Response to mw

M.W. posted the following to a listserv:

*Pat, I teach Spanish.

*I want the grammar for communication.

*I also would like to know how much time is appropriate for students, 8th, 9th and 10th graders,

who represent the range in ability, motivation and interest and goals, re: the appropriate amount

of time needed to devote to their language studies. I teach on the 4×4 block

When you get down to specifics like this, it seems to me that it requires that we get back to basics. OTOH, if we are too basic, the result can be unuseable. It is clear that this discussion should be a back and forth, with others chiming in. That is why I like the blog format for this: the comment mode can be used and yet we can avoid the spoilers who aren’t going to go to the trouble of finding the site.

Communication is the goal. If we think of grammar as the path to that goal, we run into the problem of the path becoming the goal. A lot of teachers cannot see any way to get students to produce well-formed sentences in L2 except by explaining how the L2 forms those sentences i.e. the “structure”, the “grammar”, or whatever you want to call it, the nuts and bolts, the mechanics.

This view runs afoul of the observation made consistently in the field now and made often in the distant past that the best way to learn a language is to use it. That is often put in the form of “go to the country? or “immerse yourself’. What the conventional fl teacher thinks is, “Well, sure, if you are surrounded 24/7 by L2, you’re bound to “pick it up’. But even then, you’ll not use proper grammar. You need a teacher to explain to you how the L2 works. And our students are not surrounded by L2, just what we give them in class, so if we explain the grammar, they can practice it and eventually be able to produce well-formed sentences.”

I don’t want to digress here, but suffice it to say that there are many things to be said about our classrooms, our teachers, our students, our curriculum, our schools and our society, but I’ll refrain. We can talk about my basis for saying this later, but for now, I’ll make the simple statement:

In the classroom, the teacher can provide an experience in L2 for the students. This can be done at any level, from sheer beginner to advanced. The format can vary; I don’t believe, for example, that tprs is the only way to go. Nor do I believe that a teacher who teaches explict grammar is failing to provide that experience in L2. But that experience, if provided, gives the student’s brain something to work on.

Now, for the student’s brain to work on it (that’s the LAD = language acquisition device posited by folks like Chomsky; no proof for its existence but evidence that it does exist is available) the student must want to know what is going on i.e. communicate. The teacher’s job is to provide the student with the need but set up the situation so that the only way he can satisfy that need is to use L2.

An example would be first day of class, L2 Year 1: kid walks in: “Where do I sit”. He wants to know. You say, “p’atoe mesto, tam” and point. You might then, in the face of his obstinate refusal to follow your pointing finger b/c he’s ticked off you’re not speaking English, say, “pervoe, vtoroe, tretee, chetv’ortoe, P’ATOE, TAM”. and point at each desk. You might do this for every kid, for each row of seats (and you can rearrange your seating all the time – I do).

The point is, you take advantage of his real need. that’s why games are so often recommended; not b/c, as many members of these listservs say, we want to just have fun all day, but b/c kids want to win games and will try to understand L2 to win. They will also learn grammar in order to win a game.

So, why not just teach the grammar that way? Why not make a kid learn all the case endings, verb endings, forms of pronouns (I teach Latin and Russian, highly inflected languages, so there’s lots to learn). The reason is simple:

the brain is laying down patterns, making an internal model of L2. That happens only when understanding, communication occurs. It can’t be faked e.g. doing it for the teacher. This is a unconscious process and that’s why it’s so unpopular with a lot of people: they want more control over the process than that. Moreover, some people are vaguely disturbed by the lack of control beyond language issues – but that’s for another post. it’s hard to pin down progress when everyone is growing in different ways and at different rates. that’s unacceptable to a good many people’s value systems and belief systems. we’ve had this split in education as long as communities have been educating their kids in how to hunt, how to farm, etc.

The other thing that makes communicative teaching hard is the teacher has to come up with this stuff all the time and also balance it with the need to cover a textbook, prepare kids for the next teacher who may require overt knowledge of grammar, get them ready for a district final, etc.

BTW, an overt knowledge of grammar is great and I think we should teach it, esp as it applies to L1. I just don’t expect students to become better communicators in L1 or in L2 b/c they’re studied grammar.

How long? It depends on your goals. If you are under conditions I mentioned in the paragraph before last, only the kids who stick with L2 for 3 or 4 years may begin to get a handle on it. If you do a tprs thing, many tprs-ers report a good deal of acquisition in a relatively short time.

To me, that’s not the issue. A student can know a ton of grammar, but if he has no proficiency, it did not promote proficiency. If you want proficiency, you have to provide the student with the opportunity to gain it. Only communicating in L2 will provide the raw material from which to build that internal model of L2. I see many students who have good proficiency with a tiny vocabulary and little conscious knowledge of grammar, and I see lots of students who have little proficiency but they do well on tests of grammar.

Not that above statement is very much open to question and debate. that’s where research comes in. If you question your students, analyze their proficiency, determine their L2 background, etc., you can make your own determination as to whether a good overt knowledge of grammar promotes proficiency. Obviously, if you teach “estar with location” and then test on “Maria _________(es or esta?) en el salon de clase”, you’ll get “esta” from good students i.e. those who pay attention. But can that student use “esta” in a communicative situation where he cannot use his monitor to check his grammar? If he can’t , then I don’t think you?ve promoted proficiency.

that’s why research is so important: SLA researchers try to study these effects under controlled conditions. But many of our Listserv members do not trust SLA or even research in general. It collides with their expectations and need for control, IMHO. The studies are not strong, although SLA people assure me they are, from a scientific viewpoint. But they sure haven’t convinced the bulk of fl teachers.

If your position allows it, begin talking about yourself; students love to know about their teachers. Then get them to really talk about themselves. Have them interview each other, create personas and talk about them, write stories about their personas, use geography which has lots of visuals. Make tapes of the material you?ve covered and have students listen to the tapes. There’s so much you can do but it’s so hard. Believe me, I fail more often than I succeed. But what is the alternative? Stay with the book; use points; give tests; demand homework; that is, play the “school? game. The kids will take you seriously but they will play the game, too. Kids talk to me about this all the time.

I don’t spend as much time in L2 as I would like. But I use lots of ideas. We can talk about that. We can also talk about anecdotal evidence I see in my students on how well they learn.

let’s talk.

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