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Thursday, April 23, 2015

One thing that all investigations into foreign language teaching and learning agree on is that it is profitable to teach grammar in the classroom. Gone are the days when purists used to deny the effectiveness of grammar teaching, claiming that if we wanted to improve our students' communicative skills, we needed to set them speaking activities and that grammar teaching had no impact on our students´ ability. They argued that this would only be developed if we gave them opportunities to speak and even then these activities should, as far as possible, reflect real-world communicative situations.

Many authors have written books on this subject: Van Patten, Cadierno, Alonso, Castañeda, Olivares, Ruiz Campillo, and many others who I am unfortunately not familiar with. Sorry, there are only so many hours in my day. Even when it comes to a highly communicative approach like the experiential one, experts still recommend devoting some time, however small, to grammar teaching. I listened to alecture on this topic by Robert De Keyser and Goretti Prieto which was really impressive because the speakers set out the results of multiple investigations on this topic and in his closing remarks De Keyser encouraged teachers to correct their students during activities focused specifically on oral communication as long as the rule which necessitated the correction was clear. In the situation I am about to describe I decided that it would be effective to correct the students.  In the past I have often made the mistake of not following the rule above when I correct students’ errors and on this occasion I heard De Keyser's voice in my head saying: “a clear rule, a clear rule”. Nothing more nothing less. All I needed to do was to give one clear rule.

Just this week I had a group of B1 level students and I was revising the past tenses with them, trying to get them to develop their fluency when talking about events in the past.

An Activity called "Exquisite corpse"

I had planned to do the activity called “Exquisite corpse.” I don´t know if you have heard of it? It is a famous technique which Dadaists used to employ to write their poems without being able to see the preceding verses:everybody takes a piece of blank paper and writes a sentence. They then fold it over so that what they have written is concealed in such a way that nobody can see itand they pass their paper to their partner.They in turn write another sentence without being able to see what their classmate has written and they then pass the paper to their right. At the end of the activity we have a completely Dadaist poem.

I do this activity in a more controlled manner: the aim is for the students to write about a crime which has taken place (a Dadaist one, of course).

To complete this activity, the first student writes the name of a famous person, folds the paper over and passes it to their partner. They then write the name of someone in the classroom or school who we all know. The third student writes the name of the weapon or tool used to commit the crime and the fourth describes the motive for the crime. The fifth student then outlines the place where it happened with the sixth choosing the time of day.

During the week when this class took place, I had corrected a few errors with POR and PARA. Therefore when it was time to choose the motive I thought that I could use this opportunity to give my students an explanation of the difference between POR and PARA. In fact when I reached this stage in the lesson, some unanticipated issues and question arose: “How am I going to know a famous person´s motive?” And after working this out, I would have to explain that the word “móvil” (motive) in Spanish can be used to describe both the reason for (porqué) and/or the intention behind (para qué) murdering someone. In other words in Spanish there is only one term which expresses both the reason for murder and the intention behind it. With these difficulties in mind and to clearly outline the difference between POR and PARA, I went to the board and I created a brainstorm.

Murder

Before and during

Afterwards

Love

To get on television

To inherit something

Jealousy

To get a divorce

To marry someone else

I then told my students that we use POR to talk about ideas and actions which occur before the murder whereas PARA is used to talk about events which supposedly happen after it, although the inevitable outcome is that you go to jail.

We worked through some more examples and then we finished the writing task. At the end we opened up the paper, which is a really fun, final activity because you get stories like: “Obama killed the math teacher because he was in love with his wife or far worse things.”  It is a fantastic activity to practice the past tenses in Spanish especially the use of the imperfect to give descriptions and to talk about situations (I asked the students “But where was he/she?” and “What was he/she doing there?”), direct objects with the personal A, direct object pronouns, etc.

This is a marvelous activity because it allows me to give my students a clear rule. Now I always tell them: “Don´t go around in circles, if the action happened afterwards use PARA” (a few days ago I created a blog post where I explain the reasoning behind this). I also reinforce this explanation using a visual demonstration that I found in a forum: to illustrate PARA I mime a scene where I actlike I am independently striving toward an objective while to show POR I pretend that forces and factorsbeyond my control are pushing and compelling me to achieve a certain goal.

This activity works well with the students because it presents a clear rule, which they can learn in a context they find relevant and which as teachers we can recreatereally easily by using a small demonstration without having to interrupt our students while they are in full flow. We can also point our students toward the mistake which needs correcting and the relevant rule giving them the opportunity to correct themselves.

In my opinion,  one great discovery made in the field of cognitive approaches is that difficult, academic grammar terminology can be left to one side. Another is that explanations given using natural but overly abstract language such as those used to define the word “purpose” (finalidad), an especially confusing concept for teenagers, are best avoided.  When it comes to the issue of grammar teaching, my priority is not to learn more grammar, but to work out how I can explain what I already know naturally, clearly and effectively.

At least that is what I try to do and, of course, I think I do it as effectively as I can.

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