consonants are often pronounced with the beginnings of the next word.

Something very important for Chinese speakers, though, is to recognize a couple of things about the length of vowel sounds; this is related to some degree to elision:

(1) vowel sounds in stressed syllables get more time than those in unstressed syllables - Chinese speakers generally want to give all vowel sounds the same amount of time, rendering their speech *much* less comprehensible, and

(2) a voiced consonant lengthens the time given to the vowel before it. Often, in fact, we don't pronounce the final consonant (it's an "unreleased" consonant, similar to a glottal stop, especially before a word that starts with a consonant), and our knowledge of whether someone said "had" or "hat" comes not from /t/ or /d/ but from how much time the 'a' gets.

One book (now out in a new edition, which I haven't seen) which presents the sounds from at least a recognition aspect is "Whaddaya say" by Nina Weinstein. However, in the first edition, although she has students learn elided forms for recognition, she tells students (more or less) to use citation (dictionary) pronunciation, which I disagree with. None of us actually pronounce one word separately from the next when we are speaking (try really doing that some time if you disagree). So, I think telling students to use citation form actually *decreases* students' comprehensibility. However, I agree that elision needs to be explained in an organized way, because getting it wrong is just as bad as getting any other aspect of pronunciation wrong.

Blurb from the book:
"Whaddya gonna git? I dunno. Wanna go fer a soda? Is this English? You bet it is--this is what English often sounds like in everyday life--and now students can understand it, too through this user-friendly listening program! The 30 humorously illustrated, workbook-size units tackle the most common reduced forms such as wanna, gonna, and gotta. Each chapter opens with a conversation (dialogue) on a "hip" topic from the Internet to bungee jumping. Students listen to the conversation spoken with careful, slow pronunciation. They contrast this pronunciation with the same segment spoken with relaxed, fast speech that uses target reduced forms. All scripts are in the book for optional "following along." After the conversation, students complete comprehension questions and a translation exercise. They then expand their practice by listening to a continued segment of the conversation, doing a fill-in-the-blanks exercise, and working in small groups to discuss final questions. Ten review tests appear at the back of the book and at the end of the audio program."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Playing Probe with students

By Joseph Lee

There is an old word board game called Probe, made by Parker Brothers. I don't know if it is available in stores now. The game is for max of four players, eight if two sets are used. Each player has a stripboard of 12 spaces. Using alphabets on cards, each player forms a word and puts them in the right order hidden (upside down) on the strip. Each space has a different number of points. The players then try to guess the others' words in turn. Each time a letter is guessed right, the guessing player would get the number of points of the space of the letter. That letter will stay exposed. The player who guesses correctly the word gets a lot of points. I came across this game not too long ago and have not used in any ESL context, so I don't know how useful it is. But I would think it might be fun to give it a try.

The games teachers play

By E. Snader

My students, sophomore English majors, enjoy TABOO. We make the rules fit the level they are at. If they are very low, they use the words provided on the card. In a class, we divide the group into three teams and become competitive. In my home, as many students as want to can join our circle and participate. The fun is in learning new words, not in keeping score for them.

The UNGAME is another card game I use sometimes when they run out of topics to talk about.

In smaller groups or with partners , SCATTERGORIES can be lots of fun.

I have 180 students and only teach them every other week. I have two afternnoons a week when they can come to my home to play games, talk, or ask questions. This is often a fun time to play word games and develop language skills in a small group.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Assessing with the Council of Europe Framework

By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma'anshan, China

Lots of us are trying to develop tests appropriate for the situations we're teaching in. One document I'd recommend, because I've found it enormously helpful, is the Council of Europe Framework, which is on the Internet, as a downloadable pdf file (for which you need to have Adobe Acrobat Reader on your machine). I like the document for several reasons.

The work behind it is the work of a large number of experts across Europe, who've developed one framework to cover the teaching (and testing) of any of the languages taught and used in Europe - which of course includes a variety of non-European languages. In other words, the whole thing is language independent. I understand it to be very much a reflection of the most up to date understanding we have of measuring language performance. The particular document in question is the latest version, the result of many revisions.

The document addresses the fundamental questions in all this, and looks at every dimension conceivable - so I can use it as a basis for testing speaking, listening, reading, anything. It looks at things on general levels and on detailed specific levels - so you can home in on the level that is relevant for you at the moment.

Because this framework is as comprehensive as it is, it lets me think up a variety of activities for the form of my tests, activities that reflect the students experiences and what they've done in a course. But at the same time it's kept me very much on track, enabling me to see clearly what level our target it.

Because it's not language-specific, you can test yourself (there's one section on self-testing) for your Chinese to see how this sort of approach works.

Someone also commented about examiners' ability not to be swayed - well, I think what allows me to be more objective is using a number of scales and criteria when I test. For example, this semester my college end-of-first-year students will get some marks for pronunciation (because we've done quite a bit of pronunciation work on their Oral English classes), some marks for fluency, some marks for grammar, some marks for vocabulary/lexis and some marks for coherence.

I'm also thinking about including some marks for how they deal with problems - repair work, asking for help, paraphrasing, miming, using fillers to gain thinking time and to fill a silence, and the suchlike - what's called strategic competence. My criteria for vocab/lexis and grammar will not be whether they demonstrate use of anything in particular, but in how effective they are at communicating successfully -do their errors interfere with communication, or hinder it, or render it impossible! This is because I teach college English majors - I think testing for specific aspects of these dimensions is the responsibility of other teachers in other classes. but at the same time, my students do realise that I consider grammar and lexis to be seriously important.

As regards a quick test, my experience, and the experience of other testing large numbers quickly for summer schools (in UK language schools), is that in an informal chat of around 5 minutes, grading only on a 5 point scale (with very easy to understand scoring 5) is a remarkably effective tool in the hands of a native speaker. Even on the most mundane of topics (your home town, your family), it sorts the lower from the higher from the in betweens. I did this at the beginning of this year with my 225 new students, and on subsequent reflection, having taught them now for 2 semesters, remarkably few of my initial assessments were wrong, and none were way off.

What's interesting is looking back at their subsequent development! The value for me is how much respect I have for the students who got a low rating at the beginning who would only now get a middle rating - but wow, what progress! In each band, I can see students who have really made big efforts and made progress, and I can also see students who've made almost no progress. Of those, a small number are not interested in the effort it entails (basketball etc is more important), but I also have one or two who I realise are making efforts but little progress. I think that initial testing and placement has really helped me, and I plan to do it for future Oral English classes. One thing I did was use the test results to make groups according to level, and that's been very successful as well.

Speaking of oral exams

By George -

To accurately test my students, I give them oral exams which are recorded on tape. These exams have two parts. The first part is Q&A covering things we have covered in class. They almost always have a memorized response for the basic questions. I tend to ignore these. I focus on their responses to the follow-up questions. For example, I've told them that we might discuss their grandparents, so I might ask

"Are your grandparents alive?" "How many children did they have?" How many boys and how many girls? "Do you know your aunt's and uncles?" "O.K let's talk about your youngest aunt" Here is where they begin to breakdown because they didn't think to prepare for a discussion about their youngest aunt. I've also begun by asking about a favorite middle-school teacher and then focus on the teacher they liked the least. Once I get to the real subject I'll begin with what is the person’s name, age etc. and gradually lead to more complex questions. Then I start looking for syntactic, grammar and vocabulary failure. In many cases the exam ends in 2 or 3 minutes and some have gone as long as 30 or 40 minutes. In all cases I use subjects they are familiar with: Family, School, Friends and Hometowns. If I knew more about sports I would dwell on that. I have been known to ask a student to explain what a mid-fielder, a striker or a goalie does if they play those positions in football or the role of guards, the center or forwards in basketball. I've even asked guitar playing students to explain how to play a particular song. In short they give me a guitar lesson.

To test for middle school, determine what is grade appropriate and start from there.

Again, start simple and progress to the complex. At what level do they abandon an answer or the topic entirely. The second part is a short oral reading which incorporates most of the English phonemes. I sometimes give the samples to practice with but they get a new reading for the exam. They must read cold.

Also, I've just begun developing a set of reading passages that will begin at about fifth or sixth grade level for native speakers using Flesch-Kincaid RGL measures and which become progressively more advanced. This way I can determine the level at which they begin to break down, identified by their rate of word abandonment. In the first year I will be mainly concerned with phonetic identification and reproduction. As we progress, stress and intonation will become more of a factor.

I've not seen the CET tests, so I can't comment on those. Oral exams can be quantified, but I don't like using them as the basis for a grade. I tell the school that grades should be considered as a report of a student's speaking level and how much they have improved. In my classes, the only one's who actually fail are those who only show up for exams and the rare film. Those who come to class but aren't there count as absent. Our school weeds them out pretty quick. Last term eight of my students flunked out including two who were pretty good English speakers. Six were expelled for cheating on Chinese teacher's exams.

On the value of formal teacher training

Dick Tibbets - University of Macau, Macau

In my part of the 'training' and 'qualifications' postings on this list I've been concerned to say that it is the knowledge that is important and that organised courses are probably the easiest way to get some of this knowledge. The letters, well, they're just for the CV.

If you take a course then you are accepting someone else's syllabus and, to some extent, someone else's ideas of how you should use that knowledge. You just have to hope that they know what they are doing. After all, this is what your students have to do. You are their 'someone else'.

If you design your own course of self study then you need to know which topics will be useful to you. It can work but you are a little more in the dark.

As for my background, yes it's helped me all along. When I left computer programming all those years ago, the post grad cert ed I took really did help prepare me for the classroom and once I got there a series of courses by Rinvolucri helped even more.

The experience I gained over the next 10 years teaching various types and levels of
English to learners from some 70 or so countries then fed into my MA and both the experience and the 'extra' knowledge from the MA helped when I came to Hong Kong and Macau.

I'd say that the experience is the most valuable part but it was those bursts of learning (I won't call it training as a fair bit was independent) on courses that put the experience into contexts and made it all much more useful. Teaching in this part of the world IS harder than teaching in, say, Spain or Germany. Knowledge based experience was worthwhile for me.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Vocabulary Pyramid Game

By Patricia Hedden - Winchester Public Schools, Virginia, USA

Almost every professional development workshop I've attended in the last few years has made use of Kagan structures, suitable for children or adults. A specific game (not Kagan) I picked up from a recent workshop was a hit with the adult workshop participants and has been a hit with my elementary ESL students.

It's based on the 25,000 Pyramid TV game show. All you need are a blackboard / whiteboard and prepared cards with illustrated vocabulary. The illustration is key to reinforcing and prompting meaning if necessary.

Draw a large triangle on the board, divided into three levels. The top level holds one word, the middle two words, and the bottom three words. The top level is worth 200 pts, the middle 100 pts. each, and the bottom 50 pts. each, and words into the triangle by level of difficulty. Students sit facing each other. The student who can see the triangle gives clues to their partner, identifying the level. "For 50 points, ..." Partners change positions, and you change the words on the board.

The game is a little easier if you stick to one topic in a round, for example, things we do at home or occupations. My students are fluent orally but struggled in trying to explain the meaning of the science and social studies content words, so I did quite a bit of modeling at first.

Learning from your teaching

By Lesley Woodward, MA, M.Ed. - Cleveland State University IELP, USA

I have found that occasionally taping my own classroom teaching sessions was invaluable in determining my own amount of teacher talk. It's hard to overcome both our own and students' preconceived notions of what is good and bad teaching, and subjective evaluation is a skewed perception. By unobtrusive taping of segments of my classes, I had an objective account of how much teacher talk I actually generated.

In my own teacher training at Teachers College, I was lucky to be exposed to the FOCUS observation system which uses a descriptive observation system rather than the usual prescriptive checklist. I highly recommend the book, "Breaking Rules: Generating and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching" by John Fanselow. When I first used this system, I was amazed at how consistently I did not practice what I preached. I found that I used the same strategies over and over again, that I talked most of the time, and that I tended to call on the same students. Taping segments of my own classroom teaching coupled with using FOCUS allowed me to expand and explore alternatives in teaching. By using a descriptive system, I could see my teaching in a broader conceptual framework.

I have also found that attending to "wait time" is crucial in reducing teacher talk and this is something that I have had to consciously work on throughout my long teaching career. It's so tempting to finish student sentences, and assume that we understand what a student is trying to communicate before that student has really had time to complete his or her thought, much less express it. Over the years, I have learned to intuit when a student is thinking of how to say something and when that student is just stumped for an answer. It's a fine line between waiting and embarrassing a student who just doesn't know. Over time, I learned how to perceive the difference.

Doubts about the effectiveness of grammar teaching

By Scott Miles

Some grammar teaching advocates referred to the Norris & Ortega survey of the effectiveness of explicit grammar instruction, quoting the abstract:

"[T]he data indicated that focused L2 instruction results in large target-oriented gains, that explicit types of instruction are more effective than implicit types, and that Focus on Form and Focus on Forms interventions result in equivalent and large effects."

Krashen has written about this in his Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use book. Some of the main problems:

1. The bulk of the reviewed studies only test declarative or 'learned' knowledge (multiple choice questions, find the mistakes, etc.) rather than any measure of procedural use (able to use the grammar in unrehearsed speaking or writing).

We all know that students can be taught for a grammar test. I teach at one of the top universities in Korea and thus my freshman students are among the top 2% in the whole country. They have all aced (or nearly aced) the English portion of the entrance exam which has a grammar component. Yet they cannot use the grammar very well in their speaking or writing. Language teaching isn't just about test preparation. If our teaching does not affect students' actual performance, then we haven't done them much good.

2. The bulk of the studies included in the survey do not have delayed post tests.

Students may remember the instructed grammar for a test, but forget it weeks or months later. Studies with delayed post tests generally show a drop in knowledge and usage, and it is not uncommon to see all gains disappear after a few months. If the knowledge doesn't stick, then can we say the instruction was that useful?

3. Few comparison groups had anywhere near sufficient comprehensible input.

Some studies compared explicit instruction groups to those that simply had nothing (neither grammar instruction nor sufficient comprehensible input). Others had comparison groups with just a few hours of comprehensible input.

Studies which do not address these issues are simply not that useful in regards to the debate on explicit vs. implicit grammar approaches.

There is just a handful of studies covered in the the Ortega-Norris survey which do not have the problems listed above. Krashen reviews those studies in detail in his book and he makes a fairly strong argument that Norris and Ortega's conclusions are overstated.

Having followed this current TESL-L online debate over the past few months, I wonder how many people have actually looked at the studies which compare programs with explicit grammar teaching and those which just provide comprehensible input. Grammar teaching (or non-teaching) is a big issue in our field and I think it is worth taking the time to look into it directly rather than just rely on the conclusions of other scholars.

I'd like to post on a few studies (starting with this post) which compare explicit instruction with a comprehension-based learning group. If nothing else, I just want to show that this whole issue is not as cut and dried as some people would like to believe.

The Harley (1989) study which Norris and Ortega include in their review is one of the very few studies which does not have the problems noted above.

Harley compared to groups that were a part of a French immersion program in Canada. The experimental group had 12 hours of work with passe compose and imparfait over 8 weeks. The comparison group simply continued their immersion program with no explicit focus on these grammar items.

Here are the results:

Interview Test:....Pre test..Post test.....Delayed Post test (3 months) Experimental.........42% ......57%................ 63%
Comparison.......... 44.5%.... 48%................ 60%

Considering that 12 hours were spent on 2 grammar forms, and that the questions in the interview specifically cued those grammar forms, it is no surprise that the students would recall their grammar instruction and use it in the interview. Nonetheless, the scores are still not that impressive and with the delayed test the immersion group has closed the gap (there were no statistically significant differences on scores at the delayed test).

Harley (and presumably Norris and Ortega) look at these results as a victory for explicit instruction. I look at this and think that this is not a very good return for 12 hours of valuable class time. Normal classrooms cannot devote 12 hours for just two grammar points and again, the differences between the groups are no longer statistically significant after 3 months. What was really gained? And note that the immersion only group is progressing along fairly well despite not having any explicit instruction.

There were two other tests in Harley's study as well:

Cloze:...........Pre test..Post test.....Delayed Post test

Again, statistically significant gains that are shown on the immediate post test were lost on the delayed post test, as the comparison group closes the gap simply by continuing their immersion program.

Composition......Pre test..Post test.....Delayed Post test

The students' writing was rated on a 5 point scale for grammatical accuracy. Neither the post or the delayed post scores showed statistically significant differences between the two groups. Again. the 12 hours of grammar instruction did not deliver much to get excited about.

Furthermore , in the speaking and cloze tests these small gains seem to be disappearing, so where is the support for the idea that the instructed students are at any advantage even in the long run (the often proclaimed idea that explicit grammar instruction helps students attain the form more quickly)?

There is another issue that is often overlooked in these studies. Hours devoted to grammar instruction and practice do little to benefit other areas of language acquisition. Sure, the students in Harley's study might have picked up a little vocabulary or grammar incidentally while they were focusing on the passe compose and imparfait, but most likely not a whole lot. The question is, what did the comparison group get for that 12 hours of extra input in which they were exposed to much more language? The research results above show that they were slowly but surely developing the target grammar forms despite no explicit instruction, and thus assuredly they were also developing many other grammar forms as well. For vocabulary learning, they most likely received a lot more vocabulary exposure during that 12 hours than the grammar focused group, meaning that their vocabulary was probably developing more effectively as well. And of course, their listening and reading skills were also most likely benefited more from that 12 hours of input in comparison to the grammar group.

So I think one could make a strong case that in the sum total of language acquisition among these two groups, the input only group actually came out well ahead.

Of course, this is just one study and there are others that should be discussed.

Harley, B. 1989. "Functional Grammar in French Immersion: A Classroom Experiment." Applied Linguistics 10:331-59 Norris, J. & Ortega, L. Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-analysis. Language Learning 50:3, September 2000, pp. 417-528.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Explaining grammar

By Betty Azar

In reference to recent discussions: Keith Folse, Karen Stanley, and Michael Swan understand what it means to "teach grammar" -- a concept that too often seems to get twisted to mean something other than what we who teach grammar mean when we talk about it.

When students ask "Why?" they are really asking "How does this work?" -- and they deserve an answer if they feel that this grammar information will help them. Teachers can either lead students to discover this information or provide this information through explanation, or both (as is usually the case in real classrooms).

I've often wondered what teachers who refuse any kind of grammar component in their classes say to students when students ask questions about grammar.

My students were always full of questions, really good questions -- I can't imagine saying to them: "Oh, you don't need to know that" or "There's really no answer to that" or "That's just the way it is, so don't worry about it."

What a disservice to students. And how disrespectful of their learning strategies. Like Michael Swan, I'd go find a different mechanic/doctor/piano teacher/what-have-you. Like Keith Folse, I'd fire that teacher. Like Karen Stanley, I'd answer the question by showing how grammar patterns convey meaning.

There is nothing more natural than for adult students to ask questions about how English works. Somehow the naturalist movement in language teaching made what is completely natural -- students asking questions about grammar and finding it helpful to figure out how patterns work -- seem misguided or irrelevant or somehow "not natural." Fortunately for students, the naturalist movement is now a passing bandwagon. Today grammar teaching and communicative teaching are becoming more and more integrated in a variety of innovative and effective ways.

Betty Azar is a teacher and the author of several English grammar workbooks that are a staple in the ESL teaching industry.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A delightful parody on how some teachers see grammar teaching

By Michael Swan

As the leader of a small team working on methods of teaching grammar at the Notker Balbulus Language Institute in Edinburgh, I have been following various contributions to the recent debate with considerable interest. In most respects, they characterise our practice with remarkable accuracy. We do indeed require our students to learn grammar rules by heart; and we not only make them recite the rules in chorus, but are training some of the students to sing them in four-part harmony. Many of the rules we teach were, as they point out, devised by mediaeval monks; we find that these have a rich deep patina which one simply cannot find in today's rules. In this connection, we have been fortunate in discovering, in Oxford's Bodleian Library, an unpublished manuscript containing a veritable storehouse of arcane rules relating to Middle English word order which we are currently incorporating into our teaching programmes. Labelling we regard as essential, and any of our students can identify an indefinite past progressive subjunctive determiner at 200 paces in a dim light. We steadfastly refuse to allow our learners access to comprehensible input; an account of some interesting early work using incomprehensible input can be found in the paper 'The Use of Sensory Deprivation in Foreign Language Teaching (Swan and Walter 1983) in English Language Teaching Journal 36/3. We take very seriously the translation component of 'grammar-translation' (sometimes neglected in today's permissive times), and our students spend a good deal of their time translating English texts not only into their mother tongues, but also into Latin, Sanskrit, Classical Greek and Old Church Slavonic. The one area where they are somewhat ahead of us is in the matter of etching conjugations into our students' brains, referred to in their latest posting. This is an exciting and promising direction to explore, and we have indeed tried several approaches, using Spanish and Serbian (since English has no conjugations). However, our results have been disappointing and in some cases unfortunate, and we have come to the conclusion that, sadly, this is a technique which will have to wait for advances in neurosurgery for its successful implementation.

Michael Swan is a writer specializing in English language teaching and reference materials. His interests include pedagogic grammar, mother-tongue influence in second language acquisition, and the relationship between applied linguistic theory and classroom language-teaching practice, and he has published a number of articles on these topics. And he has a great sense of humor.

"LifeWriting" stimulating students

From Mark Richards - James Lyng Adult Education Centre, Montreal, Canada

Dr. Sid Butler wrote an excellent book called "LifeWriting" which uses stimulating ideas to inspire students to write about their own experiences. Here's one example.

Students brainstorm lists of their "first times": first time I drove a car, first day in the army, first time I kissed a girl, first time I met my wife/husband, first time I saw my baby, first day in my new country, first day of school, first day of work, first time on an airplane, etc.

They then pick one which inspires them and they make a stick man drawing depicting this experience. Next they get together in groups and discuss their drawings. (As corny as this may seem, I've never had a group that didn't enjoy talking about their pictures, especially after I'd modeled an example on the blackboard). Other students can ask questions which often provoke more memories of this first-time situation.

Students frequently request assistance from the teacher on how to describe the situation or to express an idea. The last step is that the students sit down to write. Because they have been discussing their anecdote and reflecting on the experience, the ideas and the vocabulary come more easily. A simple way to increase the speaking practice is to put students into groups of three or four and after each student has had five minutes or so to recount their narration you have students rotate to a different group and start over again. In my experience, the more times students retell their stories the easier it is when they sit down to write.

Another suggestion from the book which I have used successfully for brainstorming ideas is "My Favorite Place". This activity also lends itself to the stick man drawing approach. Over the years, I have read some amazing narratives from even intermediate students.

The book, LifeWriting, is full of ideas like this. I have used it successfully in intermediate to advanced ESL classes in Quebec C.E.G.E.P.'s (middle college). Students are motivated because the topics are interesting and they are about the students' own life experiences.

In 25 years of teaching, Dr. Butler's workshop on "LifeWriting" was the most interesting I ever attended and that was almost 20 years ago.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Can good students make bad teachers

"If anyone is likely to have accurate insights/judgment into the impact of particular techniques on a language learner, let us hope it is language teachers about their own past learning of other languages."

Shouldn't teachers have some special insights into the learning process derived from their own experience studying a language?


In fact, this experience can be very harmful.

Some students are academically inclined. They read something, they remember it. The teacher says something, they remember it. They study the books in the library and they do everything correctly in class. Sometimes they even sit in the front of the class.

These people often become teachers.

They are remarkable people. We cannot criticise them, only admire them. As students they can smilingly sit through the most boring lectures and actually pull some jewels of important knowledge out of the verbage. They can study the most complicated texts, decipher them as well as any CIA analyst and file away the data into different parts of their computer-like brain and retrieve it later when the teacher demands and to his pleasure. (Indeed, such students make teachers feel like gods.)

The problem is the other 80% of the class, what to do with them?

Some of them have blank looks on their faces. Some of them just don't get it. Some of them are bored to death. In extreme cases, some of them have slipped into a teacher induced coma on top of their desks.

When good students become teachers and then draw on their learning experience when dealing with their students they can make a big mistake. They can be tempted to believe that their students are like them and can learn like they did.

The descent of grammar teaching

Michael Hughes has made an interesting point. "Having been in the teaching of English game for nearly three decades and having used and seen a number of methodologies, I can't really say that any of the methods I used actually failed to teach English to my students. One could say certain methodologies are more boring (repetitive), enjoyable or useful in certain circumstances, but by and large they all achieved their broad aim."

Let's all keep in mind grammar teaching's constant descent from being the all-in-all of English teaching to reaching the point that we are now debating if it is even necessary. Let's remember the old English teaching books in which grammar was central. As Jack Richard's puts it:

"In the 1970s we were just nearing the end of a period during which grammar had a controlling influence on language teaching."[1]

As Michael Hughes points out, the books worked, students learned and "by and large they all achieved their broad aim"...or did they? Certainly many students learned that way. Some students simply love grammar.

But how many failed? How many determined they were too stupid to learn a language because they couldn't remember all those rules and how to put them together to create coherent language?

In 1970, I was one of the stupid ones, too stupid to learn French in school. At least, that is what I decided, the way it looked to me. Or was I too stupid? If a more communicative approach was taken and I was presented with fascinating reading material[2], audio and video material that was just nearly within my language range (ie: Krashen's i+1), would I have been able to learn French? Consequently, I had to wait about ten years until I was living and working in France before I picked up the language on the street without a book. By that time I had already picked up Spanish in Puerto Rico and Spain in the same way.

Was my French and Spanish good? No, but I could communicate. As Krashen suggests, this would be a good time for some remedial training in the form of grammar training. Thus, grammar teaching plays, at most, a supporting role rather than a starring role.[3]