The present paper is one of the steps in a pedagogical grammar course. The purpose of the present project is to carry out a collaborative project with ESLA students on the improvement of their oral and written grammar skills in using English according to their linguistic objectives.
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There are a considerable number of approaches to study and improve grammar skills, with Willis (1994) proposing the lexical approach to studies, Chalker (1994) stressing the need for designing a pedagogical grammar approach, and Givon (1993) underlining the evolutionary, biological nature of grammar in a language.
Due to the growing body of research on the issue of grammar proficiency and processes involved in grammar acquisition, the project is aimed at showing which approach to grammar improvement is the most viable, and how well students respond to the applied, narrow approach to grammar acquisition.
The project is intended to have three parts: the first stage will involve a careful diagnosis of the actual grammar skills ESLA students participating in the project have at the moment of starting the study. The second stage will involve treatment of the grammar skills of the chosen participants. Finally, the third stage will include the assessment of students’ progress in grammar improvement.
To be more precise, the diagnosis stage will include meeting with students, making records on the peculiarities of their grammar usage, understanding and application during the oral and written usage of English. Further on, the errors they make in the course of speaking and writing in English will be categorized and analyzed in the theoretical lens, with the final evaluation of decisions on language improvement.
The stage of treatment will include the implementation of decisions on improvement made at the phase of diagnosis, and the treatment stage will be a practical course on error elimination and growing grammar awareness. Upon the completion of treatment sessions, the level of understanding and improvement by ESLA students will be assessed.
Qualitative analysis techniques have been chosen for the present study. The present type of research is commonly used for the language proficiency studies in the field of ESL studies, grammar in particular. The choice of qualitative tools for analysis was dictated by the general preference of the present type of research by scholars in the field.
For example, Swain and Lapkin (2007) used the quantitative analysis of lexical units employed by a student called Neil to show the distributed nature of language acquisition through interaction with the immediate environment, and Leech (1994) employed the qualitative analysis techniques to show the propriety of situational deviations and alterations in the learner’s grammar to suit the unique needs of students.
Givon (1993) proposes a pedagogical grammar that would generate teaching strategies and uses the qualitative techniques to which extent alterations are permissible etc.
Participants. The overall sample chosen for the present project consists of four respondents. Their names are Roxas, Emittee, Laura, and Ester. Two of them come from China; one comes from Macau, and the last one – from Hong Kong. They are all aged from 17 to 19, representing a segment of young learners.
The studies in which they were and are engaged are diverse, having such majors as chemistry, business, economics, and marketing. As for the gender distribution, two of them are male, and two are female. Each of them has a 1300 ESL level of language proficiency.
This means that according to the CAEL grading scale for evaluation of ESL students’ written and oral works, they generally fall within the third category, having no native-like facility of English, but at the same time having no error-laden syntax and morphology (CAEL Assessment, 2010).
Identification of the learners’ goals in studying English in Canada is of central importance in the design of the methodology for the present project. The goals of Roxas are not clearly articulated because coming to Canada was not his initiative, but his parents’ one. Therefore, he feels many complications in speaking and learning English, and the fact that Canadians often do not understand him is also highly discouraging.
Emittee has a much clearer goal because he is motivated to get a Bachelor’s degree in Canada and get back to his parents in China, helping them with their business. Laura’s goals in learning English are much higher as she is interested not only in getting a Bachelor’s degree in Canada, but in remaining to live and work there.
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Finally, Ester is not clearly defined about where she wants to stay after the completion of the Bachelor’s course, but she is clearly interested in obtaining a good grade to have an opportunity for living both in China and in Canada.
Data Collection. The data collection step of the project was conducted by means of meeting with the respondents and offering a set of written and oral tasks for them to accomplish.
Generally, there have been four meetings conducted in the course of data collection, in the course of which the students performed oral tasks recorded by the researcher, and written tasks completed with the help of a questionnaire designed specifically for the present project.
The oral tasks performed by students included conventional talks about their experience in learning English, about their background, and the problems in learning English they were consciously aware of. Some respondents were able to reflect about the interview and about the purpose and process of studies in general.
The written tasks included three open-ended questions asking students to reflect on their attitude to the English classes, the purposes of their partnership with MA students, and the learning and cultural experience they gained in the course of studies.
Data Analysis. The data analysis procedures for the present research are designed to fit the CAEL scale of error classification designed specifically for the category of ESL learners with differing levels of English proficiency, being far from native-like, but at the same time fairly correct for the conventional studies and communication needs.
This scale involves the careful study of the oral and written statements respondents made in the course of meetings with the researcher, and identification of errors students made in them. The errors are generally classified into six categories.
The first four involve the noticeable and distracting ones (such as deletion of grammar morphemes, deletion of function words, agreement errors, and errors in diction), while the remaining two pertain to syntactic errors and semantic errors.
These two categories made statements illogical or vague, which may seriously impair or prevent the measure of understanding for the native speakers. The measure of all six categories’ presence in the oral and written speech of respondents will be measured and coded in correspondence with frequency of their occurrence.
Additional criteria for the evaluation of oral respondents’ statements have also been taken into account in the process of designing the methodology for the present research. For this reason not only grammar and semantic mistakes are to be considered in the present assessment, but the cohesion of structure as well.
To ensure completeness and accuracy of evaluation, the researcher has included such CAEL categories as flow, focus, support, and style (CAEL Assessment, 2010).
To assess the cohesion of written statements, the research methodology includes evaluation according to such criteria as evaluation of content (thesis statement, essay map, adherence to the map, explication of ideas relating to the thesis, and presentation of claims, data, and warrants) and evaluation of organization (complexity of sentence structure and horizontal organization units)(CAEL Assessment, 2010).
As one can see from the previous sections, it is possible to keep track of the grammar skills and errors of ESL students in order to propose a sufficient way for intervention and correlation of the students’ capabilities at a given moment with the potential they have during involvement in ESL studies.
A teacher can do this, but in order to provide the consistent assessment and intervention, one has to be firmly decided on the targets and concepts of the intervention. The clear idea of what grammar is for the teacher and for students, as well as how this level of knowledge may be achieved due to their mutual effort, is vital for the whole course of evaluation and grammar intervention for ESL 1300 students.
The present work is aimed at showing the ways to diagnose students’ grammar skills, and to offer a comprehensive intervention mechanism to raise the level of respondents from 1300 to 1900, which means proficiency in contextual thought reflection.
However, no empirical intervention can be suggested without a sound set of students’ target abilities against which diagnosis and intervention decisions will be made. The decisions on target abilities of students have been elicited as a result of literature review dedicated to the estimate of the role of grammar in the overall ESL process.
Target abilities of students
When initiating the present project, I was personally interested in introducing the communicative approach to studying grammar.
The reason for this choice is the prevalence of opinions on the need for the target language to fulfill the communicative goals of learners; therefore, the main target ability chosen was to enable Chinese students to voice their ideas in a manner understandable for the native speakers.
The choice of other target abilities was preconditioned by the literature on which I relied in making up my theoretical framework of grammar and grammar teaching.
I believe that the lexical approach to studying is highly efficient, since it offers a great set of possibilities for students to explore such complex grammar units as passive voice, conditionals, and reported speech. Some other key abilities of students I am aiming at are: complexity of gradience in English such as the distinction between ‘almost’ and ‘nearly’, the verbs ‘to appear’ and ‘to seem’ etc.
The difference between the ‘s genitive and the of-construction is also a subject of concern. Finally, the choice of the communicative approach to studies in grammar is explained by the dominance of communicative functions of the target language (as it has already been mentioned), hence arguing that a language is a living organism and should be perceived as evolving in response to the needs of speakers, grammar rules included.
I follow the research of Chalker (1994) to derive the concept of target abilities from the learner’s grammar, which means the measure of successful accomplishment of the speaker’s communicative goals. The syntactic significance for the proficiency in English grammar is also of high importance to me in my grammar teaching classes.
Eliciting the collective image of target abilities from the present review, the ability to fulfill the communicative purposes of language has been taken as the major target ability. Construction of properly structured sentences (which means clear understanding of the English syntax) also appears of utmost importance as target ability, as it affects the native speakers’ understanding seriously as well.
Passive voice, conditionals, and reported speech are taken as target abilities in accordance with the ideas of Leech (1994), and the subject-predicate agreement and usage of prepositions appear significant from the CAEL evaluation scale.
These target abilities will be reviewed according to their presence in the respondents’ speech and writing for the sake of arriving at generalized conclusions about the nature of errors and their causes, as well as ways of improvement, in the end of the research.
Diagnosis of grammar ability and problems
Since there were two types of assignments with which students were entrusted, it is appropriate to define the mistakes and grammar abilities that students revealed during the four meetings and discussions, and then elaborate on the underlying causes that form the current abilities and challenges for them.
For the sake of coherence of the result representation, the sub-topic of implicit and explicit knowledge reflected in the students’ responses is researched on the findings from speaking materials, and the motivation students have for studies (which is reflected in their knowledge as well) is outlined on the examples from written materials.
Speaking Materials – Interrelation between Implicit and Explicit Knowledge
The basis for studying the interaction between explicit and implicit knowledge is drawn from the study of Ellis (1994) who researched language acquisition as the combination of the formal target language code acquisition and the study of relevance to language pedagogy.
The author argues that the process of L2 acquisition presupposes building linguistic, socio-linguistic, discourse, and strategic competences, while the competence implies abstract knowledge, and proficiency means the actual communicative acts (Ellis, 1994).
Some other findings show that the implicit knowledge can be practiced only under the controlled processing, while explicit knowledge can be used in both controlled and automatic processing conditions, and that the explicit knowledge presupposes understanding the multitude of rules and restrictions that can be applied to internal (implicit) statements to make them correct at the linguistic level (Ellis, 1994).
- She just work for the same classroom.
- In ESL class, we do presentation, that’s not long.
- I was give my homework to my teacher.
- How long have you been to Canada?
- How’s you feel about your job?
- I like Ottawa it’s very close to Toronto and Montreal. Toronto maybe more Chinese.
- There had a lot activities.
- Most terrible is we don’t know we are wrong.
The following statements enumerated above are just feasible an annoying in the way they are pronounced, as there are some mistakes in subject-predicate agreement, the usage of prepositions, the incorrect usage of passive voice etc. However, the overall sense of the mistakes is clear, and the message that Laura wants to bring to the researcher is quite obvious.
A completely different tendency is observed in the way Laura expresses herself in a connected, long speech. The sentences and words she uses are not logical, and the sense is vague for the native speaker, as well as the highly proficient speaker of English:
It’s too tired to go outside. (Laura means herself, but chooses the dummy subject that does not relate the listener to any object that may be tired to go outside; it makes no sense about the object and action)
People become more and more… just spend a lot of time at home. (the sense is lost about whether Laura meant that people become more domesticated and has not found the proper word to use, preferring an explanatory phrase, or she meant to say that people become more and more, which is nonsense from the point of view of syntax and semantics in English).
When they ordering food, it’s very short. The supervisor will not let me easy. (the accuracy mistakes such as absence of the auxiliary verb ‘are’, and the unclear ending of both sentences does not make the idea clear and complicates understanding for native speakers).
- Hey, you good?
- I find mistake in my sentence, but I don’t know how to correct it.
- Not read newspaper very often, only watch English movies.
- The city like really fashion.
- I think Hong Kong have everything, it’s multi-culture.
Ester reveals some more caution in using English, so she has much fewer mistakes in her speech. Nonetheless, Ester does not talk English much, and as soon as she is agitated about the discussion (as it happened when she was telling about Hong Kong) she shifts to her mother-tongue for simplicity and comfort – this reflects the absence of explicit knowledge of English, though the implicit knowledge is revealed in many ways.
- Chinese universities study more serious.
- I likes chemistry
- I dislike the time of classes. My academic class is one… The other time, I won’t be go to university.
- Just no feeling.
- I am confused about the structures of sentence. The professors talks too much.
- How is grammar important for speaking?
- I am quite enjoy life here.
- I like those experiment.
As one can see, Emittee makes too many mistakes in speaking, and he does not control his speech most of the time. Even in the answers requiring about one sentence of information, and where other students made fewer mistakes, Emittee makes too many careless mistakes that reveal the absence of accuracy markers such as subject-predicate agreement, proper understanding of the sentence structure etc.
However, these mistakes do not reveal too much of the semantic incongruence, that is cohesion, since one can still clearly understand what he means even despite the large number of minor mistakes. Implicit knowledge is much stronger for Emittee than for other students, though the explicit skills are still scarce.
- There will makes the people confused.
- There is much more better than the sentences.
- Maybe I can not find out the errors when I doing evaluate.
- That’s different as the life before.
- We can speak us. They speak some topics. They have same commons.
- Activity is not comfortable here.
- I just don’t know to say maybe more.
- I am lack of confidence. Don’t know how to use English.
Roxas reveals lack of explicit knowledge as well, and some of his ideas reveal lack of implicit knowledge as well. One can see that sentences 1 and 2 are mostly illogical, and a native speaker will never understand them without a more specific context. However, there are many words Roxas uses with confidence, which proves his effort in lexical studies and shows a good start for studies.
Students’ Beliefs and Motivations Reflected in Their Grammar Learning
There is much impact of the beliefs, motivations, and cultural background of all four respondents on the process of learning grammar. They are revealed well in the session of written tasks they have been entrusted with, and the ideas they voiced in response to three open-ended questions designed by the researcher.
For example, the first question was to voice likes and dislikes in the English classes, to which two respondents answered that they liked much communication occurring in classes (Laura and Ester). At the same time, Emittee marked lack of communication and much vocabulary learning that he found boring and tiring; in addition, he disliked the amount of Chinese spoken in class instead of English.
Roxas voiced his preference of small groups, which enabled him to study more freely. These issues voiced by students represent the continuation of Cortazzi’s (1997) argument about the approach to studies adopted in China.
Students are highly purpose-directed, and they want to receive the communicative skills (at least two of them), but at the same time they find English too complicated for them in terms of learning words and writing – here the absence of motivation is clear.
Three respondents want to remain in Canada and work there, so all of them see the fulfillment of communicative purposes of the language as the main purpose of studies (Givon, 1993). However, writing and vocabulary are the basis for coherent communication, and lexical approach suggested by Willis (1994) is an additional proof to that fact, which is neglected by students.
The discussion of expectations respondents have about the communication with MA students sheds more light at the connection of grammar and motivation of students. Emittee stresses the need to pay more attention to grammar and communication, as he admits he has never before held a grammar book in his hands.
This fact certifies the narrow focus of English studies in China and lack of broader communicative skills taught in Canada (Cortazzi, 1997). Hence, the connection between lexicon and grammar is an evident one for Emittee, and Laura as well, as one can see from her response.
Laura also puts a great emphasis on communication as it is what she needs to remain in Canada and work there; however, Laura feels a bit lost at the same time. She also seeks cooperation with MA students to find advice on how to adapt to the university, to the country, and to the new style of studies and life.
Ester appears one of the most self-aware students knowing what she has to correct in her knowledge, and which way she can do that. Ester realizes that she makes many mistakes, but the worst for her is that she cannot detect them.
Starting from this point, application of diagnostic assessment by the researcher to increase self-awareness of individual mistakes, and to show ways for individualized intervention in terms of language teaching, grammar in particular (Fox & Hartwick, in press).
Incentive to study grammar and writing are also evident in Roxas’ response, but this respondent is looking more for answers about his future than proficiency in language studies. While he is not decided on where he will go and what he will do after the completion of the course, Roxas tries to take the most of studies, but without a particular goal that can be discussed in the present paper.
Speaking about the cultural, social, or linguistic experiences in Canada, the respondents, the topic of autonomy and loneliness is recurrent in responses of students – Laura points out that the main disadvantage in studying in the USA is loneliness and lack of friendliness, lack of conditions under which American and Chinese students would get acquainted closer – “not much opportunity to really know the native student”.
Roxas also identified loneliness as the main challenge in living and studying in the USA – “no family members with me, no friends is here, no place to live”. These are the socio-cultural issues that prevent students from studying better and getting the most from their coming to the USA as they lack live communication and practice outside the classroom.
However, some other points have also been mentioned by students – they included inclination to study English for the sake of survival (Roxas), and for the sake of being empowered by knowledge of the international language in which one can communicate all over the world (Ester).
These respondents feel positive about their studies, while Emittee is the one noticing lack of individual studies; he recalls much homework and silent work in China, though he does not reflect on it as a good or bad practice. As for studies, Laura notes they are boring for her as no focus is made on students.
The difference in Chinese and American focus on studies is evident here – while more tasks are given for individual studies, still the attention and individual care about students is much higher in China because of parents’ high demands (Cortazzi, 1997).
This is the main reason why Chinese students feel left aside in the USA – the American system is based more on the intrinsic motivation of students, and not on the external drives Chinese students have.
Students’ Speaking and Writing Errors Connected with Theory and Practice of Grammar Learning
The observations made in the present research refer directly to the theory of grammar learning, which may be seen on the division of mistakes into accuracy (minor, irritating) mistakes, and more serious, semantic mistakes that influence the cohesion of speech. Thus, the wrong usage of subject-predicate agreement, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs is evident in the majority of cases:
Roxas: it makes me always have to go to school (written task), I came to here; they are not speak very fast (oral assignment)
Emitee: Before, I never use…; reported cooperation and to be independent (written task); I won’t be go; the professors talks too much (oral task)
Laura: Grammar, Writing, Communicate; to adapt the university (written task); I was give homework to my teacher (oral task)
Ester: Hey, you good? Not read newspaper very often (oral task); A normal Canadian students; where should I started to (written task).
These are issues of accuracy noticeable in the speech and written works of students, though they are irritating, they do not impede the meaning of the sentence. These issues require intervention at the diagnostic assessment level, as the latter enables students to identify their strengths and weaknesses in grammar skills independently from the teacher.
Pedagogical grammar outlined by Odlin (1994) is an additional tool for the teacher’s intervention – it enables the students to become independent analysts of their skills, and gives the teacher an opportunity not only to get the students acquainted with what grammar is, but to show them the way how to master it.
The next portion of mistakes for revision in oral and written tasks is of the semantic nature – they impair understanding because of lack of cohesion.
The communicative approach to studies is likely to make a contribution to the intervention at the semantic level because it will expose students to more communication patterns and will enable them to distinguish appropriate and inappropriate phrases for the expression of certain ideas, emotions etc. Some examples of semantic errors include:
Emittee: We do not… and learn new words (it is evident that the respondent simply did not know the word with which to express the idea, and the listener may not understand what he meant); To speak more and attack more (attacking is not the best verb here, and one may not understand what the respondent means to do);
We do not reach much group work (the verb ‘to conduct’, ‘to do’ would suit much better); My academic class is one (the idea is not clear, considering the fact that it is the whole sentence).
Ester: I would like to know how to find my mistake and where should I started to (the ending is not clear due to the use of tense and preposition); I wake sementic errors ( both spelling and verb mixing errors are evident); Something sad was my group-mate (the sentence structure and the idea are not logical); For the courses are OK (the beginning of the sentence presupposes another ending); It’s depressed that I need (the subject is not clear).
The issue of implicit and explicit knowledge is obvious in these cases, and the interrelation between what students know and how they express these ideas is weird. The respondents need more practice in the authentic conditions, and more practice in communication that they lack.
Some other ways to transform the implicit knowledge into explicit are outlined in the work of Ellis (1994) arguing that the explicit and implicit forms of knowledge can be developed in different ways, and can assist each other in realization.
Thus, for example, one can edit the utterances produced with the help of implicit knowledge by means of applying the explicit knowledge of rules and complementary distribution of terms, which is so far absent in the practice of respondents.
Coming to the logical conclusion in the present work, one has to state that grammar learning theory and practice reveal themselves from multiple angles in the practical ESL learners’ results.
Both accuracy and cohesion issues are found in the speaking and writing materials of respondents; they derive from the cultural specificity of Chinese students (the ways education is approaches in Chinese establishments, focus on individual, silent studies, less cooperation and prevalence of the task-based approach (Cortazzi, 1997)).
Since students are used to a different approach to studies, a more individualized and internalized one, they accept the shift to the communicative approach in studies very unwillingly, though it is the obvious solution to fixing their lack of accuracy and cohesion in language usage.
Adopting the diagnostic approach to assessment is also likely to be the starting point on the way to grammar improvement, as one of the key drawbacks of ESL respondents identified was the inability to detect their own mistakes.
Surely, the present research contains some limitations that impair its generalizability, and put the credibility of conclusions under question.
The main limitation is the number of respondents – only four students do not prove to be an effective sample, so much more research has to be done in the field to prove and support the initial results received. Subsequent studies are needed to identify the nature of diagnosis, classification of mistakes, and their underlying cultural, psychological, and socio-economic causes.
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