Bored or boring – instructional grammar videos for flipped learning

Posted: July 17, 2020 in Flipped learning, grammar
Tags: , , , , , ,

Flipped learning undoubtedly has much potential and now, when F2F teaching is not always possible, the case for exploring what it might offer seems greater still. For a variety of reasons (not the least of which are motivational issues), it may not always be possible to flip the classroom, but, if and when it is, how and what should be flipped?

In the most well-known flipped approaches, such as the Khan Academy, students watch instructional videos in their own time, before coming to class where they can work together on practical problems, applying the knowledge they have gained from the instructional video. The flipped part of the learning does not need to be a video (Bergmann et al., 2013), but, in practice, it usually is. But whether video or something else, one of the big questions for me is what, precisely, does it make sense to flip?

In a recently published Cambridge Paper in ELT that I wrote on Flipped Learning, I noted that it is not uncommon for grammar instruction to be flipped. Al-Harbi & Alshumaimeri (2016), for example, describe a Saudi secondary school where the teacher selected a number of grammar areas from the coursebook and then identified instructional videos from YouTube that addressed these areas. Buitrago & Díaz (2018) describe a Colombian university where students were required to watch instructional videos about grammar, some of which were selected from YouTube and others created by members of staff.

To understand better what learners might be doing in their flipped time, I decided to take a look at a selection of YouTube grammar videos. I focussed on one area of grammar only (‘bored’ vs ‘boring’) and from the huge selection available, I prioritised those that were the most popular. Here’s what I found. After a brief commentary on each of the 10 videos, I wrap up with a few observations.

mmmEnglish 1245K views 8.33 minutes

mmmEnglish

Early on, Emma says ‘These endings are called suffixes and when we add them to the end of a verb, they transform our verb into an adjective, but you need to know how to use each of these types of adjectives and we’re gonna do that right now’. This gives a good taste of what follows. We learn that –ing adjectives refer to ‘the characteristics of a person, a thing, or a situation’ while –ed adjectives refer to an ‘emotion or a feeling’. Bearing in mind that this area of grammar is listed as A2+ (in Pearson’s GSE), explanations of this kind in English may be tricky for many learners. The language grading in explanations like ‘If you say that someone or something is boring, they or it makes you feel bored. Do the thing or the person that is boring is what makes you feel bored. It bores you. OK, there’s our verb’ needs a little attention! On and on goes Emma, until after almost five minutes she reads out a few sentences and students have to decide if the correct adjective has been used. Over a million people have watched this.

Learn English with Let’s Talk 452K views 8.52 minutes

Lets Talk

Rashna explains: ‘First, let’s begin by understanding what are adjectives’. My heart sinks. ‘So ‘pretty’ is doing the job of describing or bringing about a quality of the noun ‘girl’, so ‘pretty’ becomes my adjective. So when you’re confused and don’t know how to spot the adjectives, ask the question ‘what kind’. All right. So, if I say I live in a big city, and if I ask what kind of a city, it’s big, so ‘big’ is an adjective that is describing the noun ‘city’. All right. So remember, adjectives are nothing but just words that describe a noun that tell you more about it or bring about some quality.’ Over a quarter of the way through and we haven’t yet got on to –ed and –ing. I recommend watching all the way through to the end just to admire the whiteboard work. You might enjoy the comments, too (e.g. ‘Thanks very much. This lesson was confused me so much.’) Coming up for half a million views.

Alejo Lopera Inglés 428K views 4.07 minutes

Alejo

The only English here is in the example sentences, with Spanish being used for the rest. The explanation hinges on ‘pienso’ (think) for –ing and ‘sentimiento’ (feeling) for –ed, which only kind of works. Alejo takes us through a few examples using a combination of talking-head video and background slides. His delivery is engaging and using Spanish makes things clearer than English only.

English Lessons with Adam 357K views 5.27 minutes

Adam

Standing in front of the whiteboard, Adam says that his video is especially useful for beginners. He rambles on for over 5 minutes in language which is far more complicated than the language he is explaining. Here’s a flavour: Now, what does it mean to be bored and what does it mean to be boring? When we talk about “bored”, we’re describing a feeling. Okay? When we talk about “interested”, we’re describing a feeling. So all of the “ed” adjectives are actually feelings, and you can only use them to talk about people and sometimes animals. Why? Because things, like chairs, or tables, or whatever, they don’t have feelings. […]”I am worried”, now people don’t realize that “worried” can have “worrying” as another adjective. “The situation is worrying” means the situation is making me feel worried. Okay? Maybe the whole global political situation, whatever. Now, hopefully none of you are confused by this lesson because I’m trying to make it not confusing. Okay? Everybody okay with that? […] Now, I just want to point out one other thing: Don’t confuse feeling adjectives with “ed” with actual feelings. Okay? If somebody is loved, does he feel loved? Maybe yes, maybe no. We’re not talking about that person’s feelings.

Crown Academy of English 270K views 26.57 minutes

Crown academy

Using screen capture and voiceover software, the script is mostly read aloud from the screen. There is no attempt to make either the script or the delivery interesting. The approach is as traditional as can be: it focuses first on form, with no shying away from grammatical jargon, and eventually moves on to meaning. And then, if you’re still awake, there’s a discrimination exercise. After over 25 minutes of death-by-Powerpoint, the lesson comes, mercifully, to an end.

 

Learn English with Rebecca 274K views 3.30 minutes

Rebecca

From the same stable as Adam’s video, this is more controlled than his ramble, and with slightly better language grading, but is still hard to follow, in part because no examples are given in written form. As with Adam, Rebecca bangs on about how important it is to get this grammar right, because ‘if you make a mistake you could be saying something very unpleasant about yourself’. It’s hard to tell what level it’s intended for.

Francisco Ochoa Inglés Fácil 64K views 11.02 minutes

Pacho

Switching between Spanish and English, Pacho rattles non-stop through 6 discrimination sentences, taking the difference between feelings (which take the Spanish ‘estar’) and states (which take the Spanish ‘ser’) as his key explanatory tool. This doesn’t quite work, but following his breakneck delivery is more of a problem. The only thing he doesn’t translate are the commas in his examples. I challenge you not to feel confused / confusing by the time he gets to the third sentence. Even Pacho seems to be struggling. Words like ‘hence’ and tenses like past perfect continuous don’t help his 11 minute monologue. I loved the way that he says at the end that the only way to learn this stuff is by applying the language in the way he has just done.

BBC Learning English 48K views 0.56 minutes

BBC_Learning_English

In under a minute, Sam from BBC Learning English achieves much greater clarity than anyone else I watched, helped by a carefully planned script, very controlled language and a split screen showing the key points as she makes them. Towards the end, she rattles through 5 more –ed / -ing pairs rather too quickly. It’s a shame, I thought, that she (or the producers) felt the need to reference the old trope about how boring grammar lessons are.

Shaw English Online 46K views 8.49 minutes

Shaw English Online

The explanation is mercifully brief and the language of Fanny, the presenter, is well controlled. We could do without the exhortations to listen carefully, etc, ‘because this is very important’, but you can’t have everything. A lot of examples are given, before the explanations are repeated. The repetitions don’t help as Fanny resorts to more complicated language than the language she is explaining (e.g. ‘But when you say the teacher was boring, you are describing the teacher, OK, the teacher made the students feel bored, because he or she was boring’). After nearly 4 minutes of presentation, there are some practice discrimination tasks, but Fanny’s relentless commentary gets seriously in the way. The lesson is rounded off with a few minutes of repeat-after-me pronunciation practice.

Mad English TV 24K views 6.59 minutes

Mad_English

In a surreal opening, the presenter talks about the three different states of H2O, before explaining that people, too, can have different states. Eventually, we get to the idea that ‘boring’ is an accusation, ‘bored’ is a state: ‘If you go up to your teacher and say ‘you’re boring’, that’s an insult’. The language grading is all over the place, as is the explanation itself. As a general rule, the longer the explanation, the less clear it is. At 7 minutes, this video is no exception to the rule. When we get to a mini-test (a useful feature that not all other videos have), the choice is ‘My cat is _______’. To know the answer, you need to know if you’re making an accusation about the cat. Got it?

Flipped learning and grammar

Although grammar instruction might seem a strong candidate for a flipped treatment, videoed explanations are clearly not the way to do it. Many coursebooks have perfectly adequate guided discoveries of this and other standard grammar points. Newer courses on platforms have interactive guided discoveries (and often also offer a more traditional deductive route) that will also do the trick much better than videoed explanations. Would learners not be better off doing something else altogether with their time? Initial vocabulary study, listening, reading, writing, almost anything in fact, is a more appropriate target for flipping than grammar, when approached in this way. Video is not the solution to a problem: on the evidence here, it makes the problem worse.

The popularity of grammar videos

It’s very hard to watch this stuff and not scoff, but there’s no denying the immense popularity of videos like these. Much as I find it difficult to believe, people must be learning something (or think they are learning something) from watching them. Otherwise, they presumably wouldn’t consume them to such an extent. Perhaps, these videos conform to expectations about what English lessons should be like? Perhaps viewers subscribe to a belief in ‘no pain, no gain’? Perhaps they simply don’t know where to find something that would help them more? Or perhaps they have been told to watch by their flipping teachers?

Emma has had 1.25 million views. Advertising earnings from 1 million YouTube views are generally reckoned to be between $600-$7000, but are likely to be at the higher end of this scale if (1) people watch the video through to the end (which is probably the case here), and (2) viewers interact with the video through likes and comment (for this video Emma has received 2353 comments). Earnings are also higher when you have more subscribers to your channel. Emma can count on 3.25 million subscribers and Rachna of Let’s Talk has 4.77 million subscribers. By way of contrast, Russell Stannard’s Teacher Training Videos has 40,000 subscribers. There’s gold in them thar hills.

Grammar videos and the world of ELT

Free grammar videos, along with self-study apps like Duolingo, are a huge and thriving sector of ELT. They rarely, if ever, feature in research, conference presentations or the broader discourse of ELT, a world, it seems, much more oriented to products you have to pay for.

References

Al-Harbi, S.S., & Alshumaimeri, Y.A. (2016). The flipped classroom impact in grammar class on EFL Saudi secondary school students’ performances and attitudes. English Language Teaching, 9(10): 60–80. Available at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1113506.pdf

Bergmann, J., Overmeyer, J., & Wilie, B. (2013). The flipped class: myth vs. reality. The Daily Riff, July 9, 2013. Available at: http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/the-flipped-class-conversation-689.php

Buitrago, C. R., & Díaz, J. (2018). Flipping your writing lessons: Optimizing your time in your EFL writing classroom. In Mehring, J., & Leis, A. (Eds.), Innovations in Flipping the Language Classroom. Singapore: Springer, 69–91.

Comments
  1. “…Or perhaps they have been told to watch by their flipping teachers?” Tee hee hee ;oD

    I knew I should have become the YouTube Grammar guy back in 2010. Doh!

  2. mjholmwood says:

    I certainly see the advantages of flipping, perhaps more specifically allowing students to “pre-learn” relevant vocabulary before entering the classroom. The fascination of grammar escapes me. Having learned or attempted to learn three foreign languages, I always find it easier to learn the language rather than study the structure of it. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that grammar has a place in language learning, but it is certainly not my first concern.
    I wonder if any one reading this blog has actually really learned a language by watching YouTube (grammar) videos.

  3. The article focuses on videos about the grammar of “boring” / “bored” / “tiring” / “tired” etc, to show examples of the (low) quality of YouTube grammar videos available. This prompted me to consider producing my own video about this, but I have decided against it now – see below, where I share my thoughts about this particular grammar issue.

    What do I think about all the grammar teachers on YouTube? Probably somewhere in the middle. Perhaps the videos are good examples of “real English”, but probably not as useful as they appear to claim for teaching the actual grammar points, especially for lower levels. I haven’t really watched this kind of video much.

    Thinking about “boring” / “bored” / “tiring” / “tired” etc:-
    At the most elementary level, they are simply adjectives with meaning (like “green”, “happy” etc.) That’s how (I believe) they appear to most native speaker young children. At a much higher level of understanding (e.g. teenager native speakers/upper intermediate learners), they are forms of verbs (“bore”, “tire” etc.), although people at this level are not necessarily able to use the term “verb”. (And at the highest levels, we can use technical terms and say that they are “participles” of verbs.)

    In TEFL, we (instructors) often seem to want to use a middle level of understanding: we recognise a pattern but don’t relate it to a verb. This is understandable; however it is problematic, largely because the -ed form looks like a past form, but is actually a participle (and all the verbs that these adjectives come from are regular). This could make “interested” etc. counter-intuitive to a learner (as it appears that it could be the past of a verb “interest”). I think that Pearson is wrong to regard this as “A2+” grammar, and this should not be specifically taught before upper-intermediate: students can be left to notice patterns themselves. It does not appear in my copy of Murphy’s “Essential Grammar In Use” at all; there are other grammar patterns that are more crucial for the learners to know.

    I think that lower intermediate students only need to be able to produce 3 of these adjectives: “tired”, “boring” and “interesting”. “Tired” can be demonstrated by faking exhaustion (or by a picture). If you do the same thing every day in a school or job, and you don’t like this, the work is “boring”. If something isn’t boring, then it’s “interesting”. If learners encounter other words that use this grammar, the instructor can explain their meanings without discussing this grammar. For example, something that is “exhausting” makes you very tired; somebody who is “worried” is nervous.

  4. Very interesting and timely, but I do have some concerns (full disclosure: I run a Youtube channel focusing on grammar, albeit for learners of Russian).

    For better or worse, Youtube doesn’t moderate for quality. Prioritizing channels that are popular for your sample may tell us more about whose channel has been up longest, or who’s best at SEO and marketing, than it does about the potential of the medium. There are many trashy or silly books that are bestsellers, but that doesn’t detract from the potential of good books.

    Sam’s BBC Learning English video was good not despite the format, but because her explanation was clear; indeed, the split screen, with text synchronized to her explanation, is a feature of video not available in other formats.

    The explanations in the other videos you described would be just as problematic presented live in a classroom, so again, the issue is the content, not the format.

    Creating a good video is hard work that demands an additional skill set for this new area of materials development. Clearly, not everyone has these skills, but there are good examples out there; I’ve been impressed by the videos on the Yoyo Chinese channel, which I watch (as a beginner in Mandarin) not for the reasons you suggest (not knowing any better, etc.), but because they helped me learn.

    If you’re not soured on the topic, I’d suggest you look at yoyochinese, or Olga Jarrell’s excellent “Amazing Russian” channel, from the perspective of a learner – keeping in mind that nobody “learns a language” by just watching a video; but that a clear explanation, accessible any time, can be a helpful part of a teacher’s toolkit, particularly in these days of forced online and remote learning.

    It’d be a shame if efforts of dubious quality discouraged people from creating their own, more carefully crafted videos. I found this article by Cynthia Brame on effective educational videos to be helpful:
    https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/effective-educational-videos/

  5. theenglishtester says:

    A trend across the board on Youtube seems to be for students to prefer videos to be presented entirely in the language they are trying to learn. It’s almost as if it’s the teacher’s clear accent that attracts them rather than the content itself.

  6. nmwhiteport says:

    “My heart sinks.”

    Literally crying with laughter right now!

  7. nmwhiteport says:

    “Perhaps, these videos conform to expectations about what English lessons should be like? Perhaps viewers subscribe to a belief in ‘no pain, no gain’? Perhaps they simply don’t know where to find something that would help them more? Or perhaps they have been told to watch by their flipping teachers?”

    It would be interesting to speculate on the circumstances in which these videos are watched and what kind of manipulations students use (or are encouraged to use by others) while watching them.

    YouTube videos allow you to switch on automatic subtitles, either in English or in a range of L2s (including, bizarrely, Esperanto).

    They also allow you to control the playback speed – many challening L2 videos are made comparatively easier to deal with at 0.75 speed than at 1.0 speed.

    And where are they and what are they doing while the video is on?

    Many users of YouTube are doing homework, riding the bus, cooking, playing games, texting friends, etc. while a video may be playing in the background. How much is actually retained – or even noticed first time around – is open to question.

    In other words, a possible addition to the list of ‘Perhapses …’ is someone who plays the video in a similar spirit to those who have unused gym membership cards languishing in their wallets following a burst of January-first optimism …

  8. […] just because it’s on the internet, doesn’t mean it’s a model you want to follow. Philip Kerr explains. This could be a good way to hone your skills by working out what not to […]

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