Monday, 29 June 2015

Discussions--Series 8--ELT Professionals Around the World

Please go to Post 68 and then come back here. Thank you.

Discussions—Series Eight

Topic 45
Grammar takes precedence, since it is the foundation to which vocabulary acquisition gradually adds.
Vincent Walsh English professor at Three Rivers Community College Top Contributor

I totally disagree!

I maintain that I, and every other native English Speaker that I know, LEARNED TO
UNDERSTAND AND TO SPEAK ENGLISH, before we heard about English-grammar.
Obviously, English-grammar is a different subject than English!

True enough, since grammar comes naturally from daily language usage. I didn't mean to imply that formal study of grammar is necessary -- not at all.

Inasmuch as academic second-language learning is different from learning your first language, I can see where teaching L2 grammar before vocabulary might be productive, assuming that students know grammar in his/her L1.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

Thank you for agreeing, Vincent. However, some "HARD-CORE GRAMMARIANS" (like Nelson, above), can't see it that way. We "rescue" many English-grammar drop-outs, and still teach them to use the English language, fluently and effectively.

I have a close friend who teaches ESL and argues that grammar instruction is crucial for her students. I don't know, because I have never worked with such students. My own experience is that formal grammar instruction is much too abstract and complex for real-time learning, and that it can be confusing to students because there are so many exceptions to the rules -- especially in a hybrid language like English. Very young children learn grammar intuitively from experiencing language on a daily basis, thanks to the innate universal grammar for language acquisition that all human beings -- regardless of language -- share in common.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

Vincent, your close friend, who teaches ESL, actually believes that teaching grammar is the most important part of learning a language. That is what he/she learned in the ESL/EFL schools. It's what I learned, also.

When I was teaching for someone else, I really had no concern for whether the teaching methods were effective – my only objective was to comply with and complete the prescribed lesson plans (and make sure they could pass the weekly exams). After I purchased my own school of English in Ecuador, where English is prescribed in every grade in school, I discovered that these people were required to complete advanced English-grammar tasks, but couldn’t tell me, in English, what they were required to do. (Many of my students were simply willing to pay for “English classes” just for help with their homework.) One example, that stands out in my mind was a girl who was, I believe, in the first year of college. She wanted help with her homework, but could not tell me, in English, what she needed. I was finally able to determine what was required, when she showed me her notebook, where she had copied the assignment, verbatim, from the whiteboard. The assignment: “Write 15 active-voice sentences, then re-write them in passive-voice.” The poor girl couldn’t even define “active voice”. In fact, she couldn’t string 20 words together in a cohesive thought.

It was then that I began to search for a better way. My first quest was to find beginner English texts, which were not too advanced for these students – I couldn’t find any, although I purchased and tried a round-dozen different books and workbooks from different publishers. None of them were useful. In fact, almost all of them started at the same place – conjugation of the verb “to be”. (In fact, when I query my current students, they all tell me that they started EVERY CLASS with the same “conjugation of the verb ‘to be’”.)

Today, I recruit teachers, and teach them how to use our highly successful methods – which are not original, just a compilation and slight modifications to the various non-traditional teaching methods. It probably, at the core, is most similar to the “TPRS” method, but doesn’t follow that exactly, either. I am now certified in 11 different "pedagogical learning methods" (ways to teach), as well as being a certified Teacher of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).

I am grateful for your detailed reply. I must say I can't agree with you more. I have developed very effective, action research-based reading comprehension and composition pedagogies that rely on rather simple strategies and concepts. In reading classes, I recommend high interest materials that students read independently and/or in group settings -- aloud in groups on the remedial level for pronunciation and decoding and practice -- and then discuss together with me in order to facilitate further comprehension. High interest reading material is the key to this process, along with consistent reading practice. Students' reading scores show tremendous improvement over a relatively short period of time as a result of this approach. In composition classes, my students choose their own writing topics, then read their essays aloud to each other and discuss them as a group, seminar-style, with me. They are writing for themselves, and for each other. I carefully edit first drafts for grammar and usage, without assigning a grade; students make the necessary corrections to their first draft and send me a final draft, incorporating any further ideas for revision that they picked up during the class discussions. They learn through a process of steady guided practice. I call this "owning the writing process." Student evaluations of my classes over the years have been consistently extremely enthusiastic. They tell me they are finally beginning to enjoy writing, and that their critical thinking as well as public speaking skills are showing significant improvement, something which remains quite obvious throughout their ongoing educational careers.
Wendy M.Will Harper TEFL and 2 others like this

<conjugation of the verb “to be”>

I like conjugation of the verb “to be”. It's a very strong existential statement, and when put together with 2nd and 3rd persons, can be a very positive lesson for boosting students' individual self image. I don't know if I would teach it to very young students though.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

Nelson, YOU MAY THINK that conjugation of "to be" is "a very strong existential statement", but my students think that it is "English" (and "English" is TOO HARD)!

I remember when I - a fully fluent, native American English speaker thought that "English" is TOO HARD - also - because of things like conjugation of "to be".

Students learn languages naturally (yes, even adult students). I took "Spanish verb conjugation lessons" for 2 1/2 years - and never learned any usable Spanish. Finally, I found a tutor who taught me spanish, without the pedantics. I could, if I wanted to, conjugate most of the Spanish verbs (that I use) in the most common usages (that I use) now. BUT I DON'T!
Rod Mitchell likes this

I do. And I like conjugations. Lots of us do. If you look at conjugations in French or Spanish, you'll see they're easier to learn than English conjugations, because the verb endings are consistent, and, most of all, they exist. They're rooted in a particular ending form, showing person and number (1st, 2nd . . , singular, plural) and once initially understood, are easy to use.
Verbs in English don't have that meaning-form correspondence.
However, the nomenclature for verb tenses in English, and the consistent use of main verb and auxiliary verb forms, makes for easy learning of the forms. It's good to know forms of verbs.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

I agree with Will. During my college years at Fordham, I recall students -- and language professors -- frequently remarking that the only way to really learn a language, even for straight A students who had been taking formal courses at the university for years, was to spend extended time abroad in the home country and mingle freely with native speakers. We all learn best and most efficiently and productively by DOING, not just studying or listening or memorizing or thinking.

It is good to know forms of verbs, yes; the point is how best to learn them. I would argue that the best way is through consistent usage and constant practice through everyday experience, whether academic or otherwise, not necessarily through formal grammar instruction, memorization, or recitation of conjugations.

In this era of differentiated learning, I wonder if anything takes precedence since multiple intelligences require many entry points and platforms and approaches. Grammar works well for structuralists, for example, but not as much for other types of learners. Grammar is necessary for standardized tests but students must also be aware of and learn colloquial language as well.
Rod Mitchell likes this

<spend extended time abroad>

I'm sure that's what I would do. For example, if I wanted to learn Spanish, I'd go to a place that is inexpensive to live, for example, Ecuador, and not only study the grammar there, but live with an Ecuadorean family while taking classes. I should do that! Oh. No, I already know Spanish. I wish I hadn't grown up in Mexico. Maybe I'll refer one of my Gringo friends.

<formal grammar instruction>

Just wait until you have to use a particular construction. It might be quicker to mentally refer back to a form that you have studied, than an instance when you heard the form.

Grammar AND vocabulary AND ... should all be learnt at the same time, and none should have precedence, since they are all equally important in language acquisition - in second or nth language acquisition, I mean.

All utterances have grammar : it is impossible to say anything without grammar - it is just that at different stages of 1st language learning, the grammar changes. In nth language learning, we are trying to learn an already established grammar/vocabulary - a whole language code.

If we go through it "naturally" (living in the country and learning by doing) - the processes can be amazingly similar to 1st language learning, but generally is quicker and more effective to a certain extent, because we already speak a language that we can use to help the process a long [though this isn't always possible] - AND when we, like babies, really put our mind to learning. Many people just learn to a certain extent, to when they know enough English or Spanish or whatever "to get by", and then stop actively learning. They can "happily" stay at the Elementary level for ever.

If we do language learning in a controlled environment (a school or whatever), to a large extent the grammar is part of the structure of the course, and so is learnt as the "prepackaged" code that assumes no intermediate "trial" steps such as those that 1st language and "living-in-the-country" language learners go through.

Something we as teachers often forget is this : any language we teach is taught with the grammar already in place, be it in an informal or formal setting. The grammar is not separate from the words/vocabulary that is being learnt, but part of the whole package.

Our job as teachers is to make sure the students absorb the input and can use it correctly - and ultimately naturally and fluently. In theory, it is not even necessary to do any overt grammar classes if we have the time (and patience) to create materials that automatically/naturally lead the students to correct language use (as some of the contributers here are hinting).

Direct grammar lessons come into place when (1) we want to "shortcut" the absorbtion process (as in learning the complete set of the present tense of "ser" in Spanish), (2) we see mistakes happen AFTER they have learnt any particular structure, and (3) when there is a need to learn a new structure because the students are ready for it - they are starting to try to use, or have come across, new as-yet unlearnt structures - and are obviously not up to speed with the new structures.

Many a Spanish for Foreigners textbook - as well as those for other languages, make a crucial error; they assume a "logical" from easy to hard curriculum of grammar learning, and then try to match the communicative needs around that. Textbooks based on functional approaches first look at the communicative act being learnt - the grammar involverd in that - and then teach to that communicative act with the grammar activities involved in that (and I gather that Will and Vincent have gone down that path).

In "traditional" Spanish learning, for example, the Subjunctive is often left to the higher intermediate levels, while in "real" Spanish, the subjunctive is a key, everyday structure. The communicative/functional teaching approach teaches (or in some cases should teach) the Subjunctive from when it naturally comes up - not as a complete lesson (or 10) on "The Subjunctive", but on the particularly use of the subjunctive that is used in the particular communicative act being learnt - just the way that Spanish speaking children learn how to use the subjunctive as babies/toddlers (etc.).
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

Rod, thank you for this thorough and comprehensive contribution to the discussion; your comments address many of the enormously complex issues involved in language acquisition and usage in a way that is truly helpful. You've given me a lot to think about.

Once again, I should have liked to make a comment and Rod (who never sleeps by the way) seems to have covered most of what I was thinking,(and again in language better than I am able to command)

To summarise:
I do however start a new student on the verb 'to be' though (I can't see how an instinctive ability to use this verb can be a bad thing. (Indeed the difference in sentence construction in class between students who know and don't is marked) and I also believe in a gentle hitting the 'high spots' approach to teaching grammar (I never call it such and often the grammar names are changed to protect the innocent) to get kids started at about 8-9. They seem to be able to handle it then.

I also believe in coming to structures in a logical order so that the students can see where it all originates. That is why I push the verb forms out as close together as possible, the modals too in a gentle fashion and avoid using grammar that we haven't covered in examples. I like my students to understand the 'basic' mechanics.
(It is possible to introduce most basic grammar in a logical progression in this way though I have spent many hours with diagrams, flow charts and mind maps to make my own plan)

I was working from a text book last week with students and having to deal with examples and questions using to infinitives and relative clauses before such structures have been discussed and masses of new and obscure vocabulary while we were only looking at yes/no question forms. This avalanche of new material just boggles the poor L2(non native) students brain because it is all too new and all to fast. They have just not come across it yet.
This is the main difference with an L1(native) student who has quietly been exposed to such language for 8 hours a day over their lifetime. (This is my biggest problem too with text books as they stand, (that I have come across) They do seem very random in how they offer new input to students.)

I only teach L2 learners and I would not teach L1s in the same way(Although a bit of logic wouldn't hurt). Having said that the results in class seem to suggest the method works. I get better results each year as I try new techniques and refine my current approach.(Some part of every month involves an experiment into something different for if we don't experiment then how do we learn? I really do believe in a scientific review of my performance in class. But I like to control the experiments myself)

I can't help feeling we have just been talking about this somewhere...
(Differences in teaching L1 and L2/What comes first.)

I have followed both discussions and have decided that as there is no consensus (That is fine as it gives me alternatives to consider) it is up to me to decide for myself the best path while not closing the mind the possibility that there may be a better way.
I will continue to watch with interest...

You're welcome, Vincent.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

 “be” is not only the most important one to start with – it is logically the then right one to start with, because it is the first verb most of us learn first (regardless of language).

I am a teacher.
I am from Australia.
I am happy.
What is your name?

Grammar terms for the very young in itself is not the issue – it is how we teach the very young in general. The concept of “abstract terminology” has not yet been introduced. By the time kids are 8/9 years old (depending on the country), they have got used to the use of basic “abstract” terminology in a variety of contexts, and therefore “noun”, “verb”, “adjectiv e” are not an issue. I can remember learning these words at that age (this also shows my age as well).

Introducing grammar in a logical way : in structured coursework such as in a primary school curriculum this can be done because the communicative needs of the students are “vague, in the future”. This also means that – if the teacher/system is not careful – kids end up not being able to communicate. It is also always good to hear about teachers/systems that have overcome this unfortunate tendency.

In language school classes, such as English for Business, or Spanish for Finance, or Chinese for Engineers, the communicative needs are much for here-and-now, and therefore grammar introduction becomes more “as needed” – you learn the grammar for the communication at hand. This doesn’t mean that a progression of grammar is not in the mind of either the teacher or the textbook writer, merely that the concept of “logical progression” changes.

[the] biggest problem too with text books as they stand, .. .They do seem very random in how they offer new input to students. – this can be so. The writer(s) are either basing their text on classes that they have done and that have really worked, or on a “logical sequence” that is clear to them, because they have been writing the book for two years before publishing – but forget to put themselves in other teacher’s shoes.

<<Having said that the results in class seem to suggest the method works. I get better results each year as I try new techniques and refine my current approach. (Some part of every month involves an experiment into something different for if we don't experiment then how do we learn? I really do believe in a scientific review of my performance in class. But I like to control the experiments myself)>>

This is the only way to go – seeing teacher training only gets us to the starting point of the career, then follow-up training “fills in holes here and there”. Teachers who think, care, and pay attention – and talk to others – refine the approach and experiment – and develop what works in their experience. The problem is – referring back to what I wrote before – the textbook writers went through exactly the same process, and wrote something that works for them

To use a textbook well, you need to put yourself in the mind of the writer. Not easy, at times.

“it is up to me to decide for myself the best path while not closing the mind the possibility that there may be a better way.”

This is the statement of a confident, well-grounded teacher.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

EFL & ESL Teacher, Curriculum Developer, eLearning Software Developer @
Top Contributor
In the immortal words of Nim Chimpsky, "Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you."

Other quotes from Nim:
Three-sign quotations:

Apple me eat 
Banana Nim eat 
Banana me eat 
Drink me Nim 
Eat Nim eat 
Eat Nim me 
Eat me Nim 
Eat me eat 
Finish hug Nim 
Give me eat 
Grape eat Nim 
Hug me Nim 
Me Nim eat 
Me more eat 
More eat Nim 
Nut Nim nut 
Play me Nim 
Tickle me Nim 
Tickle me eat 
Yogurt Nim eat

Four-sign quotations:

Banana Nim banana Nim 
Banana eat me Nim 
Banana me Nim me 
Banana me eat banana 
Drink Nim drink Nim 
Drink eat drink eat 
Drink eat me Nim 
Eat Nim eat Nim 
Eat drink eat drink 
Eat grape eat Nim 
Eat me Nim drink 
Grape eat Nim eat 
Grape eat me Nim 
Me Nim eat me 
Me eat drink more 
Me eat me eat 
Me gum me gum 
Nim eat Nim eat 
Play me Nim play 
Tickle me Nim play


How grammatical are Nim's utterances? How well do you think his caregivers understood him? How well did he understand his caregivers?
Rod Mitchell likes this

I agree with much of what Vincent and Will are saying about explicit form focused instruction (traditional grammar and vocabulary teaching)... except for Noam Chomsky's (speculative) language acquisition device (LAD) and universal grammar (UG) hypotheses.

The acquisition by usage part is strongly supported: See Lev Vygotsky's sociocultural theory (SCT), Jean Piaget's social constructivism, Jerome Bruner's language acquisition support system (LASS), and Michael Tomasello's usage based theory of language acquisition, as well as many others.

The idea of innate grammar has yet to be supported by evidence or even given a coherent underlying mechanism by which it could occur (not for the lack of trying by Chomsky, Pinker, and others). Here's a clearly, concisely written critique of UG by Dorothy Bishop (a child developmental psychologist):
Rod Mitchell likes this

<innate grammar>

More like an ability to perceive regularities in spoken language. However, there could be one, or more, parts of the brain that have become the moderators and classifiers of grammatical discoveries.

I was waiting for Matt to come along with all the good references to research.
Matt Bury likes this

It's interesting that Nim's linguistic abilities didn't develop beyond those pivot schemas (agrammatical combinations of words). Tomasello, who studies the great apes; gorillas, orang-utans, bonobos, chimpanzees, and humans, reckons that although the other apes are cognitively capable of developing their linguistic abilities significantly further, they don't because they have no need for it/they socialise differently. They don't engage in shared/joint frames of attention to anywhere near the same extent that we do. The nearest human condition to the non-human ape psychological condition would be autism. In fact, if non-human apes make prolonged eye contact with each other (shared/joint frames of attention), it's a sign of extreme aggression. (Don't make eye contact with apes at the zoo, it's unnerving for them!)

What seems to be emerging in our understanding of language and language acquisition is that it is merely a (complex) extension of our social cognitive behaviour. It doesn't need much specialisation in the brain (UG) just the instinct to engage with each other and share our thoughts.

Exactly, Matt.

Extensive eye contact = aggressivity is also true of various human cultures. If the eye contact is not between lovers or people who trust each other fully, direct eye contact is seen as being rude and even aggressive. Our Western insistence on eye contact stems from this - definiteness, aggressivity, standing-your-ground and not going way.

Having said this, the grammar of the earliest 1st language acquisiton (and 2nd language acquisition in "natural" contexts" is "topic : predicate" - what we refer to and then what we want to say about it. Two-word sentences that develop into more complex sentences, but that still tend to keep the topic-predicate structure on the one hand, and the "Attention word : sentence" on the other.

Mama miwk / miwk mama : in the first case the toddler knows "Mama" is the source of the milk - which is the next step. "I" see "mama" - knows "I" want milk. Apparently - generall, the bay sees "mma" and knows to say "mama" first to get her attention, then says what the baby wants from that attention.

In the second case, the milk comes first into "focus" (mental or physical).

Grammar is not an "iron bound" structure, but a system of meaning transfer in itself, and can be amazingly simple to amazingly complex ni "adult" structures.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

PS - I meant to say : defintieness, aggressivity, standing-your-ground and not GIVING way.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

Prolonged and extensive eye contact is infrequently a sign of aggression between humans. Eye contact is an essential part of our day to day cooperation and collaboration. We tend to only notice this when we meet/interact with someone who is chronically shy, or is on the autism spectrum, or has some other similar personality "distinctiveness."

For babies and toddlers, eye contact is their primary means for reading the intentions of others and therefore to make sense of their caregivers' utterances. They're predisposed to be expert readers of actions, tone of voice, body posture, facial expressions, etc. in relation to themselves, other caregivers, and their immediate environment. It's under these conditions that children's cognitive abilities and language are able to develop. As Vygotsky has shown us through his extensive studies, thought and language, and our cognitive development are interdependent and inextricably linked. A kind of psychological obligate symbiosis, if you will.

In relation to L2 acquisition, learners still need to read their interlocutors' actions, tone of voice, body posture, facial expressions, etc., especially at the early stages, in order to make sense of the L2 language. This requires the target language to be "embodied and situated" (Bates & MacWhinney 1989, also see: embodied cognition) rather than a series of complicated algebraic formulae to be remembered, understood, and applied (Bloom 1956) as many prescriptive grammarians (e.g. Mike Swan) would have us believe.

I get the feeling sometimes like I am in court listening to lawyers arguing legal niceties in court. I think that it would be a nice idea for those of you who like to reference learned research materials (All very fine and correct) to let us foot soldiers in the trenches have a simple translation and an idea at the same time how you would apply each argument in the classroom along with some workable examples. Otherwise it just becomes a cerebral exercise and the message is being lost which is a shame because I'm sure there is some good information among the jargon (I don't do jargon or swearing) .

Teachers are supposed to be good at clear simple communication so let's see what you can do eh?
Nelson BankRod Mitchell and 1 other like this

I understand what you are saying, Matt - however it comes across as being very culturally biased on Western research in Western cultures, where we are brought up to believe that eye contact is a good thing, that if you don't meet people's eyes, you can't be trusted - you are shifty, etc..

Identifying "natural" eye contact as opposed to culturally imposed "eye contact" is a different proposition.

Eye contact in many cultures is "fleeting" in "I don't really know you" contexts or formal contexts, enough to get the picture, but more than that, it can be aggressive/embarassing/insulting, and so on. For example, I have seen Japanese business men in formal situations talking to each other. Very very little eye contact except now and then just to - as it were - touch base. In other contexts, and this is fairly widespread as well, avoid meeting the eyes of a superior, for example, such as a teacher.

I remember when I first started to be really aware of this through anthroology - I have spent much of my life in two cultures - indigenous Australian and "western" Australian. One time I worked as a teacher in an adult education college where there were indigenous Australians from a variety of backgrounds. In my "study skills" class there were students from tribal, virtually non-English speaking comunities to fully urbanised-for-generations communities.

One of the "urban" students was an ex-crim doing his best to go straight - and doing an excellent job of it. He noticed that I rarely looked people in the eye (because that is culturally inappropriate among Australian indigenous cultures in that type of situation). He said I should stop doing that, that it's really bad, you should look people in the eye.

I was becoming aware of the cultural realities of "eye contact", and pointed out to him that he as an Aboriginal person was going "against his culture" - in a joking way. One of the other students, who was from an Aboriginal tribal community, however wasn't joking. He gave the tribal perspective : "If you look someone in the eye like that, it means you want to fight", and then he went through examples of who you can "look in the eye" (Grandparents are one of these, they have been termed "joking kin" - those who you can kid around with you can look in the eye). Anyone you need to show respect to, you don't look them in the eye. The most "poison" from this point of view are your in-laws. You should not even sit facing them.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

PS - note that Michael Swan strictly speaking is not a "prescriptive" grammarian; he tries valiantly to be descriptive. But he is a prioduct of his era.

To paraphrase Matt

Learning initially is through seeing and observing. Listening of course is also important, as is touch, feel, smell and so on, but where language learning is concerned, it is the "seeing" that domiinates, then the "hearing", then the kinetic (movement) and feeling - though, of course, in any given context, these can differ in importance. If a baby is hungry, then "feeling" dominates.

Our use of langauge reflects these coginitive abilities (seeing, hearing, touching, doing [active], feeling), and we develop language to express these by word and by thought, adn we learn language best by being fully involved this way.

This is also true in learning another language - lessons need to be seen, heard, felt, touchable, active, etc. - which is what "whole body learning" refers to. All language learning needs to be in contexts where the language used is transparent, rather than in abstract "academic" contexts where the ability to "contextualise" language becomes much more difficult.

The students need to be involved with the teacher and the teacher with the students to learn effectively. IN some cultures, langauge learning is not very successful, because that culture forbids direct teacher-student involvement (the teacher is a "god" is not good for real learning).

From what I have understood, Richard - you are already there - not "god", but focusing on activities/methodology that involves the students as much as possible.

Traditional "grammar-translation" and similar methods are not "whole body" - they are abstract "one or two method" approaches, normally through the written word and through structureed, "right-brain" processes - and are not very active.

Michael Swan in his own words:

"Task-based instruction (TBI) is frequently promoted as an effective teaching approach, superior to ‘traditional’ methods, and soundly based in theory and research. The approach is often justified by the claim that linguistic regularities are acquired through ‘noticing’ during communicative activity, and should therefore be addressed primarily by incidental ‘focus on form’ during task performance. However, this claim is based on unproved hypotheses, and there is no compelling empirical evidence for the validity of the model. Many advocates of TBI reject proactive syllabus design on doctrinaire grounds, while commonly misrepresenting ‘traditional’ classroom practice. While TBI may successfully develop learners’ command of what is known, it is considerably less effective for the systematic teaching of new language. This is especially so where time is limited and out-of-class exposure unavailable, thus making heavily task-based programmes inappropriate for most of the world's language learners. The polarization of meaning-based and form-based instruction is unconstructive, and reflects a recurrent pattern of damaging ideological swings in language teaching theory and practice."


He just comes across as poorly informed (or wilfully ignorant). He's arguing against a large body of evidence of successful input only learning and teaching approaches (including CLT and TBLL), as well as the fact that the vast majority of people in the world acquire L2s with no instruction whatsoever and many reach high levels of competence. In other words, he's just plain wrong.

Re: prolonged eye contact, to clarify, I don't mean "staring people out." Most people are usually acutely aware of where the people are around them and what they're doing, what they're looking at, and especially if they're initiating direct eye contact, i.e. initiating direct engagement in shared/joint frames of attention, with them or with others. We always instinctively maintain eye contact with those around us. Yes, there are cultural variations for sure. In contrast, a chimpanzee may likely interpret human-style eye contact as aggression or stalking behaviour (They're a lot more competitive than most humans, a bit more like CEOs and sociopaths).

What Michael is talking about is not in the divide between "prescriptive" or "descriptive" linguistics; he is "railing" against "exploratory learning", where we the teacher supply the material that the students use to teach themselves. He is not into the "task-based-learning" approach, partly because of the period when he was a practicing teacher, back in the 70s/80s, but also he himself learns that way.

We as teachers tend to teach according to our "learning intelligence" - to how we feel we learn best, and therefore (logically) how we feel everyone learns best.

There has been both empirical and anecdotal evidence since 1890 that TBL works very effectively.

On the other hand, when he mentions "systematic learning" - which is what so many students need to do in school situations (there is that exam to pass, for example), of course he has a point; if I the student know I have to pass that exam to get to university, I know I have a more-or-less fixed amount of langauge I must learn.

But, again, this doesn't mean he is "prescriptive" from the point of view of grammar; rather, he is stating that in that context, we have no choice, we have to teach to a fixed curriculum.


His main error is in thinking that a "fixed" body of language that needs to be learnt cannot be taught through TBL/TBI approaches. We can very well get together materials of various kinds that will both teach the "set language" as well as more, and do so more effectively, while still going for a "whole-body" approach.

It just takes more preparation time for the teacher to do this - though this is only for the first time such a course is run. After that, with repeat courses, the bulk of the material is there, has been experimented with - all that needs doing is modifying as appropriate.

PS - I have seen Michael in action recently. I have a feeling he has softened his stance.

<foot soldiers in the trenches>

Isn't this supposed to be a forum for learned people? Isn't there a forum for foot soldiers, 'Talk gud teechers'? Oh, sure, I used to be part of the ground forces, getting my blood spilled & threatening to call in the Marines if the anti-yank class disrupters didn't pipe down. But ever since I got my MA in 2009, I'm a learned people too. So what if I only understand 10% of the other learned people's posts? If they've never been in the trenches they don't know what they're talking about anyhow. Still, they are deserving of our love. Humor them.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

<we develop language to express these by word>

If you mean, by 'these', the need for intellectual exercise, then I agree with this reason for using language. Consider your brain as a muscle. It feels good to use it. The extension of its use is words. Sure, we can also use words to let others know what we feel about stinky tofu, your plaid jacket and purple pants, or the Jamestown High School Symphony Orchestra, but I think the main use of language is to express our joy in actually using our brain. You could also probably do this in dance, if you have practiced enough.

I rewrite this:

A forum for learned people? And Richard is "unlearned"? Learned is as learned does.

Matt did start off in the trenches, yes - in a somewhat negative way, if I remember rightly (what "bleeding" use is a CELTA if it doesn't really teach the teacher what the real world is really like). Me too, and not only as an EFL teacher.

Us learned people have the task of making things palatable for them unlearned people - but also it is really good to have the mystified among us who ask questions. Otherwise us learned just get our heads stuck up the proverbial.

The research that I've seen in support of the strong forms (not common in todays' classroom practice) of CLT, TBLL, and input only methods often (if not always) includes assessments from discreet item tests, i.e. explicit form focused exercises, multiple choice, gap fills, sentence manipulations, etc. (of the kind found in typical English tests).

He's also on shaky ground when he claims that such methods are unstructured. They're typically highly structured but process structured, rather than content structured. I get the impression that he hasn't really closely examined these methods, perhaps tried them for a time, didn't get how they work (the underlying principles and mechanisms), so they were unsuccessful and, rather than reflect on why they were unsuccessful in his case, concluded that the methods themselves were ineffective.

If he can't get the difference between content centred and process centred curriculum development, he's not going to get the expected results except in a few exceptional cases.

By "these" I meant expressing our ideas, feelings, wants, desires, movements - everything.

However, your point is also a good one. Using language is definitely good intellectual exercise and its needs to be exericesd (even if sometimes what comes out of our mouths shows a lack of that).

And it is a joy to be able to exercise it, as you say.

PS - "I don't mean "staring people out." - I don't mean this either. What you are saying about "eye contact" and its uses is all correct - and the difference between chimpanzee (which is also probably cultural) and human eye contact. What I am referring to is the "maintaining" of eye contact more than just the "see what is there" glance.
Matt Bury likes this

TBL etc, are defintiely highly structured and "non-random". Partly to prove that they really do work.

As you say, Matt, Michael he hasn't really exmined them closely, but is basing his understanding on a general overview of the theories behind the methodologies. I don't know if he ever actually tried it out, though. His early publications included the first versions of teh Cambridge EFL textbooks - veru much in the structural/functional approach where a fixed curriculum and a more-or-less fixed body of progressive language was to be learnt in a "logical" order.
Matt Bury likes this

Re: "What I am referring to is the "maintaining" of eye contact more than just the "see what is there" glance." -- Where do you draw the line? How long is a piece of string? What's for sure is that instantiating shared/frames of attention generally requires eye contact that is more significant than a mere glance (we can maintain an established frame of attention with glances, however). Like I said, "Yes, there are cultural variations for sure."
Rod Mitchell likes this

<By "these" I meant expressing our ideas, feelings>

Sorry. I knew that.
Rod Mitchell likes this

ESL (English as a Second Language)
Just thought I'd comment and thank those contributing. There are likely many (like me) listening and profiting from the discussion without direct contributions.
Matt BuryRod Mitchell and 1 other like this

How long is a piece of string? - as long as is needed, and sometimes a bit too long, and sometimes not long enough. It is all relative, I know, and that is what makes such research and discussion so interesting - we cannot give a hard and fast answer to "how long is a piece of string?".

What we can do, however, is observe people in action (of all ages, backgrounds, sexes, cultures) and get an idea of "how long is too long".

Please don't be offended by any particular phrase. I certainly don't want to belittle any part of the argument as I m finding it fascinating. I just like practical suggestions and practical applications and may well play the fool on occasions. I am getting the idea.

In the argument/discussion about approaches though, does your approach not change as your journey with your new students progresses?
I find that I start of using slightly different methods with a new class (preparing the groundwork) as they initially have limited tools and then we change how we do things as the new students get the tools (vocabulary and mechanics) for the reality based 'mind flexing' exercises. It's a subtle transition and can happen very quickly but I do think its important.
I fear to use the word 'grammar' in case it is misunderstood what I mean.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

English Teacher at Secondary School
It depends of the learner's learning style, in my opinion

Licensed Elem.Teacher / ESL Private Tutor
Reading through the discussions here, it is easy to get lost in all of the opinions stated and I am feeling totally engulfed by the posts made by Rod and Matt - just a tad over my head. Ironically, I will be tutoring my first ESL student soon and yes, I have to say, I was going to start with the form of "to be". Why? Because that is what all the books say to do. So, I have an intermediate student who wants to actually understand why she is using the words she is using and to understand proper tense usage as well as expand her vocabulary. Suggestions please, gentlemen, because now I feel like I am going about this all the wrong way.
I also valued Nelson's statement, "... and the consistent use of main verb and auxiliary verb forms, makes for easy learning of the forms." and the highly-engaging practice referenced by Vincent of "owning the writing process."

Cindy. If it is any help. I would keep it simple. Find out what your student knows/doesn't know first. If she is intermediate, she probably has learned things at school but can't make sense of what she has yet.

This is often what I find in this situation. the student needs a little confidence and 'dot joining' to begin with. It is amazing what a student can do when they realise properly what they have already learnt and how to use it properly.

See if you can make sense of what she has for her by connecting the dots with a little logical input of your own. When you get to that stage you will then be able to determine where to go next.

When we listen to others speaking, what do we hear? words put together in (acceptable) combinations communicating messages which are understood through the words and the way they're organised. Lexis and syntax go hand in hand and so are to be learnt in conjunction with each other.
This is a flower. The doll is cute. It's raining. Why are you late? Who knocked? John did.
He is crying. etc.

There's no escaping this, there's no precedence either.