Yeah, but…? Finding, asking and answering the important questions about teaching

When Professor Michael McCarthy visited here recently to promote his new Cambridge University Press course book, Touchstone, he gave us a presentation on his spoken corpus research.

It was interesting to learn about but almost completely useless for teaching purposes. I used to go to these conferences and take notes. Now I go to these conferences and write questions. As I listen to them, I’m thinking, “Yeah, but what about this?” “Yeah, but how do you account for that.”

I had no notes but I did have ten questions ready for Professor McCarthy when he got to the end of his presentation. Then the organizers announced they were only going to take a couple questions and only one per teacher. I had one question.

Course books authors always believe in the power of their course books to teach students. So let’s question that.

“Professor McCarthy, thank you for visiting us and your presentation. I can’t say I know so much about teaching but I’ve been doing some research. In January I gave a speaking test to 400 Chinese students who have studied English for nine years. I asked them a question. ‘Tell me about your mother and father.’  In China we have no pronoun of gender when speaking, no ‘he’ or ‘she’. Students have to learn this English grammar which is perhaps the easiest grammar rule to teach. What percentage of the students do you think made a mistake calling Mom a ‘he’ and Dad a ‘she’?”

With many years of experience and study into spoken English corpus, he didn’t want to offer any guesses, saying, “Umm, well, ah, you did the research. Tell us.”

“Seventy-two percent of students, after nine years of English study, made a mistake with ‘he’ and ‘she’,” I told him.

So what did the course book author say to that? Two wrong things and one right thing. He said,

1. This was a fossilized error that the students were making.

Yeah, but… something is fossilized when you don’t learn it correctly or learn it wrong. But no student learns “he” and “she” incorrectly. It is the easiest grammar to learn.

2. We should reteach “he” and “she” every six months.

Yeah, but… something that is so simple to teach and can be taught in one minute and everyone knows the grammar rule, how is teaching it every six months going to help.

3. Students need more input, read more English and listen to more English, more English input.

Yeah, but… you know, you don’t need a course book for that!

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