A Teaching Method That Does Not Focus on Grammar

This week, I went to a TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling) workshop with Blaine Ray (video). TPRS is an approach to teaching languages using comprehensible input. As with any good workshop, there was just too much content to include in one blog post. I do want to talk about a couple points that Blaine Ray made in the workshop as they relate to Mandarin Chinese classes. Specifically, I’ll be explaining why I don’t teach grammar in my Mandarin classes.

Teaching Grammar Does Not Work

Many students, especially older students, arrive in Chinese classes with some experience learning a second language in school. Often they expect to learn some grammar, learn some new words and then put it all together themselves in a few sentences as practice. This is what we call a legacy model of teaching languages, or the “teach and practice” model. I used to teach this way too. There is lots of evidence from research on second language acquisition that shows that teaching grammar does not help students learn the target language. Instead of rehashing that research here, I am going to share an example from my own career.

A few years ago, when I was still using legacy methods, I was teaching the particle 了 (le) to a group of adult students. This was how it went: me, “The particle 了 shows a completed action. Many people think that 了 indicates the past tense. This is not quite right, an action may be completed in the past, the present or the future. 了 is not a tense marker, it just indicates that an action is complete.” One of my students* asked immediately: ” So 了shows the past tense?” Explicitly teaching grammar does not lead to language acquisition! Now, I just use 了 with whatever we are talking about in class, and after enough repetition, the students will naturally use 了 on their own.

Focus on Meaning Instead of Grammar

During the workshop this week, Blaine Ray explicitly mentioned that we do not teach grammar in TPRS. TPRS teachers use whatever structures that they need to convey their meaning. Students still need to start out with short, simple sentences, but teachers do not need to think “okay, this week we will do past tense, next year we will do the subjunctive.” In good language learning classes, students are focused on getting the meaning of what is being said, not sitting around plugging in their vocabulary words to grammar they have just learned.

How Students Learn Grammar Through TPRS

According to the TPRS approach, students do best in language when they have a “feeling” about what is right. Students have this feeling after they get enough input (repetition) in the target language. If students hear 了 used over and over again, in a meaningful context, they will pick it up. But the kind of explicit teaching that I used in my example above, just does not sink in.

A common mistake for Chinese learners to make with 了 , especially if they are learning with the legacy methods, is to use this particle too much in a sentence. For example, a student might say **我去了北京了 (sort of analogous to saying “I wented to Beijing). Students who learn through TPRS or other approaches that focus on giving them comprehensible input usually don’t make this kind of mistake. They have heard something like 我去了北京, 我去了北京, 我去了北京,我去了北京 over and over again. The sentence structure sinks in and the students get that feeling about what is correct because they have heard the structure so many times the right way and never the wrong way.

photo from TPRS workshop
French and Spanish teachers get ready to practice in TPRS workshop

TPRS also focuses heavily on reading. Learn more about reading and learning Mandarin here, here are here.

What do you think about explicit grammar instruction? Do you think is helps or hurt? Share in the comments!

*In case it matters, this student was intelligent, attentive, studious and had all that traits that can make a teacher’s life easier. She was sincere in her question and not trolling me. I’m not even sure trolling was a thing back then!

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