SCOLT 2017 Presentation

Below is my working script for my presentation at this year’s SCOLT conference.

The title of the Presentation is:

We Don’t Learn Anything Anymore: Moving Away From a Grammar-Based Curriculum

One note: There was a question about what I meant by Grammar-Based Curriculum. To clarify, I’m talking about curricula that are directly tied to a textbook and that follow the grammar points as presented in the text (only present tense first, then past tense, then direct objects, and students are not made to use any of these forms outside the order of the text.)

The Powerpoint presentation that goes with the script can be seen here.

My name is Albert Fernandez and I teach Spanish from Kindergarten to 8th Grade at a Catholic School just outside of Orlando, FL. I went to the University of Central Florida for undergrad (in Spanish and History) and I went to the University of South Florida in Tampa for my Master’s in Foreign Language Ed.

SMM is a small school-450 students-and I teach all of them. We only offer Spanish (although it would be cool to have other languages!)

My administration has been very open to allowing me to experiment with methods and to change the end goals of the school’s Spanish program.

“We don’t Learn Anything Anymore?!?!?!?” what’s the deal with that?

The first thing we have to establish is what learning is. Stephen Krashen, a linguist whose work from 35 years ago is used to this day as a basis for how languages are acquired, made a distinction between language acquisition and language learning. Language acquisition works internally and subconsciously and is driven by input…it is the idea of learners “just getting it” with language. Learning is the active learning and/or memorization of rules. This is the “learning” that the students have stopped doing. They are still interacting with language, but without as much (there’s still a little bit) emphasis on rules, memorization, and drilling.

Objectives

The objectives for this presentation are (directly from my presentation proposal):

  • Learn strategies to help to deemphasize explicit teaching of grammar
  • Learn about benefits of moving away from a grammar-based curriculum to a communication-based curriculum
  • See examples of student work from a non-grammar-based curriculum
  • Learn about online and print resources with various kinds of communicative activities for use in the classroom

Disclaimer

Before we delve into the material, I’d just like to say thank you for coming. As I prepared and researched for this presentation, it became clear that this could be a potentially controversial presentation.

Disclaimer: I am not against grammar instruction. On the contrary, I think it is very important to teach grammar to students at all levels, from kindergarten all the way up. I am here not to present you with ideas about how grammar teaching is bad or an incorrect practice and I’m not here to sell you on a method of teaching. My goal is that you leave here with the following:

  • The idea that grammar, by itself, isn’t really helpful for getting students comfortable and competent in communication.
  • The idea that grammar has an important part to play in our curricula, but maybe it shouldn’t be the star player.

As the final part of my introduction, I feel it’s important to tell you that I am not here to browbeat anyone into making a switch from a grammar-based to a communication-based curriculum. I am an advocate for CI methods, but at the same time, I understand that we all have our comfort zones. If you are here, then you’re taking a step towards figuring out what else is out there beyond the textbook. There is a huge network of teachers who share their ideas through blogs, twitter, and Facebook and they all have great ideas. In this presentation I hope to open the door to that world for you. Whether you step over the threshold is completely up to you. I hope that after hearing what I have to say, you will consider it.

If you already use CI methods like TPR, TPRS, CBI, PBL or any of the other methods in the alphabet soup of language education methods, then this may seem a bit remedial…but that’s ok. Hopefully you will be able to learn something too.

Any Questions so far?

Goals

The first thing to ask ourselves before we get started with all this is, “What is the goal of my language class?”

  • There could be lots of valid answers to this question:
  • To prepare students for the next level
  • To prepare students for college
  • To get through Chapter X in the textbook
  • To keep them quiet and under control for the 45 minutes they’re in class
  • To prepare them for the AP/SAT Subject Test/National Spanish Exam
  • To build a love of learning in students
  • To introduce students to a culture that I fell in love with / my home culture
  • To prepare my students to communicate with other people in the target language

What’s your goal?

My Goal: To build confidence and competence in the students’ abilities to communicate in Spanish.

Before

This is the kind of thing my students used to do.

What’s wrong with this? Nothing, really. These kinds of activities assess the students’ knowledge of the grammar rules that they are about (verb conjugations, adjective agreement, etc).

These sorts of activities were my bread and butter. The students would complete them and then they could move on to the next thing. They passed a test on all the present tense verb endings! They’re ready to go out into the world and be in spontaneous language situations!

Right?

Unfortunately, no. Language doesn’t really work that way in the real world. The two main problems with using these to achieve my goals for my program:

  1. Confidence – students become nervous wrecks when they feel like they have to be accurate 100% of the time. Krashen called this the affective filter. If they are afraid of making mistakes, they will shut down
  2. Competence – students will be great verb conjugators and adjective gender agreers, but when they only do these kinds of activities, they will not get any practice being interlocutors, they won’t be able to be spontaneous communicators.
  3. The way I see it, these things are like math formulas, they are too easy for students to just plug in the right criteria and come out with the right answers.

After years of teaching grammar and hoping for communicative competence, I had a realization: Grammar instruction is really great if I want them to learn grammar, but it didn’t help my students to learn communication skills. The realization was that advanced grammar instruction (giving them more than what they really need) isn’t for beginners. I like to explain it to them with an analogy –

The iPhone.

I can turn it on, I can use it, I can do a lot of really important things with it – talk to people, send important emails, share pictures of my children, make deposits at the bank, apply for jobs, call an Uber, video myself or someone else, and a multitude of other things. I can do all these things without knowing how the electronics inside the phone work. As a novice user, is not necessary for me to know how to build an app from the ground up or to put together a circuit board that will power a processor that will make the phone work (is that even how it works? IDK). As a beginner in electrical engineering and computer programming, all I need to know is how to use it quickly, accurately, and efficiently. I don’t want to take 20 minutes to open an email and then realize I accidentally got an Uber.

And it’s the same with novices in a language. They don’t need to know all the inner workings of why verbs end one way or another, they just need to know how to put a sentence together to make meaning and negotiate meaning. As beginners, they only really need to know how to manipulate the language quickly and efficiently and (for languages) accurately.

As students continue their journey through language classes, they can take classes that delve into advanced grammar and the “how it works” information. But do they really need all that at the beginning?

Currently

So I decided that in my context (k-8, only a few days a week), learning was not very effective. I thought to myself, Now What? How do I get students input they need to be able to get language without “learning”?

I guarantee you that CI methods are being used in your classes every day. There are lots of activities that will seem familiar and are already ci-friendly in our teaching. I found that I could add a lot of the things that I was already doing.

Activities in CI classes have only one goal: to get CI into the students’ heads. Any activities that do this in the TL and get lots of repetitions of high-frequency vocabulary (like the super seven verbs) will be beneficial.

  • Picture descriptions – any time you are using a powerpoint presentation or showing photos and describing them in the TL, you are using CI. For example, when teaching family vocabulary, one of the things that lots of language teachers do, I know I do it, is to show pictures of their own families and describe them. This is a common instinct for us. And it is totally CI-friendly: We are targeting vocabulary and helping our students to understand what we are saying in the TL without using L1.
  • Telling or Reading stories to students– Telling and/or reading stories to students can be a powerful tool for acquisition. If you tell a story or read a story to students in a way that they understand, then they can focus on the meaning and not worry about the grammar. Even though they “aren’t learning,” they are getting lots of input in the target language that is targeted the way you want to target it. When I use TPRS stories/methods, I target frequently used verb vocabulary (wants, needs, has, is, is feeling, goes, etc). The nouns in the story aren’t really much of a concern because I am able to show pictures of what they are rather than give translations. If the students get enough input with the nouns and don’t worry about them too much, they are able to acquire them “without any effort” (notice quotation marks).
  • PQA – personalized questions and answers – after establishing meaning of the target words for your lesson, use them to ask students questions about themselves. This works best when using high-frequency vocabulary
  • Games – any games that you can play in the TL are positive
    • Simon says is always a favorite (senor Fernandez dice)
    • Telephone – great for practicing production and for listening
    • Broken telephone – students say something related to what they hear, then we share how we got from point a to boint b
    • Write-Draw-Pass – fun and students use language without really thinking about it – from Martina Bex
  • Class created madlibs
    • Use the story frame as a jumping-off point to create a story
    • Students suggest and then vote on the details
    • Extension for more intermediate/advanced – students can copy the story and add a new ending or continue the story
  • Authentic Resources / infographics
    • “adapt the task, not the text” – basically, students can do something with any kind of text, we just have to craft our activities (what we want them to do) to fit with their abilities
      • Example questions we can ask novices:
      • What kind of text it is
      • What it might be about
      • Where the author is from
  • Academic content from other subjects
    • Related to Authentic Resources and Storytelling
    • We can activate students’ prior knowledge by talking about something they already have some knowledge about

Strategies to adapt traditional activities

Adapting activities to fit into a comprehensible framework is not as difficult as it sounds. If you are starting from a textbook, my first suggestion is to cut down the number of vocabulary terms. Keep it simple and within the students’ cognitive abilities. What I mean to say is, there is no way we can present 50 or 60 brand new words and expect the students to be able to get them in their heads immediately, or even over a few week-long unit.

Students acquire grammar the same way as they learn vocabulary – bvp

Results

So what has happened in the years since I stopped teaching grammar; in the years since the students stopped “learning?”

Comprehension ability and speaking/writing fluency are both up from previous years. More importantly (most importantly), the students are comfortable and confident. Of course, with comfort and confidence comes complacency and as the students’ only Spanish teacher, that is a challenge that I am trying to deal with. It’s not always perfect and sometimes I struggle, but overall, I know that the students are much closer to the goals of competence and confidence than they would be if we focused on only book-lurnin’.

 

 

 

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One thought on “SCOLT 2017 Presentation

  1. Pingback: So You’re Thinking of Presenting At A Conference | senorfernie

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