An Orgy of Evidence

While writing yesterday’s post about future forms, I took a little time to think of useful example sentences for each form. Not as much time as I might in the classroom though because if you’re reading this you know and use these forms quite well, either through being a native speaker, or having learned to a high enough level to be able to read blogs in English. The examples therefore didn’t need to do any heavy lifting in terms of demonstrating meaning.

But of course that’s different for people who are still figuring things out, and therefore need a little more guidance. Consider the following exchange:

Do you want to come out with us tonight?

-I can’t, I’m having dinner with my family.

Pretty simple, something you could easily imagine coming up in a real conversation. Now have a look at what I might typically use in a lesson to introduce the present continuous as used for future arrangements:

I’m having dinner tomorrow night with all my family to celebrate my brother’s birthday. We’re going to that nice French restaurant: I booked a table for 10 last week.

I call this an orgy of evidence: a police term referring to when someone wants to fake ca crime or frame someone for, and leaves a suspiciously huge amount of planted evidence to make sure the police see what they want them to see. In this case though, I think you can see why all the information’s there. If I just provided the sentence I’m having dinner with my family in isolation, there would be no way for the students to figure out I’m talking about a future arrangement. So I throw in more information to make it clear that I’m referring to a future arrangement. The problem with this is that we never actually talk like that in real life. We might mention that the meal’s for my brother’s birthday, but we’d probably not mention anything else at first. And we don’t need to, because in real life it’s clear from the context (plans for tonight) that I’m referring to the future, and from the grammar (present continuous), that I have a prior arrangement. That’s what grammar’s for after all: conveying complex information related to various contexts instantly, without the need for adding a lot of additional information. Consider how much simple sentences like the following tell us:

I used to live there.

I’ve lived there.

I’ll live there.

I live there.

I’m living there.

We can convey very distinct meanings without the need for a lot of extra words. But that’s easy when you’re a native speaker. When you’re teaching grammar, you need to ease students into it. So you give them the extra information at first, with the idea being that they’ll come to understand that that’s not ultimately necessary, and that the grammar does the main job of conveying meaning.

The problem is, that making that leap, from using all the extra information to help you understand, to doing away with that extra information, is hard. Partly, it’s simply because of the general difficulties of learning a second language. But it’s also partly because we teachers find it very hard to let go of all that extra stuff. We get into a habit of coming up with really good example sentences that guide the students towards the right meaning, and find it hard to let  those go in favour of simpler but more realistic ones. And the more we use examples like these, the harder it is to present students with a more natural, less adorned example, and expect them to figure it out.

And this leads to problems for students. Mainly that they don’t use the grammar as we do, partly because they haven’t had to really think about what different forms mean, because of all the extra information. You could teach the following:

I FLORP tomorrow night with all my family to celebrate my brother’s birthday. We BLARP to that nice French restaurant: I booked a table for 10 last week.

…and students will still understand that you’re talking about a future arrangement because of the orgy of evidence. It’s actually distracting from the grammar and making it seem irrelevant. So either they use the correct form, but with all the extra information, which sounds unnatural; or more commonly, they don’t use the correct form because they never really figured it out.

Persisting in teaching this way also makes the language learners encounter and use in the classroom seem abstract and irrelevant, because it doesn’t reflect real usage. Students don’t see the relevance of what they’re learning, and don’t apply it in the real world. I’ve encountered the extreme result of this a few times. When you ask a student a simple question like What did you do at the weekend, they say I don’t know what the answer is, because they’re not used to questions in the classroom actually being about them or their lives. They assume that you’ve made some mistake and accidentally jumped forward in your  lesson plan because the question and its answer aren’t clearly laid out on the whiteboard for them to read off.

How best to remedy this then? First of all, it’s necessary to keep in mind how you use the language form in question, and the students will use it. Also keep in mind the student’s level and experience. If they’re learning something for the first time, it’s ok to give them the extra information to help make the meaning clear. Just don’t get them used to it. Even within that first lesson, once they’ve understood the meaning, you can give them a simple fill-in-the-gaps exercise with more naturalistic examples. At slightly higher levels, providing the language in context, such as in a written text or recording of a conversation, helps the students to see how it’s really used.  With students who are revising it, it can be useful to just give them a sentence in isolation, like I’m having dinner with my family, and tell them simply to work together to figure out what it means. The lack of context, realistic or otherwise, should get them to focus on the form itself, and the two possible meanings: I’m either having dinner with my family right now, or I’ve made an arrangement to have dinner with them in the future. When they’ve thrown up their hands in exasperation because they can’t possibly know which is which, you can give them a dialogue like back at the beginning as well as this one:

Hey, can you talk?

-Sorry, I’m having dinner with my family.

Both should make the importance of realistic context in understanding meaning clear.

All of which is really just a long-winded way to say that if you’re a native English speaker, you should be grateful that you never had to learn the present continuous!

Image:

https://pethelpful.com/dogs/How-to-Stop-Your-Dog-from-Engaging-in-Destructive-Behavior

One thought on “An Orgy of Evidence

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