Define Your Own Terms

When teaching grammar, there are a lot of multi-syllable terms we use, official words that are rarely used outside of English class.  Words like ‘participle’.  Words that are long, strange-sounding, and infrequent enough that they are hard to remember a day after you last used them, not to mention months after you last used them.

“Can anyone tell me what the gerund is in this sentence?”

“The what?”

“The gerund.”

“What’s that?”

Sigh.  “That’s the word that looks like a verb but acts like a noun.  Remember?”

“Oh yeah!  The verby-noun?”

Another sigh.  “Yes, the verby-noun.”

“Yeah.  It’s ‘climbing’.”

“Okay, thank you.”

If your students are like this, then to what extent is it beneficial to continue calling it a ‘gerund’?  That term is great for linguists and language enthusiasts, but what good is it to a student?  If they understand the concept, who cares what name they attach to said concept?  If your students think of gerunds as ‘verby-nouns’, then call them ‘verby-nouns’ from here on out.

One of the frequent non-official terms we use in our videos is ‘Verb 3’ or ‘V3’, meaning the past-participle form.  I actually didn’t make that up myself; some of my Turkish students were taught that in school, so that’s what they knew.  And they used it correctly.  So what point was there in me teaching them to call it ‘past participle’ instead of ‘Verb 3’?  Actually, it made it easier not just for them, but for me as well; it’s quicker to say ‘Verb 3’ and to write ‘V3’ compared to ‘past participle’.  So I’ve used that ever since, even with my students who aren’t Turkish.  I can tell you from experience that it’s saved me and my students a lot of trouble.

Ultimately, it’s not about what you prefer, but what’s best for the students.  So let them decide what to call something.  When I teach the Past Perfect tense (as it relates to a narrative sequence), I tell my students it’s ‘the past of the past’, ‘double-past’, or ‘super-past’.  Then I ask them which makes the most sense to them.  Different classes have chosen different terms.  Whatever they decide, I’ll stick with.

Another example I’ve used is ‘smash’ for ‘contractions’.  ‘Smash’ sounds cooler and is easy to remember because learners can visualize taking two words and smashing them together into one new word.

You may want to think of easy-to-remember terms before you present their relevant topics, or maybe it’s better if you come up with them on the fly.  If your students are creative and engaged, maybe you can ask for their suggestions.

You might need to teach your students official terms before they take some big exam that you didn’t write, but for the most part, the name for a concept is irrelevant.  In language production, we don’t stop to think, “Hmm, what’s the best collocation for this situation.”  Even if we wonder that, the term ‘collocation’ doesn’t come to our minds (again, unless your a linguist or English enthusiast).  Babies don’t need to learn the word ‘laugh’ before they can start laughing.  So if you can’t think of a reason to teach a technical term to your students, make it easier on them by teaching a made-up term instead.

As long as your students can communicate well, you’ve done your job.

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