Ernesto Macaro is a name that I had heard many times and whose work I knew of from afar. I love grammar, I find it fascinating and I think that without it we really are in schtuck. But how to deliver it? I could not even contemplate planning a scheme of work without first thinking about the key grammatical structures that I wanted to develop and reweave in, both implicitly and explicitly. And it was this very subject that Ernesto was talking about- the contrast in impact between teaching grammar implicitly and explicitly.
Although it was Ernesto who was presenting on this occasion it must, however, be stressed that this was a collaboration between Ernesto and Suzanne Graham from Reading University (Principal Investigator for the PDC), along with contributions from other members of the PDC team, all as part of a joint project between Reading and Oxford Universities, and that the 8 Principles that I will mention below were again written jointly. And all in all a jolly good job was done by them all, in my opinion, as someone who passionately believes in the need for grammar to provide the tools to enable self-expression.
The proposals for the new Programme of Study for languages contain strong grammatical themes. It is very obvious that Mr Gove sees grammar very much as the building block of a language. For once I agree with Mr Gove on that, although grammar itself does not give a man the ability to communicate. Grammar needs... putting in its rightful place.
Ernesto detailed a number of studies on the matter of implicit versus explicit and as a result came to a series of conclusions, principally of the nature that although explicit grammar work allows for more rapid immediate progress in visible grammar knowledge, it needs time and implicit opportunities for this learnign to become truly embedded in the brain in the way that we know it needs to be for true grammatical dexterity to be possible. Repeated examination of grammatical rules will not achieve truly deep understanding in itself.
As a result of his work Ernesto has come up with 8 fascinating "rules".
1) teaching in the Target Language is essential, yet students also need the opportunities to clarify and query what is said, possibly in English.
2) errors are essential to the learning process- a rule which filled me with relief. Our students often do not make the progress we hope for because they are not given the opportunities to use language free from simply trying to work out what is the "correct" answer. I learn more from making mistakes than from getting things right- even if sometimes it's not a pleasant process (which is where, for me, feedback being appropriately delievered is of the upmost importance). I still make mistakes in English. I will forever, and I will in foreign languages too- sometimes our brains simply cannot keep up with our tongues.
3) when communicating turns need to be substantial- not just one word responses or pre-planned utterances but extended interactions, requiring verb usage. So the importance of providing waiting time (which is not viewed as providing pressure, but which is acknowledged as an opportunity to think) rather than immediately expecting answers is paramount. Further to that, Ernesto suggests that we need to nominate students to respond, rather than allow volunteers. All of this I agree with- from the cognitive challenge required to the need for independent, personalised responses, along with liberating students at time from having to volunteer. I've seen many an able, keen student limited by the fear of raising a hand.
4) when students are asked to provide an answer they need to be given the basic skills TO answer. Do you answer immediately with fully formed sentences? I don't. I pause, I stumble, I buy time. We need to teach students these skills- they really will feel more confident as a result of such simple things as being able to say "so", "well", "um", "you see". We all need time to think, especially in a foreign language. Furthermore, the art of circumlocution- don't say what you want to say, say what you can say, and say it with confidence!
5) We need to increase the level of complexity of reading and listening comprehensions in order to facilitate the weaving in of the grammar we want our students to be coming across. And as a crucial part of this we need to teach phonics. Unconnected as this might seem, without the phonic understanding many of our students will continue to rely solely on cognates for decoding texts, without being able to sound out words and break them down into constituent components.
6) Our students need to feel like they can achieve success, seeing a link between the application of their strategies and sucess. We all struggle to achieve our best when we lack self-confidence. When second-guessing yourself it's hard to create your best.
7) We need to work hard at spontaneous writing just as much as spontaneous speaking- without notes, text books or dictionaries. This is a hard skill which needs building up, and which is most definitely required for university level and also to provide students with the ability to think on their feet at all levels of study.
8) The development of language skills is key. Vocab and grammar are crucial supporting blocks, but without the skill to implement them they are, by themselves, useless. A very, very wise point, in my eyes.
I have to say that I found the content of Ernesto's material very stimulating indeed and agreed with a large amount of what was elaborated upon. If you'd like to find out in far more detail (and better explained) have a look at www.pdcinmfl.com . Alas the funding for Ernesto and the team he has been working with runs out in the very near future. I just hope that his messages still find a suitable home.