Grammar Ghost

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25 thoughts on “Grammar Ghost”

  1. I met a peruvian hippie at a roadside bar here in AK a few years back. He spoke the fun mix of american surfer/skier slang because of the crowd he like to hang around. I don’t think that the man knew a lick of american grammar but he was very fluent (though he couldn’t work in a white collar job with his mouth) and I am sure he would be able to pass an AP test if there were one for ESL students. Grammar is not needed. I don’t care what the fuddy duddy grammar police say. Let’s leave the grammar to those that have already acquired the language and us language teachers can focus on acquisition. YAY!
    At least Ben knows that there is a ghost and also knows how to shoo it away.

  2. We must be on some sort of collective group think wave, as I just sent a message to all language teachers (I’m the only L2 teacher in the school) about this very thing. I’ll past it below.

    But I’m also reading The Natural Approach again, and there IS a place for this discussion of grammatical analysis I think. But it is minimal according to Krashen. It (the grammar monitor) is used for those events when we need accuracy, like writing letters or preparing a speech. Minimal. And I suppose the grammatical terms will make it easier for one to attempt mastering consciously the rules that make up the language. Right?

    Here’s that email I just sent to colleagues:

    Hey English teachers, I put an article (attached) in some of your mailboxes recently with the title Unconscious Language Learning. I hope you had a chance to read it, and I hope you’ll tell me what you think. (I will admit I question certain suggestions proposed by the writers, but the big gist of the research experiment is what led me to share the document with you.)

    I’ve been reading The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom, and it is thumping my engrained teacher habits and conceptions. Similar to The Power of Reading, a book we read in a PLC a couple years ago, it is calling on us to “just read”, or in the case of oral competency, “just talk to them in a way they can understand”. (Of course we GAIN language by having new words/structures fed to us, repeatedly and in compelling context.)

    My question for all of you… Are we over-teaching language, making a simple process more arduous than necessary? And might we be doing less by doing more (“more” here meaning too much left-brained activity like analyzing the syntactic, morphemic, and phonologic properties of language)?

    I surely don’t mean to criticize any one person’s teaching style here, because frankly I don’t even know how you teach your classes. Rather, I’m trying to engage in a pedagogical discussion, and learn from the experience of other language teachers. (I understand I teach non-native language, but the similarities I believe are far greater than the differences.)


      1. I think if you do a search for it on this site you’ll find it.

        I’ve gone back over the other article since writing last, and re-reading the last two paragraphs made me scratch my head. So they are purposefully pointing out certain grammatical features of a sentence and the learner acquired a different new grammatical concept. Hmmm, so does this transfer to “purposely pointing out certain SEMANTICAL features of a sentence and the learner acquired a different new grammatical concept”?

  3. Ben, you said:

    “Younger teachers who use comprehension based instruction wouldn’t get how hard it is to deal with this voice.”

    I have to disagree. While I have always taught trying to use CI, I have a voice that tries to make me feel like I should be using a textbook and teaching thematic units and following a prescribed scope and sequence. It’s annoying as hell and always makes me doubt what I am doing because I have nothing to which I can compare my CI instruction. I think we’re all plagued by the ghost to an extent.

    1. Yeah come to think of it, you sat in a desk where the wrong thing was modeled for you every day for years. I take it back.

      The worst thing about the grammar ghost is when he used to take over an AP class, he was just a pain, strutting about making the whiteboard covered with French language look like a mathematics white board, speaking English.

    2. The grammar ghost pretty much leaves me alone. But the “did you see the cool project THEY are doing?” ghost makes me second-guess myself. To each his own ghost, I suppose.

      1. Yes, Lori! That’s the one that haunts me, too. And it’s because it’s the one my students are most drawn to. They don’t mind if I skip the worksheets, but they love games, crafts, parties, and projects that they can do while they talk to each other in English.

        1. If we are really honest with ourselves, those projects were / are designed to make teachers feel good about themselves, not their students. If a project is beautiful it meant/means that a) the teacher had an amazing idea b) the teacher presented it in an amazing way c) the students had all of the “language tools” (ie lists) to do the project d) the students loved the teacher enough to do the project exactly the way that the teacher told them to via a beautifully designed rubric.

          I know this because I was that teacher, and she creeps back once in a while. Until I remember that “projects” are a nightmare for students without resources or parental support. Or how many of them were “translated” into horrific Spanish even if I gave them perfect “support”.

          The proof isn’t in the project. It’s in the interaction between student and teacher in the target language based on comprehensible input.

          with love,

          1. I went to my first private lesson with a fourteen year old boy this week. He is in his 4th year of English and is struggling with has/is, her/his and other basic vocabulary. On the kitchen table was his English “project”, a poster that he is making and which his mother spent part of the afternoon gluing for him. During the lesson he was attentive, caught on quickly, and laughed about the story we made. His older brother had the same problems, but seemed more anxious. He wanted to know if I could sometimes explain the grammar they were doing in class. He said his teacher didn’t have time to give explanations when they asked for them, which was normal because they had lost a lot of time at the beginning of the year reviewing the irregular verbs, so now they had to catch up. Having gone through the Comprehensible Input and TPRS portal into a land where students actually learn to speak English, I feel sorry for the teachers who are assigning “projects” instead of teaching, who are so desperately trying to “catch up” that they don’t have time to answer questions.

        2. You’ve expressed it perfectly, Rita and Laurie. Completed projects are so impressive–and they impress the administrators especially in a PBL school such as ours. And the kids like them because “they can talk to one another in English.”

          I should know better not to be spooked by that ghost of perfect projects. My students from last year are doing projects this year in Spanish III and tell me that they “are not learning anything this year.” Their projects are impressive: create a video to try to get on the Dr. Phil show and then write a letter of rejection from the POV of the producer; write a travel blog from Spain; describe a painting by Picasso using art terms. But they do not have the skills to think through these projects in Spanish and so they are translating…badly.

  4. Grammar-man was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by Blaine, Suzi, Jason, and Ben. Krashen signed it: and Krashen’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Grammar-man was as dead as a door-nail. (With apologies to Charles Dickens)

    But, like Old Marley, Grammar-man refuses to stay quietly dead. Unfortunately, unlike Old Marley, when he does show up, it is never for our betterment.

    Or, borrowing from CS Lewis, perhaps we are the ghosts and simply experiencing the pangs and pains of becoming real as we leave the “grey town” and move “further in and farther up”.

  5. …experiencing the pangs and pains of becoming real….

    This is my take on what is happening, this Velveteen Rabbit stuff, this stuff of much great literature. Of course, we could lie to everyone and claim that teaching from a book and asking kids to fill in blanks is real. We could say how wonderful the computer programs that don’t work because they don’t deliver comprehensible input are. But they aren’t. What we are into is real. The percentage of teachers wanting to feel the burn and the pain of this becoming real is small, there is but a handful of us compared to how many deliverer-of-instructional-services ghosts there are, but hey, if we get to become real in our classrooms as a result, I’m in. Sign me up for the pain. It was far more painful before. I’m willing to work for this growth, this flowering, this end of the line for angry old white men and ladies who actually got away with calling themselves teachers, which, as we are finding out right now, never was true, because they were so fricking ineffective. They actually paid those people.

  6. leigh anne munoz

    Thank you for sharing about your ghost of grammar lessons past; 🙂 I can’t wait to hear more of your AP story as it unfolds this year.

    With your bounty of experience and knowledge, you are on one end of the spectrum with French; with a dearth of French, I am on the other end.

    French still confounds, embarrasses and shocks me. I can’t say words and phrases, neither can I write well. Yet, 25 students are waiting for me to help them pass the French AP in May ’13 with no more than 3 years of French. Sigh.

  7. …I can’t wait to hear more of your AP story as it unfolds this year….

    Very perceptive, Leigh Anne. Because you know that this ghost is really going to come into and fly around my classroom once I know that there is an AP exam waiting to be taken in May by my students. Thank you for pointing that out. I can only say this. I believe in the new format of the French exam and I know that grammar instruction will not help my kids a bit in preparation for it. My kids must read and and read and read some more and I will consult the Upper Levels category here to prepare – I hope that that category gets all kinds of new articles in it soon – and by consciously staying away from everything I knew to be sacred and that brought me success on the old AP exam, I will rebuke and prevail over this shitty grammer ghost.

  8. I am not a grammar person. I suppose I could be if I wanted, and I actually did get into it in my grad program. Like seriously into it and enjoyed it, etc. But that was a million years ago and so my grammar muscles are quite slack. When someone asks a question, I mainly default to “it sounds right,” which, as a native speaker of Spanish I can justify. Not so much in French, but I can still mostly tell what “sounds right” for the purposes of the intro levels I am teaching.

    So…I have a student who is like a 0.00001- per center. Not in an obnoxious way. She really and truly loves learning–pretty much anything–and is one of the most intellectually and generally curious fun people I know. Anyway, recently we were doing a dictée and there was some possessive part of a sentence like “ma mère…” or whatever, and a couple kids were asking / clarifying whether it was “ma” because of “mère” (feminine) or because the person whose mother it was was female. So we worked it all out, I gave a couple other examples to contrast, etc. And then grammar meister, not to be obnoxious, but to understand this all from her frame of reference and also to contrast / compare with her online Latin class that she takes for fun…reframes the question using all the grammar terms that I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY ARE…accusative and nominative or something. I was dumbstruck by her question and just kind of said “Um, I have no idea what that means, but it’s “ma” because it’s “mère” and if it were “père” it would be “mon.”

    It occurred to me later that maybe I should be supporting her by asking her to teach us all what that means, in like a brief student-led 20 second grammar sound byte? I mean, if it comes from a kid is that different than if it had come from me? I kind of dismissed her question and moved on. I don’ t want to shut her down or anything, but also it kind of proves the point that you don’t have to know any of those terms to learn to speak the language.

    Just to be clear I would not be asking this question if the scenario involved any type of fakery. This student is genuine, so I don’t want to be dismissive. Just wondering.

  9. What you said here:

    …it’s “ma” because it’s “mère” and if it were “père” it would be “mon….

    is in my opinion the perfect response. It is very close to the way Susan Gross has taught us to just say “this means this” and then DROP IT.

    It has to be kept simple. Just today, the student I just raved about in another comment had written “mon petite amie. I just pointed it out in a few seconds (no Grammar Man moment, trust me!) – I just said that the “mon” should be “ma”. She thought about it for a second and said, “Oh I get it.” and we moved on.

    The fractional percenter should not be given answers in the context of class. Maybe have her note questions down and you can address them after class briefly. Or give her an Amsco Deuxieme Livre (I give all my superstars Deuxieme Livres) and mark in the Table of Contents where she can find that answer.

    These are just my opinions and I hope I addressed your question.

  10. Thanks for the re-post, Ben. I think Grammar-man is part of a widespread, nearly universal human belief that, if we can put a name on something, then we understand it. We have this idea that we have come to understand something when we can put a name on it. That thing that I did with my words when I told you that I wished we had had more time to sit and talk in Agen. Obviously I didn’t understand what I was doing with the language until I labeled that a 1st person plural pluperfect subjunctive of the verb “have”. I will be glad to overhaul the engine of your car, though; after all I can name all of the parts.

  11. LOL on the car image. It’s like, do we want a mechanic who can work on the car or someone who can label each part in the engine but who has no idea, bless their hearts, how to make the engine work in such a way that the car can actually get us somewhere.

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