Grammar vs. Comprehensible Input: Who’s Right?

Grammar vs. Comprehensible Input: Who’s Right?

Inside: The role of grammar, and grammar vs. comprehensible input, in foreign language learning.

From Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition by Karen Glass:

“Let us consider an apple. If we approach it synthetically, we take it as we find it– in its state of wholeness and completeness– and we eat it. Once eaten, it is digested, absorbed, and becomes a part of us. If we approach it analytically, we take it apart– not in a natural way, which is merely a smaller portion (here is half an apple!), but rather, here is the fiber, here are the vitamins, here is a bit of water, and some sugar. Suppose we ingest each bit– a spoonful of fiber, a vitamin pill, a swallow of sugar and water.

On paper, we have consumed the same thing in both cases– equal portions of nutrition– but there is a very, very large difference. Only one of those meals tasted good and created an appetite for more.

When we break apart our food-meals into discrete portions of unrecognizable substances with no wholeness or discernible relation to each other, we have no interest in consuming more of the same unappetizing matter. The same holds true for our knowledge-meals. Given knowledge in recognizable, understandable form, we consume it gladly and it tastes good. Given mere information without context, we choke on the consumption of it and never think of it again if possible.” (Consider This, 37)

Confession: I’m not here to resolve the grammar question. The word grammar— how much? when? how?– often evokes strong reactions among language teachers. I began teaching Spanish the conventional way: grammar as the building blocks to learning Spanish; only recently did I Threw Out My Textbook in search of a better way.  Though I can’t tell you everything about grammar vs. comprehensible input, I want to share what I’m thinking.

The Why of What We Do

As I’ve lurked on language forums and read teacher-authors, I’ve wanted to know what to do. I have wanted to know how Martina Bex  begins with comprehensible input and does pop-up grammar: what is her method? I want to do it too! Glass– writing about classical education– warns,

“When we are more concerned with what the classical educators were doing than why they were doing it, we are unlikely to achieve what they achieved.”

So I am looking for the why. In reading blogs, Consider This, and reading Charlotte Mason herself, the why has became clearer: all of them were advocating a first-whole, then-parts approach.

Glass spends a large portion of the book contrasting a synthetic approach vs. an analytical one. (Last post I cited this video from Musicuentos, which also uses the term synthetic- but very differently. I don’t know why there is a difference, but just a heads up.)

“The word analysis also comes to us from Greek roots meaning “to dissolve or take apart.” If you are alive, and you attended any kind of institutional school, it is almost certain that you were taught to think exclusively in the analytical mode. In fact, upon hearing that the opposite of synthetic thinking is analytical thinking, the first response of those of so educated is likely to be, “what is wrong with analytical thinking?- we ought to analyze things!

Perhaps we ought, but not first. Analysis should not be out primary approach to knowledge or our primary mode of thinking, especially in the in the earliest years of education. We should not begin taking apart the things that we learn until we have put them together first, and so solidly unified out understanding of the world that we will lose sight of the relationships between things when we do begin to analyze. This synthetic approach to learning has been called “poetic knowledge”…”

analytical vs. synthetic thinking

I should have added this to last post: in beginning with grammar, we are asking students to analyze that which they don’t know or love. We ask them to study the colors of a painting they haven’t seen; to practice the notes of a song they haven’t heard. (Idea credit: Joshua Cabral)

If all this philosophizing is getting long, let me give an example.

Grammar vs. Comprehensible Input

I would agree with Sara Elizabeth Cotrell  at Musicuentos that we cannot replicate L1 acquisition with our limited classroom time. Therefore, we must pay attention to patterns when deciding on which comprehensible input to use. When appropriate–after plenty of input– we can stop and consider those patterns explicitly. Let’s use direct object pronouns in Spanish as an example.

You see, back in the day I would have approached them analytically, first– something like this:

  • Define what a direct object pronoun is (in English), and show some examples.
  • Show the direct object pronouns (me, te,  lo, las, etc.) and define each one.
  • Show examples in sentences: Cassie tiene un libro. Cassie lo tiene. 
  • Exercises, games, and practice in using object pronouns. An exercise might be: Replace the nouns with an object pronoun:

¿Puedes ver la pelota?                 →    ¿Puedes verla? or ¿La puedes ver?
Yo llamo a Alicia por teléfono.  →     La llamo por teléfono. 

Though we “learned” this in Spanish 1, I can’t actually recall a student using this spontaneously in Spanish 1 (or for that matter, Spanish 2). Meaning, they weren’t actually acquiring this structure, even though we had worked so hard on it.

If we take a synthetic approach (the way Glass defines it), we might be reading The Boy Who Cried Wolf in Spanish, and come across these sentences: El joven cuida las ovejas. Las cuida por la noche. Las cuida en la lluvia.  It only takes a few seconds to point out that las refers to las ovejas. Later on, when we read Piratas del Caribe, Raquel and Antonio will argue: ¡Tú me abandonaste! ¿Yo te abandoné? and we can pause to talk about me and te and where they are positioned. After. I might even make a lesson of it. We can briefly enter in the direct object pronouns into our interactive notebooks, with some sample sentences from texts we read.

The difference between the lessons is that in the first approach, my students don’t know who Alicia is, nor why she’s getting called on the telephone. That sentence exists entirely to make a grammar point. In fact, the students have never seen a comprehensible sentence with a DO pronon before, because the theory is to only show content after the particular grammar point has been taught.

In the second approach, the sentence “¡Tú me abandonaste!” is packed with emotion. We have been wondering the entire novel, in fact, who actually abandoned whom. That sentence illustrates a pattern my students need to acquire, and its message mattersMeaningful content, and patterns in context, have a far better chance of actually being assimilated. When I introduce a structure by first analyzing it I need many, many examples to explain it all. When we analyze something we already know–something meaningful– the context explains the structure, instead of the other way around..

2

To close with more of the apple analogy, Karen Glass goes on:

Further, we might pursue our knowledge of apples in different directions- many possibilities arise if we find the apple interesting. What would happen if we cooked the apple? Or froze it? Or mixed it with some other food? No affection for apples is generated by the analyzed (broken down) apple, and in fact- the greatest tragedy of all- we might not even recognize a real apple when we encounter one, if we have eaten only analyzed apples all of our lives. The implications of this as an educational hazard are sobering.

Young children should love and know “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” long before they learn that “diamonds in the sky” is a simile. New students to Spanish should have heard whole sentences and cared about them before they begin to take them apart. Though I’m still working on my how, I think I am closer to my why.

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Why I’m Throwing Out my Spanish Textbook

Why I’m Throwing Out my Spanish Textbook

Inside: Teaching Spanish without a textbook.

 

I finally did it.

Last year, I half-used my textbook, wanting to get rid of it and yet not quite knowing what to do instead. It had been a year of feverish research, scrolling through blog posts late at night, reading opposing opinions and sometimes coming away more confused than ever.

I knew at a gut-level there was a better way. Perhaps it was that years of being homeschooled had impressed the word textbook into my mind as a dirty word. My mother mostly eschewed traditional textbooks for subjects like history and language arts. We were too busy reading real books– living books, as Charlotte Mason termed them. Drills, passages out of context, and multiple choice answers seemed like an oddity, as if one were being asked to study and label the parts of a bicycle instead of just getting on and riding it.

teaching spanish without a textbook

Like most of you, I started with a thick textbook when I first taught high school Spanish. My formal background is Elementary Education, and I’d dabbled in TPRS when tutoring and teaching Spanish in younger grades. So when it came to teaching high school, it was me, my gut, and the textbook. And the internet. Thank goodness for the internet!

Over the first few years, I saw that the textbook wasn’t best. I couldn’t have told you why at first, but I think I can finally explain what wasn’t working and why.

As you read, keep in mind that here I’m referring to traditional textbooks– there may very well be textbooks out there that work better than mine did. Also, I’m not in the “better a bad day of TPRS than a good day with the textbook” camp. To be honest, some of my lessons this year were embarrassingly bad. I’m not about to say that an amazing teacher working within the constraints of a textbook couldn’t possibly teach as well I can on a good or bad day. The point I’d like to consider is whether the textbook is the best tool for teaching language.

(Update: since writing this post, I’ve since created am entire page for all my posts on Textbook-Free Spanish Teaching.)

 

Teaching Spanish Without A Textbook: Why?

 

So, why am I throwing out my textbook? Basically, my textbook does not “get”

  • proficiency (where we are going and what can the student do), or
  • acquisition (how language is taken in, primarily through comprehensible input).

Once I began to understand proficiency and acquisition, it all began to make sense. Research was telling me that a proficiency-based, comprehensible-input-driven Spanish classroom is the path to acquisition. The textbook was just on much a different path, and in fact never used the terms proficiency, comprehensible input, or acquisition.

I’ve got some concrete reasons why I’m throwing out the textbook, but I’d like to unpack proficiency and acquisition first. I’m no expert, but I will cite some authors who are.

 

Teaching to Proficiency: Where are we going?

 

Most textbooks plan to give students an introduction to the language: to teach them about Spanish. Over the course of a few years, students are taught the entirety of Spanish grammar and a smattering of vocabulary themes. Their progress is marked by how many tenses they can use and the accuracy of their sentences, how many vocabulary lists the students have “memorized.”

As I understand it, in the proficiency-based classroom, expressing and understanding meaning is the ultimate goal. The point is not what material has been covered: I am an advanced Spanish student because I can conjugate verbs in the subjunctive. The question is what the students can do to express meaning. Beginners understand and produce simple messages; progress is shown as those messages grow in complexity.

The real goal is to actually “rise in proficiency” as Joshua Cabral at World Language Classroom says. Progression through proficiency mimics the process that children go through in learning their own native language. They begin with words, move to phrases, and eventually string together increasingly complex sentences to communicate meaning.

Proficiency is what a student can do in an unrehearsed context and therefore a true measure of one’s ability in a language. Once I became familiar with the ACTFL Standards and Can-Do Statements, I realized that my lessons– based on the textbook– were designed to help students memorize rules and terms to pass a test. Teaching to actual proficiency was going to require entirely new methods, and certainly new assessments.

This may seem like a lot of theory, but it has a huge impact on where we spend our time. Where we were are going directly affects all the little things we do in class, day in and day out. Will we spend precious hours drilling rules and marking exercises with a red pen? Will we spend time reading real books and having interesting discussions? Are we trying to ride the bike or become bike mechanics?

 

Acquisition: How do students “get” language?

 

Most textbooks are based on the explicit theory of language: that language can be broken into rules which are taught, memorized, and drilled.

Sara Elizabeth Cottrell at Musicuentos has a good breakdown of the approach textbooks take:

 

The problem with this focus on “forms” is that it assumes that language is acquired through learning about the language. Stephen Krashen and and Bill Van Patten have done extensive work researching the difference between learning and acquisition, and both argue that acquisition is achieved through massive amounts of comprehensible input. I still think accuracy has its place, but CI is ultimately how language gets into our heads.

It’s a lot of semantics– when I looked up learn in the dictionary, acquire was a term used to describe the word learn– but this distinction is important. Before, for example, I would have assumed that because a student could correctly conjugate verbs in the present tense, that they had “acquired” the present tense. And I would move onto the next grammar point. If a student couldn’t correctly conjugate verbs, I would have assumed they needed more conjugation exercises– not more compelling, comprehensible input.

Bill Van Patten explains this really well in this series:

 

So, those are the theoretical reasons. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, here are more immediate reasons why the textbook wasn’t working.

 

1. The Crazy Vocabulary Lists

 

I am not entirely ready to abandon vocabulary lists, but I am done, done, done with the ones my textbook created! They usually center on a specific theme, and are unbearably long. Students will make flash cards, take quizzes, see the words in boring worksheets, and then never see 75% of them ever again. But words learned in themes like this, out of context, individually, are actually really hard to get into the long-term memory.

I am increasingly convinced that if lists are to be given, they should be given in context, chunked (set in phrases) if possible, and short. They should also be needed words. My textbook started with greetings, which is a logical place to start. However, since this was the book’s opportunity to introduce greetings, every possible greeting was taught right then. My students authentically needed ¿Cómo te llamas? right away, but el placer es mío, el gusto es mío, igualmente, and encantado/a were overkill. For students two weeks into Spanish class, mucho gusto is plenty to get by on.

I don’t mean those terms should never be introduced. When we do speed dating activities, the students love variety and I build the terms in. But the textbook’s method of introducing every variant on a certain theme, at once, is overwhelming. At the end of the day, students still walk away with ¿Cómo te llamas? and not the other terms, even if all of them were “memorized” and quizzed.

As an aside, Charlotte Mason advocated fewer, but higher-quality picture books and poems for young children. You will hear now that parents should expose their children to many, many, books and poems. The thought is that the more vocabulary and stories children hear, the better and more diverse their own language will be. I’ve come to agree with Mason that fewer stories– but dearly loved, memorized, recited, stories– will actually produce richer language. Sometimes more is less.

 

2. Not ordered by High-Frequency

 

Vocabulary and grammar are introduced as complete, deep themes, to be thoroughly studied before moving on. In my textbook, students spend the first months learning greetings, classroom objects and subjects, ar verbs, numbers, days, etc. Now, I have some fun games to make this less painless. But try creating compelling content and interesting discussions with those topics! –AR verbs are presented first because the pattern is “easy,” not because they are actually higher frequency verbs. So my students were learning la física and descansar before tener and hay.

If I were required to use the textbook, I would still make sure to incorporate some storytelling from the get-go and introduce the “Super Seven” that Terry Waltz came up with:

spanish_interactive_notebooks_super_seven_verbs

 

3. Grammar as the Path to Language Acquisition

 

Most textbooks look at a language and break it down into pieces of grammar. In Spanish, the first year is generally focused on the present tense and all the parts that go with it: ser vs. estar, direct object pronouns, all regular, irregular, and stem-changing verbs.

Instead of introducing real content that includes these patterns, the language is introduced grammar concept by grammar concept and then drilled. When teaching ser vs. estar, for example, the students take notes on every. single. rule. that applies to ser vs. estar. Students who can barely express and understand meaning at a very basic (novice) level are expected to “master” this quite difficult concept because it falls under the present-tense Spanish-One category.

I haven’t, actually, hopped onto the “grammar is evil” boat. I think there’s a time for it. But I used to think that in learning the rules for accuracy, we were acquiring Spanish. I now see grammar as a tool for accuracy, specifically.

 

4. Too Little Comprehensible Input

 

Our textbooks were packed. They just weren’t packed with comprehensible input. Aside from some videos, cultural notes, and song lyrics or emails here and there, the bulk of the program was “practice.” My students need massive amounts of quality input– to be read, heard, watched– to understand and speak Spanish.

Most of the input they DID see in the textbook, unfortunately, was confusing  (= not comprehensible), and made them feel like Spanish was just “too hard.” I think this was because we began with explanations and lists, practiced the skills, and that led up to the content. Of course, because the vocabulary and grammar went really “deep,” it was hard to master both thoroughly enough to be comfortable with the related content.

Here’s another video from Musicuentos that explores grammar, input, and “skill” a but further:

 

5. Comprehensible Input That Isn’t Compelling

 

Of the little CI available in textbooks, most of it is sad, sad, sad. This is true of most textbooks anyway: content is soon outdated, boring, irrelevant, and low-quality as far as literature goes. Most of time, grammar (with vocab), was the point. Content was there as a way to practice the particular “skill.”

Now language, of course, is a means for communicating an actual message, a story, or an emotion. If the message or story is boring, the students will think that language is boring. If the students don’t feel invested in our discussion–i.e., they feel no emotion– then Spanish is tedious.

Reading real living books this year, Esperanza and Piratas del Caribe, showed me what can happen when input is absolutely compelling. All of a sudden we were debating whether romance or money was more important (in Spanish) and boy, did they pay attention to what the others were saying! In a thank-you note at the end of the year, one student wrote, “Now I know the priorities of the guys in our class, hah.” These moments were hard to come by with a textbook. Authentic resources and non-fiction have their places, but it’s pretty hard to find anything as compelling as a story. 

Again, here’s another video from Musicuentos to explain this better than I can:

 

Whew. This post was a long time in coming. The internet can be both an awesome resource and a path to self-condemnation for teachers. I know that many of you don’t have flexibility like I do, and have to follow a set curriculum. I know that many of you have zero time to plan, and go home to kids or other responsibilities. Throwing out your textbook just isn’t realistic right now. Hopefully my complaints against the textbook can just help you think through how to use yours and work with what you have.

Again, Musicuentos to the rescue with a Checklist on when to use textbook activities and advice on when you are Forced to Adapt a Textbook. Be sure to follow Joshua Cabral from World Language Classroom on Periscope– he has great scopes on teaching for Proficiency, regardless of what materials you use. Throw Away Your Textbook is another good resource.

What about you? Do you love your textbook? Are you already teaching Spanish without a textbook? Do you want to throw it out, but can’t? Are you totally starting from scratch like me? I’d love to hear your experience!

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