When Grammar isn’t Really Grammar

Most traditional teachers decide what to teach because it is what comes next in the textbook. I know that is what I did for over 20 years! Now that I have some experience under my belt, I’ve realized that almost all textbooks I’ve used have included items in their grammar section that don’t need to be taught grammatically and can be taught as a lexical item (At first I typed “lexically” but my auto-correct tells me that the word does not exist. I will still use it anyway).

Why is this important? Certain “grammar” topics can only be “taught” with a list of rules (which only language geeks remember in the long term), and sometimes this can be avoided by teaching that topic lexically. In other cases, teaching a “grammar” term lexically makes it much easier for students to process. And in still other cases, teaching a “grammar” term lexically helps students avoid common errors of usage.

I have compiled a short list of topics that I have had success teaching this way. Since I teach French and Spanish, I will limit myself to those examples. If you teach other Romance languages, it is possible that the equivalent in your target language has the same features. If you don’t teach a Romance language, maybe my examples can help you brainstorm examples in your language.

1. The two verbs that mean to know. In Romance languages, we teach students that to know is either saber/savoir or conocer/connaître. This leads to much confusion because students must learn when to use each one. I have had success getting students to understand the difference by doing two things. First, I NEVER teach the two verbs together. I don’t think it matters which verb is taught first, but for me it is usually saber/savoir because I teach my students how to say “I don’t know” in the target language. Second, I translate saber/savoir to mean to know information/how and I translate conocer/connaître to mean to be familiar with people and places. It goes without saying that I need to show LOTS of examples of this over the course of the year, but in my experience, it has been pretty successful.

2. The two verbs that mean to be in Spanish. I always tell my French students how lucky they are to be taking a language that only has one verb that means to be, because they don’t have to struggle to translate from English to French the way my Spanish students do. As all Spanish teachers know, knowing the differences between ser and estar can cause a great deal of difficulty to Spanish students. I have found success getting students to understand the difference in a manner similar to the one I describe about for the verbs that mean to know. Once again, I do not teach the two together. Also, ser is the one that I translate to mean to be and estar is the one that I translate to mean to feel/to be located. In a first year class, ¿Cómo estás? is one of the first expressions students learn. I always make sure to translate that as How are you feeling? instead of How are you? Once again, my students see many examples of this over the course of the year, and it definitely cuts down on the number of students who say Estoy americano or Soy cansado.

3. Demonstratives adjectives and pronouns.  The only grammar involved in these concepts is agreement of gender and number (and accents for demonstrative pronouns in Spanish), so I just translate them as they come up in class (usually in a reading), mention that they need to agree in gender and number, and move on. In French, ce/cet/cette/ces can mean either this/these OR that/those, so the whole explanation takes about 1 minute to explain. Spanish has three groups of demonstratives, forms of este, ese, and aquel. Nevertheless, I don’t teach the three groups together. Once again, I only teach them when they come up in class. Also, I have found that translating the demonstrative pronouns as this one/that one/these ones/those ones avoids the confusion of when to use the pronoun form as opposed to the adjective.

4. Object pronouns. I teach this concept without ever saying the words “object pronouns.” I almost always start with the third person direct object pronouns (le/la/l’/les in French or lo/la/los/las in Spanish). Considering their similarity to definite articles, the first thing I do is make sure that students understand when those words mean the and when they mean him/her/it/them. I do that by pointing out where those words are in a sentence. The ones that come before a noun mean the (as in Je vois les canards [I see the ducks] or Julia quiere las sandalias [Julia wants the sandals]) and the ones that come before or are connected to a verb mean him/her/it/them (as in No lo tengo [I don’t have it] or Voy a verles [I’m going to see them] or Je vais le manger [I’m going to eat it] or Amène-les [Bring them]). 

I also teach third person indirect objects (lui/leur in French and le/les in Spanish) as lexical items. I translate lui/le to mean to/at/for him or her and leur/les to mean to/at/for them when before or attached to a verb. The first and second person pronouns are translated as me or to/for/at me, you or to/for/at you, and so on (French also has the pronoun y, which is easily translated to mean there, and en, which I translate as some or of it/of them when it comes before or is connected to a verb).

As far as placement is concerned, I mention the difference in word order between English and either French or Spanish relatively quickly and eventually students pick up on the word order through repeated exposure (Spanish students are lucky enough to have the Señor Wooly video “No Lo Tengo,” which I think speeds up the process).

5. Por and Para. This can be a bit tricky, but I have found that, at least initially, I can translate para to mean for/in order to and por to mean by/through/because of/on behalf of/in exchange for and similar alternatives. I find that this works for about 75% of the uses of these words.

I imagine after reading this, some of you may find yourself dissatisfied with my simple explanations, because they do not describe the grammar topic completely. Here are just a few of the objections you may have to this list.

  • In English we can use “him/her/them” as an indirect object, as in, I gave her a present instead of I gave a present to her, so telling students that the indirect object means to/for/at him/her/them runs the risk that students will produce sentences like, La di un regalo instead of Le di un regalo . Similarly, y in French does not always mean there, such as in the sentence J’y ai joué [I played it]. 
  • The explanation of ser and estar is very simplistic, and does not adequately explain why we say La mujer está embarazada [The woman is pregnant]  or El cielo está gris [The sky is gray].
  • The explanation of saber and conocer is also simplistic. It does not explain why you can say Je sais la chanson [I know the song] but can also say Je connais la chanson [I know the song].
  • Don’t you teach object pronoun placement (or in French, agreement of the past participle with a preceding direct object in passé composé)?

My response to any and all objections is the same, that Rome was not built in a day. These topics that I mentioned are things that I talk about and review constantly. My students see examples of this repeatedly. Once they have mastered the basics, I can then start refining. For example, my students start learning those direct object pronouns in French early in French 1, usually around November. Then I talk about placement at the end of the year after repeated exposure. Similarly, I spend much of French 2 using passé composé with direct object pronouns and talk about agreement with the past participle at the end of the year.

One of the things I hate about the way most textbooks teach grammar is that most of them teach a concept once (with maybe a little recycling with a review exercise in a future chapter that I always used to skip anyway) and then move on to something else. The concept might turn up the following year in the review section at the beginning of the next year’s textbook, but by then most students have forgotten the nuts and bolts of the original concept in the first place and the teacher needs to reteach the concept again. Students just can’t really process a concept like this so quickly. They need lots of repeated exposure to these items to internalize them and make them part of their internal language framework. That is why I take a whole year to teach all the components of a “grammar” topic.

Lastly, remember that any grammar topic I teach in my class is secondary to my primary goal, which is delivering comprehensible input. My students spend the majority of class time reading or listening to the target language. Eventually, I hope that students will be able to explain correct grammar usage by saying that it “sounds right” and not by reciting a rule, the same way that I, as a native speaker of English, know that big, tall, angry man sounds right but angry, tall, big man does not.

I’d be interested to know if anyone has any ideas about other grammar concept that can be taught as lexical items. Thoughts?

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Thoughts on the End of the Year

Now that I have been on school vacation for a week, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the last few days of school. It had its good points and bad points. Let’s start with the good points.

Good point #1: I got two very heartfelt, thoughtful letters from students thanking me for being their teacher. They both said that they really enjoyed my class and that they learned a lot.

Good point #2: I received the score of “Highly Effective” on my teacher evaluation for this year, which means I don’t need to be evaluated again until the 2019-2020 school year.

Good point #3: I gave my Spanish 4 class an end-of-the-year survey about my class. Here are some of the things they had to say.

  • 100% said they loved the fact that I did not teach from a textbook.
  • 100% said that they made great gains in either reading or understanding spoken Spanish (I should hope so, considering  all the Story Listening and independent reading we did in class!).
  • 75% said that their favorite thing to do in class was a comprehensible input (CI) activity, such as a Movie Talk, independent reading, or playing a CI game.
  • 75% said that studying grammar or reading authentic Spanish language literature was their least favorite thing to do in class (I don’t blame them for not liking the literature. In retrospect it was really too hard for them to understand. Many of them reported that they had to look up so many words that they forgot what the reading was about. Next year I will give hem more simplified passages to read. And not liking grammar study doesn’t surprise me. Only serious geeks enjoy grammar study.).
  • 75% said that they made the least progress in developing ability to speak in Spanish (Before coming to Spanish 4, these students had three years of traditional instruction and very poorly developed speaking skills. I did what I could to try to improve their speaking ability, but I could only get so far in one year.).
  • In the free comments section, I asked students to tell me what I should do to improve the class. Two students said “Nothing.”

Good point #4: I ended the year feeling none of the burnout I usually feel in June. If anything, I wanted another two or three weeks with my students to do more CI.

I got really lucky and had really great students and very few discipline problems this year. That made my job much easier than in previous years. Nevertheless, I attribute a lot of these positives to the fact that I switching to teaching with CI methods.

And now here are the bad points.

Bad point #1: I lost a student’s final exam. The student’s mother was not very happy with me, but thanks to the support of my department head, guidance director, and principal, the whole situation was resolved quickly and painlessly.

Bad point #2: A mother of a student called the school saying that her child had overheard another child threaten to “shoot up the school.” As a result, the school went into “Shelter in Place,” which meant business as usual except nobody could leave the classroom for any reason. I was giving an exam that day and had a few girls who had heard rumors about a school shooting via social media. They were very upset and agitated, which may be part of the reason why some of them scored poorly on their final exam.

Bad point #3: My department head was very critical of my final exams. Here are some of the things she had issue with.

  • My written exams only had 180 questions and she wanted them to have 200.
  • My listening comprehension exams only had 30 questions and she wanted them to have 50. She also thought the listening comprehension questions were too easy.
  • She did not think I had enough explicit grammar questions on my Spanish 3 exam.
  • She thought the explicit grammar questions I did have on that exam were too easy.
  • She questioned the validity of my French 1 written exam because it did not include much vocabulary from the textbook.
  • She questioned the validity of my French 1 listening comprehension exam because it did not include much vocabulary from the textbook.

As my department head she certainly has the right to criticize constructively. But obviously her criticisms are based on her beliefs that teaching traditionally is the way to get kids to learn a second language. So she expects my exams to be traditional in nature, which they were not (hence the criticism). In contrast, my belief is that CI is the best way to help students acquire language, so I tried to make my exams as CI friendly as possible. And while my students liked them, my boss did not. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

This is a really good example of how being a CI teacher in a traditional department can be tricky. All year long I have tried to balance the beliefs and expectations of a traditional department head with my own beliefs. And while my methods are based in sound second language acquisition (SLA) theory and research, I still have to please my superiors. Since I’ve been teaching for so long, I don’t worry about getting fired. However, I certainly don’t want a negative evaluation or letter of reprimand in my personnel file either, so I will have to try to be more careful next year with my final exams. In the meantime, I’m on vacation. Anyone up for a beach day?

Reading Novels in a Comprehensible Input Classroom

I have already spoken about independent reading in a comprehensible input (CI) classroom. As I mentioned in this post, when language learners read in the target language (TL) at a level that is comprehensible, they are providing themselves with comprehensible input and are thus acquiring language. I can’t tell you how many times I have had students tell me that they knew what a certain word meant because they saw it in a book they had read.

Many other CI teachers do novels in their classes. Some teachers carve out a few weeks (anywhere from three to six depending on the novel and class level) to do an entire novel, but I had better luck doing a chapter every three to four weeks. This year I did the novel Brandon Brown Veut un Chien with my French 1 class and the book Los Ojos de Carmen with my Spanish 4 Honors class. In previous years I have also done Pauvre Anne and Vida o Muerte en el Cuzco. My approach to doing a whole class novel depends on the level of the class, which I will talk about a little in the next few chapters.

In my French 1 class, we started Brandon Brown Veut un Chien in January and finished it in June (I should note that this book also comes with a Teacher’s Guide, which I did not purchase due to lack of funds. But even without the Teacher’s Guide I managed to carve out a successful procedure for reading this book). For the beginning chapters, I chose a few words to pre-teach per chapter and then we read the chapter together aloud using choral translation. Sometimes we had “Talk Like a Pirate Day” and the students would translate using funny voices. Sometimes we would have “Battle of the Sexes” and we would have the males and females take turns translating and I would award points to the groups based on translation accuracy. I tried to make choral translation as novel as possible so my students would not get tired of the activity. I also never did choral translation for longer than 15 minutes per class (and even that was pushing it).

Once we finished the chapter, we reviewed using a variety of different activities, most of which I took from Keith Toda’s awesome blog. Then students had a short quiz and created a Smashdoodle of each chapter as a culminating activity, which is a project that is sort of like a scrapbook page (If you would like more information on doing Smashdoodles with your students, read this post). Here is an example of a Smashdoodle made by one of my students.


As the year went on, we continued with the same procedure but translated much more quickly. While at the beginning of the year it took a whole week (15 minutes per class, 4 classes per week) to get through a chapter, soon it was only taking us half that.

When we got to the later chapters we would start the chapter in class and students would finish it independently at home. Then they would take a short quiz to show that they had actually read it and we would review the answers (Due to the language level of my students, the quiz was in English). By the end of the year students read much more quickly with much more fluency, and due to the repetition of vocabulary words in the text they had acquired a sizable vocabulary of high frequency words.

In my Spanish 4 Honors class we read Los Ojos de Carmen. Since this was an advanced level class, I did not do choral translation with them but required them to read each chapter independently and come to class prepared to take a short quiz on it. When they finished the quiz, we reviewed the answers in the TL. I underlined the answer to each question in the chapter that I projected for the students to see, and THAT we would translate chorally. This story took place in Ecuador, and the culture lent itself to exploration of Ecuadorian food, music, history, and other themes, which I had a lot of fun exploring with my students.

This particular class had traditional teachers for all three previous Spanish classes, so I went slowly with them at first. For the first few chapters, I let the students read together with partners in class and finish at home on their own. As they started feeling more comfortable with independent reading, they started reading the whole chapter on their own, sometimes beginning in class but mostly at home. As time went on, the amount of time I gave them to complete their reading decreased. At first I gave them an entire week to read a chapter, but by the end of the year I only gave them two nights. This class also did a Smashdoodle for each chapter, although the language was more advanced. Here is an example of one of the Smashdoodle made by a Spanish 4 student.


Besides being a great was to deliver comprehensible input, one of the unexpected advantages of reading a class novel was more practical. Having students read a chapter was a simple, easy lesson plan for days when I was absent from class or only had half a class due to Advanced Placement testing or field trips.

Many other CI teachers have blogged about doing novels in class. Martina Bex has this great post about doing a class novel, in which she talks about her favorite novels, funding for class novels, and how she teaches novels as stand alone units.

I only have two days left of school before summer vacation, and am already thinking about what novels I will be doing next year. It looks as if I’ll be doing a lot of reading this summer!