Monday, August 30, 2010


The satisfaction derived from getting all the nitty gritty of a particular grammar point on the board in tabular form, with lots of examples, with multicolored chalk – we may as well push the boat out – and eulogizing about every detail provides a high, to some, that is better than alcohol, drugs or even sex. The chosen few in this case – for so they are in proportion to the rest of mankind – are English teachers and I will go so far as to say that I have a sneaking suspicion that this euphoria may be linked to a gene mutation somewhere. This, however, is yet to be proved. To their captive audience – students – the experience can be likened to going to hell in a handcart. It is deeply tragic that generations of teachers who are bewitched by the subjunctive or see a subtle magic in minute differences in meaning between various past forms of modals fail to notice that students are nowhere near as carried away as they are by the whole exercise. They continue to hold firmly to the belief that the method here described is the best, the only and the most effective way of imparting information to the students despite the fact that this belief is not borne out by facts on the ground; i.e. exam results or the random question directed at students. At the end of such a long session, the teacher may turn to what she/ he feels is the rapt class and ask the English grammar equivalent of the following question: “What does e equal?” She fully expects a chorus of voices yelling “e=mc2”. Instead, a dazed looking student says “e= 2” hoping that he has, by chance, hit the nail on the head. What he does manage to do is give his poor teacher a coronary.
You are healed; get up and walk – only he isn’t!

The trouble with this approach, already outlined in the previous paper on motivation, is that the poor unfortunate recipients – the students – who ought to have been absorbing those tables like the proverbial sponge and riding the swell with the teacher, tuned out way back when the tables, lists and rules first started taking form, and the knowledge so lovingly imparted entered the “knowledge- wafting- past- consciousness- mode”. It is obvious what this means from the previous paper: hypnosis true and proper. They wake up with a start when they hear “What does e equal?” Students, by nature, are conditioned to respond to questions so someone mumbles two or three or sixty-two as it would look foolish not to say anything. This answer sends shock waves through the teacher’s body; she feels the blood pumping in her ears and is about ready to explode. A teacher I know, a friend of my father’s from his student days in Scotland, says he once picked up the eraser and hurled it across the room at the poor unfortunate speaker. The victim of this brutal attack had had plenty of practice with a Frisbee and was therefore a much better shot, which led the teacher to rethink his style of teaching.

Scenes like this have been and continue to be played out in classes across the globe and some of the courses I took were no exception. I remember one course I took at university and the teacher – a very well -meaning and genuinely nice person – who taught us. The lesson was scheduled for one thirty; i.e. directly after lunch in what is now the Arts and Sciences building. Our teacher would position himself at one end of the board on the dot of one thirty and start droning and writing in rather spidery writing with no change in intonation or manner of address. Ironically, he was trying to teach us prospective teachers how to teach English grammar. His ghostly presence and soft, monotonous voice, combined with coal fired central heating and a carbohydrate loaded lunch was deadly. I defy any of his former pupils to get up and claim to have been able to stay awake and learn anything in his lessons. At the time, three friends and I decided to take it in turns going to class and taking notes as there was, thankfully, no attendance requirement. The victim was not allowed lunch and prepped on Turkish coffee after which he was required to stay awake and copy everything on the board. We would get together and figure out what everything meant later. Fortunately, our teacher wasn’t the “What does e equal?” kind of teacher, so he survived the experience of teaching us and retired, convinced of his abilities as a teacher.

What is fascinating to me is the fact that throughout his long career, he never noticed the reaction of his students to his manner of teaching and never once questioned his methods. He is not alone: the blindness of the true believer is a problem that is almost insurmountable. This is especially ironic when one recalls that it is teaching - which involves working with people - which is at issue here and not experiments in some God forsaken lab somewhere.

Welcome to the chainsaw massacre: the grammar translation method

The reason why a lot of teachers cling so ferociously to the method of teaching outlined above is the deep passion they feel for the grammar translation method, whatever they claim to the contrary. Many will pay lip service to those new fangled notions like the student centered classroom, an interactive approach, contextualizing grammar, games and the like but will frequently, and a little guiltily, revert to the “everything-on-the-board-while-I-explain” or the “look-at-the-table-in-the-book-while-I-explain” method. They will then emerge from class and boast proudly that they have been explaining the past perfect, for instance, for the whole of 90 minutes. They won’t stop for a minute to wonder whether it was in fact right to have been “explaining” for the whole block; it feels right - remember my theory on genetic mutations – so it must have been right. We know how shaky that line of reasoning is when we run through, in our minds, all the possible evils that could be justified thus. Experts in the field of education will tell you that you need to observe the expression on a teacher’s face as he leaves the room to determine what kind of teacher he is; I beg to disagree: the said experts forgot the widespread addiction to the grammar translation method. The group of teachers I have just attempted to described leave the class looking positively ecstatic but contrary to what experts say, have nothing to be proud of for the very simple reason that they have not only failed to teach anything properly but have also guaranteed that students will not focus next time either. There is a lot to be said for classical conditioning- Pavlov should have worked with these students instead of dogs but there you go - and students, unlike teachers, are fast learners.

Forgive me father for I have sinned; I have bored my students witless

So far, we have ascertained that obsessive use of the blackboard is a cardinal sin – gluttony – claiming to be able to interact with students while one’s back is turned, while one is cowering behind a desk or barricaded behind a laptop is a barefaced lie and continuing to claim that students can actually learn while listening to you droning on for 90 minutes is a delusion. It is also pretty obvious that going all “old testament” on the students won’t work and neither will sitting through the lesson, so the best thing a teacher can do is invest in a pair of sensible shoes and resign herself / himself to the fact that s/he will eventually develop varicose veins. The teacher, as team leader, needs to get down in the trenches with his /her team and actually work with the students; this is the only way any learning is going to take place. Most importantly, the attachment to the grammar translation method, which can best be compared to the bond that is formed between a three- year- old and his blanket, must be broken. “How are we going to teach grammar if we don’t do any of this?” I hear you cry; the answer is simple: a good teacher needs to be devious when it comes to grammar as the latter can best be compared to a good hot curry and we all know what happens when we have too much of that. The grammar has to slip into the student’s long-term memory without him noticing; I will go further: he must enjoy the experience. So how to you achieve this if the person hates chili?

The silver bullet: commonsense as usual

In order to help the students gain complete mastery of English grammar, the teacher must be disabused of the idea that grammar can exist in a void – in tables and lists set out on the board however lovingly – but as the building blocks of speech, reading, listening, writing- in short, communication. The first thing to do in that case is to observe the beast in his natural environment: in listening, reading or even speech. Observing and copying the masters or the experts is the natural first step when acquiring many different skills for the first time and there is no reason why grammar should be an exception. The most common and also easiest place to start, therefore, is with a reading passage but what reading passage? The selection needs to be meticulous; remember the hot curry and the lack of fondness for chili? The principle that the teaching of grammar needs to start with “a context” of some sort is very well known; what is not so well known is the fact that the selection needs to follow some rules. The said passage needs to fit all the criteria of a good, well organized and interesting text with the added bonus of having plenty of examples of the particular structure being introduced. To be precise, it needs to have a clear beginning, a development and an end and thus lend itself to analysis, outlining, summarizing, vocabulary study and the like but also have, imbedded within it, the grammar points you wish the students to be surreptitiously made to ingest. “Surreptitiously” is the key word here; so the teacher should not say or do any of the following:

1. Make statements like “Let us observe how non defining relative clauses have been used in this text” or “Let us underline all the relative clauses and label them as defining or non defining”.

2. Fill in the table on page two with examples of relative clauses from the text.

The list could go on and on but the point is obvious: the grammar translation method is out, dead, finished, gone. Instead, the text should be tackled like any reading passage- the details of which will be covered when dealing with reading. The standard procedures, all of which don’t need to be used at once, are: regular outlining, the assigning of subtitles, sentence squeezing, summarizing, making notes, answering questions, focusing on vocabulary and plenty of discussion. One may wonder why one seems to pay nothing but the most limited attention to the grammar point being studied; that is, after all, the purpose of the whole exercise. The desire to do so will be like an itch which demands immediate attention but the good teacher will resist this temptation as he will know that as the building blocks of language, the grammar will be internalized by the completely mesmerized student with minimum effort from the teacher as it constitutes the links in the chain that form the reading passage. The student will be busy enjoying the text and attacking the reading tasks the class is working on; the curry, meanwhile, will slip in quite unawares – contrary to what is widely believed, he doesn’t need to be “aware” to learn the grammar. A few texts covered in this way and your problem will be solved; the students will also have benefitted from a truly fruitful reading lesson. This, in itself, is invaluable as we, as a breed, love killing numerous birds with one stone. For example, during the weeks I am teaching students to write argumentative essays, I only use various argumentative texts, all with a wow factor, smoking hot in other words and all organized slightly differently. I never open my mouth to lay out formulas of organization or mention subject specific vocabulary. Students absorb the logic, the reasoning, and the means of expression painlessly as we read about Che Guevara or The Crusades for example. The topics are so very interesting that anything you serve up with them is gobbled up happily. If your two year old wants to put chocolate sauce on his carrots, why should you mind? You can’t lose; he ingests the carrots; the principle is the same. You may be wondering if this same system will work while teaching a pretty mundane grammar point like, for instance, the past perfect or the present perfect. The answer is, of course, yes, most certainly. One of the texts I use for the purpose of introducing the past tenses is, for example, an account of an accident from the BBC website titled “Fatal five minutes led to tragedy”. I spied this text while trawling for material one day and felt this sudden rush of pure joy when I saw it contained wonderful examples of all the past tenses, active and passive, not to mention a nice selection of those narrative structures. Since then, I have found numerous similar texts, one of which is titled “The Wave that Destroyed Atlantis”. A text like this is gripping as the students are intrigued and if you work with them feeding the suspense, the past tenses float gently in to their systems rather like eating oysters. Teachers develop the knack, with practice, of spotting, at a glance, the potential of various reading material out there. One must, initially at least, be prepared to put in the time to go fishing for reading as those passages will take time to find. One piece of comfort is that with practice, it will take less and less time to see the use to which you can put a text. This is the method that has worked like magic for me for years. So my suggestion is that you invest in an external hard drive along with those sensible shoes we referred to earlier.

Vary the introduction: listening, speaking and songs

Reading is the most widely used method of introducing grammar but it does not need to be used in isolation: a listening activity may precede it, adding a lot of color to the lesson. By listening I don’t mean you droning on, unless it is a riveting topic. Songs, carefully selected for the purpose, help get structures embedded in the consciousness. It is necessary to select those where the lyrics are easy to follow so that discussion and eventual learning can take place. I have used Elton John, Sting, Simon and Garfunkel, songs from musicals like West Side Story, Chicago and many others. Songs have the same advantage jingles for commercials have and stick in the mind. CD’s, DVD’s and YouTube can also be used .The teacher needs to be imaginative, dedicated and open to new ideas. If you glance back at the title you will notice that speaking is also included but this will only work if the teacher is up for a bit of fun, play acting and even clowning around.

I have, on occasion, introduced reported speech, for instance, with conversation – as can be imagined the subject lends itself beautifully to this. I will walk in to class; the students will be getting in to their seats, saying good morning to each other and so on and say something like: “There is a serial killer loose in the building” to the student nearest to me. Now, I prefer to give students aural directions as I have no great emotional bond with the blackboard; a fact my students know very well. There is a slight ripple in the room and I repeat softly “I said there was a serial killer loose in the building”. By this time, students are nudging each other and asking in loud whispers what I just said. Someone in the front row eventually turns round and repeats my second comment to those in the back – speaking anything other than English is also a no-no and all my top students are always right under my nose in the front. I will then continue the conversation with lurid details – this generation enjoys lurid – before switching to another introductory activity. The same introduction will work for many other topics but the teacher will need to vary this form of introduction as the dramatic impact will, eventually, wear thin. This brings me neatly to a last point that needs to be made about introductions: it is a mistake to get into a rut and start every lesson the same way; “predictable” translates into “trance” and the teacher can kiss goodbye to learning. One experienced teacher once told me she didn’t consider it her duty to entertain students; she couldn’t be more wrong. Students learn best when they are having fun just the same as anyone learning any skill anywhere in the world.

Getting down to brass tacks: the introduction is over

Like all good things, the introductory section of the grammar lesson will, eventually, come to an end and the teacher will have to face the inevitable exercises. If this initial stage has gone well and the students have remained interested, alert, focused and involved, they will cooperate fully during this second stage. If the teacher spies signs of boredom, he needs to rethink the introduction; not blame the troops. It must be remembered that the customer is never wrong and the teacher has got to sell them the product. Starting this second phase with the students tuned in is not enough; they have to remain tuned in and that can only be achieved if a few simple rules are followed. If you recall, subtlety was advocated for the introduction; pussy footing continues here as well. The teacher needs to crush that urge to reach for the chalk or marker and start saying things like “The present perfect tense is used when…” In order for learning to be affective and the students to remain focused not only in that particular lesson but in future grammar lessons as well, they themselves must be allowed to deduce the rules. However impatient the teacher feels, he must restrain himself; the “Aha” experience does eventually come to all. What the teacher needs to do is to speed up the process; after all, they are half way there so how hard can it be?

Teaching grammar the inoffensive way

The exercises laid out before them should, ideally, not have directions like “Put the verbs in brackets in the present perfect”. Any type of exercise which is conducive to autopilot moments should be studiously avoided. The exercise should, instead, present a challenge, a puzzle; in short, something to be worked out and should, upon completion, help the students realize what the rules are. The teacher need never open her mouth. One of my favorite examples of an exercise for students who keep confusing the three past tenses is composed of three pictures and three sentences. It comes out of Sue O’Connell’s “Focus on Advanced English”. The first picture shows the man looking longingly after the disappearing bus, the second shows the man running alongside the bus and hopping on and the third shows the bus just pulling out of the stop as the man reaches it – and fails to board it. The pictures need to be matched with three sentences describing each and showing, with glaring lucidity, what the differences between the three past tenses are. It is so simple, so beautiful and so quick. The penny drops at once. Another exercise I use to actually introduce the past perfect – as we seem to be on the topic – starts with three pictures and three sentences once again. Before you say anything, this is purely coincidental and you don’t always need “three pictures”. In the first picture, you see a man called Sam and a caption “Sam wanted to buy a jacket”; then in the second picture you see the shop with the beginning and end dates of the sales clearly visible. In the third picture, you see Sam in front of the shop a day late and the caption “Sam wanted to buy a jacket in the sales but when he arrived at the shop, the sales had finished”. Then you have five more groups of three pictures with similar little tragedies, by the end of which the students will have had their “Aha” experiences and will even do a proper old exercise like lambs. There are various wonderful books of this sort on the market and another is “Third Dimension” and its follow up “Fourth Dimension”. Each unit in these books will start with a discussion or a listening activity; continue with an appropriate reading exercise – with a wow factor – which is followed by a grammar section. The grammar section will, for instance, have a pair of sentences including points that are often confused and be followed by two sentences interpreting them. For example, “John must have killed the man” and “John might have killed the man”. This is followed by something like “Which sentence means the speaker is almost certain John killed the man and which sentence means he is not quite so sure?” With this kind of exercise, which follows hard on the heels of an appropriate introduction, no additional explanation is necessary. The beauty is that those dreaded trances will be avoided as well. Students learn very quickly that that is all the explanation they are going to get and focus thus putting an end to any disruptions during the lesson. Thus, while all hell is breaking loose next door, your lot will be working like angels and learning to boot. When you leave the class with a broad smile, you will, unlike the teacher referred to earlier, have good reason to be proud of yourself.

Is it necessary to do it all yourself?

Some may be wondering what need there is for all this as there are so many good course books on the market which do the job. Sadly, this is not strictly true: English language teaching is certainly much commercialized but this is far from meaning all the books measure up; a lot don’t. Here I must add that the move away from the dreaded grammar translation method is gathering momentum: I recently had the pleasure of acquiring, for example, the fourth edition of Betty Azar’s famous book, “Understanding and Using English Grammar”. The book has reinvented itself with all the contextualization one could desire in a way I would never have thought possible; my apologies to Ms. Azar. The listening, reading, technology and web site have led me to advocate its use at the prep division at our university. Yet there remain a lot of books on the market which are caught somewhere in between the new approach to teaching and the dreaded grammar translation method; in short, there are gray areas. You might be forgiven for thinking: “What is the harm? After all, the book is basically on the right track.” You would, however, be very wrong indeed as by far the hardest task of a teacher is keeping the students motivated and focused throughout the lesson and indeed the year. Boredom or zombie mode is acquired very quickly; a few lessons of boredom and the audience have learnt and won’t forget, not ever, that those grammar lessons are worse than cabin fever. Continue along the same lines and the mood will spill over into everything else being done rather like a massive oil spill poisoning everything in its path for many lessons to come. If you recall what kind of background students come from, the reason for this rapid progress from “engaged” to “sleep walker” will become clearer. In this age of technology, where it is really so easy to put together one’s own program, there is really no excuse I can see for continuing to use material that doesn’t measure up. The fact that something has been published by a reputable company doesn’t mean it is perfect; a simple fact that is often overlooked. My general advice is not to compromise; if there is an appropriate book, it is good to use it, if not; the teacher just needs to strike out on his own. Almost all books, even the best ones, will need a certain amount of padding; one needs to know, therefore, how to go about it and most importantly, have the courage to go about it. One needs to be prepared to invest in a library and make sure one has a good internet connection.

We are up and away!

This brings us very nicely to the last and most crucial phase of the grammar lesson: the writing activity. All good grammar teaching needs to be rounded off with a “grammar related writing activity”, which all course books worth their salt are full of, as it is the only means by which students can prove to themselves and to the teacher that they have learnt the points being studied. The teacher will also be able to ascertain which difficulties, if any, require ironing out and plan his next lesson accordingly. If correct procedure has been followed thus far, there is often no need to worry; the writing activity will go like a dream, the students will feel pleased with themselves and the teacher can gloat! Eliminating this phase, which is by far the best grammar exercise that can be devised and during which the facts being learnt are committed to long term memory, will negatively impact everything that has been done with the students that day far more seriously than one might imagine. Why, in that case, is this stage so often conveniently forgotten? The basic reason is that a lot of teachers are loath to read papers. Unfortunately, there are no short cuts to be offered here; papers go with the territory and trying to avoid them can best be compared to the case of a solicitor who won’t read case files. There is no way out of it. Peer correction, group writing and also more dubious methods like the teacher claiming s/he circulates and reads papers as the students write have been tried yet it must be admitted that nothing works as well as the expert – the teacher in this case – getting involved. It is perfectly true that students are more likely to notice mistakes in their friends’ written work than their own but they will never pinpoint them all, which means that the buck still stops with the teacher. This is a fact that must be faced up to. One piece of comfort is that grammar related writing takes far less time to read and one will speed up with practice. The methods of providing feedback on writing and details of teaching writing will be dealt with more fully in the next paper. Suffice to say that the best approach to my mind is correcting papers with correction symbols and asking students to write a second draft, thus giving them the opportunity to become engaged in the activity, correct their own mistakes and hopefully not make them again. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from all this is that a good teacher must resign herself/ himself to the fact that s/he will be doing some paper work every day; teaching is, contrary to popular belief, a full- time job. On the plus side, there is the satisfaction of seeing, first hand, that you and you alone have managed to impart this piece of knowledge to them; the pleasure this brings to the dedicated teacher can be compared to little else.

It isn’t over yet: the dreaded issue of homework!

Unfortunately, teaching human beings isn’t like downloading a program; things won’t just “stick” when one teaches them: it is the teacher’s job to see that information stays put. Research indicates that two thirds of what is learnt is forgotten in the first twenty four hours, which means the teacher and the team has a problem and there is only one way to address it: homework; i.e. consolidation. A stitch in time saves nine as the saying goes and the stitch in this case is appropriate homework to jolt the memory and help information get committed to long term memory. Homework is a very sore subject with a lot of students in Turkey and the Middle East due to years of having to suffer through senseless, mind numbingly boring, completely useless work after hours. Homework is a form of torture, according to its victims, that sadistic and frustrated teachers enjoy inflicting on poor innocent students they have at their mercy. The beautifully choreographed and played out lesson is in serious danger of floating away into the unconscious mind unless the students are persuaded to do some homework, so how do you destroy their demons and get them to work? The first thing to do is to explain all this to them as well; they are intelligent adults, a fact that is often conveniently forgotten, and they are the team. Having an actual conversation with students will raise the odds that they will cooperate. Teams cooperate and communicate; orders are for the army or prison. Putting one’s cards on the table has always worked for me; I also often commit Ebinghouse’s famous curve of forgetting to the board to show them our predicament. The next thing to do is to never ever assign useless or boring homework. Boredom is learnt and leads to listlessness and we all know what that leads to. I remember my daughter having to copy out math’s problems for homework before actually solving them. I am sure the teacher meant for the students to read the problems carefully before attempting to solve them. However, in my experience, math’s problems can’t be solved without reading the problem in any case; get the answer wrong a few times and any fool realizes he has got to read. Copying out the problem creates intense boredom, hatred of the subject and even unnecessary mistakes as students go on autopilot. There are a lot of grammar exercises and vocabulary exercises which will produce the same reaction in students for the same reason and also guarantee that the students won’t even look at the homework next time. The basic principles followed in class are valid for homework as well, contrary to common practice. The rule of thumb is as follows: no homework is better than bad homework.

One second point that needs to be remembered concerning homework is that it should involve consolidation, revision and practice, not the learning of new facts not covered in class. A teacher must see that the learning takes place in class under his/ her supervision and some of the practice takes place at home. Most course books come with their workbooks for this reason but there is nothing to stop the teacher being innovative. The principle is the same: keep the students engaged as far as possible.

The end is in sight and so is the next stretch!

Twenty four hours have now passed since the new grammar points have been introduced and covered in class; homework has also been done but this does not mean that the teacher can shelve all this and move blithely on to something else. The reason is that the danger of forgetting, although reduced, still exists. Revision needs to continue but so does new learning and this is achieved through syllabus design. The new learning must involve revision of past structures to enable progress and prevent slipping. This is the reason why the modals precede the conditionals and both are preceded by the tenses. The continual cycle of contextualization, practice and homework coupled with a good syllabus will guarantee learning. Syllabus design is a complex and demanding job and will be dealt with at length in a future paper.

The moral of the story is…

The general principles one needs to walk away with are, in fact, remarkably simple: keep the students interested, engaged and focused. Make sure that they don’t want to daydream, get rowdy, zone out or fall asleep. Make sure they see the point of everything being done with them and are convinced that it is beneficial. In short, motivate them. As the team leader, it is down to the teacher to achieve this. In its absence, failure of varying degrees is inevitable; this is a simple fact that a lot of the best and most well- meaning teachers will often overlook. I know a lot of teachers who, over the years, have got stuck in a rut covering things in much the same way year in and year out. Although I can see how this could happen, it does mean that the teacher is on auto pilot; how, in that case, can one possibly expect students not to reciprocate? These people need to join the revolution and should, as Bob Dylan so aptly said, not “Stand in the doorways” or “Block up the halls”. Adopting this new approach to teaching will probably feel like being tossed into the ocean with its crosscurrents without a life jacket – as one would be out of one’s comfort zone – but all one needs to do is take the plunge. When it becomes obvious how phenomenal the pay back is, one never looks back.


  1. "I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar." Nietzsche

  2. thanks for providing this information really it is helpful

    Teaching big classes

  3. I am so glad you find it useful. Thanks for writing in.