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Content Over Grammar: Why and How (Part 1)

One of my roles is as a teacher trainer in a EFL Master’s Degree Program at a national university in Kyushu (not my home uni). Most of the students/trainees in my classes have been in-service teachers currently employed at junior high and high schools. About 80% are Japanese. The course I teach is ‘Classroom Practice Seminar’, an intensive practicum which involves, as the course climax, each trainee teacher performing a simulated classroom lesson.


On the first day of the seminar I ask each participant what the main teaching point of their lessons will be. Invariably, I get answers such as:


‘‘In my lesson, I’m going to teach students the past tense.”


About 90% of the trainees I’ve observed opt for such a grammatical focus. But, regardless of the trainees’ teaching skills (and certainly many are quite capable), these grammar-fronted lessons rarely work. In this, and the related (parts 2 and 3), posts I’m going to explain why.


First, what many novice teachers don’t realize is that:


Grammar is only ONE description of a language.


It’s like playing the piano. One might initially think that just hitting the correct notes is the primary element of piano playing. By that standard though I could use a single forefinger to pound out the notes of Beethoven’s Fifth but that would hardly equate to ‘playing the piano’. Rather, one has to consider harmony, timbre, texture, tempo, touch, and of course there are numerous ways to interpret any given piece of music, utilizing the performer’s self-expression. Presuming that grammar is the basic performance unit of language is like saying that ‘hitting correct keys’ is the main element of performing a piano piece. Moreover:


Grammar tends to be understood best only after one has mastered it.


Imagine a maze. As you negotiate the maze step-by-step you have little or no idea where it’s ultimately going. You make many false starts, you hit many dead ends. Only upon completion, when you stand above the maze and see all the pathways does it make sense. Grammar is like that. We ‘get’ it only when we’ve become good at it (and even that is no guarantee).


Most of my trainee teachers also opt to teach a section of their simulation lesson in Japanese. I’m not against the principle of using L1 to teach L2 in EFL contexts but I always ask the trainees why. The inevitable response is:


“We have to explain the grammar to the students or else they won’t understand it.”


This, too, is highly problematic. There are numerous reasons as to why and I’ll outline them below. However a recurring theme will be that content trumps grammar in almost every learning context.


My interest in the trouble grammar creates began a few decades back when a student asked me:


‘Mike, Which is correct? I’ve been to France, or I went to France?’


The thing is, as stand-alone utterances, both of the above are ‘correct’. It is the surrounding ideational content which renders them as correct or incorrect. For example, ‘I’ve been to France‘ is fine if the speaker/writer is referring only to the basic fact/experience of visiting. ‘I went to France‘ however is the correct form if one is to add adjunct information, such as the time one visited (‘I went to France 5 years ago‘).  A similar dependency upon context/content can be seen in the following example:


‘How long have you lived in Japan?’ vs.

‘How long did you live in Japan?’


The former is correct if the person being asked is still residing in Japan. The latter presumes that the person has left Japan. There is no internal grammatical mechanism that is ‘wrong’ with either of these sentences. Their correctness is entirely dependant upon the content/context. In other words:


It is the context and content that suggest grammatical form and choice. Not the other way round.


Much of what we learn in  foreign languages is not based upon mastering grammar. Let me give an example. Every non-Japanese who’s been in the country for more than a week has learned the following phrase:


仕方がない (shikata ga nai)

How did we all learn this phrase? Certainly not through the grammar. None of us first learned the method of combining nominal forms in Japanese (仕方, shikata) and then grasped the distinctions between the particles  (ga) and (‘ha’/’wa’), followed by the method of applying an informal negation ‘ない’ (nai) before using the phrase. No. We mastered it because we associate the form with a universal feeling:


Oh, well!


Set phrases are best learned as vocabulary items, particularly when associated with content: particular feelings or situations. Not as abstract grammatical constructions. And languages are full of such set phrases.


Entire grammatical forms can be best acquired through association with content. Note, for example, the notoriously tricky perfect tense. Students have been ‘taught’ the perfect tense in high schools in Japan but almost none have really grasped how it works (to be fair, nor do a substantial amount of native English speakers). But my medical students do come to be proficient with it. Why? Here how it appears in the first dialogue (on clinical history taking) that they meet in their textbook (‘English in Medicine’ Cambridge Univ. Press p.92):


 (Doctor-Patient, partial version, with perfect tenses bolded)

D: Good morning Mr. Hall. What’s brought you along today?

P: Well you see doctor I’ve been having these headaches and…

D: And how long have they been bothering you?

P: Er, well, they started about, well, it must have been about three months ago.

(later) D: Has there been anything else apart from these headaches?


My medical students can sense through this example that duration (starting in the past and continuing into the present) is expressed using the perfect tense in English. So, too, are any associated symptoms. By associating the expression duration and related symptoms with a specific grammatical form, most of my students come to grasp the elusive perfect tense more fully. They also come to grasp it because medicine and treating a patient are meaningful for them. In other words:


EFL learners acquire grammatical forms through noticing; especially when they are associated with meaningful content.


However, a reader might think, “Well, medical students are usually quite bright. This wouldn’t happen with small children learning English.” But it does.


Yes, even a 5-year old can understand the even trickier past-perfect tense.


My 5-year old daughter, who is fully Japan-raised and does not really speak English, can grasp it. How? Through stories. Let me use Curious George (one of her favourites) as an example.





The Curious George stories pretty much always follow the same sequence, one that small children can readily relate to:


George is curious – He finds something fun to do – His curiosity leads to trouble – He regrets what he did before – He fixes it


And it is in that ‘regret’ section, that we regularly encounter forms such as:


‘He had forgotten…’

‘It had started out so nicely…’

‘He had tried to help but…’


After several readings, even a small child can associate the sense of regret (something that happened in the past changed for the worse) with the ‘had+verb’ combination. Of course, they are not fully cognizant of the association (meta-language is generally the province of language teachers alone) but that doesn’t lessen the fact that, over time and multiple exposures, they gradually come to grasp the form. In short:


Acquiring grammatical forms requires constantly testing, confirming, and/or correcting communicative hypotheses.


You’re never going to really ‘teach’ it in one lesson. Nor will your learners acquire it in that 60-minute, single lesson span. So don’t pretend to ‘teach the 3rd conditional’. Rather, expose your learners to content that they can readily associate with the form. Then do it again. And again.


In the 2nd entry of ‘Content Over Grammar‘ I’ll discuss how grammar can be infinitely more complex and troublesome than we often initially imagine.




Mike Guest

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