Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The difference between written grammar and spoken grammar

This was the title of a webinar I attended back in June.  It was hosted by Cambridge English Teacher and the presenter was Mike McCarthy.  It seems strange to be writing a summary of it so long after the event, but I made detailed notes at the time and recently re-read them and was reminded of how useful a webinar it had been.  So, here goes!

Starting Points
  • anomalies in spoken and written frequencies.
  • consistency across users.
  • examples that seem to violate codified rules.
The Cambridge International Corpus
  • 1 billion words
  • texts from books, newspapers and magazines
  • spoken - informal, business and academic conversations
  • learner data taken from Cambridge ESOL exams (good for identifying common errors at all levels)
The  Cambridge International Corpus (CIC) is where we get the evidence of written and spoken grammar from.

Questions to ask
  • Are there differences between written and spoken grammar?
  • Are they important?
  • Are they important for us as EFL teachers?
  • What should we do about it?
First, we need to find evidence of differences.  When we look at corpora, there are anomalies (differences).  We can make frequency lists of these using specialist software. 

We can then use a corpus to develop a descriptive grammar - how the grammar is used in reality.  We are looking for consistent phenomena of usage across geographical regions, all social backgrounds, both genders, and all ages.  If we find something consistent across all users, it is grammar in common use.

Before we had corpora we had codified rules - grammar rules handed down through the generations; a set of rules that we are taught is the right way to use the language.  Now, with corpora, we also need to take into account cases where these rules are broken.  If enough people are breaking the rules, the rules are wrong.  Think about the city and map analogy.  We change the map to fit the city, not vice-versa, and this is what we should be doing with grammar.

An example

Though/Although - both of these are correct gramatically, but, in the spoken form, though is six times more frequent than although.  Why is this?  It's not enough to say 'it's shorter and easier to say' or 'it's only one syllable'.  We need to analyse it a little more.

Though is the 175th most commonly used word in British English and the 190th in American English.   (It should be noted that if a word is ranked 1 to 2000, it is very important - we can't do without it.)

There are two parts of spoken grammar:
  • form (syntax)
  • function (there will be functions of spoken grammar that aren't necessary in writing) 
Though has two meanings - therefore, it is used more.  It can be used at the very end of a sentence.  So, it's greater frequency may be due to its flexibility.  Using though at the end of a sentence is very rare in written English.  (Form)

Though is also much more commonly used to resume a conversation which has been interrupted.  (Function)

This is evidence of a difference between spoken and written grammar.

Spoken Grammar

We don't notice what we say in the same way as we do when we write.  By using corpora, we see how people really do speak and not how we think they should.

Spoken grammar is flexible in its word order.  This is good news for language learners.  Spoken grammar is much less strict than written.

The 100 most common words in written grammar are prepositions, pronouns and articles - the small words which give correct grammatical structure to sentences.  In spoken English, many of the top 100 words are verbs.

Let's look at the word know as an example.  Know is the 14th most commonly used word in spoken British English and the 22nd in American English.  Know is a transitive verb and most of its uses in writing have an object.  Conversely, most of its uses in speech have no object.  Its most common use is in the expression, 'You know'.

A similar situation arises with the verbs, 'see' and 'mean'.

In spoken language, we have common knowledge - gauging what the other person understands, sharing a common view.  Spoken grammar needs the function of constant checking which isn't necessary in writing.  If we don't check, we speak in monologue rather than dialogue.  So, we constantly use checking phrases like 'Do you see?' or 'You know what I mean'.

Another illustration is absolutely which appears four times more frequently in spoken than in written English.  In spoken English, absolutely is used as 'yes-plus' - as a stand alone sentence.  It is used as an engaged yes or an interested yes - it turns you into an active listener rather than a robotic one.  It can also be used in the negative - absolutely not - increasing its frequency considerably.

Spoken grammar also has 'response tokens' not used in written grammar - wonderful, certainly, great, definitely, etc.  These are very important to effective oral communication.

In conversation, people have no difficulty understanding such things as: 'His cousin in London, her boyfriend, his parents, bought him a car for his birthday.'  Such constructions with multiple subjects and lots of different noun phrases are not found in writing.  When we write them down, they look strange, but in speaking, they sound fine.

This is a native speaker example from the BBC:

'And my grandmother, I've never forgotten, when we were small, my sister and I, she used to take us down and we'd sing to the seals.'

This was said by an educated person and demonstrates that it's perfectly OK in spoken English for the subject to apparently be unclear.  In fact, this structure is deemed to make the speaker sound friendlier.  That's probably what Prince Charles had in mind when he said it!!

How to teach spoken grammar
  • Teacher training programmes should include language awareness elements for spoken English.
  • Get students to think about the differences between the two grammars in their own language.
  • Take out the most important words and phrases from corpora and teach them.
  • Listen to examples.
  • Notice how the words are used and find other examples.
  • Use controlled practice.  For example, give an appropriate answer to something you hear, such as a piece of good news or a piece of bad news.
  • Use freer practice.
In the real world, native/non-native interaction is often a problem.  This is largely due to badly taught English.  Most ELT worldwide is based on written grammar.  As teachers, we need to give students the awareness and the confidence to use spoken grammar.

Even educated native speakers say:

'There's four restaurants in this street.'

Everyone says it, so it's correct!

The problem is in knowing if it's a one-off or if it's accepted use.  This is our challenge as EFL/ESL teachers.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Why I love the 'Twitterverse'!

The Twitter Logo
I've been using Twitter for several years now.  I remember that one of the earliest proponents of this new social media was Stephen Fry and, being a big fan of his work, I thought that if he could see value in it, then I should check it out, too!!  Since I joined Twitter, there have been periods when I used it too much - times when it was almost taking over, to the detriment of other things I should have been doing.  Conversely, there have been other times when I haven't used it at all - not checking my Twitter account for months on end.  For the last year or two, however, I think I have found a happy medium when it comes to Twitter. 

Currently, I use Tweetdeck to manage my Twitter use.   I keep an eye on things by using hashtags - so much easier than trying to follow everything that's going on!  I'm not a slave to it.  I usually check my account in a morning before I go to work and then again a couple of times in an evening.

So, why use Twitter at all?  What do I get out of it?
Well, firstly, Twitter is usually the first place I see the news - via @BBCBreaking, @guardiannews,  or @TelegraphNews.  My news is delivered in bite-sized chunks together with links I can click on if I want to read more about a particular story.

It is also how I satisfy my curiosity about the world of celebrity!  I follow a few famous people who have interesting things to say.  As well as @stephenfry, I particularly enjoy the tweets of @eddieizzard, @prodnose (Danny Baker), @mjhucknall (Mick Hucknall of Simply Red who tweets about good food and great wine), @bobbyllew (Robert Llewellyn of Red Dwarf fame), and @simonmayo.

Courtesy of the BBC
Twitter is also how I follow my interests and hobbies.  For example, I am keen on genealogy, so I follow a number of groups and individuals who share that interest (@ancestrydotcom, @WDYTYA, @Archivescom, etc.).  My passion for film is kept alive by following @wittertainment, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's Twitter account which supports their excellent film review podcast from Radio 5 Live.  My interest in keeping up-to-date with sport, particularly tennis, is satisfied by following certain Twitter accounts, as are my hobbies of cooking, photography and, above all, travel.  There are too many great Twitter travel accounts to mention here, but amongst my favourites are @indietravel, @lonelyplanet, @wanderlustmag, and @TelegraphTravel.

Over the years, I have also become involved in several charities and campaigns to raise public awareness of certain issues through Twitter, not least @comicrelief, @ProjectPangolin and @charitywater.

At times of great global events, such as the recent London Olympics and Paralympics, I keep up with latest developments through their Twitter accounts.

Mark, myself, Tara & JC
Whenever I move to a new country (as I often do in my line of work!), one of the first things I do is look for relevant Twitter accounts to follow - people and organisations that will help me to adapt to my new surroundings with ease.  This has always been a successful ploy, especially here in Vietnam.  When I first arrived here, I started following several Saigon and Hanoi based bloggers, such as Steve Jackson (@ourman), @mekongmadness, @VietTravelGuy, and @MikeInVietnam.  My best follows, though, had to be Tara and JC Vargas (alias @HerDailyDigest and @kingceejay), a couple from the Phillippines who moved to Saigon several years ago and who both blog about and post pictures of Vietnam and give lots of advice to newbies like me.  Reading their accounts of trips to different places has saved us so much wasted time finding things out for ourselves and has led us to visit locations we might not have thought of.  After a few false starts, we were fortunate to meet up with them in person a few weeks ago.  We spent a very pleasant lunchtime with them in a Saigon restaurant and hope that it will be the first of many such meetings.

So, I have already listed several good reasons why I use Twitter and what I get out of it, but I've yet to mention the most important - for my professional development as an EFL teacher and manager.  Through Twitter, I am connected to a huge circle of dedicated professionals living and working in almost every country on earth.  We exchange ideas about all aspects of our jobs.  Whichever time zone we are in, there is invariably someone online to answer a query or to offer links and advice about something which is troubling us.  The PLN (personal learning network) I have developed through Twitter has grown gradually and organically over time and, although I have never met the majority of the teachers in person, I feel like they are friends and colleagues.

All of the articles I read, the webinars I attend, and the ideas I share with my 'real-life' colleagues at EIU, come from tweets and links posted by my PLN.  This invaluable information comes through throughout the week, but there are two hours every Wednesday when it comes thick and fast!  These are the times when a number of us get together to debate an issue in a forum we call #eltchat.  You can read about how it works here.   It is clear how much I value my #eltchat sessions when you see how many summaries I've written! 

I'm not going to list the teachers I follow on Twitter - they know who they are and there are too many of them to name individually.  I will, however, mention a couple, just to illustrate the power of this great tool.  The first is @teacherphili who I 'met' through Twitter and who, just last week, came to work with me at EIU in Vietnam.  The other is Lesley Cioccarelli (@cioccas), a teacher from Australia who I haven't met in person yet, but with whom I am presenting at CamTESOL 2013.  I'm really looking forward to collaborating with her on this project and to welcoming her to Vietnam before the conference so that I can show her EIU and share with her what we are trying to achieve here.

These reasons, and others too numerous to mention, are why I love the 'Twitterverse' and why I will continue to use it - for facts, fun and friendship!!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Communicative Learner-Centred Grammar

This was the title of a Cambridge English Teacher webinar presented by Peter Lucantoni and what follows is a summary of what he had to say.

What is 'grammar'?

Grammar is a set of rules for combining words to express meaning.  It is the system of a language.  Words are given 'labels' to help us to identify their grammatical roles.

In communicative language teaching:
  • There needs to be an active involvement in the learning process (both by teachers and learners).
  • Examples from texts need to be isolated and used as a basis for tasks.
  • Tasks should focus on both the concept (meaning, semantics) and the form of the target grammar.  As teachers, we are often guilty of focusing on the structure and mechanics rather than the meaning.
  • Students should be encouraged to find other examples and work out the rules for themselves.
Jack Richards:

'Communicative language teaching can be understood as a set of principles about the goals of language teaching, how learners learn a language, the kinds of classroom activities that best facilitate learning, and the roles of teachers and learners in the classroom.'
                                               (CLT Today - Cambridge University Press 2006)

Goals depend on context

Everyone learns in different ways; therefore, classroom activities will differ according to context, country, facilities available, class size, etc.

CLT is not a 'method'
  • CLT is best considered as an approach (Richards and Rogers).
  • Teachers are free to interpret the 'rules' of teaching.
  • A wide variety of classroom techniques are feasible.
  • It should move us away from learners who are 'structurally competent' but 'communicatively incompetent' - i.e. students who know the grammar, but can't apply it to communicate.
  • Grammar is important, but we need to find a balance.

''s clearly not possible to engage in purposeful communication in a language without being able to formulate the structures of that language as well.'
                                                                              (McDonagh & Shaw 2000)

As teachers....

''s essential for us to interpret the rules and strike a balance between consolidating structures and developing communicative competence in our English as a second language students.'
                                                                                           (Lucantoni 2002)

'Language without grammar would leave us seriously handicapped.'
                                                                      (Rob Batstone 'Grammar' 2000)

Why is this?

Batstone said that there are three stages in language learning:
  1. Noticing - an active process in which learners become aware of structure and notice connections between form and meaning.  (An appropriate activity here would be to give students a text and get them to highlight the grammar.)
  2. Structuring - when the new grammar pattern becomes internalised.  This is a cognitive process which requires controlled practice.
  3. Procedurising - making the grammar ready for instant and fluent use in communication.
Classroom Activities

1.  Who do you think could........?

This activity practises question forms and modals.  It uses the unit structure/s, but it also provides reading and writing skills development in a communicative and learner-centred manner.
  • You need two pictures of people - male/female, young/old.  Give these people names.
  • Hold up the first picture and ask students to tell you anything they like about the picture - age, hobbies, background, etc.  It doesn't matter what your students say - you are just activating the language they have.
  • Give students the 'true' information.  e.g.:
Name:         Amina
Age:            26
Home:         Casablanca
Hobbies:      Loves music, plays piano
Job:            Doctor
Speaks:       Arabic, English and a little Japanese
Other:         Dislikes pets
Dream:        To fly to the moon
  • You can reveal this information bit by bit to invite reaction, to raise interest and to engage the students.
  • Show the second picture.  Students now know exactly what they have to do.  They'll be interested and excited.
  • Give the real information:
Name:          Hasan
Age:             65
Home:          Fez
Hobbies:       Stamp collecting, weightlifting
Job:              Accountant  
Speaks:        Arabic, Greek
Other:          Vegetarian, can't drive
Dreams:       To go to China, to own a Ferrari

  • All the information is made up, but don't tell the students this - let them believe that it's true.
  • Display the two pictures and ask, 'Who do you think could.......?'  e.g.:
                  move heavy furniture?
                                      Because he likes weightlifting.

                          ..........advise you about your health?
                          Amina - because she's a doctor.

                 you to the airport?

                 you your favourite song?            etc.
  • Ask questions based on the biographies.
  • Students need to tell you why.
You could adapt and extend this activity in several ways:
  • Use other modal verbs, e.g. 'Who do you think might.....?'
  • Use other structures, e.g. 'Who do you think is going to.........?'
  • Use other tenses, e.g. 'Who do you think has..........?'
  • Make the reading element more challenging by putting it in a text (you could even combine the information about two people in one text).
  • A homework extension could be to find two pictures, write biographies about them, write questions based on the biographies and then exchange information with another student in the next class.
2.  The world

This activity provides a good opportunity for extra-curricula work - it is good for revising geographical lexis.
  • Listen to the words.
  • Think about in which country you can write them.  e.g. 'scuba diving' - Red Sea.  It doesn't matter where students decide to put the word, but they must be able to give reasons why.
  • Discuss with a partner.
You will need to give students the functional language:

                                 Where did you put 'scuba diving'?
                             I put scuba diving in the Red Sea.
                             I chose the Red Sea because....
                        I agree/ I disagree because....
  • Show the students a world map.
  • Students write the words you're giving them on the map (or, better still, use post-it notes).
  • If there is no map available, ask students to write the word you give them and write the place next to it.
The idea here is to link the lexis from a unit with a grammar structure.

3.  Mistakes maze

This activity gives learners an opportunity to focus on identifying grammar mistakes in order to get through a maze.

For example:

IN:  Have you ever eat fish?
      (This is an incorrect answer, so exit using the red arrow)
  1. Yes, I have eat.
  2. I've drunk never coffee.
  3. His been to China.
  4. They've never done that.
  5. I've lived here for 13 years.
  6. Said has lived in Kuwait for 2009.
  7. She have tried many times.
  8. No, they hasn't.
  9. Have they been to America?
If students answer correctly, they will pass through every number once only.

This maze can be used to test any grammar point - just make sure you replace correct answers with correct answers and incorrect ones with incorrect ones.

You can focus on a group of mistakes of a particular type or take them from your students' own writing.