The grammar syllabus is worth fighting against

Reflections on the grammar syllabus and fostering an inclusive classroom

grammar guideOne of the things that I absolutely love about TPRS 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 pushed 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 teach my Spanish 1 students 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 and no forced deadlines for learning.

Recently I saw a scope and sequence for a Spanish 3 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. Most high school language departments still sequence their courses largely by grammar concept, making it very difficult for a good TPRS teacher to follow the dictates of research and conscience.

The grammar syllabus is worth fighting against.


  1. do you have a consistent sequence of standard vocabulary that you follow? One of my problems is that I lose track of the vocab I have taught and then forget to recycle it over the course of a four year program – your thoughts?

    • I don´t– if it is high-frequency it will come back. You could keep a list of things that you want to recycle. Honestly one page would probably be enough. For instance, caerse is constantly coming up in my classes. Last April I was looking at a high-frequency word list with my level 3 kids to try to find words that we would consciously start targeting. We got up into the 1200s on the list before we had a page full. We worked with many of those words, but then got bored with the way they made our conversations stilted.

  2. Unfortunately I’m one of those old school Spanish teachers who has always been the only one in the district. I live in a rural area of Georgia where there is never any money for professional development. I have very few resources. I graduated with a BA in Spanish 30 years ago and have have been teaching for 25. I try to prepare my high school students for college foreign language classes. Most of these classes are centered around advanced grammar. I wish I had support and resources to spice up my classes.

  3. This is powerful. I’m trying to help our department moved towards more performance-based assessment and thematic units that foster better communication that is less synthetic, but they keep saying, “We have SO much grammar to teach. Your ideas are nice, but what about the grammar? I’m not going to throw out grammar.”

    • Oh such a good question. Grammar is taught, but tightly connected to meaning (never as rules). Any kid can learn fue means “he went” on the first day of Spanish 1 if I use fue a lot in class (and make sure they understand). I never have long explanations about boot verbs or reflexive verbs, I just present it already conjugated in the 3rd person singular as a vocabulary word and then use it a lot. Once they have it I move on to the first person, or 2nd… the key is teaching a very limited vocabulary in the first few weeks and slowly expanding. Check out this blog by Chris Stolz: He is really passionate at times, but don´t let that turn you off. He gives really good explanations. If you would rather listen to a podcast then this might be a good one: HOWEVER if you really are curious and are ready to dedicate a week during the summer to learning how to teach like this, then the best training you can get is by attending either NTPRS (in Reno this summer or iFLT (in Chattanooga this summer Both conferences are phenomenal, just go to whichever is closer to you.

  4. Very well said. I never know how to respond when teachers say, “So you don’t teach grammar??” My students definitely acquire grammar…I am a department of 1 so it’s worked out for me okay but I am very nervous as our county leadership team is trying to develop a standardized pacing guide which I’m afraid will be grammar-based. The way you’ve put it is exactly what I would like to share with my colleagues

  5. I agree with you 100 %. The difficult thing is to communicate this to colleagues and the administration, who wants us to come up with a curriculum over the summer (we didn’t have one and got dissed by the state). What I am afraid is going to happen is we will stitch together a grammar based syllabus because that is the one thing we all can agree on. Otherwise each one in our department pretty much follows his or her personal philosophy (or whatever is most convenient).
    I am trying to work differently as a Spanish 3 teacher, but is is really hard when teaching six periods and three preps, and all the material on hand is grammar based.
    Any idea how to create a curriculum that would satisfy our administration without focusing solely on structures?

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