Teaching Grammar: what do you think?

May 24, 2020

Rohit Dhankar

I watched an hour-long video of teaching tenses in English language. The teacher was very clear, systematic and to my mind spoke at a speed and volume that should be comfortable for students to follow; unhurried, clear pronouncement and right volume. His use of white board with green and red markers was very efficient. It seemed tenses also had been dealt with in some earlier lessons. His over all purpose seemed to be to explains present, past and future tenses with three of their forms: simple, continuous and perfect; fourth form, which he did not name was left to be treated in future.

His basic methodology was to put all the rules regarding tense forms in the following chart and then explain in detail:

His explanation as I said earlier was clear and unhurried, a rough account of it’s beginning  is as follows: टेन्स एक राजा था। उसके तीन बेटे थे, प्रेजेंट, पास्ट और फूचर। पहले बेटे प्रेजेंट के तीन बेटे हुए, उसने नाम रख दिया: सिम्पल, कंटीनुअस और पर्फेक्ट। दूसरे बेटे पास्ट के भी तीन बेटे हुए, उसने भी वे ही नाम रख दिये: सिम्पल, कंटीनुअस और पर्फेक्ट। तीसरे बेटे के भी तीन बेटे हुए और उसने भी वेही नाम रख दिये। अब इनको नंबर लगा देते हैं। (1 से 9 तक नंबर लगा दिये)

फिर उनहों ने बताया की अंतिम कॉलम (पर्फेक्ट) में तीनों जगह वर्ब की थर्ड फोरम आती है। दूसरे कॉलम कंटीनुअस में वर्ब की फ़र्स्ट फोरम प्लस “ing” आता है। और फ़र्स्ट कॉलम में वर्ब की फ़र्स्ट, सेकंड, फ़र्स्ट फोरम इस क्रम में आती है।

Then he goes on to illustrate the kind of sentence structures these rules will generate. He completes the chart taking all the nine forms one by one. Then summarise and does some assessment. It is a good video lesion in the approach he assumed.

However, this set me thinking regarding the approach and mythology of teaching tenses or grammar in English. I will not get into the debate whether it is needed or not here. I do think that grammar taught through right approach can give huge educationally worthwhile benefits. Further down I will talk about this approach and one more approach before requesting English teachers to help me understand a few things. But before that I must share two things.

One, I am not an English teacher. I never studied English as a language after my 10th standard and that did not teach me much. My English is largely self-learnt primarily by reading and writing, and I never referred to grammar. Therefore, my English has gaps in it, is often sounds completely ‘uneducated’, but I manage to think, read, write, listen and speak alright in this language; or so I believe.

Two, I am not evaluating or passing judgment on the teacher’s method. I am trying to understand the approach and requesting English teachers’ opinion on an alternative approach, not necessarily suggesting the alternative approach to be used. It is only a preliminary discussion.

The overall approach in the video

It seems to me that this approach takes the language as a ‘rule governed system’ and wants to teach those rules in their pre-abstracted generalised form. Here what is being dealt with is tense. Let’s remember that “tense” is not the same thing as time. It is a “grammatical category of verbs used to express distinctions of time”. That is, it is a marker of the time of an event or occurrence, and not the “time itself” of the event. In this stage the above-mentioned chart is constructed to capture rules of how the verbs are used in sentences.

Then sentences are analysed to see the examples of these rules. Thus, showing low language can be “created” by applying these rules; together with others in grammar which are either already taught or will be taught in future. But the language is being shown as created through rules.

Lets also pay attention to the fact that a sentence is not the reality or the event happening in the world, it is only a “representation” of that reality.

The language is assumed as rule governed system, which it actually is. Learn the rules, learn means “remember” only. Then create or analyse the language with the rules already “remembered”, thus giving them some cognitive content. But this cognitive content remains only in the form of sentences and forms of verbs. Their actual meaning or connection with the reality (the world as it is and is behaving) is assumed to have understood.

In brief:

[Abstract generalised rules without explaining connection with the reality or meaning]à[Examples of application of those rules on sentences]à[Assuming the meaning to be understood]

Is an alternative approach possible?

I will try to outline an alternative approach below. It is neither new nor any kind of fantastic innovation. Quite well known for a long time. Here I am only describing it may be in somewhat different terms, and creating an example to use in the classroom. Only to elicit opinion of English teachers particularly, and of all teachers generally.

Let’s take the reality (the world as it appears to the child) and child’s consciousness of this reality as the primary ground for all learning including a foreign language, i.e. English here. Let’s take a simple definition of “meaning” as “cognitive awareness of a person of the reality and its understanding”. Let’s take “understanding” as “conceptual representation of the reality in a person’s mind, with all connections s/he can make with the totality of her cognitive content; conceptual as well as emotive and psychomotor”.

Let’s take language as a human capability which is primarily verbal and emerges only in a community. It is used, first and foremost, to help us make meaning of our experienced reality, in other words helps us create our understanding of the reality and situates ourselves in that reality. Which means helps us becoming self-aware. Secondly, it helps us in communicating our understanding created through it to others like us. This communication goes back and forth, thus helping us create a shared (objective, if you like) meaning or understanding of the reality; in other words, helps us create objectivity on the basis of our subjectivity by comparing and relating our subjectivity with other subjectivities who use our shared language.

If we accept these concepts, definitions and slice of general scenario of human situation in the world, then it may indicate an approach to teach language and grammar, which might be substantially different from the approach used in the above-mentioned video.

In a nutshell the suggested approach inverts the above-mentioned approach, or stands the above-mentioned approach on its head:

[Bringing to consciousness (reminding) some known reality]à[Expressing that reality in language to be taught (English)]à[Analysing the language, continuously keeping the meaning in mind, to abstract or generalise rules the language uses to describe the reality]à[formulating the rules with clarity and generalised form]à[Applying the rules to describe similar slices of reality in language].

Let’s try to create an example of this approach which can be used in the classroom. I am out of practice in elementary school teaching and am rather a non-creative person, therefore, my examples may not be that good. You can create your own and/or improve upon what I describe below. In this article my focus is on illustration of a general approach, so think from that perspective, and ignore particular issues in the example.

Any teaching requires some basis of understanding, the new learning can become possible only upon that existing understanding. In other words, we always assume some knowledge and capabilities as basis on which we try to teach new things. Here, I am assuming that students can read and understand some spoken English, even if they can not write and speak at the same level. “Reading” is used here for “reading with comprehension”, not mechanical sound producing.

With this assumption lets imagine a classroom. I am leaving the preliminaries of warming up and mention of what is to be learnt etc. for your imagination. Coming straight to the point to save space and time.

Teacher: अच्छा बताओ क्या राजबीर संतरा खाता है?

Student(s): हाँ, खाता है।

Teacher: “संतरा खाता है” का क्या अर्थ होता है? “आज खाया?”, “कल खाया था?”, “आने वाले कल खाएगा?” या कुछ और?

Student(s): मिले तब खा लेता है। मना नहीं करता।

Teacher: अच्छा, तो यह सामान्य बात है, राजबीर संतरा खाता है मतलब वह हमेशा ही खा सकता है, मिल जाये तो।

Student(s): हाँ।

Teacher: मान लो कोई बच्चा संतरा खाने से माना नहीं करता, मिले तो खालेता है। तो क्या हम किसी भी बच्चे के बारे में यह भी कहा सकते हैं कि “बच्चा संतरा खाता है”?

Student(s): हाँ, कह सकते हैं।

Teacher: ठीक है तो बताओ यही बात कि “बच्चा संतरा खाता है” अङ्ग्रेज़ी में कैसे कहेंगे?

Student(s): (संभव है कुछ छात्र बतादें, हमारे assumption के अनुसार) “A child eats orange”।

Teacher: (बोर्ड पर लिख देते हैं, “A Child eats orange”) ठीक, और यदि यह कहना हो कि “बच्चे संतरा खाते हैं” तो?

….

In this manner, with variations in questions the teacher writes the following sentences on the board:

  1. A child eats
  2. A child eats
  3. Children eat
  4. Children eat
  5. A child does not eat
  6. A child does not eat
  7. Children do not eat
  8. Children do not eat
  9. Does a child eat oranges?
  10. Dos a child eat oranges?
  11. Do children eat orange?
  12. Do children eat oranges?

Now the teacher can draw students’ attention to the underlined words in the sentences. Can ask various questions to elicit general but at this moment tentative rules. For example: does the form of underlined words change with singular or plural of “orange”? Does the form of underlined words change with singular or plural of “Child”? does it change with negation? Does it change with interrogation? In all these cases how does it change? And so on.

After this perhaps the best thing will be to give children a sentence “बंदर केला खाता है”. Ask children to translate it into English and generate all the kinds of sentences as above out of this. Note again that the verb and helping verb change form and place in the sentence according to the subject and not according to the object.

Keeping these sentences in mind can introduce the ideas of subject, object, verb, helping verb, sentence structure, forms of verb, and with this terminology general rules of verb behaviour in simple present tense. Note that rules hare are being formulated in the classroom from the base of English already known to the children. Similar exercises can be used to formulate the rules for simple past and simple future and so on. I have a strong hunch that if good practice is given in formulating rules in simple present and simple past tenses, the children can be given the task of formulating rules for simple present on their own. I somehow believe that most of them will be able to do it well, in not alone in small groups of 3-5.

Thus, rules for all tense forms can be tentatively formulated in the classroom. When all this work is done one can conclude the topic by putting them in the kind of chart that is drawn in the beginning in the video.

It seems to me there are some benefits of the proposed approach over the approach taken in the video. I am not sure, nor do have any empirical evidence to site in favour benefits I expect. They are worked out purely at the speculative level.

  1. The language is used to remind of a slice of some known reality, and then slight variations in that reality are suggested/imagines. English language is used to describe this reality and slight changes in it. This keeping the connection of reality and language all the time very firm. This should help the child in developing an attitude of always looking for the meaning of sentences and resist memorisation of meaningless sentences across the curriculum. If that happens it’s a very important achievement in education.
  2. The rules are generalised from the known part of language. This should develop analytical capabilities of the children if practiced frequently. Help them develop the idea that grammar does not come from the God and is not a structure of mechanical rules. But is created out of analysis of language by human beings, and she herself can also have a go at it.
  3. It should develop the child’s capability to generalise grammar even when not taught by the teacher or the book.
  4. It should make the child become aware of variations in language making her a keen observer in occasions of language use.
  5. It establishes in the child’s mind an understanding of language as a capability to think, analyse, arrive at judgments and describe reality.

These are some views on the approach illustrated through example of teaching tenses, but to my mind generalisable to teaching of whole of grammar and also general analysis and understanding of language. This later might be very useful in use of language across the curriculum. And particularly in understanding literature in future.

All this is not written as some final theory and practice of grammar or English teaching. The purpose here is to seek teachers’ opinion on this approach.

So, what do you say? Your opinion, criticism, questions etc. all are invited.

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23rd May 2020