The earliest grammars of English were, for obvious reasons, based on written models of the language. In the absence of any way to record everyday speech, written texts provided a solid base upon which scholarly works could be built. In addition, both grammarians and lexicographers frequently had a deep mistrust of the spoken English language, seeing it at best as transient and ephemeral, and at worst as base and vulgar. Future generations of grammar books grew from these roots, adapting and adding to what had come before. One upshot of this is that even now, when vast data banks of spoken language are easily accessible online, the written language is seen as somehow more valid or prestigious, and ‘correct’ examples of English grammar are believed to be those which are enshrined in grammar books rather than those which are used on a regular basis by the majority of fluent speakers of the language.
As Rings (1992) pointed out, this leads to the very real risk ‘in both English as a mother tongue and EFL/ESL domains of producing speakers of English who can only speak like a book, because their English is modelled on an almost exclusively written version of the language’. To make this more concrete, let me give you an example from one of my own classes. Many years ago, I was in the middle of teaching an Intermediate class when a student burst into the room, late and looking very flustered;
‘Sorry to be late’, he said.
‘But the train was full with many people. Therefore, I could not enter.’
‘No worries’, I responded. ‘Come in. Sit down. Sorry to hear you had a bad journey … but it’s not therefore.’
Before I could continue, my student tried to self-correct and offered up ‘consequently’ instead.
‘No!’ I insisted. ‘That just doesn’t sound right.’
‘But it’s cause and effect’, he pleaded.
‘Yes, but in formal written English.’
‘So how do you say it in spoken English?’ he enquired.
As I thought on my feet about how I’d express his idea, I suddenly realised not only that my reformulation was an example of a particularly generative structure often used in spoken English, but also that I’d never knowingly taught it before, and was thus part of the problem!
In the end, I said – and wrote on the board – ‘Sorry I’m late, but the train was so crowded that I couldn’t get on.’ I pointed out the pattern – so + adjective + result – and wrote up another couple of examples:
It was so cold (that) the river froze over.
I was so tired (that) I fell asleep in the middle of class.
Over the last couple of decades, corpora-based research has delved deep into spoken English, resulting in such remarkable reference works as the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999). As a result, we now have a much clearer picture of many of the other grammatical features that regularly occur in speech and the prevalence of, for instance, ellipsis (Any luck? rather than Did you have any luck?) and headers and tails (He speaks amazing English, Sasha does) has been well documented. There are many other ways in which spoken English grammars only become apparent when you attend more seriously to spoken discourse.
However, very little of this has yet to filter down to mainstream coursebooks, where the desire to present, get students to practise and then produce discrete grammatical structures still tends to negate the possibility of a serious focus on more natural conversations and how they develop, and fails to reflect the conventions of speech. This reluctance to take the spoken language seriously means that any teacher who wants to ensure their students don’t fall into the trap outlined above has to find other ways of ensuring exposure to the kind of input that will help students produce better spoken output.
Perhaps the first thing we can do as teachers is to simply listen to what our learners are trying to say and to help them say it better. In other words, we need to be reformulating or recasting student output and using this new input to make sure that students see (and hear) more correct – or more sophisticated – ways of expressing meanings that they’ve already tried to get across. However, while this may initially sound relatively simple, it does depend on several factors all falling into place at once:
- There need to be plenty of opportunities during class time for students to engage in communication that is personally meaningful and some of this needs to be more improvised, spontaneous speech that bears at least some resemblance to the often rambling nature of everyday conversation.
- The teacher needs to be able to hear what’s being said, understand it, and more or less instantaneously think of how it could be said better.
- The teacher then needs to think of which part of this improved version to write on the board, which parts to gap, which parts to paraphrase and explain, and how to elicit any gapped words.
- For the sake of flow and time-keeping, they also need to ensure these items are written up while students are talking, rather than after.
- The teacher then needs to round off the student speaking slot with a language-focused slot that introduces items that have at least some chance of being useful to everyone, that are clear and that connect to what’s come before.
- With certain items, they may also want to expand upon them, add extra examples, and maybe even get students to do some kind of brief practice of them.
Expecting teachers to be able to do this kind of thing spontaneously and on a regular basis is optimistic, to say the least, which is why planning is key. When looking at speaking activities you’re going to take into class – whether they be from published materials or of your own creation – it’s always a good idea to predict in advance a range of thing you think might be said in response to the tasks you’ll set. Write whole sentences or mini-dialogues that students may well attempt to come up with, decide which words would be best to gap, and keep these ideas up your sleeve when students are speaking in class. Having guessed what students might try to say may well make it easier to think of how to improve things that do come up. Even if you fail to hear things you are able to reformulate on the spot, you’ll still have a fall-back selection of language you can get on the board during student speaking time and that you can return to during your round-up. Feeling that they’re not just speaking for the sake of speaking – or speaking in order for the teacher to pick up on and punish basic grammatical mistakes – can be motivating for students, and can help them see greater value in classroom speaking: they speak so that their teacher can help them to better express what they’re trying to say.
Of course, getting comfortable with working from student output and helping them to say what they’re trying to say does require one major change to many teachers’ mindset: we will often introduce grammatical structures that students have not yet been presented with and that may be seen as ‘above their level’. For instance, in a recent Elementary class, my students were discussing their plans for the weekend. I overheard the following exchange.
A: So what’re you doing this weekend?
B: Well, tomorrow I have a driving lesson.
A: Wow! Good. How long you do this? Already.
During the round-up, I wrote the whole exchange on the board, but with the last turn reformulated and with gaps added:
Wow! That’s great. How long _____ you _____ doing that?
In this instance, I managed to elicit the missing words – have and been – but if I hadn’t, I’d simply have provided them. The basic meaning had already been expressed by the student and I glossed it by saying ‘How long you already – from the past to now – do that: How long’ve you been doing that?’ I drilled the sentence and gave one other example connected to something else I’d heard students say and left it at that. In subsequent classes, I heard students start to use the phrase themselves and I consciously included it in my own teacher talk as well. This is all only possible if you see what I was doing here NOT as somehow being a poor attempt to ‘present’ the present perfect continuous (there’ll be plenty of time for that later on at Pre-intermediate, when the previous exposure to this sentence may well help students make more sense of the structure). Rather, this was as a simple response to student output, an attempt to improve the grammar, and the teaching of one particular sentence or item of vocabulary. It’s just that in this case the item of vocabulary happened to be a whole question.
A second thing teachers can do to help expose students to more spoken grammar is to consciously choose materials that reflect everyday usage. This has long been a primary concern of mine when co-authoring the Outcomes and Innovations series of coursebooks, but there are other noteworthy contributions to the field such as Paterson and Caygill’s A Handbook of Spoken Grammar, which is an excellent self-study book, as is Carter and McCarthy’s English Grammar Today.
One final idea for this post is something explored in more detail in Teaching Lexically, a methodology book that I co-authored for Delta Publishing. By encouraging students to try what we’ve called horizontal and vertical development, any grammar exercise can be used as a springboard for exploration of speech-like discourse. The process is a simple one: once you’ve finished going through a grammar exercise and checked the answers, simply ask students to choose 2–4 sentences from it and to develop them either horizontally – by thinking of what else the speaker might have said afterwards (or before) – or vertically, by thinking about how another speaker might respond. So, for instance, imagine students had completed the sentence below in an exercise focused on the second conditional:
If she passed the exam, she’d be able to get into university.
Students trying horizontal development might come up with things like But she hasn’t done enough revision / But she hasn’t got much of a chance, to be honest / But I’d be amazed if she does. Students going for vertical development might come up with What’s she thinking of studying? Or Has she got any idea where she’d like to go?
Obviously, students won’t always produce these exact sentences themselves, which means reformulation again becomes important, as does predicting possible output while planning. The benefit of all of this, though, is that at least some of the sentences in the exercise are brought to life and woven into more natural speech, and the ideas that students come up with are reworked and reworded in ways that make the classroom language resemble more closely the language widely used outside. And surely the more we can be doing that, the greater the chance our students have of flourishing once they leave our lessons.
Carter, R. and McCarthy, M. (2016) English Grammar Today: An A-Z of Spoken and Written Grammar. Cambridge University Press
Paterson, K. and Caygill, C. (2011) Handbook of Spoken Grammar: Strategies for Speaking Natural English. Delta Publishing.
Rings, L. (1992) ‘Authentic spoken texts as examples of language variation: grammatical, situational and cultural teaching models’. International Review of Applied Linguistics 30/1: 21-33.
Now you’ve read this why not listen to Hugh’s interview on the topic?