ALIS Newsletter - October 2015 (Plain Text Version)
In this issue:
LEARNING GRAMMAR BY EAR
Grammar in School
In most school settings, ELLs do not have the luxury of learning grammar through a structured syllabus. Their priority is to meet grade-level curriculum expectations while simultaneously learning the language. Accordingly, their ESOL teachers’ priority is to work with content teachers: sheltering the language of difficult texts and scaffolding academic tasks, with little time to focus explicitly on grammar. To quote a recently-interviewed teacher: “I used to do parts of speech, but they aren’t a part of our standards.”
And yet, grammar mastery is critical in academic literacy. As Schleppegrell (2004) points out, “In school-based tasks, the language itself plays the major role in making meaning [emphasis added]…It is through grammatical choices that different meanings are construed and different contexts are realized [emphasis added]” (p. 74–75). Even in these two quoted sentences, comprehension depends on the ability to process densely-combined structures: abstract noun groups (boldface); passive constructions (italics) with no clear agent, and long extraposed subjects (underline).
When ELLs enter school with no prior formal language instruction, they typically acquire grammar “by ear”—by interacting with the native speakers around them. They may soon become fluent enough to acquit themselves passably in the grade-level classroom. But spoken language, even classroom instructional language, with its false starts, truncated sentences, and informal turn-taking moves, provides a very different kind of input than does written text, with its sustained linguistic complexity.
“Ear Learner” GrammarCaught between these two different discourse models, ELLs’ grammatical development often displays what my colleague has called “the Swiss cheese effect”—a partial mastery that holds together and looks solid in some places, but is really full of holes that are much more obvious in writing than in speaking. One consistent example, observed over several years by myself and my graduate students working with ELLs in a local middle school, is the indiscriminate use of present and past tense:
The confusion is understandable. First, present and past are both very frequent in everyday speech. Then, middle school learners are often asked to read past-tense narratives and respond to them in present tense, for example Explain how Justin changes in Buddha Boy. Furthermore, narratives often switch unpredictably from past to present between story line and first-person narrator comment. If the conventions for these transitions are not explained, the language learner may well overlook them.
Yet, juxtaposed with this seemingly “beginner” confusion, are attempts at complex sentence-internal structures that would be labeled “advanced” in an ESOL grammar textbook:
The writer has evidently grasped the usefulness of these complex structures for focusing and elaborating ideas even though she has not yet mastered the details of word order or verb forms.
These “advanced” attempts undoubtedly reflect exposure to both written texts and everyday speech. By the same token, the infelicities in the student example, such as subject-verb nonagreement, or the long list of clauses strung together with and, are equally reflective of native-English speech; but the learner has not yet distinguished a speaking from an academic voice.
Discovering Academic Grammar: An Example
The challenge and opportunity for ESOL teachers is therefore to help “ear learners” fill the gaps in their grammar mastery while also harnessing their awareness of complex structures in the service of academic literacy. This opportunity can be seized by helping students discover how grammar makes meaning in an academic text. The strategy works within the framework of the curriculum cycle proposed by Gibbons (2002), Derewianka (1990), and other scholars of systemic functional linguistics. It is also in line with arguments for discourse-based grammar in Celce-Murcia (2013).
The following paragraph is my abbreviated version of a science informational text from the text exemplars (Grades 6–8) of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and &
Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010):
This paragraph first defines geology summarily, and then classifies it into parts. To help students discover this pattern, we can devise the following pair or small-group exercise (Figure 1) in which they assemble the paragraph by numbering its scrambled sentences and then explain their choices.
Figure 1. Information Text: Discovery Exercise
Table 1. Information Text: Thematic Development
Adjective clauses also help set up the logical relations of this text. In the fourth sentence,
Processes and materials form a logical pair, but they are interrupted by the long modifier following processes. The bracketed adjective clause reconnects them by modifying materials with a reference to processes (they). Similarly, in the last sentence,
Historical geology is concerned with the chronology of events, both physical and biological [that have taken place in Earth’s history],
the adjective clause brings us back to the theme of history, after a long interruption in the predicate of the sentence.
Unpacking and discussing the logic of a paragraph engages “ear learners” not only in discussing the grammar, but also in analyzing the meaning as revealed through the grammar. To reinforce their understanding of how passive voice and adjective clauses function in this text, we could provide a template with only the key words or themes, and ask them to reproduce the sentences, keeping the key words in first position. Later, these structures could be practiced in a joint class construction explaining the sequence of an experiment or the rules of a game; and, finally, students could write their own paragraphs and peer-critique each other’s use of grammar to provide coherence and clarify meaning.
Celce-Murcia, M. (2013, August). Discourse-based grammar and the teaching of academic reading and writing. Applied Linguistics Forum. The Newsletter of the Applied Linguistics Interest Section. TESOL International Association. Retrieved from http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolalis/issues/2013-07-23/3.html
Derewianka, B. (1990). Exploring how texts work. Rozelle, NSW, Australia: Primary English Teaching Association.
Gibbons, P. (2002). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning: Teaching second language learners in the mainstream classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (Appendix B). Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_B.pdf
Schleppegrell, M. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Elizabeth O’Dowd is a professor of applied linguistics at Saint Michael’s College, Vermont. She is the author of Prepositions and Particles in English (Oxford University Press), and coauthor of Grammar Links 2 (Houghton Mifflin). Her recent research focuses on functional grammar and academic literacy.