Could there be a better way of teaching English tenses? Here is Jacek's ongoing journey and experimentation to answer this question, drawing on research on brain hemispheres, the lexical approach, the relationship between speech and movement, and insights from first language acquisition.
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Hello there, I'm Jacek Olender, and this is PoLoop Angielski Podcast - episode 37. If you are looking for additional learning materials or the transcript of this episode, just head over to my website, poloopangielski.pl.
Today I want to tell you a few things about my search for a better way to teach English tenses. Now, if you learned English at school, especially if it was a while back, you may have concluded that mastering tenses was the most important part of English language education. tenses were always front and centre in your course books, and you were bombarded with tests checking your understanding of different tenses, of the differences between them. It was drilled into you that tenses were crucial to becoming fluent in English. I was right there with you struggling to remember all the ins and outs of the present perfect and stressing unnecessarily about using the simple past tense with words like 'recently'. Many years later, when I was already a teacher of English with a few years of experience, I became more and more aware of the ineffectiveness of this traditional approach to teaching tenses. And I wondered if there was a better way to help students use them correctly. Actually, scratch that. Let me put it differently, because it's not about using tenses correctly. It's all about speaking, writing and understanding things precisely. Tenses allow us to paint a much clearer picture in the listener's mind - the picture that matches exactly the one you have in yours. So let me stress this point once again: learning tenses is not about being correct; it's about being precise.
So let me share some insights, now, into how tenses are generally taught nowadays. I think we still have two camps of teachers. The first one consists of tense enthusiasts, or generally grammar lovers, the teachers who love the structured and systematic approach offered by traditional course books. They enjoy following, what they see as, the ideal path from the present simple to the present continuous, and from there on to the past simple, and then to the past continuous, and so on and on, until you get to the black-belt type of expertise, which will allow you to understand and use the past perfect, or the future perfect continuous. Those teachers believe that by following a course book or a grammar book, and the methods recommended in them, they simply can't go wrong. Their trust is so strong, that even when they see that it doesn't bring the desired effects, they never question the method itself, and instead blame their students laziness, or lack of time to cover the syllabus of the course book. On the other end of the spectrum, there are teachers who stay clear of teaching tenses. Instead, they focus on providing students with as much English input as possible. They believe that the correct use of tenses would somehow emerge naturally. They think that presenting grammar rules is unnecessary, and even harmful. According to them, students should be exposed to English. Teachers should be patient, trusting that their students will eventually grasp that past perfect tense and start using it in the right context. without being explicitly taught why and how to do this. I've always been closer to the latter approach. However, I'm also aware of its downsides. Grammar sceptic sceptics are better at building students confidence, but they are probably not as successful at making students perform well in written tests, which are still heavily focused on checking students knowledge of grammar rules. Also, teachers who stay away from teaching grammar often ignore the fact that for the correct structures to emerge in students heads, there needs to be a massive amount of input. And a lot of input means a lot of time, which adult learners, with their busy lives, usually don't have.
So, a few decades ago, I set out on a quest to find a third way, the journey that is still ongoing. From the start, I was fully aware that there were no perfect solutions, only trade offs, which means that all solutions come with some drawbacks. deficiencies. Just like a drug that solves one health problem usually has side effects, every method will likely have some negative outcomes as well. So being aware of this, at first, I was trying to find a perfect ratio between teaching grammar explicitly and allowing students to develop an implicit feel for the language. Later, however, I started experimenting with various techniques and methods of my own, often drawing inspiration from research in different fields. One major source of such inspiration came from the book "The Master and its Emissary", written by Ian McGilchrist, an amazing British psychiatrist and writer. The book explores the differences between the left and right sides of the brain. The book uses the metaphor of a master and his emissary to represent the relationship between the two parts of the brain. The master symbolises the right hemisphere, which is associated with holistic thinking, creativity, and intuition. Why an emissary represents the left hemisphere, known for its analytical and language based abilities. McGilchrist argues that the emissary, left hemisphere, has become dominant in our modern society, leading to an imbalance, and this imbalance makes us often see the trees while we can't see the forest, just like we see the bite-sized rules for the individual tenses and don't see the whole system. Throughout these years, I also got more interested in the lexical approach to teaching grammar. As much as I can, I try not to separate teaching grammar from teaching vocabulary. Instead of memorising rules and trying to apply them, the lexical approach focuses on learning tenses by understanding the words and phrases that typically go with each tense. For example, when we talk about habits or routines, we often use the present simple tense. So instead of just saying, "Use the present simple for habits", we look at words, like "always", "usually" or "every day", and realise that these words often go with the present simple tense. By learning these words and phrases, you will naturally start to using the correct tense without thinking too much about it. Recently, I was also blown away by the findings of Dr. Erich Jarvis, the head of the Laboratory of neurogenetics of language at Rockefeller University. His research focuses on the relationship between speech and movement, and it sheds light on how language evolved from singing and dance. The awareness of this connection might also be handy in teaching tenses, for example, by focusing on the rhythm and melody of various verb structures. In my quest for a more efficient way to teach grammar, I also drew on research into the first language acquisition of English. This has given me further insights into what's missing, when non-native speakers acquire the language later in life, and how to compensate for certain deficiencies coming from this fact.
So why am I talking about all this today? There are two reasons. As I mentioned many times on this podcast, there are many ways to reach the same goal. So I want to remind you again that if you're not fully satisfied with your progress with acquiring English, try something else. Try new methods, and maybe they could work for you. And the second reason is that some of you may be interested in participating in my summer course, which would give you the opportunity to directly experience the outcomes of my ongoing journey to find a more efficient way of teaching grammar. So one of the summer courses I offer this year is called "All Tenses in Four Weeks", the name says it all. It aims to give you a solid foundation for using various English tenses, it's holistic in nature and very practical as well. We'll be meeting online in small groups, just 4 students per group, twice a week over a period of four summer weeks. If you're interested, you can find the details in the link included in the notes. Join my class and see if this is the new approach to teaching tenses you've been looking for. I genuinely hope to have the pleasure of working with some of you this summer. In the meantime, thank you for tuning in and I'll speak to you again in a couple of weeks time. Take care, bye!
Transcribed by https://otter.ai