A recent post on a teachers’ web site makes the claim that:
We have gotten it wrong, really wrong, in the language classroom.
Well, I’m with you there. We have definitely gotten it wrong for many years. And realizing that you’ve gotten something wrong means that it’s time to really, really change it. Not just dress it up. It’s time to figure out why it was wrong, and provide something that’s right, based on the best information we have about language acquisition, the brain, and our schools and students.
And that’s where the post I read, which starts out with such promise, goes astray. Because the problem, according to that author, is that we aren’t letting students output enough.
What’s missing? Students are not allowed to focus on the one aspect of learning a language that intrigues them — the speaking. So much time is spent teaching students about the language that they rarely have time to use it in a genuine way.
Yes — and no. Yes, students aren’t allowed to focus on speaking in a traditional grammar-based drill-and-kill classroom — which is the “wrong way” this post is focusing on. It’s certainly true that most legacy method classrooms spend so much time teaching about grammar, there’s neither time nor ability for students to use it to communicate.
But there’s the rub. Students still need to have the grammar of the language in their heads. Because the grammar is what makes the words make sense. Just memorizing ten thousand words of a language, even perfectly, won’t make someone a fluent speaker, because it is the rules of grammar that determine what relationships those words have to each other, and that is what makes meaning. Otherwise we would only be able to talk in single words about stuff we could point to, pretty much.
But how do we get students to be able to use the grammar of a language without teaching them the grammar rules? This post ignores what we know about language acquisition — that it comes from hearing and reading lots and lots of language that we can understand — and claims instead that the solution is to have students talk more in class.
Which is about as effective as having someone who can’t play the piano teach someone else who can’t play the piano either. They’ll make a lot of noise, but it won’t likely be anything who is a lover of piano music wants to hear.
And here is the Core Error for this post:
…interpersonal communication should be the main emphasis. To achieve this, the teacher must get out of the way.
Really? Hmm…last time I checked, interpersonal communication was between people, and teachers were still (barely, in some states) considered people. Even if you agree that the ACTFL modes (Presentational, Interpersonal, Interpretive) are important as a distinction at the levels taught K-12 (which I do not; we are not occupational therapists, and kids already manage these functions just fine in their L1. The single glaring exception is teaching about significant cultural differences that actually affect what and when one would say something in the target language) — even if you want to stress interpersonal communication, having two persons who can’t speak the language “communicate” hardly seems like a good way to do it. Teachers talking with students — now that sounds a lot better, since teachers are fluent and students aren’t.
Language comes from input. Student-on-student practice is input — they are hearing language from one another — but it’s more like throughput, in which the same errors are repeated and cloned, since students can do nothing but acquire that which they hear, and what they’re hearing in this situation is Bad Input. Incorrect Input. Because if they could use the language correctly, we wouldn’t have them practice it!
No one likes “sage on the stage”. But the simple observation of whose mouth happens to be moving is not the same as determining who has ownership of what’s going on in class. The TPRS classroom is a prime example of an input-centric situation where — yes — the teacher talks more than the students, but it is the students who are “driving the bus”. They determine the content. They determine the pacing. The teacher is available as a skilled guide who is able to tailor language to their needs on the fly, to guarantee that what they hear is not only comprehensible but also accurate.
Bonus, TPRS is the most efficient method I have yet encountered (and I’ve studied or used most of them during the course of doing a Ph.D in Foreign Language Education, and then in the years since, teaching) to get grammar into heads. Without teaching the rules. Without drilling. Without ever departing from a focus on meaning and communication. And with enormous student ownership of what happens in class.
Why would we expect a kid to do something that we have spent years of schooling and exposure to our languages to be able to do?
So yes — down with grammar teaching. But if we are going to drive out legacy methods, we must replace them with methods that fit what we know about the brain and how language is acquired. Not with a misguided feeling that if only the teacher doesn’t speak, we will have solved the problem.