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?

4 thoughts on “But What About Grammar?

    • sraarch says:

      Hi Carin! Thanks for reading! I am hoping to get my French stories up on Teachers Pay Teachers this summer. Currently all I have are stories for Level 2 French but I’m planning to put up some level 1 stories too. In the meantime, you can see some examples on my French resources page.


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