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!
(*) 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!