Just an impossible situation

The tone of my response to the post below is sarcastic and the person requesting help does not deserve that. It just amazes me, though, that people still talk about students retaining all this abstract grammatical information about the language when those who advocate teaching grammar like this can offer no evidence that it works. Yet there is a whole field called SLA that has shown over and over in varied ways that it does not work. Yet teachers go on teaching one grammar structure after another, churning out students by the thousand for whom the language is a mystery and any proficiency they ever gain derives from visits to the country or some such form of input.

Here’s the request:
I would really appreciate your feedback on this err, situation my
colega and I seem to have gotten ourselves into and it would be
helpful to know how other foreign language programs evaluate what
constitutes first year, second year, third year, etc.
We use En Español and for year one, we do half of the book, year two
we do mostly the other half, year three consists of finishing that
book and doing the first three units of book 2. Year four, consists
of skipping around in book two. Level one learns to conjugate present
tense verbs, irregulars like oir, conocer, and we learn IR + A +
infinitive to talk about the future, and ACABAR + DE to talk about the
recent past. Level two learns present progressive, tener expressions,
reflexive verbs, direct and indirect object pronouns, and the
preterite conjugation of AR verbs. Year three learns to conjugate in
the preterite and starts to learn about the imperfect at the end of
the year. In my attempt to simplify, those are the key grammar points
that all three years hit in terms of conjugations and being able to
express oneself. I would love to know what sort of grammar,
conjugations, students learn at the different levels in your program.
So the pickle. My colleague and I brought up in our department
meeting professional development opportunities such as a workshop at
Stanford University (which we are going to and paying out of pocket)
and the upcoming ACTFL conference in San Diego. My dept head said
both are great opportunities but that she would not be going, our
other colleague said sounds great but can’t afford it and have other
committments. Thus, we approach our principal to ask for financial
She says alright but! I would like you both to go to the AP workshops
and bring back information and I would also like it that you propose
to your department that you finish book one (or nearly finish) in year
one this year and then Year Two can start in book two. She said that
is what I have wanted for years and I would like to get this going now.
Did we get played? Are we doing our students a disservice by not
keeping pace with other high schools in our area but moving at such a
slow pace? Do they really retain what we teach them (as my department
head claims) and is there a way to measure this effectively?
Sorry for the long post but I would really appreciate to know what
other pacing exists in other schools.

If you want them to pass grammar tests – which is what the profs want – then
by all means hop from present to preterite, from direct object to indirect
object, from participal to gerund, etc. and they will pass the grammar tests
if they are the sort of students who handle abstractions well.. Other types
of students may be very confused by the many and varied structures and
formulae taught them but that doesn’t mean you didn’t do your best; they
just won’t speak Spanish, but then that’s hardly the point when you’re
teaching grammar.

The test to see if they retained what you taught them is to test them on
what you taught them. Ask them for the first person plural in the preterite
of the verb tocar, for example.

And good news! There is a test for proficiency in Spanish. It’s to talk to
them in Spanish to see if they can respond. For a handful of teachers, that
is a pretty good Spanish test, for others, it is beside the point.

Some teachers go through a textbook at a pace where the students can
actually use the language taught in a particular chapter. Others find it
useful to go over the structures, assign practices, and then test on each
structure. In the latter case, the more the better. A student who knows 16
tenses is going to look better than one who knows only 12. For the teacher
who goes slow, the usefulness of that lies in the students’ ability to use
the language.

It all just depends.

I hope this and the other posts on this ever-present challenge to us help
you make some decisions about what and how to teach.


I tried to make it sound helpful but could not hide my sarcasm. I’ll bet if you told this teacher she could dispense with grammar and just tell the kids stories, have talks with them, etc., she’d be happy with that. But the grammar mavens will hurl dire warnings and insist she teach one incomprehensible form after another. And they talk as if they have something to back themselves up with. Where is it? Where is the research that shows any proficiency gained by students in such a grammar-driven class?

One guy assures everyone that grammar must be taught in detail and at high speed. His own L2 is very good. This is from flteach so you can read it for yourself. The thread is Levels of Spanish from Oct. 10, 2009. But he can never offer any evidence that either teaching grammar explicitly or covering the textbook accomplish anything. In fact, he complains a lot about student behavior. Again, with this guy, if he would just sit down with his students and start in simple language talking about his stay in Mexcio, I’ll bet his student misbehavior rate would go down and his students would learn Sp way above what they are doing now.

But these guys have no way to tell. Note the originator of the question asks if there are tests to show whether or not the studens retain what they are taught. Well, if you teach them grammar, there are plenty of tests b/c the colleges are filled with teachers who think that’s what language is – grammar. They design the tests to test for grammatical knowledge. Proficiency is a mystery to these people.

I heard a highly respected and highly accomplished professor speak on textbook writing and monitoring students at a language camp; she had no clue in the world what communicative teaching is but she thinks she does. Yet her status is so high, no one would dare challenge her. I think I’ll drop her an e-mail and tell her she has no clue.

But a proficiency test, if you can find one, is an entirely different matter. They do exist. But this young teacher obviously doesn’t know of their existence and those sending her messages on the listserv may know of them but they don’t respect them b/c they don’t test for grammatical knowledge, which is the only knowledge they respect.

If we had a proficiency exam for every language program, things would change real fast. Simple question: what can you do in L2?

Here’s another post to a listserv and my response to it following another list member’s response:
Does anyone know of any Yahoo support groups for teachers who DO believe in the grammar-translation method of teaching Latin — those who believe it is essential for students to know the nominative, genitive & gender of nouns; the principal parts of verbs; the various forms of adjectives etc.?
I find myself in between the two camps and want to explore further. Please don’t reply just to tell me I am wrong. I am simply looking for the other point of view.

First response”
I believe that it is important for students to recognize the cases in all five declensions, to know the three sets of verb endings, to know principal parts of verbs and how to use them, and the forms of the adjectives.
This is the false dichotomy that I think we struggle with. I would never suggest that grammar is unimportant or that we don’t need to teach it. What I have been emphasizing in my own work and in discussions/workshops with others is that when I teach these things, I HAVE to be clear that teaching grammar is not teaching students to communicate in the language. It is teaching them to think critically about the language. Both of those are important, but they are not the same thing.

This isn’t the issue, though. We’re dealing with faith here. Which leads to the question, just what are best practices? Those who “believe in” the g/t method do so b/c it has no evidence for its efficacy; it’s a matter of faith. By stating that he thinks it’s important to know the grammatical facts, he is implying that students who are not taught by the g/t method do not know them. Yhat is his belief and no matter how many students taught by other methods you show him, he will still believe they do not know them.

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