Teaching Spanish grammar

Where'd my grammar go?

October 17, 2018

If you are teaching thematically, what happens to the grammar?

If we had un centavo for every time someone asked that, we’d be living on a beach en las islas Baleares by now.  

The misconception that we have found among a lot of teachers is that thematic teaching takes the place of grammar.  Not so.

Thematic teaching doesn’t mean NOT teaching grammar. It means shifting the focus to the theme, embedding grammar, and, if needed, peppering in some mini-lessons here and there. Grammar, like vocabulary, makes language function.  In order to express thoughts in any language, there have to be grammatical constructions to create meaning, or vocabulary, prefixes or suffixes attached to mark time, future, hypothetical statements, and desires, to name a few. The difference is that the focus of a thematic classroom is that teaching and learning revolves around culture and context, where in the traditional classroom, there is less emphasis on culture and content and more on teaching grammatical constructions.

I always relate this to my own children in their own regular learning in their first language.  They have grammar practices and worksheets, and, when grammar is “off” (my son has a TERRIBLE comma habit -- as in absolutely NEVER uses them) they are noted and (unfortunately soon) will be part of his grade.  The purpose, though, of his work is to communicate about the content that they are learning, and his crazy lack of commas does not impact his communication of that.

So, students need enough grammar to communicate content in the thematic classroom.

Here’s what we do know:

  1. Grammar is acquired when used in context, and repeatedly.  
  2. MANY grammatical constructions are better acquired when learned in context, causing less confusion for the learner.  Think about subject pronouns. Our poor novice kids’ heads spin. If they are taught in context, they rarely have issues, in my experience.  Same goes for gustar (SO confusing as a grammatical concept, but makes total sense when taught implicitly), object pronouns, future...and the list of easily acquired structures goes on.  
  3. Some grammatical concepts benefit from frequent spiraling because they are late acquired (adjective agreement, subjunctive)
  4. Grammar can be assessed.  However accuracy, or understanding ‘rules’ and producing multiple forms correctly, should be tested apart from the three modes.  To ask a student to, for example, have a conversation with a friend about cyberbullying, while incorporating a variety of impersonal expressions and verbs conjugated in the subjunctive is not in their acquisition wheelhouse.  However, if they are exposed to, notice, and use advanced grammatical structures of the like, they will begin to acquire those structures.
  5. Grammatical accuracy is hard for lower achieving students, but understanding a theme is not.
  6. Error correction doesn't improve acquisition of grammar, but DOES risk our students' attitude toward learning language. 

This also becomes a great opportunity to differentiate your classroom.  Think about offering opportunities to learn grammar with you, through a flipped classroom, to self assess, or even to choose if they need to “learn” it (after a pretest and some structured input) through online practices, videos, more structured input, etc or to skip what they have already mastered and simply show what they know.  This will prove to be one of your students’ favorite things about class → they are the masters of their learning and are empowered to choose what will help them reach their goals.

Last thing that you should know...shifting the focus from Grammar Guru to a Thematic Classroom will require you to refer back to the rubric all the time. Frankly, it can be hard to stomach if you’re used to accuracy and correction. Just know that you are doing so much more for their global awareness and their acquisition of language when grammar is a tool, and not their enemy.

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