Random Thoughts

about reading, writing, teaching and anything else that interests me

The problem with trying to teach grammar

Well, one of them, at least.

Hana had a great post about her grammar test.  I commented there but decided I should add more to the discussion here.

She said:

The reason why a grammar test can turn into a nightmare is because English grammar is really tricky and your knowledge of it will never be completely satisfactory.

That’s true.  Sort of.  I think it would be more accurate to say your knowledge will never be complete.  (But maybe that is my US bias.  Maybe to Hana that means exactly the same as completely satisfactory.  That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?)

She acknowledges that there is often no single correct answer and says:

I don’t really want to pretend I have all the answers up my sleeve, but I’m sometimes fed up with the there-is-really-no-correct-answer cliché. If you tell your students that there is no correct answer, what’s the point in testing them at all?

And that is maybe the best question of all.  The answer, I guess, is that we test grammar because we are required to.  I had to test grammar in the course I taught last summer.  I had to test grammar when I taught Developmental Writing a few years ago.  I don’t think many teachers anymore test grammar because they want to.  I could be wrong on that, though.  But testing grammar is difficult.

It would be easy if there were one correct answer to everything. But there are usually many answers that could be correct grammatically. Sometimes with more context, the field can be narrowed,but sometimes that can lead to more possibly correct responses. How can I expect students to respond with the one answer I have in my mind when I write the question? But that is what I do whenever I write a grammar test.  I know what I am testing with that question, but the students don’t.  They see it as a question totally without context.  And in that case, there are probably numerous correct responses.  And we as teachers have to accept them as correct, I believe.

To avoid this, we could always tell them what construction we want to see in the answer (Complete the sentences with the past simple tense.) Then it isn’t really testing their abilities to use the grammar correctly, though.  It is only testing their recall of that particular grammatical point (simple past in my example).  And that to me is a waste of time.  Memorization of past tense forms is necessary but it doesn’t mean they know when to use them.

Another way to test grammar is in authentic writing.  This is the best way, I think, but it is more difficult to grade.  And it would take a lot of effort to be sure the test was going to elicit the forms you wanted to test because as with any test, students can see possible answers we don’t see until they point them out to us.

One thing to keep in mind, I think, is that English grammar is changing.  I got an email from my boss the other day, head of a university department, telling me that her phone must have ate her earlier message to me.  I cringed.  But I understood what she was saying.  And she is far from being alone with this “mistake”.  I don’t think many people in the US younger than myself would even notice the problem because it is so widespread.

I think teaching grammar is important, but it has to be done in context.  And even then it is tricky.  I could totally relate to what Hana said at the end of her post:

To conclude my post, I’d say that grammar tests like the one I just described do suck and I’ll be very careful when designing something similar next time. Anyway, my students will probably consider me a schizophrenic once I hand out the corrected tests on Monday because they’ll see how many times I’d changed my mind before I came up with the final score.

Here’s to the schizophrenic in all of us who teach grammar!  I’d be more worried if we refused to change the grade just because the student didn’t give the response we expected.

No one ever said English grammar was easy.  Teaching English grammar is even more difficult!

Getting there!

Well, I finished going through the last chapters of the book today.  Much to my surprise (and delight!), I only found one chapter that needs a lot of work.  The others were much better than I had remembered.  There are little things to look at, but that’s it.

I also worked on the outline again, getting to the 3/4 mark today.  I will probably finish this task tomorrow.  At least I hope so!

Again, my thanks to Michelle at The Green Study for getting me going on this project after a fairly long break! It feels good to be writing again!

Today’s update

I certainly don’t want to post every day about my progress on the book, but I am pretty happy with what I got done today, and I wanted to share my progress with anyone who might be interested.

I started today with 22 of 33 chapters edited.  Today I got two more chapters done.  I hope to finish these edits by Thursday.  As I am editing, I am making notes as to areas that need more development.  I will start tackling those once I have made it all the way through the book this time.

I am also working on a table with an outline of the story.  I decided this was important because previously I know we had contradicted ourselves a few times.  And this time when I started editing, I found two different spellings for the name of one of the minor characters.  While I am fairly sure I must have found all of those problems that still exist, I want to be completely sure.  So I am creating a table with the characters, location, timeline, and main events in each chapter.  So far it all looks good, but I have only made it through 10 chapters.

By making this public, I think I am increasing the probability of continuing to work.  At least I hope so.   I am really happy to be back working on this, and I want to see it finished!

I am not usually “political”, but…

994 mass shootings in 1,004 days: this is what America’s gun crisis looks like

I think this says it all.  944 mass shooting in 1,004 days. How long will we let this go on?

Another update

I just posted a comment on The Green Study giving an update on my writing since my new resolve to work on the novel, and I decided to give a little update here as well.  I have worked on editing it every day this week.  I am now more than halfway through this book.  And I have decided to go back and write some sort of outline or chapter summary for each chapter so I can be sure we aren’t sending people to the wrong villages or whatever.  I think this will be critical when I go back to work on the second book.  I am already 5 chapters into the second book, but I have’t worked on it for a long time.  My son hasn’t even read it yet — although we have talked about the direction it will take.

It feels so good to be back really working on writing again.  When I am writing regularly, it always feel so good that I wonder how I could ever stop writing. And yet, after a few weeks or months or sometimes years, I always seem to get bogged down and stop writing.  I hope I do better this time.

September Reading, Part 2

Well, time to start on the novels I read last month…

  • Aspen Allegations by Lisa Shea was an interesting story, but it had too much detail for my liking.  There was too much description of scenery. If I had gotten my copy from Amazon, I would maybe not have read it.  It is billed as “A ROMANTIC YOGA MYSTERY INFUSED BY NATURE” and that is just what it was.
  • Murder Under Construction by Maddie Cochere made me laugh.  And it was a good mystery.  It was a good cozy mystery.
  • Having read many other books by Jaden Skye, I expected Death by Honeymoon to be good, and it was.  It was better edited than many of the later ones in the series have been.  I liked the story.  I like the characters.  Knowing some of what happens later didn’t make it any less enjoyable.
  • Death Warmed Over by Kevin J. Anderson was definitely one of the best I read in September.  It was a good, old fashioned detective mystery with a good old fashioned detective who just happens to be a zombie.  It was a hoot!
  • I like British detective stories, and this one was no exception.  An Accidental Death by Peter Grainger was a good story.  DC Smith is an interesting character, and the mystery was a good one.  Very current.
  • Ties That Bind by Carolyn Arnold was a pretty good story.  I am not 100% sure I like the main character, Detective Madison Knight, though.  Her partner is a little odd, too, I think.  This was the first book in the series, and I read #4 before this one.  That may account for some of my discomfort with the characters.
  • Balanced on the Blade’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker is another book I would put right up there at or near the top of the list.  I love Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series, and this was every bit as good.  I will be reading more of this series, too.
  • Farewell, My Deuce by Renée Pawlish is the fourth book in the Reed Ferguson series.  It is the third one I have read, I think.  I enjoy these a lot.  The mysteries are interesting.  Ferguson and his friends the Goofball Brothers are fun.  This one revolved around one of the Goofballs, and it was especially good, I thought.
  • The Red Ribbon by Rachel B. Ledge was another very good book.  The mystery was a good one.  The heroes were heroic and the villains were extremely villainous.  This appears to be Ledge’s first book.  I look forward to reading more of her work.
  • I have had The Gauguin Connection by Estelle Ryan in my Kobo library for a long time, and for some reason I had never read it.  I finally did, and I am glad.  It was a good book.  The mystery was an interesting one.  The cast of characters was diverse and somewhat mysterious at times.  I will read more of this series.
  • Ice on the Grapevine by R.E. Donald was a good book.  The author based her detective hero in part at least on her late husband, and he is a truly nice man.  The other characters in the book were flawed humans as we all are.  The least sympathetic character, really, was the guy who was killed, so you didn’t feel too bad.  The mystery was excellent.  There are 5 other books in the series, it seems.  I hope to read them all.
  • A Quest of Heroes by Morgan Rice came as a real surprise to me.  I often have trouble with fantasy novels because the authors do such an excellent job of world-building that I get lost.  They are too complicated for me.  This book was not that way at all.  I don’t mean that Rice didn’t put effort into world-building; she did.  But the story was engaging right from the start.  And that’s what makes a fantasy story work for me.  This one was definitely worth reading.  It was so good, in fact, that I immediately began reading A March of Kings, the second book in the series and finished it in one day.  But more about that when I write about my October reading!

I probably won’t read quite so much this month. At least that is how I am feeling right now.  But you never know!

September Reading

I am not sure what happened last month, but I read A LOT!!  So much so that I almost dread writing this post.  There is just too much to write about!  But I’ll get started at least.

I finished two non-fiction books in September.

  • Traveling with Che Guevara: The Making of a Revolutionary by Alberto Granado  was an excellent book.  I read The Motorcycle Diaries and watched the movie and loved them both.  This book added to my understanding of what Guevara and Granado learned on their journey and how it shaped them both.  Although this book is told from Granado’s perspective, Guevara is still the hero of the story.  I am glad I read it.
  • Dispatches from a Public Librarian by Scott Douglas was an interesting read.  It wasn’t very deep — some of the dispatches containing lists of things left in the return book bin and other such topics.  The book offered insight into the life of a librarian — both the good and the not so good.  It is a job I have always thought I might like.  Now I am not so sure.

I read four pieces of short fiction.

  • Daddy’s World ” by Walter Jon Williams was very good.  It kept me guessing as to what was going on and why until the end.  Williams is a good writer, and this was a good story.
  • “Clockwork Lives: The Bookseller’s Tale” by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart was cool.  It is one of the stories from Clockwork Lives, which is billed on Amazon as “a steampunk Canterbury Tales“.   For the life of me, I cannot figure out how I got access to this story as I cannot find it in my Kindle or Kobo accounts.  But I read it and loved it.
  • I, Robot” by Cory Doctorow was fun to read.  I like Doctorow’s work.  This wasn’t my favorite of his short stories, but it was good.
  • In the Year 2889” by Jules Verne blew me away.  It basically foresaw Skype and the internet and almost everything else that is a regular part of our lives today.  Verne was amazing.  (Although speaking of Cory Doctorow, his short story “A Place So Foreign” offers a good explanation of how Verne could have gotten his ideas.)

I listened to three audiobooks, all downloaded from Librivox.org.

  • The Ball and the Cross by GK Chesterton was about two men who disagreed about God.  It is, of course, an old book, but it was a good story.  What I got out of it was that we should argue less and just get to know people.
  • Key Out of Time by Andre Norton was another great time travel book by Norton.  I loved it!
  • Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan was fascinating.  Written in 1928, it seems much more modern.  It is the original Buck Rogers story — before he was called Buck.  I didn’t know that until after I had finished it, though.  It was a good story.

I will leave a discussion of the novels I read until tomorrow.  I have work to get to now!


Well, it isn’t much, but I worked on editing 2 chapters of the book.  These early chapters have been revised and edited numerous times, so it wasn’t much work.  The major revisions are needed further on in the book.  Maybe I should have started with that task, but I didn’t.  I’ll think about that for tomorrow.  Or later today if I get inspired!

I don’t know for sure how long I worked today, but it wasn’t much more than an hour. I would like to put in at least two hours every day, but I would rather do one hour than none.  We’ll see how it goes.  Once I get the routine established again, I know my time on task will increase.  I love writing and easily get caught up in it.  But like any habit, once I slack off, it is hard to get rolling again.

It’s like she is writing about me!

Michelle at The Green Study nailed it.  Her post Being Fiction, Instead of Writing It described me all too well!

She starts out

Over the last few years, I’ve written blog post after blog post about making changes with a mind towards writing. I quit paid work. I quit volunteering. I set up my study, surrounded by books, many of them about writing. I am supported by the people in my life. I talk about writing. I read about writing. I write about writing. On occasion, I even write things that aren’t about writing.

Yeah, that’s me.  Well, I don’t have a study anymore, but I am still working part time, but like Marilyn, I have found that having the ideal set-up for writing does not necessarily lead to writing.

Later on she notes

It’s time to ante up or fold. I’ve run off in a thousand different directions and always, always, I come back to writing. And the only opposition to me seriously pursuing it, is me

I am my own worst enemy when it comes to writing.  My husband is supportive.  My children are grown, but they are supportive.  I have the time.  I have the ideas.  I need to either write or acknowledge that I am never going to do it.  And that seems like a real shame.  My son and I have a novel completed but in need of some revision and a second one started.  We have worked on it for a long time.  And it isn’t bad.  So why can’t we bring ourselves to really get it ready to go?

From time to time I get offers from Book Baby to download some free book about publishing, and I always do it.  As part of the process they ask when you expect your book to be ready to publish and I always say six months.  And I always think it is an achievable goal at that moment.  But then nothing seems to happen.  Or not much happens, at least.  I am embarrassed the next time I get an offer,  but again tell them I plan to publish in six months.  It is ridiculous.

So maybe this time I can actually focus on the book and get it finished.  I have used my son as an excuse long enough.  (If he would revise those fight scenes, I would get the rest of the book in shape in no time!)  I am doing it this time.

At least I hope so!

A lesson for the teacher

Both last week and this week, attendance in my adult ESL classes has been really bad.  It has been worse in my morning class than in the evening one, but it hasn’t been great either time.  I know that my students — most of them at least — have had valid reasons for missing class, reasons that have nothing to do with me or the class itself.  But I can’t help but be a little frustrated.  In the morning class I have ended up working with students in a grammar workbook, tailoring it to their own individual needs.  In the evening, we have been spending more time on grammar, teaching and practicing it more overtly than I normally would.

And I think that is the source of my frustration.  I feel like I am abandoning my more content approach to teaching English.  I don’t see a lot of value in focusing on grammar in isolation from real usage.  This week I planned to have students work on a webquest.  Instead we are working on verb tenses.

The students, though, are quite happy with the way class has been this week.  At least that is what they have told me.  I think they like the concreteness of it.  They know that they know what it is that they are learning.  In the morning class, one of the students is a low beginner, and she is happy to have a book to work in. She can work on it at home, and then I can look at what she did the next day in class.  In the evening, my students are intermediates and they like the verb tense work because it is refining what they already sort of know.  We drill it until they get it.  I am using English Banana materials for this – sentence strings and verb tense reviews.  It seems better to me than traditional grammar book work, maybe because I can more easily work it into my style of teaching.

This verb work is really part of Purland’s You are the Course Book method, but it is the part I had been glossing over a little.  I hadn’t been sure how to incorporate it really.  But now that I have used the materials, I can see that they can easily be incorporated into the class as I am presently doing it.  It is very well thought-out, it seems, and the results from my students this week have been very encouraging.

So I have learned a lot from these two weeks.  I have learned that I have to be more flexible in the way I teach — allowing more time for some of the traditional grammar activities that students expect in a class.  And I have learned how to use the materials that are part of the approach I decided to adopt for these classes.  I have been reminded of the need to have my bag of tricks always at hand because you never know when you are going to have to scrap the plan for the day and do something entirely different.

Post Navigation


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 126 other followers