An English teacher’s guide to life after relying on grammar-based ELT coursebooks and the grammatical syllabus

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I have just read a fascinating article written by content entrepreneur Mr Ken Carroll about linear and non-linear learning. It confirms what I’d long suspected about the way in which ELT coursebook writers feel compelled to adhere to a grammatical syllabus.

What is a Grammatical Syllabus?

A grammatical syllabus is developed according to the structures of a language. 

Typically, the grammatical syllabus begins with the verb ‘be’, then the present simple, then the present continuous, and so forth.

Structures that are perceived to be “easy” come at the beginning of a grammatical syllabus. 

What did Ken Carroll write about linear learning in the world of ELT?

Here’s a sample of what Mr Carroll wrote pertaining to linear learning and ELT coursebooks which follow a grammatical syllabus:

Let me give you an example from English language textbooks. For decades, they have traditionally begun with present tense (or aspect) verbs and usually with the third person. He goes, and she eats, etc. These are commonly the first item in a long and linear sequence of items. From there, the books invariably proceed to simple past tense, then past continuous, and then on to the perfect aspect, and so on. This is the order in which most newcomers to English meet the language. It’s also an example of linear delivery.

Is the Present Simple really the easiest tense aspect to master?

Many ELT coursebook writers set the ball rolling with the present simple. There’s always been this assumption in the world of ELT that it’s the “easiest” aspect to master. 

Why does this murky fallacy still prevail?

Well, human beings are habitual creatures. The present simple is related to habits - things we do day in, day out. Therefore, it must be an easy aspect to pick up because we are never going to forget our habits, are we? 

It’s not so simple. Unfortunately, even advanced learners continue to use the present continuous instead of the present simple. This may be because their mother tongue does not have two distinct present tense aspects. Polish is one example of such a language.

Is the third person singular (-s) in the Present Simple easy to acquire?

Again, the answer is no.

In theory, it sounds easy to just bung an ‘s’ or ‘es’ at the end of a verb. He PLAYS ... She GOES … He NEEDS … 

Heck, school pupils breeze through all those present simple gap-fill exercises thinking that they’ve mastered the present simple. 

Theoretical mastery may take place when it comes to the third person singular -s. However, there’s a huge difference between theoretical mastery and complete acquisition. It’s what happens in the real world that counts. Frankly, I teach a large number of advanced-level students who frequently omit the third person singular -s. Constant reminders and consciousness-raising techniques still don’t help that much.

For many learners of English, the third person singular -s is a LATE-ACQUIRED item. Unfortunately, some learners never acquire the third person morpheme -s.

What did Ken Carroll write about non-linear learning? 

As Mr Carroll pointed out, non-linear learning suggests that we learn through discovery, direct experience and dealing with things as they coincidentally arise:

"So, what is non-linear learning? On one level, non-linear learning is the way that we naturally learned for a couple of hundred thousand years. In nature, linear learning doesn’t exist. People didn’t learn to swim or hunt in a linear way – through a staggered, textbook process. We learned instead by doing, through direct experience, through dealing with things as they arose, and through discovering what it was that was important at the time. But most of all, we learned through making connections between stuff we already knew and the stuff we didn’t. This meant we actively constructed the knowledge as we needed it. It was all very subjective and individual and not linear."

I’ve always maintained that the learning of a second language is remarkably similar to the learning of one’s mother tongue. Of course, children learn their mother tongue through random exposure. Parents’ interaction with children is purely spontaneous. 

With regard to second language learning, some of the best classes I taught were completely unplanned. I simply relied on realia and the wonders of taking an interest in my students’ lives. The unpredictable flow of such spontaneous lessons means that the learning of new lexis and grammar structures is purely incidental.

Regarding my opposition to ‘resource heavy’ teaching and grammatical syllabuses, it's worth checking out a materials-light approach to teaching called DOGME. Check out this live DOGME lesson in action.

Non-linear learning and how I “acquired" the Serbian language

The term “language acquisition” implies that languages are picked up through exposure rather than through direct teaching. Well, I did hire a teacher to help me learn Serbian - but I rather referred to her as a “guide” instead of a teacher. The reason is because I always had a lot of grammar-based and vocabulary-based questions for her regarding:

1. Language that emerged from the basic conversations I was having with my wife and her family

2. Being immersed in the Serbian language in Serbia and Bosnia, and consequently hearing and seeing the same old words and phrases every day

I remember picking up complex conditional structures before I learned how to ask a question in the present tense. There was no structure to the way I mastered Serbian grammar. Coincidence, exposure and intrigue meant that my own tutor had little choice but to take a non-linear journey with me. 

The PELC personalised Word-Phrase Table

My acquisition of Serbian turned out to be anything but “linear”. That’s because I developed a Personalised Word-Phrase Table at the start of my learning. Here is a sample from my table:

word phrase table to learn vocabulary

In the world of English language teaching, it seems that beginner learners must firstly learn the days of the week, months, colours and names of food. This is a huge waste of time because learners will effortlessly pick up such words through exposure. 

With regard to the sample from my table above, there is no way in a million years that a beginner or elementary learner attending a language school would learn words such as “proud” and “additional” in their first few classes. There should be no discrimination whatsoever when it comes to the learning of vocabulary. Essentially, it is unrealistic to grade vocabulary in terms of difficulty and apparent usefulness.

Conclusion - one size fits nobody

I believe that many owners of private language schools, Directors of Studies and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teachers are loath to step out of their comfort zones in order to take their students down a road of discovery and exploration.

In my experience, grammar-based ELT coursebooks and grammatical syllabuses allow teachers to feel powerful and in control. Let’s face it, teaching rules and dishing out gap-fill exercises is really easy for teachers.

Much of the content in grammar-based ELT coursebooks is not related to students’ lives and their past experiences. The outcome, as Ken Carroll so aptly puts it, is “one-size-fits-nobody”.

Students who have one-to-one classes are able to determine what and how they learn. But I wonder - is there anything stopping students who learn in a group from bringing their own materials and questions to class in order for teachers to add some non-linear spice to the curriculum?