Giving students the language of language

Katie and I gave a talk at the ATEG conference weekend before last. 

One of the presenters made the point that most anti-grammar advocates don’t actually oppose teaching students grammatical correctness in written English.

What they really oppose is teaching students the names of grammatical concepts. They’re against teaching labels. 

But, she said, when you refuse to teach labels, you deny students the language of language.

To underline the point, she and her co-presenter acted out an extended dialogue in which the only nouns were “thing” or, alternatively, “things.” It was pretty funny. Completely incomprehensible, but funny.

This reminds me of a friend of mine, who was talking about having a hard time, as she gets older, remembering what things are called. It drives her college-age son nuts, she said. 

“It’s not a doohickey, Mom!”

She hears that a lot.

I said He should just be grateful you didn’t say thingamajig.

Or thingamabob, even worse.

Half the time the opposition to teaching knowledge amounts to no more than an opposition to teaching vocabulary.  

I don’t get that.

People learn vocabulary fast. In fact, vocabulary learning is the one area where adult L2 learners excel. (I’ll find a source for that & post…)

All these people lobbying against teaching content …. they seem never to notice that in real life it’s not fun, not knowing the names of things. 

Not knowing, or not remembering. Either one.

The most important research on learning I’ve read

Someone has posted it on line, so here it is !

Deferred Feedback Sharply Dissociates Implicit and Explicit Category Learning
J. David Smith, Joseph Boomer, Alexandria C. Zakrzewski, Jessica L. Roeder, Barbara A. Church, and F. Gregory Ashby  Psychological Science 2014, Vol. 25(2) 447-457

I’ve been mulling this article since the summer of 2014, when it was published. It’s life altering.

Continue reading

Teaching formal grammar is teaching vocabulary

Doug left this link to a post on the difficulty of searching Google when you don’t know what the thing you’re looking for is called:

What do you do when you want to look something up but you don’t know what it’s called? Sometimes you can just type what you know into a search engine and it will sort things out for you. I just typed “part of the car that covers the engine” and I got:

Part of the car that covers the engine pixelcity2_hood


Sadly, things are not always this easy. Right now I know what I want to make but I don’t know what to search for. I know what it looks like and how it behaves, but not how it’s created or what you call it. In fact, I can even draw a picture of it. It looks kind of like a stained glass window.

Where college writing is concerned, not knowing the search term is a chronic problem.

It’s a problem because nobody teaches formal grammar any more. When I say “any more,” I mean not since the 1950s, pretty much.

My students have usually heard of “subject,” “predicate,” “noun,” “verb,” and “sentence,” but that’s about it.

So nobody can look anything up. Not on Google, not in a handbook. Especially not a handbook, which, unlike Google, doesn’t try to guess what your question is. 

Here’s an example.

In my first semester of teaching, I think it was, I wanted to know which was correct (in formal writing):

Do you mind my sitting here?


Do you mind me sitting here?

I was pretty sure “my” was right, but only because in years gone by I had always said and written “my.” But that was then. In recent years, I had started saying and writing “me,” so I wasn’t sure. (I take the fact that my usage had changed to mean that the rule was changing.)

I had no idea how to look up the answer.

I did know what the word “possessive” meant in the context of grammar, but I didn’t know what a word that ended in “ing” was called.

So I didn’t know to search forpossessives in front of gerunds.”

I eventually figured it out, but it would have been a lot easier if someone had just told me what a gerund was when I was 10.

Vocabulary is a good thing.

People should teach it.


I’ve just skimmed Paul Brians’ page on gerunds and pronouns. I like this:

This is a subtle point, and hard to explain without using the sort of technical language I usually try to avoid; but if you can learn how to precede gerunds with possessive pronouns, your writing will definitely improve in the eyes of many readers.

It’s not wrong to write “do you mind me sitting here?”

But it does sound different from “do you mind my sitting here,” and it makes a different impression.

That matters.

When you teach writing, part of what you’re doing is giving students the means to control the impression they make.

How many words do you need to know ?

Research indicates that if the students know about 98% of the words on a page, then they can read it quickly and with high levels of comprehension. Below 90% (one unknown word in 10) the reading becomes frustrating and slow requiring a lot of dictionary use and comprehension suffers badly.
The Extensive Reading Foundation’s Guide to Extensive Reading

I first came across this research while teaching English 109, and it sure corresponds to my experience. 

If my students knew just 90% of the words in a text, they couldn’t read it at all, even with the definitions of new vocabulary words typed in the margins. 

I’m sure the problem is working memory.

Every time you look up a new word you have to remember a) what you were just reading, b) the ‘name’ of the new word, and c) the new word’s definition.

Plus you have to moosh all these things together into a meaningful whole, an operation that is also performed by working memory.

And since you know only 90% of the words, you have to do this over and over again, which erodes your memory of the other words you just looked up, not to mention your memory (and, consequently, your understanding) of the essay as a whole. 

It’s like trying to multiply 79 by 6 inside your head. You have to remember the 79, you have to remember the 6, you have to remember the subproducts (is that the right word ? I don’t remember !), and you have to perform the calculation. 

It’s too much.

This is why schools should teach vocabulary.

Babadum and “decontextualized learning”

I’ve just found this site today — it’s amazing.

I’m not ready for it, but a couple of months from now — look out !

That said, I should probably add that I have no idea how it works, or whether it has a spaced-repetition algorithm. 

Still, the images are so much fun that the site’s ability to hold my interest is enough to make me use it.

Decontextualized learning

I mentioned the other day that I’m using 3 language apps: Duolingo, Lingvist, and now Memrise, too. Eventually I’ll get around to Glossika (because John McWhorter likes it), though maybe not till I’m putting more time into Spanish.

And, of course, one of these days I’ll actually use Gabriel Wyner’s Pronunciation Trainers, which I should have done before I did anything else, but didn’t.

I bought them.

I didn’t use them.

Because Anki.

One day I will be an Anki person, but that day is not this day. (Wyner has an app coming out in August, so, yes, I will be adding another app to the queue.)

Anyway, my thinking in fanning out among apps was that I didn’t want the words I learned to be stuck inside Duolingo. I wanted them to generalize to the real world.

I don’t know whether failure-to-generalize is a real concern, but I did find an interesting passage on decontextualized vocab learning in Paul Nation’s What do you need to know to learn a foreign language?

The most important deliberate learning activity is using word cards …. You need to take control of this very effective activity and keep using it to learn new vocabulary and even more importantly to keep revising previously met vocabulary. You may find that some teachers advise against using this strategy largely because of the belief that all vocabulary learning needs to occur in context. They are wrong. It is important that there is vocabulary learning in context through meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, and fluency development, but it is also important that there is deliberate decontextualised learning through the use of word cards, because such learning is very efficient and effective. Some people also believe that because word card learning involves first language translation, it encourages thinking in the first language rather than the foreign language. Research however has shown that in the beginning and intermediate stages of language learning the first and foreign languages are unavoidably stored together. Using bilingual word cards is a very effective deliberate learning strategy that you should use.

More fun with cringe-worthy phrases

In the Post last Friday: a highly enjoyable list of supposedly cringe-worthy phrases you’re probably using in the office ! (Note punctuation placement, please.)

re: cringe-worthy, I dissent.

There’s nothing wrong with expressions like “heavy lifting,” “win-win,” “paradigm shift,” “elephant in the room,” etc. All of these mots mean something real. That’s why people use them.

That said, I do agree that neither “Give 110 percent” nor “There’s no I in team” have much to offer in the way of communicative oomph.

I also admit to being tired of hearing “going forward” and “reach out.” Blech. My feelings on the subject are neither here nor there, however. Both expressions still mean what they mean, and people will continue to use them.

One more thing. “Boil the ocean

What is that?

If I have to ask, then you’re probably not using “boil the ocean” in the office, at least not often enough for “boil the ocean” to have become cringeworthy.

In short, WAPO has published a perfectly fine list of things to say at the office — so perfectly fine that if I were teaching a course on Business English for L2 speakers, I would advise my students to commit it to memory.

Here’s my beef with the list.


Toolkit ! 

The word toolkit, which people demonstrably are using way too much in the office, (not to mention in book titles) is not on the list of cringe-worthy things people spend too much time using in the office.


I was thinking I could end this post with some kind of reference to boiling the ocean, but I guess not.

Bonus points: Here’s McKinsey using the word toolkit to make no sense whatsoever.

Extended lean toolkit for total productivity