Susan Gross

Another Nail in the Skill-Building Coffin


I was Twarguing recently with my District colleague Shauna Néro. “Grammar feedback and direct instruction in the language classroom are pointless,” I said.
“I don’t believe it,” she said.

This is a pretty classic argument between a C.I. practitioner and a traditionalist skill-builder.  Fortunately, science doesn’t care whether or not we “believe” it, and our argument, as we shall see, has been mostly settled for us by VanPatten, Keating and Leeser.

Let’s prep our brains for this.  Here we go:

Sentence A:  “Chris is brewing beer in Vancouver on Saturday.”

Sentence B:  “Chris in Squamish rock-climbing is on Sunday.”

Which took you longer to understand?  Which made you momentaraily go “huh?”  I bet it was B.

Because, as egg-heads and linguists say, “you have acquired a well-developed mental representation of English,” sentence B takes you a half-second more to read than A, and it takes you a couple of microseconds longer to answer Question B than Question A.  You probably noticed your brain going “no, wait, sentence B should be __________” i.e. “re-thinking” the sentence properly.  This is what the brain that has fully acquired English does.

Now here’s another example.  In Hindi, khanna means “food” and he means “there is.”

Sentence C:  Khanna he?

Sentence D: He khanna?

You probably figured out that both questions mean “is there food?”  Did one take you longer to read than the other, or to figure out?  Probably not.  Now, here’s the thing.  Sentence D is wrong.  If you are a native speaker of Hindi, you read D and briefly went “huh?”  You understood it both ways, but your processing speed differed depending on whether or not your Hindi was later-learned or acquired as your/a first language.

This, it turns out, is standard experience with L1.  If the vocabulary and grammar have been acquired, and the sentence makes sense, grammatical errors will make us measurably slow down in our reading and question-answering.  In other words, if we really have the language acquired– wired in– we will slow down slightly when processing errors in the language.  If we have acquired it less thoroughly, we will get the meaning but our processing will not slow when there are word order or  grammatical issues.

This is why you can read Noam Chomsky’s famous sentence “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” and it won’t intuitively “feel” or “sound” weird, despite obviously being nonsensical (like Lewis Carrol’s “’twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe”).

It turns out that measuring processing speed is a pretty good way to figure out how well someone has acquired mental representation of a language.  If we process errors slowly, it shows that we have the language “wired in,” and if we process them quickly (or don’t process them at all), we have not yet acquired mental representation of the part of the language being looked at.

Bill VanPatten and crew asked two interesting questions in an experiment detailed here:

a) Do native (L1) speakers of Spanish “slow down” processing different types of errors?

b) Do non-native (L2) Spanish speakers slow down equally for different types of errors?

They exposed Spanish L1s and L2s to Spanish sentences with three types of errors:  wh- question, adverb placement, and verb conjugation errors.

With verb conjugation, where one should say la chica juega fútbol (the girl plays soccer), subjects read errors such as  *la chica juego fútbol (the girl I play soccer).

With adverb placement, where one should say Juan no viaja más a Francia porque no tiene dinero (Juan no longer goes to France because he has no money), subjects read *Juan no más viaja a Francia porque no tiene dinero.  Note here that the errors follow English word order.

The question-word errors involved sentences like ¿dónde comen tus padres cuando hacen visita a Chicago? (Where do your parents eat when they visit Chicago?) and *¿dónde tus padres comen cuando hacen visita a Chicago?  Again, the error sentences follow English word order.

Note that both correct and incorrect sentences where possible use the same number of words and the same words.

VanPatten, Keating and Leeser showed the subjects sentences (some with errors, some normal) on the computer screen, followed by a question.  The computer timed from when they saw the sentence to when they entered an answer, and then showed them the next question.  The focus here was not getting the right answer (it was basically impossible to get a wrong answer) but rather on seeing how long it took people to process grammatical and ungrammatical sentences.

It had been hypothesised that the L1s would process Spanish errors of any type at the same speed, because their mental representation of Spanish is so solid that any error would stick out.  This turned out to be the case.  L1s– native Spanish speakers– processed  conjugation, question word and adverb placement errors at the same speed.  For the L2s, things were quite different.

Verb conjugation had been (repeatedly) addressed in the college students’ Spanish classes. There had been explicit instruction and explanations, practice, listening, reading etc, all of which used verb conjugation as focus– both direct and implied (implicit)– of instruction.  Using adverbial phrases– e.g. saying “no longer” (no…más)– as well as question formation had been regularly  present in reading & listening, but had not been explicitly dealt with.

What VanPatten, Keating and Leeser found was that there were significant differences in L2s’ processing speed depending on the error type in the sentence.  For the verb conjugation error sentences, the L2 group– despite having been taught, and having read and ‘practiced’ it– did not slow down in their processing.  With the adverb placement and question-word error sentences, the L2 group– despite not having been ‘taught’ or having ‘practiced’ them— slowed down processing markedly.  If they slowed down processing, that meant they had developed a mental representation thereof, and if they did not slow down processing it, they had not (yet) acquired mental representation of the item in question.

In other words, the L2s had acquired a solid mental representation of adverb phrase placement and question word usage despite not having been explicitly taught them, and they had failed to develop a solid mental representation ofverb conjugation despite having been taught it and having practiced it.

You probably want to re-read that last paragraph.  Let’s rephrase: people acquired things from the Spanish input which they weren’t explicitly taught and had not practiced, and they did not acquire other things from the Spanish input which they were taught and had practiced.  As VanPatten wrote me– echoing Krashen of 35 years prior– “the research on effects of instruction consistently fails to show any effect for [on] the implicit system,” and this study shows exactly that.

Let’s rephrase again:  you can teach– and “practice”– all the ______ you want, but people are not going to pick up on ____ if  their brains are not ready for it. 

The implications are staggering, and here they are in no particular order.

First, textbooks are at best irrelevant and at worst an active and expensive impediment to learning.  Sequenced grammar, as I have argued, not only makes language acquisition boring, but is ineffective.   Why?

  • We do not learn grammar as “units” or “skill sets.”  There is no mental “unit” called “the -ar verb” or “indirect object pronouns.”
  • students do not acquire grammar on a teacher or book-dictated schedule
  • As Vanpatten, Long, Krashen etc note, we do not acquire what textbooks present as “rules.”  What we call “rules” are surface descriptions of very complex subconscious processes.
  • as Susan Gross has pointed out, people may well be ready for input that the text does not present, and not ready for what it is showing us.

Second, this study suggests that teaching with fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1 is the way to go.   In other words, all grammatical structures– verb tenses, pronouns, moods, what have you, no matter how “complex” or “advanced” or “un-L1-like” they may appear from the traditionalist’s perspective– should be present in input as soon as learners begin acquiring the language. As Susan Gross has argued, and as Long (1997) says, “[t]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.”  In addition, if there as an un-L1-like feature in the L2 (e.g. the Spanish subjunctive for English L1 speakers), it may require more processing practice– input– than supposedly “L1-like” features…and should therefore be present sooner.

This being the case, using sheltered grammar– what all textbooks do when they leave “advanced stuff” like the subjunctive for later– is wrong, because it

  • denies the brain at least some of the input it needs
  • overemphasises at least some what the brain is not ready for

Eric Herman points out that this is a logical, but not an empirical, argument for unsheltered grammar, noting that we would need to study under what conditions– unsheltered or sheltered input– better mental representation appears.  My gut feeling (and classroom experience) is that unsheltered instruction will develop better mental representation, but more slowly than sheltered, as there is a greater variety of syntax etc to soak up.

Third, this puts a massive hole into any kind of proficiency level system which is tied to specific grammar or vocabulary.  Most assessment systems in traditional textbooks– the typical end-of-chapter reading, listening, writing etc tests– are invalid.  Sure, kids can consciously wrestle with verb conjugations or pronouns or whatever by “studying hard” the night before the test, and on test day they say “hurry let’s do the exam before we forget,” and they are right– they immediately forget whatever they’ve memorised.  However, vocab-and-grammar-specific tests often

  • do not assess proficiency of what kids actually know
  • assess proficiency of things kids may not be ready for

If your State, District, school etc says, for example, “French Level 2s must know how to conjugate verbs using être in the passé composé,” they are flat-out wrong-headed.  Kids should be exposed to verbs using être in the passé composé (if the input is comprehensible and interesting), and it is certainly appropriate to expect them to understand, but forcing them to use these (especially in idiotic discrete-item grammar tests) is wrong.

It is also wrong to ask students to output specific features of language in a test situation.  While the brain can recognise the meaning of things it has not acquired, asking it to output these things properly is asking the impossible.  So a writing or speaking exercise which says “you must use the verb ___, the following nouns, etc, in your dialogue, paragraph etc,” is bad practice.  This is when you get kids writing “yo tener divertido” or “je suis quinze ans.”

Fourth, the most obvious lesson here is that teachers are wasting their time with grammar lessons, explanations and practice.  The brain is going to pick up what it wants only when it wants.  While obviously teachers should answer grammar questions, and explicitly deal with grammar to support meaning (e.g. by saying “in French, the –ons on aimer means ‘we,’ and goes with nous“), anything else is a waste of time.  Ditch those stupid fill-in-the-blank workbooks.

Fifthif grammar lessons– and teaching that organises curriculum around grammar– do not deliver the wanted results, the question of “what should we be teaching?” arises.  The answer, I think, is threefold:

  • multidimensional language (a.k.a. unsheltered grammar) with “everything” in the mix
  • compelling comprehensible input which will keep learners focused (and therefore acquiring)
  • vocabulary beginning with more frequently-used and moving toward lower frequency

I’d urge people to look at Wiktionary’s frequency lists and note that, in terms of the most commonly-used  words, all grammar is present.  It’s not like the subjunctive is seldom (or later)- used in Spanish or French.  Indeed, the typical order of presentation of grammar in textbooks– numbers=> present tense=> past tense=> subjunctive– is backwards to how often these features are used in languages.

Sixth, activities which focus students on input of language– reading and listening– will be more effective than those involving grammar manipulation, output, etc.  If a teacher notes that students have not acquired ____, reading/listening to a ton of input that contains ____ would be the best bet…but, as VanPatten et al show, it’s no guarantee they’ll pick it up when you want them to.  We do know that if they understand, they are acquiring…just not necesarily on the teacher’s schedule.

Seventh, there is news for “communicative” teachers, who like having students use the target language to exchange information: it will be almost impossible to have students generate accurate language either to make questions or to respond to them.  Why?  Because– by definition– what a ‘communicative’ teacher is asking a student to do is the thing they do not know how to do. If the experimental subjects had not developed mental representation of verb conjugation after competent native speaker and textual exposure to it, how can we expect students to acquire (say) verb conjugation by both doing it and getting poor input from other learners?  As Bill VanPatten puts it on his podcast, “asking students to produce what they are trying to acquire is, in a sense, putting the cart before the horse.”

OK, there we go.  People’s brains, not their teachers, set the acquisitional agenda.  Let’s respect that by providing good comprehensible input, not insisting that students master the passé composé by November 27th at 2:43 PM, and not harping about grammar.

Bad science meets questionable usefulness: Lyster (2004a) on prompting feedback

McGill University professor Roy Lyster gave the British Columbia Language Coordinators’ Association annual conference talk in 2015 about best practices in the French Immersion classroom. He specifically mentioned that form-focused instruction and feedback were essential for acquisition of second languages.  Well, THAT got me wondering so I went and did what a sane guy does of a fine Sunday: I went climbing and then I read his paper.

Lyster has done a very good job in terms of his research, controls, etc etc.  Unlike Orlut and Bowles (2008), Lyster did very good science.  But, as we shall see, there are a lot of problems with his conclusions.  Let’s have a look.

To sum it up, Lyster — following Ellis, DeKeyser et al– argues that there needs to be some “focus on form”– explanations about language (as well as activities that make learners process that language)– in a language classroom in addition to meaningful language itself, because without some “focus on form,” acquisition of some items fossilises or goes wrong.

Lyster noted that English-speaking kids in French immersion were not picking up French noun gender very well.  There are a bunch of reasons for this.  Noun gender is of almost zero communicative significance and so acquirers’ brains pay it little attention, and Immersion students are typically exposed to native-speaker generated/targeted materials which do not foreground grammatical features.  Noun gender acquisition is a classic study question because French has it and English does not. Lyster’s question was, “can form focused instruction (FFI) centered on noun gender improve noun gender acquisition?”  FFI involved a bunch of instruction about noun gender (how to figure out what it is basically based on noun endings, which are in French fairly regular), plus various practice decoding activities.  Lyster set up four groups:

  1. a control group which got regular content teaching.
  2. another group that got (1) plus “focus on forms” (FFI; explanations) only
  3. a second group got (1) plus FFI plus recasts (errors being “properly resaid” by teacher)
  4. a third group got (1) plus FFI (explanations) plus prompts (e.g. the teacher asking un maison ou une maison? after hearing students make noun gender errors); these prompts were designed to get students to reflect on and then output the targeted form

The reasoning for prompts is to “force” the learner to bring “less used” (and improperly or not-yet acquired) stuff into the mental processing loop.  Note that this is a technique for advanced learners– those who have a ton of language skill already built up– and would, as Bill VanPatten has noted, overload any kind of beginner learner.

The results, basically, were that the FFI + prompt group did way better than the others on both immediate and 2-month delayed post-test.  Postests included both choosing the proper form, and producing the proper form.

So, prima facie, Lyster can make the following argument:

“The present study thus contributes to theoretical arguments underpinning FFI by demonstrating its effectiveness when implemented in the context of subject-matter instruction within an iterative process comprising three inter-related pedagogical components:

  1. Learners are led to notice frequent co-occurrences of appropriate gender attribution with selected noun endings, contrived to appear salient by means of typographical enhancement
  2. Learners’ metalinguistic awareness of orthographic and phonological rules governing gender attribution is activated through inductive rule-discovery tasks and metalinguistic explanation
  3. Learners engage in complementary processes of analysis and synthesis (Klein, 1986; Skehan, 1998) through opportunities for practice in associating gender attribution with noun endings.”

Lyster claims that his results contribute to the “theoretical arguments underpinning FFI.”  He is right.  And here is the crux:  the problem with work like this is simple: while he can make theoretical puppets dance on experimental strings, what Lyster does in this paper will never work in a classroom.  Here are the problems:

First. the bandwidth problem, which is that for every acquisitional problem a teacher focuses on “solving,” another problem will receive less attention, because the amount of time/energy we have is limited, and so tradeoffs have to be made.  In this case, Lyster decided that a worthy problem was noun gender acquisition.  So, materials were made for that, time was spent practising that, and teachers focused recasts or prompts on that.  The students got 8-10 hours of FFI.

The question: what did they “de-emphasise” in order to focus on noun gender?  But Lyster does not address this.  Was Lyster’s testing instrument designed to catch changes in other errors that students made?  No– they looked specifically at noun gender. It is possible, indeed, it is almost certain, that the FFI resulted in other grammar or vocab content being downplayed.  Lyster’s testing instrument, in other words, was not holistic: he looked only at one specific aspect of language.

An analogy may be useful here.  A triathlete needs to excel in three sports– swimming, cycling and running– to win.  She may work on the bike until she is a drug-free version of Lance Armstrong. But if she ignores– or undertrains– the swimsuit and the runners, she’ll never podium.  An economist would say there is an opportunity cost: if you invest your money in stocks, you cannot buy the Ferrari, and vice versa.

Second is what Krashen called the constraint on interest problem.  By focusing instruction (or vocab) around a grammar device, we have much less room as teacher to deliver either an interesting variety of traditional “present, practice, produce” lessons or T.P.R.S. or A.I.M.-style stories.   Imagine deciding that since the kids have not acquired the French être avec le passé composé, you must build every activity  around that.  How quickly will the kids get bored?  Je suis allé aux toilettes.  Est-ce que tu est allé à l’ecole? etc. In T.P.R.S. (and in A.I.M.), stuff like this is in every story, but as background, because it’s boring.   It’s like saying, “paint but you only have red and blue.”

Third is the rule choice problem.  Since, as noted above, we can’t deal with every not-yet-acquired rule, we have to choose some items and rules over others. Which will they be? How will we decide?  What if teachers came up with a list of a hundred common errors that 6th grade French immersion kids made.  Which errors should they focus on?  How should materials be built– and paid for– to deal with these?  What if Profeseur Stolz couldn’t give a rat’s ass about French noun gender, but Profeseur Lyster foams at the mouth on hearing “une garçon”?

Fourth, Lyster’s study does not take into account individual learning needs.  OK, all of the subjects in the 4th group got better with noun genders (temporarily, and with prompting) .  But was this the most pressing issue for each person?  What if Max hasn’t acquired the passé composé?  What if Samba is OK with noun gender but terrible with pronouns?  When you use a grammar hammer, everything looks like the same nail.  Noun gender is not very important.  It’s like stripping a car: no brakes and the whole thing crashes; but no hood ornament only looks bad.  Noun gender is the hood ornament of French: looks good but hardly essential.

The problem with a study like Lyster’s– or a legacy-methods program that tries to systematically do what Lyster did– is that it reduces the multidimensionality of both the classroom language and activities and the teacher’s feedback, with the effect of impoverishing input.  If Max needs passé composé and Samba pronom input, and the experiment focuses activities, learning strategy instruction and teacher feedback on noun gender, the experiment’s focus inevitably cuts down on input they need as it plays up noun gender stuff.  As Susan Gross has argued, a comprehensible input classroom is going to solve that problem: by presenting “unsheltered” language– language with no verb tenses, pronouns or other grammatical features edited out– everything learners need is always in the mix.

Fifth, and most seriously, Lyster’s results do not– could not– pass Krashen’s “litmus test” for whether instructional interventions produce legitimate acquisition.  Krashen has said that if you really want to prove that your experimental treatment trying to get language learners to acquire __________ has worked, your results must meet the following criteria:

  • they must be statistically significant not just right after treatment, but three months later
  • they must occur unprompted (what Krashen calls not involving the Monitor)

The three-month delayed post-test is there to show that the intervention was “sticky.”   If it’s been acquired, it will be around for a long time; if it’s consciously learned, it will slowly disappear.  You can check the reasonableness of this by looking at your own experiences– or those of your students– and asking how well does language teaching stick in my or my kids’ heads? (Teachers who use T.P.R.S. know how sticky the results are: we do not need to review.  Legacy-methods teachers have to do review units.)  So what are Lyster’s study’s two most serious problems?

First, Lyster did a two month delayed post-test, so we don’t really know how “sticky” the FFI results were.

Second, Lyster’s assessment of results is largely Monitor-dependent. That is, he tested the students’ acquisition of noun gender when they had time to think about it, and under conditions where the experimenters (or test questions) often explicitly asked whether or not the noun in question was masculine or feminine. Given that the experimental kids had had explicit treatment, explanations etc about what they were learning– noun gender– it is not surprising that they were able to summon conscious knowledge to answer questions when it came assessment time.

At one point in his study, Lyster’s investigators found out that the students being tested had figured out what the investigators were after– noun genders– and had developed a word that sounded like a mix of “un” and “une” specifically to try to “get it right” on the tests. This is not acquisition, but rather conscious learning. 

Indeed, Lyster notes that “it might be argued therefore that […] prompting affects online oral production skills only minimally, serving instead to increase students’ metaliguistic awareness and their ability to draw upon declarative, rule-based representations on tasks where they have sufficient time to monitor their performance ” (425).

Now, why does this matter? Why do Krashen and VanPatten insist that tests of true acquisition be Monitor-free? Simple: because any real-world language use happens in real time, without time to think and self-Monitor.  What VanPatten calls “mental representation of language”– an instinctive, unthinking and proper grasp of the language– kicks in without the speaker being aware.  Real acquisition– knowing a language– as opposed to learning, a.k.a. knowing about a language (being able to consciously manipulate vocab and grammar on tests, and for various kinds of performance)– is what we want students to have.

The marvellous Terry Waltz has called kids who are full of grammar rules, menmonics, games, vocab lists etc “sloshers”: all that stuff has been “put in there” by well-meaning teachers, and the kids have probably “practiced” it through games, role-plays or communicative pair activities, but it hasn’t been presented in meaning-focused, memorable chunks– stories– so it sloshes around.

We also want to avoid teaching with rules, lists, etc, because– as Krashen and Vanpatten note– there is only so much room in the conscious mind to “hold and focus on” rules, and because the brain cannot  build mental representation– wired-in competence– of language without oceans of input.  If we teach with rules and prompts, and when we assess we examine rules and prompts, we are teaching conscious (read: limited) mind stuff.  We’re teaching to the grammar test.

So…to sum up Lyster’s experiment, he

  • took a bunch of time away from meaningful (and linguistically multidimensional) activities & input, and, in so doing,
  • focused on a low-importance grammar rule, and his results
  • do not show that the learners still had it three months post-treatment,
  • do not show that learners could recognise or produce the form without conscious reminders, and
  • did not measure the opportunity cost of the intervention (the question of what the students lost out on while working on noun gender)

Does this matter?  YES.  Lyster, to the best of my knowledge, is giving bad advice when he recommends “focus on form” interventions.  If you teach Immersion (or just regular language class), doing grammar practice and noticing-style activities is probably a waste of time.   Or, to put it another way, we know that input does a ton of good work, but Lyster has not shown that conscious grammar interventions build cost-free, wired-in, long-term unprompted skill.

My questions to Lyster are these:  on what functionally useful evidence do you base your claim that focus on form is essential for SLA, and how would you suggest dealing with rule choice, bandwidth, opportunity cost and individualisation problems, etc?

What is “circling” and how do I do it?

Learners need a LOT of meaningful repetition to acquire something, so years ago Susan Gross developed the “circling” technique to allow teachers to make huuuuuuge numbers of repetitions on vocab.  Here’s how you do it, and no, you don’t have to use T.P.R.S. to benefit.  You are also going to circle sentences you find in reading, and things you say in Movietalk.

1.  Start with a sentence– Rochelle quiere jugar fútbol (R. wants to play soccer) & make sure kids understand it.

2. Ask a yes question– ¿clase, Rochelle quiere jugar fútbol?–and class answers sí.  Restate sentence.

3.  Ask a no question–clase, ¿Rochelle quiere jugar basquetbol ?– and class answers no. Restate sentence.

4. Ask an either/or question– clase, ¿quiere Rochelle jugar basquetbol o fútbol?– and class answers fútbol.  Restate sentence.

5.  Ask an “adding detail” question where kids have input– clase, ¿dónde quiere jugar fútbol Rochelle?— and when they suggest something interesting, add that to the sentence, e.g. Sí, clase, ¡Rochelle quiere jugar basquetbol en Barcelona!

6.  Now, circle the new detail, always restating the sentence s.l.o.w.l.y. Clase, ¿quiere Rochelle jugar fútbol en Barcelona? ¿Quiere jugar fútbol en Los Angeles? etc

If you want to add details, “with whom?” and “where?” questions are best, as these add details without adding new vocab.  In T.P.R.S., we want to recycle a small amount of vocab so people really acquire it, rather than swamping students in an ocean of partly-acquired words.

The most important thing I have learned about circling is, don’t overdo it.  If you have a story with, say, 3 parallel characters, you are going to re-use each sentence for each character, so please for the kids’ sake do not beat the sentences to death. If your structure is quería tener (wanted to have) you can ask a yes question about one character, a no question about another, etc. If you are doing Ben Slavic-style “pre-teaching” where you circle and play around with vocab before asking a story, always start with two sentences (more variety).

Goddess Laurie Clarq also weighed in– read her ideas here— and another suggestion (dunno where this came from) is to circle subject, verb then object (or to mix the order up).

E.g. your sentence is Maninder tiene tres novos guapos (M. has three handsome boyfriends).

So, first you circle Maninder.  Clase, ¿tiene tres novios guapos Maninder? ¿Tiene tres novios guapos Anna? ¿Tiene tres novios Anna o Maninder?  Always repeat the sentence.

You next circle the verb.  Clase, ¿,quiere o tiene tres novios guapos Maninder? Clase, ¿quiere tres novios guapos? Etc

Finally, you circle the subject.  Clase, ¿Maninder tiene tres novios guapos? ¿Tiene tres perros? ¿Tiene tres gatos o tres novios?

The circling keys to success are

  • go s.l.o.w.l.y
  • keep it 100% comprehensible
  • go slow enough to be understood, and fast enough to not be boring
  • use parallel characters (or sentences) so you don’t beat your questions to death
  • DO NOT CIRCLE EVERYTHING!  You only need to (mainly) circle new-ish stuff.

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.