>"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.

>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: http://www.sdkrashen.com/.

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.

>How students learn for tests

>When our students take the big exams are the only questions they get right the ones the teacher “taught” them? I don’t think so. I would like to know how effective is teacher “teaching” as compared to indirect learning.

I think they are answering some questions on the test correctly for items that they were not “taught”. If so, then how did they learn them? I believe Comprehensible Input is playing a bigger role than we realize.

Krashen tells the story of how his French teacher wanted to only speak French to them and was explaining a grammar point, in French. Finally frustrated, she told them in English. However, her effort to explain it in French, all that French speaking to explain something, actually constituted Comprehensible Input for the students and helped their French.

Every time the teacher talks to the students in the L2 is Comprehensible Input. Teachers are naturals for adjusting their English speaking so students can understand them.

So between the teacher’s speaking and the student’s own study they are getting a lot of CI.

Perhaps the student is reading a business text and it is talking about international finance and the teacher wants the student to learn some language about stocks, bonds, interest rates, prime lending rate, etc. Perhaps the student has some degree of success in learning some of those terms but there are many things in the text that the student was not studying but was learning such as “carry on” when it says “banks cannot carry on making risky loans” or something like that.

>Thinking outside the book

>One thing that students and teachers really struggle with is boredom. Maybe I’m just easily bored but I have yet to find a book or teacher that really keeps the student’s interest from cover to cover, it doesn’t matter how good they are.

Sometimes I think that the way English teaching works is that we often trap ourselves into thinking “inside the book”. Publishers have little interest in helping teachers think otherwise and because we often lean on manufactured materials we always wind up with a book.

We are basically teaching the same way Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught thousands of years ago except for the addition of the printed book invented by Gutenberg.

Of course, there are guys who have rebelled against the book. You can find a bunch of them at Dogme. They have a Yahoo group and their leader has published in The Guardian newspaper ELT pages.

But to me, they seem more readily identified for what they are against than what they are for. And from my experience, it really helps to have a course or plan for students as otherwise the training can seem a bit aimless to the students.

So how can we escape the book but still have a plan?

First, let’s brainstorm a list of all the new tools and technologies and other things that are available to us since the days of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Gutenberg. Without much order, here is my list:

Phone messages
Chat rooms
Email spam
Voice spam
Shopping malls

Perhaps your list is longer. Now, just as a thought exercise to stretch us “outside the book”, what if you assigned yourself the task of using each of these to provide some part of a training course.

There was once a game called Majestic by Electronic Arts. They described it as “The suspense thriller that infiltrates your life through the Internet, telephone and fax, then leaves you guessing where the game ends and reality begins.” To play this game you had to check websites and periodically you’d receive frantic phone calls with clues or cryptic faxes.

I think something so pervasive would be an exciting way to teach and learn. What would a “Majestic” English course be like? The student would be receiving training from so many directions at so many times. Of course, not all of this is possible with every teacher and every student, but employing some of these technologies could really get us “out of the book”. Consider the possibilities that a ficticious Chinese student named Jerry Liang would experience:

– Jerry gets a daily Email that has a short lesson, story or MP3. This Email is pumped out to Jerry and all the other students by a program similar to those used by spammers.

– Jerry also receives a daily SMS phone messages that reminds him to study an assignment, do homework or join some activities that the teacher has organized.

– Every week, Jerry is directed to watch a certain TV program or movie which all the other students and teacher will be watching. Jerry doesn’t have to participate if he is busy that night but he does need to participate in at least two per week. Jerry tunes in the program and starts the chat program on his computer. While he is watching the program on his home TV, other students and the teacher are watching it and chatting with him about it, about the story, actors, what they like or don’t like, etc. (“Don’t go in that dark room!…don’t do it!…Ugh! I knew it!!!”)

– Jerry posts assignments on the blog.

– Jerry gets SMS phone messages with new vocabulary on set days. After first contact with the new vocabulary in a lesson he receives the vocabulary in a message on day 2, 5, 12, 19, 33, 63. He has a look at the words and reviews them.

– He has some specially recorded lessons made by his teacher or other teachers in MP3 format in his MP3/MP4 player or PDA which he listens to throughout the day.

– When Jerry visits the popular local mall he takes a walking tour via MP3. The teacher has made a short recording and guides the him through the mall, describing interesting things about the mall and shops and introducing more new vocabulary. (“Starbucks took its name from a coffee-loving character in the famous American novel called ‘Moby Dick’, a story about a man hunting a whale. Starbuck’s strategy is to become people’s ‘third place’, the main place people go outside of home and work.”)

– Sometimes Jerry receives a phone call from the teacher to practice his speaking, but more often than not, the teacher (randomly?) assigns Jerry and the other students speaking buddies, other students, who he calls to practice a particular speaking activity. Every week Jerry recieves an Email with a speaking lesson to practice and his speaking buddy’s phone number. Sometimes the buddy is in his class but most of the time the buddy is a student in one of the teacher’s other classes, perhaps a manager in a company. It’s interesting to have this way to talk to various professionals that he wouldn’t normally meet (and Jerry thinks it’s always interesting to talk to girls).

– Twice a month, Jerry is given a phone number to a company in an English speaking country that provides information about their services along with one or more questions that he needs to ask about. For example, he once had to call Trump International Hotel in New York to find out if they allow dogs in the room. (They do if the dog is under 10 pounds but the guest must pay a non-refundable $200.) This provides a real English challenge and practice for Jerry.

– Etc, etc, etc.

All of this is possible with current technology but will never be offered by a book publisher. It just remains for the teacher to sort out his content and figure out the different ways to deliver it.

A student, going through a course like that, would have an experience they’ve never had before. But as I said, maybe I dream up this stuff because I’m the kind of person who is easily bored.

>Making podcasts for low level English students

>Here are a few ideas for making podcasts for your students:

1. Make recordings of your experiences like the time you met someone famous or thought you were going to die in an accident. Don’t be boring but be simple.

2. Interview friends and other teachers. Don’t rely on the friends to be simple enough or talk slowly enough. If the friend is using some language that you feel is too advanced for your students then jump in and ask your friend to define it or define it or restate it yourself.

3. Take your students on a tour to a favorite local haunt. There is a shopping mall here that is immensely popular with all students in this area. Record a tour of the location that they could listen to and use to follow your footsteps. Describe what you see, tell some funny stories and go in to the shop and talk to some clerks about their products. I did this with my notebook computer in my bag running Audacity with a microphone clipped on my shirt. Many mobile phones have recording functions on them. You can include some insights into some of the businesses or some of the fashions even if you have to look them up on the Internet. Check this out.

4. Make your case for your method. Students always want to know what is the best/fastest/easiest way to learn English. Explain how you are teaching your students. Some of our teaching methods are counter intuitive. I think Grammar-Translation makes a lot of sense but is not as good as Communicative Approach. If our teaching method is not always easily accepted by students you should take every opportunity to “sell” your teaching methods over and over.

5. Don’t just make a recording on any subject but try to steer it in a way to augment units you are teaching in one of your courses. This way you can further the unit, even if you have to ‘assign’ the listening item, or you can use it as a collection of materials students can listen to on a voluntary basis. For example, if you have a unit discussing Human Resources you can interview a friend about their experience in hiring or with working with colleagues.

6. Record your lessons. This is normally quite boring but it can be very effective if you just extract some of the jewels, ancedotes you tell your students, special tips on learning English, fun facts, a story about your travels, etc.

I am also trying some projects along this line and am starting to post them at GCAST.

>How can we encourage autonomous television watching?

>Some teachers speak of autonomous learning. Some teachers feel their students are too lazy. Some teachers feel students need to always be pushed to learn.

Why is it difficult to get students to study English but it is not difficult to get students to watch television?

Is it because watching television is, to put it simply, brainless? Do people have an inherent need for brainless entertainment?

Are all television programs brainless? Do viewers never learn anything useful from the tube? Is there no useful educational content in television?

Or is it that the makers of television programming have learned to be “student-centric”? Do they work under the pressure that viewers can switch to another channel with one click? Does this propel them to captivating content?

If our students could get up and leave our classrooms at anytime with no negative repercussions would it change the way we teach?

Are there any teachers out there that could compete with television? Are television programs always more engaging than English lessons?

Is there anything we can learn from television?

I am not recommending television watching or movies here, although I think those are great tools. My point is that we can learn a lot from these people, like television producers, who must, every night, attract the attention of what is a fickle public.

Rather than take the approach of making a boring processes more palatable to students, what if we really challenge ourselves to present materials as interesting as TV to make our training thoroughly engaging to the students?

I think that would motivate students to be truly autonomous.

>Is English learning golf?

>At teacher compared learning various sports to practicing and drilling in English learning when he said, “This is like saying that the only way for a goalie to get better at soccer is by playing soccer games. Golf players should never go to driving ranges, because they can’t get a sense of the lie of the land there. Tennis players should never practice against a wall because the wall won’t spin the ball the way another player will. Baseball players should spurn hitting practice because it lacks the context of the position of the players.”

No, I don’t think it’s the same. Can we really compare becoming proficient in English to becoming proficient in sports? Wouldn’t we say that English communication is infinitly more complex than sports?

Take golf, for example, the number of variations for a putt are highly limited compared to the number of variations in expressing something in English. In fact, many skills in sports are dependant on the player being able to replicate the motions the same way every time.

That is why repetitious practice can help players. They practice their swing over and over and over until they are like a machine. Of course, in the game, the lay of the land may require some judgements in how to hit the ball but those judgments are calculated into the stroke that the player has mechanically practiced.

Perhaps there are only a few ways to sink a putt but there can be a hundred ways to explain you are going to the store to buy some sugar. I’m sure Tiger Woods would disagree but I believe language is more complex than golf and they cannot be learned in the same way.

Drilling and repeating is not effective. Students can learn English by using English following Krashen’s theories of Comprehensible Input.

>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

>The problem with movies in the classroom

>Although I love movies I seldom use them in the classroom. The biggest problems are that the language is normal or even above normal (flavored with special accents that I have seldom come in contact with in my 20+ years around the world, or peppered with the vocabulary of special interest groups of people like maybe hip-hop). I have few real advanced students who could understand 80-90% of this, most of mine are upper or lower-intermediates.

I buy into Krashen’s input hypothesis which holds that the learner improves and progresses along the ‘natural order’ when he/she receives second language ‘input’ that is one step beyond his/her current stage of linguistic competence. For example, if a learner is at a stage ‘i’, then acquisition takes place when he/she is exposed to ‘Comprehensible Input’ that belongs to level ‘i + 1’.

The second problem is time. Movies run to 90-120 minutes. If pauses are added that brings it to 120-150 minutes which in my situation is too long.

When I do show a movie I will preview the movie 2-3 times jotting down an outline of the movie, transcribing a few bits and also selecting certain sections to skip to cut the movie shorter. Of course, I also try to find the script on the Internet but seldom have success for the movies I have shown. But I do try to create some sort of hand out for the students to emphasize points I want to teach.

The bottom line has been that that they can take enormous amounts of time trying to prepare, show and teach from a movie.

Later I will discuss some great ways you can use movies.