A reprint

Back in March of 2015 Seth Minkoff sent this post to moretprs. I was browsing old posts and thought it worth reprinting:

I have read with interest some of the recent debate on this list about grammar instruction versus CI, partly because I’ve been both a professor of generative (so-called “Chomskyan”) linguistics and a high school language teacher, and so my career has taken me on something of a tour of some of the perspectives that I think have been expressed.

I used to believe language teaching would be improved by better explicit, prior grammar instruction of the sort that generative linguistics lends itself to. (As I recall, the “it” replacement test that Steve suggests for relating Spanish infinitives to English gerunds is one of many devices I’ve tried.)

I discovered soon enough that better grammar instruction had no discernible impact on the success of my students; and so began my search for better methods, which led me to a lot of experimentation on my own, then TPR, then TPRS, and now this topic.

I think the allure of grammar instruction as a language-teaching tool arises from the fact that language looks on the face of it like an academic subject. Language looks like an academic subject partly because it is so complex, which makes it seem as though it should be attained by intellectual effort; and partly because it is acquired by a process that is unconscious, and therefore invisible, which leaves such a posited intellectual effort as the only avenue to linguistic attainment that common sense can identify.

In a way, the presumption in favor of grammar instruction in second-language pedagogy seems like a grown-up version of the pre-Chomskyan conventional wisdom according to which children attained their first language by imitating their parents. In both cases a subconscious acquisition process is overlooked in favor of the language speakers’ conceit that they, and not the acquirer, are the relevant source of knowledge. Certainly for me it was a revelation to discover how similar are the processes of acquisition of first and second languages – a reality that I believe would come as a surprise to many generative linguists (thank you Dr. Krashen).

Some recent posts seem to reflect a concern that some of us TCI practicioners may become so enthralled with our methods that we fail to recognize a proper useful role that explicit, prior grammar instruction ought to have in the foreign-language classroom. However, even if it turns out that grammar instruction has utility that some of us are overlooking, I think concerns about dogmatism ultimately are misplaced because there is an egalitarianism, and therefore an openness, that is inherent in TCI, which flows from these facts:

(1) T(1) TCI’s choice of content necessarily hews to students’ interests;

(2) T(2) TCI allows virtually all students to succeed; and

(3) b(3) because it allows virtually all students to succeed, TCI makes it harder for teachers to assign low grades.

A teaching method that so equalizes and elevates the status of all students does not lend itself to the kind of authoritarianism and dogmatism that plague American education. How can administrators punish teachers for low test scores when there aren’t any? How vigorously can they enforce stupid requirements involving “group work”, “essential questions” or what have you, when the whole point of the class is to spend as much time as possible having an interesting, comprehensible conversation? I don’t much worry that we will closed-mindedly lock new (or old) ideas out of our profession because, when they are adopted, the methods we advocate create a vastly more open environment for experimentation and innovation.

Ours is a grassroots movement struggling against an increasingly corporatized educational system. But I think it’s obvious that, in time, TCI will become the gold standard of language instruction. For perspective, consider Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian physician who discovered in 1847 that the incidence of mortality in childbirth could be drastically reduced if doctors would wash their hands before delivering babies. The medical community rejected Semmelweis’s findings, so mothers and infants continued dying unnecessarily for decades until, years after his sad untimely death, his ideas became widely accepted. We have already lived to see far more progress for our ideas than he ever did for his, the poor brilliant soul.

We may have a long road ahead. We may have fights along the way. And it may take time for the best ideas to win out among us. But win out they will because, whether we intend to or not, we are doing more than advancing a better teaching method. We are creating a classroom where teachers and students alike will be freer to discover what works best.

Seth Minkoff

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