Author Archives: Jakob

Grammar Love

Grammar Love

We want grammar! We want grammar! We want grammar!”, the teachers rioted in the Facebook group for Croatian ELTs in elementary school, incited by the questions about grammar teaching and testing a couple of their peers posted mid-February 2021. “Who took their grammar?” you might wonder. Well, with the new Curriculum of English in 2019, the rubric “language use”, or grammar, disappeared from gradebooks, leaving four skills – listening, speaking, reading, and writing – as the sole elements to be graded. You can, of course, still assess grammar. If you want to give students a traditional grammar test, you can assess it formatively. If you want to test grammar summatively, that is, for a grade, you can (and should) do this by having grammar as an element in the criteria in the assessment of any of the four skills. Also, grammar can still be taught in any way it pleases the teacher (hopefully in a way that combines implicit and explicit instruction and the inductive and deductive approach). So, if you want to drill past simple into your students’ heads through mindless and decontextualized tasks, so be it. The curriculum developers’ rationale for assessing grammar primarily through the four skills was that students will undoubtedly have to show their grammatical competence (as well as other linguistic, sociolinguistic, and pragmatic competences) through these skills. This was and is, understandably, a tectonic change for numerous teachers, a paradigm shift if you will.

The main argument provided by the majority of teachers crying out for testing grammar is that students will not learn it unless it is graded. This is possibly the worst argument you can make. But let’s take a step back. When grammar was indeed an element in the gradebook, many teachers would proudly say that it is the most important element of all four or five, which thus carries the most weight when deciding on the students’ final grade. So this one element could drag your grade down in spite of the other three or four elements, which happened often as our students are pretty good at speaking English and not that bad in reading comprehension either. Thus, before 2019, teachers tested grammar vigorously – the majority of tests a student would take in a year were grammar tests – and final grades were in many cases primarily based on students’ grammatical competence.

Let us remind ourselves at this point that two of the most popular tests of English language proficiency, IELTS and TOEFL, which are widely used by universities across the world as a reliable and trustworthy indicator of a student’s competence in English, do not test grammar directly. In fact, these tests show what a student can do and understand in English. If such tests are good enough for Harvard and Cambridge, why aren’t they for our teachers? It’s not just the international tests. It’s the schools across the world that assess their students’ knowledge of foreign languages through the four skills: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, just to mention a few countries whose citizens rank high on the worldwide English proficiency index.

When some time ago I talked to my mentor about our teachers’ obsession with grammar, trying to understand where this need to test it incessantly comes from, she had one word to say: power. Grammar is power. We were taught by grammar-focused (if not grammar-obsessed) teachers, and many of us had to memorize Quirk by heart in university (I kid you not). We know grammar. We know how to explain the rules, we know how to make a grammar test, and we know how to grade a grammar test – which is probably the easiest and most straightforward thing to do when it comes to assessment. Grammar is power because we know the rules and students don’t. We feel at home with grammar. Grammar is our comfort zone, our go-to place. But you know what, grammar will not help you out there in the world, as I learned the hard way in the United States, Ireland, Kenya, Australia… What would’ve helped me was being more familiar with culture and the varieties of English. Grammar will rarely be the cause of a communication breakdown. In fact, studies with people from English-speaking countries have shown that what they find to be the most serious errors, that is, those that affect understanding the most, are lexical mistakes – not grammar mistakes. In other words, native speakers care more about word choice as opposed to grammar structures.

Let’s get back to that half-baked argument we left in the second paragraph. If your students don’t want to learn grammar because it’s not going to be on the graded test, then you have yourself a bigger problem, and that is your students’ motivation and their (mis)understanding of their roles in assessment. Saying that we should test grammar because otherwise it won’t be learnt is like saying we should give candy to kids when they’re being nice to each other, or otherwise they wouldn’t do it. Intrinsic motivation is key in many, many long-term efforts, and numerous studies have shown that this is the case with language learning as well. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, especially in the form of grades, has been shown to be detrimental to the development of competencies of different sorts. Just look at the flood of straight-A students in Croatia across all subjects – this happens because the students’ parents are focused on the numbers, and not on knowledge or skills. We need to move away from this, and not pander to it by saying that students will not learn what is not graded. The paradigm needs to change, and we’re the ones who have to do it. Motivating students is difficult, especially in high school, but it’s not impossible. There is a reason why teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world – we need to be skilled at so many things that it often becomes too much to handle, so we fall back on what we know best, what takes little effort, and that is grammar and teaching to the textbook. I completely understand this – I’ve done it many a time. But if you think about it, teaching and testing grammar is so simple that a robot could replace you, not thirty years into the future, but today.

But let’s for a moment entertain the notion that grammar as an element needs to find its way back into the gradebook and become, as my friend would say, the fifth element. If you, dear reader, are of this opinion, may I ask you, what makes grammar deserve this special status in relation to the other twelve elements of communicative competence as outlined in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages Companion Volume (see Chart 1 below)? What is the criteria you use to justify that grammar of all these elements deserves to have its special rubric in the gradebook? If you have a good answer, then by all means, let’s bring grammar grades back.

Chart 1. Communicative language competences from Common European Framework of Reference for Languages Companion Volume with Descriptors (2018).

Designing communicatively-oriented tasks that target specific grammar items is no easy work. The endeavor is daunting, in fact. But it is daunting only if you are the only one doing it. Connecting with other teachers through ŽSV or HUPE, working as a team, would’ve made the whole thing much easier. Our group will make a communicatively oriented test for past simple, and yours will do it for future will. They’ll do it for passive, we’ll do it for the second conditional. Collaboration is key here, but it seems to be missing. Were you given sufficient training in designing communicatively-oriented tests? No. This is a major flaw in the system. But this doesn’t mean that we must immediately go back to how things were because no one spoonfed us the solutions. Going back would mean taking the path of least resistance.

Communicative competence is so much more than the knowledge of grammar. English is huge – all the varieties, all the cultures, so many stories to hear and read, so many songs to listen to and movies to watch, and discussions to have. And that is what counts – enabling students to connect with other people no matter where they come from. This is what English does. Being familiar with different customs, expressions, collocations, idioms will do wonders, while the ability to distinguish past simple from past perfect will matter little for the majority of our learners. They should still learn it, of course. And don’t worry, those who want to know more will still have to memorize Quirk in university.

If you disagree completely with what I wrote here, that’s okay – it’s not easy to let go of the past, especially if you remember it fondly. But I ask you to try to entertain, if only for a moment, the idea that despite all the challenges it is possible to do things differently and still get great results. That perhaps, after all, it is possible to teach English without putting a grade on a grammar test.

This text was published in HUPEzine in March 2021.

How the competition in English fails students and teachers

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” – David Morrison

Since I became a teacher some thirteen years ago, I have been listening to teachers bemoan the competition in English organized by the Croatian Education and Teacher Training Agency (AZOO), whether at elementary or high school level. I know a number of colleagues who have sent letters of complaint throughout these years, and I know a few who were at some point members of the National Committee for the Competition and who tried to change the system from within. Obviously and unfortunately, the letters and the attempts were in vain.

What are the major complaints? That the tests are too difficult, that some tasks are inappropriate, that there are answers that should be accepted, but aren’t, that elementary school students only get to compete in grade 8, and – perhaps most important – that a great number of fantastic students don’t feel they “know” English well upon taking the test.

My discontent with the competition was dormant for a couple of years as I no longer worked in elementary school, but it culminated in 2020 when I realized that nothing has changed in more than a decade. That is when I thoroughly analyzed the test for the school level of the competition in grade 8 in 2020, as well as the regulations regarding the work of the Committee. The whole investigation is available on my site, so I will not go into all the details here. Rather, I’ll focus on the key findings in form of a list that shows all the ways the competition fails students and teachers.

1) There is no record of the goal of the competition. Is it to test grammar, to identify talented students, to measure communicative competence? How can a student work toward a goal if they don’t know what it is?

2) Similar to the previous point, there is no catalog of what students need to know or be able to do in order to do well in the competition. This means that students and their teachers know neither what the goal is nor the means to achieve that goal; in other words, they don’t know what to do to prepare for the competition.

3) Tests in the competition include tasks that are several levels above the students’ target level. Some may say this is fine because the competition is for the best students who we presume are above the target level, but that level should be defined, along with the goal and catalog of knowledge and skills.

4) Many tasks on the tests in the competition are inspired by those found in Cambridge ESOL exams (FCE, CAE, CPE). Each of the Cambridge exams has a very specific format, and a number of tasks found in those exams is usually not used in regular English classes in Croatia. Learners who want to take a Cambridge exam know well that they have to prepare for it – not just by learning the language but by learning the format of the exam as this has a major impact on how well they will do on the exam. Hence, the tasks in the competition are not very familiar to our students who are not preparing for a Cambridge exam.

5) We don’t know the goal of the competition so it is difficult to ruminate on which tasks would be appropriate for it, but I’m sure they should be aimed at testing communicative competence and not isolated skills, such as grammatical competence. Students are taught in line with the communicative approach, but that is not how they are tested in the competition.

6) The instructions for the competition state that culture is an essential part of the test in the competition. We all know that culture is intertwined with language – there’s no question about it. Thus, intercultural competence is considered a part of overall communicative competence and should be developed and assessed. However, the culture task in the competition doesn’t assess intercultural competence but rather tests students’ knowledge of historical and geographical facts. In 2020, it tested students’ familiarity with London, exclusively. After eight years of learning English, will facts about London help the student get their message across in English? (Consider this question especially in light of the fact that there are three times more non-native than native speakers.)

7) The work of the Committee is not transparent. The Agency has confirmed that the Committee doesn’t keep minutes of their meetings and that the reports on their work are – lost. Without these, it is impossible to know which issues they faced and whether and how they addressed them. Furthermore, there are around twenty members of the Committee, and it is not clear who does what; for example, I know that one person deigns the test, and one more takes a look at it, but this isn’t public information. Some members have been on the Committee for ages, which would only make sense if they were doing a good job. Perhaps if more people were rotated annually or every couple of years, the competition would benefit from new perspectives and ideas.

8) Looking just at the test at the school level of the competition in grade 8 in 2020, it is obvious that the person who made it did a poor job. The test-makers should be versed in test development, and more members of the Committee should be involved in providing feedback to the test-maker before the test is released. In fact, all the members of the Committee should be trained in assessment matters.

9) In the midst of the 2020 debacle, three exceptional and very qualified professionals (a top Croatian scholar and ELT methodology professor, a textbook author and pre-service mentor, and a curriculum developer, to name just a few roles) left the Committee because their expert opinion, which differed from that of the Committee President, was ignored and suppressed. A committee in which a person’s expert opinion isn’t acknowledged simply because it is different from the centrally enforced one is a committee that stifles critical thinking. We have already established that there is no external evaluation of the committee (see n°7), and it is clear that any attempt at change coming from within is quickly thwarted.

10) It would be easy to live with the fact we have a subpar competition because it takes place only once a year so you sort of get it over with and get over it, but the problem is that such a competition has a negative washback effect and thus could influence the way students are taught and assessed. Do we want students to think that knowing English is mostly about knowing how to transform sentences and words and being more informed about London than the Queen herself? Or do we want them to understand that English is about getting your message across to two billion people who speak it?

For all of the reasons above, I find the system of competition in English ill-conceived – it fails bright students and hard-working teachers. We have let it fester for too long.

This text was published in HUPEzine in May 2020.

How NOT to teach culture and test intercultural competence









The year is 2020, and in the picture above you see a task in the national competition in English, in Croatia. The competition is held annually at three stages – school, county, and national. Those who rank high at the first level go to the next level and if they score well there they get invited to the national level. The competition is held for students in grade 8 of elementary school (age 14) and grades 2 and 4 in high school (ages 16 and 18). Students who rank high at the national level for the elementary school competition get extra points for enrolling into high school and those in high school get points for enrolling into university. So, we could call it a high-stakes test.

The school-level test consists of the usual reading comprehension tasks and use of language tasks (of which the task above is considered a part). The county-level test has also a listening task, and the national-level test has a writing and a speaking task. 

The task above is from the elementary school test at the school level. What issues do I have with the task? (The whole test is a disaster, but I’ll just talk about this one task.)

1) After eight years of schooling, students’ intercultural competence is tested by a task that requires them to reproduce geographical and historical facts – and if that wasn’t bad enough, all six questions are about London. So, the message the student gets is – if you don’t know trivia about London, you’re not good at communicating in English. Not to mention that few actual residents of London would know the right answers to those questions.

2) English = United Kingdom. In Croatia, there are still teachers who will tell you that the ‘right’ version of English is British English and that it is this variety that our students should learn. Why? Because. This, of course, makes no sense if we look at the numbers. English is a first or an official language in a number of countries beyond the usual suspects (UK, US, Canada, and Australia), for example, the Philippines, Nigeria, Malta, India…, and there are three times more non-native than native speakers. So, no, teaching students about the cultures of the English-speaking world cannot come down to British culture alone, which is often the case in textbooks used in Croatia, where culture is understood as the sights of London, New York, and – if you’re lucky – a random Australian or Canadian location. And that’s what the textbooks covering a period of eight years of mandatory education revolve around. Culture coverage doesn’t get much better in high school.

3) Even if in some parallel universe you need to teach students only about British culture, intercultural competence is not about reproducing factual knowledge – it’s about using the language in a communicative act. Look at the task again. Where is communication in that? Or, if you don’t think this could be turned into a performance-based task, then let’s turn it into a critical thinking task and have students answer questions like ‘What did the lives of the natives look like after their countries were colonized by the British Empire?’, or an easier, factual one, ‘In which museum in London can you find the artifacts stolen from indigenous peoples during colonization?’

4) What is the washback effect of a task like this on the national competition? What will the teachers focus on in their classes to better prepare students for the next year’s competition? They will focus on memorizing trivia instead of developing (intercultural) communicative competence.

To sum up, having a task like this on a test in 2020 is unacceptable. We’ve been talking about communicative competence for forty years, English has grown immensely beyond its country of origin, in open society cultures intertwine and blend, and we have teachers testing students’ intercultural competence after eight years of schooling by asking them to reproduce facts about London. This is not what English language teaching is about.

Selected references:
Byram, M. (2008). From Foreign Language Education to Education for Intercultural Citizenship. Multilingual Matters.
Jandt, F. (2009). Intercultural Communication: Identities in a Global Community. Sage Publications.
Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.
Kukljanov, I.E. (2005). Principles of Intercultural Communication. Allyn and Bacon.
Moran, P. (2001). Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice. Heinle & Heinle.