Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

A Tense Situation: Moving Beyond a Strict Teaching Order

At the British Council, we've recently been celebrating the tenth anniversary of a project in which I've been closely involved and which espouses creative reading in the form of short stories and other narrative devices when learning English. In amongst all the metaphorical back-slapping and high-fiving that went on arose a contradictory message from ELT publishers, some of whom now include in their course books aspects of the methodology developed by the project in their course books, something we were celebrating.

However, the overall message given by most of the course books is of an opposite view where the regimented introduction of items to be taught are introduced as if they were a course of invasive medicine. Nowhere can this been seen more clearly than in the order in which tenses are introduced. As a result, many teachers who want to use short narratives for their elementary classes feel stymied because the linguistic devices from which stories are made don't follow the strict order prescribed by the course books. "It will confuse the students" is the most common cry to be heard.

But this is wrong: it will not confuse the students at all. That is, it won't confuse them if they have ever heard a story before: read one, seen a film, listened to someone relate what happened to them on the way to X that morning, etc. As it is, the vast majority of students are completely familiar with the way that narrative works in their own language, and narratives work the same way in English.

The structure of stories is not only comfortingly familiar in its exposure of binary opposition, the resultant conflict followed by resolution, but it also provides a relative time frame against which everything happens. This, after all, is the basis of verb tenses: the relationship between sequences of time. What is important for the teacher to be aware of here is that the familiarity of the relationship of sequences of time in a story, and the tenses used to portray this, are so well-established to most students that the knowledge acts as a scaffold upon which is supported the student's journey through the tale rather than acting as a barrier against it, which is what too many teachers suppose will happen.

What is more, tenses are used in a narrative against this self-referencing time frame, and this provides a convenient and self-contained context from which understanding of unknown elements will quickly emerge. Let me unpick that a little. We know that all learning takes place within a context, and that much of a teacher's job is finding the relevant context to make the light of realization burn bright. This is why we use examples and sample sentences to show how grammar points work, and we ask questions to check and reinforce perception within the mini-context of the sample we have used.

For example, if we are introducing our students to the simple past, we might use a sample sentence like Last night she had dinner at eight o'clock, which would be followed up with context questions like Is she eating her dinner now? We can do this because present simple and then present continuous would have been introduced in Units One and Two respectively. Quite who she is, apart from the fact that she had her dinner the previous evening, is not important here, and it is quite likely that we will never know anything else about her.

This invention of mini-contexts is very familiar in course books, and the introduction of nearly every piece of new information is followed by a new mini-context, all of which can be charitably referred to as offering a rich variety of situations for the student to deal with, or else dismissed as a confusing plethora. (It can be quite an eye opening experience to check through a single unit in a course book and see just how many samples or mini-contexts, new characters or situations are introduced as a way of illustrating a point raised by the author; most run into hundreds.)

One great advantage of using narratives is that the contexts are not only self-contained, they are also self-referencing in that narratives always refer to a sequence of time, not a fixed or frozen moment within it, which is what happens with samples or mini-contexts. In other words, a narrative can act as one large set of linked circumstances from which numerous linguistic and lexical examples can be plucked. What is more, because the format of tenses in narratives will be the same in the stories in the student's native language, there is also a support structure sans pareil which needs no introduction by the teacher.

Another aspect we need to consider is the use of narrative tenses and their relationship to each other (and the wholly subjective concepts of the narrative present, narrative past and narrative future which students will understand emotionally even if they don't cognitively). They will encourage an implicit approach to language learning, just as telling stories to young children does in their first language. (I don't remember editing past or future tenses out of stories I told to my children when they were toddlers just because they weren't using past or future tenses yet in their speech.)

This is not to disrespect the Natural Order Hypothesis (NOH) as suggested by Krashen and others. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that using narratives helps individual learners to chart their own course through the items to be learned. NOH determines the order in which linguistic items are acquired by learners, irrespective of their first language, though this is not the same of the order of difficulty. This does not mean, however, that all linguistic items can only be introduced in that order, although some courses or manuals attempt to do this, which is where they are often at odds with the use of story-led instruction. This can lead to a highly artificial approach, and one in which the learning contexts become implausible and, as a result, I dare say that they are less learnable.

Classroom language learning tends to be a fairly artificial process anyway, and I sincerely hope that anything that lessens the synthetic nature of the process is to be welcomed. Narratives do just that, and this doesn't mean that narratives – short stories, poems, mini-plays, etc. – need to be tailored to fit the NOH, as exposure to unlearned items within the natural support structure that stories produce will aid the intuitive learning process. Thus teachers of beginner level students do not need to look for stories that are written exclusively in the present tense, and teachers of elementary students do not need to avoid stories that include the subjunctive.

Context is everything, and in narratives a new reality emerges, but it is the reality of the students' own imaginations. No one would doubt, surely, that stories dwell in the unique fancy of individual and that no one reads quite the same story. Could it be that this richness of contextual possibilities is what really makes some teachers wary of using the short story?

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.