a little grumble about grammar teaching

In writing another post for this blog, I found myself musing on the weird approach people have to grammar. I was thinking of assessment, but the idea is the same. There is this concept, even amongst the more enlightened teachers I know, that one doesn’t teach grammar to low level ESOL learners. I’m never sure why this is, because it seems to me faintly insulting to the perhaps otherwise brilliant minds of our ESOL learners, that they can work out that (say) adding an -s to a verb is what we do when we are talking about he or she or it. There’s no reason at all why people seem to want to treat low level esol learners like some sort of diseased pitiable specimen of human (although these are probably “practitioners” who “diagnose” problems with their learners’ language and lay them out in the form of targets to be ticked off – I have a special loathing for “to do” lists and lists of targets – seems to me you’re saying “here’s all the stuff you can’t do.” rather than celebrating the positive.) ESOL learners, like the rest of us, are brilliant, complex, marvellous creatures, offering the full range of human possibilities in one class. So they have every chance of making a logical leap. They just need to learn what to look for. And we can teach them grammar.

We may not lay it out using metalanguage, and we may have to build up their metalinguistic abilities – along with classroom vocabulary, we need to address concepts like verb, noun, past and so on. We may be very very functional/notional with a beginner group, perhaps even fully situational, but we might still teach them a little grammar (plurals, for example, the difference between subject & object pronouns, countable and uncountable nouns, and so on).

We may follow a more open, dogme-esque, approach, allow learners to bring the language to the classroom, encourage an atmosphere of exploration and discovery in the class. We may even cast our lot in with the lexical approach, but we would still still help our learners to learn and understand grammar.

What I suspect people are thinking is referring to explicit grammatical metalanguage “Today, beginner ESOL learners, we are going to learn how to use the present simple to describe recurrent or habitual events.” But frankly I shy away from this with level 5 teacher trainees. Quite rightly, the learners generally give you a look of WTF? But then any idiot who thinks that grammar teaching is about intoning from the front of the room about the uses and fine distinctions of the present perfect tense should be immediately shot, stuffed and placed into a museum. Or perhaps pickled in formaldehyde and labelled “asshole”.  Some of my most shameful and crappy moments in the classroom have been when my mouth has got away from me and I turn into lecturer. I know I have this habit, and like crack, heroine and so on, it’s not an easy habit to break! But I am working on it!

I am distracted – my point is this – grammar teaching is not about the laying out of rules, but about getting learners to work the rules out, notice the patterns, and become good at doing this. In this way they can be encouraged and supported outside the classroom. Give a man a fish…

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