After four decades of research in the area of second language acquisition, it is clear that language is acquired not from practice (drills), but from consistent and constant exposure to input. Input is indispensable to language acquisition–meaning that language cannot be acquired without it. This idea of the indispensability of input was largely absent from my language teacher training. We read one textbook that summarized the different theories of language acquisition and popular strategies over the last half century, but most of the course focused on what teaching looks like day-to-day. We participated in various communicative activities and designed our own games and practice activities for the things that “need to be taught” in language classes: vocabulary, grammar, and culture. Comprehensible input? I had never heard of it until I began teaching and got involved in my professional community: reading publications like Language Magazine and The Language Educator, collaborating with local teachers, attending local trainings and state, regional, and national conferences, and connecting with other teachers online. (Thank you, Michele Whaley, for introducing me to ALL of those things!) It was through all of those activities that I became familiar with the work of Stephen Krashen, Bill VanPatten, and–most recently–Beniko Mason. What I have come to know is that most things that students “need to know” in order to communicate in the target language do not need to be “taught”.
We don’t need to “teach” grammar and we don’t need to “teach” vocabulary. When we use grammar naturally and vocabulary accurately in contextualized, compelling input, students will acquire them. The “drill-and-kill” and “get them talking” ways that I learned language and that I was taught to teach language are not supported by research. The internal structure of language consists of phrases, not “rules”, and grammar is stored within words. Inside our heads, there is a giant, complex web that connects lexical features between words and phrases. This is our mental representation of language! When there are errors in students’ production (writing and speaking), it is evidence that there are holes, or missing links, in their mental representations of the language. Those holes are filled by input–not by presentation and application of rules. When students understand input, their minds will process the input and extract the patterns needed to complete their mental representations. For this reason, the most effective way to “teach” grammar is through input (reading and listening). The most effective way to teach it is…well…to not teach it! It is to provide compelling, comprehensible input to your students, and to let their brains do what their brains are designed to do.
Given what we know, then, you might find what I am about to share a bit perplexing.
This past winter, I worked with Teacher’s Discovery to put together a bundle of my lesson plans that is that is now available in their catalog and on their website. What’s in the bundle? Grammar lessons. Yes, grammar lessons! What? What about all that I have come to know about language acquisition and the fact that grammar doesn’t need to be taught!?
- First of all, even knowing what I know about language acquisition, I teach grammar. Read this post to find out how and why.
- Many teachers have to teach grammar, and many have to give grammar assessments. For teachers that have to teach it explicitly, the best they can do is present it in context. If the bulk of your class time is spent engaging with compelling, comprehensible input, your short expository grammar lessons will be much more effective. A grammar lesson that follows input will not magically make your students acquire the pattern, but it will cast a broader net and help more of your students to be more successful on an assessment, if you must give one. (I do not recommend ever giving summative grammar assessments.)
- Contextualized grammar lessons are a great compromise. I am very determined, and I am a peace maker. For the language teacher that stumbled upon the iFLT/NTPRS/CI teaching Facebook page and is now fully committed to comprehensible input but whose colleagues are staunchly opposed to abandoning their more traditional methods of teaching, compromise is key. Instead of refusing to follow the textbook and refusing to align what you are doing with what they are doing, look for ways to meet in the middle. What are some ways that they can incorporate more comprehensible reading into their classes? How about trying a MovieTalk activity with an authentic resource? What are some ways that you, CI teacher, can make? Can you have your students complete a hunt-and-peck listening activity after the MovieTalk with the #authres? Or perhaps show them a verb chart after input and before more input? Can you do horizontal conjugations instead of isolated conjugations? There are many reasonable compromises that even the most committed CI teacher can make in the name of collegiality. Compromise is a wonderful tool that keeps the door open for communication while still allowing you to do what you know to be best practice.
- What is my mission in this post-classroom-teacher role that I have settled into over the last few years? Promotion. I get to introduce teachers to comprehensible input and encourage them in their journeys. I am always looking for new ways to connect with teachers that are not connected to professional organizations and PLNs and are therefore largely unaware of proficiency-based methods of instruction. TpT has been an incredible platform for this. Teachers regularly find my blog because they purchased one of my grammar lessons on teacherspayteachers. From this blog, they find other blogs, workshops, Facebook groups, and FREEDOM! As with anything, we don’t know what we don’t know! Teachers that haven’t yet discovered the power of comprehensible input aren’t searching TpT for MovieTalk activities. They aren’t scanning the Teacher’s Discovery catalog for leveled readers. They are looking for speaking activities, grammar lessons, and activities with authentic resources. I know this because I was once one of those teachers! The Teacher’s Discovery order that I placed in my first year as a language teacher was filled with activities for oral communication, cultural projects, and grammar videos. So how cool is it that a teacher can now order a book of grammar lessons from the TD catalog that introduces them to a whole new world of language teaching?
Check out the book here! It is a compilation of the following units that I sell on TpT:
- -AR Verbs, present indicative
- -ER verbs, present indicative
- -IR verbs, present indicative
- Ir + a + infinitive
- Reflexive verbs
- Verbs like gustar
- -AR verbs, preterite
- -ER/IR verbs, preterite
- I-Y stem changers
- Preterite stem change verbs
- Preterite irregular verbs
Each grammar lesson in this book will first and foremost provide INPUT to your students: concentrated, contextualized instances of the construction(s) that I want to target.
You may choose to use the explicit, fill-in notes that are provided for each topic included in this book so that your high aptitude students can learn the rules and apply them, but I do not recommend spending much time on them, nor do I recommend spending class time on grammar drills. Instead, find ways to provide your students with input that contains instances of the construction that you want/need to teach. If you still desire to do traditional practice or are required to, your students will be well-prepared to complete it successfully because they will have a basic mental representation from which to draw.
Teacher’s Discovery has generously offered THREE COPIES of this book for a giveaway! I would love to give each of the three copies to a teacher that finds him or herself in a traditional department, swimming upstream. To enter, please leave a comment on this post that shares one ‘reasonable compromise’ that you have made as a language teacher committed to using CI. This could be a compromise that you made with a colleague, an administrator, or even with yourself as you work to overhaul curricula that you have been using for years. What is one thing that you have done to either keep open the doors of communication or to keep yourself from being completely overwhelmed? Or what is one compromise that a colleague has made on your behalf; a CI activity that he or she has agreed to try out?
I will choose three winners at random on Monday, May 8. Leave your comment by Sunday night, May 7 to be guaranteed a chance to win! Teacher’s Discovery will mail out the books soon thereafter.