Sunday, June 27, 2021

Title: Grammar Teacher. Goal: Language Acquisition.

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Text reads: Title: Grammar Teacher Goal: Language Acquisition

Teaching Spanish Again (online)

I got to teach Spanish last week! This past year, I have not really been teaching consecutive language lessons aside from short (5-20 minute) demonstration lessons. And you know what? I REALLY LIKE TEACHING SPANISH. I had so much fun.  

But the intention of this post is to talk about the part of the job that initially terrified me: I was hired with the title of "Grammar teacher." 

I was handed a workbook/textbook with a syllabus that included an extremely long list of discrete grammar points, explanations in English for each, cultural information in English (!!!), and activities such as "verb conjugation Battleship" wherein students utter verb conjugations to try to win. No communication involved.  (Also, #nojudgement if you played this game in your class. I did when I first started teaching, or some variation of it.)

I was invited to teach in an adult Spanish immersion program, taught this year virtually. So yeah, I was seriously walking the walk that I talked about all year long- re: teaching online.  Fun fact: I don't feel like a hypocrite!  I think my workshops for teachers teaching virtually were spot on, because I was using everything that I talked about. 

Plus, due to low enrollment, I was also supposed to teach a split two levels: "intermediate low" and "intermediate mid". I am using quotes because these levels are not in any way aligned with ACTFL proficiency descriptors.  So, two workbooks/syllabi/sets of grammar topics to teach. In 8 hours total. 

Program Disconnect

As an experienced acquisition based teacher who spends most of her time talking about how language acquisition works and what we can do in classrooms to make it happen (that is, Director of Training for The Comprehensible Classroom), I know that following the workbook will not help students reach any kind of language goals, and furthermore, will likely cause anxiety and/or frustration in many- even if it is what they are expecting. 

Read that again- even if the "paying customers" are expecting explicit grammar instruction, even if the school expects it, I know that teaching and practicing explicit grammar is not going to actually meet the goals of the program or the students. The fact that there is such a huge disconnect between the goals and the expectations and reality is a problem that I think many teachers can identify with.  Right? 

This teaching job was a new role for me- my first time teaching in this program. I was invited in thanks to some wonderful mentors Laurie Clarcq, Skip Crosby, Michele Whaley) but I was totally the new girl on the (virtual) block. 

So what do I do? How can I do the best for the students and their wonderful brilliant brains? How can I convince them that acquiring a language is joyful and not about hard work and studying, while still meeting the expectations of the program? How can I help them acquire language and hopefully get invited back? Again, these are questions that I think many teachers struggle with. I know I am not the first to be in this position!  

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Text reads: I know that teaching and practicing explicit grammar will not meet the program goals.

And also...I do have strong opinions, based on research, experience, and evidence, about what will help students acquire language. I feel confident that I can make a real difference in their Spanish acquisition if I am given the chance to do so. 

Now that you know the context of my teaching and the constraints, read on for the thought processes I went through to decide what and how to teach, and a little bit about what ended up happening and what a unit looked like (in part 2). 

Considering Expectations 

In order to even begin planning out instruction for the class, I had to stop and ask some important questions about the program: 

#1: What are the true expectations (spoken or unspoken) of the administrators and/or other teachers? 

#1a: What are the consequences of not meeting the expectations? 

Well, it turns out that although the textbook lays out a daily plan and scope and sequence, there is not a lot of clear expectation from the administration about how to follow it.   In this case, there is also not a lot of expectation from the teacher "above" me (next level) because there is a general understanding that we teach the students that we get, not the students that we want.  Since students self-select into these classes, there doesn't seem to be much blaming other teachers. 

(Which is a whole other issue- I mean- does blaming the level 1 teacher for students not being able to do something that is developmentally inappropriate really help anybody? That is probably another blog post,  and we will be doing a whole Fun Club episode about it later this summer. Stay tuned.) 

What are the consequences of not meeting the expectations? As far as I could tell, in this context, the worst consequence would be to not be invited back. After speaking with other acquisition focused colleagues who dispensed with the textbook as well, I decided that was unlikely. 

You know why? Because success builds motivation, and when students are happy and feel confident, like they learned something, they are very likely to tell administrators (or in school situations, their caregivers, who in turn tell administrators).  Administrators like happy students & caregivers. 

One thing that I have learned from teacher-leader Angela Watson is to really ask questions like this rather than assuming that we know the answers. Teachers are often mistaken about expectations and consequences- sometimes because no one really cares, or sometimes because administrators really do have our back and trust us to be professionals.  I encourage everyone to make instructional decisions based on actual facts about your teaching context. 

#2: What is really possible to achieve in the time frame?

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Text reads: How much is realistic to do in the given time frame? 

Pretty much every scope and sequence from a textbook about what to do in a certain time frame is completely bananas. My two syllabi were no exception.  Plus, contact hours were cut due to being online, and I had a total of 8 hours with students. 

More importantly: we know that explicit instruction does not turn into implicit learning. There is a great deal of evidence for this. You can take a look at this very recently published paper: Was Krashen Right?  published by Dr. Karen Lichtman and Dr. Bill VanPatten for a fascinating discussion of this research and other extremely relevant ideas if you are into that sort of thing. 

Other sources for information about second language acquisition that are quick to read include my very favorite books for language teachers: The Nature of Language: A short guide to what's in our heads (VanPatten 2019), and While We're on the Topic (VanPatten 2017), both published by ACTFL.  

So if I spend time teaching these discrete grammar points, even if I could teach all of them in the few hours I have (which is totally impossible), it's not going to help students acquire.  

It will likely be boring (for them and me), frustrating because the "rules" don't really make a ton of sense (because they are simply descriptors of incredibly complex systems and don't adequately describe what is really going on in our language systems), and the end result will continue to be "wow, I just spent all that time studying Spanish but I can't communicate."  

"But I learned that way"

Some of you reading this might be thinking "Wait. I acquired my language with grammar explanations. I know the rules for ser & estar /imparfait & passé compose/ subjunctive / stem-changing verbs, so what are you talking about?"  

I ask you this: are you teaching you? Or the students in front of you? 

There is a very small percentage of students who can glean enough information from grammar instruction and practice to start acquiring a language. Language teachers tend to have been those students. In addition, I have observed that many teachers, when they reflect on their acquisition journey, discover that they really began to acquire when they studied abroad or were otherwise immersed in the target language.

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Text reads: Are you teaching the student you were? Or are you teaching the humans in front of you? 


To me, this is an equity issue. Some kids might be the ones who get motivated by grammar exercises, who can memorize and have strong study skills (and all the privilege that goes along with those things) and can pass tests and get into upper level programs (where there often is more reading & communication, which lead to acquisition) and eventually study abroad.  

But what about all the others? How many kids make it from level 1 to AP? And are they representative of the school's population? Why don't all the kids go on and feel like they can acquire another language? I mean, they already acquired communicative competency in at least one, effortlessly.  Why are those upper level classes reserved for a certain kind of student? 

And...I think it's important to ask ourselves: Are we teaching just some of the students or are we teaching *all* of them?  There is some fascinating evidence for rethinking how language classes are taught from an equity perspective. Take a look at Grant Boulanger's work with AP classes.   My work as a Teaching Assistant with MITx's (free) Becoming a More Equitable Educator class has shown me that teaching the students in front of us (and many other common practices in an acquisition based classroom) are in line with principles of equity focused teaching. I hope to write more about that soon! 

So what did I actually do?

I looked at the two syllabi: (click on the images to see bigger versions)  

Image description: Grammar syllabus.
 Click on the image for pdf

Image description: Grammar syllabus for level 4.
 Click on the image for pdf


I started a list of the big ideas in the grammar sequence: reflexive verbs, stem changing verbs, preterite/imperfect, ser/estar (to be in Spanish), irregular present tense verbs, present progressive.   I glanced at the themes (weather, professions) but decided that those were less important than the verbs. Although it is common knowledge that vocabulary lists are an important part of language study, I know that the most frequently used words are much more important, so, as the expert (the teacher) I am going to choose to focus my energy on the most important things from the list. 

How did I decide these things were more/less important?  And why did I even start looking at the syllabus with this in mind? 

Well, I was thinking about power standards and the idea of Marie Kondo-ing the curriculum. What is truly the most important to teach, and what can I let go of? This article from Carrie Toth: The Chuck-it Bucket  (Somewhere to Share) is a great resource, as was this article about using a textbook and still providing input that students understand: Comprehensible Input from your Textbook from Martina Bex (The Comprehensible Classroom).    I was also thinking about the most frequently used verbs and the words that I use in conversations and see in books vs. the words in the  textbook. 

Choosing a Resource

I thought about the SOMOS* units that I love that were appropriate for intermediate low students- and then thought about how the students were probably a mix of novice mid, novice high, intermediate low, and intermediate mid, based on the "placement test" which did not in any way assess communication or acquisition.   

Hmmm...SOMOS 1 Unit 21 has reflexives, irregulars, and stem changing verbs. Oh- and present progressive, irregular verbs, ser and estar (because they are used all the time!) and has a theme that is pretty fun to talk about for adults, especially adults in an outdoorsy place (Bend, OR).  And I have some authentic resources that I can use to do some higher order thinking activities ( and contrast) and some other resources that are just fun. Also, I have taught the unit a few times and found it to be a really fun one. That's important for me! As far as adding in preterite/imperfect, well, that's easy- we can do some activities in the past tense- discussing yesterday, reading a story in past tense, doing a picture talk and asking "What happened immediately before x happened?" and that sort of thing. 

Now, if you don't know the SOMOS curriculum like I do, this might be more of a challenge. You could ask colleagues for recommendations, ask on a collaborative facebook group, or check out a curriculum map. (You could do this with any curriculum!). 

You could also backwards plan from a favorite resource or theme by thinking of the most important words that make sense in that theme that *also* include reflexives, irregulars, etc.  

The thing is, you can can use almost any resource with almost any kind of language. If you focus on high frequency words, you get irregulars and stem changing verbs. If you are a little creative, I bet you can add direct object pronouns, indirect object pronouns, and of course, our old friend the subjunctive tense. Or anything at all. 

To recap:

I decided to use the textbook syllabi as guidance, but use SOMOS 1 Unit 21 as a framework, because there was no way I was going to be able to teach everything that was listed anyway, but I could use a lot of the kinds of grammar points included in the syllabi quite easily. 

Here is the syllabus with the grammar points that were going to be included in my lesson plan. The highlights are instances of words that we used again and again, in context. The notes to the side indicate either the activities that included that language feature or function or specifics about what I was going to focus on.  

Image description:syllabus with highlights and notes; click on image for pdf

Image description: syllabus with highlights and notes; click on image for pdf

Notice that not everything is included. In 8 hours, it would be completely impossible to do everything, and some things are more important. This is where experience and judgement come in: deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. 

Did I get it perfectly right? I have no idea! But again, the important thing is that students hear and read a ton of target language that they understand, and that is the plan. 

Setting student expectations

Once I had my plan, I also had to consider how to set expectations for the students in my class who were literally sent the textbook/workbook ahead of time with an email saying "Elicia will be using it". 

A colleague recommended that I create a workbook with an answer key, and offer students the opportunity to do the exercises on their own time, which I did. For both levels. 

I also decided to be very up front with students and explain that time together with me was going to be spent using the language, rather than talking about the language. I took about 5 minutes to talk about how language is acquired when we understand messages and when we communicate, and that is something that we can only do together, and that the workbook was there for them to use on their own. 

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Text reads: We spend time in class using the language instead of talking about the language. 

Each day, I shared another quote about language acquisition (e.g. "Students studying language have the best chance of success through reading-Dr. Stephen Krashen") at the beginning of class. It took about a minute.  When one student (who was not there for initial introduction) asked if I could provide them with lists and rules, I paraphrased the introduction and shared the workbook again. I directly addressed the difference between using the language (listening, understanding, reading, writing, speaking) and learning about the language, and reiterated that we were going to use the language since that was what we were there to do. (And yes, I did all this in English because I wanted to make sure they understood!

Read part 2  for a detailed discussion of my "Unit Plan" and some reflections.

*Click for information about my financial relationship with SOMOS and The Comprehensible Classroom. 

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