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by Erica Fischer on Jun 22, 2012

Teaching Grammar: When, Why, How?

Welcome back to #LangChat! Our summaries have been taking a siesta due to staff changes, but we are now back in full swing once again!

Last week on LangChat our participants enjoyed a fast-paced discussion about grammar: debating when, why, and how to teach it, and whether or not to do so explicitly.

Teaching Grammar : Explicitly or Not Explicitly?

As our moderator @SECottrell pointed out, the question of whether or not to teach grammar explicitly is one that seems to land teachers squarely in one camp or the other. So it was particularly interesting to hear why our participants fell into each camp, and the pros and cons inherent to each approach.

  • Many participants shared that they were inclined towards explicit grammar teaching, since that was how they had been taught when they were still students. This was further reinforced when they learned teaching methodology at the graduate level.
  • Explicit grammar lessons are what students and parents expect from language classes, so participants found that their students often ask for them, as they don’t feel like they are learning otherwise.
  • @CoLeeSensei argued that understanding grammar rules is like knowing how your car works to get the best out of it. Meanwhile, @tmsaue1 correctly pointed out that you can drive the car without knowing how it works – and the same goes for speaking a language. But @CoLeeSensei, continuing with the car metaphor, argued that she chooses to know a bit about what she uses – whether driving a car or speaking a language, it’s important to know when something goes wrong.
  • @trescolumnae shared that he falls squarely in the middle: teaching grammar explicitly, but only after meaning is made clear to students and they have the chance to encounter many examples.
  • @alenord, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in teaching grammar explicitly anymore because she realized as a college senior that she had no idea what the tenses meant. Instead, she embeds grammar lessons into units on “Expressing Hurt and Pain,” for example.
  • @petreepie also always presents grammar lessons in context, finding that students like seeing the practical application of grammar rules.

When to Start Teaching Grammar

For those participants who do teach grammar explicitly, there was a variety of opinions about when to do so.

  • @SECottrell and @trescolumnae noted that too much explicit grammar too early on produces students who can conjugate flawlessly, but who can’t carry on a conversation.
  • @SrtaLisa doesn’t teach grammar explicitly to her 6th graders until the 3rd or 4th marking period, and finds that it doesn’t hurt their learning.
  • Similarly, @mwood19 only teaches grammar explicitly in the last month of the school year to classes where he has students moving on to high school.
  • @tmsaue1, quoting Greg Duncan, suggested that “You can teach grammar explicitly when students ask for it explicitly”
  • @cadamsf1 thinks that the right time to introduce explicit grammar lessons depends on the class – some need to know more grammar to move forward, whereas others do not

The Value of Charts as Teaching Tools

Participants debated the use of grammar charts as teaching tools. Charts have come to expected as a standard part of foreign language learning, but many educators feel that they get in the way of student progress.

  • @SECottrell has a big problem with charts, as she believes that lower level students find them a crutch. Just as young children can’t identify the number 15 without counting up from one, students often can’t get to the first person plural without starting with the first person singular on a verb chart.
  • @SraSpanglish pointed out that charts are useful for certain mindsets, and thus are still sound pedagogy.
  • @alenord finds that charts and notes are good for following up a lesson, but not good for introducing it. @trescolumnae agrees that for visual and sequential learners, charts are critical as closure.
  • @SECottrell thinks that charts are too much of a crutch and prefers that students make their own charts instead of handing them out.

Other Grammar Teaching Tools

Many of our participants were enthusiastic about the use of the PACE method for teaching grammar. As @SraSpanglish explained, “PACE” stands for:

  • P – Presenting examples
  • A – drawing Attention to specific forms and rules
  • C – teachers and students Co-constructing rules together
  • E – Extension to apply

This method highlights grammar, but allows for practice in context; these isolated activities build students’ confidence. @SraSpanglish also offered up some PowerPoint presentations on this method, which can be found at: http://t.co/sskm995D

The use of the “Flipped Classroom” method was also discussed, where students get “lectures” via videos watched outside of class and practice what they learn in class. @jeorg, for example, has his students do all their vocab and grammar study on their own; class time is for practicing what they have learned through fun activities. @SrtaLisa suggested that having students make their own grammar charts is a great activity for a “flipped classroom” set-up.

@CoLeeSensei shared a teaching rubric that one of her friend uses to teach Latin, called “Tarzan at the Party.” ACTFL levels are matched with “party” scenarios and the language needed to describe them. For example, novice language learners should be able to speak like Tarzan at the party, while intermediate students can talk about getting to the party, and advanced students can talk about what happened at the party. A detailed rubric can be found here: http://softwaregreenhouses.com/2011/01/30/using-wayk-to-describe-tdd-fluency/

The Dilemma of L1 Use in Grammar Instruction

A major concern that was voiced by many participants was the need to use L1 to teach target language grammar rules – thereby taking away from target language input time. Participants had a variety of opinions on whether or not to avoid using L1 when teaching L2 grammar:

  • @alenord, who had shared that she does not like to teach grammar explicitly, shared that if she must teach grammar, she does so in English.
  • @trescolumnae argues that there is no real need to know grammatical terms in L1 – students already know that language. As @alenord pointed out, students don’t know what the present perfect is in L1, so there’s no reason to teach L2 like a linguistics class
  • @SraSpanglish, on the other hand, argues that one of the “selling points” for world language classes is that they teach students about their own languages.
  • Instead of using formal grammar terminology, @SECottrell uses phrases like “sudden past,” “descriptive past,” and “crazy verb switch” with her students.
  • @tmsaue1 shared a helpful article about using the target language (instead of L1) when teaching grammar: http://t.co/ZPPRasSe
  • @SraSpanglish makes the decision of whether or not to use L1 in grammar instruction on a case-by-case basis. She argues that some students are so intimidated by L2, at least to start, that she lets them have a “break” from L1 when it comes to grammar explanations.
  • @IteachHola tries to get her students to explain grammar rules themselves in L1; listening to peers explain in L1 often provides the “Aha!” moment for other students.
  • When students ash @jeorg a grammar question, he gives his response in L2 with lots of examples to try and give students as much comprehensible input as possible.

The Challenge of Grading Grammar

Grading students on grammar can present difficulties to educators who want to encourage students to express themselves without fear of being penalized for taking risks. As @SECottrell explained, one of the biggest struggles as a teacher is resisting marking every single wrong verb! Focusing on spelling and conjugation errors when deducting points makes grading easier, but does not always paint an accurate picture of students’ abilities. The AP exam system and other standardized tests puts pressure on educators to grade this way. Participants shared their thoughts on finding a balance between grading and helping students learn:

  • @SrtaLisa lowered her expectation for perfect grammar this year, and while it felt strange to her at first, she found that it helped students feel less intimidated.
  • @alenord doesn’t think student accuracy is that important, unless it inhibits communication.
  • When @CoLeeSensei is evaluating student work, she bases her assessment on whether or not students got their idea across and how well they did so.
  • @cadamsf1 recommended the Pacesetter course by College Board. Students couldn’t fail unless they didn’t try and ALL grammar was embedded and as a result students didn’t expect perfection but they knew that they had to try and communicate to get the elusive “A.”

From our discussion of grading grammar, participants launched into a conversation about the pros and cons of using grading rubrics.

  • @SraSpanglish gave voice to the familiar problem of finding balance between clear grading guidelines and a holistic grading approach, especially when students want to know why they receive a particular grade.
  • Both @tmsaue1 and @CoLeeSensei like to provide students with a grading rubric before they complete the assignment so that students know what is expected of them and understand the grades they receive. This also allows students to self-assess prior to turning in their work, added @trescolumnae
  • @CoLeeSensei also finds devoting some class time to having students read and explain the rubric themselves avoids grade-haggling later

The full archived chat from this discussion can be accessed on our GoogleDocs page.

Although we will be taking a break from our weekly Twitter chats for the month of July, stay tuned for summaries of past LangChats, which will be posted on the blog throughout the month.

Remember to suggest topics for future LangChats, which will resume in August! Wishing everyone a beautiful and relaxing summer!

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

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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