Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Great Grammar Compromise part 1 (with activity idea)

How do I teach grammar? (the philosophy bit)  
(scroll down for the activity!) 

One question that seems to come up for many teachers new to teaching with comprehensible input (aka acquisition driven, proficiency oriented instruction, and comprehension-based communicative language teaching -CCLT) is what to do about grammar.

By the way- in my own Second Language Pedagogy, I believe that grammar is basically useless for language acquisition. I believe that so-called rules and patterns are *not* language, and that students do not internalize rules.  I believe that with enough input, students create language in their heads, and there is nothing at all in that process that is grammar related.  But I understand that is a pretty radical paradigm shift and that everyone is on their own journey.

Here is a great article by Alina Filipescu about the extent of grammar in her class. (Can I just say that I have linked to this article SO MANY TIMES that all I have to do is type "the extent..." in my browser and it just pops up. How awesome is that?)

For me, it looks like this:

Instead of teaching about the language and patterns and rules,  and expecting students to internalize that information and apply it immediately, I use language for input.  When the time is right (when students have a lot of language), I point out what students can already do and give it a name.

Here's an example. By the way, my kids have only ever heard the word conjugate...well, never.

So the other day, I asked them how to say "I go."
-Voy.- they replied.
-How do you say 'He goes to the bathroom'?- I asked.
-Va al baƱo.
-What word in that sentence means 'he goes'?
-And 'they go'?
-What you are doing- changing a verb to say who is doing something (or when it is being done)- is called conjugating.

I quickly pulled up a verb chart, using notes from the Grammar In Context series from Martina Bex, and we quickly filled it in.  (This one was about ir + a, or one way to talk about the future.)

Boom. They already knew all the words. (Or most of them, at least.  Note to self- we need to talk about us more- like us as in using the "we" form of verbs because for whatever reason this year, it seems to be harder for them- which to me means I have not been giving them enough input.)

Verb chart + conjugation lesson complete in about 5 minutes.

Mind you, this is the second year of being exposed to the word goes in all kinds of forms (goes, went,   is going to go, etc.) and we just spent a week talking about the future, using the construction is going to g...[do something].  So it was not new to them.  The only new thing was this word conjugate and a verb table.

 They have already acquired *most* of the verb forms without direct instruction.  

The grammar lesson was complete in about 10 minutes, then we moved back to more input.

But wait, is that it?  Well, actually, no.

I know that 100% of my students are going into combination grammar translation classrooms/"communicative"  classrooms. (I am using that description to mean classrooms where the focus is on practicing language rather than communicating with language.)  They have a ton of language and I want them to be surprised at how much they know, not shocked by how many of linguistic features they can't name.   But I also want to make sure that they are still getting a ton of input.

So how do I find that balance?

1) I utilize some Grammar-in-context notes from Martina Bex in class.  (Not many, and not often.)

2) I send some Grammar-in-context notes and readings (more input) home as *optional* supports for summer work for students headed to high school.

3) I also send home a list of novels and say that if it is one or the other, the novels are much better for acquisition if they are both interesting and easy. For a list of all novels, click here. I take this list and make an edited version of it based on what books are in the Spanish library in my classroom.

4) Horizontal conjugations.  Although I often model this throughout the year, I tend to do a lot more of these in the late spring because students have acquired so much more by then.  Click on the link for more info about how to do it.

Here is a "Secret Input" grammar activity that is not new, but has worked VERY well for me this week.  I did this in both my Spanish 2 honors class and my Spanish 1B classes.

First, we read a text together.  I made sure it was comprehensible by personalizing it, bringing actors up to act it out, and checking for comprehension.

Then, I gave each kid a copy of the text and asked them to re-read it out loud (with a partner) or silently.

Then, they had re-write the text from a different perspective. (In my honors class, they could choose one of 3 texts written from either 3rd or 1st person perspectives.  To further scaffold, one was a text that we had already done as a group.  )

Students worked together if they wanted (yeah differentiation!) and re-copied the whole story, changing it from 3rd person to first person. (Or vice-versa, depending on the text.)

When they were done, they came up to get a copy of the horizontally translated story and self-checked, marking their errors in red (I had them do this not so I could grade them, but so I could see if there were patterns.)

I moved around and helped them out.  This gave me the opportunity to sit with a few groups who I knew might need more support for one reason or another.  The fast finishers self-checked and then had the option of helping another group or reading their FVR book.

Why I love horizontal conjugation:  in order to change the perspective, they really have to understand the words- so it it is one more way to get comprehensible input in their brain.  They have such a sense of satisfaction when they do it because it shows them just how much they can really understand.


  1. Hi Elicia -
    Very helpful post! In order to address this general question I have about assessing grammar within CI, let's use your horizontal conjugation as an example. Your students have errors, they get feedback, and they correct / self-correct. Is there ever a moment in which you tell them, "Here's this test here. You need to write about X. And I will be grading you on having grammar thing Z accurate. If not, points off." Do you ever do that?

    Is there no grade-accountability for getting those things right? If not, what would a C+ look like in your class?

    I'm actually in a fortunate situation in which I know that my administration and my department is open to the idea of backing off of grammar. But how do I inform my students that they need to attend to "hace" vs "hacen" and hold them accountable to do so?

  2. These are great questions. First, let me clarify: this kind of of activity (where students get feedback on their errors, which is not at all the objective of the activity) is something that happens infrequently, but it is a compromise, while still letting them get a ton of input that is meaning based. (Which *is* the objective!)

    As I have grown as a teacher, I have left behind any kind of assessment where they need to use X grammar point at a certain degree of accuracy. Instead, I use a holistic rubric to assess their overall comprehensibility.

    At this time, with the system that I have adapted to work in my school context, I have two main measures for grades. Depending on the level, students need to be able to interpret texts/oral speech to indicate that they understood the main idea as well as important details (I have a rubric for reading and listening), and I hope that they can produce (usually in writing) strings of sentences that, again, depending on the level, are more or less comprehensible to me, a sympathetic reader. So, for my Spanish 1 honors class, my hope is that by June, they will be able to perform in the context of the classroom, on a specific set of tasks, at a novice mid level for a C. It is worth noting that I have never given a C in my classes. Also it is important to remember that ACTFL descriptors are not meant for the classroom, but it is what works at my school.

    Novice mid, for reference (using the rubric from The Universal Screener, paid product on Teachers Pay Teacher*): students will make errors that interfere with communication and use a limited number of words for common actions and objects, but they are repetitive, with words, phrases, and occasional sentences. This is not a descriptor of their proficiency, just a snapshot of their performance in the context of the classroom, on a specific set of tasks,

    In terms of your last question (attending to verb ending), I would not at all hold them accountable. We know that verb endings are not the bits that get stored in the linguistic system-it is the whole package of the word. Last, but probably just as important, “[…] even if learners had access to quality structured input activities, this does not guarantee that learners can access these forms for specific production.” (quote from Acquisition Classroom Perspective #2, Eric Herman)

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