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by Erica Fischer on Mar 4, 2013

Grammar at the Lower Language Learning Levels

Grammar lesson, Priština by tm-tm, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  tm-tm 

#langchat participants vote on when and how grammar instruction should be incorporated into world language curriculum.

Grammar is a necessary part of language teaching and learning. During #langchat last Thursday, many participants shared that they realize the importance of teaching grammar in order to help students feel more confident and have better communication. On the other hand, it was obvious that #langchat teachers focus more on incorporating grammar into the overall lessons, rather than drill this skill with students.

Breaking Out of Grammar Isolation

@SraSpanglish admitted to perpetrating the practice of teaching grammer in isolation.  “I confess I use isolated, decontextualized practice on whiteboards to build confidence too. I know isolated=bad, but [it] seems to help.” Other teachers agreed that they have often resorted to using grammar charts, and specific grammar exercises in order to teach this fundamental skill. @msfrenchteach said, ‘Sometimes I want to drag out the workbooks and have students do ‘reinforcement’ exercises, but they tend to be rather mindless. No challenge.”

Not only do rote grammar exercises often have little challenge for students, they foster a dependency that can limit real communication. @SECottrell said, “The in-order verb chart is a huge mistake. Creates speakers who can’t get to ellos without going through the first 4.”

Still, teachers like @SraSpanglish advocated for using grammar exercises to build proficiency. She said, “I would think some repetition in isolation would build the [grammar] reflex.” @Profesora517 responded, “Repetition in isolation may build, but higher order thinking is much more engaging.” 

Too Much Grammar

In the lower levels of new language acquisition, many teachers felt that grammar should be secondary to communication. @yeager85 encouraged teachers to, “Forget picky grammar topics in low levels. Eventually when students are more attuned to language, they’ll learn these on their own.”@WLteachmeh offered an alternative to specific grammar instruction: “It’s frustrating to teach grammar explicitly because lower level students usually don’t understand. [I] prefer to teach to proficiency goals.”@tmsaue1 agreed by saying, “If teachers understand ACTFL proficiency guidelines they realize they’re teaching TOO much grammar.”

Some teachers found that even using advanced grammar concepts in their classes made students shut down and stop learning. To combat this, teachers like @@SECottrell and @jas347 avoid even mentioning that students are learning grammar. “Terms like preterite, subjunctive and superlative tell students nothing,” @SECottrell said. @tmsaue1 shared her teaching rule to avoid grammar-related learning blocks: “No past tense necessary for novice learners.”

Other thoughts on explicit grammar instruction:

  • @TPRSprofe said, “I teach no explicit grammar until later level 3. Grammar speak is limited. Even in Level 4 and AP I focus on meaning via context.”
  • @profesorM said, “I think in AP class, the students may be more attuned to language, therefore better at grammar.”
  • @Sra_Hildinger said, “We do the verb charts. They write “1” next to 3rd persona singular, and “2+” next to 3rd person plural. Always.”
  • @placido said, “Let’s stop saying “English teachers don’t teach grammar anymore so it is our job.” Caca de toro.”
  • @SraSpanglish said, “@SECottrell, I gotta disagree on pronoun and preterite. Pronouns go back to elementary and how do you separate 2 past tenses w/o names?”
  • @SraHass said, “It can be hard [to avoid focusing on grammar vocabulary] if your department isn’t all on the same page – Mr. X that teaches almost solely grammar in the next level?”
  • @tmsaue1 said, “when a teacher asks me: “I need resources to teach subjunctive” I always know that students aren’t learning to communicate.”
  • @SraSpanglish said, “I still remember a time when I thought kids had to know all the verb tenses in a text to interpret it.”
  • @jas347 said, “Focusing on grammar causes over self-monitoring and can limit speaking…but it can be important to achieve communication.”
  • @placido said, “Realizing that language is acquired without direct grammar instruction is a big shift in thinking.”
  • @Quito1970 said, “My 4th graders have a low tolerance for isolated grammar lessons.  I reinforce through games and indiscreetly.”

Keeping Grammar in Context

Overwhelmingly, #langchat teachers said that teaching grammar in context with other skills made for more engaging classes and better retention. @placido explained this concept succinctly: “We must use language accurately (yes, we conjugate verbs!), but not in drills and charts! We use language to carry meaning.” @SenorG said, “As a baby/lower level English speaker, nobody corrected my grammar. They were happy to hear me speaking on time.”

The focus on using communication to teach grammar is not a new one, but can be a big change for people who are used to teaching grammar in explicit isolation. A couple of really great ideas were shared to help teachers become better at teaching grammar in context and recognizing when students are learning it.

Create a Positive Classroom Climate. One of the key issues with teaching grammar in context is that many students are afraid of making grammatical mistakes before trying something new. @SECottrell said, “It’s important to create an atmosphere where mistakes are growth, not embarrassment.” @Angiebush agreed, saying, “Grammar is important, but they need to also be encouraged to speak without fear.

Use Authentic Text to Introduce Grammar. When students read level-appropriate authentic resources, they gain valuable vocabulary and contextualized grammar instruction. A number of #langchat teachers, such as @MartinaBex, @msfrenchteach and @LesliePhillips3, encouraged the use of authentic texts to teach grammar. @SraHass said, ‘I like using #authres in addition to teacher-generated readings, even in low levels- I keep it short though- auth tweets work great!” @MmeNero said, “I love using authentic docs (like Eres Top ten or Journal de Mickey Plateau tele) to teach reading and assess grammar structures.” @CatherineKU72 said, “I use children’s books (bought online/on trips) that demonstrate gram ideas. “Je suis gros” is perfect for adj agreement.”

Foster Self-Discovery. @jas347 said, “Letting students figure out the grammatical pattern on their own makes it more meaningful and useful to their language use.” @SraTaylor10 agreed, saying, “Yes, have Ss discover on own, but show the grammar patterns (ex: verb conj) to help those that are more visual/linear too.” @LesliePhillips3 gave a great example of how to encourage students to discover grammar patterns on their own: “Just put lots of examples up, for example, five ER verbs in past tense. They work with a partner to figure out the rule.”

Scaffold and Choose Appropriate Learning Targets. One of the biggest concerns from #langchat participants is that students are becoming so overwhelmed with grammar that they are “turning off” of language learning. One of the key elements to combating this is through appropriate scaffolding and attainable learning goals. Many teachers encouraged “chunking” or a small handful of related language learning tasks that can be mastered together. @SraSpanglish suggested, “focusing on 1 or 2 constructions in context at a time helps students internalize the pattern.” @SECottrell agreed: “There is no reason to work on 5 conjugations of -ar verbs at once. I prefer to start with I/we of any verb and add as we go.”

Use Pop-Up Grammar. Instead of dedicating entire class periods to grammar instruction, many of the #langchat teachers encourage grammar modeling and discussion within the context of a larger lesson. @placido defined this concept: “In lower levels, I only point out grammar as it affects meaning. No lengthy explanations. I might say, ‘Why did I put an ‘n’ on the end of ‘comen?’ Yes! BC more than one person is eating!’” @TPRSprofe said, “I second the “pop up” explanation. When I hear an error, I model the correct form in L2 and then ask questions with the model structure.”  Be careful to avoid too subtle grammar corrections, though. @SraSpanglish said, “Research I’ve seen suggests this subtle correction is too subtle, effects no change.”

Put Grammar Into Perspective. @Bilinguish brought up an interesting point: “[Do you] devote equal time to the five skills? (Listening, speaking, reading, writing, grammar) Yes, grammar is a skill.” While grammar is a necessary part of language learning, many #langchat teachers thought that communication is the real focus on language studies. @tmsaue1 said, “ I’d rather focus on modes (interpretive, interpersonal, presentational) functional approach.”

To Assess or Not Assess?

Although it became clear that explicit grammar instruction has not been effective for all the #langchat teachers, many schools require explicit grammar assessment. This can create a problem, as much of the lower-level grammar instruction is less overt. @Sra_Hildinger asked, “How do you “test” grammar then? Our tests are heavy on providing correct grammar – fill in the blank, etc.”

Some teachers responded that testing at the lower levels just isn’t necessary. @SenorG said, “I don’t test grammar (especially in low levels) because tests are standards-based and grammar just isn’t there for novice-mid.” Other teachers, like @SraHass have completely switched over to using 3 modes assessment, rather than more traditional multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank assessments. @SenoraMcLellan said, “I stepped away from grammar tests. I give performance assessments with some quizzes between to check understanding.”

Other teachers had some relevant remarks about assessing grammar:

  • @Bilinguish said, “Grammar can “count” differently for different assessments. On most listening and reading tests, grammar (+ spelling) doesn’t matter.”
  • @CatherineKU72 said, “At some point in learning process, rules should be ironed out in  doses. It doesn’t need to be strict testing, but some benchmarks.”
  • @profesorM shared that many teachers are testing grammar when they truly don’t need to. “In NY, the former state exams did not explicitly test grammar, yet we do on our final exams!”
  • @Bilinguish reminded us that grammar assessments should only make up 20% of our overall assessments. “Grammar is [only] ONE of the five skills.”
  • @LesliePhillips3 suggests incorporating interpersonal writing into their assessment plans.
  • @SraHass said, “Many communicate well w/o knowing specific grammar. In lower lang, think no gram tests!”
  • @HCPSLanguages said, “For grammar teaching to be put in its right place we need proficiency targets embedded in our curriculum and assessment.”

Fitting Into the Big Picture

@Quito1970 expressed the overall feeling of the night: “If they can communicate the message, they have succeeded.   Grammar is immaterial.” For our #langchat participants, grammar at the lower levels is a necessary element, but not the most important. @jas347 concluded with one of the most retweeted quotes of the night: “Grammar is a means to an end. Not the end. The end goal is communication.”

Teaching Tips for Incorporating Grammar Instruction

  • @LesliePhillips3 said, ‘I make it fun by putting lots of examples of target structure and having them tell me the rule. They get excited.’
  • @jas347 said, ‘@CoLeeSensei I repeat what Ss say back louder for class before I respond they hear me say it correctly and know how close they got.’
  • @SenoraMcLellan said, ‘My students make connections with what they have heard before and hear the difference in context and ask me what tense its in.’
  • @CoLeeSensei said, ‘I do teach in context and follow up with homework that is “show me you can…” they choose how they show their knowledge…’
  • @lbaker195 said, ‘I think it’s helpful to give students the opportunity to revise writing/presentational communication.’
  • @cadamsf1 said, ‘RT : @MartinaBex my favorite was when Stdnt x started, wrote 5 minutes, then changed hands for another 5, and another, etc.’
  • @LesliePhillips3 said, ‘@SECottrell I do lots of think pair share at the lower levels and work with kids one on one, then do a group discussion.’
  • @CoLeeSensei said, ‘@cadamsf1 Often I give them 1 min. to ‘test it out’ on their partner before we use it in a class activity.’
  • @CoLeeSensei said, ‘@jas347 @cadamsf1 I use a rubric that includes “i could do what i was asked to do.”’
  • @msfrenchteach said, ‘Modeling and scaffolding, followed by indiv. and/or group work on own, are essential steps.’
  • @jas347 said, ‘@cadamsf1 very important! had my students self-assess and had to explain they should still be novices and that’s okay!’
  • @MmeNero said, ‘Played ball game to learn “como te llamas”. ALL students have retained the Q & A. Did not have to teach there is an “s” on end of llamas.’
  • @jennifer_spain said, ‘Using oral practice before written really helps too.’
  • @MmeNero said, ‘We often chat about current events. Just simple sentences.’
  • @Profesora517 said, ‘I love to use songs as the intro and reinforcement of language chunks.  They then have scaffold to build upon.  Works well.’
  • @Angiebush said, ‘Lately I asked them to tell me a meal they hate and a meal they like…We wrote on windows. Collaborated to comment on meals.’
  • @jennifer_spain said, ‘Including little reminders of previously learned material as they encounter new content helps reinforce learning.’
  • @msfrenchteach said, ‘Engaging students in cooperative and collaborative tasks allow them to learn from each other. Lots happening w/regards to skill dev.’
  • @Profesora517 said, ‘I use puzzles with phrases in English and Spanish.  Grammar is embedded.’
  • @Profesora517 said, ‘Games and repetition help to acquire language as it helps them internalize.’
  • @SraHass said, ‘Low-tech “texting” or “chatting”- pass the clipboard and sit back to back! 🙂 Easy 2 grade too.’

Thank you!

A big thanks to @msfrenchteach for moderating this thought-provoking #langchat. Also, thanks to all of you that came and shared your ideas and opinions: it wouldn’t be #langchat without you!

We love to find ways to help you learn as a language professional. Please help us know what to talk about during #langchat by sharing your topic ideas for upcoming chats with us. You can also find a complete transcript of this chat online.

Additional Resources

Pace Grammar Method Needs Another Step (@SnaSpanglish)
National Standards (@MartinaBex)
Online Books in Spanish (Paco el Chato)
How to Learn to Speak English (@Bilinguish)
ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines
ACTFL Performance Guidelines

Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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