Giving the Wrong Signal? The Role of ‘Signal Words’ in Teaching Tense and Aspect in the EFL Classroom


posted by Ulrike Altendorf, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

What would German learners of English do without ‘signal words’? — ‘Signal word’ is TEFLSPEAK-G, a literal translation of the German classroom term Signalwort that refers to temporal markers, mostly adverbial and prepositional phrases, taught as automatic triggers of certain tenses or aspects. Ask a non-native student of English – at secondary school or at university level – when to use, for example, the present perfect and you will get the following: a list of ‘signal words’, mostly just, ever, never, since and for, and, if you are lucky, the odd grammar rule of the categorical type.

And why not? After all, ‘signal words’ have many advantages. They work with little cognitive effort. They are easy to remember and even easier to put into practice. They spare us the onerous meta-linguistic discussion that modern teaching professionals, many of them still working in the wake of Krashen, seek to avoid. They also spare us to go into detail about a complex and still under-researched area of English grammar that even advanced students and non-native teachers of the language tend to feel insecure about.

However, it is, in my opinion, exactly the heavy reliance on ‘signal words’ that plays an important role in creating this insecurity in the first place. It makes non-native speakers dependent on a ‘safety anchor’ which is often misleading and even more often absent. As Schlüter (e.g. 2000) has shown for the present perfect, only about a third of his approximately 3,000 verb phrases were specified by temporal markers. And if the desired temporal marker occurs, it does not necessarily ‘trigger’ the tense or aspect that students expect on the basis of didacticized grammar rules. Never, for example, which EFL learners usually interpret as a ‘signal word’ for the present perfect can also occur with other tenses including the simple past. In the BNC (British National Corpus) World Edition it occurs even more frequently with the simple past than with the present perfect.

Apart form leaving students in the dark about the correct functioning of tense and aspect in English, ‘signal words’ also deprive them of communicative options. After all, tense and aspect can be used to express a range of attitudes and functions, including tentativeness and annoyance. These and other communicative functions should be available to advanced learners of English, especially if their language education prides itself in aiming at communicative competence. In order to become familiar with these options, advanced learners need to be introduced to the more complex functioning of tense and aspect, from an early, at least intermediate level onwards. It is true that ‘signal words’ come in handy for pre-pubescent beginners. With increasing cognitive maturation and language proficiency, however, teachers should gradually move away from the gross oversimplication of the ‘signal-word’ strategy. For this purpose, one should also move away from the old-fashioned prejudice that language work is inevitably boring, theoretical and irrelevant. In the hands of an able teacher, language work can be interesting and intriguing as well as cognitively demanding.

The approach outlined by Jürgen Kurtz in this blog provides a flexible methodological framework for such an undertaking. In message-oriented communication students will encounter or be made aware of situations in which a more skilful handling of a particular tense or aspect would have helped their communicative cause. In the related medium-oriented intervals, the relevant meta-linguistic information can be provided, also inductively. In the following message-oriented section, the newly acquired insights can immediately be put to the test. Unmotivated pondering over seemingly superfluous linguistic structure, which some students will have forgotten again at production stage, will hopefully become a thing of the past.

Schlüter, Norbert (2000). “The present perfect in British and American English: selected results of an empirical study.” In: Christian Mair & Marianne Hundt (Eds.). Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory. Amsterdam/Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 313-320.

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