Reaction to Bill VanPatten thread 2

I finally read all 200 posts on the thread started by the SLA (Second Language Acquistion) researcher and author, Bill VanPatten (bvp). He asked fl teachers on the Listserv flteach to answer the following question:

“So, here’s the question: what does everyone think grammar teaching does to the learner and how does it do it? Alternatively, what should grammar teaching do to the learner and how should it do it?”

So, as long as the emphasis in the classroom is on passing tests that involve identifying discrete grammar items, learners will learn that, not L2. And what bvp was asking teachers to explicate is what they thought was going on in learners? heads when they taught them these grammar items. The answers were revealing and can be found in the flteach archives for July and August, 2006.

Most teachers simply said: grammar teaching works, providing no evidence, proof, research, examples, nothing. Some provided their own personal experiences (as I did). Some made observations about their students, all anecdotal and nothing I would want to hang my hat on.

The upside was that most of the posts, all of them, really, were thoughtful and concerned. Many list members, while sticking to their guns that “teaching grammar works”, still wanted to learn more from the research. Bvp used the term “hot under the collar” for some of the responses. List members demurred but I agree that there was a tone of angry frustration in some of the posts: “How dare you question why we do what we do when you’re not down in the trenches with us. By god, I learned L2 by sweating through those conjugations so don’t tell me how people learn.” This was often in reaction to bvp’s citing research about issues like order of acquisition, the effects of grammar teaching, etc. I guess the hostility is understandable, given the conditions under which most teachers work, but it is regrettable.

One other item: some took refuge in the fact that students who take math don’t become mathematicians, etc. but bvp took pains to point out that learning a fl is not like other learning: it is a natural process. At any level, IMHO, even the first week of class, students should be at a certain level of proficiency and what I see is that even after four years of instruction, there is almost no proficiency. The answer to that I get from SOME teachers is: they just need to study their grammar more or they need to travel.

So M B’s last comment to bvp was “don’t say we’re avoiding the question; we just don’t know the answer”. She said in the same post:

“….and yet I (among others) gave you a number of reasons why we teach grammar,

none of which required or even assumed that we have ideas or knowledge of brain processes.”

To be fair to both bvp and the many teachers MB so well represented on that thread, bvp was asking what teachers think goes on in learners? minds when grammar is taught and MB was stating the WHY of teaching grammar and making it clear that the internal processes are not something teachers have access to.

All in all, it seems the field is all over the place, from teachers who teach only discrete, decontextualized grammar factoids and paradigms, to teachers who use L2 in the classroom routinely even as they deftly elucidate certain points of grammar to those who have students actively involved in using L2 for communication with little regard to instruction in grammar.

Recently, a List member wondered if the “communicative” approaches like tprs (actually, tprs is a grammar-driven syllabus – it just teaches grammar via stories and does not test directly for grammar) might be responsible for the dramatic dearth of grammatical accuracy on the part of many fl teachers. My response to that is: exactly where are the students who studied under other approaches who even try to speak L2?

Outrage, outrage, outrage…. I know. But until we have scientifically conducted studies, all we have are the outraged claims of teachers who insist their communicative classrooms produce grammatical accuracy or who insist their grammatically taught students are proficient.

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