Teacher language awareness

Introduction

Frame of reference

Throughout the years of English teaching, various levels of difficulties have been encountered when it comes to the teaching of grammar. The school textbook offered little help in pedagogy and instruction as the examples inside sometimes contradict with the grammar rules it has provided. The word 'exception' has indeed been used far too often when efforts were put to explain irregularities for certain grammar rules. It is time to come to a realization that my possession of knowledge of a language is simply inadequate. Language teachers should also consider various aspects in teaching a language.

According to Andrews (2007), L2 teachers should possess more than just the knowledge of that language and the ability to communicate in that language. They should be able to utilize the knowledge of that language so that students can learn it at their best interest. Andrews (2007) also states that L2 teachers should consider themselves as students learning a language in the same perspective as their students. Hence, L2 teachers will be able to design suitable materials or tasks for their students.

The ability for L2 teachers to incorporate the above requirements into their lessons is known as Teacher Language Awareness or TLA in short (Andrews, 2007). I think L2 teachers may think of themselves as a chef. The ability for a chef to add the appropriate ingredients and to produce a delicious dish may be seen analogous to TLA (Andrews, 2007).

Organization

This essay will begin by an explanation of the use of Type three conditional sentences with illustrations of the forms, meanings and uses of Type three conditional sentences. Then, some teaching implications for teaching conditional sentences will be discussed. Furthermore, the way my school has chosen a textbook explains the grammar item. A lesson on a grammar item was conducted a few weeks ago and a writing activity was used in the lesson to assist in teaching Type three conditional sentences. Whether students were able to understand and master the usage of type three conditional sentences will be discussed in details later in this essay.

Students' background

The secondary school in my service is in Sham Shui Po. In school, almost all of the students are from Mainland China. Most of these students come from poor families with either parents working or one parent unemployed. Parents of these students have little education and are mainly blue-collar workers. Many of the students have no computers at home and their only access to information on the Internet is at school or in the public library. They have very limited exposure to cultures from other parts of the world except those from China. Most of them are better at Mathematics and Science, but poor in English. They started learning English in primary schools in China where English lessons were only conducted once a week. The class chosen for the teaching of type three conditional sentences is a group of form three students whose ages range from fifteen to seventeen years old. These students are the best group in form three in terms of their attitude towards learning. However, their ability in writing, comprehending and speaking in English is weak.

Reasons for teaching conditionals

Conditional sentences are an important part of grammar that secondary students needed to learn. All three types of conditionals are included in the school curriculum as part of the curriculum for lower form students. There are two reasons for this: i) one reason behind teaching the grammar item is to get the students ready for their exams; ii) another reason for teaching conditionals is that students can express their ideas effectively when they use the appropriate grammar items for writing their composition (e.g. use the correct type of conditional sentence). Thornbury (1999) claims that learning is seemingly enhanced when students are being taught with the right form and they are thoroughly explained with the features of the grammatical system. Therefore, teaching conditional sentences is an essential part of the school curriculum.

A description of the forms of Type three conditional sentence

There are different types of conditional sentences in English, each with different forms, meanings and usage. Each conditional sentence should consist of two components, namely an if-clause and a main clause. The main clause is the consequence of the given condition in the if-clause. The types of conditionals used should be based on the degree of likely occurrence of the event in the main clause (Yule, 1998). There are other names for Type three conditional, such as counterfactual conditional or unreal past conditional. The basic form of the sentence should consist of past perfect tense in the if-clause and 'would have' along with the past participle of the verb in the main clause. An example of counterfactual conditional is shown in [1].

Meanings and usage of Type three conditional sentence

Regret or reproach

In general, the main clause of a Type three conditional sentence implied a negative implication with regard to what is expressed in the if-clause (Yule, 1998). Type three conditional sentences are used to express regret or reproach as shown in [3a] and [3b] (Parrot, 2000).

[3a] If I hadn't driven so fast, I wouldn't have wrecked my car.

[3b] If you hadn't drunk too much, you wouldn't have lost your wallet.

In [3a], the person expresses his unhappiness regarding his wrecked car because he was speeding. If that person were given a second chance, it would be certain that he would drive slowly and carefully. The negative implication in [3b] is the loss of a wallet due to the fact that the person drank too much alcohol. The example given in [3b] above may be used to warn people not to drink too much, or else they might risk the probability of losing something.

Excuse

Another possible use of Type three conditional sentences occur when someone wants to make an excuse as in [4].

[4] If my car hadn't broken down, I wouldn't have been late to the meeting.

The negative implication here was made by the person late for the meeting, so he was making an excuse in order to downplay the fact that he was late for the meeting. Another example shown in [5] which is similar to making an excuse is to blame the wrong doing on a past event.

[5] If you hadn't lost all your money in the casino, we would have got home by now.

In this example, a person was blamed for losing all his money in the casino. Otherwise, he and his friends would have the money to pay for transportation.

Pedagogical implications for teaching Type three conditional sentence

The use of conditional sentences involves the correct use of various verb tenses in the if-clause and the main clause. Since there isn't any need for a change in the verb tenses in Chinese to reflect a change in time for any event, it is difficult for Chinese students to master the use of conditionals because they must first understand the different tenses and aspects of English. The Chinese usually add adverbials like 'tomorrow' or 'yesterday' in a sentence to reflect a change in time. Thus, the concept of simple present and present continuous tense is similar to Chinese students if no adverbial is present in a sentence. If Chinese students do not have the proper concept of English tenses, it is impossible for them to understand different conditional sentences.

The first implication is:

[A] Students should have competent skills in mastering verb tenses and aspects before they can learn and use conditional sentences with confidence.

The rule in [A] is true for all conditional sentences. It is even more difficult for Chinese students to understand Type three conditional sentences because of the modal auxiliary verb as shown in [6b].

[6a] If you run faster tomorrow, you will win the race.

[6b] If you had run faster, you would have won the race.

The modal 'would' combined with the verb 'have' has a meaning that is contrary to fact (Downing, A. and Locke, P., 2006). In other words, Type 3 conditional sentences indicates events that are hypothetical in nature. However, the concept of hypothesis is vague to Chinese students because the adverbial 'already' is used in Chinese for hypothetical situations. In example [6a], the students have no problem in understanding the meaning of the sentence. Yet if example [6b] is shown to the students along with [6a] at the same time, the students would still think the meaning of the two sentences is the same. They might think example [6b] happened in the past because the modal 'will' and the main verb 'win' are in its past tense form. Chinese students with no knowledge on modal verbs will treat unreal situation as if it was real. The second implication is:

[B] Students should be taught with the various functions of modal verbs before they can realize the use of an unreal situation in Type three conditional sentences.

The concept of unreal and imaginary situation will cause a lot of difficulties for Chinese students in learning conditional sentences. Due to the fact that Chinese students usually borrow the knowledge acquired from Chinese when writing conditional sentences (Hedge, 2000), they would add a lot of unnecessary adverbials in their sentences. Therefore, it is best to teach students real conditional sentence first and highlight the verb tenses involved. When the concept of real conditional sentences became clear to students, teachers can then move onto imaginary and counterfactual conditional sentences. It is important for teachers to contrast all three different types of conditionals while pointing out the verb tenses being used at the same time. Teachers should also point out that present tense doesn't only refer to the present, it can also refer to the future as well. Other verb tenses can refer to other time references too. The third implication will be:

[C] If teachers can acknowledge their students that the verb tenses used in conditional sentences may not necessary refer to a particular time reference only, students may have an easier time in understanding conditional sentences.

The above suggestions may be used as a general approach to teaching conditional sentences, but it is never easy to teach the grammar item to students whose native language has a different grammatical structure. Therefore, it is up to the teacher to find out the students' ability and design materials that suit the students' needs.

Textbook evaluation

The textbook used in school is called Treasure Plus 3A published by Oxford University Press. In Treasure Plus 3A, Type three conditional sentences can be found in unit 5 from its Grammar section. A definition on Type three conditional sentence is given in the beginning followed by examples and exercises (please refer to appendix 4). The students in form three have already learned Type one and Type two conditional sentences in the previous year. Therefore, they should be familiar with the structure of a conditional sentence and the uses for Type one and Type two conditional sentences.

The definition of Type three conditional sentences given in Treasure Plus 3A is "people use conditional sentences to talk about situations in the past that did not actually happen" (Dixon, Kent, & Wilkins, 2007). The definition itself is quite contradictory to Chinese students because the students might wonder how a situation happened in the past did not actually happen. Perhaps the author of the book is trying to use simple words in explaining the grammar item but it is causing more confusion to the students. An easier explanation provided by Parrott (2000), it is more appropriate for Type three conditional sentences to be used to express reproach and regret. Although teachers may have to further explain this definition with examples, the definition given by Parrott is definitely more understandable once students find out the meaning of reproach and regret. As Swan (1984) has suggested in his book, "The truth is of no value if it cannot be understood" (p. 49). Therefore, the definition of Type three conditional sentences given by the book is neither true nor is it clear.

The examples from the textbook are given in two tables below under a column of 'if-clause' and a column of 'Main clause'. Then, the form of Type three conditional sentences is being generalized by asking students what verb tenses should be used in the two clauses of a conditional sentence as shown in Figure 1. The examples used by the textbook are simple enough.

The author of the textbook did design the material with Swan's criteria of "conceptual parsimony" in mind. Unit five of Treasure Plus 3A is about piracy infringement and the examples given from the book (Figure 1) are in fact related to this topic. In addition, students should be familiar with the form of conditionals because they have already acquired the knowledge from learning Type one and Type two conditional sentences. In terms of demarcation, the author of the book only demonstrates the use of Type three conditional sentences. However, the author has not distinguished the conditional sentence with other types. Thus, students won't be able to realize when to use Type three conditional sentence and when not to. A better approach is to compare the different uses of different types of conditionals so that students will realize the limit of each type of conditional sentence.

Lesson reflection

Excerpt one focused on the form teaching of Type three conditional sentence (Please refer to Appendix 1). A review on Type one conditional sentence was done in the beginning of the lesson. The students were asked to make a sentence out of a group of word cards. The sentence was successfully formed by one of the students. The vocabularies involved were fairly easy so the students were able to recall the form and meaning of Type one conditional sentence. Then, the students were introduced with the form of Type three conditional sentences. Once again, they were asked to form a sentence using a different set of word cards. Sentence construction was done together with the students. When the sentence was completed, the students were being asked with a serious of questions regarding sentence parts and verb tenses on that sentence.

The students were led off to use the word 'if' as the beginning in a conditional sentence.

However, this is not always the case as shown in example [7]. I should have told the [7] Had I known, I would have worked harder. students that the word 'if' is generally used in a conditional sentence instead of 'it is being used all the time'. The students had little trouble in identifying the verbs in the if-clause and they managed to point out the verb tense in the if-clause is past perfect tense. Confusion began when they were asked to identify the verbs in the main clause. They didn't know the modal 'would' is a special verb and they certainly didn't know its function. Before moving on to the meaning of Type three conditional sentence, I should have introduced the modal verb 'would' to the students. The students were more confused when they were asked about the verb tense in the main clause. They were asked about the verb tense of 'have failed' in which a few students answered present perfect tense. This is misleading because I have asked them the wrong question. The proper way to introduce the verb form in the main clause is the modal 'would' plus the verb 'have' and the past participle of the verb. Although I later corrected myself, some students were still confused. This excerpt showed careful word choice on the part of a teacher will help students in learning and causing less confusion.

Excerpt two is about a student 'May Lyn' who tried to make a conditional sentence out of the available words on the blackboard (Please refer to Appendix 2). The form of Type three conditional sentences has already been shown to the students. Although May Lyn wasn't too confident in creating her sentence but she managed to finish one in the correct form. Problem arose when the students were reading her sentence and a few students found out that the sentence didn't make sense. The sentence was 'If Ken had an accident, he wouldn't have passed'. The students were being asked regarding the meaning of 'passed'. Some students answered with the definition of 'passing through something' while some students mentioned about 'passing a test'. Although both explanations were correct, the students were still puzzled about the meaning of the sentence.

The problem in this excerpt is that I failed to pinpoint where the problem had existed. Grammar wasn't the problem but it was a lexis-related issue. The reason why the students thought the sentence was incorrect is because May Lyn had chosen incorrect phrases both in the if-clause and the main clause. Instead of explaining all the definitions of the word 'pass', I simply should have told her to choose another pair of phrases in making her sentence. Although a correct sentence was eventually completed by another student, I made the process more complex for the students. As Swan's criteria (1984) has stated that inessential details should be left out.

Excerpt three occurred when the students were provided with another name and the meaning of Type three conditional sentence (Please refer to Appendix 3). The name 'Past Unreal' was given to the students and the meaning was explained using the examples on the blackboard. In this situation, I failed to present the material in an orderly way to help the students understand the meaning as mentioned in Swan's six criteria (1984). Instead of telling the students a common name used for Type three conditional sentence, I should have gone through the fact of each example first. A table should have been used to present the material in two separate columns as shown in Figure 2. Contrasting the unreal situation with the truth in each of the examples will help the students to understand how this type of conditional sentence functions. Therefore, they should have an easier time in realizing why Type three conditional sentence is also called unreal past conditional sentence. It would have meant little to the students if they had been presented with the name in the beginning. Whether or not they have received the Chinese explanation of 'past unreal', it won't help them because 'past unreal' in Chinese is not contextualized and therefore is meaningless to them.

Conclusion

After several years of English teaching, my realization is that what has been done in class has not benefited my students at most. They have not received the maximum input in a lesson because I fail to recognize their needs. A review of my own lesson shows more preparation work could have been done before teaching a new grammar item. For instance, the sequence of which grammar item should be taught first is so important in a student's learning journey. Otherwise, the students would receive nothing more than grammar rules straight from the textbook. In turn, they will have no idea on how to use that grammar item. In addition, careful word choice in questioning and answering a student's question is just as important as the planning of a lesson. Since one tiny mistake in communication will lead students thinking in the wrong direction, I think language teachers should constantly evaluate and improve their TLA (Andrews, 2007) throughout their teaching career.

References

  • Andrews, S. (2007). Teacher Language Awareness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Azar, B. S. (2000). Understanding and using English Grammar (3rd ed.). White Plains, N.Y.: Longman.
  • Dixon, M., Kent, J. C., & Wilkins, M. (2007). Treasure Plus 3A. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
  • Downing, A., & Locke, P. (2006). Expressing attitudes towards the event. In English grammar: a university course. London: Routledge. pp. 379-398.
  • Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Parrott, M. (2000). Grammar for English Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Swan, M. (1984). Design Criteria for Pedagogic Languages Rules. In M. Bygate, A. Tonkyn, E. Williams (Eds.). Grammar and the Language Teachers. Hertforshire: Prentice Hall International. pp. 45-55.
  • Swan, M. (1980). Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Thornbury, S. (1999). How to teach grammar. Harlow: Longman.
  • Yule, G. (1998). Explaining English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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