Tutoring Reflection 6

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During our recent tutoring sessions, Eliana and I have been working mainly on improving her syntactic and lexical accuracy. We have continued to address some occasional pronunciation problems (such as her difficulty with /ow/, which often sounds more like /a/, obscuring the distinction in minimal pairs like won't and want) and sporadic word confusion (the trio restrict, restrain and retain made an appearance during one of our sessions). However, the student's use (or misuse) of auxiliary verbs has been a point of special emphasis. I noticed several weeks ago that my student severely overuses the auxiliary do, liberally inserting it into structures where native English speakers would only use it for strong emphasis (e.g., ?I do have a new client instead of simply I have a new client). She also tends to inappropriately stress modal auxiliary verbs, which she almost never contracts (e.g., I will go there tomorrow instead of I'll go there tomorrow). Consequently, I took the opportunity use Ellis' principle 4 ("instruction needs to focus on developing implicit knowledge of the second language while not neglecting explicit knowledge") during our class this week with the hope of helping my student resolve this issue, especially her overuse of emphatic do, which can definitely lead to communication problems if listeners presume emphasis where none was intended.

The question of how, or whether, explicit knowledge (i.e., declarative, articulable knowledge of grammatical rules and principles) is of use to second language learners has long been a matter of contention in the field of second language acquisition. According to Krashen's monitor hypothesis, explicit knowledge is of marginal use in aiding performance in that speakers can only use it to check mentally-rehearsed utterances for grammaticality. Thus, as Krashen's controversial hypothesis goes, explicit knowledge is only helpful when speakers have time to carefully pay attention to the form of their speech in addition to its content. If this strong non-interface position were actually true, then teaching grammar qua grammar would be almost pointless (as would almost all commercially available ESL textbooks). Such a zero grammar approach (one that prioritizes meaning and meaning-based learning activities while forcing learners to induce grammatical structures purely from exposure to input) would also doom my student, since it would presume that she has acquired this structure "incorrectly" (i.e., her implicit knowledge results in the production of ungrammatical utterances) and since this aspect of her interlanguage appears to be strongly fossilized, she would only be able to correct the error when carefully monitoring her speech.

I disagree with Krashen's extreme position. I believe that some amount of interface (the extent to which explicit knowledge can be converted to implicit knowledge) can take place for most learners, provided that they have enough opportunity to practice structures until they become proceduralized. If this were not so, then second language learners would be unable to acquire less common structures to which they are infrequently exposed, and all fossilized errors would be impossible to correct; both of these premises are demonstrably untrue. In accordance with my belief that explicit grammatical knowledge can be converted to implicit knowledge, I spent about twenty minutes during this week's lesson with Eliana carefully reviewing the use of auxiliary do. This explicit grammatical discussion was followed by another half hour or so of form-based practice to allow the student to begin to proceduralize the correct use of this and related structures. The practice session contained exchanges such as the following:

Richard: So, do you have any appointments this afternoon?

Eliana: Yes, I do.

Richard: Great. What else could you say?

Eliana: No, I don't.

Richard: Well, yes, you could say that, but I meant what else could you say if the answer is "yes"?

Eliana: Yes, I have.

Richard: Yes, I have...[prompting the student to self-correct]

Eliana: Yes, I have some appointments.

Richard: Fantastic. Now, what could you say if I told you I don't believe you? What if I think you don't really have any appointments? Maybe I think you just want to end the class early! What would you say if you wanted to convince me that the statement is true?

Eliana: I'm not lying?

Richard: Well, that might be a little strong. Remember, you can use "do" before a verb if you're trying to intentionally emphasize the truth of the statement, but that's really the only time we use "do + verb" unless we're negating the verb. So, try it again. Convince me that the appointments are real. What would you say if I asked you "Are you sure you have an appointment this afternoon?"

Eliana: Yes, I really do have any appointment at 3 o'clock.

Richard: [Relieved that the student demonstrates that she understands by using the correct form] Perfect!

It is difficult to judge the extent to which this strategy of explicit grammatical instruction will ultimately prove successful for my student. The fact that she managed to achieve consistently accurate production in class--a controlled environment where she can pay more attention to the form of her speech than she would be able to normally--in no way guarantees "real world" communicative accuracy. However, at the very least she is now aware of her difficulties with the structure in question and should be able to monitor her speech more effectively and/or self-correct after making an error. At best, she will be able to successfully convert her new explicit grammatical knowledge into implicit knowledge, thereby permanently modifying her interlanguage. Either way, it seems that the exercise was worthwhile and of benefit to the student.

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This page contains a single entry by Richard McDorman published on August 6, 2012 8:05 PM.

Tutoring Reflection 5 was the previous entry in this blog.

Tutoring Reflection 7 (Final Reflection) is the next entry in this blog.

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