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Meaning McNuggets

There are many reasons to decry the grammar syllabus, the most valid of which is the plain fact that learners learn grammar forms at the point of need, and very rarely does this follow any intended sequence of instruction. Least of all when the sequence of instruction is created according to some arbitrary sense of increasing language complexity, of an easy-to-more-difficult progression of units, because there can be no such ideal progression. Spanish learners of English will always find articles easy enough to master, and Japanese learners will always find them among the most difficult features of the language, and so a syllabus or a coursebook that attempts to please both groups will need to make a tough decision as to where on the grammar syllabus it tackles article use–if at all.

But the problem doesn’t stop there. Scott Thornbury coined the term grammar mcnuggets a decade ago to criticize the widespread use of what are at best inauthentic but easy to sequence, teach, and test bits of predigested language forms. The idea that grammar as it is “produced”, “regulated” and “consumed” (his words) in coursebooks is one of the things that has made many of us less than healthy learners and teachers of languages is a powerful one, that cries out for activism as much as its fast-food counterpart. The form that this activism has taken is in calls for MEANING FIRST! DOWN WITH FORM!

But the problem with meaning is that it too can be as easily atomized, reconstituted, packaged, and sold as the meatiest grammar point. It should certainly come as no surprise to any teacher that the various units and purportedly meaningful dialogues and discussions in nearly all coursebooks are just as bland and inauthentic as the grammar exercises that they claim to have replaced. Bland because any gristle, fat, and bone–any mention of real world topics with real world consequences–are avoided, and inauthentic because meaning needs context to thrive, and context cannot ever be found in 10-minute Find Someone Who? activities. (*)

So why do teachers love disconnected activities and topics so much? Why this pack-rat mentality to collect materials devoid of context? Maybe I’m an especially terrible teacher, but I almost never find myself browsing 101-Activities-for-the-Busy-Teacher type websites, or looking into coursebooks for that perfect task. What I’m always looking for is that perfect theme to tie the whole syllabus together–without which even the best short activity will ring hollow.

This point was driven home to me last week as I waded into Alex Case’s 100 Publications that Most Changed TEFL post, and realized that what teachers are most looking for are in fact mcnuggets: As it currently stands, the first 3 items on that list (**) are of the 5-minute-activities-for-teachers-to-copy variety, as are about 20% of the other items on the list. Academic articles and methodology books aside, I don’t think I’ve even heard of the majority of these “influential” titles. And some of the ones that I happened to have seen and admired, for instance the Vineys’ Handshake course, are dismissed as not influential. I even got into a bit of a spat with Case in the comments because he dismissed Widgets when he “picked it up twice looking for ideas or materials to supplement classes and [...] put it straight back down again”. As if somehow the natural test of a coursebook should be its usefulness as a source of random lesson ideas!

In any case, this whole thing has brought back to my mind the importance of a themed syllabus, a topic I presented on at JALT 2010. I’ll attempt to summarize that presentation here next week. Maybe I’ll even have time to put up the audio and slides as I’ve been meaning to!

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(*) Okay, it’s true, a lesson-long discussion of, say, global warming is a bit more contextually rich and thus meaningful, but only until next week, when the unit abruptly changes to Emperor Penguins or Machu Picchu!

(**) Alex has rightly corrected me that they are not the “top” three items, as the list is in alphabetical order. In my defense, the list was originally ranked, hence the mistake. ADDED: And I stand corrected again! They were never ranked, just numbered. Nevertheless, I stand by my core point, which is that the list is dominated by books of activities. Useful? Perhaps. Necessary? In those rare cases where lesson gaps need to be filled–no doubt. But influential? Surely only negatively so, by implying that lesson “nuggets” are an important part of a healthy syllabus!

7 Comments

  1. Ah, but global warming has a direct impact on Emperor Penguins. Antarctica for them will a lost and uninhabitable continent be, a golden land that once was, a natural Machu Pichu if you will…

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 23:53 | Permalink
  2. Yes, and if you were to arrange your chicken mcnuggets on a nice bed of scalloped potatoes and serve them with a side of salad, you’d probably have a fairly passable meal too. But if you’re going to go through all that trouble anyway, why not do the chicken right from the beginning? ;-)

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 00:06 | Permalink
  3. Well, the scalloped potatoes and salad parts sound pretty good but might pass on the mcnuggets part. Maybe go for the penguin though…

    Above post just me having fun and agree of course with your overall point. Have always liked texts with an overarch. So liked Widgets immediately. But even like non-task arches :-)

    One thing for sure, if I saw a text as only a hodgepodge of activities for me to pick or choose from at will… well, there wouldn’t really be any point in my choosing that text as a text would there?

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 01:00 | Permalink
  4. Alex Case wrote:

    It’s not the top three! They are in alphabetical order!

    I must say that I’ve never before heard anyone arguing that an overarching theme for a whole course actually helps students learn more. There was a business textbook that was supposed to take students through “The Working Week”, but as usually happens with those kinds of things, the theme overwhelmed the content and it was both dull and badly matched to student needs. Same with the Market Leader case study videos.

    I’m willing to be convinced though, so please tell me more.

    I’d be interested to know which ones you’d never heard of, because that was half the point of the post.

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 16:18 | Permalink
  5. Alex Case wrote:

    PS

    Even Peter Viney agrees that Handshake was not influential. We did disagree, though, on whether it was any good… I taught almos the whole book and found students’ usually struggling with the topics more than with the language. Fascinating topics for me to read about though!

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 16:21 | Permalink
  6. MBenevides wrote:

    @Alex: oops, you’re right, and I did know that about the top three–it slipped my mind, sorry. Will fix.

    As for themes, yes, they help in a variety of ways. They can better contextualize the communicative acts; they can build Ss confidence because lower levels Ss are less often lost trying to figure out the topic or task at hand; language, particularly vocabulary, is recycled more naturally and consistently in different modes, etc. Anyway, I’ll make a more detailed case about this in the next post.

    For now, just wanted to add that I’ve never looked at the examples you’ve mentioned above–I’ve never taught Business English, in fact–but I can see how they might be rather dull. Whatever other faults Widgets may have, however, “dull” is certainly not one I’ve ever heard!

    Also, re. Handshake, it is not without its faults for sure. But if there’s any part of spoken communication that can be looked at systematically to good purpose, it is pragmatics. At the very least, it shifts focus away from grammatical accuracy to a kind of accuracy that is closer to what people really use language for–to persuade, to apologize, to congratulate, to *get things to happen*.

    If I had been there when you were using it, I would have suggested you to consider why the topics were fascinating to you, and then to try to make that fascination infect the students. I’ve seldom found it difficult to make Ss interested in how and why speech acts work the way they do, especially if you compare them across cultures at the same time. (Sigh, this is looking like another blog post I’ve been meaning to get to)

    But okay, I’ll drop by yours soon to list the books I’ve never heard of, then!

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 17:19 | Permalink
  7. Alex Case wrote:

    Well, it was never ranked, but it did have numbers next to it that confused people (to show how close I was to the number 100)

    I certainly agree that switching topic every lesson would confuse beginners, but what textbooks do that? Even the double page spread courses like short courses usually tie say five double page spreads together as one overwhelming topic, like English File does. One topic for one course just seems like an arbitary number (like my 100!), why not two topics or seven topics?

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 06:49 | Permalink