rainbow questionI just attended an excellent workshop on Eil by Marijke Wertheim.  I have to admit that I went into it a little resistant – after all one does feel a little threatened when told that one’s language isn’t one’s own and that if half the English-speaking world decides to say “discuss about” instead of “discuss,” that is just fine and we have no right to criticize.  However, the presentation was powerful without being reductive, and I enjoyed the way it played with the intersection of language and politics.

At first, I assumed that this kind of approach had little bearing on the kind of EAP that we do here, where we are teaching for a specific purpose dictated by the academic culture of the university as a whole, but it’s got me thinking, and I can see that in some cases it could be applied here too.

Here’s the situation that comes to mind.  The students have to write questions for Reading Circle, and these questions are almost never grammatically correct.  Last year, I would ask them to re-write their questions, but the re-writes would also be incorrect.  I would mark them down for poor grammar, but this had little effect and the question grammar continued to be a problem throughout the year.

This year, I decided to nip this in the bud (Eil would probably deem this a gratuitous use of idiomatic language setting up a barrier between me and outer circle English speakers.).  We started off with a spelling bee-type exercise on question formation, which the students liked because it fed into their competitiveness, and because they won candy.  Then they formed their own sentences out of source material we were using for our long term project.  This was well executed, and buy-in was fairly high.

They seemed to understand the grammar of question formation, and to be able to use this grammar with autonomy, so my hopes were high when I received my first Reading Circle Questions.  However, things did not go so well at this point.  Email correspondence deteriorated quickly from

Dear X  Thank you for your questions.   They look interesting, but they are not grammatically correct.  Please re-write the sentences and send them again.

To

Dear X.  Thank you for your re-write.  Unfortunately, the sentences are still not correct.  Please have a look at the attached chart, and try again.  Hint: remember to use “do.”

To

FIX.  THE.  GRAMMAR.

Now I am wondering if this battle of wills is worth it.  After all, one reason students don’t fix their questions is that they experience no negative results from using improper form.  This must mean that their questions are comprehensible to the average English speaker.  By Eil standards, then, their questions are functional.  Also, while their writing will have to satisfy a higher standard when they start first year, they are unlikely to have to use questions in their writing.  They probably will need to use spoken questions in an academic context, but they probably will not have to use them in a high stakes situation.  Maybe, then, from an Eil point of view, the fact that their questions do not conform to my idea of grammatical accuracy is my problem rather than theirs.

On one level, I’m quite happy to accept this and move on.  After all, these anguished exchanges seem to be taking a much greater toll on me than on them.  However, I still have two reservations, one pragmatic and one more philosophical.  First, sometimes when they have to ask more complicated questions, they do have problems communicating.  I suppose Eil would say that this is something we have to negotiate, but how can I teach them how to make those questions comprehensible if we don’t have the shared experience of correcting the simpler questions, which are incorrect but still comprehensible?  Isn’t it much more difficult to fix the problem if the sentence model is obscured by complications?

Second, and this is perhaps a little idealistic, wouldn’t an Eil approach be wasteful?  After all, the students already know question form.  To a certain extent, they have compartmentalized it, filed it away under “Grammar” in some dusty archive of their brains, but it is there.  Isn’t the job of education to unlock the knowledge that students already possess so that they can use it with autonomy?  It could be argued that the Eil approach would devalue the knowledge the students had already acquired.

Well, I guess there’s still a lot of negotiating to be done.  In the interest of consistency (and maybe teacher stubbornness), I’m going to continue to correct their question form, but maybe this new approach can help me modify how I respond to their errors.  Their questions may not get any better, but I may lose less sleep over them.

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