A Solution To Asking Wrong Questions (e.g. “How Do You Teach X?”): Focus & Flip

Ask 10 teachers how they teach X, and you’ll probably get 10 different responses. However, if you flip it, and instead ask “how do students learn X?” you might get what in many cases is the only answer. Furthermore, it helps to focus the question first because most “how do you teach X?” questions are way too broad. Teachers can’t possibly teach everything about X, so there’s gotta be a more specific outcome to the question. What is the point of X? Or, what are students expected to do, or know about X? For example…

  1. Take a question teachers always ask:
    • How do you teach the subjunctive?
  2. Focus it:
    • How do you teach students to identify subjunctive verb forms?
  3. Flip It:
    • How do students learn to identify subjunctive verb forms?

In this case, the answer is quite simple: students must memorize verb forms. There’s no way around that one. Humans won’t spontaneously infer which verbs are subjunctive. To identify them, students will have to be shown what they are, commit them to memory, and then recall from memory. So, the teacher who expects students to identify subjunctive verb forms needs to provide them, and hope their students have good memories (oh right, that last part is out of their control). Not a very reliable thing to expect, it turns out.

Consider back to the alternative, too. Just think of all the different answers you could get to “how do you teach the subjunctive?” They’ll probably all be from the teacher’s perspective, like descriptions of activities, and have nothing to do with the actual learning that must go on, too. This is probably why so many teachers reinvent the wheel year after year. The teaching isn’t actually addressing what students need to learn. Of course, that grammar question is a bit silly since the focus doesn’t have much use. Let’s look at a related question with a more useful purpose…

  1. Q: How do you get students using the subjunctive?
  2. Focus: How do you get students to speak using accurate subjunctive verb forms?
  3. Flip: How do students learn to accurately speak using subjunctive verb forms?

This answer is also simple: time & exposure. Accuracy, especially in speaking, isn’t expected for the first years (3-4+), with or without any “error” correction, either. For any language to come out (output), students need lots of examples coming in (input). So, the teacher who expects accurate use of subjunctive, then, needs to ensure that there are tons of examples of subjunctive verb forms in what students listen to and read. Oh, and they also need to have patience. Any teacher who expects—and gets—beginner students speaking accurate subjunctive verb forms either doesn’t know the research, measures that in isolation and moves on, or is seeing short term memory results. Yet also probably holds “review” sessions each year!

So, give Focus & Flip a try!

Too Much, Too Little, and Too Late

One of my favorite topics in teaching is grading and the ridiculous amount of time teachers spend doing it.

Not only does the topic address issues with providing corrective feedback and scoring itself (re: grading during planning time, or setting aside a grading day during one’s free time), but the topic also addresses issues with designing a quiz or test, as well as establishing its criteria. Given those factors alone, it’s amazing teachers can do anything other than creating quizzes, administering them during quiz day class time, and then grading them in planning time or at home. It’s too much. So, all this is being done while language teachers *could* otherwise be focused on what students actually need their teachers to do…creating or adapting more input!

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Two Major Assumptions To Be Avoided

A teacher shared with me some class plans to have students find verbs, adjectives, etc. in a text while using no dictionaries (but a grammar reference sheet), then answer *some* questions about comprehension. The purpose was “to see who needs help.” The adjustment? To provide corrective feedback. The expectation? That identifying parts of speech and grammatical forms would improve by the end of the year. There are two major assumptions regarding that intended purpose, adjustment, and expectation, and I’ve seen them before elsewhere:

  1. What is taught is learned.
  2. Personalized *corrective* feedback results in uptake.
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Studies Showing the Ineffectiveness of Grammar Instruction & Error Correction


How effective is studying these “rules?” Research shows “not at all!” What was lurking beneath all that studying for those claiming it did, in fact, work? Comprehensible Input (CI).

**Updated 1.29.2020**
with Rothman (2008) 

All of this research has been shared by Eric Herman, either in the Acquisition Classroom Memos, his book, “Research Talks…,”or from my direct requests. Thanks, dude! As you’ll see, there is very little support (none?) for explicit grammar, or traditional rule-based language instruction. Even effectiveness aside, it should be clear that the practice has no place in inclusive K-12 classrooms (and probably beyond), since affective factors—alone—are shown to result in enough negative consequences. N.B. The highly-motivated independent adult learner can, and probably will do anything they want, and/or feel is helping them regardless of any proof. K-12 students are NOT those people.

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