TESOL 2019 Highlights: The Grammar(s) We Should Teach

Attending a session in Atlanta made me reflect on how my understanding of grammar has evolved. In the beginning, I was like a kid with a Lego set who followed the instructions and gained satisfaction from seeing my final construction perfectly match what I saw in the manual. I didn’t realize how much there was to explore and experiment with.

As a teacher trainee, I didn’t stray far from what was put before me as the standard. I went to classroom observations of experienced language teachers to see how teaching was done. It never entered my head that I could question the methodology I was seeing. I don’t mean to say that what I saw was wrong in some way, but rather I didn’t think about there being multiple approaches — not until much later.

Similarly, when I started teaching grammar on my own, I stuck closely to the textbook given to me. I understood that my job was to impart the rules and structures to my students. I did my best to make presentations and practice engaging, but I didn’t think much about going beyond what was printed in the charts for quite some time.

I remember first learning about “grammaring” and discovering that grammar instruction didn’t have to be so rigid. Diane Larsen-Freeman helped many of us view grammar not as static knowledge, but as a skill that people use to communicate. Language teachers can help students develop and master this skill. Attention to form, meaning, and use has helped me build and teach many lessons over the years. Is there anything more to discover beyond those three dimensions of grammar?

How about the concept of hidden grammars? That’s right — grammars in the plural. That was the focus of Hidden Grammars and How to Teach Them, a session presented by Colin Ward and Alice Savage of Lone Star College in North Harris, Texas. Prompted by Larsen-Freeman’s work with complex systems, Colin and Alice pose the question about the existence of multiple grammars. At the TESOL convention in Atlanta, they identified two: lexical grammar and discourse grammar. Both are hidden in a sense because they’re not addressed in traditional grammar materials. They’re less rule-based and more descriptive in nature. It’s also in their nature to overlap; they aren’t distinct at all times. Unfortunately, Alice wasn’t able to be present at the session, but Colin competently took the helm, armed with his and Alice’s presentation slides. Colin explained what each “hidden” grammar entailed and demonstrated ways we can teach them.

Lexical grammar refers to how we use chunks of language in meaningful ways. Colin took participants through the exercise of trying to read a sentence with single words being flashed one after the other, and then allowed our brains to read the same sentence with words in chunks, i.e., thought groups. The difference was night and day. Isolated words were hard to connect in meaningful ways, but our minds deftly processed the thought groups. It was a demonstration of stability within a complex system, the heart of the Complexity Theory.

In short, teaching students to identify phrases and clauses as thought groups allows them to find stability within the dynamic language system and put that stability to use in their communication. After marking thought groups as a “class,” Colin had us simulate pair work and read sentences aloud, with partners marking the thought groups they heard. (See handout here.) Such practice, said Colin, “primes their brain for these patterns.”

Colin and Alice recommend preteaching lexicogrammatical chunks. Before starting a reading passage, meaningful chunks can be studied. Highlighting phrases like “sitting on a surfboard” and “swim in circles” will make it easier for students to process those phrases in the context of a long sentence when they read a narrative account about shark attack. Another exercise is to ask students to prescan a reading for chunks and find the missing words: sitting ___ ___ surfboard / swim ___ circles. Lastly, students can use those same chunks to create new sentences, demonstrating their ability to put words together meaningfully.  Colin showed a model of a “builder box” that allows students to select chunks from each column to form a logical sentence: It’s fun to OR It’s dangerous to / sit on a surfboard OR swim in circles/ because… OR when… .

Discourse grammar refers to patterns speech follows at the paragraph level. Colin showed how scaffolding facilitates acquisition of this hidden grammar. In a noticing task, students can scan a reading for prepositional phrases and underline them. If the teacher asks the students to note the position of these phrases in a sentence, students will better understand their function and the information they give. A second noticing task is to present a text without paragraph division and then ask students to mark where the writer should start a new paragraph. (See handout.)

Moving beyond readings, Colin explained how to develop students’ ability to recognize patterns in conversation. Again, it’s a matter of searching for stability within a system of multiple possibilities. Colin and Alice invest the time in examining speech acts with their students; in such acts as complimenting and apologizing, formulaic expressions are used. If students learn to understand how conversation follows patterns, they can master the formulas and plug them into the appropriate situations. As part of his demonstration, Colin had us work in pairs once again, and we read short dialogs aloud. We “students” had to identify who was talking, where this was taking place, what the intention was, and what formulaic language was used. (See handout.)

I encourage you to view the full handout on Colin and Alice’s website English Endeavors and browse their rich content, including short downloadable reading texts, play scripts, and other teaching materials.

I’d like to thank Colin and Alice for one of the most informative presentations of TESOL 2019! They have generously allowed me to share highlights here.

Photo credit: Abstract, Lithofacies by Fractal. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/illustrations/abstract-lithofacies-by-fractal-2733605/.

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