Grammar for Teachers (Seminar)
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Abstract : 1. What are we doing when we do grammar ? / 2. So what is grammar?/ 3. Where do the rules in book grammars come from ? / 4. So is grammar just about the links between words ? / 5.Language grammar always happens at the same time as lots of other things in your brain / 6. What should grammar teachers teach ? / 7. Do students learn useful language control from studying grammar books? / 8. Can teachers teach grammar? / 9. How can language teachers be most useful? / 10. Do grammar mistakes matter? / 11. Is accuracy more important than fluency?

This is the outline of a seminar on grammar teaching given as a teacher inservice for Chinese English teachers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China, on 13 May 2008. Thor May has been teaching language and linguistics since 1976.

Grammar for Language Teachers

Thor May

Henan, China


1. What are we doing when we do grammar ?

1.1. Ducks _ _ _ _ [add one word / add one word / add one word …. complete this sentence ] (class game)

1.1.1. Why did you choose those words ?

1.1.2. Would native speakers choose the same words as L2 speakers on average?

1.1.3 Would Australians choose the same words as Americans?


2. So what is grammar?

2.1 Organic (natural / cognitive) grammar is not the stuff you find in text books.

2.2. Organic grammar is a kind of knowledge your brain has about probabilities.

2.2.1 The probabilities are how likely one word is to follow the word in front of it (strongest control), and how likely it is to follow all the other words which came before it (weaker). And .....


3. Where do the rules in book grammars come from ?

3.1 Mostly book grammars just copy examples from other book grammars, even going back to the 18th Century.

3.2 Book grammars claim to state "rules". However, these are not rules about "how to make sentences in the future", but descriptions about "how many sentences have been made in the past".

3.3 Book grammars do NOT describe how ALL sentences have been made in the past. If you listen to native speakers carefully, you will find that they often make sentences in ways you won't find in a grammar book !

3.3.1 "Nice day eh" is a pretty common English sentence. Most grammar books will tell you that it is wrong : it has no subject. [More examples of this later].

3.4 Book grammars CAN be useful if we understand that they are just examples of SOME sentence patterns.

3.5 If you learn ALL the rules in a grammar book, you still will not be able to speak that language. Why? Because the grammar rules just state some AVERAGE PATTERNS. A native speaker knows many thousands of patterns not in any book.


4. So is grammar just about the links between words ?

4.1 No ! Grammar is also about the links between words and larger, non-language contexts.

4.1.1 If I walk up to you and say without warning : " No that's crazy. Onions are blue with red spots" ... then you will think my language is crazy.

4.2 If I keep talking like this, and you don't have a context to put my onions in, you will stop listening. I'm not just mad, I'm boring. This is exactly what grammar exercises do to the feelings of many language learners.

4.3 If we are both watching a TV show about onions on Mars, and we disagree about what we are seeing, then my sentence might have meaning.


5.Language grammar always happens at the same time as lots of other things in your brain

5.1 Why do certain words come out of your mouth?

5.1.1 The words which come out of your mouth come from a mix of things in your brain :

a) Sensory perceptions : what you are seeing, hearing, etc.

b) The memory of past events and experiences

c) The habits of using certain word patterns (grammar)

d) The pressure in your mind to say SOMETHING.

5.2 The mix of things in your brain which leads to talk varies a lot !

5.2.1 People don't just talk to communicate ideas, or to describe the world.

5.2.2 Often people are unable NOT to talk. The language machine takes over their brain, and may get them into trouble. That is why mobile phones are addictive. They might really not have anything important to say.

5.2.3 The SECOND LANGUAGE machine in the brain of learners is usually very weak. Therefore the "balance" of language they produce (between a, b, c & d) is very unnatural, and the "balance" of what they hear is also unnatural. At this moment, you Chinese speakers are struggling to listen to me. It is very exhausting, right?


6. What should grammar teachers teach ?

6.1 Teachers should teach what is LEARNABLE, not just what is TEACHABLE.

6.2 Many school grammar books are very teachable. That is, they are neatly organized, and the teacher knows exactly how to fill up the time in each lesson.

6.3 Most school grammar books are not at all learnable. Would you read them in your spare time? Would you even read them on a long train trip? Of course not. They are boring. They are fragmented. There is nothing in them which is MEMORABLE.


7. Do students learn useful language control from studying grammar books?

7.1 Sometimes they do learn, depending upon the student. Actually, there is evidence that about 80% of students do not learn anything useful at all from doing grammar exercises. The knowledge mostly does not pass to the (subconscious) part of their brain which produces real language.

7.2 The main problem is that we are asking students to REVERSE ENGINEER real language from a few examples of book grammar. This is terribly inefficient.

7.3 In my experience, grammar books for learners are most useful to CONFIRM something they have already guessed. You should read a grammar rule and say "aha, I thought so!".

7.4 In my experience, grammar books are least useful when you use them like a cooking recipe book : "hmm, now the book says I have to put a verb after this noun ...."


8. Can teachers teach grammar?

8.1 Teachers are generally poor at teaching grammar for many reasons.

8.1.1 Most teachers have little idea of what grammar really is, and almost no idea of how the brain actually makes language.

8.1.2 Most teachers do what they are told to do. Usually that means, working through a series of exercises in some assigned text book. This is horribly inefficient.

8.1.3 Most teachers don't want to spend the time to make up new material. If they are working in L2 this is very difficult anyway.

8.2 Successful grammar teaching is all about EXPLAINING to a student how to fix their real communication failures. It only works when the student WANTS to know why they have failed to communicate successfully.


9. How can language teachers be most useful?

9.2 Teachers can be most useful when they give students very interesting, but planned projects to do.

9.2.1 Life is not just about doing a grammar exercise in isolation, and neither is real language learning.

9.2.2 Grammar, vocabulary, phonology, reading, writing, listening etc. are cut up into "subjects" to make them "teachable" and administratively easy to measure. This is disastrous from a "learnable" point of view.

9.3 All language teaching is a simulation of real life communication. Real life communication involves all modes, as the need arises.

9.4 A language teacher might plan to "focus" on some grammar point (for example) in a lesson, but from a student point of view, the lesson should not be about that grammar point. Students, usually, have no interest in "grammar rule X". They want to play the language game, not talk ABOUT it.

9.4.1 Lessons should be about some communicative task - a story, a project, a discussion, a business meeting, a nursing procedure ... whatever.

9.4.2 If the teacher is clever, she might trick the students into practicing some language point by disguising it, e.g. as a game.


10. Do grammar mistakes matter?

10.1 Native speakers appear to make huge numbers of grammar mistakes, if we compare their speech to what you find in text books.

10.1.1 Native speakers rarely notice each other's grammar mistakes, because they are listening for meaning. In fact, the listener's brain "corrects" many errors automatically without the listener herself noticing.

10.1.2 Native speakers are much less tolerant of L2 speakers' grammar mistakes. Why? Because as soon as they hear a non native accent, they EXPECT the speaker to make mistakes !

10.2 Everyone learning a language makes mistakes constantly. Some mistakes are LOCAL ERRORS which don't interfere with meaning much. Some mistakes are global errors, which means the listener confuses the message.

10.3 Most language teachers spend much more time correcting local errors than they spend correcting global errors. This is stupid. Teachers do this because local errors are easy to explain from text books.


11. Is accuracy more important than fluency?

11.1 The first step in language learning is to gain some confidence in using the language. That is, the learner needs to gain some fluency.

11.1.2 Up to intermediate stage, fluency often comes at the expense of accuracy. This is OK, in my view. The accuracy can come later. However, inaccuracy is hard for teachers and administrators to accept, because they don't know how to give marks for mere fluency.

11.2 After intermediate stage (especially) teachers need to encourage some accuracy in student language use. This doesn't have to be in every lesson. In sports training, we have hard runs followed by easy runs to relax the muscles. It needs to be the same with language learning. Some lessons can be very focused on accuracy. Others can be more relaxed.

Grammar for Language Teachers
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