A warm smile

November 9, 2010 § 13 Comments

I have been enlightened and educated by some recent blogs on grammar and how to teach it, and on the nature of education in schools and the role and respectability of the teacher. Rick’s gloomy thoughts in Doing some thinking are not new. On BBC Radio 4 at the moment, the book of the week is about Mark Twain, who one hundred years ago and counting was a fierce critic of formal, institutionalised learning. “I have never let schooling interfere with my education” he quips, with serious undertones.

There are of course always rays of optimism, such as the inspiring interview that Shelly conducts with Tom King in the Teacher Reboot Camp, founder of the Saturn school in the US, where he describes how he paid the teachers more than the principal, music to Rick’s ears, and where students learn from each other, and where competition and assessment is relegated. As they both concur, standardised testing, and multiple choice in particular, is not and cannot be an accurate measure of a learner’s understanding.

In relation to language plants, and the organic nature of learning that I adhere to, I picture continual testing as like digging up a tender shoot every few days to see how well the roots are bedding in. I can only imagine the anguish this would cause the poor little plant, but we all too often see it on the faces of learners. Woe betide Willy if he has a Christmas test on Fractals lined up for us all, after asking us to rejoice at their beauty last week. His latest post, Conform to Conformity fits with this theme, and has a little rap to boot.

The recent ELTchat on grammar has been excellently summarised by Richard, at I’d like to think that I help people learn English.

And even with all the different perspectives on learner autonomy and coursebooks, it seems grammar is at the heart of everything we do. David, at Reflections of a Teacher and Learner describes his communicative grammar lessons with young learners. Simply by taking a pencil case in hand, “I’ve got a pencil case” suddenly has meaning in the here and now. Karenne always takes great pains to state she is not anti-grammar. But then again, how could she be? A grammar defines the rules that a language employs so words can connect together to give meaning. Otherwise would learners her words order put any in. Focusing on emergent language, I understand it to mean, means focusing on emergent grammar and emergent words, the new little branches that sprout naturally in human minds.

The thing is, grammar, and here I refer to those cumbersome rules encapsulated by the term “Third Conditional”, is easy to teach, and to test. Easy to teach in the sense that it is easy to get through a pre-packaged amount. Easy to test, because you can make a gapfill and get the computer to mark it. Conversely, a Dogme exam could really only be prepared after the course has taken place. Well, some bits would be predictable and predicted, but there would be many unplanned language chunks that had cropped up as part of natural conversation, and which is what help make Dogme courses unique, personal and so potentially rewarding.

However, my favourite post of the week is the one by Mike Harrison. Just a little post. Nothing spectacular. No big words. Few words at all actually. But what he’s done is what Tao Te(a)Ching mentions in his post, where the Tao describes how by losing the unnecessary, we gain. What has Mike lost? Redundancy. Redundancy of words. Repetition, unnecessary clutter. What has he been rewarded with? A language plant! And he’s been kind enough to post it for everyone to see at www.mikejharrison.com. It’s actually the one at the start of this post, the one with a warm smile. Look how he’s used colour to show singular and plural nouns, and matched “a” with the singular ones. That’s nice, don’t you think?

So, for people like Rick and Willy, and Shelly and Tom, and Diarmuid and Mike, and anyone like them, I offer these words by the German philosopher Goethe.

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration,
I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether
a crisis is escalated or de-escalated,
and a person is humanised or de-humanised.”

§ 13 Responses to A warm smile

  • crazykites says:

    Nice quotatation and something I’ve been thinking myself of late: that I’m the link. I’m the one who has to motivate them.

  • DaveDodgson says:


    You keep outdoing yourself with these wonderful posts! The way you write is easy to read, the ‘language plant’ images are great and I love the way you make links (as in real connections, not just hyperlinks) between all the related posts out there.

    Keep them coming!

  • Alan Tait says:

    Very nice post again. How about a mini-tutorial on how to draw plants? I know from experience it takes a while to get the hang of it.

  • Lucy says:

    Thank you for your interesting post. I wanted to ask further about your comment “And even with all the different perspectives on learner autonomy and coursebooks, it seems grammar is at the heart of everything we do.” In your opinion, are grammar (teaching/learning) and learner autonomy mutually exclusive, or do you think there’s some room for both to be accommodated within one class/programme?

    • David Warr says:

      Hi Lucy, thank you very much for your question. I’ll try and answer it more in the next post.

      According to Richards and Rodgers, all approaches, methods and classroom activities will, consciously or otherwise, be based on a theory of learning, i.e. how we learn, and a theory of language, i.e. what language is. I think this is very clear and has been very influential on my thinking. My point was that you can make grammar explicit, a top-down approach. But even if you take a bottom-up approach, which I think is what “emergent language” refers to, grammar sill exists, because every word has its own grammar.

      I like your question very much. For now, my short answer is I don’t think anything is mutually exclusive, but Thornbury’s emergent grammar is more conducive to learner autonomy than a top-down approach. I’d be very interested in hearing your views.


  • Lucy says:

    Thanks for your thoughts in answer to my question, David. In my opinion, an awareness of grammar, however it is learned, is essential for successful language learning, and I also believe that successful language users are autonomous learners. For me, learner autonomy means that learners themselves would have some input into how they learn that grammar. So not mutually exclusive, but part and parcel of the same process.

    • David Warr says:

      Hi Lucy, I read your profile about doing your PhD. I’d be very interested in hearing more about it. What do you mean by “grammar”? Word class, I expect. Chomsky’s Phrase structure? Hallidayan Systemic Functional Linguistics is popular in state schools in the UK, at least amongst EAL linguists. I like both, and believe they’re not mutually exclusive, just slightly different perspective. Perhaps you know much more than I do. I’d really like to hear your views. I once taught a 10-year old girl privately, and from initially struggling with nouns and verbs, after about ten lessons she was able to say (paraphrased, but accurate in every respect): “The following is not a complete sentence. It is an adverbial starting with “when” and there is no main clause: “When the elephants huddle together and the wind blows cold”.” The writing she did with me was compact and stylish, whereas what she first produced was a rambling collection of sentences joined with “and”. Therefore, I have personal experience of learners gaining from explicit teaching of grammar, and I feel it enhanced her intellect as well as her writing. I think this fits in with your beliefs, but some, maybe you too, would say I went too far! Saying that, her class teacher also commented on her improved writing.

  • Naini Singh says:

    Hey David, your writing is so poetic and conversational. I love it. i will also embrace the idea of allowing my students to include colour in their books and let some joy enter their lives! What a great idea:)

    • David Warr says:

      Hey Naini, great to hear from you again 🙂 How’s the Mombasa project going? Are your learners going to have colourful Mombasa books? I’d love to see them, and am sure others would too. Will you put some of their work on you blog?

  • Ligaya D. Honofre says:

    As I read Language Garden sharings, I really get so inspired about English Language Teaching. I want to see the difference (before across levels) and now, in a broader context, across cultures. I want to know the difference…I want to set and make the DIFFERENCE!

    Just recently a Korean TV actress remarked about how Southeast Asians speak English (on screen was flashed the Philippines) and the Philippine English accent.(Initially, she made a distinction between American and British English accent.) It was quite insulting, yet ironically, Koreans flock to the Phiiippines to learn the English language. Then I realized, grammar and accent are two different things. And grammar skills may be considered more difficult to manage.

    With all such odds, another significant point of realization is the “seriouseness of the business”. English language teaching in the Philippines must be taken seriously. As an English teacher, I really got worried about the “Jejemon language” which was at its peak of circulation among Filipino “hipsters/teenagers last year. Jejemon means a “twist” in the spelling and even leads to an incomprehensible meaning of a word. The issue on “accent” (prominence of which is inevitably relative to a particular place) was treated with insensitivity; the remark disregarded feelings of other people, hence, it drew resentment.

    The above-mentioned issues were channelled through the internet. Sometimes, I ask myself if there is really a need to update myself with all these social networking/ media tools just to be an effective English language teacher. If I adhere to the Dogme principles, I should focus on the “content”, even if using only Manila (brown) paper for the visual aids (the “old” yet still effective way of presenting your lesson with something visually-stimulating).

    In my recent encounter (I was a filler for an absent English High School teacher) with our freshmen, just to “hype” that I am also a technology-driven (and technologically-updated) teacher, I did include Facebook as possible portal for open discussions outside the classroom. When I mentioned this, I also made it as an opportunity to discuss cyber ethics. I am convinced that, as a teacher, I should never fail to instill values in any which way I can.

    The discussion brought out several remarks (mostly negative) about other teachers which they posted on Facebook. Using this as a springboard, I slowly geared the topic to propriety of behavior, respect to human dignity, and such, but limited only to their cyber activities. The discussion was very interesting and at the end, I got satisfactory compositions, meaningful ones, despite the poor grammar. At the same time, it was a placement tool – I was able to gauge their grammar skills.

    Shall we call it “constructivism” – strenghtening through their “weakest links”? It was indeed a fulfilling encounter!

    • David Warr says:

      Hi Ligaya, you’ve wrapped several fabulous stories around a theorical basis, well, stories with their ups and downs in them, and it’s a great read. Thank you. Don’t worry about Jejemon 😉 I’d like to hear it. It sounds a bit like pig Latin, a language children play with where you swap the letters around in some way, can’t remember exactly now. Could you use language plants, or the plant maker soon to show how it works in relation to English?! Your thesis would be never ending.

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