MA Assignment: Grammar-wise, where do your learners struggle?

jigsawStruggling to piece it all together – from (the awesome, go check it out) ELTpics on Flickr

This piece is part way inspired by a recent post over on Dave Dodgson’s blog, where he combined blogging and pre-thesis reflection in one interesting, and most importantly time-saving blog post. Being in a similar situation, with nowhere near as much time as I would like to write on here, I am shamelessly stealing his idea, and doing my assignment thinking out loud, right here.

The assignment is for the grammar section of the course, and asks us to consider an area of English grammar in relation to a group of learners. I’m going to consider my high school students, but as I teach at middle school and elementary school as well, I’m going to try to draw some insights from there too.

I should start by saying that my learners (bless ’em) are not particularly high level, particularly when it comes to grammar in production. When tackling grammar problems or understanding it in receptive contexts they are a little better, but this is not a subject which I’m short on material for. I had a bit of a brainstorm and came up with the following four areas in which my learners struggle.

Sentence structure

Really this is where it all starts from – a surprising number of my learners simply aren’t able to put together a spoken sentence in English. They do a little better with written grammar, but still I see quite a few mistakes with subject-verb-object order (they common mistake is to revert back to Korean sentence order instead, which runs more or less subject-object-verb). One thing that is done well is adjective position, as this is largely the same as the L1. Perhaps the problems lie in the translation between Korean and English, which obviously doesn’t hold up as well as English to Spanish for example due to the different structures of the language.

One of the more frustrating things I find as a teacher is getting one word answers to questions. I realize that this is perfectly natural for native speakers at times, but it’s frustrating to hear students cop out of putting their answers in a clause at least. Of course, a lot of this could well be down to student laziness, but it’s also probably do with the fact that Korean drops both subjects and objects when it’s obvious. It’d also be interesting to see if one word answers were a feature of Korean discourse – from the limited amount that I know I suspect they may be.

I’m not quite sure where I would go with an assignment on this. It seems an awfully big topic to cover, but I’d probably start with the seven types of clause in English and work out from there. Still, I don’t favour it as it covers a huge area and I don’t have much solid evidence to draw on.

Word class

This is something I’ve been working on improving in the last couple of weeks, but something that my learners do struggle with. Most of the confusion comes between the four main classes, mostly I believe with nouns substituting for verbs. I have a couple of theories on why this is so. Firstly, where students are trying to figure out a word to put in a sentence, they simply reach in their mind for anything that sounds remotely right. This would then suggest that they are not aware of word class when they memorize words, most likely because they tend to learn words in lists as isolated units rather than in context. The not memorizing word class would point to y second theory, which is that students are simply not that aware of word class. I see this happen frequently when students are looking up words in the dictionary, they will simply insert the first translation that they come across, rather than figuring out how to manipulate the word to the correct class.

This is perhaps because Korean appears to be a remarkably easy language to manipulate word class in. It’s full of borrowed Chinese words, most of which can be easily transformed from nouns into verbs or adjectives simply by adding the Korean verb for “to do”, so literally in Korean you “do cleaning” rather than clean, and after you’ve finished your house “does cleanliness” rather than being clean. There are plenty of other manipulations possible too, which seem to be far more regular than English, and thus may go some way to explaining my learners’ struggles.

It’s occurring to me while writing this that it would actually make a really interesting project, looking at the way word classes are manipulated in both languages, and the differences in what constitutes each one in the two languages. It’s especially relevant given that I am working on this with my learners at the moment.

Verb tense, aspect and auxiliary verbs

Having learnt both my other languages (if you can claim lower intermediate proficiency as another language) via a fairly grammatical approach, I find that I am aware of verbs approaching in a sentence from a very long way off. As soon as they come over the horizon of an utterance I find myself mentally preparing for the twists and turns of tense, aspect, politeness level and several other things that I don’t know the linguistic terms for in Korean. Therefore, it’s something of a mystery to me why my learners don’t have the same precipitous sense of impending grammatical manipulation, and verbs pop out of their mouths uninflected.

This is one area of grammatical weakness where the L1 doesn’t provide such a convenient explanation of the weakness. If anything, there is far more to consider when fiddling with verbs in Korean than English. Korean has many similar tenses with similar uses to English, yet this doesn’t seem to have registered with my learners. Many of them still have no idea how to (per)form the present continuous tense, despite the form being analogous to the English. The problem seems to come with the auxiliary verb system – students can often get halfway to forming the present progressive by using the –ing form of the main verb, but forget the auxiliary. Strangely, at times the auxiliary appears in the present simple aspect with no explanation. I suspect that this is largely down to confusion on the part of the students.

This doesn’t seem to have legs as a project though; tackling the entire English tense system is a bit much for a 3,000 word paper.

The dreaded “-ing”

This is perhaps my biggest pet peeve with my learners – an almost universal inability to understand what -ing forms do in English, or how to use them, or even that they have different functions. What’s worse, they’re scattered liberally through my learners’ speech, almost always in the wrong place, and conspicuously absent where they are actually needed.

I explained above the problems with verb tense and aspect above, and where I’m trying to correct the tense of a learner (either past, present or future) the default next option is always the -ing form. This shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what it actually does in a verb phrase. I do have some sympathy though,  due to the ubiquitous nature of the -ing form; they pop up as adjectives, in adverbial phrases, as well as annoying gerunds. Who wouldn’t be a little confused by the grammar of the phrase “I’m going camping”?

A project on this then, would probably take the form of an exploration of the different functions of the -ing form in English, and it’s variants in Korean. While this would be really interesting from a grammar point of view, it only really relates to the learners in terms of verb tense.

Conclusion

Blog based reflection certainly seems to be the way forward. From my writings here I’m pretty sure I’m going to write on word classes in English – and especially the transformations which can take place to create related words in other classes. This is something that isn’t a grammatical strongpoint of mine, or my learners, so it will be useful for us both . Finally it’s something that I know a bit about in Korean, and I’m looking forward to exploring further.

If you made it through all that, I applaud your tolerance for putting up with my brain farts. If you’d like to leave a comment documenting the fact that you read this all, I’m sure someone will be along with a sainthood directly. Along with your application for canonisation, you could also tell me about your learners’ grammatical structures, or whether you think examining L1 grammar is a useful tool in understanding L2 grammar errors.

Cheers,

Alex

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