Learning to Grammar

Three private students of mine recently proclaimed that they believed they had become less fluent since the beginning of our lessons a little over two months ago. They were naturally preoccupied given that they were paying good money to improve their English. Needless to say, I had to put their minds at ease, and it got me thinking.

Both of these learners are Brazilian, and I think that their nationality does play a role in what I am about to describe. They were both also very fluent when I started having lessons with them. They were also not afraid to take risks and push the limits of their language. However, they also had problems with the accuracy of their language. They made a lot of mistakes, especially with regards to grammar, lexis and pronunciation.  So, although they could rattle out long stretches of utterances, the meaning would sometimes get lost in the mangled syntax, incorrect collocations and misplaced primary stresses.

So, why did they both believe that their English was actually deteriorating under my tutelage? Could it be that my teaching was just totally counter-productive? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think that this is a good example of learners learning the skill of ‘grammaring’.  The learners are now communicating their message, stopping, thinking, self-correcting and reformulating the original message by filling in the correct grammar. This, of course, may make them less fluent but it does make their language more accurate, and as we all know, there cannot be one without the other. And, if you think about it, this is exactly what we do when we learn our own language as children.  We go from ‘want milk’, to learning to grammar, to filling in the missing parts, to ‘I want some milk’.

So, this is what I explained to my two students and they seemed to think it a reasonable explanation and accept the fact that for the time being they would have to accept a temporary loss of their fluency in favour of being more accurate, for the longer term gain of being both more fluent and accurate in the future.  So, nothing to worry about.

However, what concerns me most is that coursebooks and teacher training courses make very little reference to grammaring and even less on how teachers can actually teach students how to grammar.  The question then is, how can we teach and foster good grammaring skills to our learners? I will leave this question for another time or for someone else to address.

Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

  • Dennis
    Posted at 09:05h, 04 abril Responder

    I wonder in these kinds of cases, if it might be worth recording the students in the early days, and then recording them again on a similar or the same topic later on, and then compare the differences. This way, you would have more empirical evidence to convince students that they have improved accuracy, albeit with some hit on fluency.

  • Thiago Veigga
    Posted at 17:04h, 13 abril Responder

    It really strikes me that these students felt they’d become less fluent. It is a very unusual, but interesting perception. I’ve been working mainly with one-to-one classes and I’d like to add that it is fundamental that we share and negotiate goals. I think it’s rather unlikely that their English got worse. Maybe it wasn’t so clear to them that it was time to work a bit more on accuracy.

    Looking forward to your next post!

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