Prescriptivist or descriptivist: Which one are you?

Nelly Martin, Wisconsin, USA | Opinion | Tue, August 28 2012, 4:29 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

It was early in the morning Indonesian time and almost iftar time in Madison when one of my colleagues asked me this question: “Nel, which one is correct: Who did Ben live with? Or whom did Ben live with?

She argued that the first interrogative statement is wrong. However, it is surely confusing for her due to the fact that the book she was using wrote the first one, instead of the second one.

The book, which is edited by a linguist from a US University, has surely left some confusion and doubt in her.

Her perplexity is quite understandable, as the editor is perceived as the “owner” of the language. She and many EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teachers have been taught to religiously formulate the sentence using “whom” if dealing with an object sentence.

Perplexed, she inquired why the “native speaker” of English could utilize the “incorrect” form. It was beyond her understanding that sentence number one can be formally used in an English textbook edited by a US linguist.

So, what’s the deal? If the question was asked a decade ago, I would have had no clue how to answer. I personally cannot say that many (if not all) graduates from State University of Jakarta (UNJ, formerly IKIP Jakarta) are not familiar with the fact that we can use the first sentence pattern in our repertoire.

This can be a serious matter due to the fact that this institution is one of the universities producing teachers — English teachers included.

So, what is the difference with the two constructions? In linguistics field, it is widely known that there are two approaches to analyze both constructions.

It is safe to say that both constructions might be “correct” viewed from two different perspectives. The first construction is referred to as descriptive grammar and the second as prescriptive.

The former tends to take the people and society into account. Language is dynamic, not static. It is a unique organ that deals with the users and society.

Due to its expansion, English has a huge number of speakers all over the world and is one of the languages that have actively evolved, adapted, and has been growing over several years.

With this manner, it is safely assumed that there will be a variety of usages, forms and patterns. As a result, the descriptivists look at the way the society actually uses the language, or communicates with each other.

Often, if not always, the formula seems to violate the prescribed rules. It may be safe to say that a descriptive grammarian tends to synthesize rules of English on the basis of what occurs in the actual communication in society.

On the other hand, the prescriptive grammar goes by the rules. For the prescriptivists, there is only one correct of form, which is written in the grammar book.

Though the society uses it, what is considered as an incorrect form will remain erroneous. It is then safely assumed that what are considered errors by prescriptive grammarian may be descriptively acceptable forms.

With these regards, many prescriptive grammarians feel that the descriptivists are nowadays responsible for the decline of Standard English.

So, who is right? In relation to the two forms of grammatical perspectives, both have their own stances in viewing and analyzing the grammar.

While the prescriptive grammarians tend to only take one “correct and standardized” form, many zealous descriptivists tend to be open minded in seeing it.

For them, language is about usage; if no one really uses the formula, pattern or construction, why bother imposing it?

How about teaching English in Indonesia? To answer this question, we need to highlight how the Indonesian teachers will make use of these two perspectives in their teaching. I should say that it is not only important for teachers to become familiar, but it is also essential to be able to explain the differences of both terms.

Being resourceful, teachers should be able to inform students that there might be a discrepancy between both views.

On the one hand, they should be articulate in explicating the reason why people in US converse in a different construction.

It is significant for both parties to be familiar with the forms, as they may encounter descriptively constructed sentences.

On the other hand, it should be highlighted that students should be well informed that this prescriptive construction is still applied and is an expected answer of the formal and standardized tests of English.

Standardized tests such as TOEFL, IBT, IELTS may only take the prescriptive grammar, without any exception. Therefore, the students may benefit greatly and become well-informed. In the long run, they will grow used to the form when studying abroad and/or communicating with people in the States.

To my own reflection, I can still recall my very first experience as a by-the-book English speaker who struggled with an array of descriptive sentences. Not only was I confused, I often questioned and misunderstood a number of my American friends.

On the other side of the coin, international students who have been taught prescriptively can outperform the American students on the grammar session of the standardized test.

Don’t be surprised if what they speak in daily life can be constructively different from what has been prescribed and what we learned.

Isn’t it interesting how language can play tricks on us? Being well informed may save us, in one way or another.

Therefore, I highly suggest the EFL teachers in expanding circles, like Indonesia, who may not be highly exposed to descriptive English, be open-minded in viewing, learning and teaching the language.

Let’s get ourselves exposed, as much as possible, by accessing as many sources as we can to enhance our English skills.

As a teacher, we need to understand the relations between the language and society, and its relation to the social contexts outside the classroom — culturally, ideologically and politically. Our students’ knowledge is in our hands. Don’t you agree?

The writer is a Fulbright Presidential Scholar, a PhD student at SLA Program, UW-Madison, United States, and an alumna of the department of linguistics, Ohio University. The opinions expressed are her own.

Editorial: Testing teachers

The Jakarta Post | Editorial | Fri, August 10 2012, 10:54 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

Teachers are up in arms these days. This time it is not about their salaries, which in a number of areas have improved. It is about the testing of their competence, which at the end of the day is supposed to contribute to a “mapping” of teacher competence across the country.

Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh says the mandatory tests for certified teachers will not affect wages, but some teachers fear risking their pay if they do not attend.

This year the teachers’ competence test, which runs to Aug. 12 nationwide, is being conducted online. The technical glitches related to the test, which led to thousands having their tests delayed, are one source of anger, but this is the least of the problems.

Testing teachers no doubt has a positive goal. Indonesian students are far from worldwide performers except when they are picked to attend exceptional training sessions for science, prior to joining global Olympiad competitions. The vast majority of students are, to put it crudely, largely left to fate.

A few classes in far-flung places may have extraordinary teachers — those who are passionate day in and day out, while they may have to teach six grades in one school with poor pay, after walking long distances to school along with their students.

The rest may be just struggling to reach the targets of the material to be mastered by students, as determined by the Education and Culture Ministry and its regional offices, ahead of national quarterly and annual exams. Students from elite families have much better learning experiences with better trained teachers.

It is this huge gap in learning conditions across the country which leads skeptics to question the use of the uniform competence test for teachers. As teachers report, some parts of the multiple choice questions are so complicated that they cannot gauge their relevance. Others reflect the similar multiple choices that students face in the testing of their accumulation of information — but not necessarily knowledge.

Despite the criticism, parents agree that they would only trust their children to competent teachers — it was thanks to the tests that we discovered that most teachers, for instance, scored low in English, which might help to explain students’ poor English skills despite years of study.

The results, the minister says, will lead to further training for teachers found to be “less competent.” This would mean the vast majority of teachers, going by the results of this year’s batches, which have yielded average scores of below 50 percent.

As it stands, the current tests are only another source of frustration for teachers, long left to themselves to improve their own welfare. Suspicion abounds — teachers ask whether the tests are just another “proyek”, suspecting corruption.

The tests must be improved upon, but they will only be effective if other urgent measures are conducted. Less competent teachers are still invaluable assets in schools and communities. Despite a good national ratio of one teacher to 18 students, as cited by the initiator of the “Indonesia Teaches Movement”, Anies Baswedan, hundreds of students in many communities depend on a handful of teachers.

Increasing the number of teachers willing to be deployed to poor and remote areas will require a boost from the government, apart from the local initiatives which have contributed to teachers’ incentives.

Let’s get serious about nationwide teacher evaluations

Anita Lie, Surabaya | Opinion | Sat, August 11 2012, 10:51 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

While the nationwide teacher competence test has been poorly administered, removing the test and trusting teachers, as suggested by Setiono Sugiharto (The Jakarta Post, Aug. 4, 2012) may mean overestimating our teachers’ capability to take command of their teaching quality and enhance their professional development.

It is true that some teachers are highly committed and dedicated to their profession. Such teachers are intrinsically driven to be engaged in the continuous improvement of their teaching practices and student learning. Those teachers would be misrepresented in an inappropriately designed and poorly administered competence test. A multiple-choice format competence test would not be adequate to assess and reveal the merits of those teachers.

Without any proper teacher-evaluation system however, performance assessment and professional learning will be neglected. Good teachers will likely improve their skills, but mediocre and poor teachers will continue their bad habits and will do no good for our students. An effective teacher evaluation system should have a clearly-defined purpose, set appropriate priorities and be wedded to a comprehensive approach.

The competence test was launched and was said to map the quality of teachers nationwide, review the quality of all certified teachers and justify extra pay on a quarterly basis. All these objectives have marred and confused the purpose of teacher assessment.

To map the quality of teachers should not require that all teachers be tested. An appropriate sampling should be adequate and more than efficient.

Justifying additional pay for teachers may be part of the political process between the Education and Culture Ministry and the House of Representatives. Thus, it should not be resolved by administering such a large-scale test. Should the competence test really aim to review the quality of certified teachers, further questions will arise.

To what end does the competence test lead teachers? Is the goal to promote student learning or merely to review teachers’ quality? What aspects of high-quality teaching does it assess?

Any program or activity in the education system should eventually aim at promoting student learning. Scoring high on the multiple choice test does not directly translate into improved teacher practices and student learning. When the education system clearly and consistently pursues assessment and growth for every teacher, teachers will stay focused on their own growth as well as that of their students.

An effective teacher-performance-assessment system includes continuous professional development, peer coaching, principal involvement and leadership at the school level.

At the end of the day, a serious teacher evaluation system requires the authority to take tough decisions in relation to rewarding the good teachers, improving the not-so-good teachers or dismissing the bad ones. This system is founded on the assumption that “all teachers can and want to learn” until on a case-by-case basis, some teachers prove unwilling or unable to do so.

Should the teacher assessment really aim at promoting student learning, it requires a comprehensive approach. Improving teachers’ qualities, which then leads to student learning, goes beyond the results of multiple-choice competence tests.

The growth of teachers needs to be assessed on a day-to-day basis. This means principals have to systematically conduct their supervision responsibility. While the official supervisors at the district education level rarely perform their duties properly, few principals carry out the classroom observation tasks or design a system of mentoring, peer-observation and supervision in their schools. Consequently, few school leaders have developed adequate supervision skills and thus teachers are left to sink or swim throughout their teaching careers.

A nation that is serious about improving the learning of its children should start by appointing education executives who are consistent enough to make teacher’s growth one of the highest priorities of education development.

The recent teachers’ competence test may be positively regarded as a good start in enhancing teachers’ growth, but unfortunately the test remains far from an appropriately designed model of teacher evaluation. To enhance student learning, more thought and effort should be integrated into an effective teacher performance assessment system.

The writer is a professor at Widya Mandala Catholic University, Surabaya.