a foreign language is neither duck soup nor child's play. At times it can get
pretty frustrating, especially if you feel there's a discrepancy between what
you believe you should do and what you actually do in reality. Here's one
the moment, in one of my young learners classes (A1/A2), we're doing the so do I and neither do I type
of responses, such as in the following example:
a short while ago we also did question tags, which, to my non-native speaker's
over-analytical mind, have a lot in common with the above structure.
You're a teacher, aren't you?
He loves English, doesn't he?
You will come, won't you?
I'm convinced that to be able to fully grasp, learn and acquire these
grammatical structures, my 14-year-old students need to employ a lot of
cognitive processes at one go. Apart from having to be aware of the word order
rules, they need to identify the auxiliaries or extract them from
the main verbs. I know how hard it can get because whenever I try to
demonstrate how the structures work, which I do by firing off examples, sooner
or later I get stuck and mix things up. If the demonstration phase is long
enough, I usually get so confused that at some point I start struggling when
judging what is correct and what is wrong. Obviously, the problem is that I'm
presenting the structures separately, out of a larger context, plus I tend to
over-teach them. I know it's not the coolest way to teach a language but I
can't help it.
reader may wonder why I am so silly a teacher. The thing is that the structures
are part of the coursebook we use and part of the curriculum my colleagues and
I once officially agreed on. This means that, apart from other things, our
students will be tested on these grammatical points at some stage, and they’ll be
given grades. Thus, I simply need to embrace the challenge no matter my inner
If want my students to use, say, short responses expressing agreement or
disagreement fluently and naturally in speech (where they are most likely to be
encountered), they will need to see and hear lots of examples first. They will
also need plenty of practice. Ouch - this sounds like the despicable PPP,
doesn't it? Nevertheless, I believe native speakers also pick up these
structures through exposure. The trouble is that they do so over a much longer
period of time, and most importantly, unlike L2 learners, they are exposed to
heaps of meaningful context. These conditions are really hard to replicate in
my teaching context of four lessons a week.
As a result of the lack of exposure and meaningful context, my students tend to
avoid the structures, if not explicitly required to use them, or they opt for
an easy way out, for example for the alternative 'me too' or 'me
neither'. As far as question tags are
concerned, it’s not common to hear an English learner, even a fairly advanced
one, use them in speech voluntarily either. This may be presumptive evidence
that these structures are not a question of linguistic survival; simply because
they carry little meaning. What can be expressed by including
a question tag at the end of a sentence can actually be expressed through other
means of communication, such as facial expression or intonation, or by using
other forms, such as right?. These are language points which were learnt
as vocabulary rather than grammatical items, and thus students use them more naturally
and spontaneously. All in all, L2 learners will usually get their message across in the end, with or without
proper question tags, because they can always easily do without
That being said, I strongly believe that it's quite unwise of coursebook
designers to include question tags at such early stages of the course. However,
what really bothers me is that they are presented in packages. I wouldn't mind
if they appeared here and there, treated as vocabulary items, but I find them a
real nuisance if they are presented as grammatical structures, usually in the
form of grammar charts and tables.
The only positive effect of the 'chart' approach I can think of is that
students will be better able to analyze the language, understand how it
actually works and transfer their knowledge to other linguistic areas, which
may undoubtedly come in handy some day. For example, being able to identify the
auxiliaries will help them make questions and negative statements more easily.
On the other hand, I'm not convinced that practising analytical linguistic
skills will eventually help my students become fluent users of the
happens is that some students have an excellent command of these easy-on-the-eyes
charts without actually being able to use the content meaningfully, especially
when caught off grammatical guard - that is during fluency practice, for
instance. They can memorize the charts and tables perfectly and get a brilliant
score in a test aimed at isolated grammatical points, but when faced with a
more complex kind of test, they don’t perform as well as they expected. This must
be really frustrating, particularly when they think they did their best
to revise for the test.
one more thing that may appease my bad conscience; by giving my students a
chance to analyze the language, I actually give them an opportunity to gain
some control over their learning. They get a chance to understand the language
and learn some tangible bits and pieces of its structure. This understanding,
or a lack thereof, can later be assessed, and I dare say this kind of
assessment is relatively fair - no matter how inaccurate and flawed it may
appear to some. There are students who always struggle when producing a
coherent sentence, but they feel quite comfortable when learning the rules of a
language. It can’t be denied that, to a certain extent, these rules are flexible,
but at least they help students to feel safe – even if only temporarily . Nevertheless,
as a teacher I will always try to encourage my students to get rid of this
crutch as soon as they feel confident enough to do so.