Communicative teaching in the shadow of [grammar-focused] common assessment
After I get a question repeated to me a certain number of times via Twitter, comments, or emails, I know it’s time for a blog post.
The Great Dilemma
If you have never had to consider how students in your TCI (teaching with comprehensible input) class will fit in a program that forces grammar-heavy common assessments, or transfers students into grammar-translation classes, or asks you to prepare students for standardized college entrance exams, count yourself very lucky. But I’ve seen and heard this so many times that I know it weighs heavily on the minds of teachers on both sides of the fence, and those straddling the fence: are we preparing them for X?
A not-so-great dilemma
I’d like to offer you some relief, from this burden at least, if you’re a TCI teacher at least. If you’re a grammar translation teacher who is wondering how your students will do in a TCI class, I don’t have a lot of advice for you, except that you should read and listen to research on how people learn language and then re-evaluate which one of you is teaching more in line with it. But for you teachers currently teaching or developing a program more focused on teaching with comprehensible input, I do not think this is something you need to worry much about, and here are a few reasons why.
Last year a rather antagonistic teacher at a workshop was unpleasantly shocked that I had not given my students a test -or asked a multiple-choice question outside of AP Spanish- in four years. Perhaps you’ve heard the comment before:
But if they don’t practice taking them, how will they know how to take them?
I nearly laughed. How old are kids when they start learning how to take multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests these days, 6? 7? At least half the students at my high school were in private tutoring to improve their ACT scores. Let their other classes and their ACT tutors prep them for test formats. They don’t need one more class to do it, too.
High skills to low skills
When students are used to being assessed by circling which answer is the yo form of hablar, they may (usually) have a lot of trouble moving to a teacher or program where someone simply asks them the question (in TL), what do you do in class? But when students are used to saying “I like to talk on the phone. I talk on the phone with my friend every day after school” they have little trouble choosing the correct form for I speak, or the translation for friend, and so on.
It hadn’t occurred to me to worry about whether my students would be ready for grammar-translation-heavy exams or programs. The fact is, many of my students have left my class and taken such exams or ended up in such programs in college. Not one of them has failed to test out of at least one class, usually two, sometimes four. Not one student. As for the ones in grammar-heavy programs in college, they hate it, but they’re excelling there, too. Because when you’re used to refining your communicative skills, learning to analyze words comes much easier than it happens the other way around.
Making it even easier
Still, as you face preparing your students for a common grammar-translation assessment or a move into a grammar-heavy next-level class or college class, there are a couple of things you can do to make this even easier, and watch your students succeed with less frustration.
Patterning grammar questions
TPRS now advocates a technique called “pop-up” grammar and my understanding of it is that when grammar issues come up in the natural process of communicative teaching, we take a few minutes to ask pointed questions like “why is it X and not Y? what if the subject were B?” I love that technique and when I’m teaching I do it a lot. But it’s also a huge part of how I introduce content. When I do storytelling, my target features are far from random. They are all related to a particular grammatical or vocabulary function I’m trying to get students to be able to use in their communication. So in my story, I may be targeting the pattern of is _____ing and in the days after the story students will be using music, games, and activities to work on communicating with this pattern. When students work on communicating in patterns, identifying them on a grammar-heavy test is a piece of cake.
One-day? crash course
In an attempt to broker peace within a strongly conflicted department of teachers on both sides of this fence, I made this suggestion: what if the TCI teachers spend a day every so often, or the last day of the quarter, or the last two days of the semester, or whatever they’re willing to do in the time right before they go to another teacher’s class, hitting the grammatical terms of some of the things they’ve looked at? I’d be willing to spend 2 days at the end of the school year going over terms like conjugation and direct object pronoun if it meant the coffee cake at the faculty meeting -and the company- would seem sweeter. And if it would mean the grammar teacher would get off my back about preparing them for a test.
Are you struggling in a department that’s asking you as a TCI teacher to focus more on test prep? How are you handling it successfully?