03 October 2008

Replying to students' Emails


I get a lot of Emails from my students. As I mentioned before, I am seriously spamming my hundreds of students with thousands of messages. So I get quite a few Emails back from them, usually telling me what they are doing to improve their English in response to my tips and encouragement. I also get a lot of Emails of holiday greetings from them during the holiday season. Often they ask me what I'm going to do for the holiday. Sometimes I see my students making common errors in their messages and I would like to send them a little guidance about this problem.

Normally, I could not keep up with such a large amount of incoming messages. I can read them but to try to reply to them all can be a huge effort and I may be only able to manage the briefest of replies. It may seem a little disappointing to the students to not get an answer to their Email but what can one person do? They understand and don't expect much.

But I want to do more.

I use Microsoft Outlook to manage my Email. It downloads all my incoming messages from my GMAIL.COM account and uploads and sends my outgoing messages.


I use an Outlook function as a simple way to insert stock replies to my students messages. When my students tell me that they are reading a newspaper article everyday or are listening to podcasts from www.eslpod.com to improve their English, I have 10 different encouraging stock answers that I can choose from to reply to them. One of them is:


If I want to point out a common grammar error I have a rather longer stock reply that explains the problem, the solution and several examples.

I can give really helpful and encouraging replies to students and it only takes me about 10 seconds. If you are a busy teacher and want to give more detailed replies to your students' messages, here is how you can do it, too.


In Outlook go to TOOLS -> OPTIONS... -> MAIL FORMAT -> SIGNATURES...

There you will find a function for creating your signature in your Emails. But the great thing is that you can put any text in there that you want to be able to select and insert into your Emails. When you want to use it in an Email, first you "Reply" to the Email, choose INSERT -> SIGNATURE and then you will be presented with a drop-down menu of all your stock replies and answers that you can select from.

You may want to develop several versions of one reply so that not all students are getting exactly the same thing and you may want to update them from time to time. Of course, this is not a way to deal with all messages but I find it useful to deal with almost all of them.

It really does a lot to help the students feel closer to their teacher. It really helps the teacher to not let the messages go unanswered and to send out some encouragement and guidance.

"To be (a corrector) or not to be (a corrector), that is the question!' (with apologies to Shakespeare)

Krashen tells an interesting story of the time he studied French. He talks about how his "excellent" teacher taught grammar and taught vocabulary and corrected errors -- and how they learned through comprehensible input.


A Summer as an Intermediate French Student

By way of conclusion, I would like to report on some recent personal experiences as a student of French. The class I attended in the summer of 1978 in Los Angeles was a private class, with a small number of highly motivated, highly intelligent, and mature students. The official "method" used was the Pucciani-Hamil approach (Langue et Langage), used with much apparent success at UCLA and at many other schools. The method is "inductive", that is, students are led to induce, or guess, the rules. In a typical lesson, the teacher asks what are hopefully meaningful, interesting questions of members of the class in hopes of preparing a context for the target structure. The following exchange is a good example (taken from the instructor's manual, Pucciani and Hamel, 1974; p. 321). The purpose in this exercise is to teach the conjunction "bien que" and the fact that its presence requires that the following verb be in the subjunctive mood:

Teacher: Fait-il beau aujourd'hui?
Student: Non, il ne fait pas beau maintenant.
Teacher: Irez-vous cependant à la plage pendant le week-end?
Student: Oui, j'irai cependant à la plage pendant le week-end.
Teacher: Irez-vous à la plage bien qu'il ne fasse pas beau?
Student: Oui, j'irai à la plage bien qu'il ne ...

My excellent teacher followed this sort of pattern, and often tailored questions to individual students' interests. For example, one member of the class was a dedicated beachgoer, and the example given above was actually used with this student. My teacher also allowed some "free-play". If the student did not give her the structure she was looking for, she tolerated some "conversation", as long as it was in French (a cornerstone of the Pucciani-Hamil approach is the exclusive use of the target language in the classroom). Indeed, despite the fact that the class was a first-year (third quarter) level class, it often had the flavor of a conversation class.

The explicit goal of the class was learning, conscious control of structure. There was error correction, and after enough examples of the above sort had been elicited, there was explanation of the rule (in French), along with further examples if necessary.

What is particularly interesting is that many of the students felt that the obvious success of this class was due to grammar work. One excellent student (a man in his sixties) felt he needed to "firm up" his grammar before doing conversation in French, and he told me that he felt our teacher's finest quality was her ability to explain complex rules of French grammar. My hypothesis is that much of the success of the class was due to the teacher's use of teacher-talk, her ability to provide a simple code that provided nearly optimal input for acquisition. The class was conducted entirely in French, as mentioned above. Besides the actual pedagogical examples, such as exchanges of the sort given above, teacher-talk included explanation of grammar and vocabulary, the teacher's participation in the "free play" surrounding the exercises, mentioned above, occasional anecdotes, classroom management, etc. My fellow students reported that they understood nearly everything the teacher said in class. The teacher-talk, not the grammar per se, was probably what motivated the same student who needed to firm up his grammar to comment: "She gives you a feeling for French ... she makes you want to speak French." This is language acquisition, not language learning.

Grammar teaching? Try it, observe & convince yourself

I don't think I ever stated people should not teach grammar. I only said it does not work.

I never teach grammar rules. My students have had enough of that and after about 10 years they still don't have their grammar straight.

However, I do correct incorrect grammar when I hear it. So does that indicate that I believe teaching grammar works? No, to the contrary. I have students that I have corrected for over a year on pronouns of gender and they still are frequently getting the pronouns of gender wrong.

So I will not tell you to take my word for it. Don't take Krashen's word for it. Don't take Truscott's word for it. Just do it. Do it yourself. Go ahead and correct your students. Make it Action Research. Do it and observe and after you observe then reflect and you will convince yourself. Choose a clearly observeable grammar point like pronouns of gender and correct your student everytime in everyway everywhere. Keep track of how many times your student gets it right and how many times he gets it wrong.

I suggest all teachers do this.

Why I teach grammar

Why do I continue to correct their grammar? I consider it a form of Comprehensible Input. It is a feedback of their own sentence. I believe they will NOT benefit in a conscious grammar rule way: "Oh, right! Grammar rule #27: Pronouns of gender. Females = she & her, Males = he & his." Krashen brought this out very clearly in his description of learning French which I published previously.

But students will benefit from experiencing an extensive amount of correct Comprehensible English Input at a level of i+1 as explained by Krashen:

"Language acquisition is very similar to the process children use in acquiring first and second languages. It requires meaningful interaction in the target language-- natural communication--in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding. Error correction and explicit teaching of rules are not relevant to language acquisition (Brown and Hanlon, 1970; Brown, Cazden, and Bellugi, 1973), but caretakers and native speakers can modify their utterances addressed to acquirers to help them understand, and these modifications are thought to help the acquisition process (Snow and Ferguson, 1977). It has been hypothesized that there is a fairly stable order of acquisition of structures in language acquisition, that is, one can see clear similarities across acquirers as to which structures tend to be acquired early and which tend to be acquired late (Brown, 1973; Dulay and Burt, 1975). Acquirers need not have a conscious awareness of the "rules" they possess, and may selfcorrect only on the basis of a 'feel' for grammaticality."

And despite what the calculator punchers say (as one teacher said to me about acquisition through Comprehensible Input, "the number of YEARS required is going to be well into the triple digits. Your student's great-great-grandchildren will all be retired before your students will have acquired the ability to write like a 15-year-old"), students actually can learn to an intermediate level in two years if they have wife of that language (as did Guy Brook-Hart and Mert Bland) or sufficient alternative input.

What can teaching students pronouns of gender teach teachers?

A teacher, implying the near impossibility of the effectiveness of Comprehensible Input, wrote:

"How many hours of standard, educated English will a native speaker have been exposed to by, say, age 15. Whatever number you pick, if you expect an EFL student to use the language at an equivalent level without error correction or grammar instruction, you'll have to find a way to get that student an equal amount of exposure. Get out your calculators, folks at ten hours exposure to English per week (a generous amount for a Chinese EFL student), the number of YEARS required is going to be well into the triple digits. Your students great-great-grandchildren will all be retired before your students will have acquired the ability to write like a 15-year-old."

Krashen's theories on the "acquisition" of language facilitated through "comprehensible input" at a level of "i+1" is not just something that sounds like a good idea until someone pulls out a calculator and does the math. Although the subject is widely debated, there is a lot of evidence that it works and you can read research after research on Krashen's website at: http://www.sdkrashen.com/.

Also, in what the teacher said, is the implied assumption that grammar teaching actually does work. There is no evidence that teaching grammar results in the student truly acquiring the grammar. A certain degree of retention is possible in the student's conscious "monitor" (an internal editor), remembering some grammar rules, but this is limited.

Clearly grammar cannot be acquired in such a conscious way. One of my favorite examples of this, which I have brought out many times before is pronouns of gender ("he", "she", "his", "hers"), a grammar rule that can be taught in ten minutes it is so simple but can take a student a year or two to master.

Grammar "teaching" doesn't work.

Grammar teaching teacher challenge!

To settle this point and answer the question, I would like to invite teachers who support grammar teaching to design a lesson or series of lessons to teach pronouns of gender in such a way that a student could "learn" it in one week or even one month in such a way that a student will use it correctly more or less consistently.

Then I suggest that teachers who do not support grammar teaching, with an open mind, try this lesson or these series of lessons with their students and see what the results are.

I have no special interests in showing that teaching grammar does not work. I receive no royalties or benefits one way or the other. My special interest in all of this is language acquisition. I want my students to have the fastest results possible. If teaching grammar brings the fastest results then I am all for it.

Welcome to my party!...Or is grammar teaching necessary?

To answer those who argue that grammar teaching is necessary, I would like you to engage in a thought experiment.

Imagine that I am having a party. There is music, snacks, drinks and many guests. All of the guests are my friends. I am delighted when you arrive.

"Hi! I'm so happy you could make it! Here, have a drink! Let me take you around and introduce you to some of my friends.

"This is Bob. He is a marine animal trainer. He's American and trained the dolphins in the Guangzhou Zoo.

"Here is Richard. He's a lawyer and the vice-president of the Guangzhou Law Association. He was one of my students.

"And this is Rauol. He is the manager of the golf course, he's from Holland.

"This is Helen. She's the Southern China manager for Cambridge University Press. She is from Hubei.

"Here is Zhou Jing. She is the general manager of Microsoft Technology Center in Guangzhou. She was one of my students and improved her English very quickly so she could attend a big Microsoft meeting in Seattle.

All of these are real people I know as friends and/or students.

OK, now a question. Who is Bob?

Maybe you don't remember.

I agree that a brief introduction to a grammar form, just like a brief introduction to someone at a party, is not going to hurt unless you mix up all the people you met. But I don't think it really does much to help you really know the grammar or be able to use the grammar.

You don't really know Bob. You don't know that the secret of his job is "hunger". You don't know he is from California. You don't know that he also worked in Taiwan and in Japan. You don't know that when he was in Japan he studied the ancient Japanese martial art of sword fighting and passed several tests to achieve mastery. You don't know that he lives with his lovely Chinese girlfriend who is also an animal trainer.

What if I didn't introduce you to Bob? What if you lived with Bob? What if you observed him while he worked? What if you went out to dinner with him and his girlfriend? What if you joined him as he practiced his sword technique with his Japanese tutor? Without any introductions, you would know Bob very well.

Sure, introduce me to your friends. It's not going to kill me. (Unless one of them is a killer.) But to know them I don't really need to have an introduction. I need to spend time with them, even live with them, to know them.

Spamming my students with "BOB"

A teacher asked about spamming my students, "How much time do you estimate it takes to compose and send out a message?"

I use an Excel file and a Visual Basic program I wrote called "BOB". On one Excel sheet I keep the student names, Email addresses and some other information. On the other sheet I keep the "content" for the messages like message subject and message body.

Most of my BOB messages were taken from Emails I have sent to other groups of students in times past. Indeed, some students may be receiving a message I sent them years ago but probably forgot. So in this case composing a message is very fast. But since all of the messages are short, even if I write a new one it is also very fast.


Keep in mind, each of these messages is stored in the Excel file and is reused. So once you write it, it gets used many times. The BOB program reads the student name, Email address and what message the student is on. For example:

John; john_zhou@yahoo.com; 27

Then the program will check on the content sheet and find message #27 which has a subject line for message #27 and body for #27.

BOB then creates the Email, first with the subject line and the body which begins with "Dear John," followed by my message. It ends with my signature name and my links like a regular message does.

Recently, I added a place for another line at the end of the message that I can customize. If it is a holiday time, I can send them holiday greetings. If I want to remind all of the students from one class about a homework assignment, I can do it there. If I found a new coffee shop to have my one-on-one class with a manager, I can mention it there.

It takes BOB about 3-4 seconds to make each message. After BOB is done making messages for all the students, it takes Outlook about 2 seconds to send each one out.


Teachers have a wealth of knowledge on teaching that can benefit students. The beauty of this system is that it gets maximum use out of the teachers' resource of ideas, tips and pointers. The BOB system starts all students on message #1 and then works the student, message by message, through all of the teachers ideas and tips. Every student will receive every tip from the teacher. They will miss nothing. They will receive it in measured spoonfuls every couple days.

If any teachers would like a copy of the BOB spamming program please let me know and I'll send it to you. I'll let you have about 60 of my messages that I send out. It works only with Excel and Outlook. (It may not work with Outlook Express.)

Tablet computers in the classroom

A teacher referred to my experimentation with a tablet computer so I'd like to tell everyone about that. Five years ago I bought an ACER C110 Travelmate 11 inch notebook computer. You can twist the screen on this computer and lay it down on top of the keyboard and use it like a tablet computer. It was quite small and had an external DVD drive. I bought it here in Guangzhou and it cost 16,OOO Rmb. This was rather expensive but cheaper than the larger Toshiba computer that could do the same thing. When I bought this I was intrigued about the possiblities of using a tablet in the classroom and wanted to experiment.

I still have this computer and am writing you with it now. A corner of the computer broke off due to an accident. I was running across a busy Guangzhou street and the buckle on my computer bag, heavily laden with not only my computer but those immensily weighty Interchange Teacher Books, broke and my bag hit the street hard. The corner broke off my computer and now the WiFi no longer works. My computer looks terrible today and even my students beg me to get a new one but I've grown attached to it the way an old man gets attached to an old easy chair or a favorite pair of old slippers.

But I have to say that I am not satisfied with the computer as a tablet. It was not as easy to use as I hoped to move around the classroom and make notes on students. With the computer in one hand and the special pen in the other, I could not talk with students and then very quickly look up the student on my Excel sheet and make a notation.

What I wound up doing is making notations on slips of paper and at the end of class transferring these to my computer. One of the main things I note in this way is the IELTS speaking level of the students.

I sacrificed the DVD drive for this tablet computer. My next computer, which I'm shopping for now, will have a built in drive. I think this will be more useful for me than the tablet function.

I now have a Windows Mobile phone. This phone runs Excel and I've tried to keep my student list on this. I also can write on it like a tiny tablet computer but the whole process of finding the student's name amongst 40 other names and making the notation is more cumbersome than jotting it on a slip of paper and then entering all the info in a couple minutes after class.

05 July 2008

Tapping the power of commercials

The following is a post of mine to the TESL-L teacher list in May 2006:

A teacher asks, "What makes a commercial more or less useful for classroom use? If you had to choose between two commercials to use in your class, how would you make the choice?"

I think commercials are becoming increasingly sophisticated as advertisers rely more and more on the soft sell approach. No longer can the housewife hold a box of Tide and say, "Cleans clothes whiter!" Now in 60 minutes you often have a drama played out by movie stars where a setting is created, characters introduced, a story develops, tension is added and then the plot twist with some ironic or funny ending. They are actually a mini-movie and sometimes more enjoyable than the TV show or movie that we intended to watch.


In one Budweiser commercial called "Girlfriend" three girls are sitting at a sidewalk café when one nudges the other, points and says something that we don't hear as the audio is off. As they look on they see the back of the convertible at the stop light with a handsome guy and a girl with long blond hair. Then he reaches over and begins stroking her hair. We can see one of the girls is very upset. The guy answers his mobile phone ring and is saying something.


As the guy is talking on his phone the camera pans over to his passenger, an Afghan dog with beautiful long blonde fur and he pats it on the head.


Watch this commercial here. As you watch it, think about the affect it will have on your students if they have seen half of the commercial and tried to talk with their partners about the other half.

I look for commercials with a plot twist that will at first perplex the students when they try to piece the story together and then surprise them when they see (and hear) it all together.


Directors put a lot of effort in creating a powerful sense of mystery, suspense, curiosity in their commercials. To simply show a commercial straight through crashes through all of that in 30-60 seconds. But you can stretch out the affect, a driving force of their tremendous desire to satisfy that curiosity.

Then this desire powers the students into the English. They search all of their English resources for a way to communicate with their partner to resolve this mystery. Students get fully engaged in these exercises. They even forget it is an English "lesson" yet they are using English.

After partners have tried to figure out the story of the commercial, I have one partner "B" tell the class what "A" told him. Then another partner "A" tells us what "B" told him. This offers the students a chance to tell a story and use reported speech. All students listen intently as they are very curious about the story as well.

To extend the exercise, while the students are telling what their partner told them, you can write it up for all to see. Write it the way they say it with bad grammar and all. Get suggestions on how to improve the grammar, vocabulary or even the story's facts. Students' curiosity is still powering their interest into the story writing activity and it won't be lost over mentioning some grammar or vocabulary issues. The teacher can guide the students to better language but should not correct the actual events of the story at this point.

After this, the students are still not sure if they really have the full idea of the story. Then play the commercial again with the sound. Every eye will be focused intently with a smile growing on their faces.

In the glow of satisfied curiosity, the teacher can go back and finalize the story that was written, perhaps a few facts are missing or better vocabulary can be used or other language points covered.

Of all the exercises I have done with my students, this has always been the most popular and the most requested.

08 May 2008

The future just ain't what it used to be

A teacher describes his experience at using tele- & videoconferencing in teaching: "While teaching in France I was asked to teach on an online course. IMHO it was a disaster. People came and went from the virtual room and nobody seemed to know what was going on. It was a bit like one of those horrible dreams you have about having no control of a class. I think it MIGHT work IF you have the opportunity to meet the students in the real world before you go virtual - and have a limited number of well-motivated students."

I think we have to keep in mind that this is a moving target, very dynamic, constantly changing and improving. People, including our students, are using VOIP and videoconferencing more and more. Managers and staff in offices are using this to communicate with each other and with colleagues around the world. Everyone will get used to the protocols of usage and behavior.

It's not that it is a special tool for English teaching. It is becoming an increasingly common way of communication with all people around the world and something that we can use, too.

It is quickly reaching the point that it is not a cheap and convenient way to teach English but it is a more realistic way of teaching English because it is the way our students are actually using English. My students here in China report to me that of their spoken English communication, about 95% is on the phone and about 5% is face-to-face. Yet, just about ALL of our English teaching is face-to-face. So I think teaching by VOIP, videoconferencing and even by telephone, with all the associated difficulties, are not only authentic but necessary mediums for teaching.

Additionally, improvements are being made on audio and video quality. In ten years, many of us will be sitting down at a table looking at a life-like video image of our student(s) on the other side of the table. Except for the fact that it is two-dimensional instead of three, it will be the same as being there. I and many of you have seen demonstrations of this technology already.

It is no longer called "videoconferencing". Rather, it has become "Telepresence".

That is an interesting term to ponder, "Telepresence". Teachers could work in tandem. The primary face-to-face teacher could hand off to a telepresent teacher for ten minutes to explain some aspect of English and then carry on. When a question comes up he doesn't know how to answer he could bring up a colleague.

In a Friedmanistic style flattening of the world, teachers can be anywhere teaching students who are anywhere. These dynamics will change many things about our profession in unusual ways. British teachers living in the UK may find it more difficult to compete with British teachers living in China or India where the cost of living is vastly cheaper and a lower salary can be accepted. Indians have mastered call centers, even adopting American or other accents, and it wouldn't take too much for them to teach American English or whatever flavor is desired to anyone anywhere.

The future just ain't what it used to be.

02 May 2008

LIMO means Little In Much Out

Some people have written me for information about some games I have been using. I got one or two of them off the TEFL-China website but then modified them. So I'll just explain them here.

There is a certain quality to finding good learning and practice activities that require no prep on the teacher's part. Sometimes these types of things work out much better than activities consuming many hours of preparation. At times when I've put the most work into my preparation these were the same times that the students didn't share my enthusiasm for my idea.

One teacher explained that she had been trained to try to do as little as possible and get the students to do as much as possible.

Here are three quick and easy games. We can call this sort of activity a LIMO, Little In Much Out:

1. Dictionary Liar Game
2. Alibi
3. True Answer or False Answer Game

1. Dictionary Liar Game

Get or choose three volunteers. Explain to the class that these three students are going to tell them a word and what it means. But one will tell the truth and two will tell a lie. The class will have to determine who is telling the truth.

Take the three students out of the classroom and help them to choose a word from (preferably) an English-English dictionary. Words we used in the past were: beret, zebra, igloo, etc. Let the students decide who will tell the truth and who will tell lies.

The students come back in and give their definitions. The liars try to lie convincingly. The class can ask questions of the students. Then the class tries to pick the one telling the truth.

2. Alibi

Ask for volunteers. You should get one volunteer per five students in the class. So if there are 40 students then you should choose eight volunteers. Tell the class the bad news. Last night, at 8 p.m., some people robbed a bank and got away with a lot of money. However, we think we know who did it!

Turn to your group of volunteers and say that we think THEY did it!

This always has a shocking effect on the class and is very funny. The good news is that the rest of the class are policemen and will question the suspects. Explain what "alibi" means. Get four volunteers and send them out of the classroom to develop their alibi about what they were all doing TOGETHER at that time.

While they're out of the room, divide the remaining students up into groups of four students each to be teams of "police". Review some types of questions they can ask the suspects.

The suspects return to the class. Ask them if they robbed the bank. They all say they didn't. Divide the suspects up and send them to different corners or spots in the room and send a team of police to question each suspect. Encourage the police to take notes. After 4-5 minutes the police teams rotate to another suspect and they can ask the same questions hoping to find something different in the suspects' alibi. If the suspect says they took a taxi somewhere, coach the police teams to ask him who sat next to him, etc.

After each police team has a chance to question three or four suspects, you can stop the activity and found out what inconsistencies they found in the suspects' story.

This game is lots of fun. Students forget it is an English lesson and get absorbed in the challenge of the game.

3. True Answer or False Answer Game

Get one volunteer. Tell him to say "Yes" to your question whether it is true or not. Ask him a question like, "Have you ever traveled to a foreign country?" Then other students will also ask him questions and the student should give true answers if the student did it or make up answers how about doing it if it was not true. After several exchanges ask the class if they think it is true or false. Then ask the student if it was True or False.

Other questions are:

Have you ever had a pet?
Have you or one of your relatives ever met someone famous?
Have you ever won a prize for something?
Have you ever broke an arm, leg or finger?

What are your LIMO activities?

30 April 2008

On using songs to teach vocabulary

I would venture to say it is risky to use any songs that the students themselves don't recommend. Just ask them who and what they like and they are eager to let you know. Remember, if you like it they probably don't.

I believe teaching songs may be one of the most undervalued methods of TESL. Just think: the students usually love them (low affective barrier), they are catchy and easy to remember, they are real language (realia), it is likely that the students will hear them again and again and thus have ample opportunity to review the language, they are culturally informative, they add another media of presentation (music, not just listening to the teacher or looking at a book).

Other teachers had a big discussion (read: argument) about the value of teaching Shakespeare. The claim goes that the bard set a valuable milestone in the progress of English. But frankly, for young people especially, I think Backstreet Boys, Westlife, Dion and Houston would help students make greater progress in communicative skills.

Some care needs to be exercised to select songs with the highest potential of useful language. Many rap songs are hindered with a total absence of grammar and high density of slang or invented language.

Multitasking to avoid boredom - Student need for engaging input

One teacher wrote:

"I often have the TV on in the background when I'm writing or marking papers or working on my website. I'm not really paying attention to it (the TV), but more and more words seem to seep through. I believe it is helpful. Students to whom I have mentioned it, though, seem skeptical. (Of course they are! It doesn't fit within that very small box called Chinese English teaching pedagogy!)"

Is this what Chinese middle-school students do to us as well? Often, we talk about our problems keeping students' attention. I have employed various strategies to deal with this, treating it as a problem.

I noticed that often the students who seemed to not be paying attention often still had the correct answers. I'm coming to believe, in our high tech society, that students are capable of multitasking. They require lots of input and if there is not a high enough load of input from the teacher then the student will achieve his mental bandwidth capabilities by finding other sources of input.

06 April 2008

Betty Azar on teaching grammar

In a discussion with many teachers, one of which was me, Betty Azar said:

"What we DO mean when we say that 'grammar teaching works' is that students develop their interlanguages faster and with better results when a grammar component is included in a balanced program of second language instruction. This is clear not only to experienced teachers, but is clear in the cumulative research into grammar teaching during the past 20 years."

My reply:

My knowledge of the research on this subject is not complete. From what I understand, much of it actually shows that "grammar teaching" will result in gains in "grammar testing" and only modest gains at that. This doesn't reflect acquisition. Could you share some references to any research where acquisition has been demonstrated through direct grammar teaching?

Consider this question:

How is it possible that students cannot acquire grammar solely through grammar teaching but students can acquire grammar solely through extensive reading and exposure to the language?

This seems to indicate that grammar teaching can only play the most minor role, if any, in language acquisition. Stephen Krashen recommends grammar teaching to only deal with anything the student has learned incorrectly, what I would call a sort of post-acquisition experience fine-tuning.[1]

[1] http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/eta_paper/02.html

Chinese grammar troubles

In a discussion with another teacher he suggested that Chinese students may have trouble learning pronouns of gender. However, recall that the question is if grammar teaching works.

Bringing up the question of the way Chinese deal with pronouns really only points out more problems with grammar teaching. After being taught the grammar rules, after being drilled endlessly, as they are in China, on the grammar, they still have trouble with something as simple as pronouns of gender.

If Chinese did have pronouns of gender in their own language, then it is not so much a matter of teaching grammar but more like translating the language of the pronouns from L1 to L2, teaching that xxxx = "he" and yyyy = "she", in which case no grammar teaching is necessary.

How to use pronouns of gender can be taught in one day but take years to acquire. This implies to me that "teaching" is playing a minute role in the learning process. Now, if you consider how much students do learn that is not "taught" then a lot of questions are raised as to the usefulness of grammar teaching.

Where do students gain the ability to form complex sentences, was it from that lesson in Mr. Smith's class in September, 1999?...or was it eight years of reading 24,000 articles in The Guardian newspaper and Time magazine, 12 John Grisham and Stephen King novels, 24 university text books on physics, psychology and history, writing 85 reports and 175 essays? Really, which one helped our student to master the complex sentence?

Of course, you could say that Mr. Smith got our student started off on the right foot. But most students will admit that they forget grammar teaching, that grammar is very difficult to learn, and students in high school and university will cram it for the exam one day and forget it the next.