Flip the Grammar!

Tell me and I will forget;

Show me and I may remember;

Involve me and I will understand.

Chinese proverb


“Grammar or no grammar”. That is –unfortunately- the question for many Spanish teachers. The common approach to teach grammar as a collection of binomial dilemmas: “ser o estar”, “por o para”, “preterite or imperfect”, “formal or informal” continues creating more problems than solutions in Spanish classes. On the other hand, subjunctive tenses populate students´ nightmares before they even have the chance to experiment its uses. Surprisingly (or not), gender and number agreement between nouns and their companions –as simple as this may look at a first glance- constitutes the number one reason for “fossilized” errors.

It seems that no matter how further we have gone in Foreign Language methodologies, teachers and students are stuck with frustrating grammar management. The negativity that this generates can permeate the learning process to the point of invalidating the whole process.  Who has not heard comments like this: “I studied Spanish for five years in High School and college but I can not say anything in Spanish now”, followed by the explanation that pretends to excuse such a waste of time: “I forgot all my conjugations”. My response in these situations is always the same “Well, you know, you lose a language if you don´t practice it, it would come back if you would find a reason to use it” Really, would it? Well, that depends on how worried that person is about making mistakes. My observation is that as a result from their previous foreign language experience most people are not just worried, they are terrified!

Although teachers are conscious of the emotional part that learning a foreign language entails, little has changed in the classrooms in this respect. Our teaching habits continue promoting an error-based feedback that undermines the students´ confidence and raises their affective filter to the sky. We mostly center our correction in conjugation mistakes, disregarding intonation, pronunciation and context adequacy. Thus, the monster is born: GRAMMAR. It is our responsibility as foreign language teachers to develop a sense not only of when to correct our students but also of what to correct, aiming for a classroom environment where students are aware and not scared of the language they produce.

Working in this direction, I have started to observe the effect of grammar flipping in my classes. Instead of conducting lecture style sessions, I ask the students to watch a video-lesson or read an explanation on a specific grammar tense. During the next class, we discuss together practical inferred applications that the new structures can have in the projects we are planning for our present unit.  One of my more successful experiences following this scheme was indeed with the dreaded introduction to the use of subjunctive. After the students watched a video-lesson on the present subjunctive as a homework assignment, we dedicated a class to share ideas on how to apply the new structures to our unit on Environment. Our conclusion was that subjunctive clauses of recommendation, wish and impersonal opinion were the perfect vehicle of communication for a pamphlet on renewable energies.  We also agreed to take a major risk: we did not complete any “fill in the blanks” worksheets, eliminating drills that produce immediate I-got-it-right satisfaction or I-didn´t-get-it frustration, but we went straight into action and started working on the pamphlets. The risk paid off: all the students were able to produce contextualized use of the expected grammar and later on to incorporate this use in other assignments. What is more impressive, spontaneous oral performance started to happen.

Of course I am not talking about magic here, most of the students still needed to be remembered about uses and contexts to utilize the learnt structures, but the attitude towards my corrections definitely relaxed. Students showed a more confident acceptance of their mistakes and a higher frequency of auto-correction. After the summer break, for the first time since I can remember, my students have started the new course without demanding more grammar practice as a remedy for their insecurity, but asking for more projects and oral opportunities to continue improving –how much we all love this word- fluency.

As for me, I will continue flipping…

You can watch some of my Spanish video-lessons at http://veoveoyo.blogspot.com/


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