If want my students to use, say, short responses expressing agreement or disagreement fluently and naturally in speech (where they are most likely to be encountered), they will need to see and hear lots of examples first. They will also need plenty of practice. Ouch – this sounds like the despicable PPP, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, I believe native speakers also pick up these structures through exposure. The trouble is that they do so over a much longer period of time, and most importantly, unlike L2 learners, they are exposed to heaps of meaningful context. These conditions are really hard to replicate in my teaching context of four lessons a week.
As a result of the lack of exposure and meaningful context, my students tend to avoid the structures, if not explicitly required to use them, or they opt for an easy way out, for example for the alternative ‘me too’ or ‘me neither’. As far as question tags are concerned, it’s not common to hear an English learner, even a fairly advanced one, use them in speech voluntarily either. This may be presumptive evidence that these structures are not a question of linguistic survival; simply because they carry little meaning. What can be expressed by including a question tag at the end of a sentence can actually be expressed through other means of communication, such as facial expression or intonation, or by using other forms, such as right?. These are language points which were learnt as vocabulary rather than grammatical items, and thus students use them more naturally and spontaneously. All in all, L2 learners will usually get their message across in the end, with or without proper question tags, because they can always easily do without them.
That being said, I strongly believe that it’s quite unwise of coursebook designers to include question tags at such early stages of the course. However, what really bothers me is that they are presented in packages. I wouldn’t mind if they appeared here and there, treated as vocabulary items, but I find them a real nuisance if they are presented as grammatical structures, usually in the form of grammar charts and tables.
The only positive effect of the ‘chart’ approach I can think of is that students will be better able to analyze the language, understand how it actually works and transfer their knowledge to other linguistic areas, which may undoubtedly come in handy some day. For example, being able to identify the auxiliaries will help them make questions and negative statements more easily. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that practising analytical linguistic skills will eventually help my students become fluent users of the language.
What happens is that some students have an excellent command of these easy-on-the-eyes charts without actually being able to use the content meaningfully, especially when caught off grammatical guard – that is during fluency practice, for instance. They can memorize the charts and tables perfectly and get a brilliant score in a test aimed at isolated grammatical points, but when faced with a more complex kind of test, they don’t perform as well as they expected. This must be really frustrating, particularly when they think they did their best to revise for the test.