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6 Feb 2013

Choosing and Using Terminology for EFL Classrooms (Free ELT Journal)

This paper discusses the use of grammatical terminology in English language teaching. Accepting that it is a common feature of many classrooms, the paper attempts to help teachers understand the role and nature of terminology. A distinction is made between terms which are transparent (e.g. ‘countable’), opaque (e.g. ‘verb’) or iconic (e.g. ‘–ing form’). A number of criteria for evaluating the suitability of terminology for classroom use are also offered. In this way it is hoped that teachers will be better equipped to make well-informed decisions about the terms they choose to use in the classroom.

Keywords: Terminology, Grammar, Pedagogic

Introduction: the relevance of grammatical terminology 
The use of grammatical terminology in the language classroom has received little practical discussion, perhaps because it is considered incompatible with most approaches to language teaching in the late twentieth century. However, while some critics have associated terminology with all the ills of the grammar-translation method (e.g. Garrett 1986), the majority seem to approve of its limited use, e.g. Woods (1994), Muhammad (1994)and Carter (1995). This quote from Lewis is typical of the positive but cautious approach to that now seems to be current:

Introducing unnecessary jargon into the classroom is intimidating and unhelpful, but the careful introduction and regular use of a few well-chosen terms can be helpful and save a lot of time over the length of a course for both teacher and learner. (2000:129) 

And it does seem to play a part in many classrooms. In my study of secondary and tertiary English teachers’ use of and attitudes towards terminology in Hong Kong (Berry 2001), the vast majority reported using ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ (46 out of 49 secondary and 21 out of 22 tertiary teachers), as opposed to ‘little’ or ‘none’.

Nevertheless, there are problems with the use of terminology in ELT. In an earlier study of teachers and students on a business communication course I found a trend towards extensive overuse of terminology (Berry 1997). Many terms that the teachers assumed learners to be familiar with were generally unknown, and there was wide variation among the learners. Out of 372 students the scores on a 50-item terminology test ranged from 8 to 35.

Of course, this is not an argument against grammar terminology per se. It merely shows the need for better teacher education. If, as Wright has suggested (1991:68-69), there is a danger in giving teachers specialist knowledge in that that may wish to show it off to learners, then there is a case on training courses for making clear the difference between what teachers need to know and what learners need to know. Similarly, in the classroom teachers must check what terms are known and spend time on those that are not (possibly in self-access mode).

In any case, whether teachers use terminology seems to be determined not so much by methodological factors as by personal ones. There is evidence that one of the majors determinants of terminology use is the teachers’ own background, i.e. whether their own teachers used much terminology and whether they have had a formal course in English grammar (Berry 2001:112-115). In a similar vein,Borg (1998, 1999) shows how teachers have practices regarding terminology based on their background beliefs and attitudes. There are also factors outside the teacher’s control, such as the presence of terminology in textbooks, or its usefulness for learners in self-study mode. The advisability of having terminology in the L1 context, particularly to help the teaching of writing, is uncontested (Cajkler and Hislam 2002, Robinson 2005).

To exemplify how effective terminology can be if used appropriately, I reproduce below an exchange from Tsui (1995:33) in which a teacher is going through student errors involving the incorrect use of verb forms after modals:

T: You can write programmes, play a game,doing calculations, drawing a picture, etc. I like the idea very much, you’ve got some concrete examples, but it’s not quite balanced so far as grammar goes. OK, what is the modal in that sentence?
Ss: Can.
T: Can. OK, and we see here the modal(points at the previous sentence on the board)…
(my italics; underlined text represents text being cited)

Tsui is not aiming to promote the use of terminology; her interest is in describing good grammatical explanations. But it is hard to imagine a practical alternative to the use of the term modal here (provided students are familiar with it). There will be situations where terminology is not appropriate, as with less advanced, younger or less mature students, but if the classroom focus is on form it appears to be an essential shorthand.

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