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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