Sunday, January 6, 2019

Do students really need to be able to produce commands with double object pronouns?

TL;DR: No. 😁

One of the things that I've really been enjoying about my job is the flexibility to teach what and how I want to teach. I opted not to use the existing textbook, since it's basically a grammar manual and didn't have a coherent design in terms of developing language proficiency. (This is true of every textbook I've ever seen, by the way. Some are better than others because they have better activities that do foster language proficiency, such as input-based activities and information gap activities, but all textbooks present grammar that students don't really need to know in order to meet the ostensible goals of the unit.)  Anyway, I've enjoyed throwing out stuff I don't think my students really need to know in favor of activities that help them communicate in the target language. It's worth noting that I'm not on the CI (comprehensible input) train. I appreciate various aspects of the CI approach, but research on language acquisition in adolescents and adults indicates that teaching structures can facilitate acquisition as long as it's meaning-based instruction (in other words, as long as you're teaching structures that help students understand and communicate in the target language). So I still teach grammar and will always teach grammar, because there's a lot of meaning that learners will never get if they don't receive explicit grammar instruction. That said, direct grammar instruction comprises less than 5% of my instructional time, because the research evidence also shows that learning the grammar rules of a language doesn't mean that we can use the target language. We need exposure to the language and lots of practice, so that's what we do.

I was looking over my spring units, and seeing that I have commands coming up in Spanish 2. Last year, I think I had a section on a test that required students to give commands, but as I was considering this unit, I had an epiphany. When will my students really need to give commands? And furthermore, when will they need to give commands with (double) object pronouns?  The answer for most of them is probably never. Unless they become Spanish teachers or are proficient enough in Spanish that they can use it in a work environment, they really don't need to be able to produce commands.  They do, however, need to be able to recognize when someone is giving them a command, and they need to be able to interpret pronouns that might be attached to a command. So this year, I will still be teaching commands, but I will be asking students to interpret them rather than produce them. (I'll also be asking them to interpret object pronouns, with and without commands.) So for all of my fellow grammar nerds, keep teaching that grammar. But it's worth thinking about if students really need to be able to produce a given grammatical feature, or if they only need to be able to interpret it.

On a related note, I've also started doing a soft introduction to the subjunctive in Spanish 1. When we're talking about verb endings, I point out that the endings are really important because a lot of times the verb ending is all the information you get about who's doing an action. After we'd been working on present tense endings for a few weeks, I told students that the appropriate vowel is also important because if you flip the verb endings (hable instead of habla, for example), you're now producing a different verb form that's used for hypothetical situations. I'm not formally teaching the subjunctive until Spanish 3, but by the time they get to Spanish 3, they should have a (very) basic understanding of what the subjunctive is and what it looks like. For that matter, I also focused on interpretation when I taught the subjunctive last year in Spanish 3/4, because (surprise!) the research indicates that while students are capable of learning to manipulate structures, a lot of times they do this without really understanding what they're doing. But if you first work on teaching them what they structure means, they'll be able to use it appropriately (given sufficient input and experience, of course).  If you're interested in this topic, I recommend reading VanPatten's many papers on this topic, starting with the classic VanPatten & Cadierno (1993).

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