I remember my reaction the last time I was assigned an intermediate ESL grammar class: “Oh, no! Not again.”
Not another semester of faithfully following the course syllabus and distinguishing for weeks the difference between the simple present and present progressive verb tenses, only to have students (still) writing sentences like “I am take three classes this semester.” Very discouraging. Worse is the reaction of friends and family who, when told you teach grammar, respond in one of two ways: “Oh, I’d better watch my language around you.” (As if I typically stand around correcting people’s online production). Or “Oh, it’s amazing people need a class in grammar; I always did well in grammar in school” (as one would hope, given that you’re a native speaker of English). But these attitudes reveal some misconceptions about what grammar is, how people learn it, and how it should be taught.
Common Misconceptions about Grammar
There is “bad” vs. “good” English. WRONG!
Linguists and language specialists don’t actually talk in terms of “good” as opposed “bad” language; there is no such thing. There are, however, standard and nonstandard forms, the “standard” being the prestige form, more accepted as appropriate in professional settings, for example. However, even nonstandard forms, like “ain’t” and the “double negative” (using two negative forms in the same verb phrase) follow their own internal logic and structure. For example, a line from a recent popular song, “I ain’t never coming back to you,” emphasizes through the double negative the speaker’s certainty in his intention of not returning, and actually the “double negative” is standard to show emphasis in some languages like French and Russian. Keeping in mind that there really is no “bad” English will make the teacher aware that what seems like “bad” grammar, such as “taked” for the past tense of English irregular verb “to take” actually demonstrates that the learner has internalized the “-ed” ending rule to show past tense but simply has applied it inappropriately in this case.
Grammar is a matter of “linguistic etiquette.” WRONG!
Avoid “ain’t.” Don’t use the double negative. Don’t end a sentence in a preposition. It’s usually better to use “whom” rather than “who” (although exactly when is not always clear). These “rules” really have little or nothing to do with actually communicating—after all, the ultimate goal of language—but to demonstrate a certain “linguistic etiquette” that marks the speaker as a member of a certain class. This is not to say these rules aren’t important, of course. Speakers who use “ain’t” may be marking themselves, however unfairly, as uneducated and lower-class, something that ESL students should certainly be made aware of by their educators, who should teach them the “correct” (or at least socially correct) form while keeping in mind that the use of “ain’t” or other nonstandard forms really don’t reflect the level of intelligence or education of the speaker.
Teachers should always correct “bad” English. WRONG!
Correcting students’ production of grammar when they are speaking is of little or no value, not teaching students anything about correct usage. Such correction may in fact be counterproductive, raising students’ anxiety level to an extent they become unwilling to attempt to speak in their second language. Even overcorrection of student writing is of little value, as it is too overwhelming for students to understand how to revise and improve when there are marks all over the paper—and if the instructor has corrected the errors for them, then there is no real need for students to edit themselves anyway. More productive is to look for the most frequent or most serious pattern of errors and write and end note for the student to review article usage and revise, for example.
Grammar is primary. Meaning is secondary. WRONG!
It is common practice to introduce a unit of instruction with, “This week we will learn the passive voice.” Why should we do that? Well, that’s the place we are in the book. Even if it is prescribed curriculum, students need a better reason than “that’s just where we are in the syllabus.” We learn the passive voice not because it is a goal in and of itself but because it is common throughout academic language, and we need to learn it to understand our textbooks.
Once a grammar point is covered, it is “learned.” WRONG!
Unlike some curricula, like the number of articles and amendments to the U.S. Constitution, grammar is not just studied and then learned. It is developmental and must be studied, practiced, and then reviewed constantly to begin to internalize it and be able to use it automatically.
5 Best Practices for Teaching Grammar
Accept students’ “nonstandard” or “developmental” grammar.
Again, it may be hard, but students’ attempts at standard English should not be regarded as “bad” but seen for what they are—milestones in developing control of their second language. The student who only sometimes remembers the “—s” ending on plural forms, for example, shows that in even sometimes using it he does know the rule even if he doesn’t always remember it. An end note on the student’s paper should be to the effect that the student should go through the paper, looking for the plural nouns, and check if they require a “—s” or “—es” ending.
Grammar is about how we combine words to make meaning.
If vocabulary is about learning new words, grammar is about how we combine those words in subject-verb-object order in affirmative English sentences, for example, or verb-subject order for questions, which students need to know to communicate. Focusing on large issues like this—that language is meaning, and grammar helps make that meaning—will keep instructors focused on teaching important issues of grammar, like word order. rather than focusing on minor issues like the difference between “shall” and “will” (which most native speakers don’t even understand and don’t need).
Not all errors should be corrected, especially in online production.
Not all errors are meant to be corrected: pick your battles, as any parent will tell you. It is too hard for the instructor and too discouraging for the student to correct every grammar error in her paper, and teacher correction is more a demonstration on what the teacher can do than how the student can improve her English use, which is the goal, of course. Pick only a couple of major concerns in a paper and show the student once how to correct it and then let her do the rest, as it is the student who has to practice editing, not the teacher.
Meaning is foremost. Grammar is used to communicate meaning.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” for example, is a relatively common usage of the unreal conditional. Giving a warning or making a suggestion is first, the grammar to do that is secondary. It’s more important for students to learn the language of advice or warnings than to know “unreal conditional,” so focusing on functions and how we use grammar to perform certain tasks is important.
Practice of grammar is usually required to internalize it.
The point of grammar instruction, or any language instruction for that matter, is to internalize the instruction to the extent that the student can produce it at fluently. This calls for regular and extended practice in groups on meaningful tasks, such as using the future verb tenses to make plans, promises, and predictions.
The instruction of grammar is full of myths and pitfalls.
However, by recognizing the importance of grammar within the larger scheme of things, how it is actually used to communicate, and continual practice, the instructor can build a curriculum with meaningful tasks for grammar instruction.
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