Here is a translated transcript in English of the interview with teachers Rusalina Ehnvall and Ewa-Katharina Baedecke which you can find on the CIRCLE page Teachers talking about teaching grammar.
TN: Tore Nilsson; UC: Una Cunningham; EB: Ewa Baedecke; RE: Rusalina Ehnvall
TN: CIRCLE’s previous recordings have basically always included conversations with researchers, either doctoral researchers or doctoral students. We thought when we go one more lap with this CIRCLE project, that we also want to include teacher voices. We are very happy that Ewa Baedecke from Lidingö and Rusalina Ehnvall from Linköping are with us today. Ewa, why don’t you tell me a little bit about what you teach, and Rusalina will do the same thing.
EB: My name is Ewa Baedecke and I now work at Hersby Gymnasium, where I have German and Swedish
RE: I teach English at Birgittaskolan in Linköping. This is a secondary school with three study preparation and two vocational preparation programs. There is a high proportion of students with multilingual background. It varies from year to year. The average is 50 percent. There has been a lot of social development that has changed our view of language learning. When I took my master’s degree in linguistics in the 90s, there was a completely different view of what language learning means, what the role of grammar is in language teaching. And I think it was sometime in the 2010s when I saw that there has been some change in the students, that they work in different ways. That maybe the grammar skills have changed. That reading comprehension has changed. And I had to go back to the school bench. My then principal at Birgittaskolan sent me and a colleague to analyze learning in linguistic contexts and then all of a sudden, a whole new world opened up for me. I understood that things have happened, not only in the school world, but also in the research world. Because I read then about discourse analysis, for example, and conversation analysis, which have become very important tools in exploring what is happening in the classroom. I think there is even more interest for that, to develop teaching that corresponds to societal changes. And here I mean the multilingual classroom, which has become increasingly common. Here I also mean digitalisation. It has also changed language learning and the conditions for it.
UC: You both have worked for a long time as language teachers, and have a lot of experience and have been involved when the wind blows in different directions. How do you see the role of grammar in language teaching? Has it changed? Has it become less important or more important? I see a difference between how English teachers think about grammar in language teaching and how teachers of modern languages think. Have thought about that?
EB: When you are going to learn a modern language, it is important to have these tools and not everyone really has it the same today. I became a teacher in 1983, quite a long time ago, and since then there have been some reforms and the school has been municipalized. And we no longer have directions about exactly what to go through each semester. And as a student said the other day to me: Grammar is actually a necessary evil. Otherwise, it is difficult to write a full sentence if you do not hear the language much. As a Swedish teacher I see that in order for them continuing studying languages at higher levels, which we would like in modern languages in high school, it would be desirable for them to revise basic Swedish grammar in the first year of upper secondary school, not as now in the second year. And you can see this in Swedish texts as well, that students have no sense of grammar, for subjects and objects. And I think sometimes it is important to try to interest them in this and not give up abstract thinking. It is not easy for them when there is so much else, as you mentioned, Rusalina. Today everything is the push of a button away, and it should go quickly, and even vocabulary learning is hard work. Everyone needs grammar to be able to go further and develop their language. We started discussing whether it was possible to find a common platform and not get the students to drop out and give up. We have students who come (from lower secondary ) with top grades in Spanish, French and German but can’t really put the sentences together But they also read and write less in their own mother tongue. English teachers sometimes say that they can almost express themselves better in English than in Swedish. I don’t know if that’s true
TN: What do you say, Rusalina, about the role and language proficiency of grammar?
RE: I think grammar here that you, Ewa, are talking about is at the centre of being able to talk about the language, being able to have grammar as an analytical tool, to be able to see things in the language, see the structures. And then we have grammar as some kind of expression of language skill and correctness, so that it gets right. I think we need to use a little more of the thinking that teachers of modern languages have because that’s right, we have a situation where a lot of students learn English outside of school. Then it’s harder to motivate them to a more explicitly structured teaching of grammar that leads to the development of the language and skills. It is needed for some students who have a little more difficulty with English, but it is true that there are very many students who do not see a sense in grammar teaching as a means of developing a meta-language, the meta-linguistic awareness that Ewa mentioned. This is increasingly important the further you get in your language studies. Then you really need to get control of the language to adapt speech and text to the situation. And then all of a sudden in upper secondary school it becomes an obstacle that you have not learned this, that you do not have the meta-language, which Ewa brings up. And then there is a difference between learning English in Sweden and learning modern languages in Sweden. It comes a little later, where implicit language learning doesn’t work as well as explicit. But learning English in upper secondary school requires more explicit tools and explicit teaching of language structures. I think both traditions need to be met.
EB: A speaker of German, French or Spanish should be able to understand a text that the students write. But still I hear my English colleagues tell me that students cannot use third person singular in the highest level of English 7, yet they sometimes think that they are better than they really are at expressing themselves, at least in writing. When it comes to German, then I can say that there the students come a lot further. I have been responsible for the German language diploma since 1997 (it is like the Cambridge Certificate), where you can see that the Germans have also now become more lenient in this test. It does not have to be perfect grammatically. You should include certain structures and you should be able to write, argue and make yourself understood.
When I have teacher students, they often look for guidance on what to go through semester by semester. When you become a teacher it needs to be quite hands-on. We have fantastic aids that some colleagues of mine put out to explain to students what they need to know. My teacher students are looking for something that tells them where students should be when they come to upper secondary school to continue studying the language they began in lower secondary school. They have such incredibly different prior knowledge, so to motivate them to continue and to choose the next language course is not completely unproblematic.
RE: I agree with you It’s a very difficult balancing act between staying motivated, working on tasks that feel meaningful and at the same time sticking to certain requirements for the language form. It’s definitely a challenge
TN: I think about what we’re talking about here is an attempt at a specification of language proficiency levels: What does it mean to be at this level? What does it mean to do this? And I think about how CEFR, the common European framework of reference for languages, how it is operationalized in a number of such “can do claims” If you look at our course and subject syllabi, they are not very specific. Is there a gap here? Ewa, you said that the teacher students want lists of different grammatical structures to go through. I sometimes show teacher students the documents that we used in the 1970s when I was at school. When I myself became a teacher these were still being referred to. It was very clearly specified what needed to be covered, and it was very clear also in terms of word knowledge. Of course, when we teach something, it does not mean that learning takes place. Ewa, you said that students in English 7 still make mistakes on third person -s in English—Yes, our university students do too. And we know that from other types of research, that it is such a lightweight morpheme that means very little, but that is grammatically important and it becomes automated very late, and it does not matter how much teaching they get. They know the rule, but it does not work in practice. Now this question may be a little provocative here: do you as teachers have too much freedom of movement in what you do?
RE: I would say yes to a certain extent, because there are schools that do not have any teaching materials, for example. If you come out to such a school and you have your first class, although you may have been with your supervisor for three periods, I think it may mean that you want to meet everyone’s needs. Every student also has different conditions and needs help in different ways in different schools depending on whether there are support hours or if there are resources at home.
EB: When I ask, they can say that we did all this in seventh, eighth, ninth grade, but when we sit one by one and go through it, there may be gaps Like you said, Tore, they’re there, but they’re not really present. I don’t know if we’re sloppy with the language generally a little more today. The main thing is making themselves understood, the focus is on communication.
UC: I want to ask you, Ewa, if you think that your view of explicit language skills and grammar skills is influenced by the fact that you are also a Swedish teacher. As a German teacher, is your view of explicit language skills and meta-language affected?
EB: Yes, I think it is yes, absolutely.
UC: If you compare with colleagues who teach English or modern languages and who are not also Swedish teachers, do they see the role of explicit language skills differently?
EB: I think teachers who have Swedish and history or Swedish and religion and so do not view grammar as a tool until they are struck by the fact that students can’t distinguish between they and them, [de, dem], and he and him [han, honom] and such things. On the other hand, I can say that what I have noticed in my future teachers who have been on a school placement with me is that earlier, ten years ago, I had teachers who did not want to teach grammar at all. I have had teacher students who have said that they do not really see the point of teaching grammar and here of course their own teaching is affected. These things are affected by trends in the current school debate. The view of grammar teaching varies between language teachers. And if those who have another subject in their qualification or in their teacher education may be more focused on subject knowledge than the language form. I have felt a great need for collaboration and cooperation with the university to further develop my teaching.
RE: This large proportion of multilingual students means that we can no longer use grammar books written in Swedish to explain English. You may be able to use other grammar books that have examples in English, to explain a particular language phenomenon, but it is not easy when you are not really used to drawing conclusions about the form and content of the language.
UC: A little more inductive grammar teaching, perhaps?
RE: Exactly. I think it’s definitely a disadvantage when we teach grammar in multilingual classrooms, and we avoid translation exercises that may be aimed at specific linguistic structures. There is a lot to do, because there is this awareness that Ewa raised in the beginning, language as a tool for thinking and for expression. I see a need for such a development.
UC: Can you imagine translation exercises working against multiple languages at the same time? Looking at an English expression?
RE: You can translate from Swedish to English, and that will support everyone’s development really. But then it’s important to have a very clear picture of what I want to achieve with these translations. Is it any text or directed at particular problems, such as passive constructions.
The formal distinction between foreign and second language teaching is not obvious anymore in the English classroom. We have students who come into contact with English only in school and not outside. The groups have become more heterogeneous. And that of course affects the teaching structure. Teaching for whom? How far are we going to get? And some students may not have studied English for as many years since they came to Sweden during their schooling. Translation exercises have a very positive effect on both the target language (in my classrooms it is usually English), but they also benefit students’ development in Swedish.
UC: The other languages that students have in their multilingual repertoire, isn’t there value in, for example, looking at an English passive construction and asking students to think about how to express themselves in other languages, to convey the same meaning? Because they often have more than just Swedish.
RE: We have had very interesting discussions with, for example, English 6 and 7, talking about passive constructions and there we have brought in a critical aspect. What are we hiding through the use of a passive construction? It is quite exciting that a critical aspect of grammar can be linked to the communicative function of language. After all, language is a means of power and manipulation, and passive constructions are very interesting to follow how they are used by politicians, for example, who has done what? What is said in a newspaper article?
UC: As with Boris Johnson: ‘Mistakes have been made’
TN: I think this is a exciting discussion. Both grammar and translation have been viewed with suspicion for a number of years, since the entry of communicative language teaching. Then we threw out grammar and the grammar-translation method like cold bathwater. But didn’t understand what went out with the water, all the babies who went out with it. So what should we do? Should we teach a 12-year-old grammar, for the sake of grammar itself? Perhaps we can question and think about that or do students have to be able to parse sentences? What I remember myself from upper primary was that I could learn it mechanically, but I didn’t understand anything. But what if we instead look at the functions of language? Take a text in German with only active sentences and ask the students to transfer everything to passive. What happens besides the linguistic transformations? What is lost by doing this? Students can discuss this. Then we are really looking at what happens with the language. It can also be a way to challenge the students, as you mentioned, Rusalina, challenge those students who think they know a lot of English in English 7, for example, by scrutinising Boris Johnson’s speeches or anything else. Look what you’re hiding, what are you foregrounding? What do these words mean? Because we have the vocabulary that plays a role in the structures all the time.
EB: We are a little too afraid of this explicit grammar talk. It has to be done with a meaning-focus. And then I just want to comment on translations that Rusalina and Tore were discussing—I actually thought that it was boring and flat and no grammar. But the students ask for it. We do a lot of free writing, journalling every week and so on. It would be so good if we all translated the same text, then we can go through the same language problems with words that were difficult to find. I thought about digging out my old translation exercises—they might come back. I want to stress the importance of an exploratory conversation about grammar in the classroom. It is incredibly valuable to give students the opportunity to talk about grammar. Because a lot of people shy away from communicating in a new language because they feel limited by the resources of the language. You can’t express everything in the same way in different languages. For example, the present continuous form in English. That doesn’t really exist in German or in the Slavic languages. There we have a completely different tool to use to express the same meaning. These conversations are incredibly valuable when you are learning a third, fourth, or fifth language. That there is no word-by-word correspondence. This helps students then to use their own linguistic resources and to learn to live with this: Okay, okay. In German, I can’t express myself in the way that I can in, for example, English or Swedish. Learning to live with this uncertainty and inadequacy is really a very big challenge when the goal is to learn a new language. Exploratory conversation about grammatical phenomena has great potential!
TN: Thank you so much for this inspiring and rich conversation! Thank you Ewa and thank you Rusalina!