What grammar do ESL students really need?

We had an interesting discussion around the proverbial water-cooler at work this week about the grammar that we should expect students to produce correctly before they matriculate to their university degree programs (we teach in a pre-matriculation intensive English program). It’s tricky: our raison d’être (excuse my French) is to prepare students for success in their academic classes, which clearly requires very advanced proficiency in English. But of course it would be impossible, unreasonable, and flat out absurd to demand a level of flawless accuracy attained by few native speakers of the language. Even first-year undergraduate Delawareans, I suspect.

grammarSo, how good is good enough? For example, some of our most advanced students can speak fairly fluently for extended periods of time without a single verb that agrees with its subject (“he go … the research show …” etc.). My syllabus tells me that speaking with level-appropriate accuracy is a required learning outcome. Do I tell the student to use some -s endings? Yes. Do I assign a lower grade? Maybe a little. Do I hold the student back from matriculating? Certainly not!

We can’t engage in a blame game around students’ non-standard use of English. “They had that in Level IV” (had? one has grammar like one has a cold?). “How could any teacher pass this student from Level V without knowing the difference between he and she?” (OK, that one can be a problem, but hardly a reason to fail.) “Don’t they cover subject-verb agreement in Level II?” (Yes, but the students only knew about a dozen verbs then, and can we please stop talking about teaching as coverage?) This attitude flies in the face of second language acquisition research: we know that there’s a difference between production and proficiency (students can know something and still make mistakes), and we should know that there’s a lag between our teaching an aspect of grammar and students’ uptake. Plus, non-salient grammatical features with low communicative burden (the third person -s, articles, prepositions) are acquired relatively late and have very little impact on intelligibility. And frankly, there’s only so much the brain can pay attention to at any one time. So, let’s let those pesky little -ses slip by, shall we?

A few minutes later, there’s a knock on my door. “So, what about comma splices?” Ah, comma splices! The writing teacher’s nemesis. Not to mention fragments. It’s true that by the time students reach our capstone courses, they have been berated endlessly about periods, commas, conjunctions, and transition words, and rightly so. Connectives form the backbone of one of the three interlocking levels of meaning in grammar, the textual metafunction (see Halliday, 1996, or better, a friendly introduction to systemic functional linguistics such as de Oliveira & Schlepegrell, 2015). In order to write cohesively and develop ideas, students need a strong control of conjunctions (especially subordinators), connecting adverbials, and prepositions (due to, because of, etc.). All things being equal, though, the occasional run-on sentence or inadvertent fragment should hardly signal lack of ability to succeed in a university classroom. What is more important is that students choose connectives that are logical and functional in their writing.

In a small piece of research a colleague and I presented at TESOL 2015, we suggested that some errors in writing are more egregious than others, largely confirming much more robust research by scholars such as Eli Hinkel. Mangled clause structure creates a communication problem. Badly formed relative (adjective) clauses can be very confusing. Errors of verb complementation (that is, not knowing whether a verb can be followed by a noun, a prepositional phrase, a noun clause, and -ing clause, or a to infinitive) may distract readers and obstruct meaning. But spelling errors, articles, missing plural markers, subject-verb agreement, non-standard prepositions, and even verb tense errors can all occur in writing that is overall very highly rated.

Therefore, while all grammar is meaningful, and while ideally we might want to teach every possible aspect of the gloriously eclectic lexico-syntactic system of English, we need to be more realistic. I’ve argued before (in this newsletter and this textbook) that academic writers really only need mastery of three verb tenses (present simple, past simple, and present perfect), based on robust research by Eli Hinkel, Doug Biber, and others (Hinkel lists more tenses because she includes the progressives, which are frequent in speech). I stress clause structure, verb complementation, and clause combination in my advanced Writing for Graduate Students course. I draw students’ attention to verb tenses, relative clauses, and word form in their speaking classes. And I do mark errors in punctuation, agreement, and even articles on my students’ writing, but only after they’ve studied those features with me. However, I’m not comfortable with the idea that we can highlight any one type of error, or even any particular constellation of errors, as a litmus test for access to higher education.

Source: National Punctuation Day website

Without naming names, I’ve received two emails in the last two days from educated native speakers of English within my own department, one missing an apostrophe and one with an incorrect apostrophe. And I know I’ve turned in carefully proofread papers, articles, and even textbooks containing silly grammatical errors. A few of them even made it into print! My point is not that grammar is unimportant – far from it. I firmly believe that we empower multilingual students by teaching them to understand and use standard, academic American English. Rather, in our zeal to help students succeed through expanding their grammatical resources, we as ESL teachers and–let’s be honest–gatekeepers risk setting unreasonable standards and perpetuating the unfair assumption among some of our university colleagues that non-native written and spoken accents should not be tolerated.

I look forward to your comments, grammatical or otherwise. I won’t judge!

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

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