The curriculum planners at my school need some grammaring

The school year has started and that means, at least at my school, ‘All Check.’  ‘All Check.’  Oh how I hate the sound of you.  It’s a series of review classes and short tests which cover everything the students were supposed to have been taught last year.  Usually the foreign teachers don’t have anything to do with All Check.  But I guess, seeing as how I’ve been at the school for four years now and most of the teachers have been fooled into thinking I speak a passable Japanese, they slotted me in to teach a few “All Check” classes.  I got a nice fat envelope filled with tests and a one page explanation of the grammar point–or points–I needed to cover in my fifty minute lesson.  Now I was lucky.  The teacher who sits next to me seemed pretty upset about her teaching content.  I peeked at her sheet and here’s what I saw:
  • What a beautiful flower. à How beautiful this flower is!
  • What a kind boy he is. à How kind that boy is!
  • What a fine singer she is. à How fine that singer is!

I have to admit my ignorance.  Looking at those sentences, I am slightly perplexed about what is supposed to be taught.  And completely befuddled as to why the period morphs into an exclamation mark. 
Anyway, I didn’t get anything that bad.  I was supposed to teach:
         – must have + past participle
example: He must have missed the bus.
         – may have + past participle
example: She may have seen that movie already.
         – cannot have + past participle
example: My teacher cannot have made that mistake
         – should have + past participle
example: You shouldn’t have forgotten your crayons.
                                           (author’s note: why crayons?)

These are the actual grammar points and example sentences I was given.  The first thing that struck me was the fact that ‘must’, ‘may’ ‘cannot’ ‘should(n’t)’ can pretty much be moved around freely between the sample sentences without causing any kind of structural problems or meaning difficulties.  Depending on the type of teacher, he very well ‘may have made that mistake,’ or in a worse case scenario ‘must have made that mistake’ which might/may/should lead you to scold him with a tart ‘you shouldn’t have made that mistake.’  I put the my ‘All Check’ envelope to the side of my desk and decided to think about it.  I’m good at putting things on the side of my desk.  And the higher that pile gets, the harder it is to see me.  Which is also nice.
The other day I signed up for a TESOL IA virtual seminar on Grammaring with Elka Todeva from SIT.  I didn’t have any real deep interest in grammaring.  Mostly I wanted to know more about the people who have helped support and served as mentors to my PLN.  Turned out that Grammaring was something I really needed to know about.  From the very start, when Elka flashed a slide and said that Grammaring was “a set of options,” and “a liberating force,” I was hooked.  She said a lot more, but you know what?  You can access a recording of the whole seminar, right here.  And you absolutely should. First off, you will learn to teach the hell out of indirect and direct articles, which alone is worth it.  But if you don’t know all about grammaring already, it will also introduce you to input flooding.  That’s what I am talking about baby, input flooding.  Instead of introducing a discreet grammar point, or giving a nice series of disconnected examples, flood the students with the grammar in use.  Let them not only see how it works, but experience it and learn it in and through use.
So that’s what I decided to do today.  I picked up that fat envelope of tests and my grammar points and headed off to class before the bell rang.  On the board, I drew a picture of two stick figures sipping steaming cups of coffee in a café.  I’m no good at drawing bodies, but very good at steaming cups of coffee.  I labeled the stick figures Tom and Mari and drew and extra chair with a big question mark above it.  Then I wrote the following conversation on the board:

          Tom: Where is Kathy?  She should have been here by now.
          Mari: She lives so far away from the station. 
                     She must have missed her train!
          Tom: You know, she left her day-planner at my house.  
                     She may have forgotten   that we were meeting here.
          Mari: No way!  I talked to her last night.  
                     She can’t have forgotten!
              (author’s note: watch out for exclamantion mark overuse syndrome)
I had the students practice this dialogue in pairs in a 4/3/2 activity.  As they practiced, I erased words here an there from the board until they were saying it from memory.  But one dialogue does not a flood make, or at least it seemed the waters of understanding had risen to pond level at most, so I drew a stick figure of what I thought looked like an angry teacher and a defiant student on the board.  Then I jotted up the following dialogue:

          Teacher: Tom, where is your homework?  
                           You __________ done it last night.
          Tom: But I did do my homework!  I put it in my bag.  
                           Someone __________ stolen it! 
          Teacher: Who do you think stole your homework?
          Tom: It __________ been Mari.  
                           She was standing near my bag.
          Teacher: No!  It _______ been Mari.
          Tom: How do you know?
          Teaching: She didn’t turn in her homework either!

As you probably guessed, this time around, aside from ‘cannot’ students were free to slot in the phrases wherever they liked.  I grabbed my eraser and we practiced until the board was blank. 
And then I gave out the tests.  I am happy to say that the average grade was 90%.  Which was much higher than the previous tests.  That might be do to the power of grammaring.  It also could be do to the fact that in the other classes they were learning insane things like, “What a beautiful flower. à How beautiful this flower is!” 
So I’m down with this whole grammaring thing.  Tomorrow’s grammar points are “must/have to/should/can” in the simple present tense (not sure of the logic of putting the past-tense before the present tense, but maybe my school is just working on a deeper, cosmic wavelength).  I’m gonna grammar flood them again.  But this time, I want to move a bit faster so we can finish up with a minimum-prompt dialogue.  If I had had enough time today, I was hoping to have the students complete the following:
Mary: You _____________ homework!
Tom:  No!  You ____________ yesterday!
Mary: What? You ____________ last month!
Tom: No way. You ____________ from the minute I met you!
But perhaps fortunately for the students, we ran out of time.  Which was a very good thing, because they might have developed dangerously high levels of toxicity from exclamation point over-exposure.

(Final author’s note: this blog post really doesn’t do justice to the depth of thinking behind grammaring.  I feel pretty guilty about that.  So please, please, take a listen to Elka’s seminar, or maybe even buy Diane Larsen-Freeman’s Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring.  I just did.)

15 thoughts on “The curriculum planners at my school need some grammaring

  1. Hi Kevin,Thanks for the amusing post. I pity the teacher who had to find a way to teach 'How beautiful this flower is!' in a remotely interesting way.It made me realise, though, that I have never actually taught this language point, yet my students have no problem producing it when they need to. Is this just something they pick up through exposure to the language? Am I right in thinking that you teach your students a language point, and then they immediately take a test on that point? Seems very strange to me.


  2. Hey Stephen,You know, you bring up a good point here, just where do grammar points come from? The "What a beautiful grammar point this is" vs "How beautiful this grammar point is" grammar point can, according to two of the English teachers at my school, be found in the most famous grammar text book in Japan. So it get's taught as a grammar point simply because it's in the grammar text book and no one, in the fifty or so year history since the book's first publication, has bothered to check and see if this is actually something that even needs to be taught or not. All in all, a pretty good argument for providing students with language and then seeing what they have trouble with as a first step in language teaching, as what we focus on as teachers, without getting some data from the students first, might just be a waste of time.As far as the incredible strangeness of teaching something for the first 40 minutes of class and then giving the students a test on that material during the last 10 minutes of class…yep, it is very very odd. That's about all I can say in regards to that.Kevin


  3. Hello Anonymous and thanks for dropping in. The Grammaring Webinar was amazingly useful, but if I hadn't been forced to teach a week of narrowly focused grammar lessons, I'm not sure I would have made much use of what Elka was sharing with us. So in a way, having a bunch of grammar lessons foisted on me ended up being pretty beneficial for my development. Funny how that worked out.A 4/3/2 activity is a fluency building exercise. I'm not sure if Paul Nation coined the term, but he definitely has been a big promoter. For a speaking activity, students would have a set topic to talk about. They would talk about it for a decided upon amount of time, like 4 minutes. After talking about the topic for 4 minutes, students would take a little break and then talk about the same topic for 3 minutes. Then again for 2 minutes. The actual length of time isn't important. What's important is the feeling of pressure that students have while engaged in the task. It's this repetition coupled with pressure which is supposed to help students develop their fluency.Dr. Paul has some pretty good research which shows that this kind of practice not only improves fluency, but also seems to boost students general level of accuracy. And the students in my school really seem to dig it.Please visit again,Kevin


  4. Hey Laura,Isn't it rad? I am kind of confused about the difference between grammaring and really-kick-ass-implicit-grammar instruction. Someone asked about this at the end of the seminar and Elka was talking about using explicit explanations and the delicate dance of explicit and implicit. But to tell the truth, grammaring still seems to me to be like some kind of otherworldly, much better than I could ever do, implicit grammar teaching style.Then again, I might be wrong. I was sleepy at the end of the seminar.Kevin


  5. Thanks Anonymous Pt. II,That is a great 4-3-2 example and might have been what was running through the back of my mind when I tried to give my not so smooth explanation above. And please, anyone who does click on the TEC link above, even if it takes some time to load, I promise you it is worth the wait. Kevin


  6. Hi Kathy,There's no doubt in my mind that EOS is a huge issue, especially for highly motivated teachers. Fortunately there are very effective behavior modification therapies. They usually involve a shock-collar and can be moderately painful, but it's worth it! (Ouch!) (OUCH!!!) (ouch…)Glad you enjoyed the seminar.Kevin


  7. What an interesting post. How interesting your post is! ;)Seriously, thanks for this- a real insight into teaching in your context and a great example of how you applied the theory successfully (and thanks for the link to the seminar)


  8. Hi Kevin,I was doing a lot of these "All Check" lessons/tests this week, also.It was pretty rough because the schedule here gave me only 25 minutes per lesson before the 5 minute test.A few of the lessons were successful, but many had simply too many different grammar ideas for me to cover in 25 minutes.I peaked into a few math lessons here and there. They seemed to have only one or sometimes two math topics per lesson. lolI am having a good time reading your blog BTW.Thanks,Sky


  9. Thank's Rachel,Glad you used the link and sorry it took so long to get my reply written. I think I've just started to explore the whole idea of grammaring. I love how grammaring=the process of using grammar. The fact that students see grammar as this static knowledge they simply have to memorize (especially here in Japan) is pretty detrimental to our students. But figuring out how to make any aspect of grammar a living, moving process, now that's something that could take a lifetime of study. Good thing I'm planning to be an English teacher for a nice long time.Please drop in again,Kevin


  10. Sky!Thanks for leaving a comment on the blog. You know, I often wonder why we email each other and call each other but rarely use other resources like Twitter or our blogs as part of our learning network. Maybe we just don't feel it's necessary? And no doubt some of the content for those grammar "All Check" lessons were impossibly crammed. The other day I was asked to teach the past perfect,, past perfect continuous, and future perfect continuous, all in 25 minutes. I'm still completely lost as to how and why these grammar points end up getting thrown into the same lesson. You have any ideas?Thanks gain for the comment and hope we'll be expanding our dialogue into more electronic spaces.KevinKevin


  11. Hi Kevin

    Are you still living in Japan? Well, i used to live there for 4 years and plus 4 years in a small island in Okinawa. Yeap! Okinawa is not Japan.I know exactly how do you feel. The more I study grammar, the more stunned I get. How the hell can anybody learn English studying all those endless grammar rules? And they don’t work!! The chances are that most teachers (and languages schools) really believe in what they are doing or …. there is a worldwide conspiracy to un-teach English learners. Surprisingly after 4 years the talk is still there.

    Such a peculiar place is Japan, isn’t it?


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