When grammatical accuracy is all that matters …

In my post of July 28, I asserted that “our social values, our education system, and sometimes the way we teach English, have joined hands to strangle students’ motivation to learn English.”

I have talked about the issue of social values and education system in my previous post. My thesis was that we are over-relying on extrinsic motivation as an incentive for learning English: English gets you into university and a good job, so just work for high marks in English exams. But for the academically average and less able students, extrinsic motivation may not work. How can we tap students’ intrinsic motivation to learn, by making language learning an intrinsically satisfying experience for these students?

In this post, my argument is that currently our undue emphasis on grammar learning and grammatical accuracy is demotivating and eroding students’ interest in learning English and confidence in using the language for communication, and that we should pay more attention to the meaning dimension of what we do. Let me start with two scenarios:

Scenario 1

I was starting teaching at a new secondary school (I had taught at four secondary schools in total). This was an elite school which took in the cream of the crop, so I was hoping to read some interesting and thought-provoking essays when I was about to grade their first composition. I was given a very simple marking scheme by the school: Five marks off for every mistake.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I started to read the students’ compositions. Contrary to my expectations, they were so mundane. In fact, they bored me to death. Before long, I realized that the students were simply playing an error-avoidance game. There were no marks to be awarded for content, so the students would not take any risks to write anything unusual, and would settle for short sentences and simple vocabulary in order to avoid producing errors. As a result, most of the compositions were error-free. Marking their compositions was a breeze. But a voice in the back of my mind said: What a waste of the students’ talents!

Scenario 2

(Be warned: if you are an English teacher, you may not like what I am going to say.)

Reading comprehension exercises in coursebooks usually require students to write out their answers. Invariably there will be some Why questions, and it is still the practice in some schools to deduct marks from students’ answers that do not begin with ‘It is because …’. The usual reason given by teachers is that this gives students additional practice in grammar through writing complete sentences (so an even better answer, for some teachers, is that students repeat the stem of a Why question: The man did not kill the woman because …)

My usual response:

  1. This is reading comprehension, so the focus should be on understanding the text. If students have got the meaning of their answer correct, we should not penalize them further for not writing their answer in a complete sentence.
  2. From a discourse point of view, in real life, we don’t always write in complete sentences. It depends on the context, and the purpose of communication. In a reading comprehension exercise, giving a response in “Because ….” is absolutely appropriate. In fact, if the meaning of the answer is clear enough, even the word ‘because’ can be omitted.
  3. In English, we do sometimes say ‘It is because …’, but linguistically it is ‘marked’, in that we only use this structure when we (a) need to emphasise that such is the reason (eg., If I always make fun of you, it’s because I know you have a good sense of humour), or (b) contrast two reasons (… <she left him> …It’s not because she doesn’t love him any more; it’s because he has no intention of marrying her). (Compare ‘John killed Mary” and “It was Mary that John killed”: the two structures serve different purposes.) Beginning a straightforward answer to a Why question with ‘It is because …’ is not grammatically wrong, but is somewhat unnatural. (Compare: Speaker A: What did John do? Speaker B: It was killing Mary that he did*.)

(As an aside, I once discussed this issue with the teachers in a part-time course. I had no idea that they were so keen about the issue that they took it back to their schools and discussed it with their colleagues afterwards. The responses from their colleagues which the teachers reported back to me included:

  1. This has been the school’s practice for many years. Just follow the practice.
  2. What’s wrong with requiring students to write 100% grammatically correct sentences?
  3. (From a NET teacher) What’s wrong with the sentence “It’s because …”?
  4. It is stated in the marking schemes of public exams. So we must follow it.

Hearing the last response, I immediately checked the marking schemes for the Reading paper in all public exams, TSA, HKCE, HKAL, and even LPAT. No, they NEVER require “It is because ….” as a lead-in for a Why answer. )

***

Before I continue to discuss this issue, I would like to pause here, and invite you to reflect on the two scenarios above. Can you also think of other scenarios that reflect our obsession with grammar learning and grammatical accuracy? What effect could this excessive focus on grammar have on students’ intrinsic motivation to learn English? In the next post, I will point out what can be done to make language learning a more intrinsically satisfying activity for students. (But it is just common sense, so don’t expect a magical formula from me.)

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