I promised to let some of my professional beliefs fly around for you to shoot at.

Here are half a dozen rather disconnected thoughts to start with (more in the next blog). I'll be interested to know how far you agree or disagree, and why.

1 We should beware of anything called 'The … method' or 'The … approach'. This may well focus on some important things, but it will leave other important things out.

2 Adults don't learn languages like small children. It's not our job to recreate the conditions of first-language acquisition in the classroom; our job is to compensate for their absence.

3 Perfectionism is generally disastrous in language teaching. Students need to be reasonably accurate (how accurate depends on their purposes). But if we insist on correcting and re-correcting all their mistakes, we're making a very big mistake ourselves.

4 Many teachers do too much grammar, for all sorts of bad reasons. And many teachers do too little grammar, for all sorts of bad reasons. (What might these reasons be?)

5 Students have mother tongues, and there are times when it's extremely helpful to use or refer to them.

6 If you get right through your lesson plan, something's gone wrong.

 

Michael's now finished his period as our Guest Writer - many thanks to all of you who contributed to the discussion on his blog.

Comments

Hi Michael Here are some of my thoughts to some of the points you've raised: 1. I think we are now in the era of ELT eclecticism where a little bit of everything converges into one- in one single lesson we might borrow from various methods and approaches e.g. 'a find someone who' as a warmer (Behaviourism), a reading task followed by focus on phrases (TBL and Lexical Approach), drilling to practise pronunciation (Audiolingualism) and a group discussion to round off (Communicative Approach). I even sound prescriptive labelling activities thus, since an activity may straddle a number of different "approaches". This is definitely one of the richest and most exciting times to be teaching English! 2. Second language acquisition seems to share some traits of first language acquisition- "picking up" language without the need for systematic error correction in naturalistic contexts (propounded by Krashen's Input Hypothesis) or the order of acquisition (learning nouns before verbs or words before sentences). However, second language acquisition, especially in adults, necessitates a consistent testing, confirmation and rejection of hypotheses about language to develop competence and a significant degree of production to proceduralise this gradual acquisition of linguistic knowledge (Swain's Output Hypothesis). 3. We've moved on from the times of pure Direct Method teaching which focused on form at the expense of meaningful context and practicality. There is now more tolerance to error in favour of content and communication, although unlike innanists, who believe in the innate capacity to form and develop accurate grammatical associations, I do believe error correction or negative evidence is helpful for second language acquisition, especially in the form of prompts where the learners themselves reformulate utterances. 4. Teaching too much grammar- undue bias for a structural syllabus/cognitive approach? Teaching too little grammar- undue bias for a skills-based approach or TBL? (or little teaching experience/lack of confidence teaching grammar?) 5. I couldn't agree more. I am all for a judicious use of the mother tongue in the classroom (for all sorts of reasons). 6. Not necessarily! I think the more experienced you are, the more confident you feel about improvising on the spur of the moment, but the main activities you had planned may as well see you through to the end of your lesson with no big changes. The key is whether you've been flexible enough to accommodate learners' needs and difficulties and whether they've learnt something or not (or consolidated on aspects of their interlanguage, which is mostly the case). This may well be a far cry from what you set out to teach, as you suggest. But then ..would teaching be as exciting if it weren't so?

Dear 'TeachEd'Thanks for your reactions – all very much to the point, I feel.I certainly agree with your kind of principled eclecticism: language is a lot of different things, and teaching them needs to draw on a variety of theoretical insights. One of the SLA gurus (I forget who), years back, declared that eclecticism was 'intellectual obscenity', which I thought said more about him than about eclecticism.I've always been slightly bothered by the 'Output Hypothesis'. Back when I was first teaching, when we didn't know anything, it seemed obvious to us that you taught people things and then got them to use what you'd taught, so as to fix it in their competence (though we didn't use that word). Then Krashen came along and told us that Input was All; output wasn't important. Then Swain told us that actually Output was Important too. So are we just back where we started from (but in a vastly more sophistcated way)? Or is there more to it than that?You suggest two plausible and respectably theory-based reasons for doing too much grammar or too little grammar. Very valid, but I think there are also quite a lot of bad reasons for each stance; I'll leave those for another blog.Getting through your lesson plan: well, if it's flexible enough, I guess you're right. I always used to make fairly detailed plans setting out what I was going to teach, and then never got through them because they never made allowances for unpredictable and valuable interventions from the students. I tended to end up with a compromise between a teacher-directed lesson and a student-directed lesson, which probably isn't a bad place to be. YoursMichael     

1. Surely true to everything... the new diet, the new politics, the algorithms for beating the stock exchange. I found an amazing piece of software for learning vocabulary. The first ten to fifteen hours at it, I learnt an amazing amount, but after that my brain seemed to "learn" how to store the new words just long enough to pass the criteria to move on to the next stage. Quite an astounding feat of self-frustration! Multiple stimulations, multiple approaches, varied input and output expectations are surely essential if we are to convince brains to learn... There goes any hope to ever be content with a teaching system.2. Do we? Don't we? We certainly don't have any of the motivation of an infant. Learning a second language is like having a perfectly big, warm house with all the utilities connected and building another one from scratch in our own garden.  But yes, certainly, we have to compensate for the change in conditions. (Bilingual children have an advantage learning a new language. Is that possibly because they have already developed a system for using one language to aid in the learning of another??)3. Perfectionism has a place (maybe, a small one in the garden shed). Sporadic perfectionism. Low level perfectionism. "I'm not going to correct your every error, but I do expect you to do this right." On reflection, perhaps this isn't "perfectionism" at all.4. Reasons to do grammar: 1. We like logical explanations. 2. It gives us a tool to create new language. 3. Drills give an illusion of improvement. 4. For teachers, it's really easy to set work and assess. 5. It's easy to make grammar books. Reasons not to do grammar: 1. Grammar is natural and with sufficient exposure, we naturally develop the rules for grammar. 2. We use the grammar we learn falsely falsely(I'm going to go to Tokyo. Are you going to marry me? What are you going to do tonight - which is no different from any other night?) 3. We learn and forget, learn and forget, learn and forget, because it's almost always taught without context (One day, students can used the past tense, the next every sentence becomes passive.)5. Yes.6. Don't know about that. I'll get back to you if it ever happens.Nick. 

Thank you very much, Mr Swan, for a set of ideas on teaching grammar, although I have for years been in English style and usage and your book 'Practical English Usage' was my favourite. But back to grammar.
I currently teach a descriptive course of English grammar to young adults at a higher school in Warsaw - a very unusual subject these days delivered in the form lectures, but the school needs it to keep up its status. Thank you very much for your opinion on theory and I am happy to have adapted whatever I use and to have used it moderately. Yes, explanations should be brief and the mother tongue is helpful, although I provide only terms (my Polish is too poor for considerable explanations) I do take your point on examples, but I also have a question. Would you be for stripped down examples giving the bare patterns, for verb complementation, for the structures of negation or for the sentence, for example, which my students like? I do provide authentic examples (drawn from The Cambridge Grammar of English, the Internet or novels of Margaret Drabble), but I fear that most of the authentic material is wasted on them. I appreciate your positive view on exercises. I use exercises at my own risk as the course is descritpive. I wonder whether you would vote for the following: to introduce the subject of a lesson through an exercise at its beginning. It would not be a thorough introduction, something like "an inductive 'discovery' approach" in every class, to help them come to terms with the terminology and with a bit of theory that a class may entail. In my experience, I had to devise a course (three courses, in fact, of 10, 10 and 5 lectures) based on the Cambridge Grammar of English, but I had to supplement the courses by course books, such as 'A University Grammar of English', 'English Grammar in Use' (CUP) and others. Would you be very critical of this kind of practice? Would you  tolerate at all a course based on a new research grammar? I must say I have been weak on 'carrying over'. My students' real-life use of English shows in short tests (of ten questions each) of which I ask them to write three to four per term. The arithmetic of their results is not bad but I am uneasy when I give them good marks while they ignore the article, the third person ending, the syntax, etc. I would appreciate if you gave a piece of advice. 
The bees: Thank you very much for the warning on 'the method' as  for the view on the teacher's obligations in the classroom - "to compensate for their absence". Such wisdom is salvation to a teacher today when the world is drowning in books and theories. I do take your opinion on perfectionism, but I am not entirely against correcting students' mistakes especially when they recur for an obvious lack of intellectual discipline (as mentioned above). Would you tolerate this attitude? Your emphasis on the mother tongue obliges me, thank you. Your wit on too good coping with one's lesson plan makes me brace myself (I happen to shorten spontaneously or miss something but  I do follow my plan and notes, which are always writtten and given to the students in advance). Would you think this is correct in a grammar course? 
Thank you very much for the incentive to think. I apologise for my long story.
Marija Liudvika Rutkauskaite   (liudvikadam@yahoo.com)

Thanks, Nick (very belatedly) for your thoughtful and entertaining response. And thanks, Marija Luidvika, for your opinions and questions. You raise several interesting points.My first reaction to your posting is to say: what exactly do you want to achieve? in language teaching, to a great extent you get out what you put in; or to turn it the other way round, you don't get out what you don't put in. If you are giving a descriptive course in English grammar, your students will learn to describe English grammar. If this is what you want, then (assuming your course is effective) you can be satisfied that you have done what you set out to do. If you want something else – for instance, the ability to write and speak with reasonable fluency and accuracy – then you won't achieve it from a descriptive course in grammar, though this may provide some of what is needed. My feeling is that for a good practical command of the language, learners need a very high ratio of practice to information – three or four times as much at least – and even then the carry-over problem remains.I'm sure you're right in bringing in descriptive material from more than one source. You mention the Cambridge Grammar of English. This, like any other reference grammar, has its strengths and weaknesses. It's more pedagogically oriented than the other big reference grammars, which is good. It's very good on aspects of spoken grammar and text grammar (I think its treatment of discourse markers is excellent). On the other hand, there are topics (such as the use of articles) which I think are better dealt with in other books.I like using an inductive approach to grammar explanation in moderation. For me, it depends on whether the grammar point is simple enough to be clarified effectively in this way, on whether the learners appreciate the approach, and on how much of this they have already done. It can be difficult and time-consuming, and you can get to the point where the students get tired of it and say 'Enough – for God's sake, just tell us!'.Authentic examples: I often find them a nuisance because of the material they contain which is extraneous to your purpose in using them. (The CGE examples are generally very well chosen, but they do tend to be long and heavyweight.) I like examples which illustrate economically whatever you want to illustrate, but which, though not necessarily authentic, are realistic and have a bit of flavour to them. I often take authentic examples and edit them to suit my purposes; or simply use them to inspire me as I create my own.Correction: yes, certainly, to the extent that it is likely to have an effect. As with most things, I think too much is bad and too little is bad.Lesson plan: perhaps what I said about this was a bit provocative. it depends what you're doing, doesn't it? Lessons fall in different places on the continuum between lecture and free interaction. If your lesson is a kind of lecture, you'll stick to your plan and hand out notes and summaries prepared in advance. If your lesson is a mutual voyage of discovery (as when the learners create and act out conversations using partly pre-specified vocabulary and structures), you don't know exactly what might happen, and a rigorous plan is likely to stifle creativity. When I was teaching, most of my lessons left a good deal of room for input from the students; but I agree that that's not the only way to go.Regards Michael      need to put in something else: adequate practice.

I wish to be known by my students' high level proficiency in English language.I've read your reference book,I love it a lot because it is a treasure of English for me.Please throw a piece of advice so that i can get my achievements.
your given words would be scenting into my life for good :)
regards
peace
thanks.
 

Thanks, Allen Mars. Advice?  See my final blog. But also:Try hard to do what is posssible; but don't beat yourself up for not getting everything right. Nobody ever does. Good enough is good enough.Good luckMichael