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.

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