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.





T is for Transmission

13 01 2013

teacher dixon 01“I do agree that it takes multiple aspects of learning L2 with frequent reviews for learners to absorb information”.

So wrote one of my online MA students on a discussion board last semester. The course I was teaching was on second language acquisition, and the tasks that they were asked to engage with focused on their reading (of the core texts), their teaching experience, and their experience themselves as second language learners.

What I started to notice (and then couldn’t stop noticing!) was the persistence of the metaphor of language learning being like absorbing information.  In one form or another, it came up again and again. Here’s a sample:

1. I figure out what the teacher wants/requires then take the info she/he provides and jumble/distribute/ teach it to myself in the way I know I’ll absorb the information then come back to class.
2. I like to think there’s just a few broad types of ways students will absorb/process/react to the information and refine from there as needed.
3. Spending time around Spanish speakers, absorbing information incidentally while being able to produce the language…
4. While students must be active during input for acquisition to happen, it nonetheless has a more passive nature to it, something along the lines of absorbing the information.

(Note that the students used the ‘absorb information’ metaphor to describe, not just language teaching, but their own experience of second language learning).

This prompted me to see if there was anything else, apart from information, that is ‘absorbed’. In fact, there’s a lot: pronunciation, grammar, language in general. Again – a few items from my ‘corpus’:

5. The students that already knew how to write became much better speakers than I was because they just needed to absorb the pronunciation.
6. I learned syntax, grammar and vocabulary in school but I found that communicative interaction was a key factor in absorbing the language.
7. I like the idea of not stressing the order of which students absorb input fully

Interestingly, if you check the principal noun collocates of the verb ‘absorb’ in a corpus of general English, this is what you get (in order of frequency): water, light, heat, energy, shock, moisture, information. That is to say, information is the most frequent non-physical entity that is absorbed, and it does this, it would seem, because it shares conceptual space with fluids and energy sources. A metaphor of information absorption construes the mind as a kind of sponge.

The idea that information is a physical substance, either liquid or solid, was instantiated in a number of comments:

8. I agree that a good teacher does make all the difference as to whether the information sticks.
9. Drilling stores that information somewhere
10. At least my mind holds on to information I can associate with real life application better than abstract ideas.
11. Each method has some effect on each kid, but for each kid, one of those methods would really cement the information in their minds.

Alternatives to absorbing information included taking it in and retaining it:

12. If you [find] that the students are learning and retaining information, there is no need to change how they learn that information
13. Students intake information based on their individual needs or circumstances.
14. [I] find this interesting from a teaching viewpoint because you see how different information is garnered by the students
15. I subscribe more to the connectivist idea that you learn by taking in information over and over again

teacher dixon 02.jpegAnd, it’s hardly surprising to note that this somewhat passive view of learning was matched by an active, transmissive view of teaching, whereby information is delivered in some form or other:

16. It is my role to present information about the language, whether it be grammatical rules, vocabulary, or cultural situations
17. I have since learned to trim up my syllabi, as well as the information that is directly given to students so as to lessen anxiety
18. We are given a textbook and it is up to us to convey the information in whatever manner we choose.
19. Teachers then have to get that information out using other mediums such as handouts or PowerPoints

Teaching-as-transmission is a way of conceptualizing education consistent with the so-called ‘conduit metaphor’ of communication (Reddy 1979: 288), in which information, encoded in words, is transmitted from speaker to listener who ‘must find the meaning “in the words” and take it out of them so that it gets “into his [or her] head”’.  Likewise, as Barnes (1976: 142) described it, the transmission teacher ‘sees it as his [or her] task to transmit knowledge and to test whether the pupils have received it. To put it crudely, he [or she] sees language as a tube down which knowledge can be sent; if a pupil catches the knowledge he [or she] can send it back up the tube’.

The question is: are there other ways of thinking about (and hence talking about) language, and about the teaching-learning process, that don’t presuppose a conduit metaphor?

What I found slightly dispiriting about the ‘absorbing information’ comments on the discussion board was that they persisted the length of the course, even after we had spent some time looking at alternative models of language acquisition, including the ‘participation’ metaphor (Sfard 1998). Which left me wondering: Is the transmission model so inextricably lodged in the minds of teachers? What alternative metaphors are there? What might it take to ‘change the chip’?

it_is_a_chair01it_is_a_chair02References:

Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Reddy, M.J.  (1979)  ‘The conduit metaphor: a case of frame conflict in our language about language’, in Ortony, A. (ed.) Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one,’ Educational Researcher, March, 4-13.

Illustrations from Dixon, F.G. (n.d.) Método Práctico de Inglés: Primer Libro, Barcelona: Massé, 15th  edition and 33rd edition.