The Grammar Syllabus

On a Winter day in 2014 I visited a school on the East Coast that was in deep trouble. The Spanish AP test had just undergone a heralded transformation from grammar-based to communicative skills-based and the uncertainty among teachers, along with the intense community pressure for high AP scores, had driven the AP Spanish teacher to announce her early retirement… effective in January before the test!

I remember sitting with the department chair and the principal as the first snowflakes of a Winter storm fell outside. The school was emptying of students scurrying home due to the early dismissal for Winter weather.

Everything felt ominous indeed.

And then the other shoe finally dropped. The Department Chair showed me the scope & sequence documents for their AP Spanish class after I had asked about the Spanish heritage language population in the district — there was such a population, but the department chair did not know about them because those students were tracked into English only classes. That, I mentioned, is the low-hanging fruit to get some success in the AP Spanish program while restructuring the program to be communicative classes. The principal was a youngish Irish-American with a wide arm span, maybe he had played basketball, because he knew how to control a room. “Whoa”, he said extending his arms, “I’m not looking for big changes, I’m just looking for an AP teacher”. And that is when I realized that the job I thought I was interviewing for was not this one.

That weekend on the flight back to Los Angeles I wrote a version of the essay below, titled “The grammar syllabus is worth fighting against”.

One of the things that I absolutely love about a comprehensible classroom is the way that the method fosters an inclusive classroom. As long as students are physically in class, they all acquire language because our class stories are compelling and entirely comprehensible.

Although this is a difficult skill for the teacher to master, students often comment that our class “work” is easy. The high-achievers who have been trained to differentiate themselves from their peers can display their brilliance through their SSR choices and their timed writings, but class stories always move at the speed of the slowest processor. If I note any of my students experiencing difficulty I know that I am moving way too fast because at no point should students be actively thinking about trying to learn the language. They should be engaged with the story; if students cannot understand, then that was my fault!

Teaching advanced classes does not change what the literature tells me about second language acquisition. I focus on meaning and do not move on until my students are processing quickly. If I were to move on when the top 20% were getting antsy because, well, they´ve got it, then I would be reinforcing the message that languages are hard to learn to the remaining 80%. If I were to move on before 80% of my students are ready because I have a syllabus to follow, then I would be reinforcing the erroneous message that languages are hard to learn. If I were following a grammar syllabus packed with abstract concepts that leave 80% of my students confused while I push ahead, then it would not be a surprise that my program would become an anemic bastion of the so-called elite of learners.

As a public school teacher I am very aware that the elite learners are closely correlated with social class. It is devastating the way that educational institutions can function to reinforce inequality in society, and I personally believe that the packed grammar syllabus is our contribution, as language teachers, to reinforcing inequality.

It is not that I do not teach advanced grammar. I actually teach advanced grammar in Spanish 1, and my students acquire it as evidenced through their quick writes. What I do not do is separate the language into abstract units that simply confuse students. I do not devote a unit to the subjunctive, and then expect them to either reproduce it accurately (top 20%) or (for the other 80%) forget it after the test because we are moving on to the imperfect tense now.

Instead, within the context of a meaningful story, I use my skills so that my Spanish 1 students understand the phrase “yo quiero que seas feliz”. My students were interested in this phrase because it was uttered by the father in the story, who had never bought a car but always rode an elephant to work. He finally overcame his moral objections to the oil economy and bought his daughter a car because he wanted her to be happy. He looked her in the eyes (student actor steps forward) and said, yo quiero que seas feliz. That is emotionally gripping.

I ask my students ¿ustedes quieren que yo sea feliz? (I want an elephant, by the way). I ask them ¿El Grinch quiere que seamos felices? We play with variations of this one phrase until it is natural, until they have acquired it. It takes a while.

A week later it showed up in a timed free write of a student who was writing about a boy who screamed at a girl; he wrote el chico quiere que la chica sea triste. That is language acquisition for 100% of my students: no conjugation charts, no forced deadlines for learning and yes, they will get it “wrong” before they get it right.

Recently I saw a scope and sequence for an upper level class that had quite a bit packed into the year. Every few weeks a new grammar concept, and then the last several weeks of the school year finally dedicated to “using all tenses at once“. My issue is not actually with the grammar taught. It really is with the sequence. A sequence ordered by linguistic function is great for linguists… but for the majority of us humans, not so much.

All of our students will learn the complete grammar of the target language naturally if we do not shelter our grammar instruction into discreet units, but rather limit our vocabulary so that we remain 100% comprehensible. Many high school language departments still sequence their courses largely by grammar concept, making it very difficult for a good comprehensible input teacher to follow the dictates of research and conscience.

The grammar syllabus is worth fighting against.