What About Required Word Lists and Grammar?

What About Required Word Lists and Grammar?

Excerpted from Foundations:  A Natural Approach to the (Transition) Year
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Despite the copious findings of SLA research and the communicative focus of our standards, many districts or departments still require conscious learning — grammar rules and lists of words.  In other situations, some teachers have given themselves the goal of purposefully targeting high-frequency words, the most common words in their languages, with the worthy goal of providing their students repeated exposure to useful elements of the language so that they can begin using words like “has” and “is” and “wants” and “big” and “small” to build messages that express their own thoughts.

These word lists are unnecessary, however, as the natural, comprehensible use of the whole language will embed high-frequency words into the growing language system with no pre-planning.  The only pre-planning that is truly necessary is your learning skills and strategies that enable you to use the language comprehensibly as you deliver experiences to your students.  This book will lead you to learn and practice such skills as speaking slowly and comprehensibly, and using images, visual aids, voice intonation, gestures, body language, and realia to support the entire goal of communicative language instruction - student comprehension and interaction in the language.

Working through this book, you will learn and practice instructional strategies to deliver experiences that are conducted in comprehensible language.  Activities such as creating characters, discussing the day’s schedule or weather, listening to stories - even singing songs like Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes - can be used to deliver comprehensible messages to the students.

Until our district documents catch up with the research, we must separate our proficiency-based instruction from pre-chosen wordlists or grammar rules that might be imposed on our practice by others or by our own desire to “cover” or “teach” certain words or structures.  Comprehensible input is the driver of language acquisition, but it is the wrong tool to teach specific elements of the language, word lists, etc.

It is a heavily-researched fact that comprehensible input doesn’t need any extra help to do its work of building acquired competence in students’ minds, and that it is easiest and most engaging when unfettered by wordlists and pacing guides.  If we are required to teach certain wordlists or grammar points, however, then comprehensible input is not the right tool for that job.  Communication works best when it is not constrained by the “grammar rule of the day,” as Dr. Stephen Krashen has called it.

We can simply use the language we teach in a supported and engaging conversational environment, so that each student can take from the stream of language the elements that they need at that particular time, to feed the growing linguistic system that they are unconsciously building in their minds.  Then, in order to focus on required wordlists or grammar, we can use “Language Study Days” as explained in the Appendices, or perhaps a Word-Off or other conscious learning strategy, as explained in End-of-the-Year Option 2, to teach the conscious mind these conscious learning goals.  The instructional sequence in this book is designed to provide a logical, engaging sequence of scaffolded, comprehensible language interactions whose goal is genuine communication in the language, not on using the language interactions as a vehicle for teaching the “grammar rule of the day.”

Some of the most common problems with teaching the “rule of the day” are:

  1. Maintaining interest in repetitions of the pre-selected language can be a struggle for the teacher.  Further, the great effort required is not necessary, because the national standards do not require certain words or grammar to be acquired.  The standards require only that students be able to comprehend and produce texts of increasing complexity as they progress through their language acquisition journey.
  2. Dr. Krashen’s Natural Order Hypothesis (explained below) states that students progress through a “natural order” of grammar points, and the order cannot be altered.  Therefore, any specific elements we “target” in a given lesson will likely fall outside many students’ range of acquisition.
  3. Focusing on language elements can inhibit student interest in the messages.
  4. The effort required to sustain student interest in oftentimes unnatural or stilted language can take an emotional and energetic toll on teachers, who have jobs that are demanding enough without attempting to use the required structure “wanted to go,” or any other “rule,” enough times in the lesson, while also managing behavior, checking for comprehension, and keeping kids engaged.

For these reasons, it is recommended that class discussions not be used as a vehicle to teach certain language features.  It is often difficult for the teacher and since students’ language acquisition devices might not be ready to uptake that particular “rule,” it could very well be a waste of time, anyway.  If you need your students to consciously know things, it is generally much better just to go ahead and call in the conscious mind, so it can do what it does (memorize and analyze).  This leaves the language acquisition to the unconscious mind, which is the only place where it actually happens, anyway.

If your school requires students to “know” or memorize certain features of the language, I strongly encourage you to simply take time away from the instructional sequence in this book to do so, perhaps using the suggestions on “Language Study Days” and the Word-Off.  You can address required vocabulary and grammar without having to fit certain words or structures into the day-to-day input…while at the same time thinking about what you are going to say next. 



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