ELT Experiences

Experiences for English Language Teaching

Month: November 2010

The Foundation of Grammar: A Podcast Interview

On the 3rd of November, I participated with an ELTChat discussion on the teaching of grammar via Twitter.  For those unfamiliar, there is a regular discussion on Twitter for EFL Professionals which range on a variety of issues.  Some of the topics this week include:
  1. Teaching qualifications – Are they necessary? What role does experience play?
  2. Is reading aloud in the classroom (by students or teachers) a waste of time?
  3. How can we help EFL learners avoid their mother tongue influenced errors?
  4. What is fluency?
  5. Is TEFL, TESOL etc. a profession or an industry?
 Those participating are able to vote for the issue that they wish to discuss.  Votes are counted and the first choice is discussed at 9pm GMT, whilst the second choice is discussed at 3pm GMT (both on the same day; with discussions organised each Wednesday with topics changed each week).  The aim of the session is to exchange ideas, opinions and experiences in 140 characters on Twitter.  The ELTChat session is followed using the hashtag #ELTChat on Twitter.  Nonetheless, as mentioned previously I participated in an ELTChat discussion on the teaching of grammar.

Some of the highlights of the discussion “What is your approach to teaching grammar?” includes the following comments:

olafelch: Given the rise of the Lexical Approach, has grammar teaching been made redundant? #ELTchat

efl101: is it possible to ‘learn’ grammar or do you have to absorb it over time and exposure? #eltchat

Marisa_C: There are many arguments against teaching grammar items just as many as FOR teaching them #ELTchat

rliberni: I don’t teach ‘grammar’ lessons but use the grammar to underpin certain language notions or functions #eltchat

DrSarahEaton: Grammar provides structure and order. Communicative lang teaching provides creativity and spontaneity. Students need both. #ELTchat

englishraven: I must admit, teaching unplugged has resulted (for me) in very different grammar teaching compared to my CB days. #ELTChat

Some of the quotes above offer some ‘food for thought’ on the subject of teaching and learning grammar and the whole transcript is available to view from this grammar discussion.  I was honoured to be asked to join a podcast to discuss some issues that I also raised during the ELTChat discussion on 10 November 2010.  The podcast is available to listen via this link.  Some of the issues raised during the podcast discussion with Shelly, included a form of uncovered grammar, the lexical approach and some ideas for teaching grammar.

Grammar which is taught explicitly and prescriptively to learners is, as Thornbury suggests, more commonly taught in ‘a series of items or points‘ (2005:3) and most grammar or coursebooks ‘comprise a hodgepodge of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ about sentence structure, word meaning and word usage’ (Börjars & Burridge 2010:5).  Personally, I refer to this structure of grammar teaching as the ‘fast-food of grammar’; like most junk-food, you forget you have eaten it 30 minutes later.  Nonetheless, why teach grammar?  Grammar is known to provide some foundation for a language or some structure.  Scrivener (2010) highlights that teachers are frequently presenting new grammar items to students and these are ‘often the heart of language lessons’ (Underhill in Scrivener; pg. 6).  This suggests that the current opinion of grammar is:
  1. Grammar is the glue that holds language together.
  2. Grammar is the engine that drives language.
  3. Grammar is a map of the language.
  4. Grammar is hard-wired in the brain.
  5. Grammar is both particles and waves.
  6. Grammar is the highway code of language. (Thornbury 2005:2)
Thus, grammar taught in the classroom could be considered Standard English whereby the rules taught in the classroom provide some ‘map of the language’.  For example, the grammar that is taught in the classroom ‘is language doing the right thing – language that wipes its feet before it enters a room and that leaves the before it breaks wind!’ (Börjars & Burridge 2010:5).  Nonetheless, the focus of one point in my ELTChat discussion was to introduce or encourage debate about the area of teaching grammar implicitly.  The teaching of a grammar point may be the aim of the class but rather than telling students explicitly that “we are going to study the past simple form”, the teacher focuses upon a process of ‘growth and unfolding’ in grammar teaching.  For example, I prepared a topic on the ‘past simple’ form and rather than mention to students that we were studying this, I focused upon the topic; in this case about Heath Ledger.

To begin with, students were required to work in groups and decode question forms.

Once students had worked out the question forms (all being in the past simple form), they were required to do a reading relay and find the relevant information about Heath Ledger around the classroom.

The aim of the lesson was first uncover a grammar point implicitly and second get students confident and relaxed when reading the past simple form.  It was successful with various classes that I taught and all students were able to work together to get the questions decoded.  Instead of working through explicit gap-fill or verb conjugations based exercises, the aim of the lesson is to relax students and make them aware of lexical patterns.  Another point that was raised by Twitterers was the Lexical Approach.

The Lexical Approach, suggests that ‘language consists not of traditional grammar and vocabulary but often of multi-word prefabricated chunks’ (Lewis 1997:3 in Harmer 2010:74).  This teaching approach has emerged from the development and implementation of Corpus in the classroom (Thornbury 2006:119).  Lexical collocations, chunks, phrases, etc is available to view via the use of a Corpus and lessons ‘based on these high-frequency words and patterns is arguably more useful to learners than a list of grammar structures’ (Thornbury 2006:119).  One danger of following the Lexical Approach is ‘we are left with … having to learn an endless succession of phrase-book utterances’ (Harmer 2010:75).

Finally, I would recommend all practising EFL Teachers to participate in the weekly ELTChat discussion on Twitter.  It is really an opportunity to share ideas, post questions, encourage debate, etc on a range of topics which you, the teacher, can vote for.  I would personally like to thank those that make the ELTChat possible and for Shelly interviewing me for the podcast.  Keep up the good work.

Further Reading
Börjars K. & Burridge K. 2010 Introducing English Grammar 2nd Edition London, Hodder Education
Harmer J. 2010 The Practice of English Language Teaching 4th Edition Harlow, Pearson Longman
Meddings L. & Thornbury S. 2009 Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching Surrey, DELTA Publishing
Parrott M. 2006 Grammar for English Language Teachers 11th Edition Cambridge, CUP
Scrivener J. 2010 Teaching English Grammar: What to Teach and How to Teach it Oxford, Macmillan Education
Thornbury S. 2006 An A-Z of ELT Oxford, Macmillan Education
Thornbury S. 2005 Uncovering Grammar Oxford, Macmillan Education

“Second Language Acquisition”: Book Review

Having started my MA in English Language Teaching course last month, there were some essential reading lists that I received prior to the course.  One of those books that I bought was Second Language Acquisition written by Rod Ellis with H. G. Widdowson as Series Editor.  The book is published by Oxford University Press (OUP), was first published in 1997 and is part of the Oxford Introductions to Language Study series.

The book splits the topic in to 10 chapters about SLA and intoduces past and present language acquisition theories.  The theories introduced are written in a style which is easy to understand, for example Behavourist learning theory, L1 transfer, etc.  The Preface of the book justifies the reason quite well;

There are many people that take an interest in language without being academically engaged in linguistics per se.  Such people may recognise the importance of understanding language for their own lines of enquiry, or for their own practical purposes, or quite simply for making them aware of something which figures so centrally in their everyday lifes.

The Preface is pivatol for the book; it would benefit not just academics seeking to understand theories, concepts, etc written in an easy to understand fashion but will also assist language teachers to identify why particular teaching practice is adopted in the classroom.  Questions that would be answered could include; Why do we teach in a student-centred basis?  What was the reason for parrot-fashion teaching?  Are errors something we should correct in class?  The chapters cover a range of areas in SLA including Social Aspects of Interlanguage, Individual Differences in L2 Acquisition and The Nature of Learner Language.  The chapters will go someway to answer the questions raised above but if readers would require more theory and are more academically inclined, then the book may not suit these particular readers.  However, the book is split into four sections with one focused on References.

The References do offer readers the opportunity to look at particular points in more detail and the author breaks down the technicality of reading in a easy, medium or hard context (with the use of blocks; the more blocks the harder it is).  The References is split between chapters, so if one had read a chapter about The Nature of Learner Language and read about learner errors, when refering to the References section one could read more about this when looking at ‘The Significance of Learners’ Errors’ in International Review of Applied Linguisitics (1967), pages 161-169.

I would recommend this book for those teachers that are interested in learning more about the supportive theories and understandings of language acquisition as it could answer some questions about teaching in a class environment.  It is highly invaluable also for those that are undertaking a post-graduate course at University or currently working towards DELTA-related qualification.

Stress In The Classroom (Part 2)

This is the second post on my blog about pronunciation.  My initial post about pronunciation, “Stress in the Classroom”, looked at intonation, rhythm and stress as I had to lead a seminar with a presentation.  This post is more about implementing and raising awareness of pronunciation as well as including suplementary areas such as intonation, rhythm and stress in the classroom.  I was lucky to attend Adrian Underhill’s workshop on injecting pronunciation in a fun and interesting way in the classroom.  The key principle that Underhill aimed when introducing the Phonemic Chart or particular sounds included the Silent Way.

The Silent Way is a discovery learning approach, invented by Caleb Gattegno in the 1950s. The teacher is usually silent, leaving room for the students to explore the language. They are responsible for their own learning and are encouraged to interact. The role of the teacher is to give clues, not to model the language. (Wikipedia)

Thornbury (2006) suggests that the Silent Way “has contributed to more mainstream teaching in a number of ways, including the widespread use of Cuisenaire rods and the phonemic chart” (A-Z of ELT).  During Underhill’s workshop at the BELTE, he suggested that teachers should try to refrain from deploying an Audiolinguistic method when introducing the Phonemic Chart (for example, the teacher says a sound, the students try to repeat the same sound and the teacher then shows that sound on the chart).  The following YouTube videos should illustrate this:

After illustrating the sounds via miming, relying upon the students for sound recreation and modelling he attempts students to come up to the front of the class and point to sounds that the teacher says or vice versa.

It is interesting that there is some form of TPR in the classroom when introducing and raising students’ awareness of phonetics.  TPR (Total Physical Response) is defined by Wikigogy as “a method for teaching language by involving students in physical activity.”  It is interesting to note that the TPR method is much like the natural which is “based upon the belief that learners need only understand input, and should not be required to speak until they are ready to” (Thornbury, 2006) which lends itself well to the Silent Way.

Nevertheless, on a personal note, the Phonemic Chart should be used lightly in the classroom and not be the focus of the lesson.  Perhaps when introducing new vocabulary in the classroom, the students should be introduced to pronunciation including other complementary areas (stress, intonation, rhythm, etc).  However, there is an increase of resources to assist in the introduction of phonetics in the classroom such as Phonetics Focus, The IPA Chart, as well as Phonetics: The Sound of English.

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