Chapter 6 Issues in Learning and Teaching Grammar
In this chapter we explore: • The idea that people learned languages before institutionalized education. • Five common learning grammar misconceptions. • Research findings revealing that natural learning processes always assert themselves over outside intervention. • The fundamental problem inherent in traditional approaches to grammar instruction.
Grammar assumptions • Many instructors (and students as well) still labor under certain unstated assumptions about how grammar is acquired by adolescents and adults. • In this chapter, Lee and VanPatten explore some of these (mis)conceptions and discuss why traditional approaches to grammar instruction are not effective in promoting acquisition. • There is no acquisition without input, defined as communicative or meaning-bearing language that learners hear.
A first thought • Have you ever asked yourself how people acquired second languages before there was schooling or universities? • Think about the following scenarios: • Trade between ancient cultures • American Indian tribes engaged in negotiation about land • When then of all our treasured notions of teaching language, especially our insistence that people have to “master the grammar”?
Possible Conclusion • One possible conclusion is that our ideas about language teaching, especially the teaching of grammar as a necessary part of language acquisition, may be artifacts of the culture of institutionalized education. • As Musumeci (1997) has shown, many of our current conceptions about how languages are acquired and how they should be taught have not always been staples of education. • Perhaps much of our methodology is a result not of what we know about acquisition but of poor translation between theory and research and the classroom.
Some (mis)conceptions In this section, Lee and VanPatten review some often-unstated beliefs that people have about learning grammar.
Belief 1: That’s the way I learned, so… • Without disconfirming evidence we may believe that something that happened to us is typical or that the way we learned to do something is the best way. • In the case of language teaching and learning, those who work with instructors often hear something like, “Well, I learned it this way…” with the implication that the way the person thinks he or she learned language is the way that language is learned in general.
A-before-B logic • Because instructors got explanations, because they practiced drills, and because they wrote out exercises, they think this is how they came to be advanced. • It is a human trait to think this way. • But in the context of language learning, there are two fundamental flaws in this line of reasoning.
The first flaw • The first flaw is to overlook what else happened to them over the course of the years they were learning the language. • Extensive reading • Study abroad • Conversations with natives • Watching TV or movies • What is common to all advanced learners of a language is exposure to lots of communicative or meaning-based input (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991).
Negotiation • In addition, these persons were probably engaged in conversational interaction with others. • Negotiation leads to better input by other speakers as rephrasing and repetition bring linguistic data into focus. • See next slide for example.
Example: Bob is a native speaker of English, and Tom’s first language is Chinese. • Bob: So where’s Dave? [Tom’s tennis partner] • Tom: He vacation. • Bob: He’s on vacation? • Tom: Yes. On vacation. • Bob: Lucky guy.
Analysis • In Tom’s first statement, he omitted the preposition on. • But because he was participating actively and no new information was being conveyed, he was able to notice the preposition used with the word vacation in Bob’s question. • He thus subsequently used it in his own confirming statement, revealing that he got some kind of linguistic data out of the interaction.
Optimal context • Input plus interaction is the most optimal context for language acquisition. • The point here is that advanced non-native speakers have most likely been involved in lots of interactions that have helped them get linguistic data from the input. • Language teachers who are advanced speakers of another language acquired their ability in spite of the instruction or independently of the instruction they received early on.
The second flaw • The second flaw in the A-before-B logic is that B is often left unexamined. • Research (VanPatten & Mandell,1999) reported on the grammaticality judgments of learners who were 4th-semester Spanish students. • They were asked whether certain sentences were possible or not in Spanish. • They had to indicate whether their judgments were based on a rule they had learned or whether they judged by feel.
Results of the research • The researchers found that learners were overwhelmingly correct about the learned rules and also generally reported them as something they learned and for which they could offer a rule. • For the second example, Learners were also overwhelmingly correct in their judgments but tended to report that they judged by feel. • Clearly, something was happening that occurred independently of instruction.
To be sure… • This does not mean that everyone arrives at a native-like competence, but it does indicate that acquisition is not the result of instruction plus practice. • The point here, then, is that acquisition cannot be reduced to what we did in the early stages of learning-at least not the kind of teaching-learning practices that are still prevalent in most classrooms.
Pause to consider…(p. 120) • …how a traditional approach in instruction perpetuates itself. What does a novice teacher do when confronted with the classroom for the first time? • What do novice teachers find in textbooks? • How do these textbooks influence the teacher’s belief system? • What can be done to “undo” this traditional approach in novice teachers?
Belief 2: Drills are effective tools for learning grammar • Drills, sometimes called “exercises” are found in almost all textbooks today, even those that are touted as “communicative” or “proficiency oriented.” • These books tend to follow a particular sequencing of practice types after a grammar point is explained. • Mechanical drillsMeaningful drills Communicative drills.
Mechanical drills • Mechanical drills are those during which the student need not attend to meaning and for which there is only one correct response. • EXAMPLE #1: Yo ___________ (comer) mucho cada día. Mi hermana y yo siempre _____________ (hablar) por teléfono…casi 2 o 3 veces cada día. • EXAMPLE #2: Change the sentence, substituting object pronouns for the direct object. • John puts the glasses on the table. He puts them on the table. • (the wineglasses, the food, the plate)
Mechanical drills continued… • It should become clear that the learner need not understand what she is saying in order to complete the previous drills. • The learner may understand what is being said; the point is that the learner does not have to.
Meaningful drills • The learner must attend to the meaning of both the stimulus and her own answer. • Yet there is still only one right answer, and the answer is already known to the participants. • Answer each question using an object pronoun. • Where does John put his books when he arrives in class? (Instructor points to where John’s books are.) • Where does Mary put her jacket?
Drill message • The actual message contained in the learner’s utterance is restricted to one response; everyone can see where John’s book are as the teacher points to them. • Although there is meaning involved in meaningful drills, we can question just how “meaningful” they really are, given these constraints on learner responses.
Communicative drills • Communicative drills require attention to meaning, and the information contained in the learner’s answer is new and unknown to the person asking the question. • Working with a partner, ask and answer questions using the cues as guides. If you are answering, use an object pronoun. • Model: to play/the piano • A: Do you play the piano? • B: No, I don’t play it. • Parents/call on the phone • To do/ the homework
Summary of belief #2 • Although learners are always speaking or writing when engaged in traditional grammar practice, a great deal of grammar instruction is neither meaningful nor communicative. • Traditional grammar practice is largely mechanical, with the focus exclusively on using a grammatical feature to produce some sort of utterance.
Are such practices effective? • The answer is NO. • Lightbrown (1983) demonstrated that not only was intensive drilling ineffective, it actually delayed the acquisition of the structures and forms that were drilled. • Research conducted since the late 1980s suggests that learners who are engaged in meaningful approaches to grammar (called focus on form) do as well as or better than those who are engaged in activities that are nonmeaningful.
Doughty & Williams (1998) “Finally, and most important of all, we have proposed that, whatever the pedagogical decision at hand, the primary concern of the teacher should always be the question of how to integrate attention to form and meaning, either simultaneously or in some interconnected sequence of tasks and techniques that are implemented throughout the curriculum.” (Doughty & Williams, 1998, p.261)
Belief 3: Explicit explanation is necessary • Almost all grammar instruction begins with some kind of presentation or explanation of the form or structure about to be practiced. • Learners may be given lists of rules on how to use the subjunctive. • They may receive explanations that contrast subject and object pronouns.
Why? • That adolescents and adults want to know how something works before they engage in some activity is to be expected. • If we know that the point of the lesson is to learn the past tense, and we also know that we are going to be tested on the past test, we want to know as much as we can to increase our chances of being successful. • Evidence is indicating that explicit information is not necessary for successful acquisition.
Return to an idea • We often know more about language than we could possibly have been taught. • Many of these aspects of the grammar are based on very abstract notions of linguistic theory, none of which are translatable to pedagogical grammars (the kinds of grammar we use in textbooks).
More research • Research on nontraditional approaches to grammar strongly suggests that explicit information is not necessary. • In VanPatten and Oikennon (1996), three groups of learners were compared on their learning of object pronouns rules in Spanish. • A processing instruction group • A structured input only group that received no explanation • An explanation-only group. • The explanation-only group made no improvements. The conclusion was that the activities alone constituted the necessary aspect of instruction that would lead to learners’ improvement.
Other studies • Since the publication of VanPatten and Oikennon (1996), other studies have emerged that support the findings that explanation is not necessary for acquisition. • Benati (2003) has replicated the same results in Italian with the teaching and learning of the future tense. • Farley (2003) has shown that the Spanish subjunctive can be learned without explanation.
To be sure… • Some research has shown that explanation may be beneficial early on to help learners get into acquisition more quickly. • However, no research that Lee and VanPatten know of has demonstrated that explanation or explicit information is necessary for acquisition.
Pause to consider…(p. 125) • …what role explicit information plays if it is not integral to acquisition. Many researchers believe that explicit information resides in some kind of conscious knowledge store (like any other “facts” we know) and can be used as a monitoring device to “repair” utterances as learners generate them. Learners can actually perform beyond their competence because they can consult this conscious knowledge to make their sentences sound more grammatical. • What is your reaction to this position?How useful do you think this knowledge is in real-time conversation?Does level of proficiency make a difference?
Belief 4: The first language is the source of all errors • It was believed prior to the 1960s that second language acquisition consisted of establishing new habits and suppressing the old ones (those of the first language). • The first language was viewed as the “problem.” • Great care was taken not to let learners make errors, since this would lead to prolonged interference from the first language.
Dress-up • Whenever learners have to perform beyond their current competence, they have no choice but to use their first language to generate sentences that they then “dress up” in second language words. • The result is language that is filled with first language-like errors.
Research in the 1970s • LoCoco (1975) found that only 23& of errors made by learners of German (English as first language) were traceable to the first language. • In another study (LoCoco, 1976), just over 13 % of the errors made by learners of Spanish (English as first language) were L1-like in nature. • In short, more “naturalistic data,” that is, data collected using techniques other than those teachers often use to examine student progress, revealed a much different picture than was believed to be the case.
L1 interference • Since then, no one in theory or research perceives L1 transfer (or interference) to be the linguistic “bogeyman” that seemed to prevail in the days of behaviorism and audiolingualism. • First language influence in SLA is seen to be natural and a part of the process that learners must undergo as they construct an implicit mental representation of the language.
Belief 5: Acquisition involves the learning of paradigms • In linguistics, a paradigm is a representation that displays the various forms of a given grammatical structure. • Example: Spanish verbs that take -g
Paradigms • Paradigms are abstractions and generalizations. • They are tools to organize information and present data, but they do not correspond to the way knowledge is structured in the brain. • Paradigms represent neither the way morphological forms are acquired nor the order in which they are acquired. • Paradigms do not exist in native speakers’ heads unless put there by teachers or books.
Second language learner • The second language learner develops an equally complex, albeit in most cases incomplete, network of lexical items that does not resemble any paradigm in a textbook. • Bybee (1991) suggests that the psychological status of inflections and forms might come about only as learners internalize whole words that contain those inflections.
Spanish example • A learner might internalize the verb sé first and then sabe. • The restructuring process makes a connection between their common verb roots since their meanings are obviously connected (both involved the process of “knowing”). • A paradigm is actually a shorthand for a particular set of connections; paradigms have no psycholinguistic validity for acquisition.
Without paradigms • Children acquire a first language quite well without the use of paradigms. • Bilinguals from birth or from an early age also acquire languages without paradigms. • Non-classroom learners have acquired a good deal of language without paradigms. • Why then do teachers and learners think they need them?
The reasoning • If the goal of a lesson is to learn the grammar and to be tested on the grammar, then it makes perfect sense to use such shorthand devices. • However, if the goal of a lesson is to learn how to perform particular tasks, then paradigms lost their immediacy in class.
The limited effects of instruction • Some important research pushes us to question many of our long-held grammar notions. • Does instruction make a difference? • Does explicit instruction in grammar, together with practice, error correction, and so forth, have any significant effect on how learners acquire a language?
Research findings on instruction • One of the first findings was the acquisition orders do not match instructional orders. • The emergence of verb inflections, noun endings, functors, and even syntactic patterns did not necessarily match the order in which they were taught and practiced. • English third-person –s for example is a verb morpheme taught early in most ESL programs. Yet, it is one of the last verb morphemes to be acquired in speech.
Overlearning • Lightbown (1983) reports that intense practice in the language forms she investigated resulted in overlearning (use in linguistic contexts where the item should not be used) but that this overlearning disappeared and the learners went right back to following the natural orders of acquisition. • This and other investigations all yielded the same results: Explicit instruction and practice did very little, if anything, to alter acquisition orders. • Learners seemed to follow a particular path on their way to developing the second language system.
A second finding • A second finding is that explicit grammar instruction does not circumvent “natural” stages of development. • Explicit grammar instruction does not seem to affect stages of development. • Ellis (1984) found that learners of English in the classroom who were exposed to instruction and practice nonetheless exhibited the same stages of development in the acquisition of negations and other structures as did non-classroom learners. • This study and others all suggest that the learner is guided by some internal mechanisms and that instruction simply cannot override what these mechanisms do.
A third finding • A third finding is that language produced by learners on grammar-focused tests does not necessarily match that found in communicative speech. • On tests, learners of English might be able to supply third-person –s correctly, although they omit this verb inflection when using the language to communicate information outside (and often inside!) the classroom. • Why was there such a discrepancy between tests and speech?
Krashen (1982) • Krashen (1982) has suggested that learners receiving explicit instruction may develop a conscious Monitor, a kind of “grammar police” that can edit for correct use of grammar and syntax only under certain conditions. • Conditions: • 1) when the learner needs to produce a correct sentence • 2) when there is time to do it (such as on a written test as opposed to in naturally occurring conversation)
Further suggestions • Krashen has further suggested that the system used during communicative interaction is a system independent of the Monitor. • This other system he calls the acquired system, which is built up over time from exposure to comprehensible input.