Teaching Grammar to Adults and Second Language Learning Research
Fitch, Deborah A., Education
When I tell my community college students to say, "It is I," instead of, "It is me," they look skeptical, perhaps believing this is the jargon of English teachers. I delay the full explanation until we study nominative and objective pronouns. Then the dawn breaks on several faces, and some miraculously begin using the correct pronouns in their compositions. The justification for teaching grammatical rules can be supported by research into how adults acquire a second language.
While the teaching of grammatical rules to adolescents may have little transfer to their writing, much research indicates adult learners are different. Since "adult learner" is typically defined by researchers as someone beyond puberty, then some juniors and seniors in high school as well as college students may learn differently from younger students. The teaching of grammar with all of its boring rules does pay off for older learners. After being exposed to the rules for using the apostrophe, for example, and doing some exercises, students do transfer this knowledge to their compositions because I can see their corrections in their drafts.
Support for teaching grammar to adult learners comes from linguists and from well-known researchers in the field of second language acquisition, who have noted a significant number of similarities between how one acquires one's first language and how one acquires a second language (S. Ervin-Tripp, 1974; R. Ellis, 1985). Further research is needed because as Susan Ervin-Tripp points out, research methods in first language acquisition and in second language acquisition differ, but perhaps those of us who teach English to native speakers can learn from those who teach English as a second language.
One relevant theory, the controversial biological hypothesis, is that the specialization of the brain's right and left hemispheres regarding language functions is not complete until around puberty. The right hemisphere is associated with holistic processing and may act initially in assimilating patterns (rules) to be used later by the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere is associated with the creative use of language and with the motor operations involved in speaking and writing. It is older learners who tend to make use of the left hemisphere's analytic processing. While many researchers, such as Fred Genesee (1982), refute this hypothesis, nevertheless, it has long been a predominant view among educators that the learning process is qualitatively different for children than it is for adults.
Stephen Krashen (1981), for example, found that age influences second language acquisition in a number of ways. Older learners are better suited to study form and to use what they have learned in "monitoring," a self-editing process. At the end of my course, many students tell me they have become aware of grammatical rules when they speak and correct themselves, thus engaging Krashen's monitor. One student commented, "I now realize stupid mistakes that I have made all of my life and can change them."
Furthermore, research and practical experience tell us that adults often want to know the nature of the errors they are making. All of my students tell me to keep teaching grammar the "old-fashioned" way. That is, asking them to study rules, do exercises, and discuss answers. According to McLaughlin, Rossman and McLeod (1983), repeated performance (carefully constructed drills) can lead to an automatic routine; in other words, with sufficient practice there is eventually no need to recall the rule because it has become a "higher-order plan" flexible enough to be applied in different lexical settings. Those in the field of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) would be quick to assert their opposition to textbooks that are written mainly to teach specific grammatical rules without much attention to meaningful prose. I agree that such books should be supplemental, and since I teach a composition class, students also get plenty of practice applying the rules in their writing. (Florida's Gordon Rule mandates that they each write at least 6,000 graded words per semester).
Inevitably, there is one class where my students angrily ask why they didn't get enough instruction in grammar while in high school. As a former high school teacher, I can guess several reasons. First, grammar is boring, and bored students are discipline problems. One student even said the study of grammar was used as a punishment in his high school. From working with student interns, I also know that many new teachers aren't prepared to teach grammar. Furthermore, some states even de-emphasize the teaching of grammar.
But maybe if the second language acquisition research is applicable, adolescents aren't cognitively ready to learn the complex rules of grammar. Plus, they lack the motivation of my community college students, many of whom see the correct use of the language as important to getting the job of their choice or to passing Florida's CLAST (College Level Academic Skills Test), a more immediate goal for them. While most of us are uncomfortable teaching for a test, at least the CLAST has focused attention on the need to teach grammar.
At the beginning of my course, students take a pre-test of the CLAST's grammar section. Only a few are able to pass it. This then provides the motivation to study grammar, and almost everyone passes another test at the end of the course; most scores are raised significantly. Of course, an obvious question is how long students will retain this knowledge.
Nevertheless and more importantly, students transfer what they learn from doing exercises to writing compositions. Such a claim would not surprise linguists or researchers in the field of second language acquisition. Ervin-Tripp (1974) claims children learn language in a tangible, immediate context, while adults tend to learn in an abstract context and have a greater capacity to remember explicitly stated grammatical rules. Adults are more advanced cognitively and better able to apply learned rules. According to McLaughlin, Rossman, and McLeod (1983), the abstract knowledge of rules may save the learner the trouble of formulating wrong hypotheses. One of my students wrote, "Grammar should first be taught by rules and exercises, then by writing papers. Grammar rules are the most important. I learned more and realized more when I read the rules."
This is not to ignore that there are differences in learning styles or that concepts must be recycled in different ways in order for them to be mastered. But the "old-fashioned" way of teaching grammar has been dropped. What about the student, particularly the adult learner, who needs and wants rules? Evelyn Hatch identifies such an individual as a "rule learner." Teaching grammar only through composition is relying on one method for learning. In addition, this instruction is not taking into account the significant factor of age in the learning process. Adults have a greater memory capacity and can focus more easily on the application of rules (Ellis, 1985).
Undoubtedly, we've all participated in conversations where the topic is the poor grammatical skills, both verbal and written, of today's students. One sociology professor I know claims he first corrects the grammar in the papers of his graduate students before he can deal with the papers' content. He's probably unusual. Unfortunately, even most college English professors don't view the teaching of grammar as their responsibility either.
If the research on second language acquisition is relevant to how students learn their own language, then the professors of freshman composition are missing the most advantageous time to teach grammar. My own experience is that while some students equate grammar with the "black plague," most want to learn grammatical rules and practice applying them. This is a typical comment from one of my students: "I never realized how important grammar is. When I was in high school, I thought, 'I know how to talk and people understand what I say, so why do I need this grammar stuff?' Grammar is something you use every single day. It is extremely important if you want to be professional at anything."
Ellis, Rod. (1985). Understanding second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University.
Ervinn-Tripp, Susan. (1974). Is second language learning like the first?" TESOL Quarterly, 8, 111-127.
Genesee, Fred. (1982). Experimental neuropsychological research on second language processing. TESOL Quarterly, 16, 315-324.
Krashen, Stephen. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford: Pergamon.
McLaughlin, B., Rossman, T., & McLeod, B. (1983). Second language learning: an information-processing perspective. Language Learning, 33, 135-158.…
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Publication information: Article title: Teaching Grammar to Adults and Second Language Learning Research. Contributors: Fitch, Deborah A. - Author. Journal title: Education. Volume: 116. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 1995. Page number: 32+. © 1999 Project Innovation. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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