Saturday, 3 August 2013

Uncovering Grammar - Chapters 4 and 5

Chapter 4 of Uncovering Grammar focuses on what’s going on in a students’ mind, talking in greater detail on how learning a language is a dynamic mental process, and that producing language with the grammar of a proficient speaker cannot be forced by rule-based deductive conscious learning alone.

Grammar isn’t a set of rules or facts, but is a mental process. It isn’t learned in a piecemeal way, as witnessed by the fact that when, as educators, we structure a graded syllabus, students can make errors way below their assigned level but may be able to use grammar structures that are above them according to a syllabus. There is much that they have the ability to do, nearly do, or constantly do incorrectly which are scattered round different CEF levels. Students regularly fail to learn grammar points that a teacher has tried to teach them. Many hours of teaching may go in to very little learning.

This attacks the assumption that students can produce, correctly, a grammar structure after it has been presented to them, provided there has been opportunity for repetition and practice. And from there on in it is more or less known and in easy grasp of the students linguistic competence.

If this input output model is flawed then basing syllabus in a linear fashion, covering grammar bit by bit, seems to be an ineffective way of organizing a syllabus. So, if a grammatical syllabus isn’t a usful tool for feeding students information. What is?

Well, let’s have a look at student output to get a better idea about what’s going on in their heads. Students do seem to seem to follow a set of rules when speaking, and these rules are actually quite predictable and trackable. Common learner language suggests there is a dynamic learner grammar that often follows quite a number of overlapping stages before replicating the target grammar. It is a multi-staged process which is constantly reorganizing itself in relation to incoming data.

So, in the students head, constant input may lead to incremental small changes until a tipping point is reached. Small amounts of teaching will not have a corresponding amount of learning or impact on learner’s grammar. But a small amount of noticing might cause a landslide of reorganization.
Language learning is a self organizing process: students notice input, they change it to intake where they make an abstraction about what they have noticed. They compress this into a schema. This schema is not a rule they know consciously, it is an unconscious automatic mould which shapes the language students use spontaneously.  These schemata however might not be accurate nor are they stable. therefore students output may go through a series of stages before finally arriving at the "final" grammar of a proficient language. Before this, students should be constantly given the opportunity to hear input, have the motivation to communicate, and receive feedback on their attempts. These 3 can be combined to be called “affordances”. They afford the student to use language. This is different to providing “input” and “output” as it supports an emergent view of language rather than “factual” language.

The principle of connected learning links into explaining the neurological side to this idea of language as an emergent behaviour. This states that complex language forms may not be the result of complex mental processing, but just the strong interconnectivity between different sets of knowledge. Students might be able to just hear varied simple input and produce a complex form. The language emerges as a complex system from a set of data banks. It’s the result of mental processes, it is not a product, but a process.

Chapter 5- This focuses on what things we should be doing in a class to encourage noticing, restructuring and learning. It basically covers a lot of the things mentioned in earlier chapters.
These include:
-Providing Input
-Facilitating Interaction
-Facilitating Item Learning
-Pattern Detection
-Providing Output
-Providing reasons to communicate.

One interesting thing about chapter 5 is that it links how teachers talk about what they've done with their classes to their assumptions and values of grammar and education theory. Saying we've "done" this and that point, or "covered" this part of the syllabus lends itself to a "language as fact" model. An "emergent" model would push students to talk about all the opportunities that the students have had to interact with each other and think and reflect about the language. Of course you can focus on a piece of the language in a class, but when you talk about what happened in the class, you don't want to be saying "we did present perfect" you want to be saying "the students interpreted some present perfect grammar, then they listened to it, then reflected on the differences between present perfect and past simple, then used it to talk about their own past, then listened to their mistakes and gathered information on their inter-language".

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