Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Tyranny of Grammar

by AJ

C. is a Korean student at my school. Yesterday, she talked with me after class. She was frantic.. almost desperate. She wanted my advice.

C. told me, "I can't speak English. All the other students are better than me". I asked her to explain and she continued... she was extremely frustrated by her lack of fluency. Though she did well on the placement test and is in the advanced class... she felt many of my (low intermediate) students spoke better than her.

She then asked my advice. What should she do? I asked her to describe her study methods. Turns out she is obsessed with grammar. C. attends our school 4 hours a day. Oftentimes, she will also attend another 3 hours of evening classes. But thats not all. Most days she also works for an hour or more in a grammar book. Clearly, motivation and hard work are not lacking.

C. knows more about English grammar than any student in my class, and probably more than almost every student in our school. In fact, Id wager that from an analytical perspective, C. knows more about grammar than any TEACHER in our school. Yet, she feels she still "doesnt know enough grammar". While she can, in fact, speak English... its true that some of my students have greater fluency than she does... and true that many of my (lower level) students have better PRACTICAL grammar skills (ie. as actually used in speech and writing).

C. is the poster girl for why I detest the textbook driven direct grammar methods popular with most schools. Not only do these methods NOT help... they are harmful. C. speaks LESS well because she has focused so much on grammar analysis. She is more anxious, her speech is more halting, and her spoken/written grammar is worse. Because of the methods she was taught with.. and now employs herself... she is learning less quickly than other students whose focus is on comprehensible input.

Its my belief that teachers who use a textbook-grammar centric method are harming their students. They are slowing their progress. They are inhibiting their longterm success. In extreme cases, they are creating students like C.... very bright, motivated students who are great linguists... but ineffective speakers.

Direct grammar analysis should comprise no more than 20% of instruction. Dont damage your students. Dont turn them into grammar quoting drones who cant communicate.