G is for Grammar lesson

7 04 2013

I recently received a request for an article for a teachers’ journal in Denmark. The editor wrote:

The teaching of grammar in Danish secondary schools seems to be moving back towards a rather traditional view on grammar (for example,  an A-level examination in English testing whether students can correct wrong sentences and explain the rules of grammar).  I was hoping that an article by you may offer a new perspective on the teaching of grammar and authentic language.

I haven’t written the article, but I did write this piece of doggerel:woman teacher 1950

The Grammar Lesson

The teacher enters briskly, taps the board:
‘Now pay attention, class, and not a word.’
Her steely gaze subdues the general clamour.
‘I’m going to teach the rules of English grammar.’

‘I’ll start by explicating all the tenses,
Their forms, a few examples, and their senses.
We’ll finish, as is usual with a test.
A prize for which of you can answer best.’

He always takes the bus (she writes). ‘The present.
(Though present, as we speak, it clearly isn’t).
We call this timeless present “present simple”.
My tailor’s very rich is an example.’

‘Now look at me,’ she orders, as she paces
Between the rows of startled little faces.
‘I’m walking to the door. Now I am turning.
I’m teaching you the grammar. You are learning.’

Intending that her actions be the stimulus,
She demonstrates the present tense (continuous).
‘For acts that are in progress, it’s expressive,
And so it’s sometimes classified “progressive”.’

‘Now, who is this?’ She shows a pic of Caesar.
‘An ancient Roman?’ someone says, to please her.
She draws a Roman galley, oars and mast.
He came, he saw, he conquered: simple past’.

‘And when he came, the weather – it was pouring’,
She adds this detail to her simple drawing,
And with a gesture eloquently sinuous
She illustrates what means the past continuous.

I’ve been to China. In my life. Just once.
Time not important. Use the perfect tense.
He lost the race since he had started last:
Had started represents the perfect past.’

‘Although it seems a little bit excessive,
We also use the perfect with progressive.
Have you been playing badminton? is how
We ask if something’s happening to now.’

‘The future forms we’ll save until … the future.
I think by now you have the general picture.
So pen and paper out – yes, you have guessed it:
I’ve taught you stuff and now it’s time to test it.’

And this is how, as any learner knows,
The English language grammar lesson goes.
And this is why (the moral of my verse)
The English language learner can’t converse.in class 1950

Illustrations from Jan, J.M. & Ollúa, R. (1950) El Inglés Práctico; Comercio, Exámenes y Viajes, Buenos Aires: Academias Pitman.


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64 responses

7 04 2013
Mike Harrison

Brilliant!

I always thought, when I saw Chia’s talk on systemic functional grammar at IATEFL Brighton and read her blog post about her first lesson in the dogme challenge, with essentially a tense and aspect review (http://chiasuanchong.com/2012/04/10/the-teach-off-dogme-day-1/), there was a better way to look at grammar in a language class.

I’ve since tried a similar approach myself once or twice, but nowhere near as competently. I’m sure this is down to a failing on my part. I’m also not sure that my learners ‘get it’. I have had students ask me and complain about wanting to do ‘more grammar’ and say things like ‘I want to do the past, present and future last week!’. Yet they keep making mistakes using the present simple. Maybe a way to shock them out of it would be by running a lesson like the hypothetical one you describe above.

On a related note, I sometimes wonder at the ability of some learners to become aware that they are (un)covering a lot of language by working with it (for instance, in a dogmeic, holistic language learning environment). Have you ever found, or any of your colleagues or others who subscribe to a dogme view of doing things ever found students to be resistant to seeing the language learning they are actually doing? Or if not resistant, perhaps unaware?

7 04 2013
Mike Harrison

Thank you very much for the post, by the way!

7 04 2013
Kathy

Yes, my adult learners were trained in their youth to expect a teacher-centered approach. If they see something else, they will naturally judge it in terms of what they know (not enough grammar drilling = bad lesson). I do sometimes hand out official-looking grammar sheets “for study at home” on the day after we uncover a grammar point. That evidence accumulates nicely in their binders. I also give announced quizzes (not scored) because it’s one way to invite learners to notice what we’ve uncovered and the schooly feeling is comforting to some. My boss likes to see copies of such quizzes in the students’ folders too because the state also wants evidence that schooly-stuff is happening.

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mike, and Kathy, too. I think there is probably a lot to be said for the occasional upfront, very explicit grammar lesson, if for no other reason than to be seen to be doing it, and thereby satisfying learners’ expectations, if not their real needs. It’s all about ‘face validity’, perhaps. Of course, I am under no illusion that it will have any significant impact on their accuracy, fluency, or complexity. It may, however, ‘prime’ one or two of them to notice grammatical structures in the language that they are exposed to. It certainly won’t do them any long-term harm!

7 04 2013
Candy

Very like but most especially line the last.
But I really wish it could all be in the past.
This kind of lesson ‘s
So depressin’
It’s needing outlawing……and fast.

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thank you for that comment, Candy.
Your point of view will come in handy.

9 04 2013
Nick Bilbrough

A teacher of English in Chile
Said people learn best when they’re silly
So up stood a student, who’s normally prudent
……………………………………………………………….

(Apologies for lowering the tone!)

7 04 2013
diana

I think students need both: a communicative approach where the grammar rules are put into practice, but also a clear explanation, using functions.

Recalling the post about….”comparing” grammar, I think it might be useful also to say sometimes: ” in Italian it DOESN’T work the same way, because….” or “it’s similar to….”.

Grammar rules alone are not enough. Neither is practice alone. Our mind is quite complex and we have to see the same thing from different points of view in order to understand it completely.

Children might grab the grammar rule without thinking about them (the younger, the better). But adults mind is already keen on categorizing every thing, and it kind of stop working if they can’t find the right category.

At least this is what I mostly experienced.

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Diana. And thanks for referencing the contrastive analysis post: if grammar explanation has to be done, maybe using the L1 is the least confusing and most time-effective way of going about it.

7 04 2013
Chris Meoli

A fantastically amusing poem (not sure I would call it “doggerel”:) ) touching on a historically reoccurring issue: the teacher-centered classroom that lacks, among other elements, practice and more importantly: authentic practice. While it is disappointing to hear that Denmark’s secondary school teachers are beginning to revert back to this kind of “teaching,” it is not at all surprising. In the wake of the PISA test results, the reliance on assessment strategies that are easily measured quantitatively has increased dramatically. Whether or not those assessment strategies are useful, is based entirely on the goals of the program, institution, students and instructors. At public institutions, those goals are often set by agencies detached from the classroom. They seek results in an easily comparable, numerical format to show “definitively” students’ progress and to rank teachers’ abilities (in test preparation, of course:) ). Despite the fact that the last line in this poem is a head-nodding, common sense statement to most educators, who says that a student’s ability to converse is a universal goal for the ESOL classroom? There have been great advancements in grading approaches over the past several decades, such as rubrics; however, conversation skills remain impossible to measure quantitatively or objectively. Cloze exercises, on the other hand, are many administrators’ (and many students’) ideal, as they produce hard numbers that can be used at the policy level.

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chris, and I suspect that you are right – that the principles underlying the communicative approach have been sidelined, traduced even, by the need to measure progress, and that this is most easily measured in terms of ‘grammar mcnuggets’. Are cloze exercises called cloze because they close down learning opportunities?😉

7 04 2013
Mark Lloyd

Great stuff, Scott! Love those illustrations too. The last one closely resembles a priest preaching to his congregation – all sorts of parallels to be drawn there, surely?

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mark – you have got me thinking about a future blog post on the analogies between preaching and teaching. I may not have been the first one, though, to dub teacher-fronted grammar instruction as ‘the missionary position’.😉

7 04 2013
Tom

Except for the last couplet, I thought this was a good lesson. Especially the bit about testing.

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Actually, Tom, the lesson is ‘good’ from a teacher training point of view, in that it includes direct method, situational teaching, use of visuals, examples, deductive teaching, metalanguage – everything apart from translation, in fact. And it includes a built-in check of understanding in the form of a test. I would once have been proud to have taught it!

8 04 2013
Chris Meoli

Not sure I can agree that this could be considered “good” if only for the fact that six (6) different verb tenses are covered in one lesson…

7 04 2013
carolread

Thanks for this, Scott. Love it! Gave me a really good Sunday morning chuckle. A bit of gentle pre-reading for the ELTJ debate coming up in Liverpool too perhaps?! See you there soon!

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Carol (for some reason your comment was languishing in the spam folder). Yes, the ELT J debate is certainly concentrating my mind at the moment! I may blog about it next week.

8 04 2013
Geoff Jordan

Looked at the programme for the IATEFL conference. My obvious reaction (given my advanced age) was “Who ARE these people?😦
Still, looks like there’s some interesting stuff on offer, not least the ELTJ debate. I look forward to your report, Scott, and may I suggest that you stick to prose. .

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

C’mon Geoff, you have to admit that this is pure genius:

‘I’m walking to the door. Now I am turning.
I’m teaching you the grammar. You are learning.’

😉

7 04 2013
Geoff

A very entertaining Sunday morning read, but don’t give up the day job,

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Advice heeded, as always, Geoff.

9 04 2013
Nick Bilbrough

The day job looks quite stable, have no fear
But so does this more lucrative career.

7 04 2013
Avi Darkbloom

Explaining rules of grammar and correcting wrong sentences can be, in my opinion, some very useful everyday skills for students to have.

Not only might this study reinforce some of the grammar conventions and help in their own use, but it’s really important when they are helping their friends or their children and so on to learn English – they need to be able, to some reasonable degree, explain and correct.

In formal study, as long as so-called ‘grammar lessons’ are communicative, involve lots of practice and are punctuated with judicious feedback from the teacher, I can’t see a problem.

Whether there should be a whole A-level exam about this is another matter🙂

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Agreed, Avi – although your mention of ‘correcting wrong sentences’ to me suggests a more reactive approach to teaching grammar, rather than the approach embodied in the poem, i.e. ‘I’m going to tell you everything I know about grammar’ and then you’ll be able to use it’. A reactive approach, on the other hand, might start with language use, with feedback (including correction, explanation etc) being supplied ‘at the point of need’.

7 04 2013
JBK

Had to share your hilariously funny “poem” with my colleagues from the English Teacher Training Department in Luxembourg; teaching and testing mixed tenses not just a local obsession in as it seems, there is something rotten beyond the state of Denmark!

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Apropos, I mentioned to my Danish contacts that I hadn’t been able to write the article, but that I did have this poem. They were delighted, and plan to publish it: ‘The poem says just as much about language teaching (the dos and donts) as many articles – and it is more fun reading a poem’.

7 04 2013
Duncan

I love the poem, Scott. I actually wouldn’t mind being a student in that class if it was once in a while, like one hour in ten. Sadly in ELT these lessons are way more common than they should be, if learning to speak the language is the goal. One problem is that it isn’t the goal in many cases, as Chris says. English is taught and tested as an academic subject like history rather than an acquired skill like playing a musical instrument.

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, sadly indeed. An expat friend who lives here in Barcelona responded to the poem by mentioning the fact that his kids are taught the rules of English grammar at school in Catalan – probably good for their Catalan but not much good for the other kids’ English!

7 04 2013
Bálint

Nice one, Scott! I generally agree with the moral, yet I think banishing grammar explanations from language lessons entirely, which I believe is a misinterpretation of CLT, is just as misinformed and counterproductive as making ELT all about explaining grammar.

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Bálint – and (as the author of a number of books with ‘grammar’ in the title) I certainly don’t endorse banishing grammar from language lessons. It’s the ‘chalk-and-talk’ approach to teaching it that concerns me mainly.

7 04 2013
Jo Cummins (Creativities)

I wonder if I’m the only one who immediately started thinking of all the ways I could use this poem in class…!

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Please do, Jo – and let me know how you did!

8 04 2013
Chris Meoli

I’m going to use this poem for a teacher-training workshop on Saturday as a warm up. It will certainly be a great discussion-starter!

7 04 2013
Mario Lopez-Barrios

Thanks for this thought-provoking and brillantly written piece! (Doggerel? You´re too modest!)

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mario – it was a great way to pass the tedium of a long-haul flight!

7 04 2013
darkwasthenight

The most depressing comment from a colleague? ‘I’m a grammar nazi.’ I observed him teaching and then I paired up with a depressed-looking mute Turkish teenager in the elementary observed lesson (I know, I shouldn’t have done) and encouraged him to talk about The Ottoman Empire which somehow cropped up. Couldn’t stop him after that. Apparently, he’d never said a word before. Not surprising, I thought as I left the class. Said teacher, rapidly promoted to DOS.

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

The saddest comment made by a student to a colleague who had been substituting an absent teacher: ‘Our teacher never talks to us’.

8 04 2013
Mark Lloyd

There is a flip side to this, of course. Students who have experienced a heavily grammar-based English teaching tradition (still very much the majority) witnessing an alternative, grammar-lite, lexis-heavy, FUN teaching style when they come to study in a more progressive system and queuing up at my door after class to complain thus: “It was fun, I enjoyed it, but there was no grammar.” No grammar? Imagine that….

8 04 2013
darkwasthenight

As we know they bring what they they think a lesson is and it’s up to us to allow the synergy to alter their perceptions. I don’t mind thinking that I’m training them although I’m a bit uncomfortable about this.

7 04 2013
Ayat Tawel

Thanks alot Scott for a wonderful and very inspiring poem, indeed !!
I liked being in the class of that teacher in your poem as I have seen worse grammar classes. It reminded me of some early instances of my grammar teaching career as well !

These debates about teaching grammar will go on and on as we could see that some teachers are even going back to the traditional way of teaching grammar. I guess those teachers feel more relaxed that they did their job, or their best delivering all they know about grammar to their students, using the traditional way !!
I will use this poem with my students in class (not sure how yet) !! However I believe it will have a very good impact on them !! Hope it can have a positive effect on some teachers as well !!!

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Ayat. Yes, the poem was partly autobiographical, I have to admit. I think when you start out, you tend to use your fledgling knowledge of grammar as a way of asserting your precarious authority. Especially when you are half the age of most of the students!

7 04 2013
mcneilmahon

Hilarious stuff, Scott, thanks for making me LOL after my beloved Spurs dropped a couple of crucial points this morning. Bit worrying some of your commenters are still talking up ‘explaining grammar’ though. If learners are gonna learn how to talk proper, their gonna have to work it owt for themselves, innit?

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Neil, the Spurs defeat has clearly unsettled your mind.😉

7 04 2013
Rob

(Applause!) very nice dogg(m)erel, Scott. I’ll be sharing this with my students, next week.

I wonder if there’s a correlation between attitudes towards grammar, among learners and teachers, and views on education in general.

As I’ve said before, we can be well schooled but poorly educated. And I think that’s why, as some readers have already alluded, students – and administrators – can question whether learning is happening in the absence of neat and tidy data to “prove” it.

I also wonder just how much one enables the hegemony by quietly resisting.

Thank you for the Sunday verse.😉

Rob

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Rob. I’ve written about the correlation you mention, i.e. between attitudes to grammar and views of education in general. I think that grammar, more than any other construct related to our professional lives, encapsulates particular, often polarized, values – not for nothing were prestigious schools in Britain called ‘grammar schools’!
See, for example, this article:
http://www.thornburyscott.com/assets/Grammar%20power.pdf

8 04 2013
Janice Heck

Thanks for sharing this. I agree with Diana’s comments above. We need both communication and explanation. Of course, there are better ways to include grammar in lessons than in the example given in the poem. The poem is amusing and could be used a number of ways in classes. Hopefully it doesn’t portray reality.
Thanks again.

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Janice. Yes, the poem represents an extreme instance of grammar-driven teaching, but – judging by some of the comments above – it’s not entirely fictitious!

8 04 2013
Daljit Kaur

The next time my students ask me for ‘grammar grammar!’ I’m just going to hand out this poem and walk out the room. Some students think that learning grammar rules makes them better learners because it’s all they’ve ever known. Sadly, as you mention, they can’t communicate. Thank you for an interesting read this Monday morning on the train to work.

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

A pleasure, Daljit. I wrote it on a plane so it is apt that you read it on a train!

8 04 2013
shotanata

Thanks for sharing the poem!, Very Illustrative. I am writing my dissertation about Communicative Language Teaching in Georgia (the country where I come from ,and where the lesson your poem describes used to be so typical); may I quote some parts of it? It would make the points made in the text clearer and would add some humor to it all as well. Thank one more time!

8 04 2013
Scott Thornbury

I would be delighted and flattered. It will be the first time I am cited in rhyming couplets!

8 04 2013
Rositsa Petrova

I am using this straight away. Today.🙂 Very amusing poem. I like grammar. It reminds me of mathematics🙂 Everything is clear and neat in grammar… at least on the surface. And yes, when I do explain grammar rules, I always do it in L1 and then we put the rule to practice, and I always try to use contrastive analysis, pointing out how it’s similar or different from L1 grammar.

8 04 2013
englishteachingnotes

Reblogged this on TeachingEnglishNotes and commented:
hm. I couldn’t agree more..

9 04 2013
Jonny Lewington

‘Now, who is this?’ She shows a pic of Caesar.
‘An ancient Roman?’ someone says, to please her.

Good line. I think the real problem with this kind of lesson: the kind of student teacher dialogue which is just the teacher asking questions which they already know the answer to, the student answering questions in the way that the teacher wants them to.

This lesson is obviously awful, but I doubt any of my CELTA lessons, infused with dreaded ‘concept check questions’, scripted instructions, strange discussion topics (Discuss these questions with your partner: (“Would you like to go to the moon if you had the chance? Why/Why not), and an otherwise robotically silent teacher were much better channels for genuine communication.

And at least, unlike me when I graduated from the CELTA, this teacher has a reasonable grasp of the six major tenses of the language they are teaching!

9 04 2013
RAS

Hahaha, really funny. Couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the day. I am teaching a new class next Saturday and thought to myself, why not start the class with this poem, and see where it would lead us!! what do you think?

9 04 2013
mceupc

Within the context you have shared– “…a request for an article for a teachers’ journal in Denmark” with regard to grammar,pretty few people would have been able to respond so creatively! ” The Grammar Lesson”, brilliantly crafted, incorporates language structure, vocabulary, visual prompts, rhythm, even some melody and meaning! This is a gem!
The heavens definitely inspired you during your long-haul flight, dear Scott.

Cheers,
Maria

10 04 2013
Madeleine Hills

How brilliant is that. Would love to use your poem in part-time teacher interviews – may I?

10 04 2013
ariascarm

Hi there!! Thanks a lot Scott for this witty funny piece!!… I am thinking of using it in class too. my sixth graders are taking their pre-uni test in 2 months time and some of them love poetry… So , It could be like a grammar revision in verse !! Reading comprehension + grammar all in one!! Maybe they could be asked to create pairs of verses dealing with ANY grammar topic ,kind of follow-up writing practice. How about that??

10 04 2013
Rob

Scott, just a note on my students’ response to your poem: it’s either obvious or interesting that the language learners with less English believed your poem praises the teacher and her grammar lesson. They also thought you, the author, favor such an approach. Meanwhile, those with more English understood the irony and commentary on more traditional language teaching despite the explicit ‘moral’ of your verse.

Again, it could all be down to the language in the poem being too challenging for the first group; however, I know these students well, and those who struggled to understand the language of the poem, some of whom are teachers themselves, do seem to favor a more orthodox pedagogy.

Anecdotal at best?

Rob

11 04 2013
Rob

Sorry, wrote that in a rush. It was the first group who also thought you, the author, favor such an approach *despite the explicit ‘moral’ of your verse.*

Rob

11 04 2013
Emilia Siravo

Dear Scott,
I read this last night, smiled and thought, “Yeah, but who really teaches like that.” And yet today, when one of my students asked, “What should I say, ‘I’ve been there yesterday’ or ‘I was there yesterday’?”, I noticed myself transform into that 1950’s grammar teacher (minus the poodle skirt). I even said, “Time not important. Use the perfect tense.” I drew a nice timeline to explain the difference and then had them practice some controlled examples to help them distinguish the past simple from present perfect. Realizing what I had done, I made myself feel better by adding a ‘grammar disclaimer’ warning students that, “These were only guidelines / patterns and not hard fast rules.”
In retrospect, I realized that I wanted to get this grammar question ‘out of the way’ and felt that giving them a ‘grammar mcnugget’ was the quickest, easiest way for me (as the teacher) to get back to the ‘communicative’ lesson. I know I missed an opportunity but still wonder if sometimes these grammar mcnuggets are good enough?
Shamefully🙂 emilia

13 04 2013
Jonny Lewington

I don’t see what you think you have done wrong. You have answered the student’s question and clarified a problem they had, and given them some practice. Sounds like a useful chunk of the lesson and a good bit of teaching to me!

17 04 2013
Emilia Siravo

Hi Johnny, Thanks. Well, that’s exactly what I’m not sure about – yes, I clarified, but I did so by giving out some quick and easy ‘grammar mcnuggets’. And interestingly, in this week’s lesson when we recycled the grammar, my students couldn’t remember the rule I had given them. Had I taken more time to make them ‘use’ the language, (rather than just explaining a rule), perhaps they would have remembered? emilia

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