Number one for English language teachers

Thursday 31st March: Grammar

Type: Reference material

In her tenth diary entry, Maria Alamanou feels frustrated by the grammar depicted in advanced level course books

It’s 11:05 on a Thursday morning, I’m teaching a new Proficiency class and I’m writing this entry. How can I be teaching and updating my diary at the same time? I don’t know really. It must be the versatile nature of women, but who cares? The point is that on a slack day like this, I could be doing a million other things alongside teaching and nobody would notice. Why? The 'whys' are never simple. Let’s just say it’s spring time and that once spring has set in, time begins to drag, feet begin to drag, minds begin to drag – or rather wander freely and wildly – and lessons begin to drag.

To make matters much worse, on this particular morning we’re dealing with a particularly whimsical part of the grammar book which will insist on the Present Perfect having at least fifteen different uses! We’ve been through them rather unwillingly, with me making sure I’ve given the students an appropriate, everyday-life example of each of the ‘fifteen uses’ that they could identify with and now we’ve moved into the practice section with them filling in one meaningless sentence after another and me writing my diary, as I said. I can see this isn’t getting anywhere. I must remember to ask them to match each sentence to one of the ‘uses’ when we correct, in case any of the stuff stays with them at the end of class.

I wonder why materials writers insist on making life difficult for advanced students and their teachers. For the past five years - since my favourite Proficiency grammar book became obsolete that is - I haven’t been able to come up with material that is fit to be taught at these levels. Everything I’ve tried is either unnecessarily complex, ridiculously simplistic or taking too much for granted. When publishers’ reps come to visit and I dare ask how such a glaring omission can have occurred in their otherwise clogged catalogues, they look at me suspiciously and dutifully inform me that ‘grammar is not supposed to be taught as such at higher levels’. That explains why the writing of a complete work has been neglected, ignored or postponed indefinitely.

Of course, I couldn’t disagree more but I let them go on unperturbed, for what do they know? Most of them are not even teachers! Anyway, now I’m stuck with the fifteen-use Present Perfect and I have to make something decent out of it. Promptly, a question disturbs my thoughts: ‘Miss, what is a Concorde?’ I look up and stare into the girl’s innocent eyes. I start to say something about her schematic knowledge of the world being dramatically inadequate but I stop short when I remember my previous train of thought. ‘Why are you asking, dear?’ I say sweetly. ‘Because I’m in the 'experience' use now and there’s a stupid question that asks if I’ve ever flown to New York by Concorde,’ she retorted.

I’m about to burst into uncontrollable laughter at the sheer stupidity of the exercise in question but the girl’s exasperation is nothing to laugh about. I wonder how many, if any, of our students would ever have had the chance to travel by Concorde anywhere, let alone N.Y. But what makes the question sound even more hollow is that it is asked of 15-year-olds! While on the subject, I remember another malicious grammar book I’d been teaching, at intermediate level this time. I can recall how I felt at a loss when, in the Comparison Unit, I was faced with the intimidating question: ‘Which of the following is the biggest in size: Mount Everest, The Empire State Building, Jupiter or the Sahara?’ Why will the Superlative always be explored in terms of Geography?

I wish grammar-book writers would give me a break, for Geography has never been my strong point. If it wasn’t for the Teacher’s Book, I wouldn’t know the difference in size between Everest and the Empire State Building if they fell on top of me! Why can’t you, writers, respect the KNOWLEDGE → EXPERIENCE → OPINION formula that your researcher colleagues have strived so hard to come up with in an effort to humanise books and make them a little more user-friendly? Well, my advice to tortured teachers in such cases is: next time you have to teach Comparison, or the Present Perfect for that matter, look critically in your book, don’t reach out for the Key, and if you can’t do it, don’t expect your students to. It’ll be a defeating experience for both of you.

O.K., time to stop writing now, my Dear Diary. I’ve got some serious explaining to do as to what ‘a Concorde’ is.

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