When You Absolutely Have to Teach Grammar

I recently met a Spanish teacher who is new to the area. He teaches at a private middle school and has been attending some interesting professional development this year, including Organic World Language (OWL) training and a proficiency institute organized by a local language association. His comment to me was that, although he has enjoyed learning new ideas at these workshops, he is unable to implement a lot of the new ideas he learns into his classes because the teachers at the high school that his students go on to attend expect that they will have a solid grammar foundation when they reach the second year of the language.

Sigh. I hear this over and over again. So many teachers who want to incorporate more proficiency-based and comprehensible input (CI) approaches in their classroom feel that they are unable to because of the demands placed on them to teach grammar. Of course, these teachers don’t want put their job in jeopardy, so many of them bow down to pressure and teach grammar explicitly, even though it doesn’t result in language acquisition (For further explanation of this, pick up a copy of Bill VanPatten’s book While We’re on The Topic). I am not in a situation like this but I am also not passing judgement, because as I said previously in this post, we all have to do what we need to do to keep our jobs.

That being said, with a little planning and creativity, you can find ways to teach the necessary grammar but still remain primarily CI or proficiency based. Below are a few ways you can do that.

Solution Number 1: Do CI and proficiency-based activities exclusively until the last few weeks of school, then switch and do explicit grammar for the remainder of the year. This is what Alina Filipescu does in her classroom. Read this post to find out more about how she makes sure students get to the next level with plenty of knowledge about verb conjugations in Spanish.

Solution Number 2: Have designated “Language Study Days.” This is something I first heard about from Tina Hargarden. She did a language study day every few weeks to fulfill district requirements (A colleague of mine who teaches Spanish also has days set aside for language study. She jokingly said that she calls them “Dinosaur Days” and wants to wear a Tyrannosaurus Rex costume in class for those lessons).

Solution Number 3: Alternate between CI or proficiency-based lesson weekly, biweekly, or monthly. This is similar to what Alina Filipescu does but breaks up the grammar study throughout the year. I tried this on and off for a few years but found that I preferred waiting until the end of the year to do all the grammar, kind of like what Alina does.

Solution Number 4: Assign students grammar study for homework. If you read this post and this post, you will see that I have written before about flipped classrooms, where teachers obligate students to learn a new concept for homework that the teacher then reviews the following day in class. If you check YouTube, you will find a lot of videos that explain different grammar topics in a second language, especially in Spanish. This year, I found videos on YouTube about different grammar topics and gave students worksheets to fill out while watching them. I kept all the worksheets together in a folder for each student for personal reference and then I shipped a copy up to the high school teacher so she could see the topics they had reviewed.

The bottom line is, you can have the best of both worlds, where you provide your students with plenty of comprehensible input and activities designed to further language proficiency but still squeeze in those necessary grammar topics. If you haven’t already, I hope you will consider giving it a try.

My Takeaways This Year

I have already started reflecting on what has worked for me this year and what I have learned about myself as a teacher and about second language (L2) students in general. These thoughts are in no particular order, and many of them echo things that I have already written about on this blog. Below are things that I have been thinking about recently.

1. Before teachers can begin to teach meaningfully, they must make sure to train their students to meet their expectations. As I have already talked about in this previous post, the main priority of all teachers should be to establish class norms, make expectations clear, and enforce discipline consistently. With high school students, this should typically take two or three weeks. As a rule of thumb, the younger the student, the longer it will take to train them. There are always exceptions to this rule, however, since every class is different. In addition, it is also good practice to retrain students after long weekends and vacation weeks.

2. While forced output is never acceptable, it is fine for a teacher to cold call students if the teacher is pretty sure that they know the answer. One of the biggest components of teaching with comprehensible input (CI) is understanding that obligating students to speak will not further proficiency. This is called forced output, and it is common in traditional, textbook-driven classes. As Dr. Stephen Krashen stated in his book Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, making students produce language when they are not ready to do so will raise the Affective Filter and hinder language acquisition.

While I strongly support this hypothesis, I started to notice that, in classes where I wasn’t randomly choosing students to answer questions, some of my students were beginning to disengage and lose focus. It is perfectly understandable. Students in a class who know that they may be cold called (that is, called on to answer a question for which s/he did not volunteer to answer) have to stay attentive in class because they know that they may have to answer a question involuntarily at any moment. But some students will become disengaged if they know that the teacher is not going to obligate them to participate.

3. Teachers can use authentic resources creatively at any level. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) supports using authentic resources in the world language classroom, but many teachers struggle with making those resources comprehensible for Novice students. It takes practice, but with appropriate scaffolding or an attainable underlying purpose for use of that resource, teachers can successfully use authentic resources with all students.

For example, students in a Novice level class can study a song in the target language (TL), but the desired end result may not be that they understand every word of the song. Maybe the goal is for them to understand just one line. Or maybe the song is secondary because it has a great video that the teacher can use as a Movie Talk. In addition, authentic resources like works of art, wordless books, or photographs (that is to say, resources without language) can also be used in Novice classes. Why hadn’t I thought about that before?

4. While teaching culture is an important component of second language teaching, it can be taught in the target language (TL) at all levels. Many teachers talk about culture in the students’ native language because they say that students don’t possess the appropriate language skills to discuss cultural topics in the TL. But if you look at ACTFL’s Intercultural Competency expectations, you will find that, even at the Intermediate level, students are not expected to have in-depth, detailed knowledge of cultural products or practices. Novices are only expected to identify products and practices, which means that while they might be expected to know that September 16th is Mexican Independence Day and that it is a national holiday, they should not be expected to know much more than that. At the Intermediate level, students would be expected to know enough facts about Mexican Independence Day that they would be able to compare it with Independence Day in their home country. It’s only at the advanced level that students are expected to be able to speak at length and with great detail about cultural products or practices. So since expectations are so low (and, in my opinion, completely realistic for the students’ ability level), it is completely possible for students to learn about a certain cultural product or practice in the TL.

5. Technology is a nice tool to use in a second language classroom, but it is not essential. This year I incorporated a lot of technology into my classroom instruction, such as Quizlet, Kahoot, Gimkit, Charlala, Wheel Decide, and Plickers. What I learned was that, although my students enjoyed the novelty associated with using them, they didn’t really add anything to my classroom instruction that I felt I couldn’t live without. If I ever have an administrator that wants to see me use technology during an observation, I will make sure to use one of the tools listed above. I’ll also use one of these tech tools on a day when half the class is on a field trip or right before a vacation. But on a regular basis, I will not use a technology just for the sake of using technology.

6. When it comes to curriculum, less is more. Lance Piantaggini has a curriculum document on his website that I found very beneficial. Basically, he structures his curriculum around two essential questions (“Who am I?” and “Who are the speakers of the TL?”) and a list of high-frequency verbs called the Super Seven (and, once students have mastered those, the Sweet Sixteen. That’s it.

It probably doesn’t sound like much, but when you brainstorm all the possible answers to those two questions, you will find that almost anything you want to or are obligated to teach is an appropriate response to those two essential questions. And while teaching only seven (or sixteen) verbs doesn’t sound like a lot, it is a lot more when you factor in all the different tenses (When teaching in a comprehensible input classroom, teachers are encouraged to use any and all tenses necessary to make their messages meaning and comprehensible). And as you continue to use those high-frequency verbs, you will just naturally include other vocabulary that one would naturally use with those verbs (articles, adjectives, prepositions, common nouns, and so on).

As you embark on your summer break, I encourage you to reflect on what you have learned this year. How will what you have learned about yourself this year guide and improve your practice next year? Let me know.

My Day With Blaine Ray

Last July I attended the NTPRS conference in Boston. This is a national language conference devoted to training second language teachers in Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and other comprehensible input (CI) teaching approaches (This conference was organized by TPRS Books, but you can also find information about additional conferences being held all over the country during the summer by other second language companies like Fluency Matters, CI Liftoff, and Express Fluency). This is an annual conference, but this was my first time attending.

At the conference, I won a day of free teaching and coaching with Blaine Ray. Yes, THE Blaine Ray. He arrived earlier this month and spent the day with my French and Spanish students and I. He taught my classes and also coached me after watching me teach.

Before he arrived, I told him that I wanted to work on my Storyasking skills (I have talked about my dislike for Storyasking in this post). I felt very uncomfortable in my abilities to make Storyasking work in my second language classes, so I had been spending my time using every other CI activity I’ve ever learned, like Movie Talks, class novel reading, Free Voluntary Reading, and Special Person Interviews. These activities have worked very well for me in my CI-driven classroom. However, I felt that Storyasking was so powerful that I just had to try to learn how to do it more effectively and incorporate it into my classes.

The day began with Blaine teaching Spanish to my fifth grade students. My fifth graders are nice, eager to please, and easy to control, so the lesson went very smoothly. After a while, he had me step in and ask a story, and when the class was over, he praised me and told me that I already had strong Storyasking skills, and that maybe I was hesitant to ask a story in class because I lacked confidence in my abilities.

A little later, my seventh grade students came in. This year, my seventh grade students have given me a very hard time. Classroom management has been a constant struggle for me this year, and as Blaine began his lesson, they began giving him a bit of trouble too (You can be sure that I gave them a VERY stern lecture about their behavior the next day!). But Blaine had a response for each infraction, and he shut them up and shut them down both quickly and politely and continued his lesson.

As I observed Blaine, I began to realize that the reason I struggled with Storyasking was because I didn’t know how to respond to misbehavior during the process. After all, whenever I had previously seen a Storyasking demonstration, it was at a workshop where the presenter had no behavior problems, since the “students” were all teachers interested in learning how to ask a story. I needed to observe Storyasking with problematic students to get that missing piece. And as embarrassed as I was that my seventh graders misbehaved when Blaine visited, at least I was able to see firsthand how to deal with some pretty common behavior infractions during Storyasking. Below are some of the issues Blaine had with my students and how he dealt with them.

Problem Number One: Students intentionally giving a wrong answer. Blaine had established that the main character was a girl, but students were intentionally answering “No”afterwards when Blaine asked if the main character was a girl. Blaine’s response was to stop and tell the students, “You must not know what the rules are of asking a story. Once we establish something in the story, it is fact and cannot be changed. We have already established that she is a girl, so you need to say ‘Yes’ if I ask that question again.”

Problem Number Two: Students screaming answers when asked a whole-class question. When this happened in my class, Blaine said to the two culprits, “I’m glad you know the answer, but part of my job is to make sure that all students know the answer. I can’t hear the rest of the class over you two because you’re too loud. Please answer in a normal speaking voice.”

Problem Number Three: Side conversations. Blaine used a party points system. A timer was set for eight minutes, and if the class had no side conversations in that eight minutes, the class earned a point and the timer was set again for eight minutes. After a certain number of points, the class got a prize. If students had a side conversation during that eight-minute block, the timer was reset (For the purpose of Blaine’s visit, the prize was a piece of candy).

Problem Number Four: Students not responding to a whole-class question. Blaine told the class, “I need to know that you are understanding the story. If you don’t answer along with the class, I will ask you the question individually.” This was enough to motivate my super-shy students to answer the questions with the rest of the class.

Problem Number Five: Misbehaving Student Actors. Blaine had one student actor that was being uncooperative, so Blaine said, “I need you to do only what I tell you to do. If you can’t do that, I will fire you.” The student in question subsequently asked to be fired immediately, because he didn’t think he could obey the rules.

Blaine came to my school the week before school ended for the summer, so I did not have the opportunity to test out my new classroom management skills with students. But now that I am on summer break, I have continued to reflect on the experience as I prepare for the next school year. I have also found more resources related to classroom management in a CI class (This guest post by Jon Cowart talks about urban classrooms, but the behavior management techniques he describes could work in any classroom). One of the things I have recently discovered that I especially like is Connie Navarro’s Response to Blurting Out resource sheet. This one-page document lists root causes and action steps in response to students blurting out in class. I plan to post it in my classroom as a reference for those inevitable moments when I have to respond to undesirable behavior.

I will be attending this year’s NTPRS conference. I am pretty sure that presentations about classroom management will be offered again, which I plan to attend. With any luck, I should have a solid enough foundation in classroom management to start off the year successfully. Wish me luck! I have those pesky seventh graders again this year. I hope they have matured over the summer!