Should we be teaching grammar in summer school?

Well… no. I mean yes… but I really mean no… erm… this is confusing, isn’t it? Erm… let me think… what do the clients and their important financial backers (mum and dad) want? Well you may get a straight answer if you ask them. Of course you can rarely ask the parents as they are back in Kazakhstan but you could ask their group leader. Oh, a group leader is someone employed by a tour agency to represent a student group and help summer school staff. They could be, but are not always, a group’s school teacher. Maybe more on this point in another post…

But what will students and group leaders say? Speaking! Yes and more speaking! But aren’t we language teachers? Shouldn’t we be teaching language? Arguably the answer to this is somewhat nuanced.

ELT as we know it generally diverges from language teaching in schools by its methodological principles. If you have ever been sent out to teach in an off-site school- I have in a number of different countries- there are marked differences in approach. Students speak the same L1, they typically sit in rows and have their heads in books, classes are mostly teacher centred and taught in the students’ L1. We as TEFLers on the other hand, adhere to different principles. Our teaching is communicative, we teach English through English, we get our students to speak as much as possible (in English!), and when appropriate, employ different methodological principles such as task based learning. Also, our end goal may not necessarily be a summative exam- we are typically less focused on learning to pass a test, something which pervades state education systems around the world.

Keeping all that in mind, students, as well as group leaders, are quick to remind us that they rarely have opportunities to speak in classes back home. Their language learning is largely theoretical and driven towards passing tests. At summer school, we have multilingual groups with the assumption that the teacher does not speak the plethora of first languages in the classroom or would want to speak anything other than English. This naturally follows that any communication between teacher and peers has to be performed in English. This means students are propelled into speaking English! Everyone is happy and that is the end of the story.

Well… no it isn’t. We still need to teach them something, don’t we? If all we did was fluency practice it would get a bit monotonous after a while. Yes, we really do need to exploit our material to get our learners speaking but there is more to it than that.

It is my view that in summer school we should not be teaching language for its own sake. Our learners get plenty of that back at school. They will all be aware of some metalanguage e.g. present perfect because this is the driving force behind their learning. They will all be familiar with looking at de-contextualised language and manipulating the structure via some kind of word formation or gap-fill exercise. So why give them more of the same?

Instead, it seems to me we would be better off finding real world tasks learners are likely to perform outside the classroom and looking at what skills or language are probably required to make these tasks successful. Arguably, for every action we take that requires language, there are sub-skills, systems and conventions which underpin it:

  • Small talk requires turn taking and backchannelling, and knowing how to break the ice, and equally how to exit a conversation.
  • Telling an anecdote requires discourse markers, referencing, rhetorical questions to engage the listener, present simple to talk about past actions, and a variety of phonological features typical of this spoken genre such as raised intonation, word stress, hesitation for dramatic effect etc.
  • Ordering food from the canteen requires initiating an exchange, turn taking, adjacency pairs, making polite requests, responding to requests, asking for clarification, intonation and word stress to show appreciation, and knowing how to exit the conversation etc.

The list could go on… These points (and the list is not even exhaustive) are the legs that support the table. Learners are able to do something authentic with the language that has relevance to them outside the classroom.

This may be done by:

  • Asking learners to tell an anecdote, for example.
  • Showing them a model and highlighting skill and/or linguistic features.
  • Getting them to practise these features.
  • Getting learners to repeat the initial task.
  • Engaging in a peer review stage, allowing learners to receive constructive feedback from each other and the teacher.

Instead, you may:

  • Start by explaining what they will be expected to do i.e. tell an anecdote, before demonstrating with a model.
  • Lead into a task phase where learners work together to practise and perform the task. This requires peer negotiation and collaboration, as well as counselling from the teacher.
  • Ask learners to peer review their performance and receive constructive feedback from each other and the teacher.
  • Ask them to repeat the task again next lesson.

Of course, you may have your own ideas; the above is simply food for thought.

What I do think is key, is the role of the teacher. If we aim to guide our learners towards an outcome, we should be taking more of a back seat in the proceedings. This allows stages to become more student centred and for them to become the driving force. The teacher can become a passive observer and note-taker who judiciously dips in and out when required to help out.

In returning to the original question, should we be teaching grammar in summer school? I hope you can see my point of view that yes, we should be teaching grammar… and vocabulary, functions, skills, and pronunciation, probably channelled through a spoken medium. However what we teach should never be for its own sake.

The starting point is probably looking at what we expect our learners to be able to do by the end of the lesson. If your learner outcomes are framed in linguistic terms e.g. I can use the present perfect with just, think about how this may be transformed to be a composite strand of an authentic task e.g. I can talk about recently completed actions, or better still, I can talk about this morning’s trip to London. The present perfect is in there but so are many other pieces of what may turn out to be quite a complicated puzzle.

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