As I learn more and more about proficiency based language teaching and as I hone and add to my skills to teach this way, I realize that the two things about how I teach that have changed the most since converting from traditional language instruction are these:
1. When I do certain instructional things
2. Why I do or choose not to do certain instructional things
Before teaching this way my motive in presenting new content was to give my students access to as much information as I could in the least amount of time. My rationalization for this was my belief that if I provided them with enough information they would have no limits to what they could say or write in the practices I would put them through.
What actually happens is information overload. It is just like our small children asking us why an elephant has a trunk or a tiger has stripes and our responding by handing them a copy of Darwin's The Origin of Species. That child has no need of all that information and really never wanted it.
So, today I am talking about verbs, verb charts and when to use them to make them most powerful. I wish one of my grammar teachers had taught me in this way. I would have learned so much more much sooner and would have been so much more proficient by the time my first payment was due on the student loan I took out to get a Spanish degree. (Yes, I am bitter.)
The first thing to consider before even thinking about a verb chart and that we have to agree upon is this:
New language structures must be taught within the context of whole language.
If you are a novice to proficiency based teaching what this means is there is no day where you stop using the target language to teach the past tense (or any other tense or structure). A really good strategy to employ is to present the new tense / structure within a text or story you are telling your students, and it is even more powerful if you can embed a familiar tense / structure as a counterpoint to compare the new one to.
Why is this comparison necessary?
It is vital to your students connecting the meaning of the new structure to the formation of the structure without your having to point it out to them explicitly via a "grammar lesson."
What is an example of how to do this?
Based upon the theme of the unit you are teaching, prepare a text for your students to read or a story to tell your students about yourself or something related to the cultural connections you want your students to make during the course of their study in that unit. The more personal, controversial, or relative to the age of your teens the better. You need their interest level to be high. Then, purposefully craft that narrative to highlight the new structure by embedding it in text written with the familiar structure. The easiest example to consider is a text designed to draw attention to the past tense by writing about how the past compares to the present for the subject you are writing about. Allow students to read for meaning, and be sure to not make any references to the differences between the structures / tenses you hope they notice during their reading. Follow up with post reading activities that ask students to make meaning from the new structure without pointing out to them that you are doing so. Traditional comprehension questions that target present versus past would work great as long as they are in English because again, you want students to make meaning NOT lift and copy text from the narrative. Another alternative to comprehension questions is a well designed graphic organizer that targets the meaning of the new structure in context as compared to the familiar structure.
Since going deeper into the design of a discovery lesson on a new tense is not today's topic, I will, for now, assume that this process for presenting a new structure / tense is something we are familiar with.
So, when does the verb chart come into the story?
What I have learned is that a verb chart is most powerful towards the end of a unit after a new structure has been presented, not before. What has happened up to this point is a lot of linguistic chaos in the sense that the language teacher who employs these strategies has relinquished control of the structure so that her students can notice it, make meaning from it and begin to use it to make meaning with their own messages. To do this most effectively teachers also have to train themselves to not need to make blatant corrections when their students make mistakes with the new tense. Ideally, the teacher just wants to see the students can distinguish between "is" and "was" (for example) even if they get the form wrong. At that point it is more important for students to be able to do that for a good little while to allow them to get comfortable with the idea that the new structure looks and sounds different from the old one on purpose.
At the point the teacher sees their students are employing the new structure, even if inaccurately, comes the verb chart. The verb chart should be the tool that brings order to that linguistic chaos that is floating around in her students' heads. What adds power to the verb chart is co-creating the chart with her students based on meaning rather than form.
What in the heck does that mean?
It means that we don't build the chart, copy it and hand it out. Rather, we ask our students to get out their own paper and collaborate with us to create it in the moment. In fact, we don't even tell them what to write. We should ask the right questions that help our students to find the right information for the right space on the chart.
Here's a video to explain the co-construct process:
Why is this better than giving them the chart at the beginning of the unit?
Because, the reason why we need grammar, according to John De Mado, is to avoid miscommunication. In order to avoid miscommunication our learners have to make meaning with the new structure first. They cannot do that and be error free. They are too busy trying to get their point across or figure out the point of the message they are decoding. Based upon their what research says about their proficiency level, it is too much to ask them to do both, self edit and make meaning, while they are novices and intermediate level communicators. In fact, no language speakers self edit until they realize their message was not received as intended, so our forcing perfection or correction is pointless until they have the opportunity to discover they were completely misunderstood. At that point and only then does accuracy matter.
We have to allow our students to notice that the new tense looks different, that that difference is connected to meaning, and that they now have newly gained control over the messages they send. Then, we need them to gain some confidence in using the new tense for them to get to the point that they care whether or not they are doing it right. Just like any creative process we should allow the creation to be messy and allow for refinement later. This refinement is the purpose, the why, of the verb chart. It makes the verb chart much more important for much longer in students' language learning. It also makes the actual structure of the chart more meaningful to learners in that they will start to look for new structures as they continue to learn, and even more amazingly, they will begin to superimpose order onto those new structures after they figure out the differences in meaning because that is how the brain works.
By using verb charts in this way we are working smarter, not harder, and we are exerting the right time of control at the right time.
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