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!


The Case of The Dancing Men!!! and extensive comprehensible input

A teacher said, “I agree that input must be comprehensible to be effective. That’s why we provide definitions of key vocabulary words for our students. For key words in each lesson, we tell them ‘this word means…’ because it makes the input more readily understandable. Expecting students to figure out the meaning of every word in a lesson on their own would be discouraging and a waste of time. If vocabulary explanations are helpful, why are grammar explanations anathema?”

First of all, by extensive comprehensible input we do not mean laden with vocabulary explanations. And because of that, we cannot assume grammar explanations are also going to be useful.

To make this clear, I’d like to share with you two samples of the opening lines to a Sherlock Holmes story. The first sample is the original text. The second sample is a simplified text that could be useful for extensive
comprehensible input.


From the original Sherlock Holmes story of The Dancing Men:

“Holmes had been seated for some hours in silence with his long, thin back curved over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a particularly malodorous product. His head was sunk upon his breast, and he looked from my point of view like a strange, lank bird, with dull gray plumage and a black top-knot. ‘So, Watson,’ said he, suddenly, ‘you do not propose to invest in South African securities?'”

Words that may need to be explained:
1. curved
2. chemical
3. vessel
4. brewing
5. malodorous
6. head was sunk
7. his breast
8. point of view
9. lank
10, plumage
11. top-knot
12. propose
13. invest
14. securities

That is 14 vocabulary terms in the first paragraph. Certainly a teacher can explain all of those terms but wouldn’t you say it is doubtful that after reading the whole story the student will have much or any memory of them?


The same story, the Sherlock Holmes story of The Dancing Men from the “Oxford Progressive English Readers” simplified version:

“Holmes sat quietly for a long time, studying something in a glass bottle. ‘So, Watson,’ he said suddenly, ‘you are not going to buy any land in South Africa?'”

Now I think you and I would prefer the first version. But for our students the first example would require a forbidding amount of vocabulary explanation and much or all of it will be forgotten. The second example is much more accessible to students and presenting clear examples of basic grammar and vocabulary. For example, “studying something in a glass bottle” might be interesting to a student to see that “study” is not something you only do with a book.

This is what we mean by extensive input that is at or near the students level and is interesting.

(Image taken from the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Dancing Men”.)

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.

>"To be (a corrector) or not to be (a corrector), that is the question!’ (with apologies to Shakespeare)

>Krashen tells an interesting story of the time he studied French. He talks about how his “excellent” teacher taught grammar and taught vocabulary and corrected errors — and how they learned through comprehensible input.


A Summer as an Intermediate French Student

By way of conclusion, I would like to report on some recent personal experiences as a student of French. The class I attended in the summer of 1978 in Los Angeles was a private class, with a small number of highly motivated, highly intelligent, and mature students. The official “method” used was the Pucciani-Hamil approach (Langue et Langage), used with much apparent success at UCLA and at many other schools. The method is “inductive”, that is, students are led to induce, or guess, the rules. In a typical lesson, the teacher asks what are hopefully meaningful, interesting questions of members of the class in hopes of preparing a context for the target structure. The following exchange is a good example (taken from the instructor’s manual, Pucciani and Hamel, 1974; p. 321). The purpose in this exercise is to teach the conjunction “bien que” and the fact that its presence requires that the following verb be in the subjunctive mood:

Teacher: Fait-il beau aujourd’hui?
Student: Non, il ne fait pas beau maintenant.
Teacher: Irez-vous cependant à la plage pendant le week-end?
Student: Oui, j’irai cependant à la plage pendant le week-end.
Teacher: Irez-vous à la plage bien qu’il ne fasse pas beau?
Student: Oui, j’irai à la plage bien qu’il ne …

My excellent teacher followed this sort of pattern, and often tailored questions to individual students’ interests. For example, one member of the class was a dedicated beachgoer, and the example given above was actually used with this student. My teacher also allowed some “free-play”. If the student did not give her the structure she was looking for, she tolerated some “conversation”, as long as it was in French (a cornerstone of the Pucciani-Hamil approach is the exclusive use of the target language in the classroom). Indeed, despite the fact that the class was a first-year (third quarter) level class, it often had the flavor of a conversation class.

The explicit goal of the class was learning, conscious control of structure. There was error correction, and after enough examples of the above sort had been elicited, there was explanation of the rule (in French), along with further examples if necessary.

What is particularly interesting is that many of the students felt that the obvious success of this class was due to grammar work. One excellent student (a man in his sixties) felt he needed to “firm up” his grammar before doing conversation in French, and he told me that he felt our teacher’s finest quality was her ability to explain complex rules of French grammar. My hypothesis is that much of the success of the class was due to the teacher’s use of teacher-talk, her ability to provide a simple code that provided nearly optimal input for acquisition. The class was conducted entirely in French, as mentioned above. Besides the actual pedagogical examples, such as exchanges of the sort given above, teacher-talk included explanation of grammar and vocabulary, the teacher’s participation in the “free play” surrounding the exercises, mentioned above, occasional anecdotes, classroom management, etc. My fellow students reported that they understood nearly everything the teacher said in class. The teacher-talk, not the grammar per se, was probably what motivated the same student who needed to firm up his grammar to comment: “She gives you a feeling for French … she makes you want to speak French.” This is language acquisition, not language learning.

>Grammar teaching? Try it, observe & convince yourself


I don’t think I ever stated people should not teach grammar. I only said it does not work.

I never teach grammar rules. My students have had enough of that and after about 10 years they still don’t have their grammar straight.

However, I do correct incorrect grammar when I hear it. So does that indicate that I believe teaching grammar works? No, to the contrary. I have students that I have corrected for over a year on pronouns of gender and they still are frequently getting the pronouns of gender wrong.

So I will not tell you to take my word for it. Don’t take Krashen’s word for it. Don’t take Truscott’s word for it. Just do it. Do it yourself. Go ahead and correct your students. Make it Action Research. Do it and observe and after you observe then reflect and you will convince yourself. Choose a clearly observeable grammar point like pronouns of gender and correct your student everytime in everyway everywhere. Keep track of how many times your student gets it right and how many times he gets it wrong.

I suggest all teachers do this.

>Why I teach grammar

>Why do I continue to correct their grammar? I consider it a form of Comprehensible Input. It is a feedback of their own sentence. I believe they will NOT benefit in a conscious grammar rule way: “Oh, right! Grammar rule #27: Pronouns of gender. Females = she & her, Males = he & his.” Krashen brought this out very clearly in his description of learning French which I published previously.

But students will benefit from experiencing an extensive amount of correct Comprehensible English Input at a level of i+1 as explained by Krashen:

“Language acquisition is very similar to the process children use in acquiring first and second languages. It requires meaningful interaction in the target language– natural communication–in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding. Error correction and explicit teaching of rules are not relevant to language acquisition (Brown and Hanlon, 1970; Brown, Cazden, and Bellugi, 1973), but caretakers and native speakers can modify their utterances addressed to acquirers to help them understand, and these modifications are thought to help the acquisition process (Snow and Ferguson, 1977). It has been hypothesized that there is a fairly stable order of acquisition of structures in language acquisition, that is, one can see clear similarities across acquirers as to which structures tend to be acquired early and which tend to be acquired late (Brown, 1973; Dulay and Burt, 1975). Acquirers need not have a conscious awareness of the “rules” they possess, and may selfcorrect only on the basis of a ‘feel’ for grammaticality.”

And despite what the calculator punchers say (as one teacher said to me about acquisition through Comprehensible Input, “the number of YEARS required is going to be well into the triple digits. Your student’s great-great-grandchildren will all be retired before your students will have acquired the ability to write like a 15-year-old”), students actually can learn to an intermediate level in two years if they have wife of that language (as did Guy Brook-Hart and Mert Bland) or sufficient alternative input.

>What can teaching students pronouns of gender teach teachers?


A teacher, implying the near impossibility of the effectiveness of Comprehensible Input, wrote:

“How many hours of standard, educated English will a native speaker have been exposed to by, say, age 15. Whatever number you pick, if you expect an EFL student to use the language at an equivalent level without error correction or grammar instruction, you’ll have to find a way to get that student an equal amount of exposure. Get out your calculators, folks at ten hours exposure to English per week (a generous amount for a Chinese EFL student), the number of YEARS required is going to be well into the triple digits. Your students great-great-grandchildren will all be retired before your students will have acquired the ability to write like a 15-year-old.”

Krashen’s theories on the “acquisition” of language facilitated through “comprehensible input” at a level of “i+1” is not just something that sounds like a good idea until someone pulls out a calculator and does the math. Although the subject is widely debated, there is a lot of evidence that it works and you can read research after research on Krashen’s website at:

Also, in what the teacher said, is the implied assumption that grammar teaching actually does work. There is no evidence that teaching grammar results in the student truly acquiring the grammar. A certain degree of retention is possible in the student’s conscious “monitor” (an internal editor), remembering some grammar rules, but this is limited.

Clearly grammar cannot be acquired in such a conscious way. One of my favorite examples of this, which I have brought out many times before is pronouns of gender (“he”, “she”, “his”, “hers”), a grammar rule that can be taught in ten minutes it is so simple but can take a student a year or two to master.

Grammar “teaching” doesn’t work.

>Grammar teaching teacher challenge!

>To settle this point and answer the question, I would like to invite teachers who support grammar teaching to design a lesson or series of lessons to teach pronouns of gender in such a way that a student could “learn” it in one week or even one month in such a way that a student will use it correctly more or less consistently.

Then I suggest that teachers who do not support grammar teaching, with an open mind, try this lesson or these series of lessons with their students and see what the results are.

I have no special interests in showing that teaching grammar does not work. I receive no royalties or benefits one way or the other. My special interest in all of this is language acquisition. I want my students to have the fastest results possible. If teaching grammar brings the fastest results then I am all for it.

>Welcome to my party!…Or is grammar teaching necessary?

>To answer those who argue that grammar teaching is necessary, I would like you to engage in a thought experiment.

Imagine that I am having a party. There is music, snacks, drinks and many guests. All of the guests are my friends. I am delighted when you arrive.

“Hi! I’m so happy you could make it! Here, have a drink! Let me take you around and introduce you to some of my friends.

“This is Bob. He is a marine animal trainer. He’s American and trained the dolphins in the Guangzhou Zoo.

“Here is Richard. He’s a lawyer and the vice-president of the Guangzhou Law Association. He was one of my students.

“And this is Rauol. He is the manager of the golf course, he’s from Holland.

“This is Helen. She’s the Southern China manager for Cambridge University Press. She is from Hubei.

“Here is Zhou Jing. She is the general manager of Microsoft Technology Center in Guangzhou. She was one of my students and improved her English very quickly so she could attend a big Microsoft meeting in Seattle.

All of these are real people I know as friends and/or students.

OK, now a question. Who is Bob?

Maybe you don’t remember.

I agree that a brief introduction to a grammar form, just like a brief introduction to someone at a party, is not going to hurt unless you mix up all the people you met. But I don’t think it really does much to help you really know the grammar or be able to use the grammar.

You don’t really know Bob. You don’t know that the secret of his job is “hunger”. You don’t know he is from California. You don’t know that he also worked in Taiwan and in Japan. You don’t know that when he was in Japan he studied the ancient Japanese martial art of sword fighting and passed several tests to achieve mastery. You don’t know that he lives with his lovely Chinese girlfriend who is also an animal trainer.

What if I didn’t introduce you to Bob? What if you lived with Bob? What if you observed him while he worked? What if you went out to dinner with him and his girlfriend? What if you joined him as he practiced his sword technique with his Japanese tutor? Without any introductions, you would know Bob very well.

Sure, introduce me to your friends. It’s not going to kill me. (Unless one of them is a killer.) But to know them I don’t really need to have an introduction. I need to spend time with them, even live with them, to know them.

>Betty Azar on teaching grammar

> In a discussion with many teachers, one of which was me, Betty Azar said:

“What we DO mean when we say that ‘grammar teaching works’ is that students develop their interlanguages faster and with better results when a grammar component is included in a balanced program of second language instruction. This is clear not only to experienced teachers, but is clear in the cumulative research into grammar teaching during the past 20 years.”

My reply:

My knowledge of the research on this subject is not complete. From what I understand, much of it actually shows that “grammar teaching” will result in gains in “grammar testing” and only modest gains at that. This doesn’t reflect acquisition. Could you share some references to any research where acquisition has been demonstrated through direct grammar teaching?

Consider this question:

How is it possible that students cannot acquire grammar solely through grammar teaching but students can acquire grammar solely through extensive reading and exposure to the language?

This seems to indicate that grammar teaching can only play the most minor role, if any, in language acquisition. Stephen Krashen recommends grammar teaching to only deal with anything the student has learned incorrectly, what I would call a sort of post-acquisition experience fine-tuning.[1]