Response to message favoring EGT (explicit grammar teaching)

I like Troy’s message for two reasons: it states the ideas on teaching
languages from the viewpoint of language as structures which can be
consciously learned and then applied to using the language, what I called
proficiency. Secondly, Troy himself, on a personal level, is committed to
this viewpoint in terms of the way he runs his class and his participation on the listserv. All this makes it easier for me to respond in what I hope
is a clear way. “Studying grammar” does need to be defined and Troy does so by giving examples. The list Troy gives is particularly telling b/c it contains items which English speakers find esp troublesome with Sp, a theme on which we could all write satirical comedies about totally confused kids. Don’t forget that to speak Sp in a way that doesn’t confound listeners, issues like adverb placement and so forth are also important; of the features Troy lists, only noun/adjective agreement seems to not be much of an issue for Sp interlocutors. The others are indeed major for clear communication (Tanks ARE at the border vs Tanks USED TO BE at the border). By “morphemic qualities” I assume Troy means those items of the morphology which carry the most meaning e.g. personal endings, tense endings, oblique forms of pronouns, etc.) The issue, as Troy puts it, is how learners “learn” these. To elevate Krashen to the level of god momentarily, we will assume that he alone is responsible for the learn/acquire distinction. That usage has permeated SLA and the talk of fl teachers. My own sense is that many do not quite understand “acquisition” to this day. But Troy goes on to declare that explicit grammar instruction aka learning, worked for him and other successful students. He backs that up with a counterpoint: for many
students, something did not work. If I may, I’d like to go back to an
earlier post of Troy’s where he is more specific: I think we were talking
about TPRS and he wrote that he had seen students come out of those classes
with low ability in Sp. Correct me if I have that wrong, Troy. Here we are again, stuck on just how we determine what method has been successful and what has not. Troy rightly points out that it takes untold amounts of money, time, and support to conduct experiments which might give us definitive answers. At this juncture, I’d like to point out, as I have
before, that I have always maintained that we have no proof of what works in
teaching languages. I’ve heard too many teachers say “research shows”, as if
that settles the issue. My beef has always been that those teachers using
any particular approach that is seen as “traditional” (cognitive code being
the most common, some grammar/translation, and “eclectic”) are never asked
to prove their method works. Only those doing non-grammar explicit teaching
are asked to justify what they do. Troy cleverly divines the little trick lots of us use, which is to say that IF a teacher is teaching grammar explicitly but also giving input, and getting good results, it is b/c of the input, not the grammar instruction. Good point. We do do that. We are trying to explain how the students were successful with all those rules being thrown at them. Now that makes perfect sense to those of us who have seen good students struggle (wo)manfully to learn the rules but founder when it comes to using the TL; if “successful students” get some CI from the teacher along with the grammar, the CI could be doing the trick. Personally, I’ve talked to people who have experienced success in fl learning in such classes and tried to tease out what elements – the grammar or the CI – seemed to account for their acquisition; not having a lot of research money (or knowhow), I do the best I can. But it certainly won’t satisfy teachers who have firm ideas about what produces successful FL learners. Nor will assertions from explicit grammar instructors that their students do well satisfy me. As Troy says, we have to define proficiency. For many teachers, it is high test scores on……. grammar tests! We need to define “studying grammar”; many teachers teach grammar explicitly but in context with a lot of CI. What proof do we have that the grammar instruction is a waste of time? We do have lots and lots of research in these areas. The problem, as Troy again points out, is that lack of money, time, opportunity, etc. conspires to weaken the research design (an N of 4??!!, a retest after 15 days!!! what’s that?) However, I will say I am bothered by the large number of fl teachers who argue about method but appear to be entirely unfamiliar with the considerable research that has been done. Over and over again, we’ve seen comparisons of grammar classes vs input classes, with the input classes doing much better on proficiency and about even with the other group on grammar. But the design of these projects leaves a lot to be desired. The consensus of the SLA field is clearly (cf. Doughty and Williams eds Focus on Form) that explicit grammar teaching has little effect. But lots of teachers reject SLA, research, etc. has having little to do with them, so I’m uncertain as to how to satisfy them that CI works while they can rely on “tradition” to bolster their claims of efficacy. And here we get to my point: what method you select as a teacher depends largely on your personality, not your training, experience, curriculum directives, etc. Teachers have ways of getting around the latter. I started out as a grammar teacher b/c that’s what I love about language, but soon found my students used the language we had used in class, not the grammar I taught them (and many went on missions for their church out of my classes and so applied their learning directly and then came back and reported to me). Then I discovered SLA theory and research and was smitten. Anyone who knows me can tell you that that sort of teaching (communicative, CI, whatever you want to call it), suits my classroom personality very well. Years ago I sent Ron Sheen, another denizen of this listserv, a tape of my classroom, and he was appalled. I just shook my head when I saw the tape of his class. Different personalities. What do our students get? They get the best we have to offer. What I try to offer is what my experience of my personal language learning, reports (incl. formal research) of others’ language learning, and my observations of my
classes and other classes all tell me. Troy’s tell him something different.
I can’t explain why except to say we all have filters, affective and
otherwise, and maybe we “observe” what we are prepared to assimilate even as
we say we are being objective. Personally, I can tell you from the depths of
my heart that I would be delighted if a lightening bolt from above were to
strike bearing the message that we must teach grammar explicitly and lots of
it; I’d love to do that. Barring that, I’ll just plug along one more year
doing what I do. I hope the rest of you do the same and do the best for your
students. Pat Barrett
—–Original Message—– From: Troy Subject: Re: Grading Dilemma: Scoring Adj. agreement
Pat said, “I think many believe that studying grammar leads to accuracy, a dubious claim that needs some support.”
Let’s define what we mean when we talk about “studying grammar”. In general terms, for me, that means teaching kids what ending to put on their verbs, teaching them masculine/feminine agreement, teaching when to use ser/estar, preterite/imperfect, etc. In other words, teaching them explicitly and directly to use these elements of the language correctly. I am WELL aware that it is not good enough to simply cover the grammar rules, take a quiz, and call it good–but what evidence do we have to suggest that failing to teach these elements (in an explicit way) produces better outcomes? And what kind of support would those who shut teaching grammar explicitly accept? Where is it written that the only way (or even the best way) to internalize the elements of a language (and grammar IS an element of a language, right along with syntax and morphemic qualities) is through an approach that shuns direct instruction?
Two observations cause me to pose these questions. First, when teachers who
teach explicit grammar DO get good results, it’s (supposedly) never because
they taught grammar. It’s assumed that while the kids were studying grammar
with the teacher, they were exposed to enough input to make the difference
(talk about a “dubious claim that needs some support”–try that out), and
that the actual instruction in grammar was a waste of time. So I’m back to
my question—what evidence would ever be good enough?
And let’s define “proficiency” in this context. Does “proficiency” include anything about “correct” or even “nearly correct” production? Because my second observation is that anybody can learn to slap together bad, grammatically atrocious, laughable Spanish well enough to communicate (sort of)–but by then, fossilized errors start to set in, and it becomes hard for them to UN-learn and change what they learned to do wrong (and to do wrong
automatically–or “fluently”). Furthermore, when everything has been left
vague and up-in-the-air through an avoidance of explicit instruction, it’s
far easier for rapid erosion to occur–students much more easily forget what
has never been “tacked down” through direct instruction. Do I have
double-blind, scientific research on thousands of students to back that up?
No—but I do know what worked for me and other successful students, and I
do see what plainly did NOT work for many, many other students.
Troy L. Fullerton Pauls Valley, Oklahoma
________________________________ From: Pat Barrett Subject: Re: Grading Dilemma: Scoring Adj. agreement
We teach any number of things in a fl class that do not lead to proficiency and grammar can certainly be one of them. I love grammar – going back to reading my Norwegian: An Essential Grammar after I finish the NYT – and think it a worthy topic. I am not sure many people on this listserv get
that, even though I’ve been saying it for 15 years. I think many believe
that studying grammar leads to accuracy, a dubious claim that needs some
support. Pat Barrett

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