October 11, 2012 22 Comments
“Without grammar, little can be conveyed; without lexis, nothing can be conveyed”, David Wilkins
Various teaching practice spring cleanings in the past three years have cleared out a lot of clutter from my grammar teaching and while I wouldn’t go as far as saying I avoid teaching grammar (after all, it’s part of the language; it would be unwise to leave out a whole area of language from its teaching), I definitely avoid aspects of it.
“Use ‘must’ for an internal obligation and ‘have to’ for an external one”
Disclaimer: These results are two random samples I took from the BNC corpus using ‘I must’ and ‘I have to’ – they are not a fully fledged study into the use of modality.
I’m not so convinced, I must say (or I have to admit?). Furthermore, I don’t think rules like this help students to make personal decisions on what grammar best expresses their opinion. For instance, make a ‘to do’ list in your head, what’s the most common modal that turns up? I swing between the semi-modals ‘have got to’ and ‘have to’. Now think about if there’s more external than internal obligation for each of these. All answers please include the start and the end of the thought process and send them stamped to 25, languagemoments street, London, UK.
But I think I am safe in saying that I make up part of a large pool of language teachers who have arrived at the same conclusion.
Use present progressive for a future action that has already been arranged and decided and use going to + infinitive for an intention
I know this to be true. I have experienced it to be of little help to students. In my personal opinion, the use of adverbs makes much more difference to the meaning of these two structures.
I’m seeing a film tomorrow
I’m going to see a film tomorrow
I’m hopefully seeing that new film tomorrow
I’m probably going to see that new film tomorrow
Can we say therefore that explicit rule-based atomistic grammar instruction should pack its bags and make way for holistic lexico-grammatical instruction? I am certain that this equips students with the analytical tools to analyse meaning as it occurs in real life; lexicalised and in context.
On that note, it’s worth taking a look at ‘have to’ and ‘must’ again. You’ll see that there are some great chunks in the two extracts from the corpus: I have to say/I really must say/I must admit.
The power of language
Not only does the idea of atomistic rules not chime with me, but also the way in which they are written I believe really disempowers the student. How many times do you hear “I must use/I have to use” in your courses? Does this make your heart sink? It does mine. It sounds like the learner is completely dehumanised in the language learning process; where’s the opinion? What about “I can use present perfect when I do not consider the time period finished, e.g. I’ve seen so much while living in Berlin” – I still live there. Swap musts, have tos, we use, you use for I can use, if I say___, it means I think____.
I’m happy to say that they have very little place, if any, in my classroom. Shouldn’t language be introduced and practised in context? If so, then 12 different contexts, all different from each other, just for the purpose of practising a structure is not entirely conducive to this. What’s more, it’s a focus on form, not meaning. Any chance of focusing on meaning is dealt a serious blow from the constantly changing contexts. That said, I do give them for homework, woe betide me for bowing to student expectations.
I would be fascinated to know of any other grammar-teaching pet-peeves people have. Likewise, if someone wants to completely disagree with me, I’d welcome a bit of a grammar tussle.
Also, watch this space. I feel a number of skeletons coming on.