Saturday, September 13, 2008

all grammar, all the time

I'm lucky in the sense that something I'm passionate about is something I see playing out in my classrooms, day in and day out. I'm referring to grammatical acquisition, or lack thereof, and the fact that my students, all adults, all free, pretty much, of outside concerns like survival or getting basic provisions, are willing, interested, and eager to do whatever I/we tell them. So why, after about a year in our program, do they get to the top, and still have weak grammar? This was a question I was asking myself as I taught highest-level writing just months ago. Then, voila, I was given an AE2 (level 4/middle) grammar class; this term, I was given it again; and, this time, it was made more or less clear to me that, since the system was not working well as is, and is likely to be changed, a little experimenting would be tolerated.

The class starts with Chapter 13 of the blue Azar book (adj. clauses), moves through 17-19 (adv. clauses), back to 12 (noun clauses) and hits 16 & 20 if it has time, which it rarely does. It skips 14 & 15 (gerunds & infinitives are in there) and other stuff. Basically, they had to make decisions and try to hit the most important stuff. In a single class at a single level, between 35 and 45 hours in a term, one flies through, gives students practice if possible, tests heavily on what one is doing, puts oral practice in there, and then, when transferred to the higher level, notices that the system doesn't work well. Other programs (ours is not the only one with grammar issues) integrate grammar completely into the other classes; that obviously would be a possibility for us too, and may in fact happen soon. Or, they use books that are less banal than Azar, in hopes that students will start seeing grammar in their everyday lives more, and acquire it faster. Students continue to like Azar, partly because they are so familiar with it, but they have mastered the art of taking tests from it, without actually learning grammar. And that's the heart of the problem.

So, here's my experiment, given that I haven't given up on the book yet, and also am not going to change the curriculum overnight: a series of 12-pt. quizzes, that cover all grammar, all the time. Simple a-b-c-d multiple choice, but one is right and the other three are common, but wrong. I crank them out, because people like them, yet in my class they also fear them, because in fact, their grammar is bad. They miss not only what they were supposed to have covered, last term, but also gerunds & infinitives, stuff they never covered and never will. My attitude at first was, after they pass my level, which many will, they won't have another grammar class, they'll only have writing. If I at least show them what they don't know, they can then at least go look it up before they leave. When I found out they didn't know what they were supposed to have covered already, either, I widened it out. I covered last term's stuff, last week's stuff, gerunds & infinitives, and some advanced but everyday, important stuff- all in each quiz. All grammar, all the time.

I have a wide range of grammar skills in this particular class- people who are very good, who have nothing to fear from any of these quizzes, basically, and people who know almost nothing, intimidated by all of it. And one problem for the latter is that we now have to fly through the regular course material, because we occasionally get bogged down on the answers to the frequent all-grammar quizzes. But, and this is far more important for me, I have people sitting on the edge of their seats, every day. Even the good ones. And everyone is learning, all the time, at whatever level they happen to be at- although some are learning only the basic stuff, and feeling totally overwhelmed by everything else.

My feeling was that a system that lulled them into believing that passing a Ch. 13 exam was learning the right chunk of the total picture, and was learning enough, was basically deceiving them, because it wasn't showing them the whole range of what there was and what they didn't know. And even then, the chapter 13 exam was happening in isolation- here was a whole exam with nothing but adjective clauses- so, since every sentence had that in common, it became easier to spot and master the quirks of adjective clauses. It's quite a different story when a given sentence might have any of dozens of issues- as the TOEFL proves every time. So, as it happened, classes of students getting 90's on chapter 13 exams wasn't translating into those same classes getting good TOEFL scores, or even mastering adjective clauses, even two terms later and more in many cases. Of course, there could have been many other reasons: students not hearing or using enough language in the rest of their program, for example; or, in the rest of their lives; copies of old tests getting out, i.e. students having taken pictures of the exams with their cell phones, etc. Without dwelling on the possible problems, I only knew: something had to change.

My philosophy was based partly on a book I got wrapped around in the early eighties called At the Point of Need by Marie Wilson Nelson. I've mentioned it before (click the writing tag); I'm about to request it again at the library (it lives somewhere "up north" - Normal, maybe, though she taught in Chicago, maybe)...and it's a classic, in it's own way. The title will tell you basically how she feels about when people acquire stuff.

At the heart of acquisition is that it happens in the context of everything that students are seeing, hearing, saying and writing- it happens as part of an overall picture, of which the grammar teacher is only a small part. I can't, myself, be entirely responsible for their grammatical skills at the top, even if I take over the whole grammar program, do it my way, change books, do all quizzes, or whatever. But on the other hand, I'm done walking into a grammar class and saying, we're going to do these pages today, and it doesn't matter if you've mastered it, or if it's way over your head, or wherever you are in the big picture, because all we are going to talk about is pages 113-118. My new philosophy is: all grammar, all the time. You want to know, I'll tell you. Or, you can go look it up, since Azar is the perfect book to do that, it'll explain it, without vocabulary getting in the way. And tomorrow, guess what? All grammar, all the time. Read 'em & weep.

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