My take on grammar charts and tables

Teaching a foreign language is neither duck soup nor child’s play. At times it can get pretty frustrating, especially if you feel there’s a discrepancy between what you believe you should do and what you actually do in reality. Here’s one example: 
At the moment, in one of my young learners classes (A1/A2), we’re doing the so do I and neither do I type of responses, such as in the following example:
A: I’m very happy today. 
B: So am I.
C: Oh, I’m not.
Just a short while ago we also did question tags, which, to my non-native speaker’s over-analytical mind, have a lot in common with the above structure. 
You’re a teacher, aren’t you? 
He loves English, doesn’t he? 
You will come, won’t you?
Now, I’m convinced that to be able to fully grasp, learn and acquire these grammatical structures, my 14-year-old students need to employ a lot of cognitive processes at one go. Apart from having to be aware of the word order rules, they need to identify the auxiliaries or extract them from the main verbs. I know how hard it can get because whenever I try to demonstrate how the structures work, which I do by firing off examples, sooner or later I get stuck and mix things up. If the demonstration phase is long enough, I usually get so confused that at some point I start struggling when judging what is correct and what is wrong. Obviously, the problem is that I’m presenting the structures separately, out of a larger context, plus I tend to over-teach them. I know it’s not the coolest way to teach a language but I can’t help it. 
The reader may wonder why I am so silly a teacher. The thing is that the structures are part of the coursebook we use and part of the curriculum my colleagues and I once officially agreed on. This means that, apart from other things, our students will be tested on these grammatical points at some stage, and they’ll be given grades. Thus, I simply need to embrace the challenge no matter my inner reluctance.

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.  

There’s one more thing that may appease my bad conscience; by giving my students a chance to analyze the language, I actually give them an opportunity to gain some control over their learning. They get a chance to understand the language and learn some tangible bits and pieces of its structure. This understanding, or a lack thereof, can later be assessed, and I dare say this kind of assessment is relatively fair – no matter how inaccurate and flawed it may appear to some. There are students who always struggle when producing a coherent sentence, but they feel quite comfortable when learning the rules of a language. It can’t be denied that, to a certain extent, these rules are flexible, but at least they help students to feel safe – even if only temporarily . Nevertheless, as a teacher I will always try to encourage my students to get rid of this crutch as soon as they feel confident enough to do so.



About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
This entry was posted in Grammar, Rants. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to My take on grammar charts and tables

  1. Sandy says:

    Hi Hana,
    I'm not sure if this helps or not, but as a relatively young native speaker, I don't think I tend to use the so/neither structures presented in this kind of book – I'm pretty sure I would use 'Me too/neither' instead, mostly because it's simpler! I would also use 'right' more than the many and varied question tags, again because it's simpler and faster. I know we still have to teach them though!
    Perhaps question tags should be taught as another side of new grammatical structures, so that (for example), when we teach present continuous, we teach one or two examples with question tags too. Could be confusing though, couldn't it? 😉
    As a learner, I love grammar tables, because they give me something I can memorise and know that I know. There are still some German tables that I have to recite in my head in order to find the form I need! Not particularly helpful in the middle of a conversation, so as you can imagine, I don't normally bother.
    By the way, when I teach 'So/neither', I normally just say 'So + auxiliary + :)', then do lots of practise with identifying the auxiliary in pattern/substitution drills.
    Slightly rambling comment there I'm afraid!


  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Your comment is definitely helpful, Sandy; it only strengthens my initial intuition about the futility of drilling grammar through tables. The trouble with tables is exactly as you describe it; you have to recite them in your head in order to find the form you need. And as you point out, it's not particularly handy in the middle of a conversation.
    I personally hate tables and I find them pretty useless for me as a language learner, even though I admit they may be helpful as a quick reference tool in case something is not clear; something you can consult rather than learn from – like a dictionary, for instance. By the way, I used to learn German in a funny way; I would listen to example sentences of certain grammar structures over and over again, until I was finally able to use the knowledge in spontaneous conversations. Not that I was absolutely fluent, but it definitely worked for me. I could understand a lot as well as say what I needed. I can’t say with absolute certainty what kind of method it was; I’d probably describe it as a combination of audio-lingual and behaviourist methods spiced up with bits of the lexical approach 🙂


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