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Humanising Language Teaching
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The author would like to thank Jill Lewis, Vicky Harris, Noel and Jasmine Azirar for the generous donation of their free time which allowed him to collect the data for the Spoken Grammar part of this article. Also the students Araceli Arenas, Patricia Castan, Claudia Jiménez, Rosa María Narváez, Carmen Reyes for their invaluable help and feedback which helped him refine his Process Teaching.

Spoken Grammar: Go with the flow

Roger O' Keeffe, Spain

Roger O' Keeffe is a centre manager for the British Centre of Melilla. He has worked in the UK, Poland, China and Spain. His interests include Spoken Grammar, Discourse Analysis and SCT He is studying for and enjoying an MA in TESOL at Sheffield Hallam University.


Classroom implications

‘ the start of the twenty-first century the field of applied linguistics is in an exciting state of flux over its attitudes to the spoken form and, in particular, spoken grammar.` (Hughes 2002:67).


With the advent of Corpus Linguistics and the growing body of research into Spoken Grammar the field of TESOL is indeed undergoing some sort of transformation in respect to its treatment of grammar. However, it seems to be taking a long time for research findings to trickle down into the classroom and as such I am concerned that the industry or elements of it, will disregard the insights being gleaned from the ever growing body of research into Spoken Grammar.

I am afraid that by using syllabi and curricula that are rooted in written grammar when teaching speaking skills we are in fact creating another ‘English’, one that is divorced from the needs of our learners and from what native speakers use.

To begin with we need a definition of Spoken Grammar and how it differs from traditional grammar. Cameron puts the difference in a nut shell:

Linguistic competence is about rules of grammar; communicative competence is about rules of speaking (2001:55).

If we take grammar to mean the rules of the language then we can call the ‘rules of speaking’ Spoken Grammar. Mumford defines Spoken Grammar ‘…as those aspects of English which are almost always associated with the spoken language or its written representation, as recorded in the new corpus based grammars…’ (2008: 1).

When talking about spoken grammar Carter and McCarthy (1995:141) argue that if we aim to foster speaking skills then we need to focus on spoken language and not the written form. In fact, they go on to argue that it would be methodologically unsound to base spoken instruction on the written form (ibid 142). They also argue that the supplied evidence from conversational data shows us that there ‘is a lack of fit’ between textbook dialogues and real conversation (ibid).
This is furthered by Ruhlemann who argues that ' a growing body of research comparing corpus and classroom English suggests that the English taught is considerably at variance with the English spoken' (Ruhlemann: 2008:2).
Mumford (2008: 1) argues for the inclusion selected forms of NS norms to help with fluency as opposed to appropriacy.

It would seem from the above that there is a need to look seriously at Spoken Grammar and think about how we can incorporate it into our classrooms. This then is what this paper sets out to do.

Classroom implications

Timmis argues that there are two main questions relating to Spoken Grammar: 1) How do we teach it, and 2) should we teach it. He goes on to argue that ‘the 'how' question has been subsumed by the wider debate about appropriate norms and models’... (2005:117) Hughes (2002) agrees and argues that teachers and teacher trainers, in light of the evidence from research, will have to make decisions on where they stand on the issue and how much they will use descriptive linguistics in their classroom practice (2002:65). I agree with Hughes and think that as a profession we need to seriously re-evaluate our pedagogical approach with regards to teaching speaking to be in-line with the needs of our students.

Mumford highlights three differing views on spoken grammar. These are the World Englishes/ELF approach which argues that as native speakers are no longer the majority users of the language then it follows that native like norms are undesirable and mutual intelligibility between speakers is the most desirable.
The passive knowledge approach which argues for using scripts to raise awareness of and notice, but not teach for production.
The production approach as the name suggests argues that there is a need to go beyond passive and teach learners native like language.(Mumford 2008: 2).

For the purposes of this paper I will focus on the passive knowledge and production approaches as these are the two areas which are concerned with NS norms.


McCarthy and Carter (1995) argue the need for a step away from the three Ps to what they term the three Is; Illustration-Interaction-Induction, where illustration means examining real data in specific contexts, interaction means using consciousness raising activities designed to focus on the interpersonal use of language and the negotiation of meaning, and induction encouraging students to notice the different functions of the lexio-grammatical features (1995:217). By adopting these procedures in conjunction with a syllabus which is contextualised and not sentence based they argue could lead to the quicker acquisition of ´fluent, accurate, and naturalistic conversational and communicative skills` (ibid).

Another proponent of this style of teaching is Thornbury who convincingly argues for what he terms Process Teaching (Thornbury. 2001). Process Teaching is a student centred approach which is more concerned with the process, rather than product , nature of grammar and the mental processes of the students. It views grammar as an emergent phenomena which is in a constant state of movement (both backwards and forwards). Thornbury argues in common with Lewis (1993) and Willis (1996) that grammar is not linear and therefore should not be taught in a layered fashion i.e. one can only learn one item at a time and items need to be learnt/mastered before the next item can be introduced. One of the major benefits of PT is that it does not expect consistently flawless language, rather it allows for the nuances of the students interlanguage.

Hughes argues that while the communicative classroom is full of opportunities to practice dialogues it may be prudent to also raise awareness of the fundamentals of spoken discourse to help students to notice the difference between speaking and making grammatically correct sentences. She goes on to argue that by using models of spontaneous speech we can help our learners become aware of what skills they need to communicate effectively and how to avoid pitfalls (2002: 134-135).

This is furthered by Thornbury (2005) who argues most of the features present in the L2 spoken grammar are also present in L1 and as such exposing students to spontaneous spoken language should not prove to be too challenging a task for the students. In addition, it does not add any extra burden on the teacher as they can use themselves as a resource. As Thornbury goes on to say: ¨One of the saddest things I heard a student say was, ‘Our teacher is very good, but she doesn’t talk to us’¨(2005:83).


How then can the teacher incorporate spoken grammar into the classroom? Below are some examples that I have used and found to be beneficial.

In response to the 'teacher not talking to us' point. This is covered by one of the main tenets of PT which is `interactant' . Thornbury explains that interactant is one of the main roles of the teacher and is accomplished by the student and teacher constructing meaning together. Also where the teacher gradually reduces the amount of support given to the learner during task phases (scaffolding). If only we would just talk to our students like human beings!

Hughes and Thornbury (see above) argue for the inclusion of spontaneous spoken language. Below is an example of how I have done this with an Intermediate level class.

When dealing with the topic area of narratives the coursebook called for the use of the narrative tenses and introducing the Present Perfect Progressive. The narrative tenses it asks for are past simple, past continuous and past perfect. I recorded two NS doing the task and found that while they used the past simple and past continuous they did not use the past perfect.

I brought the recording into class and asked the students to listen and answer some gist questions. What was more important to me here was that they were hearing the structures without an overt focus on grammar.

I then gave the students the transcript and asked them to complete a worksheet. The questions on the worksheet focused on meaning rather than form – at this stage. An example of the type of questions used:

  1. Where did they decide to go? (answer, going to future)
  2. Whose car were they in? (answer, past simple)
  3. What did C say the child did? (answer, present simple)
  4. What did C say the police said? (answer, present perfect continuous).

This was in contrast to the accepted view of narrative tenses which traditionally call for the use of past simple, past continuous, present perfect, present perfect continuous and past perfect.

The idea here is that the students are seeing all the different grammatical forms embedded in the text and how they interact with each other.

The next phase could ask the students to choose a part of the story that they would like to retell. They are allowed to write ten words to help them to remember the story. The students are then recorded and the recording transcribed after class. The students are then presented with their transcription along with the original one and are asked to change any parts of their output they are not happy with. They will then be asked to repeat the task – task repetition.

As a final follow on the students are asked to translate part of the original transcription into L1. This is collected in and given back to the students after a week or so and they are asked to re-translate back into L2. The idea here being that they will see or notice any gaps in their output and be nudged to restructure their interlanguage.

As well as this the recordings are a rich source of chunks or lexical phrases. McCarthy and Carter highlight examples of these such as; I mean, do you think, know what I mean. They argue that the most frequent clusters consist of either two or three words (2006:503-04). The classroom application would be to raise learners’ awareness of these features to better aide the acquisition of fluency. It would seem they are similar to ‘chunks’ as they are formulaic in that they are retrieved from memory as whole units (2006:503).

The above tasks encompass the criteria for material design as put forward by Thornbury. Low context dependence, which is reducing the amount of contextual information is evident and a good example of this would be where the students are only allowed to write ten words as prompts to telling the story. Another criterion is low pressure. This is evident in the amount of time allocated to the tasks and task repetition. High feedback is present in the amount of opportunities the students are given to notice their output during the phases of the lesson.


What is obvious from the above examples is that the students are working at their own pace. We as teachers by using PT can teach to all the levels within the class, not the mythological ´middle ground´.

I have found that by using recordings I am giving my students a broader view of how the language works. By this I mean I use written grammar for written work and spoken grammar for oral skills.

I would argue that by adopting the recommendations mentioned in this paper we may go some way towards avoiding what Rings (1992) is fearful of, namely:
¨producing speakers of English who can only speak like a book, because their English is modelled on an almost exclusively written version of the language¨ (Rings 1992, cited McCarthy Carter 1995).


Carter, R and McCarthy, M. (1995). Grammar and Spoken Language. Applied Linguistics, Vol 16 No 2. 141 -158

Carter, R and McCarthy, M. (2006). Cambridge Grammar of English. Cambridge: CUP.

Chaudron, C. (1988). Second Language Classrooms: Research on Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: CUP

Hughes, R. (2002). Teaching and Researching Speaking. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove: LTP Mumford, S. (2008). An analysis of spoken grammar: the case for production. English Language Teaching Journal. Doi: 10.1093/elt/cn020, May 2008.

McCarthy, M and Carter, R. (1995). Spoken grammar: what it is and how can we teach it? English Language Teaching Journal, Vol 49 No3, 207 -218

McCarthy, M and Carter, R. (2001). Size Isn't Everything: Spoken English, Corpus, and the Classroom. TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 35 No. 2, pp337 -340

McCarthy, M. (1991). Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge: CUP.

Rings, L. (1992). Authentic spoken texts as examples of language variation. Grammatical, situational and cultural teaching models. IRAL XXX/1 21-33

Ruhlemann, C. (2008). A Register Approach to Teaching Conversation: Farewell to Standard English? Applied Linguistics doi 10.1093/applin/amn023, June 21, 2008

Thornbury, S. (2005). Beyond the Sentence. Introducing Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers.

Thornbury, S. (2001). Uncovering Grammar. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers

Timmis, I. (2005). Towards a framework for teaching spoken grammar. English Language Teaching Journal, Vol 59, No 2, pp117 – 125.

Timmis, I. (2002). Native-speaker norms and International English: a classroom view. ELT Journal, Vol. 56 No. 3, 240-249

Willis, J. (1996). A Framework for Task Based Learning. Harlow:Longman


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