31 March 2011

Dismantling Myths 2 and 3: Learning about language and its cousin, Grammatical Terms

If you don't know what I'm talking about when I say this post is about dismantling myths, go back and read this post.

Photo by T. Hart

Myths 2 & 3:
2. Learning about language is enough (Or, "I don't have to speak the TL in the classroom").

and its cousin

3. Grammatical terms are actually helpful in language acquisition (or, "How will they know what it is if I don't call it subjunctive by reason of indefinite antecedent?????")

Here I have to put in a plug for a post I wrote called A Case for Avoiding Pet Grammar.

We language teachers are good at learning about language. Most of us thrive on dissecting and diagramming and explaining. I wrote a syntax paper in grad school on why Spanish prefers the inverted verb-subject order in clauses that are syntactically not questions but semantically imply questions, and thus why we have those pesky accent marks on question words that are part of a declarative sentence. Do you understand that? It doesn't matter. Because what matters is you know how to ask a question. And you can say "I don't know where my book is." I loved writing the paper and felt like it answered a question no one else had addressed, that had plagued my grammar-loving mind since college, but my paper floated off into the abyss of Dr. Stan's desk and hasn't affected anyone since.

If we're really going to foster proficiency, we've got to dispel this myth. I think it may be the one that stifles the classroom most of all. It stifled my classroom for three years, and I didn't know why, until I went and read all the research that says that communication and meaning are what fosters learning and memory (insert plug for Brain Rules and Cathy Doughty and Mike Longhere).
But we don't believe this and we don't practice it. Elementary teachers know it. We know that it's useless to drill second-graders in conjugations. To use phrases like 'present progressive.' We think that just because middle- and high-schoolers (and adults) have attained a certain level of linguistic and meta-cognitive awareness that explaining grammar to them will produce proficiency. It makes sense, right? I tell you present-tense first-person verbs end in -o. Now you're going to be able to speak them all, right?
But this isn't what happens and if you've been teaching long you know it. You know that except for the ones with the most aptitude in linguistic intelligence, your students will still write and say "yo comer."
Guess what? If you teach language for communication, your students might still say "yo comer." My bilingual two-year-old says "yo comer." She also says "wanna hold you" when she wants me to pick her up. Why? Because she's heard "Do you want me to hold you?" and this results in someone picking her up, and she's parroting the language. Her brain hasn't reset the parameter to change the sentence yet. And when they're two, it's cute. But when they're 12, it's a disaster, points off, failed quiz, why aren't they getting this?!
Because this is our mistake- Look at this comment I found on Madame Techie's (@bselden)great post on a project with VoiceThread:
"There are certain basic skills that have to be aquired [sic] first by drill-and-practice (which the kids claim is "soooo boring")."
Based on many textbooks (who is writing these things?!), it seems that their authors and publishers have the same philosophy.
No. No. No. Unless that comment is about math or something that is so not language, it's based on a series of mistaken assumptions. Language is not stored the way math and history facts are. It's not retrieved in the same way. It's not processed the same way. So why do we think it'slearned the same way?

Want to push students toward higher proficiency? I'm tempted to just say "start speaking the TL in the classroom, require students to do the same, and involve them in communicative activities instead of textbook drills." But I have to remember that this is a journey that can fall completely flat if you just jump into it. If you don't know how to speak TL in the classroom with high levels of comprehension, you will frustrate everyone involved. Instead, here's what I recommend:

1. Read everything you can find, books, blogs, news, whatever, on TPR Storytelling and other communicative methods that can help you rethink how to speak TL in the classroom so that students comprehend and demonstrate comprehension (I have some links on the sidebar that will help you get started). Come up with an "I don't understand" signal for your students (like making an X with their index fingers or arms) and test the waters of speaking more TL.

2. Ease yourself away from your textbook by asking students to do motivating activities involving cultural questions, authentic sources, and technology. For example, investigate what high school is like in Argentina, watch some clips of Patito Feo, put relevant photos from Tag Galaxy into a VoiceThread, and then video students giving a 2-minute comparison of your school and Argentinian schools. Even better, try to contact an Argentinian school to set up an email communication and even Skype (we are very excited about Skype-ing with our Honduran counterparts today for the first time).

3. Reevaluate your vocabulary lists. Are you giving students real language? As in, can they use 'me hace falta' instead of read hacerle falta a uno in a vocab list? As frequent, interesting words come up in authentic sources, why not replace words?

4. Rethink your assessment. What are you assessing? Student recall of translated, discrete words? Does your assessment really test communication? How can you adapt it to do so? What is performance-based assessment and how could you incorporate it?

Most of all, remember that any journey toward more communicative teaching is a journey toward proficiency being accessible for all students, not just for the ones who, like us, are "good at language."


Miriam said...

Great article. You are totaly right. I recomend for Spanish teacher to get this Book "a Frequency dictionary od Spanish" It will be a great guide to know which words we use the most in Spanish. Also are the free downloads at TPRS Publishing. They have the frequency use 100 Spanish words. http://www.tprstorytelling.com/

Princess of the Pea said...

I love your blog. I could not possibly agree with your methods more! From the first year I began teaching, I realized that the texbooks tend to encourage word memorization with little or no emphasis on speaking or communication ability. I love interactive, "loud" and "outloud" activities. My students are always surprised by the improvement in their ability to speak Spanish by the end of each year. I am excited to "borrow" some of your ideas for my classes.

Laura said...

I was reading back in your blog and was interested in your "free blogging." How do you set up a blog so that your students can write posts, but privately from the rest of the uninvited internet users?

And while I'm leaving a comment, I just want to let you know how much I enjoy your blog posts and how motivating they are for me. Thanks for all the great ideas! (I'm going into my 2nd year of teaching Spanish and would also like to get away from the textbook a bit.)