Why I can no longer give grammar-based exams

I’ve been reading a book called Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen by James F. Lee and Bill VanPatten.  It’s not an easy book to read, but its messages are very, very interesting.  It has given me some new insights and also reaffirmed some thoughts I have been having about teaching and assessing grammar.  The most mind-boggling part of this book is the research cited from the 1970’s to the 1990’s when the book was first published.  The research actually indicates that the way I teach foreign language, and I dare say many language educators teach, is not conducive to using the target language to communicate.   Basically, I have been doing it wrong for the 17 years before this one.  I am not saying that I was a failure as a teacher, but there are definitely more effective ways to teach language that somehow I never learned about.  Traditional beliefs about language teaching simply have no research to back them up.  In fact, research has shown them to be less effective than other methods for acquiring language.

I am so relieved to have found information that justifies my feelings of inadequacy regarding my traditional approaches to teaching language and also indicates that my new thoughts about language teaching are on track.  I feel much better!

Every foreign language textbook that I personally have ever seen arranges the target language according to paradigms.  Examples of paradigms include all the forms of a verb in a particular tense, all possessive adjectives, all direct object pronouns, etc.  Based on the research cited in the book, there is simply no basis for teaching language for a communicative purpose using paradigms.  In fact, it actually proves to be counter productive.  Why don’t textbook publishers know this?  Why didn’t I know this before now? How many other foreign language teachers are out there who are unaware of this?

The book gives me many reasons for abandoning the grammar test, but a quote by Krashen and Terrell that Lee and VanPatten use on page 134 of their book best sums it up:

“Using an approach in the classroom which emphasizes the ability to exchange messages, and at the same time testing only the ability to apply grammar rules correctly, is an invitation to disaster.” 

In short, they are competing goals that frustrate teacher and learner alike when we try to assess them separately in the classroom.

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2 Responses to Why I can no longer give grammar-based exams

  1. ahhhpoetry says:

    I will have to get this book. I’ve not been teaching for as long as you have, but over the years, I feel that teaching students in grammar chunks is counter intuitive to the way we learn languages from birth. Thank you for sharing!

  2. proferiordan says:

    Awesome post! I am I exactly the same position as you are with your attitudes regarding explicit grammar instruction. I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to BVP’s podcast and learning as much as I can about CI, implicit instruction and the like. I hope we can maybe support each other in this endeavor. I recently started a blog at proferiordan.wordpress.com about exactly this topic and my journey through the transition. Check it out if you get the chance…I look forward to this transition away from explicit teaching! -brian

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