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"Learning" Grammar vs. Communication

Someday I will go back to sharing ideas and resources but today I just have some food for thought about "learning" grammar versus communicating in a language class. 

Yesterday, a Spanish IV student brought her visiting friend from out of state to class with her. It was our first day back from break and as a fun class starter we completed Martina Bex's Una Navidad Memorable to get students talking about what they did over break. I talked about my break and then let students go to instantly start talking in the past tense with each other about what they did. The visiting student seemed appalled that we were using the preterite tense. She stated, "my school learned preterite in Spanish II" and "my school is much harder than yours." I invited the student to participate in the interpersonal speaking activity, but she declined saying something about how she was way more advanced than this activity. 

My first reaction was to be offended, but then I took a step back and reevaluated. I asked her about her Spanish program and realized that it is a traditional grammar driven program where right now they are learning "all the perfect tenses." She "learned" preterite in Spanish II, but could not use it today to communicate. What is the purpose of learning "all" the tenses if you can not say what you did yesterday? She is in a high level IB program, where rigor and difficulty seems to be the goal. So these high level students are cramming and memorizing how to form every grammar tense, but missing the big picture, communication!


I know I am preaching to the choir but as Sara Elizabeth pointed out in this post, as language teachers we try and cover too much content. A program is deemed advanced for covering every tense, but students leave without the skills to hold a simple conversation. I am so glad that as a department of one I am not forced to each a certain amount of content in a set time frame. This year I want my focus on helping students to communicate. If students leave my class with the ability to hold a conversation in Spanish, then I have done my job. 

4 comments

  1. I agree with you completely. Communication is the goal, understanding and being understood in a simple conversation. Contunue doing what your doing, kudos to you.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much Vanessa! I appreciate your validation. It makes me feel better about what and how I am teaching knowing I am on the right path!

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  2. I think it's funny that she thought she was 'more advanced'. The break happened in the past, therefore, preterite would be the appropriate tense to use when discussing what happened!

    I had a similar situation when I student taught where a student joined us from another district and was assigned to Spanish 4. I taught in the fall, so the first day was an informal chat about what the students did over the summer. Although this student reportedly had an A in Spanish 3 in his old district, he was unable to participate in the conversation. He transferred back down to Spanish 3 and eventually dropped that class at semester. The school I student taught in had a very strong communicative program (including a native speaker component) that is just more evidence that just because you technically learned and can name all the tenses doesn't mean you can actually use them!

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  3. I need help! I am a department of one without any kind of formal training forgeavhing Spanish. I love your blog and your ideas but I am overwhelmed! Could you please give me some pointers on how to get started? My email is anamariadavis@mcsd.us
    Thank you,
    Ana Maria

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