The Place for Grammar Instruction in Proficiency Based Spanish Class


The Shifting Culture of Language Learning

I love seeing the shift in foreign language learning moving more and more towards comprehensible input (CI) and proficiency-based methods, as opposed focusing on to the explicit teaching of grammar. 

Why? Because learning a language in context is more relevant and applied for students. Proficiency approaches also make the language more accessible to the average student, not just the over achiever who is great at memorizing grammar rules.

That said, how can we ignore the fact that old fashioned methods of learning language through explicit grammar instruction and memorization work for many. I learned Spanish this way. Admittedly, it left many language students behind, too.

So, as everyone jumps on the CI / proficiency bandwagon, I want to share my two cents: let's not completely throw out all grammar based approaches quite so fast.

Yes, I said it! Grammar and memorization are not all bad. I know lots of people might debate me to the death on this. I'm not looking for a fight, just wanting to share a different perspective and what's worked in my own classroom. Here's my reasoning...

Our teenage language learners don't learn language like infants do, hearing it 24/7, learning language in tandem with natural cognitive brain development. Rather, we have just a few hours a week with our students, they are eager to speak and communicate from day 1, and have complex ideas to express and understand! 

Decades of cognitive science research indicates that explicit instruction and repeated exposure can be an effective way to encode new content in teen and adult brains. This is especially true when it comes to simple language, like new vocabulary words and verb structures.

How do we reconcile this, as many of us are aiming to reach ACTFL's recommendation of minimum 90% target language use, while promoting students' language proficiency in our Spanish classrooms? Well, we have 10% (or less) of class time for direct grammar instruction, memorization, and practice. This should be highly engaging, interactive, and motivating though. Remember, the bottom line is still proficiency. Your grammar based instruction should directly connect to students' proficiency goals. For first year classes, maybe you wait 'til December to introduce grammar, and that's ok! 

I am NOT advocating strict verb drills like, "What is the present perfect conjugation for the third person singular of the verb prestar?" 

Yeah, drills like that are stupid. This is why we language teachers must get creative with grammar-based approaches. If we make good use of contextualization, competition, and fun, grammar is not so bad, and can help our students become more proficient in the target language.

Where Grammar-based Approaches Fit In

I definitely don't have all the answers about how to mix in explicit grammar in a 90% TL, CI, or TPRS focused class, but have one example of a fun and effective verb drill that I love to use with my high schoolers. 

I seem to have hit a sweet spot with my Minuto Loco activities, which are a new spin on the traditional verb conjugation drill. My own students love them. My colleagues and their students love them. Check out my previous Minuto Loco post from a while back to see exactly how they work. Definitely check that out so you understand the game, as that will be important as you continue reading this post. To get an even better idea, Download one of my Minuto Loco activities for free.

How I Engage Students with Conjugation Races:

  • Students compete against themselves: Print a packet of Minuto Loco activities for students to work on over a few days, weeks, or course of a unit. Over time, they track their progress to evaluate growth. This can be done independently, in tandem with you the teacher, or across small groups, depending on your students' needs. For example, I print out a set of eight Minuto Loco races for present tense -AR verbs. Over a few weeks, we do the races as a class and each student tracks the number missed and incomplete each time. Hopefully over time, your students will see their numbers go down, reflecting the learning that is happening. If they are not seeing the growth they want, encourage them with extra practice opportunities in class, after school, and at home.
  • Warm Up / Closure: I love starting class with a simple 10 minute Minuto Loco. This gets students' minds in Spanish mode, while encouraging active participation and engagement from them straight off. Looking at their progress can be a motivator for their learning in class that day. For similar reasons, a quick Minuto Loco race can be a nice closure or activity for when you have 10 random class minutes.
  • Center Activity: Conjugation races are perfect for a center rotation. For my 55 minute class periods, I usually set up 4 different centers to be completed in about 11 minutes each, with a minute or two for rotating. At the Minuto Loco center, I provide one race per student, a stopwatch, and the answer key. It might help to assign a "student leader" to run the stopwatch and make sure the key isn't used until after the race is complete.
  • Self assessment: While competition behind Minuto Loco can really drive some students, it can be off putting to others. Consider doing whole class competitions with prizes occasionally, but also mixing in private self assessment opportunities as well. When doing a self assessed Minuto Loco, students grade their own answers and scores are kept private. You might use this strategy in tandem with the self-competition idea mentioned in the first bullet.
  • Differentiation: Thanks to a virtual colleague of mine who shared this fantastic differentiation idea. For students who struggle with verb conjugations, consider giving them a few free answers on their Minuto Loco sheet, which they (or you) write in ahead of the whole class race. You could even do tiered competitions, where students in level A compete against each other for a set time, students in level B compete for a little longer time (perhaps with a few free answers), and students in level C compete for a little longer time (with a few more free answers). With differentiation, I typically let students decide which group they want to be in, and they are surprisingly good at self-placement for their own learning needs.


  1. Couldn't agree with you more.
    The objective is proficiency in the language. The method to achieve that depends heavily on the individual learning the language.
    You point on cognitive research is well taken.
    Five 50-minutes periods a week (high school) is not sufficient time to mimic natural language acquisition, especially when first exposure is 9th grade!
    I think that the individual teacher must decide what combination of instructional techniques will work best for them and their students with the objective of achieving the proficiency level associated with the course.

  2. Much agreed!!! I have tried to make learning grammar more interactive by creating a prezi for every single grammar point levels 1-3. Feel free to use them in your classes as much as you like!


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