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.
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.