A past student’s approach to writing a textbook grammar critique
Background and Focus
The learning of past tense is a significant step in the development of purposeful and rounded communication for students of a second language. Simple past and past perfect tenses are of key importance in the 2008 Queensland senior syllabus for German distributed by the Queensland Studies Authority. The senior syllabus focusses on learning German in a communicative context where students learn to communicate effectively and develop a “knowledge and understanding of language features, including grammar, vocabulary and cohesive devices” as well as being “introduced to language structures through the study of various functions in a variety of settings” (Queensland, 2008). The Queensland education department requires that I, as a state school German teacher, follow the guidelines set out in the syllabus in regard to content and methodology. These two tenses are outlined as “mandatory grammatical structures” for all senior German work programs in Queensland schools (Queensland, 2008).
I currently teach at a large state high school in a rural centre. The school has a broad-ranging multicultural community with over 31 different nationalities represented and… German and Indonesian are offered as subject choices with one compulsory semester of either language delivered to year eight students as a single 70 minute lesson per week…
The year 8 compulsory semester of German is usually offered to four classes all of which are composed of a mixture of students having studied German, French, Italian, Mandarin Chinese or Japanese in primary school. …
German grammar is difficult to master and quite complex for Queensland students, many of whom may only have a basic grasp of grammar in their first language, let alone attempting to acquire a second language and its grammatical intricacies in often sporadic programs. For students studying German as a second language, mastery of simple past and past present tenses is imperative for effective comprehension and communication. Indeed, Watzinger-Tharp states that “the past tense forms in the German colloquial standard are linked to verb type and frequency of use as well as social background and situational context” (Watzinger-Tharp, 1994). These tenses enable students to interact appropriately with a wide range of speakers in a variety of situations and contexts. A clear challenge in the use of these tenses is choosing the appropriate tense to write or speak in to achieve certain communicative purposes. The two tenses are usually defined as one for written expression, simple past, and one for spoken expression, past perfect. They are also referred to as the narrative past and the conversational past in many textbooks and grammar handbooks (Watzinger-Tharp, 1994). This is however a simplistic explanation that can lead to students making an inappropriate choice of tense with no clear idea of which a native speaker would select and why. This explanation assumes their “equivalence and interchangability”, which is not the case (Liamkina & Ryshina‐Pankova, 2012).
Others aspects that students may struggle with are the two learning difficulties that Ellis refers to, that is, in the understanding of the grammar item and then the internalising of the item for their own use (Ellis, 2006). This can be applied to the complex structures and forms required of these two tenses in German. While the students may readily acknowledge and be able to identify these two forms, many have difficulty understanding which tense to employ in given situations and in developing their own automatic use of these tenses.
Textbook Analysis and Critique
Aufgeschlossen is an immersive textbook written in German with only the Study Skills and Grammar Summary sections at the back of the book appearing in English. The Teacher’s Resource Book discusses an emphasis on authentic materials, both spoken and written, on communicative functions, and grammar items introduced via the authentic materials in each chapter (Esser, Neather, Spencer, & Wesson, 1999). The introduction mentions “a relatively formal approach to grammar practice”, however any grammar exercises or drills are only offered after students have seen the item in communicative use and context. Chapter three covers the topic “Ferienzeit” and is about holidays with a particular emphasis on both simple past and past perfect tenses.
The simple past is introduced first using an authentic listening text with an accompanying cloze activity (p.29). The grammar item is then defined in German with a suggested drill. Students are also referred to a more detailed explanation in English in the Grammar Summary in the back of the book. The Teacher’s Resource Book also contains a hand-out with a drill focussing on weak and strong verbs in their infinitive and simple past forms. The past perfect tense is introduced on the very next page (p.30) in an almost identical manner. An authentic listening text is provided with a set of German comprehension questions and then a spoken pair dialogue. The grammar item is again briefly defined in German with a drill and reference to a more complete English explanation in the Grammar Summary. A hand-out with a drill rewriting present tense sentences in past perfect and a cloze activity focussing on verbs of motion, that is, how to use “haben” and “sein”, also accompanies this grammar item.
A very structured use of focus on form is applied in Aufgeschlossen with an emphasis on introducing the grammar item in context. The authors have chosen an approach which is supported in current research on the role of grammar in the communicative classroom. Nassaji and Fotos state that “current research indicates that learners need opportunities to both encounter and produce structures which have been introduced either explicitly…”….
…Aufgeschlossen’s focus on form starts with the implicit introduction of grammar items in a communicative context and follows with explicit explanation of the point with accompanying purposeful activities and consolidating drills. The learners focus on making meaning as a primary objective and then on the grammatical features presented within the authentic materials in the textbook (Klapper & Rees, 2003).
Another aspect of Aufgeschlossen’s methodology is a focus on discourse…
Aufgeschlossen offers students the opportunity to learn grammar items in a communicative context with a focus on form, however the pacing of the grammar items is of some concern in a Queensland setting. Most German textbooks and programs teach present tense, then simple past and finally past perfect tense to students, and Aufgeschlossen is no exception (Liamkina & Ryshina‐Pankova, 2012). However, given the irregular nature of language programs in Queensland schools at present, teaching these two complex tenses a single page apart with two or three reinforcing activities and a German definition of the items may be rushing our learners. I would also expect that a majority of learners may struggle with the metalanguage of grammar in English, let alone in German. The Grammar Summary offers approximately a page and a half of explanation for each tense in English covering the intricacies of weak and strong verbs, use of haben or sein, reflexive verbs, modal verbs, separable and inseparable verbs, and mixed or irregular verbs within those scant pages (Esser, Spencer, Neather, & Wesson, 1999). This is a quite a challenge to absorb and then put into use for even the most capable students.
However, Liamkina and Ryshina-Pankova (2012) state that …
…. Despite often being referred to as the narrative and the conversational past in order to define the tenses separate usage, Watzinger-Tharp (1994) states that “contrary to this description, native speakers use the present perfect with main verbs for past actions, states and connected events, while the preterite dominates for auxiliary and modals.” This adds another layer of complexity for students trying to adopt and internalise these grammar items. In fact, Aufgeschlossen also defines the simple past as a written form, yet presents it to the students for the first time as a listening text, which seems counterintuitive for making this point clear to learners. In the presentation of the past perfect tense, the second activity in the textbook requires students to conduct a German conversation with a partner describing a past holiday or school trip. As this is the first book in a series offered to senior students and this item is in chapter three with no previous reference to past perfect tense, it seems unrealistic to expect students to be able to conduct such a dialogue at this point in the program.
This is where the classroom teacher needs to use their judgement. The general presentation of the grammar items in Aufgeschlossen mirrors current research and supports teaching in a communicative context with a focus on form, however I would argue that ….
Whilst the presentation of simple past tense and past perfect tense in Aufgeschlossen is appropriate to current prevailing grammar theories, it is for classroom teachers to use textbooks and their related materials effectively and ….
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