Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Teaching Grammar

This semester I'm teaching grammar over in the English Language Institute. It's causing me to reassess my methodology and understanding of teaching ESL.

There's a great danger of having a cavalier attitude towards one's work. "I know how to do this" is a foolish and dangerous attitude. I need to keep coming back to, "How should I try this? What resources should I investigate? How do I discover the results of this method? How do I discover what the students need?"

With grammar especially there's a wide gap between what a person knows, passively, about the language, and how a person uses the language. I've been teaching over in Academic Spoken English for so long that I regard English grammar as something superfluous-- "ah, it's what they teach you over in ESL courses, it's not my business here." But now I am "over in ESL courses," and it is my business.

I'm not yet accustomed to thinking of English grammar as a program. The particulars of the grammar-- and where and how they differ from the grammars of my students' languages-- feel like a jumble of miscellania. Thankfully, I don't have to design a curriculum from scratch. But it's feeling as though I do.

If I can get a global picture of the English grammar as an ESL student experiences it, perhaps I'll have a better understanding of where in that picture my students are. And I'll be better able to guide them, step by step, towards where they should be next.

This is also my first time teaching a class that has grades; where each student's progress needs to be consistently enumerated. Not easy stuff, compared to the pass/ fail paradigm I'm accustomed to. At any point in the semester, it's my responsibility to have a clear idea of how well a student can handle this or that grammatical form. I've never been trained in assessment nor do I have experience in assessment. This is a challenge and I'm not sure how to face it.

Right now, I feel like I'm groping along blindly. The students tell me the course is too "easy." They want a tougher textbook. In their spontaneous speech I'm not hearing the grammatical forms that they say are "easy." But, understanding of rules is not the same as acquisition. One of my students suggested (not in these words) that my goal is not their acquisition of forms-- that's the Speaking & Listening teacher's responsibility. My goal, he argued, is for them to have a passive understanding of the forms. And these forms they already understand.

In addition to-- and prior to-- writing up lesson plans, I need to reflect on where my students are, where I want them, and how to guide them to that place. Daily lesson plans should be a minor part of my global understanding of the course.

But right now, just getting the plans done on time-- I feel like I'm gasping for air just to keep on top of that.