Why I Don't Teach Conjugations Until December

Tuesday, March 28, 2017 / 3 comments

If you're like me, you rely on the internet to stay updated on teaching language. Among hot topics you'll encounter, grammar might just be the hottest.

Mention you don't teach explicit grammar in some groups, and they'll react as if you'd said you hate tacos:



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On the other hand, drop the term "verb chart" in the wrong group, and you might feel like this:


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What is a thoughtful teacher to do?

As I've worked through my own teaching philosophy, I don't see it as either/or, but explicit vs. implicit.

WHY I WAIT TO TEACH VERB CONJUGATIONS


1. Proficiency vs. Accuracy

When I decided to throw out my Spanish textbook, I remember feeling a little panicked about not teaching for a grammar test anymore. How would my students learn Spanish without knowing the rules?

When I thought about it, my own kids were speaking Spanish beautifully, at three. They didn't "know" the rules. I saw that teaching explicit grammar was limited. It produced some measure of accuracy, but knowing about verbs didn't mean my students could spontaneously use them.

So I switched to a proficiency-based classroom. Instead of dividing the year into tenses and grammar rules to cover, I set communicative goals. I thought in terms of what the students could do. Content was no longer a way to "practice" rules. Communication became the point; meaningful messages the meat of class.

Even simple messages-- "I like to play basketball"-- involve grammar and conjugated verb. I used to say that sentence as a way to drill and practice gustar.  Now, we need gustar so we can talk about our favorite sports.

So if rules aren't the quickest route to proficiency, what is? Language in context.

2.  Whole Language vs. The Parts

I used to teach conjugations right away. After the first week or two in Spanish I, we'd learn how to conjugate ser. Ar verbs would follow, and pretty soon I'd have everyone chanting endings to keep track of it all: -o, -as, -a, -amos, -áis, an...

I was starting with explanations of language, not language itself. Verb endings, trying to remember which ones were irregular, memorizing the pronouns... and I already had students shutting down. I was using all the tricks-- songs, charts, games, you-name-it-- and yet when it came to actual interaction, only a few students could use the verbs we had "learned."

I switched to introducing verbs naturally, in context. Working loosely from the TPRS model, I chose three chunked phrases to teach at a time. Whereas before we'd work through a list of 20 or more -ar verbs, it looked more like this now: piensa que es, dice "perdón," and no sabe. 

With those targets, we could talk and talk (¿Piensas que es bueno o malo tener tarea en la escuela?), find authentic songs (Sofía for reps of ), or create a story about a person who keeps mistaking people for somebody else. There are a million ways to do this, but I focused on verbs in their yo, tú, and él, ella, usted forms. Eventually, they got exposure to all the forms.

The difference has been tremendous. Even though I am new to this and make a ton of mistakes, my students' ability to communicate with verbs has skyrocketed. Real language is getting into their head, from the get-go, and it's real language that comes out!


3. Analysis after Acquisition

Students tend to get lost in the rules if they don't know what they're dissecting. It wouldn't make sense to teach a child music theory before they have learned Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; and we wouldn't try explain the word sweet to someone who'd never had a cookie.

When we start with verb charts, it's a little like that. But when verbs get introduced as vocabulary-- pienso means I think, eres means you are-- we work with a very concrete picture. During class, I'm intentional about pausing the song or underlining something in a story to point out grammar (Should that be hablan, or habla? ¿Es bailo o bailamos?) After enough exposure, students notice the patterns-- bailo, tengo, and pienso all end in "o" and go with yo! When we finally do get a verb chart, they have a good mental representation of what we're analyzing.

4. High-Frequency vs. Difficulty

Grammar-based textbooks usually arrange the sequence of verbs by difficulty. After ser and estar, they camp out on regular ar, er, and ir verbs for several units. Rule-breakers, like tener, decir, ir, and poder are saved for later. The problem is that it's difficult do anything interesting without those irregular verbs. 

Once I rearranged and focused on high-frequency verbs, we could suddenly create compelling stories.
Authentic songs and resources were made accessible, and my students had language they could use in a real-life situation. And that marked our shift to compelling language.


WHY I TEACH CONJUGATIONS AT ALL

1. Not Everyone Else Teaches to Proficiency

The fact is, we don't teach in a vacuum. My students change schools, and learn under different teachers. I don't want them to walk into a grammar-based classroom and be clueless. Though my main goal is proficiency in the real world, it's also my job to prepare them for other classes. 
On the flip side, sometimes students come to me after studying in a traditional classroom. They are already conscious of verb conjugations, and never mentioning grammar makes them feel like I'm not acknowledging their hard work before.

2. Accuracy Has Its Place

If I make accuracy my end-goal, I will probably sacrifice proficiency. On the other hand, too many errors will interfere with communication. In conversation, learners tend to rely on structures they have acquired and don't have time to think of and apply rules. In writing, however, knowing conjugations will help students self-monitor and reach a higher level of accuracy.

We won't have time to introduce everything, and so I think some explicit knowledge about conjugations (especially by the second half of the year) helps deal with the time problem. As long as my students are firm on pensar, dormir, preferir, and pedir, for example, it seems logical to spend a class period pointing out the other verbs that follow the same pattern, record them into our interactive notebooks, and play some games.

3. Some Students Love Grammar

Some students-- like me-- are very classic learners who are fascinated by rules. They love verb conjugations, and get super excited that they can apply endings to new verbs and extend their communication just like that. Martina Bex describes these learners in her post on grammar as well. To them, it's can be frustrating to be making connections in their heads and not get them addressed in class. 
 

IN CONCLUSION

I hope you found this to be a judgement-free post. We are all working under different constraints, and many teachers don't have the flexibility I do! This year, December was the right time to introduce our first verb chart. Next year, I might have wait until March, or not. I'm still reading, trying to brave in those online groups, and listening to my students. And I'd love to hear what's worked for you- please share in the comment section!




                         



3 comments:

  1. So, how do you teach then? I will be finishing my ninth year teaching this year and I am so frustrated by teaching subject pronouns, then the verb Ser, then the verb Querer, then ar verbs. That's just the order in which my textbook presents it. It seems like my student spend the rest of the year confusing forms of Ser with subject pronouns. I really feel like it would be easier to teach subject pronouns, then -ar verbs because of the patterns. They would be able to say so much, it seems. Also, I'm the only foreign language teacher at my middle school so I literally have no other teachers to bounce ideas off of. So what do you do or how do you teach until you get to verbs?

    Thanks,

    Lori

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  2. I have noticed that my students acquire the language I use in the classroom more easily than the vocabulary I formally teach. They go around saying, "Vengan aquí. Tienes detención, aviso," etc. It's funny. I think the block schedule makes it more difficult to teach toward proficiency because there is so little time to provide the necessary language in context. So I go back and forth between communication and conscious grammar. :)

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