The Comprehensible Classroom

I teach grammar.


You just cringed; didn’t you?! I knew it.

Golly there seems to be a lot of discord in the virtual realm lately—lots of professional disagreement about many different aspects of language teaching; but nothing that seems to bring out the war cries like a good old-fashioned mention of grammar. As Justo Lamas croons in Cielito Lindo, my thoughts on the topic can be summed up as “¡Ay ay ay ay!”

In Thursday’s Tea with BVP session on the topic “Does Explicit Language Teaching Do Anything?”, Bill framed the options in the conversation on the role of explicit grammar instruction in second language instruction as “Teaching grammar is harmful” and “Teaching grammar is helpful”. In the context of Thursday’s show—the specific questions that were asked by callers—it made sense for him to make the conversation black and white. Krashen and others have been showing us for years that explicit language instruction does not a language speaker make. The best use of our class time is NOT explicit language teaching (meaning teaching about the language); the best use of our class time is comprehensible input. It is flooding our students with language at i+1 so that the complicated web of language in their heads grows and becomes more interconnected. Explicit instruction does not—cannot—will not—supersede the order of acquisition. So no, teaching grammar is not helpful to language acquisition. Four decades of SLA research have demonstrated that language is not built up from practice, but consistent and constant exposure to input. Input is indispensable to language acquisition and cannot be replaced by practice.

Well, that’s what the research says…so why are we having this conversation?

I think it’s because we are language teachers. Most of us love language. We enjoy learning grammar rules, even though we realize that the saying “rules were made to be broken” is more true in language than anywhere else! Many of us feel like we benefited from studying grammar at some point in our careers. I liked memorizing rules and applying them correctly. My study abroad roommate (also a future Spanish teacher) and I liked it so much that we had the on-site study abroad coordinator design a grammar course for us and we voluntarily met with her twice a week to do grammar lessons. And we asked her to give us homework. Did it help me to acquire the Spanish language faster? Nope. But was it helpful? Well…yeah, it was! So if it didn’t help my language acquisition, in what way was it helpful to me?

Well I will tell you what I think. And let me just say right now—I reserve the right to be wrong. Please do respectfully disagree with me and challenge me. Everything that I post is subject to change as I learn more.

The Monitor Hypothesis, that’s what I think. If you have never heard of it, here’s the Cliff Notes from Martina: The Monitor Hypothesis is one in a group of five hypotheses developed by Dr. Krashen that are collectively known as the “Input Hypothesis” and form the theoretical basis for teaching with comprehensible input. The Monitor Hypothesis is what I would consider to be the “weakest” of the five: not in that it is not theoretically supported as well as the others, but in that each of the other four provide teachers with clear information that “if [x] then [y]”, and the results are consistent.  For example, the natural order hypothesis: we acquire (use correctly and consistently) different features of language in a particular order, and nothing can change that order. See this helpful handout from Susan Gross for more about the order of acquisition. The Monitor Hypothesis…well…there are a ton of different stipulations and limitations on it. Basically, it says that the only benefit of consciously learning language—being taught rules and the correct way to say things—is to ‘monitor’ language that was acquired effortlessly; language that was learned without instruction. But just because it CAN serve that purpose doesn’t mean that it DOES serve that purpose. That’s what I mean when I say that it’s the “weakest” of the five hypotheses. With the other hypotheses, you could say “keep the kids’ affective filters low, and they’ll be able to acquire language”, or “Flood the kids with natural, uncontrived input, and they’ll acquire the language accurately, naturally”, or “Provide the kids with input that is just above their current level, and they’ll acquire language”, or “Expose the kids to [comprehensible] language, and they will naturally acquire it sans instruction”. But the Monitor Hypothesis is different. Even though it says that receiving explicit language instruction can serve the purpose of monitoring acquired language, it doesn’t say that learning a rule will make the learner apply the rule and improve accuracy. There are lots of stipulations: most significantly, time is required for the learner to apply the rule. Learned rules rarely monitor spontaneous production. And they really only monitor what has already been produced—so once you’ve said or written something, you think about it and the rules that apply to it, and correct yourself if needed. But it doesn’t really monitor language pre-production. Also, high aptitude learners are really the only ones that do any monitoring at all: aptitude correlates with conscious learning but not with acquisition, so truly explicit language instruction is only going to help your high-aptitude learners—your lowest aptitude learners will not monitor their language even if you give them rules. And…and…and. So you see…learning rules in order to monitor language…well, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Now, back to me. I said that learning rules didn’t help my language acquisition, but that it was still helpful to me. Why?? Because I was a strong case for the monitor hypothesis. I was a highly motivated language learner. My roommate and I literally signed a contract in blood with my professor before I went abroad saying that we would not speak English together (yeah, she was crazy). We were on a mission to learn Spanish. I aimed for perfection. I got an intercambio (an exchange partner), and we met several times a week to improve my language ability and hers in English (we alternated the language in which we spoke from meeting to meeting). I convinced someone to teach me grammar rules. I painstakingly edited my papers. I begged my professors to use the red pen. And you know what? By golly, it served a purpose. My conversational fluency is not amazingly accurate in Spanish. But my written production is pretty darn great. Not perfect by any means, but it’s really good. And when someone brings to my attention a mistake in something that I’ve written, it’s usually a mistake that I “know”, I just missed (monitor hypothesis fail!). When I provide my students with comprehensible input in class, I am confident that the input with which I provide them is accurate even though I am not a native speaker.

So how could I classify explicit instruction of rules as categorically “harmful” or “helpful”? It’s complicated! For most students, it’s not helpful. Most students are not like me. I am the minority! So it is definitely NOT the best use of my class time to teach explicit rules.

But some students are like me!! And we talk about differentiation and how important it is…and certainly there are many different ways to differentiate within the realm of CI. This is one of the reasons that TPRS®/CI is a no-brainer for teachers that are “stuck” with multi-level classes. Teaching rules explicitly is neither the only nor the best way to differentiate for high-aptitude, highly motivated learners, but it is a way. And so I do teach explicit grammar lessons. I don’t do it often, I don’t do it for long, and I only do it after comprehensible input. If I teach a 10-minute explicit grammar lesson once every two or three weeks—less than that in Spanish 1—to expose a pattern that students can already interpret and possibly produce with some accuracy…well, I don’t think that is harmful to anyone! And I think that it is helpful to a small group of students.

Other teachers are going to disagree with me on this—teachers that I generally agree with. And that is okay! Knowing how language is acquired gives us the freedom to teach in the way that makes the most sense for us and our students. We have our own ears, our own eyes, and our own minds. We don’t have to arrive at the same conclusions! It is okay for us—it is okay for YOU—to use professional judgment to do or not do or use any given activity or strategy in your language classes. What is NOT okay is digging in your heels and committing to a specific position when you have no stinking idea what the research says, or even sticking to a specific position when there is no research to support it. I have concluded that teaching extremely limited grammar lessons does not fall into the latter category: I think that there is research that allows for limited grammar instruction, even in a ‘best practice’ classroom.

Oh man, I feel like I need to add so many disclaimers. Do not DO NOT DO NOT use this post to defend traditional grammar lessons. I would not ever teach a grammar lesson like the ones that I had throughout my language career (even though they were effective for me, the future Spanish teacher): lessons that introduced a new construction or ‘rule’ and then followed that introduction with drills and “contextualized” (ha, ha) practice. If there is no communication (as defined by VanPatten, communication is the “expression, interpretation, and/or negotiation of meaning in a context”) there is no acquisition. Traditional practice, therefore, can only result in language-like behavior: it will not result in language acquisition. I believe that explicit language instruction becomes categorically harmful when we give the rule and then follow with practice. It’s confusing, it’s hard, and it’s unnatural. It raises the affective filter, and low aptitude students are put at serious risk for failure. This is part of the reason that traditional language programs have such a low rate of retention! Since explicit language instruction is “maybe helpful to some” at best, you have to be really, really judicious about its inclusion. In some classes, you might skip it altogether. Do not use this post and say, “Look! Martina does it! It is okay!”. I do a lot of things wrong, and this might be one of them. You need to do the research and arrive at your own conclusions. And yes, your research might involve trying out “flipping” a traditional grammar lesson (working with the construction first, naturally, and then following with exposition). But your conclusions on this topic need to be your own.

When Bill VanPatten was up here in September for our state conference, he had much to share on this subject. One of my favorite quotes was, “Your students aren’t going to die if you do traditional practice, but there are better ways to spend your time”. It’s like eating one of Cynthia Hitz’s Oatmeal Creme Pies: you’re not going to die if you eat one, but don’t make it a daily ritual. Since they are really freaking tasty and I only get to eat them when I see her at conferences (not often enough!), I indulge when I can. Same thing with grammar lessons: they are really tasty to some kids, and so I offer them from time to time. But don’t take what I serve as a tasty treat and turn it into a main course for your students!!!

So all of that being said, let me give you a few examples of “grammar lessons” that I teach: while all of these are for-sale units (not free), I will try to write them up in a way that allows you to understand what a grammar lesson in my class looks like and gives enough detail for you to be able to re-create them in your classroom:

Now, all of that being said…I’m excited that I’ll be seeing Dr. Krashen and Dr. VanPatten this week at ACTFL and that I’ll have a chance to talk about explicit language instruction (and all things language acquisition!) with them. Tea with BVP will be recorded live in the Social Media Lounge on Saturday at noon, so you can listen live at the 3:00pm EST/11:00am AKST. He’s planning to continue the topic of explicit language instruction, and I can’t wait! I might have to delete this post next week…but for now, I’m going to keep feeding the occasional grammar flavored sandwich to my students.