What’s grammar got to do with it?

Posted by Megan Smith on November 6, 2015 in grammar, Most Popular, Teacher Problems

Grammar. You already know which side of the fence you’re on, don’t you? It seems to me that world language teachers either LOVE it or HATE it. That it is crucial to student success or it’s not necessary at all.

Well, I’m not part of either of those camps. Call me Switzerland, but I can’t take sides here. To me, grammar is like money. On its own it’s neither good nor bad. What we as teachers do with it is what makes it good or bad. 

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Why teach grammar in a world language classroom?

Accuracy. That’s it.  It’s not because it’s fun and hopefully it’s not just to pass a grammar test. Sometimes (not always) understanding the patterns in grammar helps us improve accuracy.

When is accuracy important?

Later. I know that sounds vague, but it is different for everyone. When a baby speaks his first words are we worried about pronunciation? When a toddler ask a question do adults roll their eyes at incorrect agreement? No. When Kara tries to order our meal in Korean, do I care if she’s perfect? Nope. Everyone is just happy to see them communicating and they are trying to understand the message. When a student begins communicating, errors are to be expected. It’s a natural part of the process. We as teachers need to be excited to see them communicating and focusing on their message.

Imagine if we expected initial accuracy in other types of performances. It’s your first piano lesson and your teacher plays you a song. Now you have to repeat it. Perfectly. Then do the same thing tomorrow. Oh, and there is a recital at the end of the week.

Your coach shows you how to shoot a 3 pointer. Now it’s your turn. Good luck. If you miss, you don’t make the team. No pressure!

Now you might get lucky, but it’s unlikely you will be able to do anything flawlessly the first time around.  A good teacher wouldn’t expect perfection. They would give a little advice and encourage you to try again.

Later, accuracy is more important (as students approach ADVANCED proficiency). I don’t want any adult speaking like a toddler. I don’t want years of piano lessons to end in chopsticks. As a language student’s proficiency grows, so should their accuracy. This doesn’t happen overnight. Every time I hear a teacher tell me about a unit on “past tense” it makes me wonder if my students are the only ones who need more time to master that.  Am I alone here?

Why not push accuracy? 

Accuracy is deceiving. Novice mid students can be 100% accurate by spitting out memorized 3 word sentences. Is that better than a student who created original, complex sentences with a few different errors? No. It’s different. When we as teachers make accuracy the focus, we are really encouraging them to play it safe and avoid risks. Instead of accuracy, promote growth. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being better.

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So what’s grammar’s role in a proficiency classroom?

Too much grammar… not enough… We need to find the sweet spot in the middle that’s just right for our students.

In our next few posts we will share some thoughts on the following:

How much grammar should we teach?

When do we teach certain concepts?

How do we meet the needs all our different students?

How do we incorporate grammar in context?


What about you?

What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to grammar in the classroom?

Grammar & Proficiency Series

What’s Grammar Got to Do with It?

Grammar in Context

More Grammar in Context

14 comments for “What’s grammar got to do with it?”

  1. Gretchen says:

    Should there still be grammar sections on a test that assess a specific grammar concept? How do you get away from that? (especially if your colleagues still do it!) How do you teach certain grammar concepts in context? I can teach some verbs tenses as vocabulary in context, but other topics are really tough (like direct/indirect/double object pronouns)! What about subjunctive? How do you teach subjunctive without discussing the grammar rules? These are some of the many questions related to grammar that run through my head constantly! Thanks for opening up the conversation!
    P.S. Will you be doing any sessions at ACTFL other than the pre-conference workshop? I would love to meet you but can’t make it soon enough for the pre-conference.
    Thank you!

    1. Kara Parker says:

      Great questions Gretchen! Thanks for sharing those thoughts. They have all ran through my mind at least 40 times before. When I started 13 years ago, it was all grammar instruction so I had to wrestle through those thoughts. We’re planning on covering those and we’ll add your questions as examples if you don’t mind.
      I don’t have any other presentations and Megan will be preparing for Baby Smith, but there are some ACTFL things being planned. 🙂 I’ll be doing a post about all that soon!

    2. Pedro Carrasquillo says:

      Tell a story that uses the grammar points that you want to use in a meaningful context to the students. Make one of the students the main character in the story doing wonderful and amazing things. That way they will focus less on the grammar and more on the story thus promoting more listening and active engagement.

    3. Tina says:

      Yes I have found storytelling to be the easiest way to teach structures without direct instruction. We start simple with il lui donne (he gives her) and il lui dit. (He says to her) in French 1 in like October. But even if you don’t storytell, have a student give something to someone and then narrate what is happening. I have DOP and IDOP on the board and every time I use them, I point at the pronoun. When we write together I make sure we use a pronoun and I ask over and over where the pronoun goes? Is it the same in English? What would it sound like?

      I do directly teach these concepts eventually but after much exposure and discussion since level 2 is a typical placement of this grammar concept. I expose grammar to them plenty. I just keep the grammar terms to a minimum. In fact not saying what they are caller unless asked. Whic lets be honest is not often.

  2. Rita Barrett says:

    I explain to my class that we all make mistakes with language–even in L1–but we want to avoid the mistakes that make our message confusing (and later, those errors that sound clunky). The beauty of teaching grammar in context is that it is very easy to help them see the value of the correct form. (eg, “Quiero va” means “I want he goes,” but we want to say “I want to go,” so we need to say “Quiero ir.”) This week I pulled five sentences from student compositions and we corrected the errors together. I think this is more powerful than simply filling out worksheets to prepare for a quiz.

  3. Ivonne Rovira says:

    Megan, thanks for the permission to go Swiss. No one wants to think they’re the only neutral country.

  4. TJ says:

    So glad you are doing a series on this!! I struggle with this question EVERY YEAR. The main problem is that I’m the only proficiency based teacher at my school (one of the only ones in the district). The teacher in the level above me gets angry when I don’t “teach” all the verb forms of all the tenses she thinks they should learn in level 2. I just don’t structure my class around grammar topics. It’s all embedded with occasional ‘extra focus’/grammar studies. We use a lot of tenses in level 2 but they struggle with the fill-in-the-blank activities and assessments they get in Spanish 3 since they didn’t ever have those in my class. I think one of the big changes that needs to happen is for WL teachers to see errors as a natural part of language acquisition instead of just marking every one with a red pen and to stop trying to teach kids a million grammar topics a year. I want to include grammar in a way that is communicative and helpful – I’m sure I’ll get great ideas from this series!

  5. Megan says:

    ALL of your questions are the ones I struggle with! I tend to err on the side of “less is more” but I’m finding that my upper levels actually NEED more now. Not sure what to incorporate, or how to do it well.

    A parent actually confronted me at conferences about how “little” grammar I teach to my students. Apparently present tense, preterit/imperfect, both forms of the future, present subjunctive and conditional are “not NEARLY enough to acquire a second language!” and that when she was in French they got “pages and pages” of verb charts.

    Funnily enough, when I asked her how much she remembered, the answer was “not much now.” Hmm.

  6. “Accuracy is deceiving. Novice mid students can be 100% accurate by spitting out memorized 3 word sentences. Is that better than a student who created original, complex sentences with a few different errors? No. It’s different. When we as teachers make accuracy the focus, we are really encouraging them to play it safe and avoid risks. Instead of accuracy, promote growth. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being better.”

    I just had this exact conversation with my good friend and colleague at school this morning! I was telling her that I was really struggling with how to grade students on writing when they obviously make more of an effort to go above and beyond, but that attempt results in multiple errors that may affect comprehension. As opposed to the student that sticks to the simple, yet safe sentences that they have mastered from a bunch of repetition. I think a rubric is needed that really addresses this issue. Anyone already have one? Thanks for the very timely article!

  7. Megan says:

    I am so happy to see you all approach this subject! I have always enjoyed your posts and employed MANY of your ideas when I was teaching high school Spanish, but I felt that grammar was sometimes ignored in your rubrics, assessments, etc. Can’t wait to see this series of posts!

  8. Patti says:

    One need not “throw out the baby with the bath water” on this topic. The fact is that grammar mistakes DO affect communication. Incorrect use of pronouns can cause very embarrassing and significant communication problems. Dropped accents can change verb tense or word meaning. Etc., etc. And let’s face it, parents and students look at placement scores to judge a program and placement exams are heavy on grammar. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stress communicative skills in the classroom. For myself, I’m trying to blend the proficiency model with “traditional” strategies and assessments to try and achieve the best of both worlds.

  9. Megan Smith says:

    Interesting to see how so many of us are searching for the balance! We all come from different classrooms with students at different levels of proficiency. We can’t wait to share IDEAS of how grammar and proficiency collided in our classes, but they are by no means the ONLY way to make it work! Thanks to you all for sharing your thoughts!

  10. Jeff Mayfield says:

    Aw Megan, your partner Kara ROCKED it today! You KNOW that you have a good product when numerous other presenters come to YOUR workshop.

    Kara, thanks so much for this indispensable education for all language teachers.


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