The inspiration for this post has come from a couple of different places the first being a training I recently attended on how to teach grammar in a proficiency based classroom, the second being Twitter and some of the side conversations I am a part of, and lastly the emails I get from time to time from teachers around the country who are ready to transition into proficiency based instruction, but who aren't sure about how to choose what grammar should be taught and what language features should be left out. As I said before, I am no expert, but when I heard my district coordinator say the following quote I felt everything regarding the choices we make in the language features we teach became crystal clear for me. She said:
"Some language features are communicative dead ends."
So, what makes a language feature a communicative dead end?
Communicative Dead Ends are language features that...
- require that I revert into L1 to teach
- don't really change the meaning of the messages my students communicate
- could easily be taught lexically rather than directly
- bulk up the curriculum
Some examples are...
- Object pronouns
- Demonstrative adjectives
- Some commands
- Personal Pronouns
- Groups of Verbs such as Stem Changing Verbs, -Go Verbs, etc...
- Personal a
Now, I know there are teachers out there (some who may even be reading this) who would disagree with what I have said in this post so far. Let me add that brain research says that our students can't handle too many things at one time, yet a typical language textbook chapter includes 2-3 grammar concepts and at least 40-50 vocabulary words (or more) for the students to learn in a matter of just a few days. Brain research also says that when it comes to language acquisition, if students don't make meaning themselves and use those words or language features often enough, it will not transfer into long term memory. This is the argument for reducing the amount of content in our programs, especially those communicative dead ends. This clears the road for the concepts that actually have a communicative function such as present tense, past tense or asking questions, but only if we present just the vocabulary or verbs that are necessary for a specific purpose (aka: learning target / can do statement). This is why students who had the language learning experience I had (2 years of high school Spanish in a textbook based, English taught classroom) leave programs believing they don't have the gift for languages, frustrated and never want to try to learn languages again.
To close with other words of wisdom that I have learned along the way, less really is more. I hope this is something that those of you writing new proficiency based programs and curricula will consider as you embark upon choosing what you will teach. Plan a journey that will be easy riding for your students as well as you, and if you find yourself asking, "How do YOU teach X?" consider that you may have found a path with a dead end.