Easy/Difficult to Learn/Teach
We know from our
experience as teachers and learners that there are no absolutes of
"ease" and "difficulty" in language learning. Perhaps a more
accurate way of talking about "ease" and "difficulty" might be to
think in terms of a scale of "easier" to "more difficult."
Yet we sometimes
talk and write about language learning and grammar teaching as if
some absolutes did exist. One of the truisms of curriculum design
is that we are supposed to start with easy things and then move
on to difficult things. However, that truism seems to be misleading
because it assumes a distinction that is very difficult to make.
Difficult for whom? Easy for whom?
Indeed this approach
to "ease" and "difficulty" does not clearly articulate the
place of the teacher in the system and perhaps mixes up the difficulty
of explaining grammar with the difficulty of learning it.
Upon reflection, it seems to me that "ease of learning" intersects
in some important ways with "ease of teaching." And that we
need to be clear when we talk about a grammar item being "easy"
that we know who it is easy for--the learner or the teacher.
Let's think first
about what makes a part of grammar easy or hard to teach.
Then, about what makes grammar easy or hard to learn. Finally,
we can put those two concepts together in a matrix with four subdivisions:
easy to learn and easy to teach, easy to learn but hard to teach,
hard to learn but easy to teach, and hard to learn and hard to teach.
The matrix can help us to understand why our work with our students
sometimes seems to flow along easily and why we sometimes seem to
be working at cross purposes to each other.
Difficult to Teach: The Teacher-Centered
Point of View
"Difficult to teach"
has various possible interpretations because of the many meanings
of "teach." It includes "difficult to explain to my students" but
could also include "difficult to find activities that lead to my students
learning rapidly to do this thing consistently." The difficulty for
teachers can also arise from our own lack of knowledge. For example,
on the whole, no explanation of the English article system has led
to my feeling confident that I truly understand how articles are used
in context and that I can explain every example that students might
find in authentic contexts and might ask me to explain to them.
Difficult to Learn: The Student-Centered
Point of View
"Difficult to learn"
refers both to the time a student takes to learn a particular structure
and the consistency with which s/he uses it. We all are aware that
language learning takes time (and energy and support and input and
opportunities for output) with some aspects of the new language coming
earlier in the process and with less effort--and therefore being called
"easy"--while other aspects of the language come later with more effort
and with inconsistencies in production--and therefore being called
As learners we
have experienced and as teachers we have observed, the change in
"difficulty/ease" for a particular item in different contexts. Students
can handle a particular bit of grammar "easily" in exercises--especially
in sentence-level drills and short bursts of production but cannot
handle that structure in expanded contexts such as in writing whole
pieces (paragraphs, essays, etc.). The same student might find subject-verb
agreement a snap in drills but cannot identify the subjects of her/his
own sentences and cannot consistently decide which verbs needs to
have an added -s.
also think that certain items of grammar are "easy" not because
they can use them consistently but because they have heard so much
about them over so many years. The concept of the grammar is familiar
to them--even when their ability to produce the grammar is inconsistent.
learners from different linguistic backgrounds will have different
nominees for the "ease/difficult" matrix. While speakers of Chinese
and of Spanish will all have difficulties with the English article
system, their problems come with different aspects of the system.
Easy to Teach
These are the
aspects of teaching that don't require huge effort. We feel
confident that we understand the material and have interesting ways
of presenting the lessons. We don't feel worried or tentative
or in need of more study.
Easy to Learn
This kind of learning
seems so simple for us as learners. Something magical happens--and
we can understand or do whatever it was that we focused on.
We don't have to struggle and we can consistently produce what we've
Easy to Learn and Easy
to Teach: Basic Word Order in Sentences
While some students
continue to have trouble with word order in sentences, most students
learn the basic order early in their study of English and do not
have major difficulties with sentence level order. (Some students
will continue to have trouble with noun + adjective ordering but
that is not the same as getting subject + verb + object in the correct
Easy to Learn and Difficult
to Teach: Passive Sentence Formation
Formation of the
passive sentences is not especially difficult for most students.
Of course, learning to use passive sentences appropriately is a
problem for many writers--not just ESL students but native speakers
of English, too. Nevertheless it does seem that understanding the
passive patterns and following them seems to be relatively easy
for most students. However, linguists continue to argue about the
correct explanation for the formation of the passive sentence: it
is a transformation of the active? is it something different from
and parallel to the active sentence? Those of us listening to these
discussions find that we are not as positive as we used to be about
how to explain the formation of the passive. Since students are
not having as many problems with formation as well use perhaps we
need to focus on their problems by working with use in context rather
than explanations about sentence formation that are of doubtful
accuracy and usefulness.
Difficult to Learn and
Easy to Teach: Subject-Verb Agreement
The rules for
subject-verb agreement seem straightforward for most teachers, but
accurate formation of verbs in the context of certain subjects remains
a problem for many students even when they have mastered many other
features of English.
Difficult to Learn and
Difficult to Teach: English Articles and Present Perfect Verb Tense
seem to have shared my experience that the English articles are
difficult for us to explain and difficult for many of our students
to learn to use accurately. Present perfect verb tense is another
topic that many teachers find difficult to explain and that most
students find a puzzle to learn to use accurately.
Please send your
questions and comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would be especially interested to know your own experiences with
areas of teaching/learning that fit into this matrix as easy to
teach/learn, easy to teach/hard to learn, hard to teach/easy to
learn, or hard to learn/hard to teach. Thanks!