If you’re like me, you rely on the internet to stay updated on teaching language. Among hot topics you’ll encounter, grammar might just be the hottest.
Mention you don’t teach explicit grammar in some groups, and they’ll react as if you’d said you hate tacos:
On the other hand, drop the term “verb chart” in the wrong group, and you might feel like this:
What is a thoughtful teacher to do?
As I’ve worked through my own teaching philosophy, I don’t see it as either/or, but explicit vs. implicit.
When I decided to throw out my Spanish textbook, I remember feeling a little panicked about not teaching for a grammar
test anymore. How would my students learn Spanish without knowing the
When I thought about it, my own kids were speaking
Spanish beautifully, at three. They didn’t “know” the rules. I saw that teaching explicit grammar was limited. It produced some measure of accuracy, but knowing about verbs didn’t mean my students could spontaneously use them.
So I switched to a proficiency-based classroom. Instead of dividing the year into tenses and grammar rules to cover, I set communicative goals. I thought in terms of what the students could do. Content was no longer a way to “practice” rules. Communication became the point; meaningful messages the meat of class.
Even simple messages– “I like to play basketball”– involve grammar and conjugated verb. I used to say that sentence as a way to drill and practice gustar. Now, we need gustar so we can talk about our favorite sports.
So if rules aren’t the quickest route to proficiency, what is? Language in context.
I was starting with explanations of language, not language itself. Verb endings, trying to remember which ones were irregular, memorizing the pronouns… and I already had students shutting down. I was using all the tricks– songs, charts, games, you-name-it– and yet when it came to actual interaction, only a few students could use the verbs we had “learned.”
I switched to introducing verbs naturally, in context. Working loosely from the TPRS model, I chose three chunked phrases to teach at a time. Whereas before we’d work through a list of 20 or more –ar verbs, it looked more like this now: piensa que es, dice “perdón,” and no sabe.
With those targets, we could talk and talk (¿Piensas que es bueno o malo tener tarea en la escuela?), find authentic songs (Sofía for reps of sé), or create a story about a person who keeps mistaking people for somebody else. There are a million ways to do this, but I focused on verbs in their yo, tú, and él, ella, usted forms. Eventually, they got exposure to all the forms.
The difference has been tremendous. Even though I am new to this and make a ton of
mistakes, my students’ ability to communicate with verbs has
skyrocketed. Real language is getting into their head, from the get-go,
and it’s real language that comes out!
3. Analysis after Acquisition
Students tend to get lost in the rules if they don’t know what they’re dissecting. It wouldn’t make sense to teach a child music theory before they have learned Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; and we wouldn’t try explain the word sweet to someone who’d never had a cookie.
When we start with verb charts, it’s a little like that. But when verbs get introduced as vocabulary– pienso means I think, eres means you are— we work with a very concrete picture. During class, I’m intentional about pausing the song or underlining something in a story to point out grammar (Should that be hablan, or habla? ¿Es bailo o bailamos?) After enough exposure, students notice the patterns– bailo, tengo, and pienso all end in “o” and go with yo! When we finally do get a verb chart, they have a good mental representation of what we’re analyzing.
Grammar-based textbooks usually arrange the sequence of verbs by difficulty. After ser and estar, they camp out on regular ar, er, and ir verbs for several units. Rule-breakers, like tener, decir, ir, and poder are saved for later. The problem is that it’s difficult do anything interesting without those irregular verbs.
Once I rearranged and focused on high-frequency verbs, we could suddenly create compelling stories.
Authentic songs and resources were made accessible, and my students had language they could use in a real-life situation. And that marked our shift to compelling language.
The fact is, we don’t teach in a vacuum. My students change schools, and learn under different teachers. I don’t want them to walk into a grammar-based classroom and be clueless. Though my main goal is proficiency in the real world, it’s also my job to prepare them for other classes.
On the flip side, sometimes students come to me after studying in a traditional classroom. They are already conscious of verb conjugations, and never mentioning grammar makes them feel like I’m not acknowledging their hard work before.
If I make accuracy my end-goal, I will probably sacrifice proficiency. On the other hand, too many errors will interfere with communication. In conversation, learners tend to rely on structures they have acquired
and don’t have time to think of and apply rules. In writing, however,
knowing conjugations will help students self-monitor and reach a higher
level of accuracy.
We won’t have time to introduce everything, and so I think some explicit knowledge about conjugations (especially by the second half of the year) helps deal with the time problem. As long as my students are firm on pensar, dormir, preferir, and pedir, for example, it seems logical to spend a class period pointing out the other verbs that follow the same pattern, record them into our interactive notebooks, and play some games.
3. Some Students Love Grammar
Some students– like me– are very classic learners who are fascinated by rules. They love verb conjugations, and get super excited that they can apply endings to new verbs and extend their communication just like that. Martina Bex describes these learners in her post on grammar as well. To them, it’s can be frustrating to be making connections in their heads and not get them addressed in class.
I hope you found this to be a judgement-free post. We are all working under different constraints, and many teachers don’t have the flexibility I do! This year, December was the right time to introduce our first verb chart. Next year, I might have wait until March, or not. I’m still reading, trying to brave in those online groups, and listening to my students. And I’d love to hear what’s worked for you- please share in the comment section!