Let us create the harmony in ELT!

The old Grammar-Translation method is very much in evidence, and has been for many decades. I believe this is partly due to the fact that many older teachers who were taught in the rigorous curriculum framework are still quite active. The cycle continues, and it is not necessary bad or obsolete. Our current topic is twofold. One side refers to the course book usage per se while the other one raises the question of a systematic grammar syllabus. Which one is the best way to learn a language? Can we disregard a textbook? Is it possible (gasp) to teach grammar without a coherent manual? In fact, should we teach that pesky subject at all when at the mere mention of it most students groan?

We have been discussing students’ needs and an individual approach to ELT for quite some time now. With the changing demographics, the need to teach adolescents and adults to communicate fluently within a tight time-frame we EL teachers are up against many new challenges. I have had a lot of experience in both moving away from the more traditional methods of teaching and of embracing them. The choice really depended on my students’ needs – and on the presence of absence of the relevant textbooks.

• Imagine a class of teenagers who can recite all the important grammar rules at the drop of a hat. They can do all manner of tests, fill in the blanks, choose the correct modals, turn active into passive and vice versa. They can read and translate a text with a dictionary. They cannot speak, and they do not understand a single audio you play. What can a teacher do? We can set the grammar book aside, though not put it away completely. The rules need to be recycled; the grammar which your students had learned by rote needs to be demonstrated in real life, in various contexts. The main part of the lesson is devoted to listening and speaking, to pronunciation and building up full sentences, to hearing the difference between such quartets of familiar phonetic drills as bed – bed – bat – bet, or what – ward – wart – world, and for many languages between what – vat.

• Imagine a class of adults, who can communicate fluently, understand most recordings, read and write coherently, yet who are blithely unaware of most grammar rules. Is such a thing even possible? Yes, for instance in bi-lingual families the children learn to speak naturally without consciously learning any specific rules. Many adults today pick up a language according to their job requirements and/or to the situation they find themselves in. Do they really need any grammar lessons if they can communicate within the limits of their current position? Or do they only need to learn basic grammar if they are taking a course and need to pass a test every so often? Again, we have to consider the students’ needs, and understand the whole situation.

• I believe that all the aspects should be taught together, with more time devoted to any skill which causes difficulties. One class may hear exceptionally well but find it difficult to compose even one long sentence; another group may enjoy reading but shy away from discussing or retelling their texts, let alone initiate a free-flowing dialogue. Planning a lesson is up to the teacher. If your students dislike the current grammar book but you are sure they need those sessions, try to find a different book or use an electronic teaching aid. If they tell you that a unit is too difficult, too distant from their life or too boring, find an alternative way of presenting it. If they have trouble understanding audio recordings, find some where the speakers enunciate every word clearly, like for instance excerpts from the classics read by professional actors. Use video clips from the immortal musical “My Fair Lady”, show them a few scenes from the marvelous film “The King’s Speech”. By the way watching the king of Great Britain (as played by Colin Firth) learn to speak well, overcome his stutter, always produces a huge impression on any class.

• If you feel the need to present any topic, be it a difficult grammar theme or an unfamiliar subject, use a human interest story from the news and compose your own lesson which would include all the elements, all the skills you wish to develop. I recently used a news item of a bear that suddenly emerged from the woods near a café, causing all the customers to flee. He waddled to a table and ate the whole pizza. My adult listeners greatly enjoyed those few seconds of an unusual visual aid. Then we discussed global warming, junk food, health issues, and turned all the active sentences into passive. I am sure they will remember this lesson for a long time to come, and use it in their own work.

It is easy to drop or erase something; it is much more difficult to include something and create a harmonious whole. Trust your own ELT experience. When you are planning a new lesson, try it mentally on yourself. Check and see which parts you feel comfortable with, which cause problems and which are indeed boring. Then decide how you will present it all to your class. All of us have to follow the national curriculum, yet of all of us have a certain freedom within its very limits.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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