Four Steps to Better Grammar Instruction

This is a post for traditionalists, CI enthusiasts and everyone in between. Let’s face it: grammar is the little engine that keeps most foreign language curricula moving down the tracks, and regardless of how we keep our locomotives running, mastery of grammar is a skill that influences our students’ ability to express themselves at the level of detail, accuracy and comprehensibility that they want.

I consider myself fortunate that French really isn’t an overly complex language in the big scheme of things. There are other languages that are much less merciful when it comes to accuracy in grammar. Having taught some of them, I’ve learned to bring a few principles back to my French classroom to not only lighten the learning load but also speed up my students’ progression toward useful, comprehensible grammar skills.

Step 1: Redesign it

Let me tell you a secret that textbook companies don’t want you to know: you are an expert at the language you teach. You’ve memorized these rules and charts. You use them every day. Now ask yourself this: do they still look the same in your head? Does my brain still look to the upper right corner of a mental paradigm every time I need to use the nous form of a French verb?

There’s a path laid out in your textbook. You’ve walked it already, and you’re looking at things from the other side. Do you let students trip over every root or fall in every hole that you did? Do you make them walk the circuitous ten-mile route when now, looking back, you’ve discovered a one-mile shortcut?

My point is this: it’s okay for you to take control of what grammar looks like in your classroom. There’s French grammar, and then there’s Monsieur Simpson’s French grammar. Here are some examples.

My textbook says that every French regular -er verb has six present-tense forms, for example: je marche, tu marches, il/elle/on marche, nous marchons, vous marchez, ils/elles marchent.

In my mind, a regular -er verb has only one form, in this case [marʃ]. This is the form I use most frequently in class, and when my students think of the act of walking, I want the sound [marʃ] to come to mind immediately.

What about the other forms? Well, what if I tell you that in every French verb, in every mood and tense, the nous form always ends in [õ]? There’s only one exception: nous sommes. And what if I tell you that the same is true for vous forms, which always end in [e]? There are only three exceptions: vous êtes, vous faites, vous dites. The other endings, tu…-s and ils/elles…-nt, are universal as well.

Regular -er verbs in the present tense are not my starting point for teaching conjugation. My starting point is [marʃ]. Once core sounds like that are ingrained in students’ memory, we can learn to add [õ] any time the subject is nous, and [e] any time the subject is vous. We learn to write -s on the end of every tu form and -nt on the end of every ils/elles form. In other words, I’m not teaching a set of rules that students will apply to one type of French word. I’m teaching four habits that students will apply throughout the language.

Does it really make a difference? Yes. Within a few weeks, students can verbally conjugate every verb they’ll have encountered and they’re not just regular -er verbs. And students conjugate out of habit because, for example, we spent days simply reinforcing the habit of saying [õ] when the subject is nous.

What about ne…pas? The old sandwich trick works great until you get to a double Whopper with bacon and onion like il ne me l’a pas donné. Do I really have to keep revising this rule every time I add a new element to the verb phrase? I see it this way: add ne to the end of the subject and pas to the end of the subject-related verb. It’s an unbreakable rule, and it even leads to better prosody in students’ spoken language.

We just learned reflexives in French 2, like je me réveille “I wake [myself] up”. Soon we’ll learn direct and indirect object pronouns, and oh the charts! Did you know that in theoretical French grammar there are nearly 50 pronouns? I’m just talking about relatives of je, tu, il and so on here. Weed out the duplicates, though, and there are only about 20 depending on how you look at things. Do my students really need to memorize 50 words worth of charts to grasp that nous can mean “we”, “us”, “to/for us” and “ourselves”? Once my students get their first taste of object pronouns, it’s an open game from there.

Yes, it takes some extra work to teach students my own approach to French grammar. And yes, it evolves. But the work gets more worthwhile every year. The grammar that students experience in my classroom is the product of years of discovery on my and my students’ part. Every new class gets a wiser, quicker approach. Typing and revising those handouts every year is well worth it, and former students still contact me to hear Monsieur Simpson’s take on whatever crazy grammar point they’re learning in college French.

Step 2: Prep students for it

Whether you teach inductively or deductively, all in the target language or in a mix, grammar questions are going to arise in the classroom. Sometimes you want to ask them, and sometimes you’ll need to answer them. Regardless of your approach, moments of grammar talk can be an extension of the overall communicative process. Asking or answering a grammar question doesn’t have to be a jarring halt in instruction.

In the world of French grammar, I can discuss a lot of patterns with a very limited range of vocabulary like put, erase, say, who, how many, when, in front of, behind, on the end and the alphabet. These are words that students can begin using at the very beginning of the curriculum, and by the time they know enough French to ask or answer grammar questions, they’ll already know most of this vocabulary.

Being able to stay in the target language is one benefit to passively preparing students for grammar talk, but there’s another. I’ve come to realize that if I can’t explain a grammar point comprehensibly in the target language, it may not be the time to explain it at all. It’s okay for students to see and use structures before they understand them completely or can apply them perfectly on their own. And if a concept is really so complex that it’s going to require a lengthy explanation, there’s a good chance I missed an opportunity to ease students into it. That’s exactly what we’ll look at in Steps 3 and 4.

Step 3: Pre-teach it

Here are three of the first Irish phrases I ever remember learning:

Tá sé ag dul ar scoil . “He is going to school.”

Tá ocras air. “He is hungry.”

Tá madra agam. “I have a dog.”

Can you figure out the word for “he”? What about “I”? Actually, don’t worry about it for now. It took me about a year of learning Irish phrases to figure out anything about how the language works. By the time I finally found a book on Irish grammar, I actually knew most of it already, thanks to all those phrases. I didn’t know why Tá madra agam meant “I have a dog”, but I knew I could change madra to anything else I might have. Later learning to change agam “at-me” to other people like agat “at you” was a breeze.

When we focus on giving students memorable and useful communicative experiences, it’s amazing how much grammar they can pre-learn. Scaffolding is our friend here. For example, my French 1 students will start talking about what they did yesterday months before I teach the passé composé. I put up a slide of common phrases with visuals, and it’s beautiful to watch them expand on those phrases by process of analogy. The variety in the phrases purposefully aids that process. We also talk about the calendar and the weather, so by the time we reach that point in the textbook, there’s little left to teach at all.

Grammar can be pre-taught in all sorts of class routines, but it can also be added into activities where it isn’t the real focus. This takes a little work, since your textbook is going to shelter grammar heavily. All you have to do is choose one particular meaningful and useful example of the grammar point, something that will not only add a bit of reality to an activity but also stick around in students’ minds for future retrieval. Songs can be used for this purpose too, but stick to easy children’s rhymes so they’re easy to remember and refer to later.

Step 4: Mix it up and spread it out

You can stay aligned to a textbook without marching to its beat. Let’s say my students need to learn an irregular verb this week. One approach is to introduce all the forms on Monday and spend the rest of the week practicing them. Another is introducing a few forms each day. I like the second approach for two reasons. First, I don’t want these forms to dwell in a mental chart that students have to sort through every time they want to talk. Second, it’s much easier to design memorable, communicative activities around minimal variation. In fact, I’d rather have two weeks to teach all the forms of être and avoir than one week to teach each. It’s more than a semantic difference. Mixing up grammar and spreading it out into chunks that make real sense in the process of students learning to communicate in the target language.

If you’ve done marching band, you know it takes work to march down the street in step, playing well and in time. It’s a lot easier to just walk down the street. Now, our goal is to simply get down the street. Sometimes it’s the textbook that’s forcing us to do the marching.

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