Thoughts on Unintended Consequences

© Robert A. Buckmaster 2022

All decisions have consequences, intended or otherwise. The same is true for the decisions we make in teaching.

If we spend a lot of time doing gap fills in class, our learners will think that doing gap fills is a key exercises. We should what we think is important in language learning by what we are will to spend precious classroom time on. But are gap fills the most important exercises we can do in class. They are is certainly convenient. Easy to make. Easy to mark. But the most important? You can’t learn the language by doing gap fills. They can help at certain stages, that is all.

Grammar rules are another area where there are serious unintended consequences.

Learners like grammar rules because they provide (a false sense of) clarity. The learners think that if they just learn the rule they will be able to use the verb form, for example, correctly. If they just learn the rule without truly understanding the the lexical and form meanings of verbs then they will have problems.

‘The’ Rules

Think of the common rule ‘do not use the with names of countries‘.

This is correct: France is a large western European country.

This, by the rule, is wrong: The France of the 1850s was a seething mess of revolutionary unrest.

But in fact it is correct. The sentence means: France in the 1850s was a seething mess of revolutionary unrest.

Teaching this rule will mean, as an unintended consequence, that the learners will never even try to produce such sentences. The rule excludes the understanding of the role of the which allows such a sentence. Why teach a rule which limits understanding and hinders future productive use of the item?

Well, obviously, there must be some reasons, like trying to help the learners avoid other errors, like producing such sentences: I live in the France. So, by trying to avoid such errors with a flawed rule, we have the unintended consequence of stunting our learners’ future production.

Rules, to be helpful, must be true and all encompassing. Not simplified temporary hints presented as rules, which will later be broken. This may mean that some things cannot be presented as rules, so be it.

Verb Rules

Take the simple past and past continuous for example. We present the verb forms labelled such as things we use in past time for various purposes. We choose to label them as past. Our learners learn them as past forms. They invest considerable time in leaning them as past. They practice them as past. They invest in these verbs as past forms .

Then they are presented or meet such uses as these:

I was thinking about going to the cinema at the weekend. Do you want to come?

If you won a million dollars, what would you do?

In both cases ‘past forms’ are used to present non-past ideas. And because our learners have invested so much time and effort in learning these forms as past forms they have problems understanding them.

The unintended consequences of presenting ‘past verb forms‘ as ‘past‘ is that later the learners will have problems understanding them when they are not used in the past, and have problems in using them in these perfectly natural ways.

Teachers who are presenting such past forms and past form rules are making life easier for themselves and their learners at that moment but are ignoring the future consequences of their actions. And this is a disservices to our learners.

What is to be done?

Stop teaching rules which are untrue or incomplete.

Focus on understanding the meaning of items like the rather than learning and applying rules.

In the case of verbs, past verbs can be presented as ‘forms which can be used to show past time but also have other uses which you will meet later‘. It would be helpful to talk verbs which can be used to talk about past time distance. And later introduce formality distance, and reality distance. And of course all this can and should be done in the learners’ L1.

If the learners are prepared, right from the beginning, with the understanding (with reminders) that past time is only one use of so-called past verb forms then they will not be surprised when they meet non-past uses of the forms. Thus, the unintended future confusion and difficulties will be avoided.

For more ideas like this, please consider buying The Ideas of English Grammar, which is available from Amazon: The Ideas of English Grammar