But What About Grammar?

This year I am teaching Spanish 3 for the first time. During the summer of 2016 I brought home the textbook for some preliminary planning. What I quickly found was that I absolutely hated the vocabulary introduced in the book. It was pretty impractical and, in some cases, downright ridiculous (Who really needs to know how to say “to foment,” even if it is a cognate?). I explained my feelings about the vocabulary to my department head, who agreed with me that my students should be learning other, more practical and timely words and expressions. After I promised to generate a list of vocabulary words that I taught in class for next year’s Spanish 4 teacher (but I recently found out that I will be next year’s Spanish 4 teacher, so I don’t have to do it), she gave me permission to use any vocabulary that I deemed appropriate or important for my students if I made sure to cover all grammar topics. “As long as you teach the grammar, I don’t care what kind of vocabulary you teach,” my department head said.

For many traditional teachers (of which my department head is one), teaching grammar is essential. It is seen as being the essential building blocks of the language. And while that is true, after over twenty years of teaching I have found that, if the goal is for students to acquire language, my students have benefited very little from explicit grammar instruction (except maybe for those freaky geniuses who are going to grow up to be second language teachers). Personally, I would rather spend my limited classroom time providing my students with comprehensible input (CI) than teaching them grammar rules (most of which my students tend to forget once they’ve taken their final assessment on that grammar rule). But since my boss told me that I had to teach the grammar, that is what I will do.

And yet, she didn’t tell me how to teach the grammar. And since I would rather spend my time delivering CI, I have been using a variety of techniques to make sure that students are getting grammar instruction in the most painless and least time-consuming way possible. Below are some techniques I have been using this year, often in combination.

1. The “flipped” classroom model. The idea behind this model is to have students teach themselves a certain grammar topic at home and then come to class prepared to use what they have learned in a variety of activities. I use this model often with verb paradigms. For example, in my French 2 curriculum each lesson has at least one new irregular verb conjugation that my students need to learn (I like to joke that we should rename the course “Verbs Are Us”). Often their homework is to review the conjugation at home and do some preliminary work with it, like writing original sentences or doing an exercise or two from the textbook using the new verb (but -and this is very important- only if students need to negotiate MEANING in those exercises). Then they come to class and we do a quick review of the new verb and any exercises students did for homework. This usually takes no more than 15 minutes of class time (but often much less). Then we move on to either communicative activities using the new verb or a reading containing multiple examples of the new verb in different contexts (By the way, I never give an assessment whose main goal is to have students produce memorized verb forms, but that’s a conversation for another time).

2. Pop-up Grammar. I first learned about this from Blaine Ray at a TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) workshop. The idea is to teach grammar as needed when it pops up in context. For example, my French 1 class learned about gender of nouns because I had to explain to them why French has two words for a/an: “un” garçon (a boy) and “une” fille (a girl) after they saw those words in a story. And in my Spanish 1 class, students learned that any verb that describes what two people do always ends in the letter -n and any verb that describes was we do ends in -mos. These are concepts I taught when they came up in context in class. Since acquisition is piecemeal, I don’t feel the need to explain every detail about a Pop-Up grammar topic. Students will be exposed to other aspects of that grammar topic over time.

3. See first, form later. I am sure that I am not the first person to follow this model, but I bet I am the first person to call it the “See First, Form Later” approach! When employing this method, my students see a certain form in written context multiple times, which I translate for them into English at first until they have seen it so many times they don’t need the translation anymore . Finally, after seeing the form in different settings for weeks on end, students are presented with the “official” lesson (most likely in a flipped format), which students find relatively easy to understand and remember if they have been regularly paying attention in class throughout the year. For example, I always write a “Plan de la Clase” in my Spanish 3 class so students know what we will be doing that day. Since our first day of class in August I have been writing out our plan using verbs in simple future tense. In addition, since the beginning of the year my students have seen verbs in future in videos and readings (Thanks, Señor Wooly!) and in input processing activities (more on that in another blog post). When I finally presented the future tense formally in February my students had practically no problems with it since they had been exposed to it for so long. (By the way, this is not the only structure that I have been introducing this way. In Spanish 3 alone this is also how I exposed my students to both present and imperfect subjunctive, double object pronouns, por and para and more).

4. Skip it. Yes, you read that correctly. It is absolutely, positively a waste of time for any teacher to treat a concept as a grammar rule if it its fundamental structure is different from what we do in English, because students’ will inevitably revert to using English language structure when they try to create original speech. In both French and Spanish you find soooo many examples of structures that are fundamentally different from English, such as placement of direct and indirect objects, personal in Spanish, using a definite article to talk about likes, dislikes, and before days of the week, forming sentences with verbs like gustar/plaire, expressions with avoir/tener, indefinite articles in negative sentences in French, and many more. I treat those concepts as lexical items that my students will only internalize through multiple repetitions.

Those of us who were taught to teach our target language through explicit means may have trouble letting grammar take a back seat in our language classes, especially if that’s how we learned the language, but pretty much all the second language acquisition (SLA) research out there tells us that we can find a better way to help our students acquire language than by using traditional grammar instruction. After all, when is the last time you have been in one of your target language’s countries and someone has asked you to conjugate a verb on demand?

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Interested in Making the Switch to Teaching with CI? Here’s How to Begin

Are you a teacher who is interested in teaching with comprehensible input (CI) but are unsure where to start? You’ve come to the right place. Here are my suggestions, in no particular order, of the best ways to begin your own CI journey.

1. Find a CI conference or workshop. If at all possible, start with a TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling) workshop. Blaine Ray and friends from TPRS publishing travel throughout North America every year offering  2 or 3-day training workshops. Chances are you can find one near you. At these workshops you can expect to receive an overview of second language acquisition (SLA) research on comprehensible input (CI), training on how to implement TPRS techniques in your classroom, and an opportunity to practice TPRS techniques yourself. Your presenter will demonstrate TPRS strategies by teaching workshop attendees an unknown language, so you’ll walk out of the conference knowing a small amount of German or Russian or Chinese. You’ll also receive a book of TPRS stories that you can use in your classroom and will have the opportunity to purchase novels for your students or even the TPRS Green Bible, which is a great resource for teachers looking to learn more about TPRS.

If you can’t find a TPRS conference, look for any conference in your area that has “CI” in its title. Many state language conferences may also have workshops showcasing CI topics, and so will the annual ACTFL conference. And if you plan to travel this summer, maybe you can choose your vacation destination based on whether or nor it is near a CI conference. You can visit one of my previous posts if you’d like to know about conferences for summer 2017.

2. Can’t afford a conference or workshop? Invest in books about TPRS/CI. Find some print resources that you can use to teach yourself. I’ve already mentioned the Green Bible, which is a great place to start. I also recommend Ben Slavic’s Big CI Book, which is available through Teacher’s Discovery, James Lee and Bill Van Patten’s book Making Communicative Language Teaching Happpen, and Terry Waltz’s bookTPRS with Chinese Characteristics (even if you aren’t a Chinese teacher).

3. Need to see CI teaching in action? Explore YouTube where you can watch some of the “experts” give lessons. Just type “TPRS” into the YouTube search bar and you will find tons of examples of teachers using TPRS/CI to teach language. After a while you’ll start recognizing names of teachers who uploaded those videos and you can look for their names elsewhere. Which brings me to #4:

4. Read some TPRS/CI blogs. You can look for blogs written by teachers that have videos on YouTube or you can follow the links on the right hand side of my blog to some of the blogs that I refer to regularly. Blogs posted by others are a gold mine of ideas for your classroom. Some may have lesson plans or insight about a new technique to try. When I’m out of ideas for lessons these blogs are the first place I look.

5. Find a community. Some people wishing to start teaching with CI may be lucky enough to teach in departments with other CI teachers who can mentor and guide them as they make their journey. Others may find themselves being the only language teacher in the department embracing such methods. If you find that you are alone in your journey it is essential that you find your community somewhere. Conferences are a great place to meet experienced CI teachers, and I have yet to meet one who isn’t willing to help out a novice CI teacher. If going to a conference isn’t in your budget, the easiest and probably most rewarding way to connect and network is by joining a TPRS/CI community on Facebook. Currently I belong to five, and the support and advice I have gotten there has been so valuable to me and that fuels me to keep traveling on this CI journey.

6. Tune into Tea with BVP. Bill Van Patten is one of the leading SLA experts today. During the university academic year he broadcasts a podcast called Tea with BVP every Thursday at 3:00 EST. It is a call-in radio show discussing important and timely topics related to SLA research and practices. The podcast also has a web page with links to resources that is very helpful.

Finally, if you are a new teacher interested in making the switch to CI, don’t hesitate to ask me for anything. Leave me a message in the comments or find me on social media. I can’t promise that I will know the answer to every question you have, but I can promise that I will help you find someone who will. And I promise that while your CI journey may not be painless, once you see the way your students respond to it you will be hooked!

The Staying Power of Comprehensible Input

Today I was walking down the hall at school with a cup of coffee in my hand (my third of the day and it was not yet noon. It had been a late night). One of my former students of French walked by and said, in near perfect French: 

“Bonjour Madame ! Oh, j’adore le cafe ! Je suis triste parce que je n’ai pas de cafe. Tu as de la chance !” (Hi Madame ! Oh, I love coffee! I’m sad because I don’t have coffee. You are lucky!)

Now this particular student is not taking French this year. He took it last year with another teacher who teaches explicitly and had me for two years in classes where I taught with comprehensible input (CI). These sentences in French that he shared with me are pretty simple, but they still impressed me greatly. Here’s why:

1. He remembered that in French one has to use a definite article when talking about things we hate, love, like, or prefer, even though  in English the article is omitted.

2. He remembered that indefinite articles become de in a negative sentence.

3. He remembered that being lucky in French is an idiomatic expression where we say that one has luck.

Now to be precise, he should have addressed me formally with vous instead of tu but that is a pretty common mistake with all my students. As they would say, “No big.” I was absolutely floored by his spontaneous speech and how correct it was, and since I know that he did very little speaking in his French class with the traditional teacher last year, I am going to take most of, if not all of, the credit for his language production. I believe that the reason this student was able to produce those sentences is because they were lodged in his long-term memory after two years of stories in my class where we talked about people who loved certain things but were sad because they did not have them. Moreover, I do not believe for a second that this student was consciously thinking about those three rules of grammar when he spoke to me in the hallway. His language was 100% spontaneous.

At a TPRS workshop I attended, Blaine Ray referenced research saying that the average language student needs to hear things in the target language anywhere between 50-70 times before s/he can add it to his or her mental representation of language. It’s all about the reps, or repetitions. The goal of those of us who teach with CI is to repeat high frequency words and expressions as many times as possible, which greatly increases the likelihood that students wil be able to retain them. In this case, I was especially impressed that his student was able to come up with these sentences after not being in a French classroom since last June, and not in a CI classroom for almost two years. That language is still there and the student can access it!

It’s times like this that I am just floored by the power of CI. CI helps students acquire and retain language more efficiently than any other approach out there. In short, it works! 

Using the Textbook as a Doorstop

When parents come to hear about my class at Open House in September, one of the things I always tell them is not to be too concerned if their precious child doesn’t bring their second language textbook home too often. “In my class, the textbook is more of a guide book than a road map,” I tell them. What that means is that I use the textbook sparingly, and usually only if I can use it as a way to create comprehensible input in the classroom. The rest of the time when I am not using the textbook I am doing comprehensible input (CI) activities such as free voluntary reading, movie talks, and class stories.

The reason why I shy away from using the textbook is because every one I’ve ever used in the twenty-two years I’ve been teaching has been designed to teach language explicitly instead of helping students acquire language implicitly. A typical chapter will have introductory vocabulary, often  presented with a video and/or audio component, followed by activities to reinforce those words. Then grammatical concepts are presented with activities to reinforce them, and then the chapter ends with readings using the grammar concepts and vocabulary presented in the chapter. A cultural topic is usually introduced as well, usually revolving around a certain country where the target language is spoken (at least, that’s how it is for Spanish textbooks. For French textbooks, it’s almost always all France or Quebec until third year).

All textbooks come with ancillary activities in a workbook, but usually the majority of exercises in the book do not focus on meaning. Students can complete many of those activities without having to understand the sentences’ message. Moreover, many of the workbook exercises do not require students to do any original work, which means it is easy for students to complete workbook exercises dishonestly.

Then at the end of the chapter students take a test on material in the chapter. Most of the time, students just need to memorize words and grammar rules for the test. On tests, students are tested on their explicit knowledge, showing that they can name objects pictured on the page or conjugate verbs to complete a sentence. But then once the test is over, most students will forget at least 75% of what they were tested on.

When I taught with a textbook, I was continuously unhappy with it. Sometimes the stuff that I was supposed to teach was really, really boring. It was also really frustrating to teach a grammar rule, have the kids practice it, have them all take a test where they applied the rule correctly, but then completely forget that rule a week later. Now that I know more about second language acquisition (SLA), it is obvious to me why that would happen (according to SLA theory, explicit information never becomes implicit knowledge), but at the time I was very frustrated and blamed it on my students’ lack of effort.

Since I’ve ditched the textbook and have started teaching with CI, most of my frustrations have disappeared. It is nice to be able to teach vocabulary that is not grouped by theme. It is also good to let grammar instruction take a back seat to the message I am trying to convey and to let students acquire language more naturally. It has done wonders for my morale and I think my students are happier too as a result.