We teach kids to speak real Spanish. For Life

by Erica Fischer on Apr 19, 2016

So Much Grammar, So Little Time: Deciding What Grammar Matters in the WL Classroom

Last week, #langchat discussed the grammar and how to go about deciding what grammar really matters in the world language classroom. Participants talked about the “less is more” theory when it comes to grammar, and ways to identify which grammar structures have high-value status in proficiency-oriented classes. Contributors also shared their thoughts on what specific structures are needed to move students to the next sub-level of proficiency, as well as how to narrow broad grammatical concepts into more manageable chunks that actually support comprehensible input. Lastly, langchatters discussed the strategies that they feel help students to process/practice new structures to really aid in acquiring and growing their proficiency.

We’d like to say thanks to our Thursday night moderating team, led by Amy (@alenord) with backup from Coleen (@CoLeeSensei) and Laura (@SraSpanglish), and also give a big round of applause to John (@CadenaSensei) for holding down the #SaturdaySequel. And a special thanks to our weekly #langchat participants, it wouldn’t be the same without each and everyone of you!

Question 1: How does the idea “Less is More” apply to grammar instruction in language classrooms?

World language teachers tend to have strong thoughts about the use (or lack thereof) of explicit grammar teaching in the classroom at various levels, so this first question really got everyone’s attention! Langchatters seemed to universally agree that grammar instruction is far less important at the lower levels, as understanding the functions of the language mean more when students are starting out. As @teaacheratheart pointed out, “…grammar doesn’t have to be taught explicitly it can be taught implicitly through speaking, reading or writing in [the target] language.”

Participants really got behind that sentiment as a lot of ideas for applying “less is more” included thoughts like teach them what they need and can actually use to communicate, teach grammar that is high-frequency/essential for communication, aim for less explicit grammar teaching as that gives more time for comprehensible input, which allows students to recognize patterns on their own.

While contributors also acknowledged that more grammar instruction can be necessary at higher-levels and depends greatly on your students knowledge and understanding of the target language, a good rule to follow is that if you can’t explain the grammatical concept in the target language, then that group of students probably doesn’t need it yet. A popular idea that summed up this view came from @KathleenBlum, when she said, “A1: Ss need time to process and practice the concept, language learning requires conversations and engagement, not lectures .”

Question 2: How can we identify grammar structures that have high value vs. low value in a proficiency-oriented class?

Langchatters had a lot of good ideas for how to identify the grammar structures that have high values. They included things like high value structures are the ones that students keep asking about/are the ones they need to express ideas, if they it have a purpose for what you are asking students to do, if they are relevant for today’s learners, and is it language that comes up naturally when talking about what students are interested/is it contained in the content you want to use. @la_sra_hinson had a good take on this thought when she said, “Does it help [us] communicate clearly? Is it something [we] use all the time? Is it super important in the context we are learning?”

A popular idea for figuring out what is high value was to find the most common/most used, most understood, and most heard structures in AUTHENTIC interactions, and then apply/use those rather than the sometimes-contrived textbook structures that can be suggested for any given theme. @sarah_e_moore summarized this thought when she said, “Give highest priority to the ones they [students] will USE most often in TL [target language] conversations.” Similarly, @alenord suggested that, “…before we pick tasks, [I think] we have to identify what proficiency level we are shooting for by end of year.”

And @cforchini really summed up the overall feel of the answer for this question when she suggested that in order to figure out the most high values structures, teachers need to identify the “Purpose and relevance [of the structure]: what are we asking students to do and why?”

Question 3: Which specific structures do you target to move your students to the next sub-level of proficiency?

The main consensus from langchatters on this question was that proficiency really isn’t dictated as much by grammar as it is by students’ ability to use words to form phrases, sentences, strings of sentences and paragraphs. But to make sure that they’re ability to do those things is improving as their knowledge increases, you can target things that follow the need for communication in the targeted level. So for lower level students, look at pushing them to ask questions like how and why, as well as structures that support their immediate needs for communication. And for upper level students, work on adding transitions, sequencing words, idiomatic expressions hypothetical situations, etc.

Which specific structures need to be targeted really depends on the students’ level as @SraSpanglish shared that, “My kiddos start w/ essential verbs, but need connectors to keep moving up.” And @davis0670 agreed saying she works on adding, “…ways [for students] to connect simple ‘baby’ sentences into more complex ones.” when working in lower levels. Similarly, @doriecp said that, “…at novice [elementary] level, verbs, verbs, verbs! Novices just want to list, so giving them verbs helps build sentences.”

For more advanced students, @ProfeCochran shared that in her “… Level 3 (intermediate classes) we start targeting other major time frames for narration and description.” And @alenord said that she’s, “…been playing with starters like, ‘I heard that…’ or ‘I read that…’ to get kids to use TL in academic discussion.” Overall, it takes time and planning to make sure that you’re balancing using grammar structures that support what students currently know, and also push them to work towards where you’re trying to get them to go by the end of the year.

Question 4: How might we narrow a broader grammatical concept into manageable chunks that can be supported by comprehensible input?

This question brought langchatters back to the concept of using the context and what’s needed for a given task as the main determiner of what grammatical concepts need to be introduced at any given time. @profepj3 nailed the summary of the answer for this question when they said, “This Q kinda answers itself: break it into manageable chunks. Repeat a simple use in context.”

Popular ideas for narrowing broader grammatical concepts down for real comprehensible input included focusing on one form of a tense or structure that you want to model, and then using it in a ton of CI scenarios before adding a new form. Another suggestion was to we leverage one form, tense, etc., off of another so that students will automatically notice and ask about it. Another was to NOT use grammar jargon when introducing new concepts, so instead of telling students that such-and-such is a stem-changing verb, just show them how it looks/sounds and how to use it.

Categorizing and picking out the concepts that don’t fit in with your goals was another well-liked suggestion, and @IndwellingLang shared a good way to work through that process when they said, “Deal with whatever form/use comes up in a particular context [and/or] text instead of “presenting” all possible forms up front.”

Question 5: What strategies are useful to help students’ process/practice new structures to acquire them & grow their proficiency?

Langchatters shared great strategies for helping students’ process and practice new structures, such as giving them a context that they know, then adding new structures, and practicing those on repeat. Repetition and context are hugely important to help students grow their understanding of new concepts, as well as their proficiency in the target language. @nicola_work shared this idea in a succinct way when she said, “Recycle, recycle recycle with meaningful activities….personalize it, integrate it, [use in] various skills.”

Additional suggestions included things presentational writing based on prompts, structured input, readings, patterning grammar into stories, and TPRS activities. Repetition of the key structures in a variety of ways seemed to get the overwhelming vote as to how best to help students’ process and practice new grammar structures over time. To sum that feeling up, @SraWienhold suggested to, “CI the new structures with variety of reading & listening until they catch it. Then keep recycling so never forget!”


Last week, Langchatters joined in an especially rapid-fire chat on grammar and it’s place in the world language classroom. Takeaways included things like if students aren’t really going to use it then don’t feel like you have to teach it, be more deliberate in the grammar that you choose for your different classes of students, and realizing that explicitly teaching all forms/subjects isn’t necessary to help students improve their proficiency. @sarah_e_moore really summed up the overall feel of this chat with her takeaway that said, “ It’s not all about grammar! It’s about preparing Ss to have meaningful interactions!”

Thank You!

Thank you to everyone who joined in #langchat and shared their ideas for how to effectively utilize grammar instruction in the world language classroom. We hope that you continue to join #langchat whenever you are able – if the regular chat time on Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET doesn’t work for you, try joining the #SaturdaySequel, every Saturday at 10 a.m. ET instead!

Our weekly #langchats are getting busier and busier, so due to space limitations, the summaries always focus on the main themes and takeaways from each week’s conversation. Many tweets have to be omitted but to read the entire conversation from this week, you can access the full transcript on our tweet archive. Have a topic that you’re impatient to discuss?! Send us your ideas for future #langchats!

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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