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

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