Teaching ESL

letting go of the matrix - the non-grammar teaching method
Page 1 of 2

Author:  mesmark [ Wed Apr 26, 2006 11:23 am ]
Post subject:  letting go of the matrix - the non-grammar teaching method

I write across the top of the board at the beginning of all of my nursing college classes.

"Let go of the matrix!"

I explain the first class that I want them to let go of trying to see and understand the code/grammar. (The Matrix movie has been a great help as an analogy.) I go on that I want them to work on seeing, understanding and applying meaning.

In my private classes with children, I use what I call 'a speaking first' curriculum. I don't bother with any grammar explanation and move students along slowly speaking and using English. I later (2-4 years) go back and apply written structure to what they have been saying. So, it's not an all speaking system. The idea in my mind was to mimic a more natural (ah-oh he's going to say it) native speaker approach. So, my structure lessons usually are just the particulars; start a sentence with upper-case, end with a period, contractions are 2 words smashed together, spelling... I don't bother with grammar as a tool for teaching at any point.

I have been working with mastering simple sentences and stringing them together. Recently I have been working on putting them together to express more complex thoughts. I always feel like I'm going to run into a wall and have to start with grammar explanation, but fortunately alternatives have always presented themselves.

The reason I can do this is I don't have to test my students. Since only I quantify the amount they have learned and the progress they have made, I can use any system I like. The problem is others ask me how far along my students are and I say, "they are doing great!" I can't see how this would work in a school system where tests are the means for analysis.

So..... Does anyone else teach without grammar? What are some ideas and methodologies for getting rid of grammar as a tool for language learning? Can it be done? What do you think?

Author:  mesmark [ Thu Apr 27, 2006 11:11 pm ]
Post subject: 

Here's what I think I do, as best as I can write down all that is going on in my head:
I work with lexical chunks of language, not grammar.
(Do you have)(a dog?) (Do you have)(a brother?) (Do you have)(any money?)
(I went to the station.)
(I went to the park)(to ride bikes with my friends.)
(I went skiing)(yesterday.)

Most of the time they aren't really broken up, so I'm not sure if it's really like those examples above. So, maybe, I use a pseudo-lexical-chunky-non-grammar approach.

I try as best I can to use a system that builds language based on
- what students want to say and ask (primary objective)
- what students need to say and ask (secondary objective)
- what I want them to be able to say (tertiary objective)
As they grow and mature those get constantly recycled. What a 5 year old wants to say is much different from what a 8 year old and 10 year old want to say. So, those are not steps but guidelines I use when guiding language learners.

I introduce language use in as real of a situation as I can. Forexample, when I want to start talking about the passive, I don't use 'this letter was written in red ink.' I don't even think, "OK. we need to start working on the passive tense." Instead, it comes to a point where they need to start talking about things that happened to them. I approach the point as things that happened to me/him/her. In class, I use the passive flash cards of people being hit with someting, run over, piched, hugged, kissed, pushed ... I show the pictures and then we discuss them. The language comes out. The students understand without translation or grammar explanation. After a few lessons, they walk away able to talk about what happened to them or someone else. Later down the road, we might work on asking about what happened, but it's not so important to them (that falls into the tertiary objective.)

Now if the question is can the students take that and make the letter example, the answer is:

No! They don't need to be able to.

As the Matrix example continues...I'm reminded of the scene where Morpheus and Neo are in the training dojo. Morpheus gets angered by Neo's frustration and shouts,"Common! Stop trying to hit me and hit me!"

"Common! Stop trying to teach me and teach me!" 8)

Author:  mesmark [ Fri Apr 28, 2006 8:57 am ]
Post subject: 

lHere's another example of what I'm talking about.

-ed vs irregular in the past tense
I have and used flash cards that look like this below
That was an approach where grammar wasn't explained for grammar's sake, but it was there. Starting with -ed ending words and then mixing in irregulars. I thought that was a good way to approach it at the time. Now, I just use plain flash cards and go over words in an order I feel are of importance to them. We play games using the same vocabulary (reg-irreg.) mixed without explanation. I don't bother with -ed or irregular separation but just cover the usage of each word in the past tense as they are presented.

When I was using the explanation, the students were all kinds of confused as to what to do when and where. The spontaneous language wasn't present at all because they needed me to teach them 'how to' first. By taking away the grammar and teaching as is. They begin to accept it as is. So, they will make mistakes in their attempts to create language.

T: He's riding a unicycle. (on the card)
S: I can riding a unicycle! (spontaneously from someone the croud)
S: I rided a unicycle. (spontaneously to mean I have ridden a unicycle before.)

I see the same sort of language experimenting in my own children. Students make the same mistakes over and over again, but in time, after hearing the correct form over and over they aquire the correct form (again, I hope :roll: ) Even those that dont get the correct grammatical form down make easy transition to a grammar driven method once in the grammar JHS system here in Japan. As an aside, most of my students say they can't understand that way. They just ignore the explanation and do it.

I think with grammar based teaching (apparent or hidden) the students aren't spontaneous. They must first build in their system and then produce. That takes time and often gets stopped and silenced by the time it takes to create. Anything that is spontaneously produced is probably not grammar based and comes from use and understanding of the language, basically speaking without thinking.

I'm not here trying to convert anyone. The reason I posted this is to sort of try and get an understanding myself of what I'm doing and get some feedback about it. Also, I'm not sure i'm completely converted. However, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to use currently available textbooks and worksheets. I almost can't teach from the textbook because I just don't believe in it. I don't think it's going to help.

I was also constantly worried about not teaching enough. I was concerned that I should be doing more grammar and worksheets, having the students work with structure and such. I really need more time to tell whether I'm doing something good here or not. However, the results so far are much better than anything I could produce with a grammar method.

Author:  mesmark [ Fri Apr 28, 2006 10:17 pm ]
Post subject: 

I don't take away meaning. If the students want to translate for themselves I say OK, as long as they're translating meaning. When working with such simple sentences it's probably grammatically exact. If they are asking me to break down the grammar for them, I will if THEY JUST WON'T TAKE THE 'RED PILL.'

If they want to look up a word that's fine. If they want to equate something to a word in L1 or meaning in L1 that's fine with me. I'm just trying not to label it with grammar or use grammar to teach it to them.

For me this all started about 4 years ago when my oldest son was first beginning to speak and use language. When he didn't uderstand something, my reflex reaction was ... translate it for him! ... explain its usage! Seriously. :| But obviously, telling him the same thing in japanese or explaining the grammar wasn't going to help. I had to help him understand or just accept that he won't understand now, that's OK and with time he will. He had to try to understand or just let go and hope it didn't mean candy.

That was when I thought maybe we don't NEED to do that for students either. And maybe, they don't NEED us to.

Author:  mesmark [ Sat Apr 29, 2006 5:24 pm ]
Post subject: 

With total beginners is when this is easiest. They are not set in their learning ways and you can guide them in the way you see fit. You'll have to try it to see how it might work.

It's definitely not rocket science or anything complex. It's the exact opposite as I see it. Without grammar, you are just looking at Language and language use.

Bruce Lee stunned the martial arts world when he rejected form. He tossed all the structure to the side. He used and taught a system without form, which many still argue is the best 'form' of martial arts.

I've given a lower level example of how I would do it but the main goal would be at more advanced levels to see the meaning, not see the code. In my nursing college classes I use some articles I made for grammar-less instruction like this on for example www.hospitalenglish.com/teachers/files/ ... betes2.pdf I use these 2 articles to get students to talk about type 2 diabetes. I first introduce the topic and discuss it (if they will.) We then go over the key words. I have some activities we do, crossword and matching sheet not included. Now that we have the keywords down, I give one article to 2 students and one article to 2 other students. They read the article for content and main points. They shouldn't be translating sentences or breaking down grammar. At their level and level of nursing knowledge these are clear enough. (They have already covered the disease and are not learning something new but learning how to express in English something they already know.) They then have to relay the main points or meaning to the other 2 students. At the end there are some comprehension questions for each group that can be used as game type points for competition or just as is.

The idea is to get this kind of material into each lesson so that grammar is not needed, whether it's a children's beginner class or an adult false beginner class. The problem, as I see it, is you are going have to go out there and find/make relevant, building, individual use, specific class centered materials to do it (or wait untill I'm finished making them all. :P ) Another problem is getting the students to let go or at least let grammar go for the sake of class instruction.

So far the examples have been micro-grammarless instruction. The question is how do we make macro jumps using this. The answer is long periods of constant language use. Long may have to be defined by use. I have a student who has been with me and in 3 years is near fluent enough starting from flase beginner, (but she is obsessed.) She studies on her own, teaches and has given in to the non-grammar approach. For the first few years she survived with the cut 'n paste language she knew. Now, she has passed the plagiarist stage and creates. For her it has been lots of exposure, lots of language, and lots of language use.

For instruction, I see language as worn paths aound town. People tend to go to some places on a particular route and the result is a path worn into the earth. Eventually you get a pattern of movement. You can't deny it's there. However, I think it's easier to teach Ss how to get where they want to go by taking them there. At low levels you're not directing people very far so grammar is an easy quick way to get them just a bit ahead from start. But as they get further in and the paths get more complex, run together, difficult to separate or define, people get lost!

Continuing with the same analogy, I think trying to nail it down with grammar is like paving those paths and throwing up barriers on either side.

If you want to start getting way out there (which I don't think I am yet,) a friend of mine has said that maybe there is no 'Language' just 'language use.' I'm still working on that but it essentially means, for the worn path example that there really are no paths at all.

Everyone might be thinking how do we teach without grammar. My question is why do we need to teach using grammar. Is it because it is needed? or is it because that's an easy/quick way to teach it?

Author:  kep [ Fri Jun 09, 2006 11:20 am ]
Post subject: 

Your method is interesting, and I'm really interested to see how far students can go without learning grammar. I think it's very important to encourage students (perhaps Japanese students especially) to read and listen for meaning using any clues available. It's difficult to help them release that death grip on translating directly, with a focus on grammar.

However...I have found that my students understand new target language
best when I try to infuse some grammar into the conversation. Sometimes I use actually Japanese grammar terms, but mostly I just try to explain the global use of whatever grammar we're working on in descriptive terms. I think this would still be considered grammar-based teaching?

I think in a school based classroom setting, it is really essential to talk about grammar. Grammatical understanding testable. That is a sad reason for inclusion, but whaddya gonna do? I think the more important value of focusing on grammar (in some situations) is that it gives students huge insight into the grammar and meaning of their native language. Of course the "goal" of these classes it to teach English, but only a small percentage will come out of junior high or high school with conversational English. Everyone, however, can benefit from a better understanding of their own language.

In a private classroom setting, where students are paying to learn English, and are presumably dedicated to that task, I can see where more whole learning type methods are useful. As you've said, it's a much more natural way to learn a language...but you have to be constantly surrounded by that language to learn with that method. (Agree/Disagree?) Children learn that way because they are bombarded with their 'target' language and can hear those patterns over and over again. I would imagine that the average Japanese student is not going to have that exposure to English...?

This is a great question though. I'm really interested to hear about more methods for communicative teaching.

Author:  mesmark [ Fri Jun 09, 2006 12:48 pm ]
Post subject: 

well... I'm not a purist myself. I still do some basic translation here and there but more for my own reassurance that they ALL understand. So having that one S tell me what 'wanna' means makes me feel like we're all on the same page. That's kind of a gray area. I'm not really teaching grammar but verifying understanding of a word or chunk. I also sometimes go back and explain grammar to students once they can use the language. Then it makes so much more sense. It's like explaining how an engine works when we have built a hundred or so and have them right in front of us. Starting from grammar seems a lot like explaining how to build an engine with a huge pile of pieces in front of us.

I guess for now I'm trying to get rid of the s+v+o... and have+to+infinitive...
I teach my students
(I hafta)(whatever you have to do)
(D'you hafta)(whatever I want to know)?

and yes, I agree that EFL students aren't going to get the exposure they need to become fluent in this method, but something has to be done about my nursing college students not being able to complete one perfect English sentence other than 'I like something.' ...After 6 years of English in the public schools btw. :?

I don't really feel the pendulum needs to swing full the other way and for those teaching in other places (not Japan) I'm sure you have a better balance. I think that's really the key - - balance. I'd just like to think there are some alternatives and am trying to figure out what is the best for me and my students. We'll see where it goes.

Author:  kep [ Fri Jun 09, 2006 2:31 pm ]
Post subject: 

As far as getting rid of the S+V+O .... I know what you mean, but I personally think it's important to teach that difference. It's just that most teachers do it so poorly. Maybe because they throw that SVOO formula at the students without explaining properly? I don't know. I don't know what I'm doing differently, but I've found it very helpful to focus on that.

I can only speak from my own experience I guess, but I find that I have the best results when we build sentences together a few times. First, who or what are we talking about? What did they do? Then work in the where, when, etc. You have to practice a few times but they really start to see the pattern after a few examples.

When I've tried to introduce the pattern you mentioned, e.g.
(I hafta) (whatever they have to do)
...my students can only make that kind of sentence, and they can't manipulate anything that doesn't fit the pattern. Have you found a way to get around that? I really do think it's a good idea, especially because it's easier to teach natural pronunciation that way....but it just doesn't seem to stick in their heads when I use that method! (Although I have had some success with teaching rhythmically for elementary students).

I think your example of making the engine is excellent. But even in your example, the first time you make that engine, you still have to explain it...it's just confusing the first time.

Maybe the problem is that I/we want and expect immediate results. If they don't understand the first time, there must be a problem with the method. My best classes always happen when I expect students to be challenged and slowly realize meaning and understanding.

Wow. Sorry that was so long!

Author:  mesmark [ Fri Jun 09, 2006 3:11 pm ]
Post subject: 

I think the grammar method for building does show quick results and students can do a lot very quickly. They definitely have a better structural understanding but I feel they then become to rely on the structure and not the meaning. They end up trying to disect everything. Where as I can ramble things out at them at natural speed and they can give back to me the same way. However, my grammar students retain the computer speech and need me to pronounce all the words.

I'm in constant awe of how big our job is to teach English, and after all that I have learned and done, I'm constantly reminded that 'I don't know jack!' So, take all this with a grain of salt.

My students do fine going from:
(I hafta) (whatever they have to do) to (he hasto) (whatever he has to do)
(D'you hafta)(whatever I want to know)? to (Does he hafta)(whatever I want to know)?
(I hafta) (whatever they have to do) to (I don't hafta) (whatever they don't have to do)

but it takes a looooong time. They make a lot of mistakes along the way and after, but they don't seem to shy about it and will speak whether they can make the sentence or not. That's a real break-through for me. They would probably be able to do it faster with explanation but it seems to me that if they can do it without explanation they really get it and i'm hoping that's going to mean it will stick.

When I've tried to introduce the pattern you mentioned, e.g.
(I hafta) (whatever they have to do)
...my students can only make that kind of sentence, and they can't manipulate anything that doesn't fit the pattern. Have you found a way to get around that? I really do think it's a good idea, especially because it's easier to teach natural pronunciation that way....but it just doesn't seem to stick in their heads when I use that method! (Although I have had some success with teaching rhythmically for elementary students).

I have had success but it's from dealing with 'have' and 'has' for a year before that and 'does/doesn't' for a couple years. So, stringing them together for longer sentences is easier. Jumps from one form to another don't really happen but following do/does and be verb patterns are pretty solid. I think it's also training that's brought them along. I don't explain so they're not waiting for an explanation. They have to work it out for themselves and understand for themselves what it means and how to use it.

I do have some classes that don't do as well as the others and I resort to grammar of sorts, but I'm hoping I can find something else and trying to work it out.

Author:  osemotelak [ Fri Jun 09, 2006 4:54 pm ]
Post subject: 

Really great stuff. This is exactly what i was looking for. Thanks!

Author:  cesarjr [ Sat Jun 10, 2006 12:44 pm ]
Post subject: 

This has been an interesting topic and I have experienced both sides of teaching or not teaching grammar. I find it easier to introduce new material in a more of a non-grammar approach. More through conversation. It is easier for them to go through it and then review the grammar point. I am still trying to work it out but I agree with Mark. Every class is different and some of my classes love to get grammar lessons (they don't like to speak out in class) and there are those classes that love to learn how to speak(they hate the traditional study method of grammar first). I am trying to find something in the middle that works for both but it is still eluding me. Thanks for the insights!


Author:  Manuela [ Sun Jun 11, 2006 4:31 am ]
Post subject: 

When I finished University the in-method to teach was the audiolingual one, according to which students had to drill different structures and thus slowly build their competence in language. The main drawback of that method was the fact that by the end of a course students had a good grasp of the structure of English, of how English functions as a language but they could hardly say anything they wanted or needed to. For example they would not know how to ask for directions, or for the bill in a restaurant.
When I finished University again in Greece a decade later, the in thing was the communicative approach, which was supposed to teach students to communicate, teach the functions of English, how to apologise, how to complain etc. Grammar went completely into the background with this approach and it produced fluent but inaccurate users of English.
Another decade later when I did the Cambridge RSA DIPLOME course things had changed again. The teacher was supposed to make informed choices.The eclectic approach was the recommended thing. A teacher should be able to choose, according to the age, level, interests, psychology, type of intelligence of the students among the numerous approaches to teaching English: translation - grammar method, audiolingual method, suggestopedia, direct method, silent method etc. and use a variety of techniques from different methods within a lesson. in order to cater for the needs of the different students.
When teaching we can start with the lexis and move towards complex utterances the so called bottom-up approaches (grammar teaching approaches fit in here) or start from chunks of language and slowly move from the top towards the bottom, where the simple words are, the top-down approaches.
Like Mark I feel that students should first learn to say something and then only should grammar come to bring some order to their knowledge. In my experience students do not learn to speak a language when taught based on a bottom-up approach. And you can never learn the complexities of a language by starting to learn lists of unconnected words. When you learn chunks of language you have the advantage of being able to say something on the spot and you also learn which words go with which words, and you also absorb the grammar too. WHen you learn for example to ask and answer questions about where you live, you implicitely also learn how to make a question in the simple present tense and how to answer it, you learn the prepositions used after the verb live, etc. Otherwise you might come up with nonsense utterances like this :" How from here morning, morning", a perfect word to word translation from Greek, meaning "How come you came by so early" On the other hand students, especially, adults, have their own ideas about how they should learn something, so why not do the speaking first thing, seconded by short explanations of the grammar. A very good illustration of what I am saying here is the Oxford University Course for Adults "New English Files". Of course grammar has its role. It is a short cut for explaining complexities like inversion after negative words, subjunctives etc. But by just understanding grammar rules students can never speak.
I feel that extensive reading also plays an important role in getting students to acquire the language and become fluent and also encouraging them to listen to English songs, to watch films, to search the net. What I mean to say encouraging students to learn English outside the classroom as well.

Author:  kep [ Tue Jun 13, 2006 11:40 am ]
Post subject: 

Do you think it's effective to include both grammatical instruction and the more communicative method in a single class? I'm thinking specifically of the role of an ALT in the classroom, here. (in a Japanese school)

Can you suggest a way to use this method with a grammatically based textbook in a consistant way?

Any ideas would be helpful!

Author:  mesmark [ Wed Jun 14, 2006 11:19 am ]
Post subject: 

kep wrote:
Do you think it's effective to include both grammatical instruction and the more communicative method in a single class? I'm thinking specifically of the role of an ALT in the classroom, here. (in a Japanese school)

Can you suggest a way to use this method with a grammatically based textbook in a consistant way?

In Japanese JHS/SH I don't think you can do it unless you have a very liberated Japanese teacher you're working with. They are generally so pressed for time (meaning they still need to get in last weeks grammar) that they can't afford 'communicative' activities or introduction. Also, the teachers will panic if you don't explain right away.

At my private school, I generally introduce the new language first in a yes/no question for a couple lessons. I ask the question over and over again to the students and they just have to answer yes or no. This helps them to understand the meaning/usage of the new English. Then, I get them to practice using the question. After a few more lessons we work on making the statement. Way down the line is the final step which is to make the negative if nec.

Now that seems like a long time but it's just a small part of other lessons. Once we get to the third step, making the statement, it becomes sort of the main point of the lesson. (But meanwhile I'm trying to introduce some other things here and there.) Then it will go into a review phase in future lessons. Once they have the statement and negative down to some extent, I'll bring it back. Then, I start with some writing reinforcement, which I guess is my form of grammar instruction.

If they are very young, I have some 'talking worksheets' I've been creating, that I've started to use. That skips the need for writing ability and they can be used over and over again for review.

Like Manuela said, I think it's just something to think about or add to the arsenal. I can't see how no-grammar instruction would work as an all inclusive system, but I'm trying to milk it for all it's got!

Author:  revrw [ Wed Aug 02, 2006 3:14 pm ]
Post subject: 

Mark.....I think you are right on!!!! I am almost finished with my ESL degree and I can't tell you how the methods change every year or two and there are about 50 new acronyms introduced every week and they all basicly mean the same thing. I find is somewhat ridiculous! And you have to add to all that the political correctness that is advocated on a daily basis. God forbid that I offend anyone just once!!!! Because of all the "red tape" it becomes impossible to actually convince the students, as you put it, "to take the red pill". I hope that when I begin teaching, I will have the liberty to teach as you do. Anyways.....thanks for your insights to effective language instruction.

Page 1 of 2 All times are UTC + 9 hours
Powered by phpBB © 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007 phpBB Group