How do we teach “advanced” grammar?

I got a great comment from Jody in México. I argued in a previous post that Blaine Ray (and any other solid comprehensible-input teacher, such as Joe Dziedzic, Susan Gross, Ben Slavic, etc) will use what Jody describes as “complex language (subordinate clauses, subjunctive, mixed tenses, etc.) with lower level students.”

Jody then pointed out that legacy methods (communicative and grammarian) teachers will generally say “How are kids going to be able to do that if we haven’t taught them the the other tenses first? They don’t know enough language to be able to handle those “advanced” tenses and constructions. The idea is ridiculous!”

Jody then asks “How do we respond to those teachers? […] HOW [does] a teacher make[…] complex language comprehensible (orally) so that its complexity and quantity don’t overwhelm the student ? [How does a teacher ] KNOW that this kind of instruction is actually working with her/his students? What if your students are just not getting it? Is it them/Is it me? What do you do?”

So…today’s question: “How do we teach so-called advanced grammar?”

First, there is, technically speaking, no such thing as “advanced” grammar in the sense that some things are “harder” to learn. My definition for “advanced grammar” is “grammar used not as frequently as other grammar.” I say this because the less we hear/read something, the harder it will be to acquire. Now, some sentence structures are more complex than others, true. A sentence such as Blaine Ray’s “the boy wanted a cat who had a blue iPhone” is more complex than “I like cats,” but in terms of grammar, really, they’re all the same…and, in some cases, apparently “simple” grammar is less used than “advanced” grammar. For example, in Spansh, according to word-frequency lists found here

— “used to be” and “was” are used more frequently than “you are.”
— the subjunctive form for “s/he is” and “s/he was” are used more frequently than the word “good”
— the formal future tense for “s/he is” is used more frquently than the word for “three”

Even a University-educated Chinese, Portuguese or Spanish native speaker who has acquired English– like my Mexican friend Emanuel, or my climbing partners Polly and Teresa– will often not acquire the third-peson -s until way after they have acquired much more “complex” structures such as the past conditional. (Polly, from China, has two degrees from English universities, a few million in the bank, has bought and sold a few businesses, has been living and working– and reading– in Canada for twenty years, and still says “I hope he run with me tomorrow.”)

Yet, in a typical textbook the words for you are, good and three are introduced– and practised– WAY before such “advanced” forms as the past subjunctive. So textbooks get it wrong.

But the question remains: how do we teach such supposedly complex structures as the subjunctive?

Easy:
a) you keep it 100% comprehensible
B) you provide loads of repetitions, and
C) you don’t expect the kids to internalise whatever “advanced grammar” rule you are teaching right away.
D) if it’s aural (listening input), all the above apply, and include written support to boost comprehensibility

For example, the Spanish “quiero que seas mi novio/a” (I want that you be my boy/girlfriend) is– in traditional terms– “complex.” It has a subordinate clause and the subjunctive.

If I am teaching a story, I’ll throw that in there as dialogue. I’ll have “quería que fuera” with translation on the board. I narrate “Rochelle quería que David Beckham fuera su novio” (Rochelle wanted that David Beckham be her boyfriend). I then ask my actress (in present tense) “¿quieres que sea tu novio DB?” (Do you want that DB be your boyfriend?) and have her respond with “Sí, quiero que sea mi novio” (yes, I want that he be my BF). I’ll also include dialogue where Rochelle meets DB and says “David. Eres muy guapo. ¡Quiero que seas mi novio!” (You are very handsome, I want that you be my BF!)

I will also ask the class comprehension questions: “when I say quería que DB fuera su novio, what am I saying?” and I’ll circle the sentence. I’ll also ask my actress lots of questions: “¿quieres que George W. Bush sea tu novio?” etc and when I do this, I’ll ask the class “what am I asking Rochelle?”

Now, note carefully:

A) the kids have NOT acquired the subjunctive even if they can retell the story, or properly use the sea constuction in a sentence. But they have acquired a “piece” of it and feel— somewhere in their heads– a fragment of the rule that “infinitive minus r plus a or e equals desire/possibility.” And they also have something useful— the word sea is in the top 300 or so Spanish words and they can use the word in at least one situation.

B) I am not grammar-geeking out. Hell, I don’t even tell the kids about the subjunctive, the rules, etc. All I say is “sea means ‘might be’.”

C) Once I have used sea in this story, I can re-use it everywhere and anytime. In my next story, maybe Fahim wants a blue cat, and tells the cat “quiero que seas mi gato.” (I want you to be my cat)

D) When I throw imy next subjunctive statement into a story– “¡No me gustas! Quiero que te vayas.” (I don’t like you! I want that you leave)– I also keep it 100% comprehensible and the kids– subconsciously– are getting reinforcement on the subjunctive a/e pattern.

Now, when legacy methods teachers say “they don’t know enough language to be able to handle those advanced tenses” (e.g. the subjunctive), I would ask them about their Level 4s and 5s, to whom the text says “you must now teach the subjunctive”:

— are your students appropriately transfering their sudden new explicit knowledge of the subjunctive– rules, endings, irregular forms, etc– into every part of their speech and writing?

— if you taught the subjunctive as part of a topical/thematic unit (e.g. as part of a unit on work– “el papa quiere que su hijo tenga un buen empleo” (the dad wants his kid to get a good job), do the kids actually use the subjunctive when talking/writing about something other than work?

— do the kids use the subjunctive appropriately and automatically in speedwrites and unrehearsed speech? Or are they mainly “good” at it when they have time to look through their binders and notes, and when they are doing worksheets, or textbook exercises?

I’m gonna bet the answer to all three is “no.” It sure was when I taught “communicatively” from a rigidly-structured text.

So does T.P.R.S. have an advantage, in terms of teaching “advanced” concepts such as the subjunctive? Yes. Mainly because, as Susan Gross argues, people acquire grammar rules on their own schedule, when they are ready for them, and not before. It follows from this that, as Gross says, we should provide rich, interesting, totally comprehensible and multidimensnal language right from the get-go, so that the kids are constantly getting everything, and will pick up what they are ready for when they are ready.

If we hold off on “advanced grammar,” what happens if a student isn’t ready to acquire an allegedly “simple” grammar rule? They will get input that only provides a part of what they need! If you restrict input to X, kids will only only have the chance to acqire X…for which they may not be ready, and what they are ready for, they won’t be getting.

On top of that, there is no way of knowing what kids are or are not ready to acquire. And, even if there were a way to know that, how could you possibly design teaching around 30 different stages of acquisition? You can’t.

So what do you do? You provide rich, interesting and comprehensible language all the time, and you– and the kids– are good.

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5 comments

  1. Great article, Chris. When you say “they have acquired a “piece” of it” you refer to such an important part of acquisition. Namely, that acquisition occurs in bits, whereas explicit presentation of grammar is presented in large chunks.

  2. I think there is an interesting example of how piecemeal acquisition is using English grammar. Al the traditional TEFL textbooks begin with the simple present or sometimes the present continuous form. So from lesson number one students are taught “3rd person singular English verbs in the present tense take -s.” He goes, sees eats is has, etc. Unfortunately, for native French speakers this is Very late acquired. After seven years of traditional lessons, seven years of being corrected and penalized for not using it, very few students will spontaneously pronounce that -s that we tack on to verbs. Why? Because it is late acquired, duh.

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