How to Get More Grammar with Less


Many colleagues who have seen demonstrations of TPRS, Story Listening, Movie Talk and other forms of Comprehensible Input, who have read the research and are convinced of the effectiveness of such methods, nevertheless feel constrained to teach grammar because their school administration and/or department insists on students being able to manipulate grammatical structures. They feel trapped in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” dilemma.

I want to tell them my own story, how I became convinced over ten years ago that the best way to teach grammar is not to teach it. You don’t believe me? Now, just imagine that someone told you that you have invisible wings that will enable you to fly. You’ll never know until you jump off the roof, will you?

In 2005 I was teaching English as a Foreign Language in a French lycée. Technically we were not required to teach grammar since there were no longer explicit grammar exercises on the baccalaureate exam, but the textbooks we used contained grammar explanations and exercises and students were graded on how grammatically correct they were, both in written and oral production. So everyone taught grammar, including me. I prided myself on my clear, easily comprehensible explanations, and my colleagues copied my diagrams and mandalas. I was the queen of the passive voice.

That was the year I was given an exceptional class to teach. They were fifteen year olds that had chosen to major in science because they wanted to be doctors or engineers or simply because the “S” track in France is the most elite, “la voie royale”. They were intelligent, bright, well-brought up and almost without exception good students used to getting good grades. It was really a fluke that they happened to all end up in the same class. Of course I enjoyed working with them and we had a lot of fun together. We studied Lord of the Rings and with the Prologue I gave them my Passive Voice explanation and I gave them the diagram and lots of exercises to do. They got it. They did the exercises, we corrected them in class, I gave them a test and they aced it. Passive Voice, check. We moved on to the differences between may have, could have, might have, should have.

However, I was a bit put out when I noticed that a month after having aced the Passive Voice test, my best students were not using it in their written work. Or when someone did try to use it, they got it wrong. I realized that these kids were very good at taking tests, but they were not storing the information they had studied. It was as if the day after the test they erased everything to make room for what they would need for the next test. You’ve heard of this thing called “short term memory”? So I reviewed the passive voice and gave them another test, but again I saw few signs in the following months that it had gone into their long term memory. I could only hope that their future English teachers would review the passive voice again and again, until it finally sank in.

Fast forward a few years. I had discovered TPRS and started trying to use it in my classes. (I liked the results I was seeing, but I had to go to the administration and apologize for the fact that my overall class average had shot up. In France that’s the sign of a teacher who is overly lenient. The administrator I talked to replied that he wasn’t too worried about it since there were plenty of overly strict teachers to make up for my too generous grades.)

Then it was my last year in the lycée before my retirement and for unfathomable reasons I was not given any classes. In theory I was to hang around and wait for someone to be sick so I could replace them. But my colleagues were a very healthy bunch and I didn’t want to die of boredom before I retired. So I asked my colleagues to give me the students that were either failing their classes and/ or that had behavior problems. Thus I found myself with some small groups of students that were almost the exact opposite of my wonderful “S” class of a few years before.

After a semester of doing TPRS, I thought they were ready for a change and we started on Lord of the Rings. We did the Prologue and I circled the information. How many rings were given to the elves? How many rings were given to men? Where was the master ring made? Who was deceived?

I did not explain that we were using the passive voice. I did not show them the diagram of how the passive voice is formed. I did not even talk about the difference between direct objects and subjects. We only talked about the story.

Then we moved on with the film, watching each scene, decoding it, talking about it, doing some VNL. A couple months later we were still studying the film and one day we got into a debate about the ring’s powers, and I wanted to remind them that Sauron was behind the ring. I started to ask “Who was the ring made by?” but the grammar ghost spoke up in my mind, sneering They’ll never understand if you use the passive voice. They haven’t seen it for two months. So I asked “Who made the ring?”  And immediately, spontaneously, one of the boys replied, “The ring was made by Sauron.”

I was floored. This boy was failing English when his teacher sent him to me. But he was using the passive voice spontaneously and correctly and appropriately. Something the excellent students from my “S” class had never quite managed, in spite of the tests on the passive voice that they had aced.

Of course, Stephen Krashen could have told me that my former students had learned about the passive voice and their monitors knew how to use it when they had the time and when they remembered the rule, whereas my current students had acquired the structure. They didn’t know the grammar rules but they were able to spontaneously produce the grammatically correct form.

And I have a confession to make. When, in the fifth grade, I was given English grammar rules to learn and exercises to do, I was a bit too lazy to spend a lot of time on learning rules. I soon realized that I got almost perfect scores on the exercises and tests just by going by what “sounded right”. As a voracious reader, what “sounded right” got me all the way through high school and college. I only learned about English grammar and its labels when we had to diagram sentences. Until then what I had acquired as a reader was all I needed to be an A student.

So, my advice to colleagues who feel torn between teaching with Comprehensible Input and teaching grammar is to trust their wings, the wings of Acquisition, and jump off the roof. If they teach with Comprehensible Input their students will acquire the grammatical structures they need. They can use pop-up grammar to teach the names of the structures their students have acquired, but it’s much easier to label things that have already been acquired than it is to learn formulas that can enable the Monitor to deduce the correct form needed. Teach your students to trust the voice in their heads and to go with what “sounds right”. The more time you spend giving your students compelling comprehensible input, the better their production will be and the better marks they will get on tests designed to test their knowledge of grammatical rules.

It may seem paradoxical, but the less time you spend explaining grammar, the better able your students will be to produce grammatically correct language. When you are teaching explicit grammar, you are either using the native language or being incomprehensible to students who do not find grammar compelling. Instead, use that time to give them compelling comprehensible input, and they will acquire the correct structures and be able to produce them spontaneously. Less is more. You already have the wings. All it takes is courage.

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