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Teaching Grammar to Oregon ELLs


Over at the ELL Advocates blog, Stephen Krashen tried to poke a hole in claims reported in an article in the Oregonian that new methods for teaching English-language learners in Oregon resulted in higher test scores on the state's English-language-proficiency test last school year than in the previous school year. Mr. Krashen is a professor emeritus of education at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, who frequently comments publicly on shortcomings he perceives in journalists' reporting on ELLs.

Mr. Krashen read on the Oregon department of education Web site that the state had recently standardized its testing of English proficiency, so he suspected that ELLs' test scores had improved because the school districts had changed their tests. But Betsy Hammond, the author of the March 6 Oregonian article, wrote him back that the claims had been based on a randomly selected group of ELLs who took the same test both years in a row.

Then Mr. Krashen responded by pointing out other reasons that he contends the claims are "unscientific."

Ms. Hammond's article explained that Oregon's schools have started to teach ELLs grammar in an orderly way to ensure they don't miss learning how verbs are conjugated, words are ordered, and sentences are constructed.

After reading the article, I wanted to know more about how instruction was delivered in the past and how any changes had been implemented (teachers don't change their methods overnight). The Oregon educators' explanation that a more deliberate focus on grammar raised test scores didn't seem adequate.

The comments to Mr. Krashen's blog entry further pique my interest about what's going on with ELLs in Oregon. Doug Shivers, an ESL teacher in Oregon and a blogger, notes that many ESL teachers in Oregon are frustrated with ready-made lesson plans for teaching grammar.

Here's another story idea to put on my list for exploration. Is something working in Oregon with ELLs that other educators in the country should learn about, or do educators there just hope that what they are doing is working?


Education research is traditionally unscientific. Too many variables. Krashen is one of the few that tries to bring rigor to the numbers. He likes to say that "Frank Smith is awlways right" when it comes to literacy learning. I think it can be changed to "Stephen Krashen is always right" when it come to the research.

Unfortunately, there wasn't sufficient information provided by the Oregon Times to determine exactly what is happening in Oregon's classrooms. For me, it's a leap of logic that a new test, piloted from one year to the next, reveals that teaching grammar is the sole factor making the difference. More description of Oregon's classrooms serving ELLs are in order.

More information on the new test scoring is in order as well. Some states use composite scoring which can hide information.

Too many unanswered questions.

What Oregon is doing is Grammar-Translation method. It doesn't work and is a poor way to teach language. Study after study indicates people don't learn language by this method or teaching grammar explicitly for long periods of time. It's known but most language teaching including foreign language teaching is taught this way. How many people read books in a foreign language class at a reading level they can handle? Often there is no book but a textbook with sentence grammar exercises in it or boring short reading passages about the target culture. Very few people learn a language a language this way, if any, and learners have an impression that learning a language has something to do with conjugating verbs rather than communication in spoken or written form.
A good book to read is Promoting Academic Success for E.S.L. Students: Understanding Second Language Acquisition for School. It explains in a passage how damaging teaching step by step teaching is. Think of how terrible it would be to teach our own children by pelting them with grammar exercises. It would turn children off language learning all together. People learn language by communicating with others and being spoken to in the target language. They also learn by reading books at a reading level they can comprehend. If a student has to stop every second and look up a word, they will not develop their reading comprehension. What many states are doing as well as the federal government are things that do not work and have been proven "scientifically" not to work and pretending that norming and standardizing are "scientific" ways of teaching. People who learn a language don't do it because of a class infused with grammar, but because they are learning from the world around them.

I do not know your credentials in teaching English to foreigners who are old enough to walk away from your classroom if the progress they make is below satisfactory - I have been in and out of that since 1985. I am not of an opinion that you can teach language by teaching grammar alone, far from that. Nevertheless, you need to order the progress of language presentation somehow and grammatic and syntactic structures provide a logical intellectual grid to weave around. You surely do not wish to tell us that we should rely on facing students with 'real' English from the start. First of all, the claim upon which such approach is rested is already as outdated as G-T (adults do not learn in the same way as kids) and besides, it makes such a slow progress initially that one would not keep his adult learners in class (if learning is not compulsory). I do not know, and I doubt if anybody does, if total English immersion approach might work if followed in a non-English speaking country with a teaching contact with students at the level of two meetings 1,5 h each per week - all my experience suggests that they would drift out of class before the end of the first month (but I do not know that, I only guess, I admit) - let's assume, however, that it might produce a similar result of competence at the end of the first year as communication mixed with direct grammar teaching approach that dominates teaching English now (I take teaching English through grammar teaching only as a purely hipothetical being, kept alive only by its critics, nobody in my experience has ever taught that way - it is always grammar plus communication). So, assuming that the two approaches might produce similar results, I take the communication progressing along with ordered grammar study a more attractive of the two for both student and teacher because it appeals to the trained rational thinking and memory of an adult learner - it is easier to recognize and compute the progress. Besides, is it still G-T method when you do not start from excerpts from novels or magazines but start talking about Smith family - his name is Tom. They are the Smiths. You beging with the verb 'be' and possessive adjectives but usually leave the guessing the meaning to students. Is it teaching grammar? It is. Is it teaching grammar only. It isn't. How else should you have started? 'The reason why Tom has failed to see his grandma for so many years is that he felt unequal ...etc' Would that be sufficiently 'complete' language approach? I come from Poland and as you know, Poles constitue large communities in many foreign countries - I have repeatedly heard from my colleagues meeting such emigrant Poles about what English, or should I say Pinglish they speak. Those who have neglected to take a structured course in English, with, I gather, discourse on intricacies of English have failed to learn English at a level acceptable anywhere except in cleaning places - the English they speak ususally banishes them to menial jobs for life. Those who exposed themselves to English taught, not only used usually report having made quick progress. Some critics of language awareness as an instrument of learning a foreign language claim that it actually prevents one from learning the target language but no one so far has explained the fact that interpreters who translate from language to language on a daily basis and have to know what is what in each one to be able to translate correctly, usually enjoy the reputation of proficient rather that deficient users of English.
To sum up, I wonder as a result of what mental process language awareness can not become a useful step in learning a foreign language (on condition that it is used as one of many tools in teaching process) but that it is bound to hamper the progress and prevent one from achieving language proficiancy quickly or ever.

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