Action research: Mom and Dad and grammar

Spot quiz. Ready? What percentage of students, after nine years of English training, can use the correct pronouns in a few sentences about their mother and father?

Write down your answer.

Pencils down. Thank you!

If grammar teaching works, why does it take years for students to follow the simplest rule with accuracy?

Don’t try this at home! Try it in your classroom!

Without any reminder of the rules, ask your students to talk to you about their mother and their father and see how they do. The grammar rule on pronouns of gender cannot be simpler. Mom = she. Dad = he. We’re not talking about complex grammar rules. This rule takes less than a minute to teach and if you teach it and then test it, all of your students will pass the test.

They “learned” it. Why do they get it so wrong?

In December 2010 and January 2011, I gave an oral speaking test to 120 Chinese college students. As part of the test, I often ask the students to speak of a family relative. As part of the test this time I asked two questions about parents:

1. Tell me about your mother.

2. Tell me about your father.

Each student answered the request with about 3-4 sentences for each parent.

In the first sentence they always used “my mother” or “my father” but in the following sentences they used the pronoun of gender.

The students also filled out a form so I could learn how much English training they have had. They have almost all had the same amount of training, about nine years. Let me remind you, Chinese teachers are not shy about teaching grammar. Grammar is hammered into the students. Often the English instruction is given in Chinese. Extensive reading or other forms of extensive input is not promoted making this a more ideal situation to test the effectiveness of grammar teaching.

Considering nine years of training plus the simplicity of the grammar rule of gender, our students should be 100% accurate in usage. So how did they do?

Out of 112 students tested so far, 80 have called Mom a “he” and/or Dad a “she” one or more times during this test.

The question was: What percentage of students, after nine years of English training, can use the correct pronouns in a few sentences about their mother and father?

Answer: After nine years of English training, only 28%.

Some languages like French or Spanish have pronouns of gender. It is possible that it is easier for French and Spanish students of English to use “he” and “she” correctly but this could be more a matter of language transference than language acquisition.

If after 9 years of English training only 28% of the students can use “he” and “she” correctly, we must doubt the ability of learning grammar rules to lead to grammar acquisition and accurate grammar use.

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Project 400 – What is it?

What do students need to learn? What are they learning in school? What are we teaching? What is the best way to teach them? What is working and not working? Answering those questions is the objective of Project 400.

Project 400 is a research project to study:

100 English language classrooms in China to see how English is taught and how students learn.

100 of my former English students who now have jobs. What kind of jobs do they usually get.  How do they use their English in their jobs? What English did they learn in school that they use in their jobs? What English did they not learn in school that they need for their jobs? What English did they not learn in school that they need in their jobs?

100 bosses of my students who are now working as well as other managers, HR managers and business leaders. What kind of English do new employees need in their jobs? How important is English?

100 students in their dorms. How do they study? How much homework do they do? How do they feel about their studies.

At the conclusion of this research project, I will have a better understanding of students, teachers and English study.