In what order should we teach grammar or vocab?

I have a Mexican tenant who studied 8 years of English and who is now doing his business internship in Vancouver. He can say things like “If I had known about the party I would have gone,” but he regularly says “My friend like running.” Now, for language teachers, this seems odd: the simple rule “add -s to verbs in singular 3rd person” seems a lot easier than “use past imperfect tense (and its conjugation rules) before a conditional past tense (with other conjugation rules) statement.” You’d think that he’d acquire the simple rule before the complex one.

This raises the interesting question in what order should we teach grammar and vocab?

The answer, it seems, is…in no particular order. How can this be? Well, as Susan Gross argues in this paper, this has to do with the “natural order of acquisition” of language items (specifically grammar). Basically, what happens is, kids are exposed to natural language from day one (yes, it is somewhat modified into “babytalk” form, a.k.a. caretaker speech, to make it more comprehensible), which includes all grammatical features e.g. simple present tense, past subjunctive, adjective agreement (or whatever rules there are in whatever language kids are hearing). Yet kids pick up elements of that grammar in a very specific order.

In English, we can broadly say things like

— 3rd-person -s endings are acquired late

— kids overuse new gramamr rules (e.g. when they figure out that -ed is added to make past tense, they say “I goed there.”)

— kids pick up meaning first, then variations on meaning later. E.g. kids will say “giraffe walk” and later “the giraffe walk” and then “the giraffe walks.”

— kids go through a predictable set of “mistakes”– in a set order–when learning negation. E.g. they will say “I not goed there” before they learn to say “I didn’t go there.”

So the thing seems to be, kids make the same “mistakes” in the same order despite quality input. The conclusion that Krashen, Terrell and others have drawn is that, basically, the order of acquisition (of gramamr rules) is fixed. Vocab varies– kids will pick up whatever they hear depending on who talks, where, etc etc– but grammar acquisition is fairly predictable.

The question that then arises is, is there an order in which second-language teachers should present grammar?

I don’t think so. Why?

a) any learners in a group will vary on where they are along the acquisition order. If Juan has acquired the -s rule, Josefina maybe hasn’t. If the teacher is focused on teaching Pepa, Juan is bored, and vice versa. (in truth, both will be bored if the lesson is “about” a grammar point).

b) you cannot get people to acquire things they are not ready for. You can practice till you are blue in the face, but until the brain is ready, adjective agreement– or whatever– will not be picked up. Sure, some kids might dutifully memorise and practice…and they’ll forget a week after the test, which is why your French 11s STILL cannot add those –s to their plural adjectives even though they got As on all their tests.

It follows from (a) and (b) that what you should provide is interesting comprehensible input (which can be repeated) which contains all vocab/grammar necessary to make that input comprehensible, natural etc. If people understand, they are picking the language up slowly, and when their brains are ready, they will acquire ____ grammatical feature. Krashen somewhere calls this “comprehensible input of maximum richness.”

This brings us back to the textbook problem. Grammar is organised (in textbooks) from simplest to more complex…according to linguists and teachers. However, this organisation rarely, if ever, follows anything like the natural order. And even if it did, we would run into the problem of boring some students, and asking others to do things their brains aren’t ready for.

There are other problems with texts (and their lists of rules) also. The number of grammar rules in any language is basically infinite (why can I say I like to run but not I enjoy to run?) so how could you ever “teach” them? Also, grammar is boring, bla bla bla.

Anyway, if it’s interesting, repeatable and 100% comprehensible, your students are learning. So stop worrying about pronoun position and start thinking about why Johnny’s blue girlfriend wants to be yellow!

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