Explicit grammar teaching: the baby, the bathwater, and balance

Human beings are creatures of extremes.  We like things in black and white, and we don’t like shades of gray – except “50 Shades of Gray”, which way too many people like.  We like to classify things and people as good or bad, beneficial or unhealthy, and give things a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.  Something that I have learned over the course of my own development is that it is not always best to assign things a positive or negative value, but rather to consider what contexts those things work best in.  Ketchup is neither good or bad; it is simply good with French Fries but awful with Shredded Wheat.

I am beginning to sense that in a lot of language teaching circles nowadays, a new brand of absolutism is emerging surrounding the issue of explicitly teaching grammar.  The conclusion is that it is ineffective, irrelevant, unnecessary, and even detrimental to the process of learning to speak a language.  This is a resounding theme preached on every episode of @TeaWithBVP.  TPRS is taking the nation by storm and washing away the duty to teach verb paradigms, gender rules, and preterit/imperfect differences, because its a waste of time that could be better used to tell another story about an iguana who went to Toronto to look for 56 Snicker bars.

Millions of words have been written about this issue.  But in as short of amount of space as possible here, I’d like to bring the idea of balance to the conversation about explicit teaching of grammar and posit that it does have a place, although that place does need to be considered carefully.  I think that this conversation could be relevant both to the TPRS fundamentalist and the teacher who is stuck in traditional grammar and vocabulary drills.

The basic premise is, grammar teaching is good in moderation, and in the right context.  I believe that the field of language teaching is very wise to dump traditional grammar-translation methods.  So much pedagogical innovation has happened within the last couple of decades that really offers brighter horizons for gaining proficiency within a classroom setting.

I feel, however, that many language teachers are challenging the notion that explicit grammar teaching has any place in the language classroom.  Based on where I am at now, I do not see it that way – and below is where I would like to enumerate why.  Where does explicit grammar teaching have a place?

Before I begin, let me say that BVP has profoundly influenced the way we teach Spanish at my high school.  If this blog entry (my first one) catches anyone’s attention, I will outline some time how our courses are taught, and share where we are at in our journey in presenting and using explicit grammatical instruction – again, in moderation.  In fact, it may have been more useful to do that entry first, but I’ve been feeling compelled about this issue recently and started listing out my thoughts.  So here it goes.

Explicit grammar teaching may assist analytical learners.

I believe that the question “Is the explicit teaching of grammar useful in language acquisition” is a poor question.  It assumes a “Yes” or “No” answer.  Instead of talking about whether or not “it works”, how about we modify the question to “Are there any learners for whom explicit instruction works well?  Is it beneficial for some?  What works best for other types of learners?”  Consider explicit grammar instruction as one possibility among several different things on a platter of differentiated instruction strategies.  Presenting concepts in different and multiple ways in order to reach all students is something that excellent teachers aspire to.

I believe that there are some learners out there who like learning things analytically, and who like information presented to them in an organized fashion.  They like having solid pieces of knowledge to work with and practice.  They aren’t satisfied with spending all day inferring and attempting to figure it out or piecing it together over the course of time.  They want some concrete tools to work with, and so they want to know all of the endings in the verb paradigm, or an explanation of why subjunctive is used in a sentence but not another.  Leave the iguana and the Snickers in Toronto and give them some pegs to hang their thoughts on.  Explicit grammar instruction is helpful for them.  They want a rule, a verb chart, and acronyms that delineate contexts of usage.

Years ago, my wife took Spanish classes at a language school here in Chicago at a location that attempted to avoid boring students with grammar explanations and drills, and presented things with more of a “catch it rather than learn it” approach.  They did a decent job, but my wife decided to transfer to a local city college instead because they provided more of a thematic approach with specific grammar structures to be focused on.  She liked that a bit better, and she learned.  And yes, I went in and observed once and found the instructor to be fostering communication very well.

Is this more psychological satisfaction than actual cognition building for analytical learners?  I don’t know.  But I believe that providing building blocks for these folks is relevant and useful.

Explicit grammar teaching is an issue of “how much” rather than “do it or don’t”.

I would like to propose that there are different ways to frame the discussion of using or not using explicit grammar instruction.  I view the use of explicit teaching as more of a spectrum issue instead of a do-it-or-don’t issue.

What would some of those spectrums be?

  • Depth:  Instead of flatly stating that explicit grammar does not work, perhaps it would be more wise to say that it is instrumental to a certain extent, but cannot successfully cover the full depth or all contexts of usage for a grammatical form.  For instance, I believe that Spanish teachers should stop presenting every single context of the subjunctive mood and instead focus on a limited list.  I never teach my students to use subjunctive when dealing with an unknown situation (i.e., “I am searching for a waitress that has experience”).  But I would not say to never provide explicit instruction on any uses of subjunctive.  Again, it’s not an issue of “teach it” or “don’t teach it”, but rather, “to what extent should we teach it”, or “Which contexts of usage shall we teach, and which ones do we leave for students to pick up when they travel some day and hit the streets of Mexico City”.
  • Abstract vs concrete:  I agree that many grammar structures are so abstract that they are best acquired in context and through repeated exposure.  Many differences (though not all) between “por” and “para” in Spanish are best learned in context, and no students are helped by endless practice drills sorting out all uses of “por” and “para”.  However, I would not generalize that this is true of every single grammatical structure.  Verb paradigms are one example.  They are concrete, and they can be taught in a meaningful and communicative way after teaching students what the endings are.  Yes – verb charts.  But “le” versus “lo”?  Maybe not.  Present perfect is very concrete and easy to study, compare, and learn in Spanish because it is virtually a one-to-one correspondence with how we do it in English.  Using “ser”
  • One language versus another:  I would like to entertain the following question – Is it possible that different languages require differing degrees of explicit grammar teaching, based on the nature of the language?  Romance languages have a lot of complex verb and noun morphology, whereas Mandarin is more bare-bones and functions more with vocabulary and word order.  Is it possible that less explicit grammar focus – and just more repetition and general input – is needed for languages like Mandarin, but a more detailed look at grammatical forms is needed for the study of languages with more complex morphology?

Instead of writing off explicit grammar teaching as absolutely useless, how about we analyze what its rightful place is?  Do we really need to throw the baby out with the bath water?

Explicit grammar teaching helps set goals for language learning.

Being a good educator includes elements such as daily and weekly “I can” statements, measurable objectives, and students being able to observe what they have learned between the beginning and end of a unit.  Rubric criteria should be specific, and students should have a clear understanding of what they are being assessed on.  This is laid out on p. 30 of the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of “The Language Educator” published by ACTFL.

When I used to teach under a totally -TPRS model (at a previous school), grammar was pointed out in context, but with no emphasis or expectation to present it in an organized fashion.  “Habla”, “canta”, and “fue” are all vocabulary words, and there was no theoretical base established at any point to explain why “Corre” ends in ‘e’ and not ‘a’, or how “fue” is connected to “ir”.  Students are just guessing all the time, and there is no previously established framework to refer to in order to properly answer questions of language form that come up.  I found it hard to establish measurable learning targets in this environment.

But what happens when students aren’t sure what they are to focus on and don’t have specific knowledge tools to build with?  Weaker learners begin to shut down. It’s too much mental effort.  They swim and swim with no surface to stand on.  The pieces don’t connect to a larger whole.  “Oh, but they’ll figure it out eventually, because acquisition takes awhile.  The mind maps it out the more they see it over the course of time”.  But the field of education seems to agree that students accomplishing something during the week – or even within a class session – is what builds student motivation and moves learning along.

Please don’t mistake me.  Memorizing a verb conjugation chart down pat is not ‘achieving proficiency’ or equate to possessing proficiency.  However, I do believe that it’s a tool towards getting there – and it’s a tool that can speed up the process.

At what point along the way do I as a language teacher hold my students accountable to achieve grammatical accurately if I let them acquire it over time when there are clear patterns and principles that can be pointed out and applied?  Why allow it to take endless time to be “caught” when it can be easily “taught”?  TPRS folks:  How do you hold students accountable to learn?  And how are students aware of their progress and learning?  How do you measure it?

It makes me wonder, are linguists and educators talking to teach other?  Or do they all stay within their own walls and offices on their university campuses?  Is it possible for one to do what educational psychologists agree is good practice and be a faithful linguist?  I often hear that language learning is a special type of endeavor that is different than other types of learning that is unlike any other.  The implication seems to be that the field of education with its rhetoric of objectives, rehearsal of content, and gradual release of responsibility does not have a lot of light to shed on the topic of language learning, thank you very much.  I am very skeptical of such a divorce and believe that linguists and educators need to sit at the same table over coffee – or tea, in the case of BVP – and discuss these things.

Once again, I will probably write out an entry later (that would be my second entry ever) with  examples of how we introduce students to grammar and then give them input with it at my high school.  But until then, I am always interested to hear thoughts from others about the place of grammar teaching in language learning.  And if it is absent, explain how you hold students accountable to learn, set learning objectives, and direct student focus to what they should be learning.

6 thoughts on “Explicit grammar teaching: the baby, the bathwater, and balance

  1. Chris, congratulations on the new blog! Thanks for alerting me to it. I appreciate your bridge-building efforts in this post and am eager to read your future posts.

    Re: your wondering whether linguists and educators are talking to each other, I agree that it would be great to have much more interaction between researchers and teachers, but I’m excited that many researchers are going out of their way these days to participate in an unprecedented amount of collaboration with teachers, and that I’m seeing many more teachers eager to read scholarship in SLA than I used to see.

    It may be that what you’re calling for is increased collaboration between researchers in linguistics and researchers in education. I’m not sure what all collaboration is going on right now, although research in instructed SLA by its nature favors such collaboration.

    All the best with the blog!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I second Justin’s point. I am loving seeing the deep interest in SLA research from many teachers in the CI community (I’m sure this happens in other teaching communities as well, but my focus right now is in the Ci community). Having Krashen and VanPatten directly involved in discussions with teachers a great reinforcement of this bridge.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Chris! As you already know after we talked over email last year, I wrote a blog post to summarize about whether or not I have found Chinese different in its needs for explicit grammar instruction. (I teach Mandarin specifically, but all Chinese dialects would be the same in this respect.)

    I would greatly prefer lots of introduction to meaningful input so the students all start to gain a mental representation for the language, then an occasional, contextual, grammar point, usually led by students’ confusion or questions. I think for a few students, it calms the analytical need to look at language linguistically instead of just to communicate. But for the great majority of my own students over 10 years, only a few need/desire that. The other time I do “pop-up” grammar (brief, contextually-driven grammar instruction lasting about 5-10 seconds at a time) is when I know students are likely to misunderstand meaning if they don’t know what a grammar feature adds to the meaning of the sentence. In Mandarin, the particle 了 would be classic for that, since its placement can determine its meaning in the sentence.

    My blog post link: http://tprsforchinese.blogspot.com/2016/08/implicit-vs-explicit-grammar-is-chinese.html

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is great Chris! In discussing our role as educators more is better.
    My only addition to this topic is to review the POV step of TPRS. We do pop up grammar as a way to translate the meaning of the expression when it is used. POV on the other side is our way to see who the meaning of words and expressions we already know are affected or modified when we change the tense or the subject in the sentence. In POV we move from vertical from horizontal. It’s not about the conjugation of a verb or the list of pronouns, it is how the use of a pronoun changes the meaning of your narrative or leave your reader or audience confused.
    Keep writing and sharing your reflections.
    I subscribed!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I had a disagreement with a notable and very famous educator/TPRS trainer about this exact thing. I said that I prep my students with 1-2 minutes of explicit grammar instruction before introducing something. Like, “We are going to learn the verb ‘estar’. It’s the second ‘to be’ verb in the Spanish language, and it’s only used for temporary emotions and locations. We’ll start with just those two things, for now.” The opposing opinion was, “I tell students it means ‘I feel’ and only if someone asks; then I move on.” So many things about that made me mad! For one, “estar” doesn’t mean “I feel”; it indicates an emotional state.
    But who am I, and what do I know? I just know I’ll keep doing what I think is right for my class and my students. That’s what makes me a good teacher.

    Liked by 1 person

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