Topic 3: Approaches: What determines choice Meaning or form; Fluency or accuracy and other factors


Topic 3: Approaches: What determines
Meaning or form; Fluency or accuracy
and other factors.

English Language : Examining Learners’ Problems
Introduction to Topic 3: Approaches
You can download this topic here. [pdf file]
Form or Meaning?

If there is a need for grammar, should the focus be on form or meaning?

This has been a controversial issue in the teaching of English as a Foreign or Second Language for many years, particularly since the introduction of CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) approaches.
Reflective Task 3.1

How would you interpret the terms form and meaning in the teaching of grammar or languages? What would you consider the significance of each to be?

Context of situation

1. What is the meaning of:

the door s wide open’ in the following contexts?

mother to child who has just come into the room
family arriving home after two weeks holiday
woman to man when he says he s leaving her
business people talking about Russia
I m tired in these contexts?

secretary to boss when asked to do extra work
two-year-old walking to the shops
man to woman as they go to bed
2. What do the above examples tell you about language in use? Are there any rules?
How would you explain the differences to your students?

When understanding and communicating meaning, as in the examples above, you will find that explanations are not provided in grammar reference books which tend to focus on specific grammatical forms and use of these forms. These books follow a traditional grammar approach and more specifically what is known as the grammar translation approach. This is not to say these books have no place in the TESOL classroom. However, they have many limitations. We touched on these in the previous topic and in this topic you will further explore the implications of teaching just the form, disregarding use and/or meaning.
Reflective Task 3.2

To further illustrate the limitations of teaching just form without reference to use or meaning, study the examples in the following activity:

Consider the following statement:

She s playing soccer.

a) How would you explain the grammatical form?

b) What is the form (tense and construction)?

c) How would you explain the meaning?

d) How does the meaning change in the following contexts:
– Where s mum? She s playing soccer. The finals!
– She never wears glasses when she s playing soccer.
– She s playing soccer on Wednesday afternoon, so she won t be able to attend
the meeting.
– She s playing soccer with less enthusiasm lately. Is something wrong?
– Well, you see, my mum is fanatical about soccer. She s playing soccer one day.
She s got the ball and heading for a goal when out of nowhere.

e) Now what does this tell you about form and meaning?

Go back to the samples of students writing and think about the following:
Is meaning being conveyed? If so, how effectively is it being conveyed?
All these students are attending English classes in Australia for different purposes: further education or future employment in their qualified field or similar. Given these circumstances a relatively high level of proficiency is needed. What do these students need to be taught to make their writing more proficient, that is more accurate, effective and appropriate?

Upon reflecting, you will no doubt have come to the conclusion that some kind of explicit grammar teaching is required, if a certain level of proficiency is sought and/or required by the students. Thus, the next question that begs answering is when. That is, when is there a need to focus on form? And if there is, what determines importance and to what extent?
Reading Task 3.3

Read the article by Celce-Murcia (1993) which offers a neat summary of variables that determine the importance of grammar.

Using these variables, where would you position the three students in the case studies? How much focus on form would you consider with each case? Why?
If you are teaching, think of how would you classify your own students?

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