As you probably know I’m a great believer in the lexical dimension of language, particularly at higher levels, and I’ve posted quite a lot recently about the damage I believe an over-preoccupation with the rules of grammar can cause. ( See this post if you are interested). So it was really good today to hear Prof. Mike McCarthy talking about The English Grammar Profile and, in the trailer to this video, reassuring everyone that whilst grammar rules are important, they are important to be able to create meanings.He underlined the fact that grammar rules need to come out of a natural context and that a teaching approach to grammar should probably be cyclical, studying forms and then revisiting them in different ways.
What is the Grammar Profile?
The grammar profile is the new resource created by the Cambridge team, together with other institutions, and follows on the English Vocabulary Profile, which has been available for some time. The English Profile is, I think, a highly innovative resource which provides us with a description of what learners can do at different levels, innovative because it truly tries to put the learners at the centre of the process.When I first heard about the Vocabulary Profile in 2011, I was very excited about it and we started to use it here in Verona as a reference tool for various things such as, for instance, item writing for exams. If we were not sure whether to test a particular word at B2, we could look it up in the Vocabulary Profile and see at what level learners will use that item. If you look up the word “scramble” just to give an example, which we focused on in a text this week at C2 level, you will find that there is an example of a learner who produced that item on a Proficiency exam, so it is classified as a C2 level item:
This is what the screen shot looks like. Care has to be taken with this though as it may still be logical to test comprehension of an item like “scramble” in context in, say, a reading test at a B2 level as the English Vocabulary Profile is only describing productive skills.
One or Two Drawbacks
The project is extremely ambitious and the point is sometimes made that it only describes the language learners production, which causes problems like the one I just mentioned. To do this researchers have been analysing the Cambridge Learner Corpus, which is the language learners produce mainly during exams. This is a very large corpus with more than 50 billion items from written language and about 5 million from spoken language but the fact remains that it is still based on production in exams which may mean that the description is rather limited, and there is a big difference in size between the written and spoken compnents. Because of our own experiences and with an eye to item writing for receptive skills, in fact, I asked Prof. McCarthy if there were plans to develop a description that focused on “understanding” in a similar way and he said that there was enough data to do so, but that what was needed were funds… So, all those billionnaires out there, this is your moment!
The Grammar Profile contines with its learner centred approach and describes the way learners develop an awareness and mastery of what McCarthy terms “grammatical polysemy”. He said that we usually think of lexis as being polysemous but that grammatical forms are as well, in that a grammatical form can have several meanings. I think of this as a layered process, where the more language you are exposed to the more meanings you can see being attached to different forms. In the video McCarthy mentions “imperatives” for instance, saying that initially learners use them to give commands such as “Don’t forget your ticket” or “Please come on time” but as time goes by they notice that imperatives may be used in other ways such as a compnent of conditionals, with the example “Go into any shop in Cambridge and you’ll see clothes made in China.” In this way the more you interact with the language the more meanings you will see. This reminds me of an idea that came up on a Celta course I was observing, and I’m sorry but I forget whose it was originally :-(. The ideas was that learning a language is initially like flying over the countryside at a great height, so that you only notice very prominent features (not in a linguistic sense,, I hasten to add) like mountain ranges, or in grammatical terms, the present simple to talk about general, everyday events etc. As your plane starts to descend though you notice more and more until you are no longer looking at the overall “big picture” but focusing on the details that are closer to the ground: the present simple to tell stories or jokes, for instance. I’ve always liked this idea and I’m sure it’s true of me as a language learner, anyway.
Interacting with Meaningful Texts
The key here, I think, is what I will call the idea of interacting with meaningful texts. By interacting with language directly you can come to the rules by a process of deduction, or maybe you don’t even need the rule, you just remember the form related to the meaning. Many learners spend years grappling with the vagaries of perfect tenses in English and this is definitely true of my C2 level learners. Grammar forms can be explored as chunks in texts, though in just the way that lexical chunks can and perhaps taking the time to stop and look at what is behind an utterance or a sentence will help even more than studying diembodied rules. We were looking at a text I wrote a few years ago where I explained that I had found it very hard to do an MA and the sentence was:
“I’ve been thinking about doing this MA for quite a while now, but it was hard to decide because it was expensive, I wondered whether I wasn’t too old etc.”
Once the learners had heard and understood the message we came back to the form “I’ve been thinking about doing an MA for quite a while now” and I asked them to look at it as a chunk rather than as a rule. We analysed the meaning here, that:
- it had not been easy to decide;
- it was something that I kept coming back to over a period of time;
- I wasn’t sure about whether I wanted to do it or not.
I then asked the learners to think about their own lives and to come up with their own examples. You may think this would be easy for them, but, in fact as I walked round quite a few were just writing notes and not examples and said things like “I can’t think of anything”. I stopped and talked to them at this point about their lives and the things they’d like to do and kept thinking about but maybe couldn’t decide to commit to, because they couldn’t afford to etc. and then the ideas started to flow:
“I’ve been thinking about travelling right round the world”
“I’ve been thinking about takinng up a third language.”
“I’ve been thinking about buying a new car”
Discussing these very real examples then in small cooperative groups made it even more real, so that instead of studying the disembodied rules or asking comprehension check questions after I’d clarified the rules to them, we deduced those concepts from the piece of language itself and then the learners themselves experimented with them, until the grammatical form became part of their own repertoire.
Of course, we will probably need to revisit this again, but I felt that we were on the way.
Goodbye to Disembodied Rules: 3 steps to meaningful development of Grammatical Competence
It’s not the rules themselves that I object to, as rules and explanations can help us to inderstand things, but what I think is essential to understand is that the rule is only the first step, and that if we can deduce that rule from language use in context it will be all the more meaningful rather than studying things like:
“The Present Perfect is often used with “never” followed by an example such as ” I’ve never met the Pope” which may well be natural but is not linked in any way to a real, meaningful context.
The next step after understanding how to shape an idea, is to use it for yourself in a meaningful way, by experimenting, seeing what works and what doesn’t and by using that language yourself.
The third step is to revisit that form because the more you see something the better you will be able to remember it and use it and you can add layers to your mastery of the language. The question of whether vocabulary or grammar is more important, to my mind, misses the point: we need them both to create our own specific meanings.