This is a summary of chapter 6 Issues in Learning and Teaching Grammar of James Lee and Bill VanPatten’s book Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen from 2003 where they explore several misconceptions about the teaching of foreign language grammar and give language teachers some food for thought.
They go into detail about five common misconceptions held by language teachers around the world which are not true as research findings have already proved.
These five misconceptions are the belief that:
The first belief that many language teachers hold is the belief that something needs to be taught in the same way that they learned it themselves (Lee & VanPatten, 117-120). It is difficult to believe something else than the knowledge you have been taught for years and ‘know’ to be true, but it is worth it to give new thoughts and ideas a chance especially when they are based on research and the findings of experts.
The second belief that cannot be supported by evidence is that drills are effective tools for learning grammar. (Lee & VanPatten, 120-123). Isn’t this something that the classroom practice already shows? If you are a learner or teacher, how often have grammar drills not lead to the comprehension and correct application of the grammatical feature? Lee & VanPatten (120-123) differentiate between mechanical drills, meaningful drills and communicative drills.
Mechanical drills are those during which the student need not to attend meaning and for which there is only one correct response. (Lee & VanPatten, 121)
The difference between mechanical and meaningful drills is that the learner must attend to the meaning of both the stimulus and her own answer in order to complete the meaningful drill successfully. Yet there is still only one right answer, and the answer is already known top the participants. (Lee & VanPatten, 121)
Unlike the previous two drill types, communicative drills require attention to meaning, and the information contained in the learner’s answer is new and unknown to the person asking the question. Thus, the answer cannot be deemed right or wrong in terms of meaning conveyed. (Lee & VanPatten, 122)
For mechanical drills Lee & VanPatten cite different sources of research that have already proved that “not only was intensive drilling ineffective, it actually delayed the acquisition of the structures and forms that were drilled.” (Lee & VanPatten, 123).
The third belief is reflected in the teaching practice when a grammatical feature is taught. Generally, the lesson includes an explanation of the rules and then the students need to apply what they have been taught. Lee & VanPatten (123) mention that the quality of a lessons is often even judged by how well a teacher is able to explain grammatical points. And they point out what I mentioned in my recent blog post about teaching grammar that learning and acquisition are two different processes and that explicit information about a grammatical feature is not necessary for the successful acquisition of the same (Lee & VanPatten, 123). VanPatten has done extensive research and studies about exactly this point.
The fourth belief that the first language is the source of all errors is also a common misconception which has been disproved by several studies (Lee & VanPatten, 126).
The fifth belief is that the acquisition of grammatical features involves the learning of paradigms. (Lee & VanPatten, 126). A paradigm is an overview of all the elements of a grammatical structure in form of a table or chart. For the German language this could be a table with the verb or adjective endings. Lee & Van Patten (127) point out that paradigms are abstractions and generalisations and are used to organize information and structure data, they do not correspond to how the knowledge is structured in the brain.
Lee and VanPatten (2003) give a more detailed explanation of all points and it is worth reading the book as a whole but definitely chapter 6 and chapter 7. Chapter 7 Processing Instruction and Structured Input is of great importance because both researchers actually show how the teaching of grammatical features could be adapted to how learners structure the input they receive. They also explain how you can make use of this information in your teaching practice.
The approach by Lee & VanPatten is very interesting and could give some insights into why grammar teaching in its traditional form has its limitations and why language teachers around the world should explore alternative ways in teaching grammar. In a future post I will share some practical ideas and exercises that are based on their theories.
Source: Lee, J. F., & VanPatten, B. (2003). Making communicative language teaching happen. Boston: McGraw-Hill.