Tuesday, March 26, 2013

That pesky grammar

I have been dealing this week with the fallout that occurs when an instructor interprets "communicative teaching" as "never mentioning grammar".  This is an all-too-common myth that has somehow resulted from the swing away from grammar-translation and audiolingual methods that were popular in the beginning and the middle of the last century.  Yes, if you learn via grammar translation, you will not be able to communicate, because you will have no practice actually using the grammar you can explain in minute detail in a setting that doesn't allow you time to concentrate on these details (such as a conversation, where your grammar knowledge needs to be automatic).  At the same time, if everything you say is ungrammatical*, you will not be able to communicate either.  So, what is the solution?

First, the context is crucial.  It is true that you rarely need explicit grammar knowledge (being able to explain the grammar) to communicate if you know it implicitly.  You can acquire grammar implicitly as a child or as an adult, although it tends to be more commonly associated with child language acquisition.  The key ingredient is EXTENSIVE and INTENSIVE exposure.  Five days a week of classroom exposure is not enough unless you are investing a lot of time (like the rest of your waking hours) outside of class.  Study abroad usually doesn't count either, given that this is rarely an "immersion" experience.

So, explicit grammar teaching is a useful shortcut, particularly for adult learners, who are far more cognitively developed than children.  Then, the question becomes how to incorporate explicit grammar in a way that still allows for the communicative practice necessary to develop automaticity? Currently accepted pedagogy calls for giving explicit grammar explanations at home, and then having students come to class prepared to practice this explicit grammar point in an activity (like telling stories in the past tense after looking at a past tense verb chart at home).  This works very well, if you have both parts done well.  If not, you have to make slight modifications.  For example, the Arabic textbook I use (al-Kitaab) has explicit grammar explanations that are not always clear to the students.  So, I modify the explicit at home/practice in class by giving additional explicit explanations at home (such as a short video in English) and/or a short (5 min) presentation in Arabic at the beginning of class (usually using lots of pictures and powerpoint animations), prior to our practice.  This works very well, most of the time.

The instructor who had the trouble was trying to implement the ideal (explicit grammar at home, practice in class) while using a horrible Arabic textbook (that shall remain unnamed) that has completely mystifying explicit grammar explanations (as in I only understand them because I already know the grammar).  Thus, the in class practice did not work, and the students demanded grammar, because they were getting nothing at home.  Had they had the opposite problem, of excellent explanations at home, but poorly designed activities for practice in class, it would have been equally bad.  In any case, I ended up with a group of highly disgruntled students insisting this was the worst instructor in the world, and a highly disgruntled instructor insisting that all the students wanted was traditional grammar lectures.  Luckily, I think this will be resolved with the modification of supplementing the explicit grammar at home with better explanations and doing a short Arabic presentation in class before practice (which this instructor does wonderfully in the other section of the class I teach, with a better book).  The students also agreed that this was what they wanted (and not a 50 minute lecture in English on verb forms that would give them no practice).  The horrible textbook is going away after this year, since I changed the series, so hopefully this will not happen in the future.  But yikes, what craziness!

*Not the same thing as prescriptively correct

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