My daughters are big fans of Doctor Who. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, suffice it to say that Doctor Who is a Time Lord, which means that he has the capability to travel to the past, throughout the present, and to the future. Unfortunately, this is not something most of the students who exit our four-year high school language programs can do consistently with their second language.
In traditional language classes, teachers have historically only introduced one tense at a time. Generally the first year is for the present tense, second year is for the past tense(s), and third year is for the future (and conditional and subjunctive).
The problem with this sequence is that most students do one of two things. They either never really grasp the idea of conjugating verbs and use the infinitive for everything, or else they master the present tense and use it no matter what time period they are describing. The reason why they do this is pretty simple. They just haven’t had enough consistent, repeated exposure to those tenses in the form of compelling, comprehensible input to be able to use them effectively.
An additional problem with this sequence is that students want to be able to talk about what is interesting to them, and in many cases topics that are interesting to them quite often include things that they did recently or are planning to do. By insisting that students only speak in the present in the first year, the class misses out on discussing a whole variety of interesting topics (i.e. compelling, comprehensible input).
One of the characteristics of teaching with comprehensible input (CI) is that teachers do not shelter grammar. This is something I learned from Blaine Ray at one of my first Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) workshops. Instead, they use whatever tense they need for communication. In my first-year class, I exposed my students to the past (preterit in Spanish class and passé composé in French class), present and future (the form to go plus an infinitive in both French and Spanish). Here is how I go about doing this.
On the first day back to class after a weekend or vacation, one of the warm-up activities we do is called “¡Soy yo!” in Spanish class and “C’est moi!” in French class. I project a worksheet that looks something like this in Spanish
and like this in French (Thanks to Scott Benedict for coming up with the original worksheet, which I adapted).
Then I make statements about my weekend/vacation activities. When I read aloud an activity that a student in class also did, the student must stand up and say “C’est moi!” in French class or “¡Soy yo!” in Spanish class (Here is the video for ”¡Soy yo!” that I first watched during a presentation by Jason Fritze. Here is his original activity, and here are four variations on this activity that I have done in class so far this year.
- Most/least popular. A student keeps count of how many students in class stood up and said “¡Soy yo!” in Spanish class or “C’est moi!” in French class and we discuss what activities are the most and least popular.
- What did Señora/Madame do? I tell students that I did a certain number of activities on the list (usually 3-4) and I have students try to guess which activities I did with a prize (usually a piece of candy) for whomever predicts the highest number of correct activities.
- What did my friend do? I have students guess what other classmates did and didn’t do over the weekend.
- Two truths and a lie. I have students write down two activities they did and one they didn’t do and have a classmate guess which one the original student did not do.
On the last day of class before a weekend or vacation, I project a similar worksheet. The Spanish worksheet looks like this
and the French worksheet looks like this
Activities that I do with these two worksheets are similar to the ones I use on Mondays or the first day back to school after a vacation, just with verbs in future instead of past (By the way, in case you are interested, I personally think that the formal future tense found in Spanish and French is not something that teachers should be in a hurry to teach. If it comes up in a reading or conversation, then it is fine to point it out and discuss it. But since forming the future with the verb to go plus an infinitive can be used so often to talk about activities people are going to do, I would emphasize that, along with other expressions and structures that are more high frequency and thus more practical).
After doing a variety of activities with these sheets and sheets similar to this, I have noticed that my students are starting to speak spontaneously (although not always perfectly) in both the past and compound future. And in my French classes, students are starting to “feel” that two verbs are necessary to talk about both the past and the future without any explicit grammar instruction at all. this means that they are starting to form their own internal language systems due to the input they are receiving, and I couldn’t be happier!