Grammar teaching in The Czech Republic

  • Štěpáník, S. 2019. Pupil preconception as a source of solutions to lingering problems of grammar teaching? (Ed.) Kaisu Rättyä, Elżbieta Awramiuk & Xavier Fontich. L1 Educational Studies in Language and Literature Special Issue What is Grammar in L1 Education Today?(Special Issue What is Grammar in L1 Education Today?). 1–24. doi:10.17239/L1ESLL-2019.19.02.05.
    • The main aim of the paper is to show pupil language preconception as a fundamental part of L1 teaching. This theorisation is compliant with the model of educational reconstruction and constructivist principles in education which are the sources of the modern productive culture in education. Based on concrete examples of grammar matter in Czech, the study demonstrates how research into pupil preconceptions can guide teaching grammar so that it is functional, communication-oriented and cognitively challenging. The results of the presented studies show that even pupils of primary school possess developed preconceptions of language phenomena, which, however, school education often ignores. This fact is later a potential source of various lingering problems and failure of L1 teaching. The study illustrates (a) how it is possible to use language preconceptions as a source for modelling the curriculum of L1 teaching, and (b) how lingering problems of L1 teaching can be linked to the fact that pupils’ understanding and thinking about language is mostly neglected.
  • [James Kirchner in 1997]
    • [Do schools teach the classification of words, the idenfification of grammatical functions and the  diagramming of sentence structure?] I can only give you sketchy details on this, but I know that in the Czech school system, where I taught for a few years, the 14-year-olds I got in high school had a detailed command of the first two items you mention above in their native language. My students came from all over the country, and all had comparable knowledge, which I would characterize as being something approaching that conveyed in a university-level introductory linguistics course in the United States. The main difference was that they had drilled this knowledge for years by the time I got them, so their command of it was rather more precise than American university students would have after only one course. The Czech kids knew all the classifications of vowels and consonants, including place and manner of articulation, so at that tender age, they were already familiar with, say, the palatalization of alveolar consonants before front vowels. I could mention it in exactly that way, and they understood me perfectly.
    • The standard Czech grammar book for Czech primary schools is simply called “Cesky jazyk” and its authors are Jiri Melichar and Vlastimil Styblik. I had to use it to prepare for my state Czech proficiency exam there, and I will say that adults do not find it less challenging than a clearly written basic linguistics text. It starts with a general introduction to language study, moves into phonology, and from there goes to semantics, morphology and word formation (in great detail, including all conjugations and declensions), then to syntax (including highly complex sentences), and ends with stylistics.
    •  At what age does it start? The important thing that I can’t tell you is at what age they start with this book. I believe it must be when they’re 11 or 12, and I suppose they spend two or three years with it. However, the earlier curriculum must contain a lot of this material already, because by age 10, most of the kids have started two foreign languages, and the instructional material used for them contains the theoretical basics of grammar.
    • I think that a good place to look for early and intense grammar instruction would be in small countries whose languages are spoken by no more than, say, 15 million people, since these nations tend to be very adamant about sustaining their languages in the face of outside pressure, even as they impress upon their children the necessity of learning foreign languages well. It also helps if the nation speaks a reconstructed language, like Czech or Hebrew.
    • How successful is it? I’m 43, and in the schools of my suburb of Detroit, Michigan, we learned the meaning and etymology of the main Latin and Greek roots and suffixes of English at around age 9 (this was in our spelling book, and was also incorporated into dictionary practice). At age 10 and 11, we already knew the parts of speech and were diagramming sentences ad nauseum, in terms of subject, predicate, direct object, etc. This instruction has been left by the wayside, and I now hear complaints from local parents that their high school kids can’t analyze a sentence well enough to see why it doesn’t work well. Nuns at a local university claim that the break-off point between “people who can write well” and people who can’t is now about age 30, and I see that my own university linguistics students in the US (even those who are already certified teachers) often write with less clarity and prescriptive accuracy than a cousin of mine did in high school when he was drunk. The interesting thing is that this instruction on language structure has become so attenuated, even in the various university English curricula, that the magazine publisher I work for no longer considers an English degree to be a good qualification for a job as an editor or copy editor. For the latter, they mainly interview linguistics and foreign language majors, because “you can’t count on English majors to know structure.” After it had hired a large influx of native anglophones, of various levels of qualification, to teach English, I saw the Czech school authorities reach the conclusion that an American or British university degree is no indication of a solid grounding in English language structure. Thus, even certified British ESL instructors, with years of experience, were often relegated to hour-long chat sessions, while the students learned structure from a Czech (and often faultily).

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