Grammar in a proficiency-based/CI classroom: the PACE method

profgrammar

Ask any World Language teacher their biggest conundrum in switching from a “traditional” teaching practice to one that is rooted in comprehensible input or teaching for proficiency and I’m willing to bet they’ll tell you that it’s how to teach grammar within the new framework.

The teaching of grammar is one of the most hot-button topics out there for language instructors: do you do it? If so, how much? In what way? Should grammar instruction be implicit or explicit? Both? Non-existant? Practice or no practice? Am I a bad teacher if I still teach and test grammar?

While there is a lot of research to back up basically all of the above viewpoints (and believe you me, I took a graduate seminar in pedagogy this semester and read A LOT of the research) my own perspective comes from a combination of research and experience. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of comprehensible input and center my teaching practice around it, but from experience I know that CI alone has only gotten my students so far – at a certain point, they needed more structure and some explanation. Thankfully, I had a very strong formation in my undergraduate methods course that stressed the importance of teaching grammar in the target language, via authentic resources if possible, and in line with the principles of CI and teaching for proficiency. The PACE method made my transition from textbook dependent to textbook-free much less painful, and it’s what I suggest to anyone who asks about teaching grammar without sacrificing CI or proficiency. I’ve had a lot of success with this method, and I particularly like it because it emphasizes the best practices that I feel very strongly about: input before output, exposure to authentic resources (or teacher-created resources with authentic language), culture, and establishing meaning before focusing on form.

The PACE method

So, what exactly is the PACE method? PACE is obviously an acronym, and each letter stands for a different part of the process.

P – Presentation: This is the very opening stage, when a document that highlights your targeted grammar point (song, video, poem, story, etc) is presented to the class. This document obviously needs to be in the TL, and do not announce the grammar point to the class beforehand. Just focus on the document itself and what it’s about. For example, when I wanted to introduce the conditional to my French 3 (university) students, I sourced a bunch of tweets on a trending hashtag, #SiInternetNExistaitPas (If the Internet didn’t exist) and read through them with my students, checked for comprehension, and asked personalized questions and then follow-up questions. Depending on the length of your document, this could very well take the majority, or even all, of a class period – or even MORE than one class period. I picked a lot of tweets because I wanted a lot of exposure to the verb structures and their meanings. Take your time on the presentation section – this is the most important part, as it’s where meaning is established. And bonus: this is usually a great culture-infused lesson, too.

A – Attention: This part of the PACE method means you simply call attention to the structure you want to study. You don’t explain it, or teach it; you just call attention to it. When I did my lesson with the tweets, this involved re-typing all the tweets so they appeared on a single slide, and then highlighting the verbs in the conditional. The students read through them again, and we matched the French to an approximate English translation (this part was purely a choice on my part, you don’t have to translate anything at this point if you don’t want to). I DID put a little warning-sign symbol next to the sentences with verbs that have irregular stems, but I didn’t tell the students why right away, I was simply calling extra attention to those verbs.

C – Co-Construct: After the initial presentation phase, the co-construct part of the method is the most essential. In this step, the students and teacher construct an explanation of the targeted grammar together. However, for maximum effectiveness this needs to be very student-led, with the teacher serving as a guide to affirm or re-direct the hypotheses of the students. During this step, I usually ask a simple question while students are still viewing the “attention” step: What do you think is going on here? I give the students time to brainstorm with a partner or in a small group, and I tell them I want them to focus on the following things and come up with a hypothesis for each question:

  1. What are the highlighted verbs (or whatever it is you’re targeting) communicating?
  2. Can you spot any patterns? Where/what are they?
  3. How do you think these verbs work? (This is where the formation part comes in)
  4. Why did I put that warning sign next to certain sentences? (For my example lesson)

The most important part is that I leave them alone during this time. I don’t ask the questions aloud and then let my all-star student answer while the rest take a mental trip to Hawaii. They must communicate with a partner, or even jot down some notes on their own to figure out how the grammar works. Once they’ve had time to get their ideas down on paper, then I have them tell me how it all comes together. For Novice students, they may speak in English during this time; Intermediates can typically function at least partially in the TL. It’s during this co-construct stage that practice of the grammar point may come in to play; particularly if it’s a verb tense, I’ll usually start with some simple drill-style games. We may do human sentences or Mad Libs, or even (though this is rare)…a worksheet. This practice is usually very easy for the students since meaning has been clearly established by this point through the presentation and attention phases, which means I don’t have to do a TON of it.

E – Extension: This is the final phase of the lesson, when the students have to use what they’ve learned to complete a task (hopefully one that is contextualized/real-world), or even several tasks. I like to do a few extension activities that increase in difficulty, starting small with a short, prepared writing activity (like writing your own tweets – short, time to reflect) to a longer presentational writing (still time to reflect) and will typically end with a speaking activity that requires students to attempt to produce the targeted structure on the fly.

For me, the PACE method is a happy medium between no grammar instruction at all and explicit instruction in the L1 of a concept that is typically very abstract for the learner, and I have gotten great results from lessons designed around this particular method. Additionally, it keeps me at least 90% in the TL and the nature of co-constructing the grammar means that, when done correctly, the students are doing the majority of the heavy lifting and therefore, the learning – a wise teacher once told me ‘the one doing the talking is the one doing the learning’ and boy, does that ring true for me in most instances. I also find that the PACE method lines up really well with the primacy/recency theory, even when stretched over multiple class periods. It’s also helped me bridge the gap between the constraints yet relative effectiveness of TPRS (more on that in another post…someday, maybe) and my students’ interest in more theme-based units.

There are a ton of free resources on the Internet for PACE method lesson plans and I encourage anyone who has one they’re willing to share to comment with a file or a link! If you, like me, struggle with finding the right balance between input-driven lessons and grammar instruction, give the PACE method a try – it may be what you’re looking for!

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Grammar in a proficiency-based/CI classroom: the PACE method

  1. I am struggling with the same problem. I like CI, but when I gave them a grammar test – so many of them failed. I don’t know what to do. I want them to understand, but I want them to be accountable. I’m going to try some PACE strategies if I can find them.

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