Last month at the OFLA Conference in Cleveland, Dr. Paul Toth gave a keynote address and a 3-hour workshop entitled How Can They Communicate If They Don’t Know the Grammar?‘. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to hear either presentation, but as luck would have it, I would get an even better overview in a much more personal atmosphere, thanks to my friend and colleague, Martina Bex. We had just wrapped up the awards banquet Friday evening when Martina went over to talk shop with Dr. Toth. After several minutes, Martina called me over to join the conversation. 

Let me just say that Dr. Paul Toth is one of the most humble, knowledgable and passionate PhDs with whom I have had the pleasure to talk shop. He not only tolerated the nonstop questions that I peppered him with, he answered them with tact, research references and kindness. As onlookers watched our bantering, one by one they sauntered over to eavesdrop. Like me, they soon were overcome with intrigue and the hunger to learn and soon joined the conversation, which lasted several hours past the time at which we were thrown out of the banquet hall. Although he and I did not agree on all aspects of L2 instruction, we challenged each other to consider another perspective and discovered that we agreed on more than we may have originally thought.

Our conversation was so productive and thought-provoking that I wanted to share at least a bit of it with our CI Peek subscribers. I crafted some essential questions, and Dr. Toth graciously agreed to answer them so that we could share his perspective on the blog. Many thanks to Dr. Toth for sharing and to Martina Bex for getting the conversation started. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as we did.

— Please define “Grammar Instruction” as you believe it pertains to the L2 classroom.

For me, grammar instruction is any attempt to engage learners’ conscious awareness about how language works to guide their experiences of language use. Note though, that the best format for this “awareness of how language works” is most likely not a traditional, lengthy, encyclopedic explanation of a complete grammatical paradigm. For grammar instruction to be effective, it must be useful in real-time moments of language use, just like Google maps might give you explicit information about how to get where you need to go (Toth, Wagner, & Moranski, 2013). It should provide learners with a nimble, meaningful concept that can help them better understand the language around them, and better formulate their own responses to it (Lantolf & Zhang, 2017; van Compernolle, 2015; Yáñez-Prieto, 2010). It should also be a descriptively accurate depiction of what grammatical forms actually mean and how they are used, so that the information isn’t misleading or confusing.

— Based on your research, which of the following best describes your beliefs about teaching grammar? (You may select more than one.) Please elaborate on your selection.

a) Knowledge of grammar is necessary to fully acquire L2.
b) Knowledge of grammar is necessary to understand messages in L2.
c) Knowledge of grammar serves to improve proficiency in L2 once a minimum level of proficiency has been achieved.
d) Knowledge of grammar can improve comprehension of messages in L2, thus having a positive impact on acquisition.
e) Grammar instruction is superior to all other approaches for helping students to attain higher proficiency levels.
f) None of the above. My beliefs are…

The statement I most agree with is (d). I think the general consensus in the L2 research community is that grammar instruction definitely helps achieve higher proficiency in the L2 because it directs learners’ attention to relationships between language form, meaning, and use that might otherwise be missed when learners are attending primarily to the overall message of what speakers intend to say (Cintrón-Valentín & Ellis, 2015; Ellis, 2007; Norris & Ortega, 2000). Grammar instruction can therefore help learners notice how speakers accomplish communication in a particular context rather than simply understanding what they’ve communicated (Leow, 2015; Spada, 2011).

A lot of research from the 1980s onward has suggested that without some kind of formal instruction, many informal immersion learners will end up with a Tarzan-like intermediate L2 proficiency that is “fossilized,” or stuck, at that level because they are able to meet their primary communicative needs with what they have, and there is no conceptual linguistic knowledge that “pushes” them to notice other features of the L2 that would give them greater accuracy (Higgs & Clifford, 1982; Schmidt, 1984; Schmidt & Frota, 1986; Swain, 1985; Trahey & White, 1993; White, Spada, Lightbown, & Ranta, 1991). In that sense, I’m almost inclined to say that I agree with (a) above as well, but that statement is a little too absolute: Despite the general trends in large-scale quantitative research, there are lots of individuals who reach very high levels of proficiency without formal grammar instruction. In some cases, they may be very good at internalizing, reproducing, and adapting what they hear around them to suit their needs, and/or they may be able to build their own informal analyses of language structure that help them notice and make sense of language, beyond what is needed for basic communicative needs.

— What does grammar instruction look like with novice-level students vs. intermediate to advanced-level students?

This is a really good question, because a grammar explanation that is useable and meaningful for one person may not be the same for others. However, I think that the most important variable to consider is not so much language proficiency as the learner’s prior grammatical knowledge and the relationship between the grammar information provided and its intended use in communication. In other words, grammatical information should be relevant to the communicative task at hand, and should build on learner’s prior conceptual knowledge. Consider all the possible grammar explanations that could accompany the phrase “Me llamo Paul” (i.e., “my name is Paul,” or literally, “I call myself Paul”) as information for beginning learners. At the level of basic communication, I could simply say the phrase to a new learner of Spanish and extend my hand toward them in greeting, and they would understand from context that I’m telling them my name. For me, evoking that simple awareness of what is being said is a very basic kind of grammar instruction.

However, for students to take the next step of being able to appropriate the phrase for themselves, perhaps a bit more conscious awareness of what’s going on might be needed to help them gain control over it in communication. Presenting meaningful chunks that illustrate how forms change in different meaningful contexts might be a way to do this: Me llamo XXX, Te llamas XXX, Se llama XXX. Directing learners’ attention to these forms while actually greeting different people in class would be way better than just giving everyone a list and telling them to memorize it. A lot of TPRS seems to be trying to accomplish this kind of grammar instruction by simply showing learners what the structural possibilities of the language are through yes/no, either/or, circling questions.

But some students might eventually want to understand more deeply what’s going on, especially as they start to see me, te, and se in other places, sometimes alongside other words like yo, tú, and ella/él that seem to be referring to the same thing. At that point, grammar instruction might have to go a little farther, even if the learners are novices. And at that point, a teacher should consider the prior knowledge and cognitive development of the learners (children, adolescents, or adults?) to decide what would be the most well-crafted piece of information she could give them to facilitate communication while avoiding an unproductive detour into irrelevant encyclopedic explanations. Would telling learners that me, te, and se are reflexive pronouns, while yo, tú, and ella/él are subject pronouns make any sense to them? Would perhaps it be better to just say that me, te, and se reflect the fact that you’re “calling yourself” by your name? Would just a gesture pointing toward yourself take care of the meaning instead of even introducing the concept of a pronoun or a reflexive? I think these are all open questions that are highly dependent on who the learners are and what pieces of information would be most helpful to them, given their prior knowledge.

— Are there ever situations in which you feel that grammar instruction is NOT beneficial? When/why?

My answer to this question builds on the previous one. I think all grammar instruction, at least in a language class (as opposed to a linguistics class, where instructional goals are different), should be at the service of helping learners use the language purposefully, meaningfully, and creatively. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and so should never be taught simply for its own sake, or under the mistaken assumption that learners cannot begin to communicate without first reciting all the paradigms of the grammar structures involved. Grammar instruction should only ever be a guide that helps you do things in the world, and to argue that it is a precondition to doing anything in the world is rather like saying that you must completely memorize the map of Paris before you set foot out of your hotel to explore the city. Hopefully, the map will be helpful and accurate, and in fact only the relevant parts of the map for your travel goals will matter. The rest of it, you’ll probably ignore or forget. And if the map is filled with too many extraneous details or inaccurate information, it will just be confusing and not helpful at all, just like a lot of traditional approaches to grammar instruction, or misleading grammar explanations.

— What role does “Noticing” play in acquisition at novice, intermediate and advanced levels?

I think “noticing” plays a similar role in linguistic development, regardless of the proficiency level of the learner (Schmidt, 2001). Noticing basically occurs when learners’ attention is drawn to a particular feature of language form, meaning, and use, and that triggers a conscious awareness of that feature (Leow, 2015). That awareness then can boost linguistic development by influencing how subsequent experiences of language are processed (Leow & Mercer, 2015). So, if through noticing, a learner becomes aware that, for example, Me llamo XXX is the construction for saying your name, and that the word me refers to myself, they may be more able to process the meaning of input containing that construction and that pronoun than they otherwise would. In addition, when they are planning out what they need to say and do in a particular situation, having a conscious awareness of what you say in a greeting, and the meaning of the pronoun me could help them build an utterance that they might not otherwise have been able to, had noticing and awareness not occurred.

Also, let’s not forget that the literature on “working,” or short-term memory strongly suggests that planning language in your own head, before you say it, or on your own, by yourself, even if you don’t actually utter the sentence aloud, is input to your language processors. There’s a part of working memory called the “phonological loop” where pre-verbal as well as articulated language is processed, and thoughts to ourselves are just as valid as those we actually say and hear out loud. That’s why reading is also said to be so important in language development. The research shows that even though we are not actually hearing any audible sound when we read, we are assembling a phonological and syntactic representation of what we’re reading in our heads, and that counts as valid input. So, in the same way, planning our own utterances before we actually speak or write is also a valid and important source of input. That’s something that Krashen and VanPatten, to my knowledge, have not fully recognized in their theoretical frameworks (Krashen, 1983, 1985, 2008; VanPatten, 2016; VanPatten & Rothman, 2014).

Have you done or studied any research that compares the affect that extensive reading has on language development vs. the effect of direct grammar instruction? If you are interested, the following is a link to a level one middle school class taught by a talented colleague  (the Great Alina Filipescu) who uses CI-based strategies, but who also includes an extensive amount of (level-appropriate) reading in her classroom. This might be a great study… What increases proficiency more effectively, more universally successfully and more enjoyably– grammar instruction or extensive reading? 

I don’t know of a study that addresses that question head-on, but I think that is because (unfortunately) the research questions that being explored by theorists are rather far removed from the immediate needs of practitioners, particularly at the K-12 level. The video looks like a really wonderful class—the teacher is building a meaningful, interactive, whole-class discussion, where learners are making original contributions based on the models and scaffolded questions that she is providing, and students are listening to each other, and exchanging unscripted, real information based on what the teacher and their peers are saying. This is exactly the kind of whole-class interactions we’d want to see in a language class. (Of course teachers will also want to have other pedagogical tools to use for other purposes, like listening tasks, small group tasks, learner presentations, etc.)

I think in the research community, the idea that language instruction should consist primarily of meaningful input, interaction, and engagement in purposeful language activities is a settled question. However, whenever we do something meaningful in the world (whether it be a linguistic activity, a cognitive activity, or a physical activity) conscious awareness is engaged in setting our activity goals and controlling how we carry them out. So I would never advocate instruction where great amounts of time are spent in “direct grammar instruction”. I like to say that “we learn by doing,” and if what we’re doing for most of the time is talking about the structure of language, then those experiences will not automatically transform into an ability to communicate. (Again, much more appropriate for a linguistics class.) However, like using Google Maps to help you get somewhere, if we understand grammar instruction as giving ourselves a sense of the lay of the land for the task we are about to accomplish, and a plan that helps us stay in control and focus on key features of performance while we attempt to accomplish it, that, I think, is the proper role and format for grammar instruction. This conclusion comes from decades of research since Krashen proposed his input hypothesis in the early 1980s, which, contrary to Krashen’s claims, has shown that complete immersion without access to any grammatical explanations leads to lower rates of ultimate attainment and poorer immediate learning outcomes than those that have a modest, and appropriate explicit grammar component (Goldschneider & DeKeyser, 2001; Higgs & Clifford, 1982; Pavesi, 1986; Pica, 1983; Schmidt, 1984; Schmidt & Frota, 1986; Spada, Jessop, Tomita, Suzuki, & Valeo, 2014; Spada & Tomita, 2010; Swain, 1985; Toth & Guijarro-Fuentes, 2013; Trahey & White, 1993; White et al., 1991).


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