21 February 2007

The problem with teaching grammar

A teacher asked me: "...how else will a non-native speaker approach the levels of accurately applied grammar needed to pass international standard oral English exams except by studying grammar?"

Well, I would suggest not that way.

Today I was speaking with Jack, an upper intermediate student at an American company, and he was telling me about Tom Hanks and that "she" has made many great movies.

Why did Jack, an upper intermediate student, call Tom Hanks a she? Because he was unfamiliar with the grammar rule? Could the problem be remedied if he had 26 people sitting around him telling him what grammar errors he made?

Immediately, I pointed out the mistake to Jack but in the course of the following conversation and with me continually pointing it out to him he only got it right about 50% of the time. All of you on this list have students like that, don't you? What's the problem with these students? Are they stupid? Are they lazy? I don't think so.

Krashen is not against teaching grammar. He thinks it is useful to round out the training of a student who may be having a particular problem with a particular grammar point.
Some people are better than others at using their Monitor to correct their grammar. Heavy Monitor use hinders fluency. And even for the best of the Monitor users the efficiency of self-monitoring is very limited.

Many teachers will disagree with me but I think some rote learning and rule explanations can be helpful but not necessary to get a learner off the ground. But after the beginner stages the learner will need a lot of comprehensible input.

Then the teacher challenged me: "And is there any evidence, Dave, that CI has demonstrably improved Chinese students with their use of pronouns?"

Please note, I was only using the "he/she" to show in a simple way the difficulty of students employing even the simplest of grammar rules when speaking.

This is not only my observation and not limited to pronoun usage. As another teacher puts it,
"EFL students in Taiwan have studied English grammar extensively. However, it is interesting to note that most of these students make routine mistakes on structures which they know the rules for when speaking.

"Chinese students will, during classroom conversation, regularly omit the s that must be attached to the third – person singular form of verbs. The students indeed know the rules governing the third – person singular, as they have studied English grammar ad nauseam in high school.

"Unfortunately, most of these learners are not able to apply the rules during conversation. Mistakes include, "He live with his sister" or "She go to work at 8 o’clock." Lightbown (Brown, 2000: 275) states that, 'Knowing a language rule does not mean one will be able to use it in communicative interaction.' Chinese students have learned and know many of the formal grammatical rules; however, they have not truly acquired the structures."

Furthermore, Krashen points out that,

"Research consistently shows that conscious grammatical knowledge has a limited function, acting only as an editor of what is already produced.

"In support of this position are studies showing that even advanced students with a great deal of interest and experience with grammar are able to access only a small amount of their grammatical knowledge when actually using language. Even when students are deliberately focused on form and taught rules carefully, the impact of grammar study is weak."

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