Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Colloquial contractions, prepositions and phrasal verbs

When I was at university, a lifetime ago, I was asked how much say I thought students should have in the learning programme. My answer, then, was almost none. Nobody had yet persuaded me that participation was the way to go. Nobody had then persuaded me that it was the learning that was important.

It used to be that language teaching, English language teaching, in Spain was pretty straightforward. The teacher started with page one, went on to page two and so on. There was a lot of writing and copying and not much talking or listening. I'm sure it's no longer like that.

Having been brought up in another country it never struck me to teach in that traditional Spanish way. Even when we have a course book I tend to drift off the straight and narrow. I try to talk them through grammar. I don't think that a grammatical rule with one line of explanation followed by a page of exceptions is going to be very helpful to someone who has to juggle with vocabulary, structures, idioms, grammar, rhythm and pronunciation as they try to get something to eat in a café.

The other night I was having a bit of a discussion in a bar with someone who is doing an English course at the Official School of Languages. She had been told that unless she demonstrated her ability to use certain constructions, we talked about inversions, things like, "Not until I heard my name did I believe I had won the race" or "Hardly had I begun to speak when I was interrupted" would she be able to demonstrate that she had achieved a B2 level. What the B2 descriptor, of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, actually says is that someone at this level can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialisation, can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers possible without strain for either party and can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

Not much mention there of inversion. Obviously the text books have to try to build more complicated language into their various levels but the truth is that the CEFR is all about communication and not about grammar - the grammar is there to describe how the communication works. I saw a direct parallel between trudging through a text book as a way to teach English and a modern day student being told that the level of effectiveness in speaking English is in the complexity of the language.

At one of the places I work my boss said that a student had complained that we spent all the time talking and listening and reading stuff and suchlike in class and that what we should be doing was doing more exam papers, more filling in the gaps in grammar exercises. The complainer thought I should, certainly, be setting more homework rather than urging people to check those things they found difficult, to read things in English to help with structure and form and to consult grammar books to help them work out how to say the things they wanted to say or write.

Page one it is then.


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris
Your approach is not wrong, but don't forget we all have different learning styles, and generally we remember a lot more of what we write and do, rather than what we see or hear. I've always had to write the most basic things just to remember them.

Chris Thompson said...

I like to write things down too. Seeing things helps me remember. That's why I think it is important to tell students to tailor their learning to their goals rather than to expect the classes to provide all the answers.