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Nick Jaworski has written a follow-up to his post about the usefulness (or not) of explicitly teaching traditional grammar. You can read it here.

If you haven’t read his first article, it’s probably a better place to start:
Why Grammar is Overrated.

(Make sure you follow the comments and read my response, Nick’s response, my response… etc. :grin: )

And this? This is my response to the second article. I always get too carried away on topics like this and end up writing waaaaaaay too much for just a regular blog comment.

I, too, am extraordinarily “anti-metalanguage.” Have been for many years. Even with trainee teachers I keep it to a minimum and tell them that this stuff is NOT, NOT, NOT for pushing onto their students! But… THEY need to know it for two reasons, one useful and one unfortunate:

1. THEY need to know how to identify certain structures for the purpose of consulting reference books when needed. This is especially true for non-native speakers who can’t necessarily rely on the native-speaker’s “in-built ‘That doesn’t sound right’ tuner.” It’s not exclusively for non-native speaking teachers, though, as many native-speaking teachers could do with a better understanding of how the various structures actually work.

2. Every textbook/coursebook in the known universe is chock full o’ fruity metalanguage goodness. Which means that students are having it rammed in their faces whether they (or the teacher) likes it. So being aware of what’s what as per the labels is an unfortunate necessity given the ELT publishing canon.

This is NOT, NOT, NOT, however, an invitation to then go and foist all this amazing “expert-status” knowledge onto your students in an attempt to boost your own cred. I agree with your assertion that students do NOT, NOT, NOT need to know all this crap.

>> Students are given opportunities to use language in
>> certain situations and then the teacher helps lead
>> them to the most appropriate language. Through lots
>> of usage opportunities and comprehensible input, the
>> language will chunk and, more importantly, it will
>> start to sound correct to the student’s ear.

I agree with this, but… there are things about grammar which really do need to be “understood” by students so that they can make the appropriate choices within the language depending on what they mean.

This is NOT to say that the teacher needs to stand at the front of the class and drone on about subjunctive mood this and past participle that.

What is DOES mean, though, is that some things require more of an understanding that simply “That sounds right; that doesn’t.”

When it comes to things which truly are lexis, then I agree: What’s the point of analysis? Your example of ditransitive verbs is an excellent one. That’s a “grammar” classification, but in fact we all know it’s most usefully taught simply a lexical pattern: “give s/t to s/o” or “give s/t to s/o”. The end.

>> I often see experienced teachers walk into a class
>> and bungle up passives, conditionals, or present perfect.
>> If we actually have trouble understanding how it works,
>> what makes us think that passing on this knowledge to the
>> students will help them?

Agreed… kind of.

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I agree that “passing on this knowledge” is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, thoroughly useless. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that in most cases it’s less than useless: it’s damaging, only serving to confuse the poor old students even more.

On the other hand, as I said above, students DO need to develop an understanding of how the grammatical system works and when to use structure-A versus structure-B and so on. So, what we should be doing, in my opinion, is “teaching” grammar using discovery learning tasks which lead students to an understanding of how structures work and when to choose X rather than Y. The result is similar to your idea of “this sounds/doesn’t sound right” with the added advantage of being more generative because they understand the underlying principles of usage.

All this is easier said than done, naturally.

One of the reasons that teachers bungle things like passives and conditionals and (especially!) the Present Perfect is quite simply that about 99% of teaching materials is WRONG on these points. Yeah, yeah, pretty arrogant of me, right? Sure. But it’s true. Most textbooks/coursebooks do NOT teach these language points in any way that actually helps students so it’s no surprise to me that they continue to mess it up year after year after year after year. We’ve all taught students who’ve “done” the Present Perfect for 10 years straight (all through junior high school, high school, university, and then into the private EFL colleges) and they’re still none the wiser.

Why is this?

Because the same old tired half-truths and downright falsities are recycled in a “received wisdom” kind of way by each new batch of coursebook writers. *shrug*

>> What do you think? Does teaching grammar rules have
>> a positive impact on student learning?

No. I agree with you. “[T]eaching grammar rules” in a traditional sense, no. (Indeed, part of the problem is knowing what’s truly grammar and what is not.) But “teaching grammar” in a way that helps learners “uncover” the distinctions in usage and why… well, yeah, maybe. Batteries sold separately. Metalanguage not included.



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5 Responses to “Metalanguage”

  1. Finally found some time to comment back. I’m a big fan of discovery learning myself. Students remember something so much more if they discover a rule for themselves.

    I go back and forth on the necessity to teach rules. I think one major benefit is that it makes students feel comfortable, which is always a good thing, even if it doesn’t necessarily help language acquisition.

    I definitely agree students need to know why to choose one structure over another, but I do think that students will pick this up through lots of exposure and use and don’t necessarily need rule discovery, although I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing it.

    When I think of my classroom and even my own language learning I often see students or myself use structures because it sounds right. I and they wouldn’t be able to tell you why we said it that way, but we could be pretty sure it’s right.

    The best example I can think of is articles. I almost never “teach” articles. I just simply correct usage as it comes up. Before you know it, students are using them correctly. I think all language can be taught in this way. Whether it’s the best way to teach all language is something I have not made a decision on yet.

    I also agree with you that teachers need to know the grammar for the purposes you mentioned and to help analyze where and why mistakes are occurring.

    As for coursebooks explaining things wrong, why not throw out the coursebook? I can’t stand the things.

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    •  Leslie says:

      Heya, Nick

      Some very nice points here.

      >> it makes students feel comfortable

      I like this.

      I was given a REALLY good piece of advice quite early in my career by a Director of Studies. He said “Y’know, sometimes it’s not what you’re actually doing, it’s what you’re seen to be doing that can make all the difference.”

      And without pushing the envelope too far and suggesting that we capitulate to the students’ every whim, I’ve found this to be fairly sound advice. (It’s relevant to life, in general, of course, because it plays on certain universal psychological triggers.)

      So, yeah, making it look like you’re “explicitly focusing on grammar” can, indeed be a strategy for appearing to meet students’ expectations. Ridiculously enough, this can be achieved as simply as saying “Okay, we’re going to do some grammar study today” in your best serious-voice/serious-face.

      And then go right ahead and do your discovery-learning task! :lol:

      If you really want to go the extra mile, you can throw in one form-drill exercise — once all the most important stuff that you want to achieve has been done — and then go back to “Serious Teacher” and set a tone of concentration, etc.

      Naturally, you can’t go too far with this nor do it too often otherwise you’re sub-communicating a message that’s not congruent with your main teaching philosophy.

      But, yeah, you can try this sort of caper if you “sense” that your students are “concerned” about an apparent lack of grammar (when what they’d really say if they could articulate it - even in L1 - is “We don’t seem to do any rote learning and explicit focus on form or rules or exceptions or stuff like that… and, uh, isn’t that, like, necessary and stuff for, uh, learning a language? … “) :roll:

      >> teachers need to know the grammar… to help analyze
      >> where and why mistakes are occurring.

      This is a great additional point. Thanks for sharing that. As I think I said somewhere earlier in one of these discussions, a teacher (especially a native-speaking or highly proficient one) can usually identify where an error is, but not know why.

      Sadly, however, most grammar “teaching” (especially in coursebooks) is quite wrong-headed. *sigh* So it’s the understanding of why that’s sadly lacking. Knowing the metalanguage in order to look it up in a reference book will help with errors of form and some issues of usage, but – for the most part – the “system of meaning” behind the verb structures in English is dealt with really, really poorly.

      >> why not throw out the coursebook? I can’t stand the things.

      Ha ha! :lol:

      Well, there are LOTS and LOTS of great texts and other tasks that can be exploited in all sorts of ways that the original writers didn’t think of because they had their heads up their arses, pushing the unquestioning merits of that structural syllabus model. (Or maybe I’m being too harsh and it’s the editors who should be subjected to the old drip-drip-drip water torture. At least then they’d know how working with a lot of the coursebooks on the market feels! *ahem*)


      I’m often amazed at how fantastically creative some coursebook/materials writers are. Really. Some of the games and tasks are really cool, especially in the Resource Packs.

      The texts (reading passages / interviews / dialogues / roleplays / etc.) can be used in any way you like provided that the language hasn’t been so savagely graded or, worse, contrived to bang the students over the head with a particular structure. Just step away from the questions that have been written (as in, don’t even read them at first!) and think about how you could use this for your students.

      What would you need to change? Anything? And what is the main focus in the coursebook? Does that align with what you’d like to achieve? What would make it more fun? etc.

      I have a complete 2 hour presentation/professional development workshop on how to use coursebooks more effectively. I’ll wheel it out some time. (It’s got “suitable for conferences” written all over it! Ha ha! Although who knows… like my workshop on Pronunciation, it too may have been ripped off and presented under someone else’s name all over the UK :evil: )

      Anyway, thanks for the comment; it always gets the ol’ grey matter sparking!

      Take care,

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      • I agree with you on all that. Just wanted to comment on the course book thing as it’s a pet peeve of mine. I agree that some course book material is extremely good and that it can be used effectively. I also do a lot of workshops on using the book effectively.

        My problem comes in when school force teachers to use the course book 90% of the time, which is my general experience in the ELT world. I personally have big problems with course books used as a syllabus. Just doesn’t make sense as the book doesn’t know the students, the teacher does.

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        •  Leslie says:

          Yeah, true. I agree that it’s problematic as a syllabus to be dogmatically followed.

          We both know why they do it, though, even if it’s “less than ideal,” shall we say?

          I think one of the things that made me a good teacher is that early on in my career I worked at a school which had a (*groan* … rather structure-centric) syllabus, a battery of progress tests which were conducted once a month, a huge library of textbooks and supplementary resources… and the teachers were left to pick and choose the materials they used and how they used them… just as long as we covered — at a minimum — all the vocab, grammar, functions, etc. that needed to be covered for that level.

          We therefore had the flexibility to choose materials covering “XYZ language point,” which were based around topics our particular set of learners might be interested in. We also had the flexibility (if we managed our time well!) to include “other stuff” which we could see the class wanted or needed.

          Now, that set-up is far from ideal and, indeed, there are problems that I won’t go into here, but it forced me to really get to know a wide range of materials and presented a range of different methodologies to me. And despite any problems or frustrations, etc. with that set-up, I’m actually very grateful to have worked there; I learnt a LOT!

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  2. Susi Susi says:

    I've seen kids so bunged full of grammar that they'd get lost if they went to a foreign city and had to actually say something: 'Now do I use this tense or that participle or …' I stick my neck out when I say to parents .. you don't need to learn grammar to be able to speak a language! Sounds dippy but how many parents go into their two year old's room of a morning and say Good morning darling, today we're going to study the verb to be! I've found that simple repetitive games where the students acquire a sort of 'formula' works at the beginning, then we apply it to various situations and only after they've got the hang of it do we do practise excercises where they learn if necessary the name of the structure, so I work backwards I suppose. The grammar is there it's just not filling their heads with ' if this happens use the present perfect, if that happens use the simple past'. I suppose I must be doing something right as I've never had a student fail an exam yet, and can get through lessons using English for 90% of the time even with young children!
    Many of them have such a block that they don't open their mouths for fear of coming unglued grammatically speaking. I go for the direct approach: When you need to use English for the first time in a shop for eaxmple you smile (always) point to something and say 'How much? This will usually provoke an answer which hopefully they'll understand (!!) and gives them a boost to know that something they've said has actually been understood by the native speaker in front of them. I tell them that they're not going to give a speach at the UN so asking for a coffee in a bar needn't require more than ( smile) 'two coffees please'. End of .
    Probably any English speaking parent reading this will never ever send their child to lessons with me again but having happy, relaxed Italian students being able to make themselves understood in English to me is way better than 'grammatically perfect on paper' students who can't hold a basic conversation to save their lives!

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