Here’s a question pre-MA Mark would have never thought to ask: Under what circumstances is explicit grammar teaching justifiable?
I have taken on weekly “grammar workshops” for intermediate-to-advanced ESL students at the community college where I work. The students are self-selected from the final 3 semesters of the academic writing sequence which eventually lands them in Writing 1 with the NS students, and are usually a fairly broad mix of skill levels and stages of interlanguage development. Running these workshops is a lot of fun, as I can choose any grammar point and present it any way I like. The process of choosing has made me consider in a new light some of the things I’ve said in the past about grammar teaching.
Before that, I should point out that interlanguage development is often not a part of what makes an ESL student “advanced”. Self-editing, mostly as a function of explicit grammatical knowledge, is. The highest levels of ESL are not necessarily the most fluent or accurate in real time, especially in speech, but they are able to catch their errors at some point between rough and final drafts, understand a good amount of written vocabulary and recognize formal register. They have also encountered almost all the canonical “grammar points” that are part of ESL/EFL curricula at all levels formally at least once, including the hypotheticals, hedging techniques, and participial adjectives that have been the topics of some of my workshops thus far.
The fact that I’m working with advanced ESL students means that I, in theory at least, am not “presenting” material so much as focusing on form for grammar that they should already be using in almost-college-level reading and writing. In actuality, however, I am mostly re-presenting material that was first skyhooked in before they were ready, when they are slightly more ready. I am still front-loading grammar before I can be sure that their internal representations of English can make a home for it, but with the expectation that the metalinguistic presentation of this grammar should have at least a ring of familiarity. For most students, I am not exploring the reasons and relationships behind a way of putting words together that they’ve heard dozens of times before, which would be more current pedagogy. Instead, I am shoring up a bank (is that a mixed metaphor or a deliberate pun?) of explicitly formulated grammar knowledge that is meant to allow them to transfer to universities, where they will use that knowledge to deal with the huge quantities of high-level input. That is, I’m skyhooking in the anticipation of soon-to-come contextualizing input.
That means that my concerns are less “draw attention to patterns they’ve already seen but haven’t formally defined” and more “create entertaining and memorable lessons that have an incidental point”. I have to take a rain check on things like noticing (Schmidt, 1994 – I think I shall remember that one forever) and teaching in the Zone of Proximal Development and hope that months or years from now something will click and they’ll say to themselves, “oh, that’s what Mark was talking about”. That is why the lessons are rather heavy on memorable fluff and light on formal exploration of grammar – if I can’t find a place for my lesson to stick in their interlanguage, I need to find another way to make it stick through sheer entertainment until interlanguage catches up. I call this interlanguage punting. This is different from garden-variety skyhooking of grammar, which is more of a shot in the dark as far as usefulness for interlanguage development goes. In interlanguage punting, I have good reason to expect their interlanguage to catch up to the formally presented grammar fairly soon.
So I’ve come up with these guidelines for interlanguage punting:
- Lessons should be memorable. The rule for most of my classes is that if I don’t have their attention (on me, on their classmates, or on a task), I don’t have anything. In this case, if they don’t remember the lesson for years, they might as well forget it tomorrow. For example, I used the trolley problem in a class on causatives. The students might forget the word “causative”, but they will definitely remember choosing people to save and to kill in grammar class. (Or to the point of the lesson, people to cause to die or allow to die. My favorite quote from that class: “I’m not killing him; I’m preventing him from living more.”)
- A few good quotes that exemplify the grammar point, rather than an abstract pattern, should be students’ main grammatical takeaway. I think this is generally a good principle for teaching grammar, but is especially important as the time students are meant to remember the lesson grows. This principle is well-grounded in current SLA thinking: first, students care more about what their peers say in actual conversation than perfunctory characters say to illustrate correct grammar; and second, a memorable quote facilitates situated and chunked grammar (what a jargon-heavy phrase that is). A live, wild-caught specimen of grammar is better than an illustration in an encyclopedia. Again, I’m sure most students have forgotten my PowerPoint slides already or will forget them soon, but they’re unlikely to forget the student who said he/she would move back home if Trump won again (the topic of that class was hypotheticals).
- Because these should be points that will become salient to the students soon, it’s better to avoid issues of style that are purely matters of explicit knowledge even in native speakers. Issues like the subjunctive mood (which one of my textbooks for some reason lumps in with all other noun clauses), split infinitives, dangling participles and others that native-speaking pedants use as shibboleths should be left for another day. You want to avoid creating Frankenstudents whose explicit knowledge is better than most of their native-speaking peers while their interlanguage development languishes at pre-third-person-s levels.