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

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I have just read a fascinating article written by content entrepreneur Mr Ken Carroll about linear and non-linear learning, and it seemed to confirm what I’d long suspected about the predictable way in which ELT coursebooks which revolve around a grammatical syllabus are written. 

Before I share my own views and experience on linear and non-linear learning, here is a sample of what Mr Carroll wrote pertaining to linear learning and ELT coursebooks which follow a grammatical syllabus:

On linear sequencing in ELT coursebooks

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."

Mr Ken Carroll


THE PRESENT SIMPLE TENSE - FIRST ON THE LIST … 

If the present simple tense sets the ball rolling in an ELT coursebook with an obvious grammatical syllabus, then the writer/s must assume that it’s the easiest tense to master. Human beings are habitual creatures. Therefore, because the present simple tense is related to habits - things we do day in, day out - it must be an easy tense to pick up because we are never going to forget our habits, are we? 

It’s not so simple ... My experience has shown me that even advanced learners very often use the present continuous tense instead of the present simple tense, possibly because their mother tongue does not have two distinct present tenses. 

Related to the present simple tense, students often spend years practising the rule regarding the third person singular ending on regular verbs in English ("He plays football every day."). Theoretical mastery does indeed take place, but acquisition does not because, for most learners, the third person singular in the simple present tense is a LATE-ACQUIRED item! 

Stephen Krashen is one renowned linguist who argues that the acquisition of grammatical structures follows a predictable 'natural order'. It is well worth reading about Krashen’s theories which advocate natural communication and an avoidance of tedious exercises which revolve around grammatical rules and a grammatical syllabus. 

Overall, teachers who spend years spoon-feeding their students with gap-fill exercises on the present simple tense, whilst hoping and praying that students do not use the present continuous instead in free speech, are wasting their time. Students who continue to expose themselves to English through watching films and reading will eventually acquire the present simple tense. ELT coursebooks with a grammatical syllabus simply do not cut it.


NON-LINEAR LEARNING - IN KEN WE TRUST … 

As Mr Carroll points 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 have 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. Indeed, parents’ interaction with children is purely spontaneous. 

With respect 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 the use of realia, and my current opposition to ‘resource heavy’ teaching and grammatical syllabuses, an approach to teaching called DOGME comes to mind. If you would like to see a live DOGME lesson in action, check this out


NON-LINEAR LEARNING AND MY “ACQUISITION” OF THE SERBIAN LANGUAGE

The very term “language acquisition” implies that languages are picked up through exposure rather than through direct teaching. I hired a tutor - but I rather referred to her as a “guide” - not a teacher. That is because I always had a lot of questions for her (grammar-based and lexis-based) based on:

1. the basic conversations I was having with (mostly) 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 and prior to getting to grips with all the gender-based forms for “this”, “that”, “these” and “those”. 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 go down the non-linear route with me. 


MY TRUSTY WORD-PHRASE TABLE

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

In the world of English language teaching, it seems that beginner learners must learn the days of the week, months, colours and names of food. That is a huge waste of time because learners can 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 lexis because I think it is unrealistic to grade vocabulary in terms of difficulty and supposed 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 make teachers feel powerful and in control. Let’s face it, teaching rules and dishing out gap-fill exercises is easy and convenient.

Much of the content in grammar-based ELT coursebooks is not related to students’ lives, their experiences, or with anything they might want to learn. 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?

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