Teaching grammar in context (I)

 

BELIEFS VS PRACTICE

“(…) teacher beliefs were often inconsistent with practices, and teacher behaviours are formed by both personal factors such as teachers’ prior learning experiences of grammar (…) and contextual constraints such as the education system, curriculum [etc.]” (Borg, 1998, 1999; Farrel, 1999; cited in Uysal & Bardakci, 2014: 4)

First as a teacher and then as a teacher trainer I have always struggled to put together the principles and the practice of English language teaching. The haunting question ‘why would a teacher do what they do not believe?’ finds some answers in the studies mentioned above. In the understanding that grammar must be taught in a meaningful context to the students, in terms of designing communicative activities, one of the main principles I keep on bringing to class is that “the context should be real to the users, so that the grammatical meaning takes on genuine significance.” (Bruton, 2009: 384) Both trainees and in-service teachers seem to agree a hundred per cent with this principle, however, when observing their lessons the essence of this idea vanishes and controlled-fill-in-the-gaps activities and quizzes lead the practice stage. Eventually, some conversation or role play takes place.

In terms of behaviour, “70% of (Turkish) teachers follow a deductive approach by first explicitly and directly explaining the grammar rules, reflecting a focus-on-formS approach” (Uysal & Bardakci, 2014: 6) This reality looks familiar to me at first glance and seems to evoke the Uruguayan average method used by teachers nowadays. In fact, there is a strong preference of the PPP model over less traditional ones like TBL for example, and the majority of the interactions follow the initiation-response-follow up order.

Conversely, in terms of beliefs Uysal & Bardakci’s study reveals a slightly different situation from that of the Uruguayan setting. Although teachers in the Uruguayan context would generally admit that grammar is essential to support language acquisition, I do not think they would say overtly that they use mechanical drills or repetitions in order to help students achieve accuracy. Nevertheless, in the same way Turkish teachers agree that L1 can be used to explain a grammar concept, the use of mother tongue is not taboo in the Uruguayan setting either. Along the same lines, inductive approaches seem to be less popular and teachers tend to believe that excluding grammar explanations from the class would be risky because they would not know if the students deduced the rules by themselves correctly. The insecurity behind this belief might show the importance of discussing this issue openly and find new strategies.

SOME POSSIBLE REASONS

“Classroom learning tends to rely more than it should on deductive reasoning.” (Brown, 2000: 97)

Most of the reasons that explain the dichotomy communicative principles VS traditional practice are quite sensible from a teacher’s perspective: the approach and demands of the curriculum, the students’ (and I would add parents’) expectations, the contents of the textbook, the way teachers themselves learnt English, in-service professional development opportunities, research based readings, collaboration with another teacher and pre-service preparation. Apart from these reasons, the perception that communicative activities are not cost-effective in terms of programme completion plus the fact that in some educational context ‘noisy’ classes where students mingle around are not well seen, puts the Communicative Approach (and its derivations) far away from its application in the classroom.

In relation to the cost-effectiveness of class activities, there is a key element in language instruction that has an impact on the teachers’ methodological choices: error correction. I will not go deeply into this issue but I truly believe that the “innovative methods and materials that encourage creative self-expression and (do) not insist on error-free communication” (Hendirckson, 1978: 389) still have a way to go before they completely sink in everyday teaching practice.

OTHER REMARKS

“(…) teachers’ beliefs and practices seem to be formed, not by their pre-service education, but through a process of enculturation and social construction once they started teaching” (Pajares, 1992, cited in Uysal & Bardakci, 2014: 11)

The more time I devote to reading and reflecting upon the gap between theory and practice in grammar teaching, the more I favour the development of contextually-sensitive methodologies that cater for the specific linguistic needs of the students embedded in their own culture. The criteria of good pedagogical grammar suggested by Bourke (2005) is certainly not beyond our reach as long as the teachers’ voices are listened to more carefully. Along Bourke’s lines, the language our students need to learn is that which “does not contradict real English usage, can be understood as from plain explanation, it is within the learners’ competence and can be uncovered inductively.”

In my experience with students in the classroom, I soon realised that the gaps between what should be done –according to theory and research-, what could be done –according to the authorities’ guidelines-, and what actually WAS done in my class were enormous! Independently of the arguments that can be raised against my statement, I believe it is in every teacher’s experience that Richards & Rodgers’ (2001) “communicative principle” is a guiding premise to one extent or another: the fact that meaningful tasks that involve real communication promote learning is absolutely undeniable.

All in all, I take the pragmatic side of the discussion and see eye-to-eye with Seedhouse: “it would be more fruitful for ELT classroom research to concentrate on understanding the possibilities inherent in our variety of institutional discourse, than to aim at impossibilities.” (Seedhouse, 1996: 23)

REFERENCES

Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (4th ed.) New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Bruton, A. (2009) Grammar is not a liberating force, it is a communicative resource. ELT Journal 63 (4).

Richards, J. C. & Rodgers, T. (2001) Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Seedhouse, P. (1996). Classroom Interaction: Possibilities and Impossibilities. ELT Journal, 51. pp. 16-24.

Uysal, H. & Bardakci, M. (2014). Teacher beliefs and practices of grammar teaching: focusing on meaning, form, or forms? South African Journal of Education 34 (1).

 

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