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  1. #1
    Verona_82 is offline Senior Member
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    Default Either is correct. Oh, no!


    I'd like to ask English teachers a question that has been eating away at me for a while. Having decided to try my hand at teaching not so long ago, I faced some problems I hadn't foreseen. I was much surprised to see that one of the pitfalls was students' desire to stick to a single set of rules. Being reluctant to accept the fact that there are other - possible and grammatical - ways to express the same idea, they begin to feel slight panic every time I attempt to open their eyes to the fact the language is actually a flexible thing. "Tell us which is correct!" Well, either is fine... And instead of encouraging them, the phrase seems to have the opposite effect! We do a lot of exercises and sometimes two or more alternatives are possible (and our coursebook gives only one); and every time I have to choose between admitting the fact, which leads to further explanation on my part and grumbling and rumbling on theirs, and ignoring or correcting or labeling answers that don't comply with the coursebook as wrong; the choice is unpleasant. Perhaps there is a happy medium, but I haven't found it yet.

    On the one hand, such reluctance is understandable, as their brains risk getting overloaded with huge volumes of information that they have to process during their crash course. On the other hand, such a "this-is-the-right-one" approach might plunge them into even greater confusion when they complete the course and expose themselves to some real, authentic English. For a long time I myself thought that English was all about strict rules, and it took me quite a while to get used to certain freedom in choosing how to say something; it's too long, inefficient and unpleasant a way. I might be mistaken though.

    Has anybody ever run into such difficulty? Do (did) you tell your students that there are other grammatically correct ways to say/express/describe something or do you 'share' this knowledge with advanced students or ones with considerable 'grammatical baggage' only? Do (did) your students feel comfortable finding it out?
    I'd be very grateful for your comments.

    Thank you.

  2. #2
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: Either is correct. Oh, no!

    Quote Originally Posted by Verona_82 View Post
    We do a lot of exercises and sometimes two or more alternatives are possible (and our coursebook gives only one); and every time I have to choose between admitting the fact, which leads to further explanation on my part and grumbling and rumbling on theirs, and ignoring or correcting or labeling answers that don't comply with the coursebook as wrong; the choice is unpleasant. Perhaps there is a happy medium, but I haven't found it yet.
    Please note that I've done little English teaching in my life. I would still like to share my opinion.

    I think it's important not to overwhelm students with facts they aren't interested in and which are not necessary for the lesson to continue. In the situation you have described, it might be better to keep the other answers to yourself, unless students ask about them. Perhaps just mentioning that other answers are possible will suffice. Either it will arouse the students' interest, and they will become willing to learn, or it won't, in which case there will be no harm in going on with the lesson. If, however, a student comes up with a correct aswer that the coursebook doesn't mention, they should certainly be commended and the answer should be commented on. This always gives a good chance of making a student remember something in my opinion.

  3. #3
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    5jj is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: Either is correct. Oh, no!

    V: I was much surprised to see that one of the pitfalls was students' desire to stick to a single set of rules. Being reluctant to accept the fact that there are other - possible and grammatical - ways to express the same idea, they begin to feel slight panic every time I attempt to open their eyes to the fact the language is actually a flexible thing. "Tell us which is correct!" Well, either is fine... And instead of encouraging them, the phrase seems to have the opposite effect!

    5: This can be an enormous problem with many students, especially those from certain cultures where the concept of there being only one correct way of doing things is drummed in from an early age. Unfortunately, many teachers, including many native speakers, reinforce this belief.

    It's understandable, I suppose.
    When I was at school/university from the mid 1950s on, grammar meant prescriptive grammar, and there was normally only one acceptable way to say and write something - even if most of the population never did so outside the classrom.

    V: We do a lot of exercises and sometimes two or more alternatives are possible (and our coursebook gives only one); and every time I have to choose between admitting the fact, which leads to further explanation on my part and grumbling and rumbling on theirs, and ignoring or correcting or labeling answers that don't comply with the coursebook as wrong; the choice is unpleasant. Perhaps there is a happy medium, but I haven't found it yet.


    5: I have always believed in telling my students the truth, even if they weren't very happy at the time. Many of the difficulties encountered by learners at upper intermediate level and beyond arise because they have to learn at some time that some of the 'rules' they learnt in their early days were at best over-simplified, and occasionally wrong.

    A classic example of this is expressing the future in English. Many grammars and course books explain carefully the difference between will see, am seeing, see, am going to see, will be seeing, and give exercises in which students have to choose 'the correct form'. While there are differences in the implications of the various ways of expressing the future, there are also many situations in which the choice appears fairly arbitrary in real life. If you have enough context and co-text, many native speakers might prefer one way, but in a one-line sentence there is rarely enough context or co-text to be sure.

    V: On the one hand, such reluctance is understandable, as their brains risk getting overloaded with huge volumes of information that they have to process during their crash course. On the other hand, such a "this-is-the-right-one" approach might plunge them into even greater confusion when they complete the course and expose themselves to some real, authentic English.

    5: I tried to get them to accept that the course-book-prescribed answer was very often a likely one. Indeed, if alternatives were possible, but rare, I would not mention them unless a leraner asked about them. In time, most of my students learnt to accept that natural English was not bound by a rigid set of unbreakable rules; many even, eventually, found this approach liberating.

    BC: I think it's important not to overwhelm students with facts they aren't interested in and which are not necessary for the lesson to continue. In the situation you have described, it might be better to keep the other answers to yourself, unless students ask about them. Perhaps just mentioning that other answers are possible will suffice.

    5: I agree with this up to a point, so long as the teacher does not hide the truth. I tried never to say things like, "That is the correct answer".

    BC: If, however, a student comes up with a correct aswer that the coursebook doesn't mention, they should certainly be commended and the answer should be commented on.
    5: YES.

    Verona, you might be interested in Michael Lewis (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach, Hove: LTP from which I quote:

    “Every teacher is familiar with the difficulty when a student asks Can you say …? And you reply Well, you could say that, but you wouldn’t. The student askd Why? Only to receive the apparently unsatisfactory answer It just doesn’t sound right. However unsatisfactory that answer seems in class, it is the correct answer, and lies at the very heart of a lexical understanding of language. A clear understanding of why this is so is indispensable for all language teachers; it is also helpful if learners gradually develp an understanding of why it is that their apparently simple question receives such a seemingly unhelpful answer. You could, but you wouldn’t could almost be a slogan for the Lexical Approach. Why?”

    This is not eactly what you were talking about, but Lewis gives some very interesting ideas and suggestions on similar problems.

    You might also be interested in these two (and perhaps more) articles of mine:


    From a very early stage, I introduced my learners to these ideas. Originally I did so with some trepidation, but I was encouraged by their response. Most were delighted to learn that utterances that they had 'felt' to be acceptable, but that had been marked as incorrect by by some teachers, were in fact completely acceptable.

    See also: 4. Rules and Rubbish | Gramorak's Blog

  4. #4
    5jj's Avatar
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    Default Re: Either is correct. Oh, no!

    I’m getting on my hobby-horse here, so you may well prefer to skip this and go on to the next post.

    I often had to make it clear from the outset to my learners and teacher trainees that a rule in English grammar is not a ‘law’ prescribing what must be said; it is an observation about what the person who invented the rule felt to be generally said, and considered to be ‘good’ English.

    Some rules are useful. It is true that ‘the third person singular present tense form of full (or lexical) verbs ends in –s’ (though it is not quite as simple as just adding –s to all verbs) and that the first person singular present tense form of BE is am. It is almost certainly not helpful to tell learners that such forms as I speaks and I be are common spoken forms in some dialects.

    Some rules are bad. It is not true that ‘the future simple tense of COMEis I shall come, you will come, etc’.

    Some rules are unhelpful. Sometimes it is true that ‘the present progressive is used for what is happening at the moment of speaking; the present simple is used for regular or repeated actions, or permanent states’; sometimes it is not true. As Michael Lewis (1986) wrote, “Sometimes” rules are not rules.

    Once you can manage to convince learners that ‘rules’ are not cast in stone, you can begin to move on.


    In the written language, many of the rules, such as the capitalisation of the initial letter of the first word in a sentence, or of the first person subject pronoun, are pretty arbitrary, but it has become necessary to follow them, except in very informal writing, if one does not wish to be considered uneducated. Even here, however, many publishing houses have their own set of rules. What is acceptable to one publisher may not be to another. If, for example, I were to write a cumbersome sentence such as that which follo
    ws, my punctuation might please some and horrify others:

    John asked me, “Did John really ask her, ‘How old are you?’?”



    This is a wonderful book for clearing up some of the myths about English verb tenses: Lewis, Michael (1985) The English Verb, Hove: LTP

    For other heretical thoughts, try this: http://www.gramorak.com/Articles/Tense.pdf

  5. #5
    Verona_82 is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: Either is correct. Oh, no!

    Birdeen, fivejedjohn, thank you for your replies.

    I agree that overwhelming students with excessive facts or remarks is not a good idea, especially at their level. The problem emerges when somebody says a phrase or a sentence which follows a grammar pattern different from that given in the book and which is still correct. Others jump in, wondering why I say this is 'right'. That's where the discussion begins and that's where their preconceptions get shattered. At first I thought the problem had something to do with age - I guess I myself would have ended up with a mess in my head if my school teachers had told me 'yep, that's fine, because there're several ways to talk about that, but the first is more common and..." However, some of my students are younger than I am, so they couldn't have been affected by our Soviet 'you-should-follow-this-unbreakable-rule'-appoach. A cultural thing? Maybe. On the other hand, if teachers contributed to expanding their studens' language awareness a bit more than it is stipulated by the coursebooks and syllabuses, there wouldn't be so many "can I say ...? "-threads on this forum, don't you think so?
    Anyway, I think I'm getting the message. Jed, thank you for the links. I've followed only the first one (rules and rubbish) so far. That's definitely something to think about.

  6. #6
    5jj's Avatar
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    Default Re: Either is correct. Oh, no!

    Quote Originally Posted by Verona_82 View Post
    , if teachers contributed to expanding their students' language awareness a bit more than it is stipulated by the coursebooks and syllabuses, there wouldn't be so many "can I say ...? "-threads on this forum, don't you think so?
    I agree. Unfortunately many teachers seem to feel that the grammar and course books must be right (and that any deviation must be wrong). As a teacher trainer, I observed many teachers, even reasonably well educated native speakers, teaching things that they would never say in real life. When I asked them about this, they would frequently answer, "Well, it's in the book, so it must be right". So, some students still emerge from their English lessons thinking that "To whom were you speaking a few moments ago?" is correct and natural, and that "Who was that (girl) you were talking to just now?" is 'substandard'. .

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    richardksa is offline Newbie
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    Default Re: Either is correct. Oh, no!

    I tell my students that while there may well be different ways to say the same thing, us native speakers tend to choose one way over the others. I refer to this as "Democratic English", ie, the way chosen by the majority. Thankfully, they accept this.
    On the other hand, where there are several common ways to say the same thing, I would be remiss not to explain this. To this end I have a lesson I call, "Putting it another way", which is a series of exercises doing just that.

  8. #8
    Tdol is offline Editor, UsingEnglish.com
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    Default Re: Either is correct. Oh, no!

    When a textbook only gives one answer and there are other possibilities, I am all in favour of letting them know or of accepting other correct answers. The writers may not have seen every possibility- it's very easy to do when writing tests, so expanding on their work is one good reason for having a teacher. If the teacher is reduced to simply going through a book confirming the answers, then they can be replaced by self-study- expanding, improving, developing, etc are what makes classes worthwhile.

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