Or is it… a bunch of teachers has taken my grammar test?
Why does the second sound so bizarre? Is the frequency with which we match apparent subjects like “a bunch” with “have” or “are” a lamentable pattern of grammatical laziness or is “bunch” just a special kind of word, rather than the noun it appears to be?
An interesting transition appears to have happened or be happening to English partitives and quantitatives, phrases like “a piece of”. Under certain circumstances, they seem to lose their grammatical class as noun phrases and are instead interpreted like adjectives, modifying a noun to come rather than being nouns themselves. You know the most common of these – “a lot of”, which appears to be a noun phrase with an indefinite article (“a”), a single noun (“lot”), and a prepositional phrase (“of ~”). In practice, “a lot of trees” is interpreted as a noun phrase about “trees”, not about a “lot”, which can see reflected in in the verb conjugations in sentences like “a lot of trees are in the park”, wherein “are” conjugates to match the plural noun “trees”. Needless to say, different noun phrases with a similar forms to “a lot of”, e.g. “a room with” or “a shot in”, are not treated this way – “a room with windows” is not a noun phrase about windows. I’ve never heard a sentence constructed like “a room with windows were open to let in the breeze” – have you?
You probably think I’m about to condemn a lot of the English teachers who took my survey for having bad grammar. No, I’m not. Instead, I’m about to propose a semi-regular change in grammatical class that most people’s (including my) notion of correct grammar hasn’t caught up with yet. I name this below the jump.
Here’s another of those posts where I try to slap a label on an ELT phenomenon I’ve noticed (Schmidt, 1994).
Translationism is the prioritizing of translation as a means of seeing and learning other languages. It is built on the assumption that different languages are sets of arbitrarily-differing tokens which refer to identical basic phenomena in the real world, and therefore that learning another language is a matter of matching the tokens from the L2 to the tokens from the L1 (tokens being lexis or grammar forms). It is more a result of slips in thinking or adherence to other ideologies than an ideology itself, but is common enough to warrant naming. Some of the ideologies that it results from are native-speakerism (NSism) and nationalism, which displace translationism when convenient for that ideology.
Disclaimer: Clearly, this post is sort of a holdover from my time in Japan, where I saw this ideology reflected in the approaches taken by both Japanese ELT and Japanese culture in general toward other languages. I don’t see as much of it in California and thankfully not in ESL. (To the contrary, I see ESL teachers, unhelpfully in my view, warning students against using bilingual dictionaries.) I have a feeling translationism is much more prevalent in EFL contexts, particularly ones in thrall to a national narrative that links the dominant ethnic group’s supposedly innate characteristics to its current culture and modes of expression. Maybe my blogging self misses living in a place like that and always having things to be outraged by.
What follows is a breakdown of types and effects of translationism. ご覧ください。
Dangling participles are less ambiguous than style manuals would have you believe. They are subject to the same basic rule that governs all modifiers – namely, that human readers with functioning representations of the real world will give them the most plausible interpretations and move on. At worst, they are just like a lot of adverbials or adjective clauses in that they could conceivably refer to multiple parts of the sentence. More often, danging participles in common use are essentially idioms with set meanings, whether or not they share a subject with the main clause. These are the ones you hear on the evening news – keep an ear out and you’ll catch quite a few.
I put together another survey after the last one to further investigate what may make a dangling participle seem more comprehensible or clear besides having the subject of the main clause as its subject. Specifically, I was interested in a few things that seemed to be the most common implied subjects, and whether using these reliably made a dangling participle more comprehensible than other implied subjects. My conclusion was not what I had expected.
I regard myself as the most professional when I’m acting in ways that are seen as vaguely unprofessional. Contrarily, if everyone from administration down to new students seems to be regarding me as a consummate professional with everything under control and nothing left to chance, I feel as if I must be doing something wrong.
Part of this is unambiguously a result of modern training in language teaching with all its student-centeredness, communicativity, and insistence on relevance to real needs. Not many teachers educated since the Krashen days see language teaching as a matter of verbally transmitting the rules of grammar. But students often want teachers who appeal to their conscious and rational minds, and teachers respect each other for their grasp of effete theory and ability to maintain control of a room. On the other hand, asking a class to generate discourse by itself or choose topics close to them, taking long stretches of class time simply to listen to students negotiate with each other, is seen by many students and some teachers as abandoning your professional authority and objectivity. Ironically, greater professional investment in the current field of TESOL, which correlates with greater commitment to student-centered norms, leads students and colleagues to expect to gain more from you simply by listening, leading to still more disappointment when you seem to cede the floor to someone still figuring out “are” and “is” (see Holliday’s Appropriate Methodology and Social Context for a specific example of this effect). Here, our training seems designed to disappoint anyone who comes into a classroom to “learn” in a traditional sense. I believe most language teachers come across this conundrum often in their careers, more if they lean heavily to the Dogme side of CLT and especially more if their students see didacticism as a sign of seriousness.
With fellow teachers too, I feel a need to have conversations go slightly awkwardly to confirm to myself that I am taking an appropriately circumspect distance from the norms of my field. Besides the list of expressions the ended one of my recent posts, I find that their are surprisingly few terms that language teachers use that I can accept exactly as intended, because I don’t think the term accurately describes what people usually take it as. For instance, one that came up in a bit of downtime discussion with a colleague in the language lab today was “grammar teaching” (which we agreed should always be surrounded by scare quotes). In my view, “teaching” can only practically mean doing the things that bring cause people to improve in the area whose noun premodifies “teaching”. E.g., “surfing teaching” most intuitively means teaching people skills relevant to being able to surf, not some other skill tangentially related to surfing, such as musculature or the physics of erosion. Since the endpoint we want to reach with students with respect to grammar is (mostly) unconscious application of the rules, such as they are, in real-time or at least real-world situations, how can we call the explicit teaching of grammar rules “grammar teaching”, when that is the thing we are all trained in our MA programs to know doesn’t demonstrably lead to that endpoint? I’m not convinced that my answer to this question is the only acceptable one, but I’m far less convinced that the term “grammar teaching” should be tossed about as if we all agreed that teaching metalanguage and focusing on formS were the way to go.
So when I hear someone use this arguably commonsense term, I often ask what they mean, which in professional language teaching situations is sort of the equivalent of a volleyball player asking what you mean when you say “serve”. I think I leave a lot of colleagues with the alternating impressions that I know a lot and that I don’t know anything (sometimes this impression requires little effort). I do this because I have professional pride in not taking terms and practices for granted, especially if they are as common as “grammar”. My unprofessional inability to smoothly carry on conversations on language teaching is a point of pride for me as a professional language teacher. As is my ability to recognize but not care about split infinitives.
In the classroom, there are ways to work around being seen as unprofessional, and they will placate some students. I found that with my ESL students last semester, if I took a significant piece of class time to explain (with reference to research) why I don’t see much merit in going through the grammar textbook chapter by chapter or stopping to explain every new word in a reading textbook written at the i^2 level, they would generally come along for the ride, bumps and all (as opposed to before, when what I thought were interesting tangents were generally seen as undisciplined diversions from the coursebook). And the bumps are much more important than a smooth but unremarkable ride. I tend to think that in a few years the bumps are all they’ll remember.
Ironically in a field (ideally) focused on creating unconscious and automatic mastery, I often feel I’m in the business of making memories, albeit memories of a particular type and as a scaffold for particular things I want them to know. If I don’t have their attention and they won’t remember what we did that day, I feel like I wasted their time, even if a random passerby peeking into the classroom would have seen something that strongly resembled “teaching”. I seldom find that the way to create memories is by rigorously following a PPP lesson plan (or “teaching grammar”). In order to fulfill my duties and see myself as a teacher, I sometimes need to look conspicuously unlike most people’s conception of one.
A few weekends ago I attended my second major CATESOL event, and I noticed a few more differences from my last teaching organization, JALT (the Japan Association For Language Teaching – yes, they capitalize “For”, meaning the acronym really should be JAFLT, or ジャフルト). I’ve come to notice what I think is a bit of a drawback to CATESOL’s highly dedicated and professional members. I’ll dance around it for a little before I finally get to it later on. Or maybe I’ll nestle it between body paragraphs so you’re not tempted to just skip to the bottom.
One thing you find when moving from one culture to another is that you frequently find yourself waiting for things that never happen, seeing social cues that are invisible to the rest of the population and waiting for a conditioned response that is curiously not forthcoming – a “bless you” after a sneeze, a door held open, or a formulaic conversation-ending phrase before your coworker leaves the break room. In CATESOL and in my first semester in ESL in California I’ve had this feeling very often. I keep expecting some hot-button topic to be mentioned, even gratuitously, and then it’s not. Or I expect the speaker to drop an author’s name just to let the audience know he/she knows his/her stuff, but he/she just moves on. In their place, sometimes things I’m not familiar with get name-dropped instead, or sometimes (this is most alienating) nothing happens at all. I find myself oddly unable to follow professional conversations in a natural way. Many conversations here seem like the first time I heard a telephone conversation in Japan, where nobody says “bye”, they just hang up when they’re done talking.
I’ve written down a few things I found myself waiting for and didn’t see – things that are conspicuously absent from my CATESOL/ESL experience. For reflection, I’ll follow them with some things that I hear regularly in CATESOL or ESL but I rarely or never heard in Japan or JALT. And for the record, I still haven’t lived in California for even half a year, so feel free to take my claims with as much salt as you need.
MIA in CATESOL
Native Speaker. I have heard this just once here, from another teacher from Japan. On the other hand, at least 2 of my superiors have been non-native speakers, and many more coworkers wouldn’t have fit the NST mold in Japan (i.e., they are not white). I have heard a bit about the advantages of learning from teachers who have experience learning English as adults, in that they understand where the students are coming from or are former ESL students themselves. Interestingly, this was not couched in a NST/NNST dichotomy, but rather the firsthand ESL experience of those teachers. I kept expecting the words “native” and “non-native” to be used, as they often were in Japan, to discuss the stereotyped strengths of the NST/NNST groups (in Japan, “foreign” and “Japanese”). Even more surprisingly, but I haven’t heard any talk of the supposed advantages of NSTs, whether for authenticity, correctness, or anything else. It’s almost as if people here believe that NS status isn’t as salient as qualifications or experience as a language teacher!
Interlanguage. This troubles me. The way I understand our profession, interlanguage is the ball we are always trying to move down the field, and everything else we do is just indirectly trying to do that. If I don’t hear any acknowledgment of interlanguage in discussions of what we do, I fear I may not understand the rules of the game we’re playing. By “acknowledgment of interlanguage” I mean recognizing that some aspects of students’ mental representations of English may have to come in a certain order (not the order that grammar textbooks present them in), that the representations we care most about aren’t always amenable to explicit teaching (i.e., “knowing” a rule won’t necessarily lead to its incorporation in IL), and that grammar terms are not necessarily the currency of the classroom, useful as they might be for other reasons. Way too often in CATESOL I hear people talk about “grammar teaching” as if its only possible form were “explaining grammar in metalanguage”, and “grammar syllabus” (or worse, “coursebook”) as a stand-in for “syllabus”. I see some indirect evidence that people think about IL, and in many cases it could just be that they think they’re too mundane to talk about. On the other hand, I’ve heard people dropping grammar terms as if they were celebrities they once met, and it seems taken for granted that lower-level courses are “grammar-based”. My brain threatens to abandon ship whenever someone describes lower-level ESL as “teaching basic grammar forms”.
I haven’t figured out what this lack of mentioning is evidence of, but a bit of open discussion on old staples input, intake, uptake, interaction, and natural order would go a long way toward putting my fears to rest. I feel a bit like I’ve been admitted to a prestigious medical school, but all I’ve heard discussed are 1) holistic ways to lengthen life and 2) the head bone’s connected to the (beat) neck bone.
Extensive Reading. I suppose this follows from the last one. A few colleagues at my current institution have talked about this, and I’ve heard rumors that it was once attempted. My school does in fact have almost a full bookshelf of graded readers (more if you include other languages), organized by one of the full-timers, so it may be ahead of the curve. I haven’t heard ER mentioned in presentations though, especially to the gratuitous degree it’s mentioned in JALT, even in presentations on totally different topics. To the contrary, I have seen a great many reading textbooks here, most intended for close reading as a class, with the more unfamiliar vocabulary the better. My fear is that the lack of concern for interlanguage is what drives the lack of focus on ER, or that people are making assumptions about their students’ exposure to English outside the classroom (potentially obviating the need for a focus on input in the classroom) that aren’t coming true. See next point.
Free conversation. This is generally a term of abuse in SLA, and many people would take it as a sign of quality that ESL teachers seem to avoid it. However, and this surprised me as much as anything about ESL, most teachers here also seem to understand that their students remain ensconsed in their L1 communities when not in the classroom. This being the case, and considering how infrequent cases of successful L2 acquisition that include no unscripted interaction are, we really ought to look for ways to actively encourage free conversation, even at the expense of stuff that is actually in the curriculum. I recognize that not everyone is willing to jump on the Dogme train (another term I haven’t heard in SoCal – Dogme, not train. Actually, train too) but if our students have little to no interaction, negotiation, opportunity for recast, etc. on subjects of their choosing, and instead have 5 hours of controlled grammar practice per week, we’re sacrificing probably the most important predictor of L2 learning for something 4th or 5th on the list. It seems very odd to me that teachers can see how close many of their students’ day-to-day lives are to EFL rather than ESL and continue to focus on form as if input and interaction were taken care of.
To recap, my main concern is that the lack of IL discussion that I’ve seen evinces a lack of knowledge about what really builds L2 competence, and that grammar books and dense reading activities have filled the gap that that knowledge should occupy. Again, some people seem to talk in a way that implies IL is a central concern and simply haven’t used the word, which is fine – they don’t feel a need to name-drop it. The thing is, I’m not convinced everyone is on the same page where this is concerned, as evidenced by the abundance of synthetic syllabi and grammar jargon. Many folks seem to think that their job is explaining English grammar, and that this will result in students being able to use it. I hope to be proven wrong.
On the other hand…
行方不明 (whereabouts unknown) in JALT
Credit/non-credit. By this term I mean the distinction between classes which lead to transfer and those that don’t. I’m willing to chalk some of my opinions on this topic in Japan to the fact that I spent almost all my career there teaching at my own school and later to non-English-majors at university. However, I’m convinced that almost all ELT in Japan is low-stakes, and no discussions on credit/non-credit classes are a symptom of this. Let me qualify that – almost all ELT that conforms at all to international norms is low-stakes, because ELT that is not test-prep is almost by definition irrelevant. If you are doing anything other than helping students cram in pretertiary settings, you are giving your students more “cultivation” and “character” than real opportunity to advance in society. The apparent lack of communicative English in the public school systems is a bit more complicated than I’m making it seem here (briefly, the high-stakes tests most parents think they’re preparing their kids for by teaching them grammar-translation don’t actually have much or any grammar-translation on them), but the point is that 20th-21st century approaches to SLA like CLT are on the losing half of a “serious/unserious” dichotomy, grammar-translation being cartoons from the New Yorker and CLT being Larry the Cable Guy. If you want to be treated as a professional, teach like it’s 1890.
JALT, an organization aligned much more with international ELT than Japanese public education, has a membership who sees grammar-translation as stone-age pedagogy (which sometimes makes it appear to old-fashioned grammar teachers as a professional organization of unprofessionals). Its ranks are full of highly intelligent and passionate teachers working in stigmatized “oral communication” classes, desperate for their work to be taken seriously. As with a lot of ELT in Japan, the closeness to international norms of any teacher’s approach seems inversely proportional to the seriousness with which society takes them. If you are a JALT member, your greatest achievements with your students are almost invisible to the machinery of social advancement.
In contrast, “credit” teaching in community colleges in the US is playing for keeps – you’re teaching students who more often than not plan to transfer to American universities, and the skills they get with you help them in immediate ways. What they get with your help will lead them to get along better with their classmates, make sense of a lecture, or understand what exactly about the latest Trump quote everyone is so alarmed/amused about within the very near future, not on some hypothetical far-off study abroad or business trip. Even “non-credit” students still have to live here, and in my experience are motivated in a way that seems less conducive to narrow-minded grammar study. If you teach in Japan you’ll have a few students who need English to achieve their heartfelt goals, and make inspiring use of their language skills – but my point is that if you teach ESL, they’ll be the majority in every class.
I don’t mean to say that ELT in Japan would be improved by the addition of more credit classes – but the prevalence of discussions of “credit/non-credit” classes in ESL (along with various other terms you hear bandied about, like “SLOs” and “transfer”) shows how much edifice is built around the idea that people in the US really need English education.
Immigrants get it done
As I said in an earlier post, a whiff of desperation and a nagging feeling of inadequacy can sometimes be a great motivator. Maybe teachers in Japan are overcompensating with their high-minded discussions of when output leads to noticing the gap, but their students are almost definitely better off for it – even if the circumstances that produced such passion for the details of SLA are unhealthy overall. Also, maybe being somewhat isolated socially, particularly from the norms of ELT in Japan (which, again, date back to the advent of village horticulture in the Yayoi period) allows JALT members not to be co-opted as much by an industry that would much prefer you just use a coursebook than plan tasks or have conversations.
I realize now one of the most essential aspects of JALT – it is composed of immigrants and deviants. The NSTs in JALT are mostly members of racial and cultural minorities, and the Japanese JALT folks are people who like to hang out with visible minorities. They would not blend in in a crowd of average citizens and gain little social capital from their careers. Of course they lack the youthful energy of CATESOL; very few of them went straight from their BA to grad school and then right into teaching. I suspect most of them (like me) had years of teaching experience before they got their first qualification. They also have an immigrant’s healthy skepticism of mainstream culture; a decades-old tradition of teaching one particular way has no meaning to an immigrant NST. They have little use (or little chance of establishing) institution identities around their places of work; they need professional identities established among other people with shared experience and expertise to take pride in their work.
Maybe I’m romanticizing the immigrant experience in Japan a bit. Still, I think “institutionalization” is my new favorite word for capturing the differences I’ve felt between CATESOL and JALT.
Appendix: Phrases that causes my jejunum to undulate violently
“when you get to that point in the curriculum”
“the present simple” (particularly in Chapter One of a grammar textbook)
“master a grammar point and continue on to the next one”
“reduced adjective clause”
“_________ clause” (when spoken to a beginning learner)
“know the meaning exactly” (meaning “know the accepted translation in Japanese”)
My old tutor has taken the bold step of defending the veracity of the NS/NNS (native speaker/non-native speaker) dichotomy. Why bold? Well, NS/NNS is to ELT what male/female and white/black (or white/non-white) are to the social sciences. That is, the implications, interpersonal and political, of the dichotomies are so reviled that their underlying reality ends up becoming toxic by association, and people end up denying the empirical existence of those categories altogether. In such an environment, asserting that male/female, white/black, or NS/NNS are even scientifically justifiable categorization schemes puts one in the position of speaking against the vast majority of one’s peers, which seems, yes, bold.
It looks like I’m going to take the conventional position here of defending my tutor and others who take similar stances on other issues as put-upon whistleblowers who just want to stand up for an unpopular truth, but it’s quite a bit more complicated than that. As it turns out, in some cultures (like this one), such positions frequently result in one being valorized as an intellectual martyr for pushing back against a stifling, politically correct consensus, making it tempting for a minority of commentators on any given topic to claim the “underdog truth-teller” ground and start getting invited to speak at universities just for being perceived as a rare straight arrow in topsy-turvy academia. This is despite the fact that if 99 experts out of 100 believe one thing and the last believes something else, the one should be deemed less likely to be right than the 99, not equally or even more likely (is this related to the phenomenon wherein as the odds of winning the lottery decrease, people focus more on and overestimate more the likelihood that they will win?). Also, the unconventional opinion being celebrated is often suspiciously close to the cherished beliefs of reactionary and conservative elements in society. If you’re obnoxious enough in your determination to offend the progressive consensus, you might even get called a “gadfly” or “provocateur”, terms which like “curmudgeon” seem to indicate a type of backwardness that we are obligated to find charming. The iconoclast is a role that many people would be happy to play.
I know my tutor better than that; he doesn’t endorse blanket favoritism of NS teachers based on their supposed innate qualities, nor does every evolutionary psychologist interested in biological sex think that men and women communicate differently because of gender roles in hunter-gatherer society, or every social scientist who includes race among his/her variables think that IQ might be tied to skin tone. But many people take the cultural cachet surrounding the consensus-challenger and the thread of empiricism in these categorizations and tie to it weighty bundles of prejudice, folk wisdom, and plain assumption. That is, they use the role of the gadfly in challenging apparent ridiculousness at the far left to on-the-sly reassert regressive principles. Under the pretense of stating clear facts, they Morse-code their chauvinistic political beliefs. Telling someone that you believe that white and black are different races is oddly out of place unless it is taken to signify something of much more salience, analogous to how mentioning an applicant’s great hairstyle and friendly demeanor in a letter of recommendation sends a very clear message to that applicant’s detriment. I’m not just saying that ordinary people are statistically illiterate and not strong enough critical thinkers to understand where the salience of these categories stops, and therefore that they mistake the significance of mentioning them. The categories are the mastheads on vast memeplexes concerning “innate” differences, and accepting the categories reliably conveys the message that you endorse their usual hangers-on as well.
This is partly because people reliably can’t parse nuanced messages (like “NSs exist but NSism is wrong”), yes, but it’s also because time spent defending the categorizations rather than fighting against the various injustices that accompany them is a statement of one’s priorities. By defending the categorizations you reliably affirm stereotypes associated with them by 1) taking part in a known code that believers in stereotypes use, and 2) signalling by omission that the categories have greater importance to you than the injustices that follow them.
Now to cut my tutor a break again, the NS/NNS distinction is much more to the heart of our field of study than gender or racial differences are in any of the contexts you often hear them discussed. A lot of what we actually choose to do or have our students do in the classroom absolutely depends on whether we think they can learn English the same we that we did, i.e. mostly implicitly. This makes the NS/NNS distinction worth discussing without implications for who should be teaching them. In my mind, the NS teacher/NNS teacher distinction is an artifact of how we assume that those teachers were themselves trained, and has hugely diminished in apparent significance since we moved from Japan to California. On the other hand, not many news readers hearing how people of African descent are more likely to have sickle-cell anemia have any practical use for that information. HR interviewers have much less need for information on gender differences (in any skill) than they might think. If you hear the subject of innate differences between two types of people mentioned in most common conversational contexts, you are probably hearing a real-time misapplication of mental resources. This extends, by the way, to discussions of NS and NNS teachers.
If the categories are as durable as I and many others think, they will survive a period of neglect while we focus on addressing the many problems the hangers-on of these categories have produced. I don’t even see a need here to define what I mean by affirming their empirical existence; presumably anyone reading this and my other posts on race (try “Search”) knows I think part of the socially constructed meanings of these categories is that they are supposed to be objectively real (and therefore very important and unchangeable), but that doesn’t mean that their real-world effects are limited to “hurt feelings” – or that no part of them is objectively real. Merely mentioning them in this post is sure to invite insinuations that I think they mean more than I do. I just mean to say that if “innate differences” really are innate, they will stick around and continue to have whatever effects they do even if we don’t take bold stands defending them.
I have a new project that I enjoy and I think my students will enjoy, but I have trouble fitting into any known theory of language learning.
A few things make me feel like this is something other than a pure hobby. I know some kinds of students, mostly my former students in Japan who loved manipulation of abstract systems and perfunctory tokens, who will enjoy playing with it, and this provides me some comfort. Many ESL departments at universities and community colleges in California also seem to spend money on software packages which are similarly grammar-McNugget-oriented and only slightly less contrived in their examples, and they may show an interest in something like this if I can make it a bit more tailored to the grammar books I know they use (for instance, by putting all the passives in one place and the hypotheticals right after the basic if clauses). For the moment though, it is a showy jalopy that I spend a lot of time working on but can barely get me to the supermarket.
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.
“Student-centeredness” is a word whose weight is much greater than its clarity. It carries very high value for signalling one’s dedication to teaching without saying almost anything about how one teaches. It is a high-value token in the currency of a country no one can name.
As such, it invites co-opting. Any teacher can describe his or her style as “student-centered” and reap the benefits using that word by appearing serious and dedicated, while simply describing the way he or she has always taught and would teach even if they had never heard that word. This seemingly selfish guiding of the definition of the word doesn’t have to be conscious; the term is defined flexibly enough that any teacher could hear it and think, “That’s what I do! I had no idea I was so forward-thinking”. As long as there is at least one student in the room (or the CMS), almost any teaching style could feasibly be called “student-centered”.
It shares that imbalance between rhetorical power and precise definition with “fake news”. Some people define “fake news” as news that reports objective lies, others as news that frames stories in ways that guide the audience toward an ideological objective, others as news that works against what they see as American interests. Depending on one’s definitions of the words “fake” and “news” (also “American interests”), any of these are plausible interpretations of the two of them put together.
Putting aside the flagrant attempt to tie this idea to today’s news, I have attempted to categorize four interpretations of “student-centeredness” that I’ve seen in my first month as an adjunct ESL instructor at a community college as well as in my career in Japan.
(Incidentally, ESL teachers are especially equipped to see through the top-shelf word choice of “adjunct” as opposed to “part-time” when referring to inessential staff: “adjunct” in grammar refers to a word or phrase after a verb that is not part of its argument structure, like “on the table” in “put the bowl down on the table”. I.e., it is a part that is usually expendable.)
Some instructors are very dedicated to giving the students what they want. In my classes, my students want me to pick the chapters from our reading textbook (the book itself being a concession in my mind) and read through them line by line, explaining the content in detail. I tell them every new unit that I’m not going to do that, but many instructors are happy to, and if asked would probably justify it with reference to “student-centeredness” in that they are giving the students what they very clearly ask for.
If you read this blog on and off, or just if you got your MA within the last 20 years, you’ll know that I don’t think that this serves the students’ real interests. It does, however, give the students the dignity of choosing their own way of studying and treats them as rational actors whose wishes and educational cultural norms need to be respected. That sounds student-centered to me.
On the other hand, some teachers show their respect for students by assuming that they have the resourcefulness and dedication to work through difficulties on their own. This often takes the form of the teacher enjoining the students to work hard and never give up, often in the place of offering the kind of explanation or class work that would obviate the need to work quite so much. Like the above definition of “student-centeredness”, it strives to treat the students as independent rational actors. Unlike the above, it places the burden of improvement much more on the student’s rather than the teacher’s contributions than in “traditional” education in most countries, and is likely to result in wildly different contributions from each student than passive reception of information. In that sense respects their independence as well.
I call this “outsourced student-centeredness” simply because it makes learning the student’s responsibility rather than the teacher’s. If that implies that the teacher is shirking his/her duties, I believe teachers who teach this way would say that giving students a sense of responsibility is their biggest duty of all.
Anecdotally, there is a strain of teaching traditional arts in Japan that places all of the onus for improvement on the student, while the teacher is mostly there to provide proof that success is possible, as well as discipline and structure. This fine article by Neil Cowie explains how this affects some language teachers’ class styles as well. It is conspicuously absent for the most part from the language classroom, for better or worse.
I once put the topic of student-centered teaching forward to a JHS English teacher who was coming to me for conversation classes. She described her classes as student-centered in that she always did her best to help her students succeed and stuck around to answer questions or just be there for them after class. From what I understand, this view of student-centeredness as doing everything to help students to succeed in a system with preset rules and goals, as well as helping them with life in general, is widely held in Japan. The view that language education should be highly personalized at the level of content was not.
This is a feasible motivating strategy as well; students (and their parents) greatly appreciate a teacher whose goals are aligned with their own and who they feel will help them contribute to an ongoing life project. In Japan, the goals (university) and means (attentive and diligent study) implied by this project are shared by almost all of the stateholders and gatekeepers in mainstream education, and teachers are expected to be selfless in their dedication to helping students succeed. Students see teachers’ dedication and reciprocate. At least, that is the ideal.
For many teachers this dedication extends to helping them cope with the strenuous demands that the testing regime places on them by being a confidant or playing counselor. These are still, after all, mostly scared teenagers. The teacher that I talked to saw friendly rapport before and after lessons as part and parcel of a humane, student-centered education in the context of a high-pressure academic environment.
If you pay attention to trends in education, this one will be familiar to you. The theory goes: attention is the currency of the classroom, and nothing elicits attention like talking about yourself. Talking about your peers is a close second, and talking about the teacher a distant third. Nobody cares about the made-up characters in a textbook. Student-centeredness to teachers under 35 or so (or who got their certificates/degrees later in life, like me) re-orders content so that abstract principles and mass-produced materials go from near synonymity with course goals to hindrances or signs that your course outline isn’t sufficiently modern.
I assume most of you already agree with changing content and class style to give students more chances to co-construct knowledge (I normally balk at using words like that, but here they honestly seem like the best description of what I want to say). I will just say though that none of that is obvious to teachers who only encounter these terms in passing and tries to find a home for them in the ELT world as he/she understands it. As with fake news and its ability to describe almost any news the speaker wishes to paint as bad, the phrase “student-centered” can be applied to things already within any teacher’s repertoire.
This post will draw somewhat heavily on Markus and Nurius’ (American Psychologist 41, 1986) possible selves, which I mostly learned about via Dörnyei. Briefly, the ideal self is the best possible future version of yourself according to your own goals, the ought self is judged well by one’s peers and works to avoid shame and other negative outcomes, and the feared self is a failed, to-be-avoided future self, the opposite of the ideal self.
What coworkers from your career do you see as role models?
A lot of the teachers I worked with seemed to have something like professional Shark Syndrome (which may or may not have a real name in psychology), in which a need to always be in forward motion propels them to devote every weekend to professional development, and every Facebook post is from a train or plane en route to some international TESOL convention or another. I actually don’t see this as realistic for people who (hope to) have families, or even friends, but their level of commitment to PD and to each other is inspiring. Unlike me with my occasional metal posts, every thought that occupies their minds seems to be a reflection on practice or a new lesson idea.
The presence of coworkers and fellow ELT writers around me tends to cattle-prod me into following a similar path at least some of the time, leading me to do things like publish, make presentations, familiarize myself with common jargon, change the toner in the copy machine, etc. more than I normally would. This effect seems to me much bigger than providing a role model in the same way as my high school teachers, possibly because my relationship to them was quite different and I’m seeing high school through 20 years of rose-colored fog (per recent EPA research findings, this is not a mixed metaphor).
As such, my coworkers usually inform my ought self rather than my ideal self, in that I associate my interactions with them more with the minor feeling of panic that comes from not keeping up than with feelings of wanting to be just like them when I grow up. The fear of not understanding some term (often an acronym, MBOH) that my coworkers are apparently all familiar with, or not having read some book or attended some conference strikes me as more characteristic of my interactions with other teachers.
This is in addition to the actual job requirements of knowing how to use that district’s chosen LMS, how they fill out time cards, what medical checks are necessary to begin working, how assessment is required to be conducted, and what acronyms the district mandates we use for things like “wrong preposition before indirect object” (WPBIO). These threaten not just my ought self but my employed self.
Of course, doing all the PD and training that my ought self tells me to do is responsible for most or all of the career growth I’ve experienced, so I do owe my coworkers a lot for letting my ought self facilitate my ideal self. It’s hard to be an inspirational and universally lauded senior tenured faculty member if you don’t know the procedure for adding and dropping students.
As for a feared self, the prospect of resigning myself to a lifetime of teaching uninterested students while my superiors only grudgingly tolerate my presence because they need Native Speakers, while making payments on a 30-year mortgage on a house that is never comfortable to be in except when I’m in front of my computer complaining about my life functions for me as a skeleton in a cage hanging at a crossroads. Yes, I’ve seen shades of this in coworkers before and I shall be sure never to set foot on that path (again). That is the feared self I hope I left behind when I quit my Japanese university gig.
For Californian ESL, my feared self is only just now starting to take shape, but he looks to be a functionary of the credit system, a servant of the district-wide synthetic syllabus funneling reams of immigrants through an established program readying them for transfer, relegating high-minded notions of interlanguage development to the trash heap of the un-rigorous and un-academic. Check in periodically to see if I’ve managed to stave this boogeyman off.
What about students?
Well, students don’t usually represent any of my possible selves as a teacher of course, but certain types of students are associated with the types of people I imagine interacting with as my possible selves.
(Actually, a few students of mine have been teachers themselves, and they were admirable in their willingness to continue learning their subject matter. What stops me from considering them inspirations for me are the motivations they had for coming to me. In one student’s case, she saw her classes with me as hobby-like, completely irrelevant to the mandatory English classes she taught at a local (Japanese) JHS. The fact that she made this distinction speaks to the problem-to-rule-all-problems in Japanese ELT, the dichotomy of “communication/eikaiwa vs. grammar/eigo“, which rules that education from NESTs is a priori inapplicable to the serious business of public schooling. In her mind, I taught the former to hobbyists and she taught the latter to real students. Actually, this describes my problems with the second JHS teacher I taught as well, although in her case “communication English” wasn’t even a hobby, just a cosmetic concern for her application essays for the EAP programs that she needed to graduate college with a teacher’s license.)
Anyway, some other students have greatly informed the choices I make in teaching milieux these days, as I imagine what types of students I may interact with in those schools and how closely they will conform to my “greatest student hits” of the past.
I’ve had students who from day one embraced communicative methods and were able to draw discrete points from indiscrete (hmmm…) presentation, building a rich statistical and formal interlanguage system. Until 2012, I didn’t know what “focus on form” was anyway, and my students who succeeded with me up till then mostly had to make do with either grammar classes or communication. Demographically, these were generally socially deviant but intelligent people who were actively trying to succeed at a common goal through alternative methods, i.e. eigo innovators (see the strain theory post above). Nowadays, I would incorporate more formal grammar into classes like those that we had, but these early encounters showed me what my MA would later feature as a major theme, that language learning must be a process of building implicit knowledge through some means, and purely implicit methods can be one of them.
On the other hand, I’ve had students who really needed the trappings of teacher-centeredness in order to feel comfortable in the classroom, and were quite eager to absorb formal grammar, practice it, and try to incorporate it into a living interlanguage system. That sounds like I’m describing “all Japanese students”, but in actuality most students in Japan skip the 2nd and 3rd steps. Sometimes, this yielded fruit in the form of insights that were worth having and probably couldn’t have come about but through metalinguistic means. The most memorable example of this for me is when a hobbyist English learner in her 60s articulated the difference between 「ほとんど」hotondo and “almost” in terms I hadn’t heard before, that hotondo was fundamentally a positive word while “almost” was a fundamentally negative one. I think this kind of summary can only come from a lot of conscious reflection on language, not merely acquisition.
Addendum: Since I started writing this post I’ve realized that a lot of my ESL students are completely starting their two-decade educations over. That is, they sometimes have advanced degrees from countries that US universities don’t recognize, and are essentially doing university and graduate school all over again in a new language. Until now I’ve been almost entirely teaching people who had less education than I do. Teaching this new (to me) demographic of student is inspiring and humbling. It still doesn’t inform my ideal self but certainly tells my ought self to do a good job.
What other people have directly influenced your classroom style?
I’ve been very influenced by the evolutionary arguments against “traditional” classroom styles, the type that point out that it’s totally unintuitive for us to sit quietly with non-kin, face the same direction, and listen to someone 5-20 meters away impart information verbally for hours at a time. Some people have the knack for doing this, but most of us don’t, and it’s absurd for us to make it a prerequisite for all academic success from age 7 onward. Like the printed word, it seems justifiable mostly for the neat bell curve it produces in achievement, which makes sorting students into careers relatively simple, not for being the most effective means to put ideas into the heads of millions of people at the same time. So being a good critical thinker, I have to consider other contexts in which people put themselves in these unintuitive circumstances, and wonder why they would seem to do so happily, even paying for the privilege, in certain cases.
One of these is stand-up comedy. Almost every argument one could make about “traditional” education could also be made about comedy, and sort of has been made by Louis CK. People sit for hours with strangers listening to another stranger. Yet they not only pay attention but pay money in order for the privilege to pay attention.
The point is, transmission-style education isn’t a sin if you really can hold people’s attention and bring them on a journey with you. Even if it’s not immediately relevant to their lives, there is power in rhetoric and public speech that can negate all the artifice of the “traditional” classroom.
That said, if you adopt that teaching style and DON’T keep the students’ attention, you’ve failed just as much as a comedian who can’t get a laugh.