Testable grammar vs useable grammar: many passive sentences

Everyone knows that teaching to tests can be problematic. Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the nature of those tests. Tests are of course useful in terms of having goals and setting benchmarks. However, as Japanese tests tend to focus on multi choice grammar questions, they need to have questions that are suitably difficult, but don’t have to necessarily represent how English is generally used.
One example of this is the focus on ‘much’ and ‘many’. It’s easy to spend too much time on this distinction because there are so many strange rules around whether we’re talking about countable or uncountable things, which is why it’s perfect for sticking in tests. However, the result is that after rote memorization of the various rules for the test, and the subsequent forgetting of said rules, learners are left with ‘many’ and ‘much’ as their only way to demonstrate a lot of something. This leads them to the situation where they end up trying to remember if they should say ‘He has many money’ or ‘He has much money’. After letting them run through that internal struggle for while, I then have to remind them about ‘a lot of’. The third and final quantifier that they learn as more of an afterthought than anything.

Which brings me to my point. Why hammer the word ‘many’ into them, then tell them that they actually have to use ‘much’ sometimes and ‘a lot of’ other times. Surely introducing ‘a lot of’ as the go to quantifier, then mentioning you can also use ‘many’ if you want, but you don’t have to would be preferable. The only answer I can think of is that if you do that, they’ll just use ‘a lot of’ every time on the test, and they’d be correct. It begs the question though, is it more important to be able to use basic English well, then move onto the slightly more difficult areas, or are you learning English specifically for use on grammar tests?

Generally, ‘many’ is introduced first as meaning たくさん. Case closed? Nope. Only for countable nouns.

I have many glasses of water.

We use ‘much’ for uncountable nouns when making negative sentences.

I don’t have much water. 

Finally, we use ‘a lot of’ for positive sentences.

I have a lot of water. 

Class finished. Good luck for the test. Sorry, I didn’t have time to mention that ‘a lot of’ actually works in all of those sentences.

I have a lot of glasses of water.

I don’t have a lot of water. 

I’m a big fan of the idea of building basic communicative skills first. It’s really demotivating for students to be told their grammar is wrong all the time, and I believe it’s one reason that a lot of Japanese feel that English is impossible In this case, I’d say that it’s best to get that basic quantifier down first and then move onto talking about the more confusing grammar. I want to see ‘a lot of’ taught a lot more in a lot of classes.

Another example of this is the excessive focus on passive sentences. The passive tense is not actually that common in English use, but as it’s a great target on grammar tests, I feel that it gets more time than it deserves.

Change this sentence from active to passive:

Active: I ate the apple.

Answer: The apple was eaten by me. 

Great test question, but too many questions like this lead students to think the first one isn’t good enough on it’s own, even though it’s the one people would actually say. In my experience, teaching passive sentences before simple active sentences are fully mastered leads students to a skewed perspective on the prevalence of the passive tense. I find this especially true in writing. I’m checking some essays at the moment about injuries, and while this is what the students want to say:

I fell down and broke my leg.

Half of them end up looking like this:

I fell down. My leg was broken. 

I’m not saying don’t teach the passive tense. All I’m suggesting is that the result of focusing too much on easily testable language is that that’s the language that will stand out to the students, regardless of it’s actual prevalence.

What do you think about the content chosen by curriculum planners? Are there any particular words or grammar structures that you feel get too much classroom time? Let me know in the comments.

If you are interested in the book of teaching activities that was written by me, it would be good if the book was looked at by you. There are many activities and ideas for variations that are used by many teachers in their classes. It is the first book that was published by me, so the support of many people is very appreciated by me. I hope this blog is enjoyed by you and if so, it would be great if it was followed by you and our Facebook page was also liked by you.

(See what I did there? Excessive use of the passive tense can be weird..)

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One thought on “Testable grammar vs useable grammar: many passive sentences

  1. I would also consider, in the case of “My leg was broken”, how you would say the same in Japanese. While it’s true that sometimes not very used concept get taught too much, it might also be helpful to remember that especially for not fully mastered grammar/sentences, it is easy for a student to revert to translating from Japanese instead of thinking in English. The Japanese language often prefers indirect/passive statements to the active equivalent. I am however unable to establish if this was the case in this particular instance.

    Liked by 1 person

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