>Chinese grammar troubles


In a discussion with another teacher he suggested that Chinese students may have trouble learning pronouns of gender. However, recall that the question is if grammar teaching works.

Bringing up the question of the way Chinese deal with pronouns really only points out more problems with grammar teaching. After being taught the grammar rules, after being drilled endlessly, as they are in China, on the grammar, they still have trouble with something as simple as pronouns of gender.

If Chinese did have pronouns of gender in their own language, then it is not so much a matter of teaching grammar but more like translating the language of the pronouns from L1 to L2, teaching that xxxx = “he” and yyyy = “she”, in which case no grammar teaching is necessary.

How to use pronouns of gender can be taught in one day but take years to acquire. This implies to me that “teaching” is playing a minute role in the learning process. Now, if you consider how much students do learn that is not “taught” then a lot of questions are raised as to the usefulness of grammar teaching.

Where do students gain the ability to form complex sentences, was it from that lesson in Mr. Smith’s class in September, 1999?…or was it eight years of reading 24,000 articles in The Guardian newspaper and Time magazine, 12 John Grisham and Stephen King novels, 24 university text books on physics, psychology and history, writing 85 reports and 175 essays? Really, which one helped our student to master the complex sentence?

Of course, you could say that Mr. Smith got our student started off on the right foot. But most students will admit that they forget grammar teaching, that grammar is very difficult to learn, and students in high school and university will cram it for the exam one day and forget it the next.


>Still more on error correction

>On the TESL-L mailing list, a teacher asked the question below about error correction. As it seems to be something we’re interested in, I’m including my reply. – dk

“I,m an English teacher in China. I’m teaching 2 classes with 56 students each. When I teach writing, I’ll use differnt methods to encourage my students to write about their own ideas. To my joy, they like writing very much though it is hard work. However, I find it very difficult for me to correct their errors. I know fluency is more important, but it dosn’t mean we can ignore accuracy. Error correcting will take lots of time and energy, and the students don’t want to see their composition after I correect errors. Is there anybody who can help me use a kind of more efficient method?”

This is a common problem faced by many writing teachers. We could say it is even a trap because teachers feel obligated to this idea of correcting everything.


John Truscott famously or infamously, depending on what side of the debate you are standing on, has brought up research[1] indicating that grammar correction doesn’t really help students at all. So, generally speaking, all time spent at correcting is time wasted.

Truscott is in the same vein of English learning as Krashen. Indeed, Krashen has referred to Truscott’s research[2]. In this direction of English learning it is understood that students learn from indirect ways of teaching, things like Extensive Reading, that the students will absorb the language through massive exposure to it at a difficulty level of i+1.

After studying Truscott’s paper, and even organizing a virtual seminar for him on the TEFL-China list[3] where we interviewed him for a week, I began to pay closer attention to how my students responded to corrections.

Personally, from observing my students carefully, I’ve seen that my students do respond to some corrections.

But to be effective in this area, we have to understand some things first.


Our students cannot have a lesson, or even a correction, and simply “know” it. They only begin to know it. All learning in an area as complex as language takes a lot of time and repetition.

Choose your targets. Don’t try to correct everything. Correct what you think will be easiest for them to learn, that they are ready to learn. Remember, it is more like teaching a baby how to walk than teaching the fine points of running to an Olympic athlete. Teach only what can be learned or you are wasting your time and frustrating your student.

When you read over the papers, understand that this is the whole class speaking to you. Through their errors they are telling you what they need to be taught. In this way you can respond and give your class exactly what they need.

Group the corrections. Choose the Top 5 errors the students were making in their papers and show them how to do it correctly. Of course, some students may have not made those errors on the paper they submitted to you. But if they didn’t make this error this time they may make it next time so teach it to all of them. Even if they know, more or less, how not to make that error, such instruction will strengthen their understanding. As mentioned before, students begin to know something and slowly understand it better and better.


Do your own research. If you want to see how responsive the students are to correction, after you have taught them the 5 main errors and how to avoid them, ask the students to return their papers to you and ask them to rewrite the assignment. Collect those papers and check them. You’ll find that most of them will not repeat those errors, that they have learned from the correction. About two weeks or a month later, ask them to write the very same assignment yet again. You will find that a lot of the students will not make the same errors although many may have forgotten your correction lesson and are slipping again.


Beware of the hurried writer. This guy really wastes so much teacher time. He’s the guy who forgot the homework and before the homework is to be handed in just dashes off a quick paper. He makes a lot of mistakes that, if he took his time, he would not have made. He knows they are errors but they were errors made in haste. But he doesn’t mind and he wants his paper to be corrected. The problem is, it takes your precious time to read his paper and deal with these errors. I refuse to check any papers unless the student has made it as perfect as he possibly can. Only then can I really help a student with what he doesn’t know. Check the paper for really basic errors, simple words misspelled, obvious grammar mistakes. If you find such things, hand the paper back to the student and tell him to correct it himself until he thinks it is perfect. If you find someone hastily finishing a writing assignment make sure you don’t accept it. If he doesn’t have time to try to write it well, you don’t have time to try to correct it.

[1] http://frenchgateway.coh.arizona.edu/F05/FREN579/truscott_grammar_writing.pdf
Also, see his webpage at his university:
Here you’ll find the grammar paper plus lots of other aspects of his research into correction.

[2] http://sdkrashen.com/pipermail/krashen_sdkrashen.com/2005-April/000102.html

[3] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/teflchina
This is a group of about 900 English teachers in China or involved with teaching Chinese students. If you are a teacher in China you certainly would benefit from joining this list.

>Know thy student

>Yesterday, I passed out a slip of paper to my college students and asked them to write two things, their English learning problem and anything else they’d like to say to me. I also asked them to put their name on the papers.

I have only done this with 200 of my students and I’ll do another 100 on Wednesday but I don’t expect the feedback to be very different.

The main thing they tell me is that they have a real hard time learning new words.

I believe this is because they believe when they “learn” a word then it should be “known”. I’ve been trying to steer my students away from deeply ingrained this idea but I can see how difficult it is for them to give it up.

At best, our students can only be “introduced” to a word in much the same way we introduce one friend to another friend. At that point, the friends will only know each other’s name and a couple facts like their jobs and place of origin, etc. They will only know each other about 1%. If these two newly acquainted friends got married and would spend a year together, work together, play together, go through hardships together, they would know each other more completely but still not completely know each other.

So the only way students can really learn words is by constantly coming in contact with them. That is why I favor English learning approaches that lean towards extensive contact with English such as Extensive Reading and also watching a lot of English TV, movies, etc.

The second biggest lament was learning grammar.

I am not the grammar teacher in this school so I don’t know how that goes but I can imagine. It makes a lot of sense that our students should be able to learn a lot of words and then learn all the grammar rules and put it all together into sentences and communication. It makes great sense but it doesn’t work. The mind is unable to mechanically put it all together at the moment of communication. Again, that is why I favor an approach which leads to massive exposure to the language as well as using language to communicate as per the Communicative Approach.

I was not surprised that my students had those feelings about vocabulary and grammar. I was surprised that despite my bringing this up with them a couple times already they are still thinking they have to do it the old way. This shows me that they haven’t bought into the better idea and I haven’t done a good job in helping them understand.

Photo: My students giving me feedback.

>Students learn "untaught" language

>Students do learn and fluently use language that is “untaught” to them. They do this through Comprehensible Input. Although Jack Richards does provide models of “yeah” in his dialogs he doesn’t “teach” students to use it.

I don’t think that we can attribute the widespread use of “yeah” to Jack Richards, Interchange books or any other practice of direct teaching. It is an “untaught” language feature.

Another example is what Jack Richards[1], in discussing the nature of conversation, calls conversational routines. Examples Richards gives are:

This one’s on me.
I don’t believe a word of it.
I don’t get the point.
You look great today.
What will you have to drink?
Nearly time. Got everything?
Check please!
After you.
Guess I’ll be making a move.
I see what you mean.
Let me think about it.
Just looking, thanks.
I’ll be with you in a minute.
It doesn’t matter.
No harm done.

How do students learn these things? They are examples of untaught learning. These sorts of examples clearly show how effective Comprehensible Input can be.

[1] Jack Richards, The Language Teaching Matrix, Conversationally speaking, p.75, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

>Grammar teaching – a fading star

>A teacher said, “That is what I wanted to hear – ‘Communicative Language Teaching doesn’t exclude grammar or even translation’ !!!”

Rest assured, Grammar will never be without a job.

Up until the 1970’s, Grammar used to be the mega movie star of English teaching, a true prima donna. Grammar was simply adored by all fans; teachers and students, alike. Grammar’s name featured prominently on every textbook or coursebook. People memorized every aspect of Grammar. It was near worship. Then Chomsky released his blockbuster which, while not widely accepted by the entire public, marked a new era and saw Grammar’s popularity begin to wane. Grammar suffered further humiliation when Krashen came along. Now many people respect Grammar just as many people regard Casablanca or Gone With The Wind, one of the greatest movies ever made. But when most people want real entertainment, they don’t go to these old movies any more.

That doesn’t mean Grammar is out of a job by any means. It still plays an important supporting role in many movies just like many former stars appear in smaller parts in movies and TV shows. (Alan Alda even won an Oscar for his supporting role in the new movie Little Miss Sunshine.)

As Krashen puts it:

“I recommend delaying the teaching of these rules until more advanced levels. I would first give acquisition a chance, and then use conscious knowledge to fill in some of the gaps. There is no sense teaching rules for Monitoring that will eventually be acquired. Grammar, thus, is not excluded. It is, however, no longer the star player but has only a supporting role.”

More from Krashen:

In my reviews of these studies, I have concluded that they confirm the correctness of the Comprehension and Monitor Hypotheses: they show only that even after substantial grammar study, even very motivated students show only modest gains in accuracy, and these gains occur only on measures that encourage a focus on form. Truscott (1998) has arrived at very similar conclusions.

Some have interpreted this position as a claim that all grammar teaching is forbidden. Not so. There are two good reasons for including grammar in the EFL curriculum.

The first is for “language appreciation,” otherwise known as “linguistics.” Linguistics includes language universals, language change, dialects, etc. The second is to fill gaps left by incomplete acquisition and places in which idiolects differ from the prestige dialect. Society’s standards for accuracy, especially in writing, are 100%: We are not allowed “mistakes” in punctuation, spelling or grammar. One public error, in fact, can result in humiliation. Even well-read native speakers have gaps, places where their grammatical competence differs from accepted use.

Consciously learned rules can fill some of these gaps, which are typically in aspects of language that do not affect communication of messages. The place to use this knowledge is in the editing stage of the composing process, when appealing to conscious rules will not interfere with communication.

I recommend delaying the teaching of these rules until more advanced levels. I would first give acquisition a chance, and then use conscious knowledge to fill in some of the gaps. There is no sense teaching rules for Monitoring that will eventually be acquired.

Grammar, thus, is not excluded. It is, however, no longer the star player but has only a supporting role.

More: http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/eta_paper/02.html

>"Grammar lessons do not help children write proper"

>Further to our favorite topic, Grammar Translation vs Communicative Language Teaching, I submit this piece of news. I realize it is not exactly on our topic but useful for our discussion:

Grammar lessons do not help children write proper
The Guardian
Joanne Lawson
Tuesday January 18, 2005

New findings suggest that teaching children grammar is of little use in improving their writing skills.

The study undertaken by researchers at the University of York found that teaching children old-fashioned grammar was not as helpful as teaching them skills such as how to combine short sentences into longer ones.

The funding for the research has come from the Department for Education and Skills, which undertakes regular reviews of the evidence to establish what are the best educational practices. The University of York English review team looked at the results of over 100 years of studies on formal grammar teaching, including previous government-backed reviews.

>Do teachers need to know grammar?

>Forgive me for beginning with an off-topic question but I’ll explain why I am doing this later. Did you sleep good last night? Please answer it. Before you go on reading this message think of your answer. Did you sleep good last night?

One teacher told me that she is running into some problems in teaching correct English form for the CET test.

This kind of problem divides the men from the boys (and the women from the girls). Many of us are opposed to teaching grammar rules in our classes as, according to many theories on English teaching, it does not facilitate or even impedes acquisition.

Consequently, there are many of us who are teaching who don’t have a strong grasp of all the grammar rules. (I’ll put my name on this list.)

We have a tendency to lean on what “sounds right” but then sometimes have a difficulty knowing why something is right (or wrong). Surprisingly, this is often not a problem for the work that native EFL English teachers do as they focus on helping students learn to communicate.

But occasionally there is a time when the teacher has to get into the mechanics of the language and saying “it doesn’t sound right but I don’t know why” or “there are no rules for English anymore” just doesn’t do the job. (Some teachers employ elaborate schemes to avoid having to explain a grammar point or even event some academic gibberish and get off the subject quickly.)

Let’s look at driving. You may happily drive your car for years without really understanding how it works. Perhaps you know something is wrong when you hear some odd noise but knowing when your car “sounds” right or wrong is sometimes not sufficient. If you can interpret a distinctive knocking sound coming from the engine whenever you accelerate you can know exactly what is wrong and how to fix it or what mechanic to get to help you. Some people are drivers and some of are driver/mechanics.

Some of these tests revel in the realm of grammar mechanics and are a minefield for teachers who are not well grounded in the mechanics of grammar and usage.

A large percentage of native English speakers use incorrect grammar. This is a vast gray zone. On the one hand a certain way of saying something is incorrect. On the other hand if enough people will use it then it will become accepted.

Let’s look at our question at the beginning of the message. For some of you it sounded odd and some of you didn’t notice. Some of you knew exactly what was wrong and some only thought it did not sound right.

A lot of Americans think nothing of saying “Did you sleep good?” and it has almost become accepted speech even though “good” is an adjective and “well” is the adverb we need. These kinds of things are in the Twilight Zone of English usage. I think Britons would have little tolerance for such usage but it is no problem for Americans.

The dictionary reminds us here that “[good} should not be used as an adverb with other verbs: The car runs well (not good). Thus, The dress fits well and looks good.”

Many people say they speak “good English”. They are actually stating that they have chosen one good English over the bad Englishes and they can speak it too. However, we still don’t know if they can speak that good English well.

Lots of teachers would like to steer clear of such a job as master mechanic of the English language. But if you find you have such a job then take it as a heaven sent opportunity to dig out those grammar books and get it all straight in your mind.

Although we may not think teaching grammar rules is good pedagogy it does not excuse the teacher from not knowing the rules.

>The problem with teaching grammar

>A teacher asked me: “…how else will a non-native speaker approach the levels of accurately applied grammar needed to pass international standard oral English exams except by studying grammar?”

Well, I would suggest not that way.

Today I was speaking with Jack, an upper intermediate student at an American company, and he was telling me about Tom Hanks and that “she” has made many great movies.

Why did Jack, an upper intermediate student, call Tom Hanks a she? Because he was unfamiliar with the grammar rule? Could the problem be remedied if he had 26 people sitting around him telling him what grammar errors he made?

Immediately, I pointed out the mistake to Jack but in the course of the following conversation and with me continually pointing it out to him he only got it right about 50% of the time. All of you on this list have students like that, don’t you? What’s the problem with these students? Are they stupid? Are they lazy? I don’t think so.

Krashen is not against teaching grammar. He thinks it is useful to round out the training of a student who may be having a particular problem with a particular grammar point.
Some people are better than others at using their Monitor to correct their grammar. Heavy Monitor use hinders fluency. And even for the best of the Monitor users the efficiency of self-monitoring is very limited.

Many teachers will disagree with me but I think some rote learning and rule explanations can be helpful but not necessary to get a learner off the ground. But after the beginner stages the learner will need a lot of comprehensible input.

Then the teacher challenged me: “And is there any evidence, Dave, that CI has demonstrably improved Chinese students with their use of pronouns?”

Please note, I was only using the “he/she” to show in a simple way the difficulty of students employing even the simplest of grammar rules when speaking.

This is not only my observation and not limited to pronoun usage. As another teacher puts it,

“EFL students in Taiwan have studied English grammar extensively. However, it is interesting to note that most of these students make routine mistakes on structures which they know the rules for when speaking.

“Chinese students will, during classroom conversation, regularly omit the s that must be attached to the third – person singular form of verbs. The students indeed know the rules governing the third – person singular, as they have studied English grammar ad nauseam in high school.

“Unfortunately, most of these learners are not able to apply the rules during conversation. Mistakes include, “He live with his sister” or “She go to work at 8 o’clock.” Lightbown (Brown, 2000: 275) states that, ‘Knowing a language rule does not mean one will be able to use it in communicative interaction.’ Chinese students have learned and know many of the formal grammatical rules; however, they have not truly acquired the structures.”

Furthermore, Krashen points out that,

“Research consistently shows that conscious grammatical knowledge has a limited function, acting only as an editor of what is already produced.

“In support of this position are studies showing that even advanced students with a great deal of interest and experience with grammar are able to access only a small amount of their grammatical knowledge when actually using language. Even when students are deliberately focused on form and taught rules carefully, the impact of grammar study is weak.”

>Do textbooks reflect language teaching theory? Maybe not

>Rod Ellis said: “The zero grammar approach was flirted with but never really took hold, as is evident in both the current textbook materials emanating from publishing houses and in current theories of L2 acquisition.”

Rod Ellis says he’s hedging his bets. For example, it sounds like he says he believes in just about everything except, of course, zero grammar. The same can be said about Krashen who also does not believe in zero grammar. The key is how much grammar.

While I don’t subscribe to the zero grammar approach, I find that this statement can be very misleading. Many people may not realize that the type of textbook that is published may have nothing to do with current research and theory.

Jack Richards should know as much as there is to know about textbooks. He tells us,
“…it must be recognized that any set of working principles so derived must be compatible with the local context. Principles derived entirely from research and theory might not always fit well with the school teaching and learning culture….Both top down and bottom source of information are needed, or in publishing terms what can be called product-driven as well as market-driven factors.”[1]

For example, zero grammar enthusiasts or people like Krashen, who is nearly zero, usually support Voluntary Free Reading[2], Extensive Reading and theories on the positive affects of massive amounts of Comprehensible Input. The idea is that the student will read lots of books that he chooses himself according to his interests. There will be no textbook for this and never will be so it is easy for “grammar” books to be more pervasive.

Although there are no textbooks, nor can there be, there is a lot of current research and activity going on about the positive effects of FVR, ER and CI. Yesterday I was reading a research paper called “Vocabulary acquisition from extensive reading: A case study” and published in Reading in a Foreign Language, April 2006.[3] Though it was focused on vocabulary it did discuss grammar and how both are acquired by reading without grammar study.

Krashen even hinted at something which almost sounds similar to Eisenhower’s Military-Industrial Complex relationship,

“It could be the case that researchers are defending their own economic interests. They continue to search for a role for grammar not because they believe in it but because they have sold out to big publishers who make profits from grammar-based materials. I have no evidence that scholars have been deliberately dishonest, but the potential for conflict of interest exists.”[4]

I don’t think this alludes to a conspiracy theory. It’s a fact that if you’ve built your life and livelihood around something that you will naturally wish to protect it. Teachers who promote FVR, ER and CI are striking at their own livelihood. They are promoting themselves out of a job.
Some people say, for example, cancer research is a big business and that there is much more
economic incentive to not find a cure for cancer than there is to find one.

So a few questions about publishers. Given a choice between publishing grammar textbooks or no textbooks, which would the publisher opt for? Is the publisher’s primary concern language acquisition for students or is it profits through publishing? If a non-book solution to learning English appeared to be more effective than a textbook approach to learning English, would publishers invest in researching and promoting it?

Although most of the time publishers are the teachers’ allies, we must bear in mind that they have their own priorities which may diverge from the priorities of the teachers and students.

[1] http://www.professorjackrichards.com/pdfs/materials-development-making-connection.pdf
[2] http://www.sdkrashen.com/handouts/88Generalizations/01.html
And http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/pac5/all.html
[3] http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/rfl/April2006/pigada/pigada.html
[4] http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/why_support/03.html