Recent Research in Teaching Grammar

November 14, 2008

How important is grammatical knowledge? How can we balance grammatical accuracy with communicative fluency? Can grammar even be taught? These questions have been debated for as long as language has been taught. Two recent articles provide new insight on the role of grammar in language classrooms.

Grammar Can be Taught (without hurting fluency)
Research conducted by Mochizuki and Ortega (2008) revealed that teaching grammar to students results in more accurate speaking in communicative tasks. Furthermore, the students who studied grammar performed as well as the control group in measures of fluency. This groundbreaking study offers hard evidence that studying grammar will help students improve their English significantly.

Grammar Should be Taught
It is not enough to know that grammar can be taught. The question remains whether it should be taught. Shiotsu and Weir (2007) conducted a series of experiments to see how much of reading comprehension could be explained by vocabulary knowledge vs. grammatical knowledge. They found that grammatical knowledge is more important than vocabulary size, and they extrabpolated their findings to understanding English in general.

What This Means for You and Your Students
These two studies show that a well-rounded curriculum must have a grammar component. This is critical both for students ability to understand English and for their ability to use the language.

Mochizuki, N. & Ortega, L. (2008) Balancing communication and grammar in beginning-level foreign language classrooms: A study of guided planning and relativization. Language Teaching Research. 12 (1) 11-37.

Shiotsu, T. & Weir, C. (2007) The relative significance of syntactic knowledge and vocabulary breadth in the prediction of reading comprehension test performance. Language Testing. 24 (1) 99-128.

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Texas TESOL: more student interest in online software

November 11, 2008

Hello everyone. Well, it looks like live blogging from conferences is not likely in the cards for me. By the time evening rolls around and it’s time to comment on the day’s sessions, I’ve got so many other events going on that I don’t get back to my computer until late. For international TESOL, I’m working with some of my colleagues here to put together a daily brief of the best sessions. This would be a service mostly for teachers who can’t attend TESOL–kind of like reading the highlights of a sporting event you miss.

Texas TESOL’s attendance was down a little this year. They usually average 1000 attendees, but this year saw around 800 or so, according to conference organizers. Based on conversations with teachers at the conference, a big contributor to the lower attendance was school districts cutting back on funding for substitutes etc.

A big trend at TexTESOL that I noticed was the continued interest of students in accessing ESL software online. (See an earlier post on this)

The stories generally went like this: Teachers told me that they had bought software for their language labs a few years ago. Everyone is happy with the content and thinks that it is making a difference in the students’ learning. Lately, though, students have been asking about using the software at home.

Since the schools sank significant funds into the network version of the software, many of them are hesitant to make the jump into online versions. It seems, though, that ESL students are beginning to expect that software should be accessible from any computer.

Some of the big publishers (Pearson Longman included) have been moving in this direction and are offering significant options for online software. Others appear to believe that students will not want to pay the extra cost of online subscriptions and are only developing CD-ROM based software. I think it will be very clear sooner rather than later who is right on this point.
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Trends from Ohio TESOL: Technology and Speaking/Writing

November 7, 2008

Ohio TESOL had around 700 attendees this year, making it one of the most well attended state TESOL conferences nationwide. This is especially impressive at a time when a lot of districts are cutting back on funding for teachers to attend conferences. The conference was a great opportunity for me to talk to a lot of ESL teachers about the current state of ESL methodology. A few recurring themes emerged: the use of technology and teaching productive skills (speaking and writing).

Technology and Software for ESL Students
Many teachers reported that they are exploring what technology can do for them and for their students. They described experiments with Moodle and social networking sites. I also heard a lot of interest in commercial ESL software. By far the biggest buzz was on what’s available online rather than on CD-ROM. Some teachers have been trying out different projects and assignments online for a while now, but the majority were just starting to explore their options. As student access to the internet broadens and teacher familiarity with available software increases, I predict significantly higher use of technology in ESL.

Productive Skills
Whenever we talked about Reading/Writing or Listening/Speaking classes, teachers shared with me a renewed emphasis on speaking and writing–especially in academic contexts. As one teacher put it, “We don’t want to have listening courses with a little bit of speaking at the end. We’re focusing on developing students’ speaking skills at the same time as their listening skills.” I heard the same about Reading/Writing courses–a real move toward full integration of writing into reading. While I didn’t get enough confirmation to say this strongly, I believe that much of this comes from the realities in mainstream courses. Students need to be prepared to participate orally in class and are increasingly being asked to do more short writing assignments (often in online discussion boards). My prediction here is that more ESL teachers will begin to reexamine their curricula and pump up the writing and speaking components.

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ELL/ESL/EFL Blog Carnival — Seventh Edition

October 2, 2008

If anyone has not yet checked out the 7th edition of Larry Ferlazzo’s ELL/ESL/EFL Blog Carnival, then it’s time you did so! While you’re there, spend some time exploring Larry’s site–an impressive resource for ESOL teachers and programs.

ESL, Bilingual ed, and State ballot initiatives

October 2, 2008

So far, this November has ballot initiatives in 3 states dealing with immigration. Two of these will directly affect ESL teachers and programs.

In Oregon, Measure 58 would limit bilingual instruction to 2 years. Its sponsor, Bill Sizemore, pitches this as a way to force students to study harder and enter mainstream classrooms faster. This is in sharp contrast to the 5-7 years experts like Jim Cummins cite as the length of time needed to learn academic English. Sizemore’s lack of a research-backed reason for setting 2 years as the cut-off point makes you wonder where he come up with that figure. Many have already commented that this sounds more like a cost-cutting (if not anti-immigrant) tactic than anything else. A citizen review panel recently called the measure too rigid and unworkable. more coverage here

A Missouri state constitutional amendment would make English the official language of the state government. This could potentially have broad impact on ESL programs in Adult Education and Community Colleges across the state. If every encounter with the Missouri government (from Driver’s License offices to courthouses) must be in English, then there could be a spike in demand for ESL classes. Some critics are already calling this a non-issue designed only to bring more Republican voters to the polls.

The Missouri amendment is in stark contrast to the recent conference held by the Department of Justice designed to increase access to native-language materials and services such as interpreters.

It’s always difficult to parse out the motivation behind measures like these. Both could be chalked up to money-saving initiatives or as part of the English-Only movements you hear from occasionally. One thing is certain: any that pass will have immediate negative effects on people who are still English language learners.

Technology and the ESL/EFL teacher

September 30, 2008

Just yesterday I had a conversation with an ESL instructor about online software and she made the following objection.

Teacher: All the cool things that ESL software can do for my students are really amazing, but it seems like you’re trying to ESL teachers obsolete.

While I certainly appreciate her concern in an already tight job market, I would like to try to put this worry to bed once and for all. There are plenty of schools in the U.S. and other countries whose success in implementing ESL software I have seen firsthand. These schools appreciate the differences between face-to-face interactions and online language learning and maximize the former by taking advantage of the latter.

Face-to-face ESL classrooms will always be the very best environments for learning a language because it allows for the closest approximation of the situations learners will most likely find themselves in. Furthermore, a trained ESL instructor is best at changing lessons in mid-stream and diagnosing unexpected problems and addressing them immediately.

ESOL software can help improve what goes on in the face-to-face classroom by giving language learners more personalized support outside of the classroom. A teacher is limited in the number of times s/he can go over a grammatical concept. There are only so many times you can listen to one student repeat one word. But with software, the students can review the grammar and practice speaking as many times as they need to. They can gain confidence in their abilities and come to class much better prepared.

Rather than trying to eliminate teachers, ESL software (especially online software) is designed to makes teachers’ lives easier. Better prepared students are able to take advantage of classroom interactions more actively and they are more in tune with their own strengths and weaknesses. In short, taking advantage of technology in ESL outside the classroom helps improve everything that happens inside the classroom.

Teaching Grammar: an occasional series

September 25, 2008

This will be the first post in a series that will run periodically for (likely) quite some time to come. Every time that I think the “Grammar Question” has finally been laid to rest, it flairs up again at some conference or on some forum. I’ve decided to wade in, and will devote several posts over the next couple of months exploring this. This introductory post lays out the question and sets the stage for further posts in which I will explore the issues involved.

The simplified version of the Grammar Question is: Should grammar be taught in the ESL/EFL classroom?

Behind this simple question, however, is a whole host of assumptions about ESL students’ language goals, best practices in English language teaching, the nature of adult language acquisition, and what it means to “teach grammar” anyway. Many of the arguments about whether to teach grammar stem from people’s tacit assumptions about the question. Each ESL teacher assumes that the other is coming from the same point of view and background, when often that is not the case.

The challenge over the next several posts in this series will be to lay out my assumptions as clearly as possible and also to cite as much relevant research as possible. I will place one rule on any comments added to this series. Any time you want to use the phrase “research shows”, you must cite the specific studies you are basing your statement on.

Welcome to “Teaching Grammar”, I hope everyone will enjoy the series.