#AusELT chat summary: Follow up to Scott Thornbury’s workshop – ‘Why are we still teaching the wrong grammar the wrong way?’ (7 November, 2013)

EAJ 28.2_CT_10 questions_Scott Thornbury IMAGEThe illustrious Scott Thornbury (ST) was recently in Australia presenting at the English Australia Conference in Perth as well as presenting workshops at other locations around Australia.  As Thornbury has quite a large fan base among the AusELT members-many of whom had the opportunity to attend the workshops and to meet the man himself, it’s no surprise that we voted to devote November’s Twitter chat to a discussion about Scott’s workshop and our musings about what works and doesn’t work in the classroom in terms of teaching grammar.

The chat was comprised of both members who attended the workshops and those who were not able to go. Although there was some recapping of Scott’s workshop, most of the participants already knew the gist and agreed with his views. The chat started out slowly, perhaps due Daylight’s Saving, noted by @sophiakhan4, but picked up in the last 30 minutes with quite a few ideas being shared.

@sophiakhan4, who attended Scott’s workshop, moderated the chat and structured it around the two main parts of his workshop.

What’s wrong with the way grammar is commonly taught/approached by textbooks today?

@sophiakhan4 drew on Scott Thornbury’s workshop to start the ball rolling, ‘ 12 tenses, 12 units in a CB?!? We make them do the same pre-selected stuff over & over.’

The group was in agreement with ST that the grammar taught in textbooks is too linear with grammar as the ultimate goal. Even though today’s textbooks contextualise the grammar, noted by @kathywa29798411, the texts are often artificial and controlled. ‘Nothing could challenge the “rule”‘ comments  @sophiakhan4, and @michaelegriffin notes that these rules are often ‘questionable.’ Even when the tasks are communicative, they revolve around the limited grammar selections.

@MeredithMacAul1 notes that the grammar taught in the texts is not what students need as they put equal emphasis on all the tenses, e.g., future perfect and past perfect.

Scott Thornbury also pointed out that grammar books ignore things like verb patterns and collocations.

A vicious cycle?

The group noted that perhaps students’ attitudes towards grammar and what it means to ‘know’ it are a reflection of the way it is taught.  @michaelegriffin points out that ‘grasping grammar’ often is equated to being able to ‘spout off,’ the rules, often of the tenses, but students are often not able to use structures in context. Many of us agreed that there is a lot of pressure from students to emphasise grammar in the classroom at the expense of other content.

What did ST suggest we think about? Supplementing or a whole new approach? @kathywa29798411

Scott Thornbury emphasised ‘demystifying’ the tenses, as @sophiakhan4  puts it, and a large portion of the Sydney workshop was spent doing this for teachers (See his slides from his workshop)

He also seemed to suggest a text-based approach with more authentic models.  @MeredithMacAul1 enjoyed the phrases he used, e.g., ‘Ninja grammar’ which involves awareness raising activities with language so that students don’t really realise they are ‘doing’ grammar. In other words, the students will never know it’s coming…

What grammar should we teach? How?

@ElkySmith succinctly pointed out ‘teach what is salient in the context, teach what Ss need to know really about it.’ The group agreed that that students should be exposed to the type of texts they want to produce, either spoken or written. For example, students in Academic English have different needs than those in a Business class.

@lukeealexander pointed out that students must be taught how text and context dictate grammar, which seemed to be one the underlying points made by ST.

It seems that most of those involved in the chat already teach this way, addressing the needs of the individual class or course. For example, @MeredithMacAul1 pointed out that in the EAP syllabus she teaches with, grammar is drawn from academic texts and this has been successful @cioccas agreed that at TAFE where she teaches, this is also done to some extent.

@sophiakhan4  notes that using authentic texts is desirable but could be difficult for newer, less experienced teachers. Students could also be reluctant to accept a different way learning grammar but @ElkySmith points out that students are willing to try new approaches from a teacher they respect.

@sophiakhan4  asked about the ‘invisible non-tense grammar,’ that ST mentioned. It was pointed out that this is tricky to teach especially in a short intense course but the members of this group seem to have tricks to addresses such points.

@SophiaKhan4 went back to ST’s workshop: ‘ST proposes lang learning is really about FEEDBACK (not T presentation). Sts need massive exposure + problematisation + use/feedback’

This prompted many ideas about what teachers do in their classroom along these lines, based on the language needs of the students and class.

How can we integrate these feedback/problematisation aspects into our teaching?

@cioccas says most of her grammar lesson this semester are based on her students’ errors.

@MeredithMacAul1 also uses a lot of error correction and workshopping of student writing to correct errors but also to identify what grammar students ‘need.’

@sophiakhan4 reiterated Scott’s point that we need to focus more on feedback, awareness-raising, and restructuring of sts’ ‘internal grammar’.

Ideas for feedback, restructuring and awareness-raising raised in the chat included:

  • Mini-grammar lessons based on what students need
  • Grammar auction
  • Text mining activities-making students aware of ‘small’ grammar and setting discovery tasks based on texts in class, e.g., Give a list of words in text and sts find surrounding word patterns. Sts match to meaning.
  • Make a cloze with a text students previously read
  • Sts make their own word ‘webs’ with corpora/collocation dictionary with words from the text & teach other sts  @lukeealexander
  • Ask students to highlight ‘grammar’ in peers’ writing-eg. pres simp, passive, complex sentence-Is it used correctly? @ MeredithMacAul1
  • Dictogloss or grammar dictation – good for providing feedback to groups or whole class, identify grammar which requires revision @cioccas
  • ST suggested learning thru song/putting common expressions to song=exposure/awareness-raising
  • ‘Grass skirt’ with error correction@MeredithMacAul1
  • ‘Error correction maze – sts turn left or right depending on whether they think a sentence is right or wrong. You can only get out if you identify the right sentences as right/wrong’ @SophiaKhan4

In summary, among the teachers in this chat, the best approach is an individualised one and one in which ‘emergent grammar,’ often takes precedence over what is planned. It is acknowledged that perhaps this comes with experience and would be difficult for newer teachers to carry out.

I’ll leave you with two quotes:

@cioccas ‘Most of what we’ve been chatting about comes down to working with whatever comes up with class – works for written & spoken.’

‘YES with what the students want/need to do with English and coming at it from that end, not our end.’@SophiaKhan4

In the last few minutes, two books were mentioned for follow-up. See references.


Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings available on e-book via http://www.amazon.co.uk/Teaching-Unplugged-Luke-Meddings/dp/1905085192, recommended by @ElkySmith

The English Verb: An exploration of Structure and Meaning by Michael Lewis: http://www.amazon.com/The-English-Verb-Exploration-Structure/dp/090671740X, recommended by@SophiaKhan4 and @kathywa29798411

Movie Segments to Assess Grammar Goals: http://moviesegmentstoassessgrammargoals.blogspot.com.au/ recommended by @cioccas

Slides from Scott Thornbury’s Workshop at the English Australia Conference  http://www.englishaustralia.com.au/visageimages/about_us/conference/2013_Conference/2013_Thornbury_PCW.pdf

Scott Thornbury’s official website: http://thornburyscott.com/  and Twitter handle @thornburyscott

Thanks everyone for an enjoyable chat!

This summary was written by Meredith MacAulay @MeredithMacAul1

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