A word of warning: if you’re looking for clear and definite answers about whether we should teach discrete items of grammar and/or lexis in this post – or anywhere for that matter – I both fear for your sanity, and suspect you will be disappointed. However, if you’re interested in a few anecdotal experiences from the Korean class I took recently (see below for links to other posts), read on.
Let’s first be clear about what we’re discussing here. It’s been pointed out, quite rightly in my opinion, that the line between grammar (more often than not meaning verb morphology) and lexis (meaning words and phrases) is a thin and blurry one. The theory goes that when teaching polite offers, it is probably easier to define the underlined part “Would you like to go to dinner with me?” as a whole chunk of language, rather than breaking it down into a modal plus a main verb with infinitive complement (if those are even the right terms). However it is defined and taught though, this is what I want to discuss in this post: a pre-selected, discrete item presented for learning by the teacher or the syllabus, the kind of which makes up the majority of general English courses. For the moment I’m going to leave aside single words and very short phrases – those are for a future post.
My Korean course seemed to be organised around topic and text; judging by the somewhat scattergun approach, discrete items seemed to be selected based on their appearance in the texts rather than any linguistic developmental theories. Items were presented in the book as a kind of gloss below the reading with a formula (interestingly using English word classes – something like “N을 통해” /”Through [noun]”) and a couple of example sentences in Korean, which I often found fairly unhelpful is ascertaining the function of the item.
If the items were selected on the basis of appearance in texts, there would seem to be one major disadvantage: items will tend to appear more in writing than speaking. In a general course this leads to a serious imbalance between written and spoken registers, and for a learner like me who is much more focused on speaking, there is an inevitable switching off when the teacher says “written grammar”, leading to a serious lack of will to try to use it, not to mention a similar lack of opportunity. However, I do notice one of my classmates trying to use this grammar in speech, and I presume she is doing it for practice purposes and not because she doesn’t realise, and I wonder how helpful this might be.
One thing that I found unhelpful with the presentation of grammar functions was when they were presented in terms of a simpler function. Female teacher was very fond of presenting items like this: “you can say this easily as [something that we already know]”. She’s trying to be helpful and connect us to existing knowledge, but at this point my brain says something like: “if I can say it easily like that, why should I bother to learn to say it in a more difficult way?” (Wait, I’m just a rubbish language learner, aren’t I?) Maybe not, because for me there needs to be a comparison between the simple form and the complex form and their subtle differences, but this is not forthcoming. I will refrain from being too critical of the teacher here though, as I can think of times where I have done similar, for example presenting three different ways of expressing the same function at the same time, without pointing out how they might be different or considering that learning one might be enough for that class.
The teaching of grammar and chunks on my course could best be described as PP (the P that’s missing is produce), but there’s not even much presentation going on. Female teacher (sorry to keep picking on you, but you were the worst offender here) vaguely directs our attention to the example sentences and expects us to guess from context, but I am frequently unaware of the fact that I was even supposed to be looking in the first place. Even if I was, two example sentences with no explanation is simply not enough to grasp the concept, especially when there may be unknown vocabulary in those sentences, and the sentences are essentially decontextualised anyway (with hindsight, I realise I could just have looked back at the text to see the sentence in context, but it didn’t occur to me at the time). The result of all this is that while I’m still trying to grasp the basic meaning of the sentence, the class has moved on to the controlled practice stage.
Practice is facilitated by the workbook. We are given parts of sentences, and sometimes have to complete a matching exercise to establish the semantics. Then the task is to write out the sentence including the language item we are practising. Except it isn’t, because every teacher asks us to speak our answers immediately. Now, I like to think I’m ok at grammatical manipulation, but when the presentation stage has left me with such a thin grasp of the concept, this seems rather unfair, and I wish for some time to sit down and figure out quietly just what is going on. A further grievance is that of the half-personalisation that forces you to start a sentence that you really don’t want to complete. To return to my previously published diary extract:
“There’s a horrible moment where as a personalization thing I have to create an example of the difference between Korean and English girls. I struggle for something inoffensive, fail and settle for a fat/thin distinction. The girl opposite me sighs.”
Again, I can remember more than one occasion where I have asked students to do an exercise first orally, and I’m sure I’ve set similar half-personalisation exercises too. In future I’m at least going to consider the difficulty and newness of an item while deciding how best it might be practised, and also give students the opportunity to change or completely rewrite practice sentences.
It’s after the controlled practice stage that the teaching process ends. Just like that. This is partly because there are three or four short grammar points to cover from each unit, and so we rush on to the next one in order to fit them all in. On reflection, I don’t think the grammar was that important to the course designer; it’s only there to facilitate understanding of the texts. Ironically, I have often not even noticed the grammar/chunk when reading the text and have instead just skipped over it. This might explain some of my lack of interest in the grammar we are being taught – it doesn’t have enough semantic or functional weight to be worth learning. Here, I think, I’ve come to the point. There is very little recognition that the language that we are being taught could or will ever be used to do anything, nor that production of a feature is in any way important for understanding it or incorporating it into my Korean. This is partly the fault of the book, but some blame must also lie with the teachers. All the things that I might associate with this kind of language work – goals, planning time, feedback, contextualized examples – are missing. In short, there is no teaching.
It is no surprise, then, that I can’t think of a single discrete item that we were taught on the course that has subsequently appeared in my spoken Korean. However, I have found myself using several features that I encountered in reading and listening texts; features that I was previously dimly aware of. Perhaps this tells us that language acquisition is a gradual process of becoming aware, noticing and finally using. Maybe the production stage of a PPP lesson and its various equivalents are superfluous. Still, I would like to have been given the opportunity to find out; I feel strangely cheated by not getting the chance to experience a single lesson with a grammar focus and clear output goals, even though I don’t believe that’s a particularly effective way of teaching.
I want to finish with a note on my teachers, who I have been fairly critical of in this post. All of them seemed to me to be to be friendly, patient, enthusiastic and wholehearted people with excellent content knowledge, and I was very happy to be taught by them. I am very much unaware of the forces in operation outside the classroom such as time or institutional pressure. I’m also aware that I see the classroom very much through Western eyes and there are all kinds of lurking prejudices that colour my perceptions. Thus, I hope you read this post in the spirit of honest enquiry, and I will leave you with some questions to ponder.
- Is teaching like this enjoyable for the teacher? (How) do they think they are helping the students?
- How representative is my classroom of other language teaching contexts in Korea? I am thinking in particular of English taught in schools.
- I know that two of these teachers have MAs in foreign language teaching. I presume that they must have come across communicative approaches, PPP and the like? What stops this filtering into their practice?
- Am I just being unnecessarily critical here?
Links to to other posts about this Korean course