Comprehensible Input and Verb Tenses

I almost titled this post “Comprehensible Input and Grammar” but I think “verb tenses” is really what I want to talk about.

So far, this year has been pretty great. My Spanish 1 students continue to impress me every day. I guess it’s expected that Spanish 1 students would learn a great deal in the first quarter, but their ability to use what we’ve learned is great. Today, we took our second IPA, and one section involved having an interview with me. I started out asking them questions from the first week of school (What is your name? How old are you? Where are you from?) and they answered me. Easily. I don’t know what your experience is, but in my 3 previous years, my students would have seriously struggled to answer a question from a previous unit 6 weeks later.

My students are starting to really get on board with what we’re doing, and I’m starting to learn how not to stress over every single lesson every single day. Part of that goes back to my post a few weeks ago about realizing that not every lesson can be awesome. Part of it is that, as we progress through the school year, I’m learning. While I’m looking for resources for a current unit, I’m also finding things that will be useful in the future. I wouldn’t say that I’m good at using CI all the time in all my classes, but I’m getting better.

But I have a concern. While I’m focusing on all these communicative goals and proficiency levels, I’m worried that I’m missing something. I don’t want my goal for a particular unit to be “students will be able to form the present subjunctive” but, ultimately, I do want them to be able to do that. And I think I’m missing some of that. I don’t know if my units aren’t focused enough, or if they’re too focused, or if I’m missing natural connections, but it is hard for me to create situations in which students really need to use new tenses.

I mean, during class, I can recognize situations in which I think “You should have used the present perfect there. But I understood what you meant, so let’s not worry about that right now.” Usually those situations aren’t directly related to my unit goals, and I’m certainly not worried about making sure my level 2s are using the present perfect correctly when we haven’t even started looking at past tenses yet. So I don’t worry about it.

But as I look over my units for the future, especially in Spanish 3, and 4, I wonder how many verb tenses they will really know. I don’t care if they know what they’re called or if they know how to fill out a verb chart, but I do want them to be able to use the conditional correctly, and the past subjunctive. But how in the world do I plan a whole unit around the past subjunctive?

I thought “well, maybe the textbook would give me some ideas” so I flipped open to the past subjunctive chapter in the Spanish 3 book I’ve used for the last few years. The vocab is all about high school (words like dress code, part time job, scholarship) and the activities are totally irrelevant. They just put sentences together using the vocabulary, and told the kids to put the past subjunctive in the right form (Tell what the following students’ parents want them to do: Margarita/pay taxes). Not exactly much inspiration there for a real-life, engaging unit in which I would also realistically use enough past subjunctive for my students to get it.

It seems like some things are easy: commands, future tense, past tenses, it’s not so hard to build a unit that would hit those things hard. Those are the tenses that we use, like, all the time. Some of these more advanced tenses don’t seem (to me, anyway) to have an obvious use that lends itself to a unit of instruction. I use them all the time in class, but just because my students can figure out what I mean when I ask “¿Dónde estábamos?” when finding the last paragraph we read together doesn’t mean that they could use that question on their own, or extrapolate the imperfect tense out of it.

So this is my concern. I don’t want to overload the kids with grammar. I’m not worried about teaching every single tense or even about them getting every verb right every time. I’ve taught students who can conjugate just about any verb in every tense, but they certainly can’t use them. I’m more worried about the use. But how can they use it if they never get more than passing exposure?

Stories, right? Okay, I’m sure I could write a somewhat entertaining story that uses lots of the past subjunctive, or whatever other tense you might want, but it’s figuring out what to do after that that gets me. Do I stop, ask the kids what the pattern is and then, essentially, give them the notes I would have given them two years ago? Do we just talk about this particular verb, or these few verbs that I’m using in my story right now? That’s fine, but what about irregulars – do I have to have a story for every irregular in the preterite? That’s a lot of stories. Do I teach just the yo and tú forms today? If so, when will I ever teach vosotros in every single tense? (Yes, I teach it. Since graduating from high school, I’ve actually used it in real life with real Spaniards in this country, so I just can’t justify leaving it out). How much time should I really spend on each perfect tense? What unit do those fit in? When are kids ready for the subjunctive?

How can I make sure to plan activities (and units) that will require kids to use these tenses? Sometimes, I come up with (what I think are) excellent activities or writing/speaking prompts that I think will prompt students to use a particular tense. Then they answer the prompt or complete the activity using all present tense. Is that because, proficiency-wise, they’re not ready for more tenses yet, and so they’re just doing the best with what they’re comfortable using? If so, how do I get them comfortable using whatever it is I’m trying to focus on? Is it because they didn’t understand the question? Is it because my question wasn’t specific enough? Is it because, when I write the question, I know what I hope to see and what I would say as a response, but when they see the question, they interpret it differently than me?

Should I tell them “I want to see X tense in your response”? That doesn’t seem very authentic to me. I mean, in the real world, if the question didn’t make them want or need to use whatever I’m going for, then why should I make them use it in response to what I asked them? Just because you could use a particular tense in response to a question doesn’t necessarily mean you have to. So how do I make questions which require a certain type of answer, but yet still leave enough play for students to come up with their own answer. If all I want is to force a certain tense, I could use those textbook activities, but I want them to be able to create their own language. Is there a balance between the two?

So to sum up: How do I plan units for “advanced” tenses? How do I teach some of these “obscure” items? How do I create activities that force practicing those tenses without seeming totally unrealistic and too restrictive?

I know all these questions come from inexperience, and I’m sure that as I get further and further away from having a “grammar day” once a week, I’ll find some answers. But in the meantime, if you have any ideas or advice, I would very much appreciate it. How do you approach tenses beyond present, past, and future?

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Andrea says:

    Hey Melanie,
    I think what Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell would say is that to achieve advanced proficiency, you have to master three tenses: present, past, and future – once a student can successfully navigate in those three time frames, they’re in (or close to) advanced proficiency.

    As for the other advanced tenses – what is that you want them to be able to do? I would say start with the goal, then work backwards to what vocabulary and grammar you need. I teach verb forms like vocabulary – my kids know tengo, tienes, and tiene, but they don’t know it comes from tener or that it’s a stem-changer/GO verb (although with school and “I can say what I need for my classes” they are trying to say, “I need to have,” so maybe I should tell them about tener :)). I point out patterns- maybe even, “So if bailo means I dance, how would you say I write?, but my students don’t fill out charts or do clozes. So what are your goals for you Spanish 3 and 4? That they can give advice, that they can say what they want someone to do, that they can say what they have done in their high school career? I start with a goal, identify key structures, then plan how I can give them lots of CI to model the structures. Maybe we do a writing or speaking assignment, I see what they need more practice/CI on, and we go from there.

    A couple of years ago I saw a post, I think by Cynthia Hitz, about her kids producing the preterite accurately without grammar notes or drills (she does TPRS) – I was in the midst of teaching ALL THE IRREGULAR PRETERITES, and grading ALL THE FAILED QUIZZES, and was so frustrated – and I was relieved and intrigued to know there was another way.

    Also, side thought on vosotros – do you address your students as vosotros or ustedes? What if you declare one 9 weeks (or whatever your grading period is) Spain session, and change your accent and vocabulary to everything de España? And make tapas and say, “qué queréis?” (or something cultural that you can immerse them in a whole language and cultural experience). That would be one way to input vosotros 🙂

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