Pencils Moving, Mouths Shut, Happy Teacher.


So my eighth-grade class has its ups and downs. They are a group of 38 kids who were together last year in first-year French. We did a steady diet of input. Weather, calendar, One Word Images, stories, free-choice reading. Many of them read five or six novels last year. Most of them can write two to three connected paragraphs in ten minutes. They have a great base of proficiency.

They also love to talk.

At the beginning of the year, I did a short unit on French geography. It went well. We also began weekly grammar study. That went well too.

Then we did our first OWI of the year. They were happy to do more “artwork” as they call it. But their enthusiasm was very hard to manage. Then on Monday I thought I’ll take a break and do Special Chair. Once again, they were so engaged that they were hard to manage. They were calling out so many follow-up questions in English and though I kept sauntering over to the rules, I got very frustrated and so did they.


So, Tuesday I decided you know what? Time for some pencil-paper work. Martina Bex had very generously sent me a copy of her book Spanish Grammar in Context. I chose the part on page 54 that’s about the futur proche, saying “I’m going to…”. I translated some of it into French and did the grammar explanation page with them.  Her book reminds me a LOT of what I was doing in my French Two class three years ago, when I was at my wits’ end with the class I inherited from my predecessor in my new position.

I used to make readings for them that embedded the grammar points and do what I thought of as “noticing activities” where they had to interact with – and eventually use – the grammar feature.  At the time, I thought of it as a good way to give them the structure they wanted while also contextualizing the grammar in a somewhat interesting context.  Martina’s book has more to it than that, but it was right up my alley because I had already been trying out ways to contextualize grammar for those kids who just wouldn’t accept full-bore CI.

One thing that Martina’s book has that I did;t used to do is her grammar explanation pages, which explain in English what the grammar terms mean.  I was surprised to find that many students were stymied by the grammar terms. (I mean, I **LOVE** grammar…but to a kid, it’s just fancy words to describe something invisible!)  It just reinforced my position that explicit grammar study should be delayed as long as possible.  But it also reinforced my hunch that CI-based grammar study like what Martina has created is the only way we have any prayer of making grammar accessible to the majority of our students.  I mean, who on earth (besides nerds like me) would be able to conceptualize what an “infinitive” is without actually encountering them free-ranging in the wild in their natural habitat in, like, sentences and paragraphs and such.

That’s what I like so much about Martina’s book.  It provides concentrated doses of free-range grammar points.  To me, using a resource like this is the way we should be responding to the need or desire to work with conscious learning of grammar.  I used to try t got my stories and personalized questions and answers to convey grammar points.  But that required me to tether the fun down, to try to squeeze in a bunch of exposure to certain phrases and such.  And it made my CI harder to maintain.  It was draining on me and the interest of the kids was constrained.  My current thinking is to put conscious learning in its place with recourses like Martina’s and let our CI be free-flowing.

I call it Language Study Time versus Proficiency Time.  Language Study is when we use our conscious minds to learn about the language we have acquired during Proficiency Time.  I do not do much language study in Year One because I can get away with that.  I could get away with not doing it in Year Two as well (academic freedom clause in my contract and such), but since 90% of my kids are going on to a very entrenched textbook teacher, I want to give them a shot at the grammar.  So we have been spending about 20% of our time in learning mode in Year Two.

Wednesday I made a short reading passage for them with the “conjugated form” of aller in red and the -er ending on the “infinitive” in blue. We read it and then finished up our one word image – a very dumb socially-isolated bat who has a ton of imaginary friends and is psyched for Halloween. I felt rested enough to tackle twenty minutes of creativity with them.

Then yesterday, we reviewed our long-neglected calendar and did some talking about the days of the week. We spelled the days and did a little PQA on who likes what day. Then we reviewed the input chart (with the grammatical features highlighted) then we circled and underlined the infinitives and conjugated forms of the verbs in a passage I wrote for them, translated it, and finished the activities from Martina.

It’s clicking for them. One kid told me You’re a great teacher. Ha ha!! They agreed it was easy in the end.

Let’s make no mistake about it. This is conscious learning, not acquisition. I’m only doing this to take a break and to “prepare” them for the textbook-based program in high school.

But the only reason it was successful for the entire class, I’m convinced, is because they have seen and heard this grammar construction in context many, many times over their first year.

My thinking on Martina’s Grammar in Context is that it’s a fantastic resource for conscious learning if that’s your objective. It’s student-friendly. The grammar explanations are “light” and she provides multiple exposures to the grammar feature under investigation. Used as a stand-alone curriculum, it would be head and shoulders above the textbook, which is extremely light on providing contextualized exposure to the grammar. But ideally the students will have had a large base of CI before tackling the conscious study.

Another consideration is the fragility of consciously-learnt linguistic information. To combat that, I always keep recycling my consciously-learned points so that they do not “fall out” of the students’ memory. We keep discussing them and practicing their usage when we are learning the next points. I also make a point to highlight examples of the points we’ve studied when they come up in our class-created texts. So far this is giving me a way to gently work in some grammar that the high school wants them to know and also a nice little break.

Thanks Martina and I’ll keep you updated!

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