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by Erica Fischer on May 18, 2015

Help Students Grasp Essential Grammatical Structures in a Proficiency-Based Classroom!

Welcome back to #langchat! Last week, participants met to chat about essential grammar in a proficiency-based classroom. They discussed what makes a language structure essential and how to decide which ones to teach, and when. Langchatters also shared challenges they have encountered when presenting essential structures, and what techniques have worked when it’s time to recycle key structures. Lastly, they reflected on how to avoid leaving the target language while doing all of this. The conversation proved to be yet another productive chat – with participants expressing their gratitude to #langchat as an essential ‘structure’ in their teaching plans. @CoLeeSensei wrote, “[The] #langchat [Professional Learning Network] is the ‘structure’ I need to support my teaching!” and @KrisClimer agreed, writing, “This whole #langchat family is one of my favorite ‘essential structures’!”

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the conversation and to all of last Thursday’s moderators: Amy (@alenord), Colleen (@CoLeeSensei), John (@CadenaSensei), Kris (@KrisClimer), Laura (@SraSpanglish), and Sara-Elizaebeth (@SECottrell)!

Question 1: What makes a language structure essential?

#Langchat participants began by sharing how they identify essential language structures. They noted that essential structures…

  • are common: @MmeCarbonneau considers a structure essential “[when] it is [prevalently] used,” and @MmeFarab defines essential structures as those that have “[high] frequency [or] high necessity.”
  • are needed in particular situations: @CoLeeSensei wrote that a structure is essential if “[students] ‘need it’ to authentically communicate in a given situation,” and @MlleSulewski agreed that something is essential “[if] you [can’t] navigate a given social situation without it.”
  • are necessary to communicate and understand meaning: @KrisClimer said, “For me, essential means meaning would be lost without it.” @magisterb480 agreed that an essential structure is key for understanding and conveying meaning: “[It’s something] a student must be able to understand and use effectively to [speak, read, or write in] the language.” @SraGSpanish2 said, “[Students] need to have [essential structures] to navigate in order to get their ideas across in the language,” and @CadenaSensei echoed this idea: “[A] structure [is essential if students] can’t circumlocute around [it] and still be comprehensible.”
  • are flexible: Others highlighted essential structures as those with flexible application and form. For @ADiazMora, a structure is essential “[when] it is something that [students] can use in multiple [situations].” @CristinaZimmer4 underscored flexibility in form, defining an essential structure as “a structure that can be [built upon, added to, or modified] easily.”
  • are requested by popular demand: @CoLeeSensei noted that structures are deemed essential by students themselves: “[They are] the structures [students] ask me for when they are trying to do something – not what I think they need!” @MmeCarbonneau replied, “SO TRUE!” and @CoLeeSensei added, “That’s why I have a page in their unit book called ‘stuff we want to know’!!”

Question 2: How do you decide which essential structures to teach and when?

Langchatters had lots of advice about how to decide what to teach when. They suggested backward planning, consideration of students’ proficiency level, integration of essential structures in units and tasks, and invitations for student input. They also recommended ‘teaching’ structures through exposure and use.

  • Backward Plan: @MlleSulewski said, “I try to backward plan but I always miss some [essential structures]. Zut.” @CoLeeSensei wrote, “I try to ‘backward’ design from the task but ultimately I don’t get them all – and then [students] ask!” She added, “I’ve learned to just ‘give it’ [the structure] then…they like that!”
  • Consider Proficiency Level: Others expressed the importance of considering student proficiency. @CadenaSensei wrote that he decides which structures to introduce when “[based] on [his students’] target [proficiency] level, [asking himself, ‘What] level of [language] (simple sentences, sentence strings, complex [sentences]) do [students] need?’” @CatherineKU72 commented that, nevertheless, some essential structures can be introduced at any level: “[I don’t] know if there’s always a ‘when.’ Even [French] 1 [students] can learn ‘Il me faut/J’ai besoin de’ (I need) structures in [October. This is helpful for] all.”
  • Integrate Structures in Units and Tasks: Some instructors present essential structures as part of thematic units or tasks. @SraGSpanish2 said, “[My] curriculum is divided into a set of thematic units with essential structures in place.” @alenord wrote, “It is all about the task for me and my tasks are based on thematic units. So […] choosing right, relevant themes [is key].” @tmsaue1 agreed that relevant, essential structures should be introduced to enable students to complete the task at hand: “[Students should be presented with] whatever structures are needed to complete the task. If I tell you about my weekend guess what structure I need.”
  • Ask Students for Input! Some participants highlighted the value of asking students what language they need or desire. @ADiazMora wrote, “My good friend @natadel76 always focuses on having [students] express wants [and] needs in the [first] year. I think this is very important!!” @VTracy 7 agreed, writing, “[Wants] and needs often dictate what my students wish to express.”
  • ‘Teach’ Structures through Exposure and Use: A few Langchatters recognized that essential structures do not always need to be explicitly taught. @KrisClimer said, “I also USE [structures] that I don’t ‘TEACH.’ [A need is] created. [Curiosity is] invoked. [Hopefully].” @ADiazMora agreed, writing, “[Students] have learned so much just using [a structure], not [from] me ‘teaching’ it.” @KrisClimer replied, “In fact, that’s my whole philosophy. Language used is language acquired.”

Question 3: What challenges do you encounter when teaching essential structures?

Langchatters recognized that introducing essential structures can prove difficult, and they highlighted some common challenges that they have encountered.

  • Getting too ‘grammar-y’: @MlleSulewski recognized the challenge of “trying […] not [to] get too grammar-y about [structures].” @MmeCarbonneau commented on the difficulty “avoiding boring grammar driven lessons [and finding] fun ways to actually USE [structures] in real meaningful authentic ways.” @CoLeeSensei prompted instructors to ask themselves, “[Do] I want [students] to use [a structure] in isolation or know how to really ‘use it’ in other situations?” Even when instructors make an effort to help model and encourage use without getting ‘grammar-y,’ some students request explanations. @KrisClimer said, “One challenge for me is [that students] want [a structure] EXPLAINED more than modeled.”
  • Breaking student attachment to ‘fuzzy blanket’ structures: @CristinaZimmer4 highlighted yet another challenge, namely, “[students] not being able to let go of those ‘fuzzy blanket’ structures, [being too] comfy with old stuff.” @alenord agreed, recognizing the struggle to “[break] kids out of [their] comfort zones!” She wrote, “In level 2, [this means] getting them away from ‘me gusta’ all the time!”
  • Helping students learn new structures without forgetting the old: @Melissa77459 acknowledged the challenge of “[getting students] to use […] new structures without losing the ‘old’ ones.” @SrLaBoone agreed, writing, “[Students] forget the previous structure. Like @ADiazMora says, we must recycle!”
  • Focusing on the essentials: It can be easy to overdo it, presenting students with too many ‘essential’ structures at once. @lclarcq recognized the difficulty of limiting structures and giving time for students to acquire them, writing, “[It’s better for students to] have [a] few well-acquired structures than [to] ‘teach’ so many [that] they master none.” @KrisClimer acknowledged that being overly ambitious with structures could lead to the “temptation to teach NON-ESSENTIAL structures.”

Question 4: What are your favorite techniques for recycling essential structures?

Langchatters had lots of ideas about how to best recycle essential structures. Some participants felt that instructors should purposefully recycle old structures in class. For example, @MlleSulewski wrote, “I recycle a lot during daily ‘quoi de neuf’ [what’s new] chats [and] act like I’m hilarious when I ‘catch’ myself doing it.” @SraWienhold wrote, “I recycle structures [when asking students a] personalized question [and] repeating their answers.” Other instructors prefer to prompt students to recycle on their own. @alenord said, “I like to think that I am not doing the recycling, but forcing THEM into situations in which old structures [are] still relevant.” @gegroote44 suggested one way to do this: “I ask [open-ended] questions in writing prompts for [example] that would require prior knowledge.” Still other instructors like to prompt students to recall old structures in a game format. @degroote44 recommended “a ‘hot seat’ question activity that incorporates many previously learned structures.” @SrLaBoone said, “Kids might or might not work hard to prepare for a quiz, but they won’t want to lose to their classmates!” Finally, some participants recommended “reading, reading, and reading” (@MCanion) to reinforce old structures. @magisterb480 wrote, “I’d say making tiered readings has helped a bit.”

Question 5: How do you avoid leaving target language to do all of this?

Instructors commented on the difficulty of challenge in the target language when introducing essential structures. Participants noted that a good dose of scaffolding and lots of visual aids around the classroom can help instructors to remain in the target language as much as possible. @KrisClimer pointed out that students have easy access to explanations in their L1, which should justify as much use of the target language as possible in class: “I try not to [slip out of the target language], but I do sometimes. [Students’ book] and [the Internet are] REPLETE with explanations. I want us [to] spend our time USING the [target language].”

  • Scaffold, Scaffold, Scaffold! @virgilalligator encouraged instructors to provide “[lots] of [comprehensible input] strategies and modeling, then practice, then more modeling, [scaffolding] step-by-step.” @alenord reinforced the importance of scaffolding: “[Provide students with] SCAFFOLDING and more SCAFFOLDING, [building] up from something familiar to something new during [a] lesson cycle.” She explained, “My goal is to make discovery of the new seem easy and logical and not a ‘stop and look’ moment.” Want to know more about scaffolding and comprehensible input? Check out this #langchat summary!
  • Post Visual Aids Around the Room: @K_Griffith wrote, “Have stuff posted all over your classroom that can help you communicate at any given moment.” @ShannonRRuiz also uses this strategy: “I have stuff written on my windows, walls, door, etc. that I point to to clarify what I’m saying.”


In this productive chat, Langchatters shared their own definition of ‘essential structures,’ offered advice about what to teach when, reflected on potential challenges, offered tips for recycling older structures, and provided some suggestions about how to present essential structures without leaving the target language (so much). Introduction of essential grammatical structures in a proficiency-based classroom is not without obstacles, but the #langchat team can facilitate your efforts! @HeidiZeigler wrote, “My #langchat doggie bag has […] the structures my [students] need.”

Thank You!

Thank you to all those who continue to make time for #langchat once… or twice a week! As the Thursday #langchat came to a close, @SraClouser wrote, “[There was way] too much to keep track of tonight! I need the Saturday encore #langchat.” Remember, now you can #langchat on Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. ET, as well as our normal time of 8 p.m. ET on Thursdays!

Due to space limitations, many tweets had to be omitted from this summary. If you wish to view the entire conversation, you can access the full transcript on our tweet archive. Have a topic you’re eager to discuss? Send in your ideas for future #langchats so that our weekly discussions can become as relevant and inclusive as possible!

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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