Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Encouraging Students to be Language Investigators

We recently spoke to British researcher Dan Clayton about the new educational project, "Teaching English Grammar in Schools." The project seeks to enliven the teaching of English by using real examples pulled from a corpus of texts. In part two of our interview, we asked Dan how this corpus-based approach allows both teachers and students to investigate the intricacies of the English language.

Read the first part of our interview with Dan here.

VT: Are corpus-driven approaches that have been developed for teaching English as a foreign language now being used for native speakers of English?

Dan: I've been amazed to see some of the stuff they've produced for second-language learners. I really don't think we're anywhere near that level yet.  There are pockets of interest where you've got people who are in secondary teaching who have used corpora, but they're few and far between. Certainly with the approach with second-language learners, it's about actually giving them the confidence to see what's in use in a particular language, but it's tricky translating that to an English first-language classroom. The kinds of things we've tried to do are to pull out examples of real spoken language to show people that whatever their own perceptions are of a spoken language, there's a structure to it. There are patterns that you can observe.

VT: What type of teacher training does your project get involved with?

Dan: We did a "grammar day" back in July. It had about 25 teachers, mostly from around this area. We're based in London, and we're working in partnership with schools in Camden, which is a north London borough.  They're the secondary schools we're working in partnership with on this project. We're doing another one in November, which is aimed at teachers in secondaries who are new to teaching grammar particularly.  So we're doing crash courses in grammar for them, particularly looking at practical applications of things like stylistics, critical discourse analysis, and spoken-language work as well, but introducing them to the basics with a crash course of English grammar to start off with.

The plan with this project, in the long-term, is to have quite a big Continuing Professional Development area for teachers, with ongoing subject knowledge training within the profession. The idea would be to give them some starter activities and offer them approaches that will help them develop their understanding as the project goes on.

VT: Could you describe some of those practical approaches that you suggest for teachers to use as in-class activities?

Dan: I think there's a number of things we can do. One of the big things we're working on is trying to encourage investigative approaches into language, helping students set themselves questions. One example using the ICE-GB corpus is to get students who are looking at spoken language to think about male/female communication. They can take features of language – such as tag questions, particular color terms, or adverb intensifiers – and use those to do queries on the corpus to see if they can work out if there is a pattern to gender usage, and then to refine the questions along the way. 

Say, for example, that they find that 60% of the tag questions in a corpus are from women and 40% from men, does that actually mean what it appears to on the surface?  They can try to refine those questions along the way and think about different genres, different variables. Those kinds of investigative approaches are things we're trying to encourage – structuring and scaffolding investigations using a corpus.

VT: So the interface that you're developing is designed not just for teachers to develop activities but for teachers to work with students to make their own investigations?

Dan: That's right, yes. We're trying to work on different levels of access to the corpus.  At one level, you've got ICE-GB, which you could just let them loose on, but we're trying to think about ways we can grade it a little bit, so there would be a simple way in to do lexical searches, for example.  And then there would be a slightly more complex one where you could go in and search for particular clauses or phrases. We would give the teachers the right kind of support to actually know what they're doing with those kinds of searches. 

We're also working out what kind of data we give them access to as well.  When you're doing a unit on different types of nouns and how you might determine whether a word is a noun or not, we help teachers pre-select examples that have been taken from the corpus, allowing them a degree of control over the kind of material that appears in their lessons.  Also, we try to work out approaches that don't always draw strictly on the corpus, but use grammar in a more interesting, problem-solving way.  I quite like some of the Linguistics Olympiad questions, where students are faced with a made-up or an obscure language and are asked to pick out some of the rules that underpin that language, and then think about some of the rules that underpin our own language.

Another approach that has worked well in test lessons is getting students to think about a kind of forensic linguistics approach to language, asking them to solve made-up crimes by looking for linguistic clues in evidence that they're presented with.

VT: Given the success of forensic crime shows on television, that could be an appealing approach.

Dan: That went down very well, probably for the wrong reasons.  We had one guy at our college who, at the end of a session on forensic linguistics, said, "So, what you're telling me is when I write a ransom note, I need to keep it short and I need to type it."

VT: It's fascinating that you're trusting students enough to make their own investigations to be amateur descriptive linguists and use the tools that linguists would use to answer questions.

Dan: That's the way we hope it will go.  I mean, the reality is often very different. Certainly when you've got older students, there's been a tradition with them to find their own topics for investigation and devise their own frameworks, and I think that that's been excellent.  It's a really good preparation for university and beyond, and it's good to see that working down into younger classes. But there is always a danger that in an assessment-focused culture, the investigation will be sacrificed for results. 

VT: You were recently talking about the Visual Thesaurus on your blog. How do you see that complementing what you're developing with your project?

Dan: For teachers, I think it's a fantastic resource, because a place where you can share practice is just excellent.  It's really good to see an organized and supported environment for teachers to share ideas on the Visual Thesaurus.  In terms of some of the activities that you can use on it, anything that stimulates different types of learning where you can get students to be a bit more visual in their understanding of grammar, that's a real bonus.

"Teaching English Grammar in Schools" is being conducted as part of the Survey of English Usage at University College London. Prof. Bas Aarts is director of the Survey, and Sean Wallis and Dan Clayton are research fellows on the "Teaching English Grammar" project.


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Thursday November 4th 2010, 5:14 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
Although I have taught languages both foreign and English as a first language all my life, I can not grasp what this article is saying. Who is interested in this approach? It sounds like it might be of interest to university researchers... How does it benefit secondary school students? Most of today's students need to learn to write clearly and correctly. How does this method help? Perhaps I need to catch up on all the latest terms, or perhaps this person needs to cut out all the jargon of his academic milieu and speak to teachers in a meaningful way.
Thursday November 4th 2010, 10:29 AM
Comment by: soledad (IL)
I have to agree with Anonymous above.

Although I took a graduate level course in Linguistics, I did not major in it, so the discussion of these approaches that Mr. Clayton espoused might as well have been a discussion on the semiotic significance of consonantal objectification in a planetary system other than ours.

You get the point. I clicked on the ICE-GB corpus link (still aspiring to be an amateur linguist, I suppose) and thought I stumbled into the digital vault of an electrical engineering department's ancient archives.

Best of luck using ANY of those things to inspire kids to read and write more and/or better. (I'd be happy with one of the two.)

Spoken like a true former high school teacher who got his fiery baptism in The Bronx!

Now just glad I get paid to work with words in a corporate setting.
Thursday November 4th 2010, 1:04 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The really significant and laudable aspect of this project, in my view, is that it makes available extremely valuable research, resources, and investment to teachers and students in primary and secondary education. As Mr. Clayton suggests in the interview, huge amounts of time and money have been spent for the development of the commercial ESL market, and rightly so: publishers compete fiercely in this multibillion $ industry. But these resources, such as corpora and the tools used to exploit them, are virtually untapped by native-speaker learners and teachers, and there is so much that can be gleaned from them. Many high school teachers today may not even know what a corpus is and how very valuable it can be in explicating and illustrating language usage and grammatical concepts – aside from the fact that corpus examples can provide eye-popping examples of usage patterns that may excite even the most diffident language student. If this project makes headway in bringing the real language to the people who need to master it, then it’s a great thing.
Thursday November 4th 2010, 1:17 PM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom)
I'm a bit baffled as to the bafflement above, expressed by Anonymous and soledad.

If you take both parts of the interview together, I think you should get a fairly clear idea of what our project is setting out to do. The ICE-GB corpus gives us a bank of actual English in use - real examples drawn from spoken and written sources - and we're drawing on this data to create resources for grammar teaching.

The kind of thing we're doing is probably best explained by looking at examples of what we're creating.

One resource takes examples of spoken language from a range of contexts and looks at how its structure often differs from written language, helping draw students' attention to the different contexts in which certain features are used, what they mean, how they might be viewed as appropriate to the context etc.

Another example looks at how a writer uses different clause types and sentence structures to help create suspense and then explores how young writers can manipulate such devices themselves to create different effects.

With the more exploratory, investigative approaches mentioned in part 2 of the interview, we're setting up structured investigations into language and guiding students through the kinds of questions they might want to ask about how language is used in different situations.

At Key Stage 4 (14-16 year-olds) there's a new requirement in the English National Curriculum to explore spoken language and carry out mini-investigations. For example, a student might record some data from a conversation between friends and compare how the language used in this situation differs from the language used in a more formal setting. With our corpus we've got ready-made examples and can support the study of this area, producing worksheets and lesson ideas that flag up patterns and grammatical structures they might want to comment on.

At sixth form (16-18) the English Language A level already has more open-ended investigative work built into it, so again if we can help students see language use in a range of settings they'll have a good chance of producing more focused investigations.

Anonymous says "... perhaps this person needs to cut out all the jargon of his academic milieu and speak to teachers in a meaningful way" which is probably good advice, so thank you. However, I'm not from an academic background and don't have an MA in Linguistics: I'm an A level teacher who has been brought in to this project to work closely with teachers.

As a teacher myself I've tended to be sceptical of what university academics know about the real work that goes on in, often very challenging, classrooms so we've spent a lot of time talking to teachers, observing lessons, trialling resources, identifying what they want help with and trying to create resources that can be used with a wide range of students, of different ability levels.

Perhaps if Anonymous could point out the jargon that s/he thinks is confusing, I could look at a better way of expressing myself... I *think* I'm talking in a language that most secondary English teachers in the UK would recognise, but I'm always open to ways to make things more accessible.

Soledad's point about the corpus is a fair one. It's completely baffling at first glance, and we wouldn't realistically expect to unleash it, unmediated, on an unsuspecting 14 year-old. Most teachers I know start sweating when they see it. Many need a lie down soon after. Which is why we're drawing on the corpus rather than just handing it over to students to make sense of themselves.

I'm happy to go into more detail about some of the approaches we're using and discuss the project and what I think could be its many applications in the secondary classroom, so please comment right back.
Thursday November 4th 2010, 1:21 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris)
English is not my first Language, I try to use it because I like to move all over the world. As far as me I think that when someone speak very well that is pleasant to hear , to read about.Obvious when someone spkeaks a "foren-
sic language, that is very nice. But very difficult to understanding.Grammar is interested for every body . Spoken clearly , grammar mystakes without, you say Houa! nice very nice. But how to introduce Grammar Lessons for me for instance?
Do you think of exercices to do? Students like me need to speak clearly and fautless, that I'll do one's best, and writting too.
Thursday November 4th 2010, 1:35 PM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom)
Christiane, the reference to forensic linguistics is probably a bit obscure if you're not a linguist, so that's a fair point.

Forensic linguistics is all about using language study to solve crime. There's some really excellent material on the Aston University Centre for Forensic Linguistics site (http://www.forensiclinguistics.net/) which might give you a better idea of that field.

We're using it as a starting point for younger students to try to motivate them to use their language skills in a practical setting. One of the resources we've used very successfully so far has involved students solving a "crime" (a fairly mild one - we'll save the nasty stuff for the older students) by comparing pieces of language evidence - ransom notes, text messages, transcripts of phone calls - with statements from the suspects. It's gone down really well with our target audience who can immediately see a practical application for some grammar analysis.

So, if a normal grammar lesson might be characterised as looking at sentences like "The cat sat on the mat", our forensic linguistic lessons consist of asking "Who killed the cat on the mat and how can you tell?".
Thursday November 4th 2010, 5:27 PM
Comment by: Valerie P.
It is me again... Your explanation is much clearer than the original article/interview. Thank you.

I don't believe that we are using the "corpus-driven approaches" in Canada. After the first reading, I thought it meant the body of literature that is considered essential to a well-education person. That was my first misinterpretation.

I was confused and still am as I don't know how "examples of real spoken language" can possibly be used to teach grammar especially as many, if not most, people speak in grammatically incorrect ways.

Most teachers especially those "who are new to teaching grammar" need very basic grammar review not lessons in "stylistics, critical discourse analysis, and spoken-language work". I supervise teachers who don't know how to recognize or correct a run-on-sentence!

Please, you must admit, "structuring and scaffolding investigations using a corpus" is pure jargon. Neither had I ever heard of "forensic linguistics".

I hope you now understand my confusion.
Thursday November 4th 2010, 7:10 PM
Comment by: nannywoo is back (Wilmington, NC)
I followed the links. Is the ICE-USA corpus not up yet?
Friday November 5th 2010, 3:19 AM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom)
@ Anonymous, I'm glad it's a bit clearer now.

You say: "Most teachers especially those "who are new to teaching grammar" need very basic grammar review not lessons in "stylistics, critical discourse analysis, and spoken-language work". I supervise teachers who don't know how to recognize or correct a run-on-sentence!"

I'd say yes and no. We start with the very basics (with both teachers and students) and look at how to identify word classes, how to identify sentences, then how to understand slightly more complicated areas such as tense, aspect, passive voice and the like.

The trouble is that all of this could just be dry feature-spotting unless you offer some motivation for looking at it. Whoopy-doo, I know what the passive voice is...so what? That's where approaches like critical discourse analysis and stylistics can come in.

Critical discourse analysis allows us to look at how structures in grammar often encode attitudes and particular stances. An example might be the agentless passive which can often be used to disguise responsibility, or nominalisation, which packages up a process into a noun or noun phrase and removes the verb. If we take examples of these from the corpus and look at wider usage - newspapers, TV news reports, history books - we can see that grammatical knowledge offers a degree of power to the students: they can see more in a text than they could before.

As for spoken language and "incorrectness", that's a different debate and one that there isn't really space for here. I've just co-written an article with Dick Hudson for the British teachers' publication the TES (should be out today, I hope...) about why we think studying spoken and non-Standard English is important, so I'll link to that when it becomes available on their website. To put it briefly, I'd say that it's an overstatement to claim that "many, if not most, people speak in grammatically incorrect ways". The structures might be different from written, Standard English, but we can't just write them off as incorrect. They're often grammatically more complicated to analyse, but often for very good reasons, and we have to be able, as teachers, to give students the confidence to look at these. And now 14-16 year-olds in the UK *have* to study spoken language as part of the curriculum, we can't ignore it.

I can't really see much jargon in the quote about "structuring and scaffolding an investigation", but then that might be because UK teachers are more familiar with the investigation as a unit of work in the curriculum. Maybe the scaffolding bit is explained more clearly in my earlier post about gently guiding a student through the questions they might want to ask before letting them loose on a full corpus themselves. Or maybe not. We want to work with teachers on the project so I don't want to bamboozle them with jargon.
Sunday November 7th 2010, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom)
The article I've referred to above is published here http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6062360, with a news story about it here http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6062318.

Dick Hudson's set up a supporting webpage here http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/tes2010.htm to follow up links from the main article. Hope this helps clarify a few things.

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The first part of our interview with Dan Clayton.
How an understanding of "chunking" is informing the teaching of English.
Heidi Hayes Jacobs advocates borrowing methods from the foreign language classroom.