5 reasons focusing on grammar isn’t helpful for beginning level language learners

As a language teacher, I love grammar. I geek out on Grammar Girl podcasts and have been know to get lost for hours in Cambridge’s Encyclopedia of the English Language. When I was learning Spanish, I’d pour over grammar texts and drills about minute rules for prepositions and irregular verb forms. It would not be out of line to call me a grammar geek. However, as I complete my second decade of language teaching, I’m finally grasping the reality that in my classrooms, most of my students are simply not cut out of the same cloth as I am.

While debates over explicit grammar instruction among language teachers can grow quite heated, I believe this is a discussion that must continue if we want our jobs to stay relevant. Colleges and universities across the world are increasingly eliminating or optionalizing once stringent foreign language requirements, often under a logic that states, “I studied xx language for 4 years and I still can’t speak a word of it.” Clearly, the world outside the language teaching community isn’t benefitting nearly as much from the grammar rules as the teachers are.

As I see it, there are five primary reasons not to deliver much explicit grammar instruction in the early years of language education:

1. Language teachers like grammar, but students generally don’t get it.

I remember the day I proudly created a beautiful verb conjugation worksheet to help my students learn some basic Spanish verb conjugations. I color coded and tabled the heck out of those verbs and proudly presented the masterpiece to my students ‘for reference’. Then, we sang songs about tener, ser, and estar, practiced drills, played games and did worksheets. “They are ready for the test,” I told myself. So I gave them the test. Almost all of them failed.

“I don’t get this, Señora. It doesn’t make sense,” they claimed. Even after my elaborate dog and pony show, it was like I hadn’t taught them a thing. When asked what grammar-loving teachers should do with this reality, my current department chair is known to respond, “Respectfully speaking, they need to get over themselves.” This is the crux of the issue, I suppose, for all teachers – do we teach what we love or what the students need to flourish?  

I must insert a caveat here before the grammar-nazis angrily click off my post: there is a place for explicit grammar instruction, but it is not at the beginning levels of language teaching. In order for students to understand the grammar rules, they need to have the context of spoken language for the rules to make sense.

2. Early language is not acquired through the formal study of grammar rules.

Ask any parent if explaining the difference between the past perfect progressive and subjunctive tense helped their 3-year-old learn a first language was helpful. Their answer will surely be, “Huh?” First language is acquired through continuous repetition and modeling accurate language, and second language acquisition does not differ that much. Beginner level classrooms should be filled to the brim with opportunities for students to listen and speak without getting bogged down in the details of grammar rules.

3. The primary purpose of learning language is communication, not accuracy.

When learners are allowed to speak freely without fear of correction or mistakes, they grow in confidence to try again. In our globalized society, the primary purpose of language is to communicate. Secondarily, language can also be learned for academic purposes, for special professional purposes, etc., but the masses simply need the ability to hold a conversation.

4. It’s more fun to have conversations than to conjugate verbs.

With language classes becoming increasingly optional in the high school and university level, one significant influence that will increase our course enrollment is being interesting and engaging. When language teachers require students to spell, conjugate and pronounce every-last-word correctly, it sucks the joy out of language learning. Techniques used in Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS) like MovieTalk and reading level-appropriate novels help pull students into active language learning without boring them to tears.

5. There’s no need to speak language perfectly.

I know, I know… I’m walking on thin ice with prescriptivist linguists here, but we have to consider the ultimate goal of language learning in our modern world. Must I wait until I’m completely fluent and can speak Mandarin perfectly before chatting with my Chinese neighbor around the corner, or is friendship built in our broken attempts at communication with one another? A hyper focus on grammar communicates an expectation of perfection in language rather than the need for communication and relationship.

 

 

Some great maps to use with English language learners

A key component to increasing communication in the language classroom is using content that students want to talk about. Given the global nature of ESL classrooms, these maps are great tools for facilitating discussion:

The Best Job Markets for College Grads Now

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 Where are the hardest places to live in the US?

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The World of 7 Billion: Where and How We Live

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40 Maps they didn’t teach you in school

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Like these? Check out more on my Pinterest Board.

A Twitter worksheet for engaging language practice

Screen Shot 2015-01-27 at 10.13.49 AMClassroom activities using social media platforms engage today’s tech savvy students. I use this Twitter worksheet in class as a tool to help students practice the language we’ve been practicing in class. I’ve intentionally left this copy blank so that it can be used in an language classroom.

I just recently used this worksheet as a follow-up activity to the Pixar short La Luna and had students write tweets from the people in the boat. They were really creative and had a lot of fun with it!

A few instructions to accompany the worksheet:

  • Students draw profile pictures in the boxes of the people delivering each tweet
  • Students write short sentences (<140 characters) summarizing a reading or other topic studied in class.
  • Students include a hashtag related to the tweet.

Click here to download a full sized version: Twitter WS

Enjoyed this activity? Click here for more social media worksheets.

 

Shifting to Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS) and Comprehensible Instruction (CI)

Last fall, I shifted from doing teacher training and teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at the college level back to teaching high school Spanish. While switching from teaching adults to teenagers has been a definite adjustment, I’ve also had the fortune of landing in a school that uses the methodologies of TPRS and CI – both methodologies I’ve been intrigued by for a long time. I’ve joined an incredibly talented team of teachers who have been helping me learn a new teaching methodology.

After over 15 years of language teaching in a wide variety of settings, I can honestly say that it’s one of the most effective and research based methods of language teaching that I’ve ever used. While I personally love grammar, I’ve watched its teaching be less effective with the majority of students. (How many people out there “took four years of language and can’t speak a word”?) TPRS and CI make language accessible in ways that a grammar-based approach cannot.

As I learn more and create my own materials, I plan to post more resources and materials that align with TPRS/CI here.

If you’re a language teacher interested in learning more about TPRS and CI, here are some excellent resources that introduce you to many of its techniques and approaches:

  • Ben Slavic’s website is a great place to start. He teaches in Denver Public Schools (DPS) where over 90% of the district uses TPRS.
  • DPS has also posted lots of videos on TeacherTube of their teachers using TPRS & CI. His book “Stepping Stones to Stories” gives a great overview of how to get started with TPRS and the reasoning behind it.
  • Martina Bex posts incredibly useful activities, resources and games on her website The Comprehensible Classroom.
  • I’m using The New Cuentame Mas series to help ease my way into learning storytelling. Some of the storytellers I’ve seen are so creative, but this series helps me tangibly start storytelling before I really understand how to be creative.
  • TPRS Q&A also gives a great introduction to components of the methodology

Beyond Rosetta Stone: Online websites for language learning

While Rosetta Stone holds the biggest market share and name recognition, I’ve never enjoyed using it.  I actually find it a bit boring to tell the truth.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I located a whole bunch of other great programs out there!  There’s no reason to pay hundreds of dollars for Rosetta Stone when there are programs of higher quality available for free (or at least much less!).

Here are a few of my favorites:

Mango Languages

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Mango is often available free through your public library (you can check if your library has it here) and offers courses in ESL and 15 other languages.

LiveMocha

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Livemocha is an interactive language learning site that rewards users helping each other in the language learning process.  Rosetta Stone owns LiveMocha, and this site shares a lot of similar features to Rosetta Stone’s software.  It’s free, and is available in 8 languages.

USA Learns (for English only)

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USA Learns is a government supported site designed specifically for adult English language learners.  It includes a full curriculum for students to work through.  Since it doesn’t start with the very basics, students should have know English in order to use this program.

Memrise

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Memrise offers courses in a wide variety of languages as well as subjects like arts, maths, and geography.  It’s very easy to navigate and uses a points system that gives users access to exercises.

If you’re looking for language learning program, be sure to check out this article reviewing language learning software as well.  (It ranks Rosetta Stone as #9!)