Wednesday, January 24, 2007

template theory

For want of a better name, template theory is a name I'm giving my ideas about grammar and grammar-learning. Namely, that in order to be successful, students must have templates in their minds, of grammatical structures (this applies to other things as well). For example, they may say to themselves, I make an adjective clause like this: He is a man who likes Elvis Presley.

When they construct these templates, they need sentences and parts that are clear and unambiguous. This is no time for a word that can be either a noun or a verb. By constructing templates of different grammatical structures, using clear and unambiguous parts, they eventually are able to plug other parts into the same positions and make more complex sentences, and in particular sentences that will carry meaning and be useful in the particular situations they are in.

On the basis of this theory I am constructing my present editing class (full of high-level people with massive grammatical problems; nonetheless friendly, well-meaning, generous and considerate students)- largely (increasingly) out of template-style questions, such as:

___ 1. I always delay
a. do my laundry
b. to do my laundry
c. to doing my laundry
d. doing my laundry

___ 2. That Carbondale
a. is boring obvious
b. boring is obvious
c. is boring is obvious
d. is boring obviously

I give (and will give) quizzes such as these frequently, in hopes of providing students with templates that they can then use to construct successful sentences later. Another reason I do it is that they like them and seem to learn a lot from them; more, probably, than from constructed grammar exercises. Ultimately I'd like to put them on the web.

The Azar series* split the grammar world in half- the world of teachers. Students clearly and in huge numbers loved the book and never in my experience preferred other books to it. Some teachers despised it because its contrived, simple vocabulary was not realistic or applied to their world. I preferred it because I could always provide the situations and sentences that my students wanted to talk about, but when I had to explain grammar, clear and unambiguous parts (words that everyone knew; words that were clearly N, ADJ, V or ADV) were most useful in getting them to understand what was going on. The rules of grammar actually aren't all that complicated, in spite of what people say and believe about them, but the dazzling way English uses crossover words (words like use or record that can have several functions) is very confusing, and hasn't gone unnoticed by the TOEFL (which statistically likes crossover words because they tend to separate the flexible language users from the rigid rule-learners)...

Perhaps you see what I'm getting at. Years and years of watching students study for the TOEFL too early, get wrapped up in things that are over their heads, and be unable to make useful templates because the tools they have are not stable or unambiguous, and they don't know that by looking at it- this has led me to believe that unravelling a falsely or poorly constructed image of what the language should look like, may in some cases be necessary, before constructing
, with solid parts, a solid version.

When I was learning Korean, I had an incident which I have recounted somewhere, but can't find at the moment. I yelled at a young child to be careful; he was about to step into a manhole because he was staring at me (a westerner with a beard) rather than watch where he was going. A nearby old-timer upbraided me for using a more formal form (cho-shim-ha-se-yo) for a child rather than the proper form for a lowly sprite (cho-shim hae) - at first I was taken aback, because I thought perhaps he should be more grateful, that I had saved a kid quite a bit of pain. Nevertheless I learned "kid-form" Korean from that experience and went on to address some young children the very next day based on the fact that a proper form (clear, unambiguous, useful) had been branded into my brain by the old man.

Now here's another interesting example. When you dream, your mind often dredges up some old person or experience, something from your past, and you wake up saying, why did I dream about that? In short, your mind has chosen certain things to represent certain other things. For example, you may use a swimming pool to represent fear; it's at the top of the fear drawer. Some experience way back made the pool the most salient occupant of the fear drawer, and made you file other fear symbols (gun, firecracker, chainsaw) over by the swimming pool. When your mind needs a symbol of fear for a dream it's working on, the pool is the most obvious first choice though it may pick any of the other things in the file if the pool won't work for its purposes. Catch my drift? The mind is constructing a world that it uses for its own purposes.

This theory when applied to language learning, I believe, would be called constructivist; I am not the first to invent it. I haven't read too much about it but would definitely consider myself to be in that school. How my method compares to that of people in this school, I wouldn't know. I'm approaching it from more of a practical angle: I have this class; they're interested in this; we should do what they like; we should use things they can relate to. Added to that, you put these things in quiz form, the competitive juices start flowing, and they really want to get it right. Which they should, always, anyway. To me, though, calling a class "Advanced Editing" is an opportunity- to say, this matters, you can get it right, which is best, a, b, c or d- and why? What are the parts? And what simple sentence can you relate this to?

This last question is the key to template theory- and the key to successful teaching- of grammar, anyway.

And, to the people who say they're going to get this stuff on their own, construct it, by themselves, as they live and function in the world, I'll say, yeah, as long as somebody is feeding them, changing their diaper, putting them in the car, and letting them or making them watch movies as much as they want every day for at least 1-4 years. As long as they have enough input to actually recognize and choose the clear and unambiguous parts to build their templates. And this, I believe, has been a problem for my adult students.

*ESL shorthand: the Azar series refers to Betty Azar's Fundamentals of English Grammar, and particularly the famous blue book, and more famous "Betty boxes" that are used to explain grammar points. Teachers have been known to copy, cut & paste these boxes right out of this book- I am grateful to Betty, by the way (a St. Louis native, now living in Washington State) for her active role in putting bread on my table all these years.



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