Today I am sharing a conversation I enjoyed with a colleague from #langchat who decided to give my Preterite / Imperfect activities a try this year. Please allow me to introduce you to Samuel Hilliard (@portenogringo) and his take on teaching Storytelling rather than Preterite vs. Imperfect.
1. Why do you think preterite vs. imperfect is such a hard concept for gringo minds?
I think this concept is so difficult primarily because it’s not something we actively deal with in English. Whether I am saying “I was walking to the store when…” or “I walked,” to us (us being native English speakers), it is simply the ‘past tense.’ Heck, some of us just think of it as something I did, not even in terms of past, present, future, etc! As a result, when we try to teach this to our students, we are beginning to get quite abstract in some regards since the concept of two past-tenses does not exist in English. And that is “just” the difference between the two! When we bring in the different conjugations, irregulars, trigger words, etc, the plot only thickens.
2. Do you think that teachers over complicate the concept sometimes?
I believe the concept’s inherent difficulty can lead to one of two outcomes: over-simplicity or over-complication. Some teachers, I feel, try to make it too cut and dry with simple trigger words and avoid true story telling, while others throw students in over their heads. Also, I think many teachers can forget how difficult the concept is and neglect to carefully scaffold students up from conjugations, through the uses of each tense, and into true story-telling.
3. So, what led you to use the 1 Sentence Stories and 1358 Stories Strategies?
For me, it was a simple decision. When a colleague of mine (@Axacarnes) introduced me to your website, I stumbled upon the post about those strategies. Once I found it, the decision was simple. I will readily admit, I had been one to teach Preterite vs. Imperfect in more traditional and less-communicative ways in the past. Last year (my first time teaching the subject to high-school students), I struggled to find a good way to move students beyond cloze exercises and into more authentic story-telling. Also, I had a very advanced student this year begin questioning some of the trigger words as he began to realize what I had tried to shield some students from who had been struggling--that you can technically construct preterite and imperfect phrases using many of the different trigger words commonly used. I needed to change my approach, and I had nowhere to go!
All and all, when I found the blog post on the 1-sentence stories and 1358 stories, I knew that I’d found a good way to (a) move away from cloze type exercises and (b) to help students move into story-telling without simply thrusting them over the grammatical cliff that is the Preterite vs. Imperfect.
4. How did you roll the strategies out to your students?
I took basically a three-pronged approach to the subject. First, I broached the idea that we would be moving into story-telling. I began with more receptive-level practice, beginning with a general recapitulation of the uses of each tense and their conjugations. To begin, I gave students a sheet that had the headings from the 1-sentence stories at the top (i.e. ‘Where you were,’ ‘Who you were with,’ etc.). From there, we discussed which tense would be used to express the items in each column. Next, I gave students a series of phrases in both the preterite and imperfect (about travel to fit out unit). Afterwards, I asked students (in pairs) to classify the phrases according to the different uses of each tense listed on the one-sentence stories sheet. With this, students were able to see the different uses of each tense in action, instead of asking them to straight-up produce them alone.
After we worked with this kind of activity a few times, I asked students to begin writing their own 1-sentence stories. Overall, we worked with the 1-sentence stories probably four or five times before moving up to the 1358 activity. That way, students wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-30 of the 1-sentence stories before advancing. Each time we worked with the activity, I had students write examples up on the board. With that, we again classified the different verbs of the ‘stories’ according to the different uses of the preterite and imperfect. Each time before they began, I asked students to carefully select which uses of each tense they were going to use ahead of time, to facilitate their writing. That way, they had to decide, for example, that they were going to use “Who I was with,” “What I was doing,” and “What began/ended the event” before writing their 1-sentence stories. (I love this! - Amy)
The last step of the process for me was to move into the 1358 stories. I began by having students write three final 1-sentence stories to ensure that the process was fresh in their heads. Then, I primed them by beginning to ask some questions about their spring breaks. After we had talked for a few minutes, I distributed a sheet that I had created for them to write on. They began like we had with the 1-sentence stories in the past, this time writing about their spring-break vacations. In order to help students who are more borderline or struggling, during each step of the process I gave them detailed instructions on what type of sentences to add each time. For example, When moving from the ‘1’ to the ‘3’, I told them to add more preterite events to the story to advance the action. When moving from ‘3’ to ‘5’, I asked them to add more background information or description, and from ‘5’ to ‘8’ I asked them to use a mix of the two, using preterite only in the last sentence to bring their story to a close. (I love this, too! - Amy)
5. What did you and your students struggle with?
The hardest part for students, in my opinion, was using the imperfect for the background information/description aspect of the preterite vs. imperfect. Since the preterite is closer in meaning to how we use the past-tense in English, I think students’ tendency was to default to the preterite when trying to create a story. Additionally, as many gringo-brains do, students tended to think in English, try to translate, and then create their stories, which led to some interesting translation problems and is what connects with my greatest struggle in teaching it.
Students at my school got iPad minis this year, which has been both a blessing and a curse. For this exercise, I struggled with managing students trying to electronically translate what they were thinking. Aside from the technology issue, I had a bit of a hard time helping the lowest students with the story-telling, especially when moving from the 1-sentence stories to the 1358 activity.
6. What went well for you and your students?
By carefully scaffolding students up through the process, many of the students were able to produce some truly wonderful stories. Students seemed to really enjoy the 1358 activity, and I had several tell me that “We should do this every time to practice for our essays!” I think that comment came from the fact that students really enjoyed getting such a variety of feedback throughout the course of the 1358 activity. By giving them specific instructions on what types of sentences to use at first, students were able to write without having to make some of the incredibly difficult decisions between each tense. In the future, I’ll repeat the activity, but this time I will give students more storytelling freedom since they are now more accustomed to using the two tenses together.
7. What kinds of results did you notice in their story telling and/or handling of the past tenses?
I noticed several trends that tended to occur within ability levels. Many of the lower-level and mid-level students were extremely formulaic in their use of each tense. What I mean by this is that they tended to use the same uses of each tense over and over again with each sentence. For example, many of them would write 1-sentence stories using “Who you were with,” “What you were doing,” and “Something that happened” over and over again, which resulted in stories whose shape was somewhat repetitive. The more advanced students tended to get more creative and utilized various different uses of each tense. As a result, their stories were more varied, much more creative, and flowed extremely well. One student even wrote a hilarious story about her adventure with the Hobbits to destroy the ring in Mordor!!!
8. What would you do differently next time you use these strategies? Why?/ 9. How do you see yourself adapting how you teach the two past tenses in the future?
The primary issue for me is that I had to switch course part-way through the unit. I had already taught each tense individually and was beginning to put the two tenses together when I discovered these activities. As a result, it was somewhat difficult to implement the story-telling activities. However, I implemented them early enough in the unit, I believe, to have a true impact on students’ learning of the difference between the two tenses.
In the future, I would definitely change my approach, now knowing that the 1358 activity and true storytelling is my endgame. When introducing the imperfect in the future, I think I would use an activity where the preterite is already in sentences and have students add background information and imperfect to the sentences. In that way, they are still working with the preterite, but focusing more on the imperfect as they are learning it. Over time, I would slowly pull the preterite away until we arrive at the point where I began using these activities this year. The problem for me this year, is that I (stupidly) essentially removed the preterite from the equation while we were working with the imperfect out of fear of confusing the students. The key, I believe, would be in keeping students working with both while focusing on whichever of the tenses is the ‘new’ one, until the time comes to truly hone in on the difference between the two.
10. Any of your own ideas to share or adaptations of these strategies?
I believe I mentioned some above, but the only real component that I would add is having students classify different phrases first as preterite or imperfect, then having them classify which use of each tense is being used. As a result, students could develop some more analytic powers with the language while obtaining more receptive familiarity with the uses of each tense before moving into using them on their own.
11. Final thoughts?
These activities are pure gold, madam!!!!!
My takeaway from this conversation is that we really aren't teaching "preterite vs. imperfect." If communication is our goal then storytelling is what we are teaching students to do. Preterite and imperfect are tools we need to perform that Many thanks to my new friend Samuel for trying out these activities and for sharing his experiences with them. I think we learn from each other and he took these things I created beyond what I ever imagined them to be. I am definitely trying out his versions of the strategies next year with my level 2's.
Both Sam and I wish you Happy Coaching, especially when it comes to using the past tenses!
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