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by Erica Fischer on Apr 2, 2014

Grammar vs. Communication: The Best of Both Worlds

Grammar is a necessary part of language instruction, and yet it remains one of the most hotly debated topics among language teachers. How much explicit grammar is necessary to include? What grammar structures are vital to first-year students in order to allow them to communicate? On Thursday night, the #langchat participants discussed these questions, in addition to sharing ideas for how to present grammar in a way to foster communication and holistic learning of the target language.

Grammar vs. Communication: The Best of Both WorldsAn Emphasis on Communication

Throughout the chat, language teachers seemed to agree on this core principle: Grammar is about communication.

Although past language teaching philosophies have included ideas like isolated grammar exercises, conjugation charts and grammar drills, new proficiency-based language goals are quickly displacing them. In fact, new Common Core State Standards even reflect the inadequacy of these grammar teaching styles. @SECottrell said, “Who can benefit most from explicit grammar structure? Common core says, kids who are already proficient speakers.” This means that grammar taught in isolation is really only benefitting students who already know the language.

Since most students in second language classrooms aren’t currently fluent, there is a need for communication-based grammar instruction that imitates the natural flow of first language acquisition. @dr_dmd said, “Let’s remember that no one ever came out of the womb to learn grammar as the best way to acquire a second language! Humans learn language innately! Then we decided to structure our thinking about language by grammar-ifying it.”

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What’s Wrong With Teaching Grammar by Itself?

Even though world language teachers have been doing this for years, there are some key reasons why there has been a clear shift in thinking about grammar instruction. Isolated grammar instruction is not very helpful for communication, as it doesn’t require students to actually share information, just memorize structures. @KrisClimer said, “Grammar instruction leads many students to a false sense of “knowing” when they don’t really “know”.” @CristinaZimmer4 added, “My aha moment as to why direct grammar instruction fails? A great student could conjugate tener, but didn’t what know tienes meant in a question.”

Other hindrances to the efficacy of grammar instruction (out of context) can be:

1. Students don’t have sufficient scaffolding to learn structures. Not only are many novice language learners unprepared to learn grammar in a second language, but they also don’t have the background knowledge of grammar in their own language, either. @MmeCarbonneau said, “My students don’t often know the grammar of their native language.”

2. Excessive grammar can deter students. The inability to actually communicate can lead to frustration, especially when students don’t really understand the value of learning grammatical structures. @cadamsf1 said, “I have seen so many students turned off by grammar. They drop the language because they are not communicating. I know as a student of language I was not interested in grammar and rules… I just wanted to know how to talk.”

3. Halts natural communication process in the target language. Several teachers mentioned that providing explicit grammar instruction often halts the communication learning that is happening in the classroom, forcing teachers to move back into English and away from the target language. @SECottrell said, “@dacosta_sra I find this a lot when talking to teachers – if they can’t get high levels of TL it’s bc they’re explaining too much #langchat”

@dr_dmd then shared this proverb about isolated grammar instruction: “The desired outcome is that students can communicate, not that they can conjugate!”

Grammar as a Valuable Tool

Still, even though grammar is not effective out of context, there are very valuable things that grammar provides students. Many #langchat teachers mentioned their love of grammatical structures, both as concepts and as tools for teaching. @csummerfelt said, “Grammar has its place as a just-in-time tool and as a support as needed, but not as the focus for language acquisition.” @SECottrell agreed, saying, “Grammar absolutely has a place in the L2 classroom – As a tool to clarify meaning within meaningful tasks headed toward meaningful assessments, and to help intermediate students refine accuracy as they push toward advanced.”

Other teachers agreed that grammar instruction has a huge impact on other areas of language acquisition and communication, including written and oral communication, but only if they’re ready to understand it. @dr_dmd said, “When we understand that grammar helps students write more accurately, BUT ONLY when they already have enough of the second language in their heads, then they can start to reflect on the ways the second language works. So we can see that grammar CAN help, but we go awry when we try to teach L2 ONLY through grammar! There is the rub!”

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What Does a Balanced Approach to Grammar Instruction Look Like?

So, grammar instruction shouldn’t be done in isolation unless students are fluent. Yet, it is a vital part of learning and understanding how the second language functions, even for novices. These two ideas make it difficult for some teachers to find a good balance between communication-based lessons and grammar-lessons. Many #langchat teachers expressed their belief that it doesn’t need to be one or the other.

Several teachers shared what they believed to be key characteristics of classrooms maintaining a good balance between grammar-focused and communication-focused lessons.

1. Teaching in Context.

The best world language classrooms use communication activities to highlight grammatical structures and share those with the class organically. @tmsaue1 said, “Being focused on proficiency does not mean DON’T teach grammar. It means teach it when appropriate.” @sgojsic said, “We can’t teach grammar as isolated formulas – Students need context in order to process it cognitively.”

2. Minimizing Grammatical Explanations.

Since many language learners are unfamiliar with grammatical structures in their native language, using grammatical terminology and concepts out of context can have a chilling effect on language learning. @KrisClimer gave a great example: “No native speaker of English would accidentally say, “You love I”. We didn’t have to have that grammar explained.”

But, there IS a place for grammar explanations, just in the right time and manner. @KrisClimer said, “Explaining can be done in the second language, like the discussion of grammar that happened in their native language to refine usage.”

3. Individualizing Instruction.

@SECottrell shared one of the most valuable points of the night: The importance of finding and meeting the individual needs of students and teachers. She said, “I disagree with making these generalizations. So much depends on teacher, class size, individual motivation.” In order to really focus on communication and still include grammar instruction, there will need to be a balance of tools and teaching methods. Explicit grammar instruction can work; for the right student. As world language teachers, it is important to know your students and give them a buffet of learning options that will allow them to learn in the best way possible.

4. Rewarding Communication Attempts.

This doesn’t just mean giving positive feedback about correct usage of grammar in communication activities, it means giving students credit for even attempting. In this way, you can foster a sense of safety in your classroom that allows students to do it wrong and not feel penalized. @jen_aston said that it’s important to make sure your classroom is, “…one where [students] feel comfortable taking risks and speaking in L2.” @KrisClimer said, “I repeat, I LOVE grammar, but students learn to understand and produce language by exposure and practice.”

5. Modeling With Authentic Text and Comprehensible Input.

As with all other areas of teaching, modeling is a vital component in the world language classroom. Nowhere is modeling more important in language education than in teaching grammar. @srajojava said, “It’s all about modeling—with authentic texts whenever possible. Teaching students how to use available designs and redesign.”

The key to modeling is to make sure that you are modeling through comprehensible input. Exactly what does that mean? @KrisClimer defined it as, “Input that is just at or slightly above what they have mastered.”” Through the use of comprehensible input, students will naturally pick up on the skills that you are showing them. @dr_dmd said, “We keep modeling real life, real language in oral and written forms – give them TONS of comp input, close reading, writing in response.”

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Is it Possible to Change from Isolated Grammar Instruction to Holistic Communication Teaching?

Even though most #langchat participants could say how a communication-based grammar lesson is different than a out-of-context grammar lesson, it’s not an easy transition to make. Many teachers have been using textbook drills, worksheets and explicit grammar instruction for years. @ksmcfet said, “I am in my 6th year and have only taught through textbook and grammar. Students don’t retain anything. There’s no communication.” @SraRoar also shared, saying, “Switching to more comprehensible input after 15 years of grammar. I use stories and music but feel like doing same activities every day. How do I add variety?”

Fortunately, the #langchat community had several helpful ideas for teachers who are interested in incorporating more communication-based grammar instruction into their classrooms.

Educate Parents and Administration. @suarez712002 said, “Students quickly understand the communicative approach, but other colleagues and stakeholders need to be educated.”
@dr_dmd said, “We must advocate – few administrators or parents know what we do, because they do not speak an second language themselves.”

Take it Slow. @dr_dmd said, “Don’t start over, change a bit at a time! Always reforming, growing, renewing, changing! Remember that it is always ok to be where you are, It is not ok to stay there! Always revise or you’ll stagnate in teaching…”

Have Fun With Communication. @dr_dmd said, “Keep growing and changing. HAVE FUN with your students. Don’t worry about administration. When the students can speak a second language, the proof will be obvious.

Be a Part of a Helpful Language Teaching Community. @dr_dmd said, “How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time and in community! – Zulu proverb. Never go it alone, and always seek to grow!”

Other Ideas for Balancing Grammar and Communication

  • @silvius_toda said, “I use a lot of oral Latin with my students, and I use lots of comprehensible input – when needed, I’ll take a 30-second grammar timeout in English for a quick explanation.”
  • @SrtaNRodriguez said, “Have students consider what makes a strong sentence – add questions around original sentence – details are key.”
  • @LevansFHS said, “Students can do daily charlas about themselves. Students practice presentational speaking and we learn about each other.”
  • @MmeShipton said, “Try inquiry groups using Edmodo as collaborative platform. I’m starting to for grammar, so we have class time left for student interaction.”
  • @sgojsic said, “Get them up and moving using different strategies: speed dating, hands up partner up, think pair share.”
  • @dr_dmd said, “It matters little which comprehensible input method YOU prefer, as long as the second language is real life, in real authentic cultural contexts.”
  • @seanfloyd said, “I love collaborative activities that get students communicating. Love using tech tools. Twitter, Vine, YouTube, Haiku Deck, Google Docs.”
  • @silvius_toda said, “Create understandable stories involving students in your classes with wacky plots and outcomes – let your students know you see them.”
  • @MmeShipton said, “I always try to address grammar after students have practiced concept orally quite a bit. Often they find language patterns through exploration.”
  • @csummerfelt said, “Duolingo makes a fun grammar support tool in the class. Students can learn grammar at own pace while communication is the focus in class.”
  • @MmeShipton said, “Has anyone tried flipping their classrooms? I’ve been trying to focus on grammar at home so that class time is for communication.”
  • @jen_aston said, “#langchat Replace grammar lessons with meaningful, authentic oral communication tasks where students interact helps develop proficiency.”
  • @profepj3 said, “I’m doing “workouts” with my students this week—10 min stretches of writing on a topic, then 2 minutes of speaking.”
  • @lesliedavison said, “LOTS and LOTS of reading has helped my students.”
  • @MmeShipton said, “I’ve been dabbling with Zondle and Socrative for grammar gamification. Students play at home, then apply concepts in class.

Summary

Although the way the language community thinks about grammar instruction has changed over the past century, it is still a vital part of the language learning process. In a communication-focused classroom, it is possible to model and teach grammar without having to take it out of context. And, even the most traditional teacher can make this transition. With patience, dedication and a supportive PLN, it is possible to make any classroom a place where communication and grammar go hand in hand.

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Thank You

Thanks to @dr_dmd for moderating this chat. We were so pleased to see all the new faces and share ideas, both on-topic and off-the-cuff! In fact, a lot of great conversations didn’t make it into the summary. You can check out the tweet archive for a complete version of the chat with tons of great resources!

Do you have a suggestion for a future #langchat? If there is something that is on your mind, or there’s a problem that you want to discuss, it is likely that you’re not alone! Share your questions and comments on the #langchat wiki, and we’ll try to feature it in a future chat. The question you have might be exactly what someone else needs in order to learn how to create a happier and more confident world language classroom.

Additional Resources

Take the leap to standards-based assessment
Explaining BICS and CALP
Summit High School Spanish position
STAMP Results ‐‐ National Averages 2008‐2009
Do You Know Me? The Voice of a Disgruntled Student in a Boring Class
Fighting fear of change…
Update: What I teach in each of my classes
Five ways to have rockin’ sub days
TELL Project
World-readiness standards for learning languages
A meaningful approach to grammar

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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.

One comment

  • Very nice article to read! Thanks for this sum up. Helps us get back to the heart of the matter. I am specifically interested in developing a philosophy of how explicit grammar teaching fits into the heritage language classroom. I don’t feel I’m hitting the mark yet there. Hoping someone out there has some pedagogical insight for me!

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