Teaching Matters: Do Our Students Need to Swim in English or Pass Grammar Tests?

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

~C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), British novelist, theologian, and literary critic


Last week we discussed English as a lingua franca (ELF), and how emphasis on a mutual understanding between conversation partners remains the goal. Earlier last month, we questioned what standards were reasonable for listening comprehension and speaking skills in the classroom. This post extends both those subjects.

Do our ESL students need to “swim” in English? Or do they need to focus on avoiding  minor grammar mistakes? Should we encourage our students to speak as much English as possible? Or should we paralyze our students with exaggerated fears?

Okay, these are rhetorical questions. Yet our ESL students – even advanced ESL students – don’t have to be perfect; they have to be understood. Alas, many – far too many – English classrooms still focus far more on grammar than authentic communication skills. Our students need to speak clear, comprehensible English.  Practical knowledge, not abstract theory, should be the focus of our English classes.  English remains a tool and just a vital tool for our students to reach their life goals in the United States, Canada, Australia, or the United Kingdom.

Some Crucial Questions and Authentic Tasks

Here is a short list of important questions for our English language learners.

  • Can they order food in a nice restaurant?
  • Can students fill in government forms?
  • Can they understand classified ads – online or in a paper?
  • Can they negotiate prices at a yard sale?
  • Do they understand a frontpage newspaper article?
  • Are ELLs able to confirm information?
  • Can adult students make clear recommendations?
  • Can ESL students share personal experiences?
  • Do students feel comfortable participating in classroom discussions?
  • Can they give a competent classroom presentation to fellow students – or at work?
  • Can they effectively interview for an appropriate job?
  • Do they feel comfortable at social events with native English speakers?
  • Can they, in short, swim in English?

Students Speak English to Communicate

If people want to communicate, meaning matters most. In other words, our students don’t need to speak perfect English with zero grammar errors anywhere outside of some English classrooms. Sometime English teachers, perhaps in a bid to help students ace their TOEFL scores, exaggerate grammar points that have little or no practical importance in daily life.  Let’s look at some common language errors that our students make, and move the discussion outside of our ESL classrooms.

  • Will the absence of articles (a, an, the) prevent a student from buying something?
  • Will a confusion of “much” and “many” prevent someone from receiving assistance?
  • How crucial is subject-verb agreement in daily conversations?

Grammar fundamentalists hate hearing this simple truth. These errors are of limited significance for most adult English language learners outside the English classroom and white collar professions. Our students need to swim in English more than they need to pass grammar tests.

Further,  the focus on accurate grammar and the expectation of “correct” English can cause excessive self-consciousness. In fact, I’ve worked with many English language learners who use severe, often extreme negative language to describe quite competent and sometimes strong presentations in adult education, community college, and university courses. This severe self-criticism places huge barriers on many English language learners. Worse, this perfectionism ironically limits their willingness to engage with the broader English speaking society. That’s why I often tell high intermediate and advanced students, who are often quite ambitious and hard on themselves, to “kill the perfectionist demon”. During the first few weeks of class, I usually emphasize this point with a simple “swim in English” pitch.

“You don’t have to conquer English; you just have to swim in it everyday. Attentively listen to authentic English. Listen to podcasts and the radio. Create small conversations. Just ask a question. Read something in English everyday. Follow your interests in English. Allow yourself to be yourself in English. Jump into the language, and do your best. Start swimming in English. Our class is a safe place to expand your English skills, and learn by doing. I want to see significant, meaningful, and verifiable progress. I’m not interested in perfection. We want significant progress. Let’s get going and make some good mistakes together. Let’s swim in English, and see how far you can swim this semester.”

English Students Have to Swim in English

Our ESL students don’t have to be speak perfect English; they have to be understood in English by listeners. They have to be functional in English. They have to perform particular language tasks. They have to speak English inside and outside the class, and successfully convey their ideas.  Most English language learners need practice speaking, and positive social experiences in English. They need more conversation opportunities, and fewer grammar lessons. In short, our English students have to swim in English; they don’t have to swim across the English Channel.

So why don’t we give our students what they need to survive – and often thrive – in more English classes? Let’s help them swim – and speak – in English.

For more content on this subject, check out the Learning in School chapter from Compelling Conversations Japan!


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One comment

  1. Kathy – Thanks for sharing that somewhat academic article outlining some advantages of explicitly teaching grammar in communicative exercises. Sometimes it’s easier – and more effective – to teach common phrases and core word combinations without the abstract grammar lesson. In fact, many students worry too much about grammar and far too little about communicating. Therefore, I prefer to have students directly engage in meaningful tasks so they put meaning first. Most advanced students need to worry less about grammatical perfection, and speak more so they can effectively convey their ideas. Learning by doing is often both more effective and more engaging than memorizing abstract rules and simple word patterns – especially for students who have studied grammar for many years.

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