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Why I Ditched Teaching Grammar in Heritage Spanish Class

I often get asked about how I include grammar into my heritage Spanish course. The truth is, you won’t find explicit grammar instruction in the Ascendencia curriculum, except for the occasional grammar pop-up conversations that come up organically.

grammar

So, why did I ditch teaching grammar in heritage Spanish class? Grammar-heavy instruction has not proved to be beneficial for my heritage students. When I realized the allocation of class time for memorizing grammar concepts wasn’t getting the intended effects, I began looking at ways of getting to the same place, differently. So, while I’m reluctant to say grammar and memorization were a waste of time, at the end of the day, the concepts just weren’t sticking with my students.

Do you know what did seem to work? Using the language naturally for tasks like writing essays and journaling. Having regular, routine, and practical tasks carried out in Spanish has boosted their confidence and created a needed depth of exposure to Spanish in more ways than identifying parts of speech or conjugating verbs could. Most higher education, business, or job opportunities will involve a heavy component of written skills and students need time to develop those etiquettes and customs. Instead of rote memorization of grammar rules, we focus on real-world application like email etiquette.

grammar y not bad

This is a parallel concept to the shift we have seen in L2 classrooms from verb conjugation memorization charts to comprehensible input through authentic resources and stories. Students utilizing the Ascendencia curriculum can also experience Language Transfer in the discussion of and reinforcing of Language Arts concepts in heritage Spanish, that circle back and aid them in their English class. 

reading in heritage Spanish class

What this looks like in a heritage class: content-based instruction that is appropriately leveled. Heritage Spanish students need heaps and loads of input just as badly as L2 learners do, only heritage students require the inputs to have an emphasis on written input. Heritage students have had a large and vast array of opportunities to encounter rhetoric in Spanish, both in spoken and auditory means. What they can lack however, is in their exposure to reading and writing in Spanish. This, as most of their schooling has been done in English. 

Reading in Spanish must be incorporated daily into a heritage Spanish class. There are many ways to sneak in written input – FVR, news articles, project instructions, podcast transcripts, short stories, novels, etc.

Skill Building is the Way to Go! 

Showing a mentor sentence and then asking students to apply that skill immediately is way more effective than simply laying out a long list of grammar rules that students need to memorize, or giving students a vocabulary list and telling them to conjugate the words into first, second and third person singular and plural. That’s not even mentioning how the conjugation charts will oftentimes break down into future, conditional, present and past tenses! So much to think about, and so easy to get lost and confused. I do not teach verb conjugation charts in Heritage Spanish class, largely because these students already intuitively know to to navigate verb ending changes while speaking.

Skill Building is the Way to Go! 

When writing, when have you ever needed to write out the word in six tenses before using the word? You don’t ever do that! While reading, you gather context clues for how to write the word yourself, later. A poignant scene in a book or movie will make a word, and how to use it, unforgettable for your students. Journal prompts, essay assignments and research projects will cement the data points in the minds of your students as they take what they have learned, read, skimmed and scanned and plug it all into their own work. Grammar should be taught in context and not in isolation.

Okay, so how do we do that exactly? 

Bell-ringers or Journal Prompts 

Here is why bell ringers can be so approachable: taking just ten minutes or less a day to practice academic writing, or vocabulary with mentor sentences will create progress over time. The key here is consistency and routine. In our upcoming middle school curriculum we do plan to include a short and simple bellringer each day, but it will be based around mentor sentences and examples instead of rote memorization of grammar rules.

Bell-ringers or Journal Prompts 

Are your students always forgetting their punctuation marks? Create a writing task where you model the punctuation you want to see. When it comes time to grade this short writing task, only focus on the punctuation and grade them on that instead of looking at the writing piece as a whole.

Writer’s Workshops

Here is why writer’s workshops are so effective: In a writer’s workshop you focus on one aspect of writing at a time that you want students to master. The expectations are clear for students and they see an example of what a successful writing piece would look like to complete the task well. The clarity this provides will act to boost each student’s confidence because even if their spelling is atrocious, they can be successful in a writing task if they 1. properly divide their writing into paragraphs or 2. Punctuate the piece correctly or 3. Successfully build the skeleton of an essay, defined as intro, body and conclusion…or whatever the goal is for the particular workshop.

 

Writer’s workshops are less stressful for the teacher when it is time to grade because they don’t have to mark up the page at every error. Grading can go quickly as they search for only one writing skill. This photo is from a Writer’s Workshop in the Ascendencia Year One Curriculum about Mi nombre.

Meet your Heritage Students Where They Are At

Grammar packets are a surefire way to lose or at least greatly diminish your students’ interest. If they want to study the detailed nuances of the Spanish language, let them do that in college. For now, we are teaching high school students, severely lacking in any academic exposure to Spanish. Diving straight into Spanish grammar designed for native speakers is going to cause their confidence in their home language to deflate. 

Meet your Heritage Students Where They Are At

Let’s remind students how much they already know and show them what they can personally do with their language. Heritage Spanish class is about empowerment and building on what has been started in them by their community. In this class we honor the language they come to us with. If speaking Spanglish is where they are at, then that is just fine. Our job is to cultivate growth by fostering excitement for the language they can communicate with and then challenge them to further their academic Spanish in a fun, non-threatening environment.

Grammar Instruction is not all bad

Even though I don’t do traditional grammar instruction, I will sometimes include correcting written sentences as a class, mentor sentences, and/or pop-up instruction as I see fit. As educators, we all have a good sense for what our students need in order to grow and achieve, and my encouragement to you would be to lean into your sense of direction for the class. My goal in creating the Ascendencia curriculum is to equip you to arrive at the destinations your class needs to arrive at. We all have the power to teach, and help our students realize their potential with this beautiful language, but sometimes we may feel like we don’t know how else to get the point across, or how else to package the lesson. Ruts and writers block are real things, and it can be so difficult to think creatively in regards to lesson planning and the arc of a school year when you feel overrun by all the daily and administrative tasks we are expected to complete.

For example, if I notice many students are making the same mistake in their writing assignment, I might spend five minutes teaching students about why it should be “he comido” instead of “ha comido.” I think pop-up grammar is more effective because it comes up organically in context. I definitely think it can be good to point out grammar concepts to students in context, but I don’t include it in my materials so that is something you would need to be able to add in for your class as you see fit. Additionally, many heritage Spanish students express an interest in learning the rules of accentuation in Spanish. If your students are requesting this- go ahead and teach them! There is nothing wrong with that- especially if they are hungry to learn it!

The Bigger Picture

When it comes to grammar for heritage students, it’s important to take a look at the bigger picture. If preparing them for the IB test or the AP test is the goal, then explicit grammar instruction is not necessary. Reading, writing, listening, and speaking are the main categories on those tests, not identifying verb tenses and parts of speech. At this stage in a student’s life, engagement in topics that relate to self-esteem, coping, happiness, and Latino issues is so much more useful for where my students are headed, in general.

t5he bigger picture

The majority of them will not be Spanish teachers someday, and those that do decide to take that career path will have to take courses in college that will teach them explicit grammar. When I tried to teach nitty-gritty grammar concepts, they were not engaged at all. When I lost my student’s attention, I also lost the opportunity to teach them anything else that day. 

This is the realization that led me to content-based instruction. After much trial and error, using their Spanish skills in tasks like authentic writing and free voluntary reading are a much better use of our time. My classes were more engaged, and engagement of a students mind is the gateway to higher learning!

But don’t just take my word for it- see what Stephen Krashen has to say about this here.

Gain access to hundreds of resources for heritage Spanish by joining the Heritage Spanish Club. 

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