Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Stop whining!

Today I remembered this slogan, which was used in an MTV environmental campaign some years back. It came to my mind after our school development group meeting. The goal of the group is to get all our teachers involved in 'a campaign' to change some of our ingrained practices to be better able to help our students learn.

Since its inception back in 2002 our development group has worked hard to tackle problems, such as students' lack of motivation and aimless drifting at school, and consequent teacher frustration and cynicism. Over the year these problems have led to a culture of teachers whining and complaining about the recurring themes of  irregular school attendance, neglect of homework assignments and general apathy and low performance among students, accentuated by our aging and long-standing permanent staff. Year in and year out the staff room echoes with us listing the same problems again. Of course, every now and then, it is healthy to do a bit of complaining to vent out when you're feeling tired and fed up after a disappointing class. But to keep going through the same - largely structural or pedagogical - problems without seeking possible solutions, is useless and sets a vicious cycle of passive helplessness and shifting the blame. The unquestioned belief is that we teachers are doing the best we can, and even more, while it's the students who aren't pulling their weight.

There is an old wisdom that rings more true to me here: "if you keep on doing what you've always done, you'll keep on getting what you've always got." Why does this need spelling out? We need to break out of stuck-in-a-rut patterns. And for that we will need innovation and creativity to instill an environment of hope and enthusiasm instead of the eternal whining. Maybe it would rub off on our students, too, and we might witness unpredictable results.

In our meeting, we decided to create an online discussion forum to start actively looking for constructive solutions that would energize us all. In the forum complaints about the problems that we all recognize too well by now are strongly discouraged. I look forward to seeing the response from the rest of the staff.

Photo: IF YOU'RE NOT PART OF THE SOLUTION THEN... by Lulu Vision on Flickr

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Should text speak be banned or allowed at school?

Today a correspondent in Paris of my local newspaper wrote about the growing alarm among French academics and teachers concerning the present young generation's deteriorating spelling skills. According to the article, 2 our of 3 young French students fail their annual dictation tests these days. The finger has been pointed at poor teaching, too few lessons, the government, the influence of English or, of course, young people's texting culture, until somebody dared to suggest that it is the outdated French ortography, stuck somewhere in the 19th century, that should be blamed. French spelling is notoriously challenging, since there are, for example, no fewer than 13 different ways to spell the sound 'o' in French. As one solution to the problem, it was suggested that students should be allowed to systematically use the automatic spelling checks on computers. Oh no! That would be the destruction of French culture as we know it. Nothing must be changed!

Similar concerns are voiced around the globe. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote about generation Y and texting with the title 'It's ok how we communic8'. They give the reassuring message that rather than killing acceptable forms of language, texting and online chat forums are actually making our youngsters write more than ever. Problems arise when the text speak conventions of the young clash with the expectations of older generations, eg. teachers at school. Dr Bruce Moore, director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, is not worried, though:
Most people realise that language is used differently in different contexts. Most people know that while it's OK to be informal with text messages, different rules apply when you are writing a job application.
Probably this is mostly true, although I wouldn't take it for granted. A colleague of mine was appalled by a student who, for the first time in this teacher's 20-year career, had finished her national final exam psychology answer with a smiley! It is not automatically clear for many students what style is appropriate in different contexts. The problem becomes even more complicated in the case of foreign languages. Students simply don't have enough experience and exposure to the language to be able to choose the correct register. Our Finnish students' English, for example, is mostly colloquial, spoken language learned from TV and films. Very few of them would be able to produce formal academic texts in English without a lot of guidance and scaffolding. Yet, they are expected to manage this in their final exams if they want to reach the best grades. The problem is accentuated by a lot of English text-speak entering our Finnish language, which makes it sound like part of the standard language. LOL, for example, has become part of young people's everyday Finnish. I have also heard some of our younger government ministers being interviewed in English on TV, and I must say their style of English sounded more like that of a rock star than a serious politician. Although they are quite fluent, their style and register are off-key for somebody in their position. Colloquial spoken English is ubiquitous in Finland, and Finns come to regard it as the current norm. It's a tough job for us EFL teachers to try and introduce the more formal style. Students easily write the formal style off as something nobody but we, old-fashioned English teachers, would use. I have almost weekly arguments over this with students. Are we teachers behind the times, not realizing that communication culture has actually evolved to a new level that we don't understand and appreciate?

In an earlier post I referred to the Finnish research revealing the wide gap between the types of texts students engage in in their freetime and what is expected of them at school. It is true that teachers are not familiar enough with young people's new communication patterns. If we were, it would be easier for us to help them change their register when needed. Rather than being shocked and dismissing students' texting and online communication as something bad and totally unacceptable, we should understand the changes at hand and welcome these new forms of communication. Attitude adjustments are needed from both teachers and students, I feel. Social researcher Mark McCrindle, in the above-mentioned Sydney Herald article, nicely sums up what is expected of today's teachers and students:
Generations Y and Z need to be given the tools which will allow them to communicate effectively with other generations. They also need to know when it is appropriate to use 'text speak' and when it isn't. If they are writing an essay, for example, or a job application, it's probably best to use the language they learnt at school.
In our international school projects we have solved this problem by using the Ning platform, where students are guided to use a more formal style to express themselves in their blogs, but still allowed to use their familiar, colloquial style - even text speak and smileys, if they want to - in the discussion forum. I feel this approach is working quite well, if only we teachers take the time to keep reminding and guiding students to keep editing their texts. Quite a few of them need constant reminding, even to run their pieces through the computer spell checks before publishing!

Photo: LOL by sermoa on Flickr

Saturday, 26 September 2009

English teacher's environmental week

While autumn is splashing all its colourful palette around me, this week, for me, has been mainly dominated by one colour only: GREEN. I have often commented on the wonderful serendipity of online connections and discoveries, and this week seems to have been filled with them. Or is it rather that once your attention is drawn to something interesting, you easily start to notice it all around you? Whatever the reason, every day this week I have come across various environmental issues, most of which have been directly or indirectly linked to the threat of global warming.

I try to be environmentally aware, and I also try to model responsible behaviour in my own lifestyle. I believe it's my duty as an educator of future generations to bring these issues up in my English lessons, too. English, after all, is the language of most global cooperation, when solutions are negotiated to our huge common problems.To be honest, though, I must say the emphasis here is still on the word TRY. But it seems this week made me stop and think what my tiny role in all of this might be.

Fair trade Monday

On Monday our topic for one group's English lesson was 'fair trade'. We studied the related text in our textbook and then watched this Oxfam video clip. It tied in nicely with the text recycling the key vocabulary and also visualizing the conditions of the farmers in the developing world.

During the ensuing discussion, I was surprised to find that none of my students' families bought any fair trade products. Unfortunately, fair trade is still in its infancy in Finland, as the choice of products is very limited compared to many other countries, but it is gradually getting better. I must say I was rather taken aback at the seemingly indifferent 'I couldn't care less' attitude of many of my high school students. Did I manage to arouse empathy and global responsibility and awareness in any of them? I have no clue. Probably I only managed to sprinkle some seeds of ideas amongst them, and can only hope that some of them will fall into fertile ground and take root one day in the future.

Mind you, I am not making much better progress among my colleagues on this front. Somebody threw out the idea of only buying fair trade coffee for the staff room at the beginning of the new school year in August. We all bring a couple of packets of coffee every so often to keep us well stocked in order to avoid ever facing the catastophe of coffee running out in the middle of a busy school day. I took the suggestion seriously and started buying the more expensive fair trade coffee for school, too, only to realize that most of my colleagues refuse to follow suit, for some reason. What a pity to lose one opportunity to model some concrete action to our students.

Carfree Tuesday

On Tuesday this week, as every year on September 22, it was the World Carfree Day. Cycling for me, and tweeting about the day was my contribution, but sadly, it mostly looked like 'business as usual' in my town. Mind you, I cycle on other days, too, and sometimes ask myself whether these annual one-off theme days really make any difference in the big picture.

Other Newspaper headlines also brought up the consequences of climate change. Apparently, winters are predicted to get gloomier and gloomier here in Finland increasing the number of SAD sufferers. Bad news for people like me, who are already seriously affected by the dark winter blues. Other than moving to a sunnier climate, is there anything else I could do to mitigate this phenomenon?

Informative Wednesday

Interestingly, both English magazines that I read featured the environment on their covers in their articles this week. Serendipitously, Time had an article on fair trade, presenting rather sceptical and pessimistic views on the future of the fair trade model. Some more reading on the topic for my students.

Even more environmental content for this week, when I stumbled upon the Edging Ahead blog, where Rob, the teacher-librarian-blogger wrote a post about his juggling between adopting new technologies and taking into account a future where electricity, for example, may be scarce. I share this dilemma of getting my priorities sorted out with so many mixed messages floating around these days. And if I am lost, my students must be even more so!

The global problems that Rob addressed in his post are rather overwhelming, and may lead to a feeling of total  helplessness and despair. Personally, I would like to hold up some hope in the face of all this impending doom, though. There is too much scepticism, cynicism and subsequent indifference amongst our students as it it, at least here in Finland. In this respect, Doug Johnson's reply post to Rob especially resonated with me. He wrote:
It has always been my contention that the ONLY solution to our world's problems lies in a truly aware and engaged population. And such awareness will only come by way of education that requires, not believing, but dispassionate thinking and robust problem-solving abilities.
I would like to emphasize the problem-solving abilities - and some practical hands-on activities instead of the traditional book-knowledge-only approach of Finnish high schools. It's one thing to know a lot of facts, but quite another to be willing to take action and apply any of that knowledge.

Sustainable development strategy Thursday

The Finnish Ministry of Education has set extensive goals for sustainable development in schools.
The aim is for all schools to have an action plan for sustainable development by 2010 and for 15% to have received external accreditation or certification of their activities by 2014.
In our school, we have a team to do the background work for ideas. The problem with a lot of government initiatives is that they tend to be lengthy and wordy, and often just remain empty rhetoric in dusty documents, or rarely visited websites. That's why real concrete ideas are needed at the local level, if the initiatives are to be turned into everyday practices at schools.

Today a meeting was held to come up with our first steps towards a more sustainable direction. We chose to start with saving paper. In a school with only 30 teachers and 400 students, a staggering number of close to 300,000 sheets of copy paper have already been used since the beginning of 2009! It was decided that each member of staff will get their individual copying code to help us all monitor and keep track of our use of paper. It will be interesting to see if this will start making a noticeable difference.

Paperless Friday and environmental seminar

No end to serendipity this week, since a tweet led me to the Teach Paperless blog and the mission of Paperless Friday, which already got over 100 teachers involved after reading the first tweet about it last week. I'm always keen on renewing old practices and trying out something new, so I definitely want to jump on the bandwagon, and challenge some of my colleagues to join me. What's more, this would be an excellent start for the paper saving campaign we embarked on on Thursday.

I couldn't start this week, though, since I wasn't at school on Friday but spent the day in Helsinki to attend a seminar on 'The Social Impact of Climate Change', organized by the Federation of Finnish-British societies at the British Embassy. What an appropriate finish to my green, environmental week. We heard, for example, Mr Malcolm Keay from the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies predict a very grim future, basically telling us that it's too late already. Luckily, young Finnish Green Party MP Oras Tynkkynen emphasized everybody's personal responsibility in making choices in life. More mixed messages again, though. I didn't enjoy hearing my idealistic little everyday endeavours, such as recycling or using energy-efficient light bulbs, labeled as useless tinkering, when really drastic national and global measures are called for. "Climate chaos" instead of "climate change" was one lecturer's opinion of a more appropriate label for our current circumstances.

As a teacher, I am still wondering what message to give to my students, and how. It seems that each individual, even an informed and well-educated one, issuch an insignificant player in the massive, global corporate and political game. Or maybe I should stay on my turf, ie. focus on teaching English grammar, and leave the environment to experts.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The long and winding road to changing the practices of EFL writing

This Chinese proverb has been on mind a lot this week in connection with trying to find ways of shifting the focus from teaching to learning and student involvement. In particular, I have been thinking about the writing skills of my EFL students.

On the whole, our students get a fair bit of writing practise, but the way it's traditionally done, is giving them essay titles to write on as homework assignments, with the excuse of an overloaded curriculum and too little time to focus on this in class. The submitted essays are then meticulously marked by the teacher and handed back with a grade, and possibly a few written comments to help the students improve. In practise, though, the next time the student writes another such homework essay, the same mistakes will usually be repeated, and repeated and repeated again, irrespective of the teachers' well-meaning comments and hours of hard work in correcting all the mistakes. Many students go through the 3 years of senior high school with hardly any improvement in their writing skills.

It's exactly the scenario that I read in Tara Seale's blog Enhanced English Teacher some time ago. She
quoted the following from Michael Degen's book Crafting Expository Argument:
Too many teachers merely assign a paper, provide little instruction over the methods for achieving expectations, and scream while grading “these terrible essays.”
Ouch! How many times have I screamed, although I should actually blame myself for neglecting the poor students by leaving them to struggle with the writing assignments alone at home. Is it any wonder that the results are the same  – again and again? Telling them and even showing them is not enough, if students are not expected to get involved in the editing process themselves.

Another problem, of course, are standardizedl, formal testing methods. We are faced with the same challenges as described in the NCTE blog by Scott Filkings:
For the foreseeable future, we’ll measure (“officially,” anyway) our students’ ability as writers with assessments that have no authentic audience and no rhetorical purpose other than to invite efficient evaluation
Many students just go through the motions of perfunctorily producing the required number of words on a given theme only to the teacher or some other evaluator - "a nameless, faceless reader" from Scott Filkings' post - just because they have to, for their course credit or diploma. How motivating is that? This system makes many of them lazy to make any effort to edit their writing. Instead, it's over and done with as quickly as possibly, just as any tedious and meaningless homework.

This week I asked one group to write a slightly longer piece of project work on one aspect of Finnish society that they could choose themselves, according to their interests. We had been reading about different social issues and learning related vocabulary, so that rather dictated the general theme. To make the assignment more authentic, their writing was to be published on the international project Ning of our school. That means, once we start getting foreign partner groups to join the Ning, there will be a real audience to read the students' writing.

We started the work in class, so the students had a chance to consult each other or me to get started. We talked long and hard about plagiarism. Sadly, the 'copy and paste' method is quite common among our students, since the net, with all its English content, is too tempting for those who tend to leave all their work to the last minute. I would like my students to learn to produce their own material in English, because it will be essential for many of them in their future careers. The older Finnish generations have never been taught this, which is why it's not uncommon at international conferences to hear Finnish professional and experts giving thoroughly boring presentations put together with the same 'this-will-do' attitude from copied and disconnected sentences and paragraphs from various net sources. No wonder the lack of marketing skills among Finns is often talked about these days! Writing to a potential audience was also discussed and how it should affect the choice of topic and point of view. In addition, I introduced them to hyperlinking, instead of the citations or footnotes of traditional writing assignments. We also talked about the use of photos to bring some life and colour to their online work, and naturally copyright came up in this connection. Last but not least, I encouraged the students to think about the project as a process, in which they could email their first drafts to me for consultation. In the end, only 8 students out of 24 made use of this. For those who did, I pointed out some recurring mistakes in their English, and also suggested how to elaborate on their chosen theme to make their writing more interesting. Finnish students tend to write in the form of lists of unrelated facts, which is a reflection of the communication style typical of Finnish. It doesn't translate very well into English, and many students need constant reminding about the importance of linking ideas together and adding illustrative examples and their own opinions and thoughts, when they write in English. Another thing I needed to spell out to them was to remember the real audience. The impersonal, rhetorical style, which they are used to when writing assignments for assignments' sake only to the teacher, is really hard to change!

If you take a look at the different blog posts on Finland on the Ning, I have a feeling it will be easy to spot the majority of those who never bothered to edit their work once, despite all the pep talks and coaching beforehand. All in all, the results were rather discouraging again. Some even resorted to almost word by word copying from Wikipedia! As far as they were concerned, my words and good intentions fell totally on deaf ears. It's beyoung my comprehension whether they are really totally dumb to think that they won't be caught, or whether they can't understand a word I say to them. Why doesn't it matter to them what they publish online for anyone to read? Why don't they want to take more pride in their work? Or is it still the old disconnect between what school expects of them and what they, themselves, find valuable and worth investing time and effort in? Obviously, there still wasn't enough student involvement for them to understand. The requirements of writing to an audience are far from self-evident and the long tradition of isolated writing for school only is surprisingly hard to break. I foolishly took it for granted that students would automatically be able to write differently to a real audience - only a few managed this.

My next move is going to be to do the whole process at school, since most of them clearly cannot be trusted to do it on their own. We started today with some peer assessment of their first drafts. They all wrote their first drafts, then exchanged papers with another student, and with the help of my guiding prompts, then wrote some comments and suggestions to each other. Let's see if there will be any change of attitude and possibly even development in their writing this way!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Ridiculous testing of spoken English skills

It's national final exam time again in Finnish senior high schools. To graduate our students will have to pass national exams in a minimum of 4 subject. The exams are prepared by a special exam board, and there are two occasions to take them during the school year, in the autumn or in the spring. Students are free to work out their own schedule when they prefer to take each exam, yet the dates are set by the board and they are always the same for every school in Finland.

Today was the date for this autumn's English exam. Instead of the conventional set of reading comprehension, structures and vocabulary and composition, they had come up with a new section this time - filling in lines in a dialogue.

Finland is remiss I would claim, for not testing students' oral language skills for the final tests in any way. I don't know many countries where language tests are solely written! I have a feeling that writing lines in a dialogue was the board's attempt at silencing the many critics of the written-only exams. You see, the board, in their great wisdom, have decided that it is impossible to design and organize national oral exams. Maybe so, but I don't think they have come up with a very clever replacement this year. Or what do you think of the following scenario?

There is a dialogue between a farmer who stops his car to pick up a hitchhiker on the road somewhere in the British countryside. The hitchhiker is a travelling Finn, and the students are asked to write what this traveller would say based on Finnish cues. After the students have been prompted to write the words of the hitchhiker to indicate that he/she would like to get off to continue his/her journey, the farmer then goes on: "Well, the wife likes to have a chat with visitors. Are you sure you wouldn't mind comin' in for a cup o' tea?" After which the cue asks the students to decline politely because of a busy schedule, or something to that effect. Honestly, is this a script from a horror movie? If I was in a situation like that, I don't think politeness would be the first thing on my mind, but rather how to get out of the car in one piece and run away as fast as possible!

Not only is the whole story laughably artificial (would you really get in a strange farmer's car in the middle of nowhere these days any more?), but do they really think that they can test what spoken skills students have acquired in 12 years of English studies by asking them to write ONLY 5 lines in a dialogue? Utterly useless, if you ask me.

Photo: Exam Hall by non-partizan on Flickr

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The value of global school projects?

Today I had a Skype interview with an independent monitor for the European Commission concerning the AEC-NET projects our school has been involved with. The purpose for this interview was to help the Commission assess the value for their money invested in the various projects of Asia-Europe Foundation.

For me, the value is quite clear. During every single project, whether virtual or a face-to-face student exchange, I have witnessed incredible changes in the mindsets and attitudes of many students. From monocultural, often stereotypical, even prejudiced attitudes they start gaining insights into the urgency of becoming more multicultural in their mindsets. I believe these are invaluable learning experiences for today's youngsters growing up in the globalising world. Not only isolated language training, but also authentic intercultural communication practice as an essential part of it.

All through the interview, I felt I was failing to explain this in terms that the evaluator would understand. On a personal level, yes, he could appreciate the value, but how about the stakeholders holding the purse strings? I doubt it. You can't quantify the development of somebody's mindset in any way. There is no test to prove that any of this will have any concrete value to these youngsters' futures. Deep down I know there is a lot of value in it, but it is only a hunch, a gut feeling - my biased interpretation perhaps? It is this value, however, that drives me forward and makes me invest a lot of my freetime and effort in developing these projects year after year. It is something you can't learn by reading books or listening to teachers or lectures alone. You will need to engage in this dialogue yourself, face differences with an open mind, and grow beyond the boundaries of your own language and culture.

How can we make our governments and school administrators realize the value? Too often I feel that idealism and softer values are dismissed in today's harsh atmosphere of insisting that value can only be measured numerically. In such an atmosphere, the words students and teachers wrote in the final evaluation questionnaire of last year's project, tend to fall on deaf ears:

I could meet new people of different countries which have different cultures. Here, I see that intercultural learning is crucial in order to build harmonious relationships between countries.

I enjoyed the opportunity to be able to learn and understand the students involved in the project. I am also more understanding to certain cultural practices of other countries. I could discuss and know others' ideas in the different countries.

I really enjoyed the fact that I could talk to people from other parts of the world. It gave me a chance to learn about other cultures as well as individual people. I also got to learn how to write a blog. This was something I had never done before.

I have learned about European culture and school lives. I am very pleased to have my students have chances to participate in the international understanding. My students could widen their horizons.

How would you describe the value of global school projects?

Monday, 7 September 2009

More on grammar - darned gap fills and translations!

I seem to have it in for grammar this week. My previous post set me off on a real ranting path. Why is it that students, who remember all sorts of grammar rules by heart, rarely manage to relate those forms to meaning and use? They might be able to parrot a pattern in a mechanical drill exercise, but when it comes to natural use, the practised grammar is soon forgotten.

Hanna Torp, another English teacher in Finland, blogged about a recent Finnish doctoral thesis, in which it was found that

the current curriculum leads to mechanical learning of isolated pieces of knowledge
Isn't isolating grammar from the larger entity of communicative competence of a language a glaring example of this in language classes? And separate grammar exercises purely for the school context only - and apparently nothing much but busy work to keep students occupied, but with little relevance to any real communication. What is the goal in the end - for students to actually learn English, or for them to be able to explain how English grammar works?

For Finns, the English word order is a case in point. Language teachers have cleverly put together a simple rule for students to memorize: SPOTPA (subject, predicate verb, object + adverbs of manner, place and time). All my students proudly recite this whenever asked. Yet, even good students automatically go by their mother tongue when speaking or writing freely, resulting in sentences, such as "I like very much English.", or "In my school is much new student" (not to mention all the other typical Finnish mistakes in the second example!). What is the value of remembering SPOTPA when there clearly is little transfer to actual language use?

Another example. Ask a Finnish student how to form the passive in English and most will readily produce the pattern, and manage to mechanically fill in gap fill exercises correctly. The teacher then is lulled into believing that they have learned it, only to realize that in real situations many still can't differentiate between "the message should send" and "the message should be sent". It is no use then starting to repeat the grammatical terms - active, passive, auxiliary verb etc. - as they obviously didn't have any meaning for the students in the first place.

I can't help mentioning another Finnish peculiarity. Finnish students are taught English irregular verbs as a list of 3 forms - 'think, thought, thought', 'see, saw, seen', 'lie, lay, lain' and so on. They are tested on these so many times that they would be able produce the correct list even in their sleep! But when they speak or write, it's 'he thinked about it', or no past tense whatsoever. There would be an endless list of similar examples of useless rote learning of grammar formulas and rules.

I often think about the processes of learning your native language compared to the school style foreign language learning. Everybody learns their mother tongue without needing to know any grammatical terms, or understanding the, to me largely artificial, constructed grammar structure to explain how the language works. You use your language to express yourself and understand others - either in a written or spoken form. Why can't you learn a foreign language in the same way? Whenever I discuss this with colleagues, their argument, invariably, is that with the very limited number of lessons we have for foreign languages at school, the natural method simply wouldn't work. Consequently, their argument continues, we need to explain around the language for students to be able to apply the structures to whatever they will need to use the language for later. But what if we didn't, and spent all those hours practising fluency and natural use instead?

I honestly think that the types of exercises in our English textbooks are a big part of the problem. By far the most common grammar exercises are gap fills with Finnish clues, or sentences to translate from Finnish to English. In my opinion, translating from one language to another is a totally different process from using a language naturally. Typically, the sentences our textbooks present for translation focus on the common mistakes Finnish learners make, due to interference from their mother tongue. Teachers tend to believe that if they bang on these differences in the structure of the two languages, highlighting the underlying grammar rule again and again, the students are bound to get it in the end. Yet, what I see in class every day is that these translations only reinforce the mistakes, making them fossilize in the students' minds. Utterly frustrating, but great for testing!

I find it pointless, and tantamount to devious, to test students on the typical Finnish mistakes - you are just making a rod for your own back having to keep reading the same old mistakes. It's like digging holes for the poor students knowing perfectly well that they will fall into them in hordes. The Finnish board for designing the national final exams is especially keen on testing these - otherwise they wouldn't be able to create the desired normal distribution of scores every year. But national testing really is a topic for another rant later...

Photo: RANT, this way by Nesster on Flickr

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Grammar and EFL

Teaching grammar drives me crazy. Every EFL textbook I have used (all of them made in Finland) has contained a separate grammar section - a considerable part of each book. The grammar section always contains the same units, in more or less the same order. First course: all the verb tenses, word order, forming questions and question tags. Second course: pronouns, adjectives, expressing possession, passive.... and so on, as if there was a naturally specified sequence.

The irony of all this at the level I teach (senior high school, where students entering our school already have 7 years of English studies behind them) is that students have already been introduced to all the grammar our books deal with, and consequently should know at least the basics. Unfortunately, many students have remained surprisingly immune to all the grammar content taught to them and not acquired a sense of the basic structure of English. No doubt teachers at previous levels have taught it, and students have been exposed to all the metalanguage of grammatical terms and rules, but that must have read like mumbo-jumbo to many of them. Not even the endless gap fill and translation exercises or drilling have made it any clearer for them. They may be able to recite grammar rules word by word, but consistently fail to apply them in speaking or writing. From my experience, students who haven't grasped the basics by the time they come to our school, never will if it's the same methods and types of exercise repeated again.

I often ask myself, what is the point of teaching grammar at all in our style of senior high? As it's already been taught, surely it should only be tweaked whenever a point comes up naturally in the course of a discussion, while reading a text or practising writing, for example. Certain nuances could be added to the basics at this level, and maybe some quick revision every now and then, but I'm inclined to skip the grammatical metalanguage and rules. Why on earth do we believe that repeating the same old rules again and again is going to make a difference? Most students at senior high like English, but hate grammar lessons. No wonder, since they have had the same stuff thrown at them ad nauseam for years on end.

Is it us teachers who feel that it is our job to TEACH who insist on an overdose of grammar of this type? If a colleague of mine, who has worked in the author teams of many Finnish EFL book series, is to go by, that's exactly it. She says every so often some more progressive language book authors suggest easing on the grammar content, but publishers quickly stunt these initiatives claiming that it is grammar and more grammar that their clients - EFL teachers - want. And they are quite right. Whenever I attend book fairs where a new textbook is launched, most of the discussion revolves around the grammar sections. Are they extensive enough, or should we perhaps use an additional grammar book as well? When I try to question the dominance of grammar in language classes I get incredulous and condescending looks from my peers.

The bottom line is: we are teachers and our job is to teach. Grammar is easy to teach. Teachers can lecture to their hearts content in front of the class. They know all the rules better than any of their students. They can feel helpful and efficient. With grammar rules they get the chance to prove to those students whose fluency in actual language use may be far better than the teacher's that they don't know it all, after all! Teaching grammar makes teachers feel that they are truly earning their salaries. You could never teach vocabulary, or listening skills in the same way!

The other week I came across a post in Betty Azar's Teacher Talk blog, where she blogged about this same problem of declarative knowledge of grammar not automatically translating into procedural knowledge. She firmly believes that a cognitive understanding of grammatical concepts is the foundation on which, through practise, the natural use of a second language is built. She also mentions that teachers get frustrated too easily and determine
that teaching grammar does no good because there is no immediate transfer to internalized language

Mind you, Betty is writing about adults, which, I feel, is different from regular schools. But I would say she reflects the sentiments and beliefs of most of my colleagues. In Finnish senior high schools, though, you can hardly talk about teachers expecting immediate transfer. You'd think that if a method was good it wouldn't take 10 years of constant repetition, and still so many clueless students! One of the most often heard complaints from my language teacher colleagues is: "I have told them about this grammar rule countless times, and still they keep making the same mistakes!" In other words, the students are lazy or stupid or both. How about looking in the mirror and questioning the method instead?

Photo: grammar minibook verbs by jimmiehomeschoolmom on Flickr