Teaching The Right Grammar?

Through the very active Facebook page of EFL SMARTblog, I came across and read the column ‘20 Common Mistakes that (Almost) Everyone Makes‘. I was very curious to know how many of those 20 I make (and teach). And funnily enough, I found out that that I was among those ‘(almost) everyone’.

I must say that I don’t agree with this “grammar geekery”, as the author of the article puts it. I confess that my mistakes are not teaching the difference between ‘may’ and ‘might’, and teaching the use of ‘since’ as a synonym of ‘because’ in certain contexts. And I don’t think that is really a problem. I guess that the article, and the book it is based on, is aimed at native speakers who want to become authors or academics.

(This article in The Guardian offers an interesting view on the topic: Sorry, there’s no such thing as ‘correct grammar’.)

The problem with ‘grammar geeks’ in the context of EFL is that teachers who are not native speakers tend to be even more radical in their approach to grammar than natives, probably due to a lack of confidence or the way we were taught. This insistence on accuracy in grammar has determined how we grade the language level of our students for years, in detriment of fluency or the ability to communicate, and it might have been the cause of the poor level of English among Spanish students, who were unable to utter a word in the language despite spending years studying it at school.

Finding a balance is the key to success, but where is the balance here? An example of this attitude towards grammar can be exemplified with an attitude that I witnessed when I started teaching 20 years ago: one typical mistake that used to mean an automatic failure in the oral exam in some schools in an advanced level was saying ‘people is’, irrespective of what they had said. “He said ‘People is’. He can’t pass the oral exam at this level with that kind of mistakes.” This is not the case any more, I hope.

What are the mistakes that you consider ‘serious’? What’s the (recurrent) mistake that really annoys? Share it with us!

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19 thoughts on “Teaching The Right Grammar?

  1. It has often been the case in the past that teachers go by grammar alone to set a grade; my experience is that the ‘no-no’ situation you desribe towards the end of your post is still the norm with some of my colleagues. I focus on communication, which has to do with correctness and an awful lot of other things, none of them automatically disqualifying. We have a clear description in the CEFR of the skills speakers should have in order to be granted a certain level, and almost none of it conforms grammar. If, for B2, it devises “regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party” why on earth would a teacher jump over that and make amendments? Why hardening or softening criteria, and on what grounds? But it what usually happens with some examiners, is it not?

    On that note, I read this paper recenlty, which goes along the lines of what you mention; it tells about potential overuse and certainly distinct use of linking expressions in ESL writing as compared to that of native writers (both students and experts):
    http://aile.revues.org/4213

    With ESL textbooks focusing so heavily on connectors, organisers, etc., there is a risk that students overdo it. An example of this is here:
    http://www.admc.hct.ac.ae/hd1/english/argument/dogs.htm
    It is correct English, and OK-ish for intermediate levels, but I’d suggest developing the idea or concept I am writing about a bit more before connecting it to another one.
    So I have to remind the students to keep a balance between these connectors and their ideas; that adding a lot of connectors will not give them high marks per se, and that it can even be detrimental to their grade if you overdo it. I find that some students, out of 250 words, say very little if you take out the howevers, the having-said-thats and the on-the-other-hands.

    So I spend a lot of time and effort getting my intermediate-level students to use linking expressions, only to spend almost just as much discouraging overuse with my advanced levels. Am I the only one?

    • No, you’re not the only one. And if they get to the point of overusing linking expressions, that means that they do use them, so that’s something to be happy about, I suppose…
      The problem is that writing is so difficult (in any language) that students tend to memorize structures as a kind of formula they can repeat and feel safe.

      • Well, as you said, writing is not easy so there´s no harm in students memorizing structures, as long as they know what they´re doing. I´ve done it myself, not only as an ESL student but also in Spanish, my mother tongue, when in high school, and it helped so I wouldn´t rule out learning things by heart, with a clear purpose. The problem always lies in not having a solid foundation to build on,

      • You’re right, Susana, memorising is not necessarily a bad thing. We’ve all done it as students and I don’t rule it out, but you run the risk of reading texts that consist of a kind of copy and paste of sentences they have learnt by heart. But I suppose that’s another question.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, María. I think the attitude to grammar accuracy of some teachers is akin to that of religious zealotry, this “Heresy! he’s said ‘people is'” sort of thing.
    Since one of the main problems that adults face when learning a foreign language is overcoming self-consciousness and fear of ridicule, overreacting to students mistakes can only lead to failure. The best way to avoid making any mistakes is to say nothing, or at least nothing you haven’t written and re-written first and then rehearsed until you know it by heart and then speaking becomes something painfully hard, like preparing for a lecture every time they want to say something, it requires so much effort on the student’s part that eventually, unable to keep that level of stress, most of them quit and only the fittest survive …
    I am not saying accuracy is not important but not at the expense of fluency, and I am sure it can be achieved by practice, by exposing yourself to the language in real contexts as much as possible, by enjoying the language and what you can do in it as often as you can: reading books, watching films and TV shows … and speaking in class! in a friendly environment where mistakes are not considered a big deal but a normal part of the learning process.

    • Good point, Carmen. What benefit does stress have on anyone? Why would a teacher run a class like a military regime? And some of them do, in a way.

      I read somewhere no. 1. fear for Spanish people is “speaking in public”. Speaking in public in English has to be even more mind-numbing. Stress would only make it worse. In class we have fun and contribute in small groups, pairs, etc, and only then as a class. Expecting people to speak at the pointing of your finger requires a rare kind of student, and methodologically is as unsound and useless as the kind of teaching most people over twenty got at school.

    • Well, there´s no need to overreact to students´mistakes, but not to overlook them either, so as not to fall in the trap of ” Well, he/she gets the message across” ( regardless of how. Throughout the school year, there´s plenty of time to encourage fluency and expect certain accuracy that will depend on the stage of the learning process. It´s our job as teachers to know what we can and cannot expect from students during such process, although this does not seem an easy thing to do.
      The way I see it, we, as teachers should just give ss tools ( rules, strategies,…) and convey our love for the target language ( essential IMO!) so that they can make the most of them.

      • The point I was trying to convey was that the obsession about grammar that some teachers seem to have leads them to believe that a specific mistake in grammar invalidates a text or a speech. I’m not talking about forgetting grammar but that accuracy is not then one and only element to consider when we grade the level of our students.

  3. Absolutely, I’m convinced this is the best contribution we EFL teachers can make to our students’ learning process, if we manage to create a relaxed atmosphere where they not only dare to use the language but even enjoy themselves while doing so!

  4. I can’t agree more. An inviting atmosphere boosts learning. Informal activities bring more learning that formal ones.
    There are rules we have to teach, of course, but as time passes and learners increase their knowledge of the languague, we have to offer them the possibility of following “other rules”.
    I remember myself as a student and my unsolved questions, my teachers couldn’t solve them. I remember two: “tonite” and “ain’t”, I could find the latter in a dictionary, the first one remained unsolved.

  5. What an interesting article, María! Congratulations!!! And thank you for taking the time to write about this topic 🙂

  6. Pingback: My attitude on grammar (and language change) « ConversationalWordsmith

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