George Lucas Educational Foundation
Communication Skills

The Great World Language Debate du Jour: Grammar vs. Communication

March 5, 2014
Image credit: Thinkstock

I am embarrassed -- no, actually I would go as far as to say horrified -- that I spent ten years of my career teaching students about the Spanish language. I actually felt proud when they could fill out grammar worksheets with precision. Now, you may be thinking that, as a Spanish teacher, this is my job, but since my enlightenment, I understand that it decidedly is not. I am now certain that teaching them to communicate well in the language is my job. Honestly, who cares whether students can conjugate verbs correctly if they can't tell someone what they need? Getting to this point has required a colossal teaching philosophy transformation, but I've never been more proud of the work that I'm doing.

Starting down this road can be wholly overwhelming. You will need professional development, your colleagues should be on board, you have to exchange textbooks for authentic materials, and the target language must be used in the classroom 90 percent of the time -- at the very least. However, what I can assure you is that once you get your feet wet, there will be no turning back. You'll begin to feel inspired, your students will show progress like you've never seen before, and most importantly, you will no longer be faced with teaching verb conjugations ad nauseam. Honestly, how boring!

Here are some essential terms that I desperately wish I had known earlier.

1. Proficiency Levels/Guidelines

These guidelines are important to consider when planning curriculum because they help you determine what students at certain levels can handle linguistically. According to the American Council on Teaching Foreign Language (ACTFL), there are five key stages of proficiency:

  1. Distinguished
  2. Superior
  3. Advanced
  4. Intermediate
  5. Novice

Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice are further divided into High, Mid, and Low sub-stages. Realistically, the students we teach will be in the Intermediate or Novice range.

2. The Three Modes of Communication

These show how well students demonstrate competencies and are at the core of student communication in the language. Here are the three modes in a nutshell:

  • The Interpretive Mode is characterized by a student's understanding of written and spoken language.
  • The Interpersonal Mode is characterized by person-to-person, "two-way" communication either through a conversation or in a letter or email exchange.
  • The Presentational Mode is characterized by the creation of "one-way' written and spoken language.

3. "Can Do" Statements

These are checklists that allow language learners to self-assess what they can do with the language within the three modes of communication. "Can do" statements are the stepping stones of learning. They should reflect the proficiency level of the learner. "I can say my name and ask someone else's name" would be an example of an ideal statement for students in the Novice range. "I can talk about my daily activities and personal preferences" would be realistic for someone in the Intermediate range. The ACTFL provides additional information on "can do" statements.

4. Integrated Performance Assessments (IPAs)

Say goodbye to traditional quizzes and tests. IPAs are the evaluations you should create at the outset of a unit. Here are the characteristics of a well-devised IPA:

Credit: Sarah Wike Loyola, Providence Day School
Click to download a PDF of Unidad 5 - Presentational Speaking Assessment. (275 KB)
  • Begin with a general introduction or overview that describes the context and purpose.
  • List the "can do" statement(s) you will assess.
  • Create evocative, inspiring and age-appropriate tasks.
  • Indicate the proficiency level.
  • Use authentic materials.
  • Base the IPA on one or more of the three modes of communication and list them.
  • Make the IPA reflect what and how you will teach within the unit, taking into consideration that students will need practice activities in preparation for the assessment.

Click the link above to download an example of a presentational speaking assessment.

5 Steps for Planning Your Next Unit

Following is some practical advice you'll need to plan your next unit:

Credit: Sarah Wike Loyola, Providence Day School
Click to download a PDF of Unidad 5 - Vamos de viaje. (275 KB)
  1. Choose a theme based on the proficiency level of your students.
  2. Create your IPAs based on the three modes of communication. You may have a reading comprehension, a conversation, an email response, a spoken presentation and a listening comprehension all within one unit.
  3. Create "can do" statements within the three modes of communication and an accompanying vocabulary list based on the theme. Click the following link to see one of my Spanish III units:

  5. Create activities that will help get your students where you want them to go. You will need to teach toward success on your IPAs.
  6. Teach them grammar if it helps get them where they need to go, but grammar should not be assessed. Trust that they'll learn what they need to accomplish the communicative tasks.

Two years ago, I didn't comprehend most of this and, to be honest, still don't fully understand all of it. So do not despair if you're feeling lost, or even resentful about having to change -- that feeling is completely normal. But unless you want to teach students who will forever say that they took two, three or even four years of a language and don't remember a thing, you must adapt.

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Filed Under

  • Communication Skills
  • Curriculum Planning
  • World Languages
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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