In the internet era, when an almost unlimited number of free teaching resources exist in cyberspace, is there a place for a pay-to-join online grammar instruction/advisor program?
I was recently contacted by a representative who works for an organization that has designed and created Grammar Advisor. He e-mailed me for the purpose of requesting that I look at the program and potentially write a review on Tefl Spin. As someone who is constantly looking for fresh material and topics to write about, I agreed.
I think it is important to note that there was no quid pro quo of any kind for my agreeing to review this service. I have received no payment and would not accept any type of remuneration to favourably mention or endorse a product or service on this blog. On the other hand, I may at some point in the future accept banner advertising from those who are interested. Some people may question such a decision but that's a discussion that will take place another time.
I looked at Grammar Advisor with some pre-conceived notions. First, it's not the type of service I would ever sign up for. I am one of those rare individuals who actually enjoys reading grammar books, essays on linguistics and other articles and websites related to language. There is so much free material out there that I would never be moved to pay for what I would have assumed would be relatively redundant information. The site is marketed as a support service for those who need help with grammar. So it probably won't appeal to those who are already comfortable with the subject or simply have the time and/or enjoy clarifying, through research, any questions or concerns they may have.
In fact, I have some doubts that it will even successfully reach the intended audience. My experience has been that those who are lacking in their knowledge of English grammar and have limited ability to teach it will shun any resources and avoid the necessary effort to improve. Unfortunately, it is possible to fake your way through many teaching contracts, especially in Asia. The laziest and most shamelessly bad teachers will be unlikely to make attempts to get better.
Most people have certain subject areas that, for them, contain no interest, inspire no sense of joy and fail to motivate them in any way. A grey, hazy blandness surrounds the very mention of anything to do with their most dreaded and avoided topic.
Content and Presentation
The site is slick and professional and the material is generally presented in an interesting and logical way. The program is broken down into various sections, including: words, sentences, tenses and teaching. Within each section there is a fair amount of content. There was obviously a huge effort made in producing the site and on first glance, the results are impressive.
The course goes over the basics and also includes, at least in some sections, more difficult material for those who might be interested in eventually studying applied linguistics. Some of the explanations are made in a conversational way using simple analogies and memory aids that avoid the language of deductive grammar and the accompanying jargon. Of course, the deductive explanations and all related terms are also included. The likely goal was to include traditional illustrations while also coming at things in different ways so as to cater to those whose eyes glaze over at the very mention of grammar.
I found some of the explanations a bit convoluted. For example:
Others passages were more succinct and effective.
One way to see if a word is a noun is to place a word in front of it that should go in front of a noun (an article and/or adjective) and check the sound. For example, try saying “the awesome” before any on the nouns previously used: the awesome dog, the awesome juice, the awesome beauty, the awesome belief, the awesome Marianne Rains, the awesome RiverCityCollege. Contrast the correct sound of this pattern (article-adjective-noun) with the wrong sound made by the awesome eaten (verb) or the awesome rapidly (adverb). The words that sound right and familiar in this pattern are nouns, so the pattern, article-adjective-noun, can help in labeling.
A nice touch is the inclusion of two sound clips on each page. They are delivered by clicking on a play button that activates the voice and movement of animated characters. More than just a gimmick, each short blurb offers an interesting tidbit that gives some context to the other information as well as providing a nice break from the reading.
Another part of the site that I found quite enjoyable and useful was the "teaching" section. There are some very helpful articles that contain advice on integrating grammar points into lesson plans.
However, though there was in-depth material regarding some points throughout the website, I found many sections fairly lean in terms of the amount of information provided. It's true that that is usually all that is needed when covering a single grammar point. Many grammar books similarly offer up direct and to-the-point explanations that avoid complicating matters. But most of those books are padded out with numerous exercises. And many of them contain clarification regarding the niggling little exceptions to the rules that can prove to be the stumbling blocks for both language teachers and their students.
Grammar Advisor does include quizzes for most topics but they are very short and limited in scope.
While all major points are detailed in the various sections, I felt that they often didn't go beyond the basics. For example, while the present perfect verb tense was explained in a perfectly acceptable way, it didn't go into many of the subtleties and forms that are possible such as the use of "yet" and "just". In the sentences section, the subject-verb-object concept is introduced but I failed to find the intricacies and problems that arise regarding subject-verb agreement. That's an issue that plagues all learners of English as a second language.
In fact, many grammar books omit and gloss over certain elements while succeeding in other areas. And that is my major concern with a one-stop concept for learning grammar. My experience has always been an exercise in comparison. Various sources are consulted and they end up complementing each other. One website focuses on a detail that you happened to be looking for and another book outlines something in a way that makes it perfectly clear while yet another highlights an exception that you were trying to articulate.
This brings us to the one big intangible about Grammar Advisor. The "Ask the Advisor" feature is supposed to overcome any shortcomings and fulfill the tacit claim that no other sources are necessary.
Ask the Advisor
The nature of teaching English as a second language is that you will never be able to anticipate the myriad of questions and conundrums that arise. This is mainly due to the fact that your students are seeing English through the prism of their native language. Because of the nuances and differences from their language, you would probably never be able to anticipate the various angles and problems that will crop up. That's one of the intriguing and fun parts of teaching the English language. The old maxim is true that the best way to learn something is to teach it.
I see a number of possible pitfalls regarding "Ask the Advisor." Those who have signed up for full access are urged to first search the archives for the answer to their queries. Together with all the instructional content, there are a number of submissions and answers already provided though they have a certain canned feel to them.
The questions that actually come from students and stump the teachers, who will subsequently submit them to Grammar Advisor, are the types of queries that could be very challenging. Even explaining certain questions correctly takes a special touch. And then the response must avoid assumptions and express the information in a clear and concise way. The answer itself could very well create a new batch of dilemmas. I anticipate many frustrating exchanges with e-mails that begin along the lines of, "No, what I really mean is," "Yes, I understand that part but I actually wanted to know..."
Will these questions be dealt with in a timely manner? Will chronic question askers eventually start to get the brush off? Can those considering Grammar Advisor as an option be certain that all advisors on staff are going to give them thorough and accurate information? These and many more concerns surround this important element of the service. I suppose I could have sent in a tricky and obscure grammar query and gauged their response but, again, it wouldn't really replicate a real-life situation.
For me, the effectiveness and worth of Grammar Advisor as a paid service really hinge on many of these questions.
Grammar Advisor isn't for everyone. For the price of joining, a new teacher could purchase a few solid grammar books and supplement that information with dozens of free online sites. If the advisor feature proves to be timely, effective and something that is honoured throughout the duration of the membership, then the overall value is much higher. The hours saved in not searching numerous volumes and different websites for the answer to a question could make it just what many are looking for.
Also, as a fairly comprehensive stand-alone online instructional guide for those who want a very complete introduction to English grammar, it well may be an option worth considering. And to be fair, websites can be modified with little effort. In other words, more content may be added and certain things tweaked once they have received feedback.
Overall, Grammar Advisor is a fairly impressive entry in the still young and burgeoning world of online learning.