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


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!



A Play on Write, Draw, Pass

If my students had an all-time favorite activity, it would probably be Martina Bex’s Write, Draw, Pass. It’s like the game telephone, but written and with images. They love to see how well the story stays together (or how crazily it falls apart!) as they pass the papers around.

Last week, I needed a quick, no-prep way to work on si clauses with my level 3 students. We’re not going super in-depth with it, just enough to say “If I did _________, then ______ would happen.” Since the imperfect (the part after “if”) and the conditional are SO similar in French (they have the same endings!) the students really need practice differentiating between the two since they always tend to make it either usingly ONLY the imperfect or ONLY the conditional. So, I busted out Martina’s Write, Draw, Pass template and we made a story chain!

For simplicity, I provided the very first “If” clause and the students filled in the rest. Of course, I went with “If there was a zombie apocalypse…” and in the first box, the students had to finish the sentence with what they thought WOULD happen. After that, they passed it to a neighbor, and the neighbor drew a picture that represented the first sentence. They passed again, and in the third box, they continued the story using the last half of the first sentence as the beginning of the next “If” clause. So it went like this:

If there was a zombie apocalypse, I would fight the zombies. If I fought the zombies, the zombies would die. If the zombies died…etc.

When the kids got their original papers back, they had a lot of fun seeing how their original scenario panned out!

And, of course, because you can never have too much of a good thing, I adapted the same activity to my level twos who are currently working on the difference between the passé composé and the imperfect. We used Amy’s One Sentence Story template and created a Write, Draw, Pass story chain one sentence at a time. It was fun, which at this point in the year is super necessary (still three weeks left! gah!) but still requires them to use their language and keep their brains thinking!

Bonne continuation!

Unexpected CI

This year in my French 2 class, I have a student who, for reasons I can’t pretend to comprehend, is a little challenging. Let’s call him David (though that’s not his real name). David is incredibly smart and could easily master my class but a lack of effort in assignments and assessments has been holding him back from achieving his personal best. David and I have a somewhat tenuous relationship; there are days when he’s totally amenable (“Mademoiselle!” he exclaimed one day, holding up his foot to show me a Converse shoe that matched mine, “We have the same shoes!”) and then there are days when he shows up 20 minutes after lunch ends and says (smirking) that he couldn’t come to class on time because his butt got stuck to the seat in the lunch room. I know.

So for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been running my second-annual Musical March Madness in all of my classes. I keep it really simple – each day we listen to two songs and vote on which one we like the best. I do more involved activities during our regular Mercredi Musique routine, but for right now March Madness is just about listening and having fun.

The other day, one contender was the song Un peu de blues by Christophe Maé. David was in a mood – sullen and generally non-participatory – and I’ll admit that I had been avoiding interacting with him because of it. Well, in the video clip, there is a scene when Christophe bids farewell to a pretty girl and rides off on a motorcycle. In the next scene, though, Christophe comes out of his hotel room, and the girl is leaning up against his motorcycle, with her own helmet in hand. I’ve seen this music video about 500 times (give or take a few) and never really thought much about it, but David sat bolt-upright in his chair the second he saw it and hollered, “But how did she GET there?!”

Everyone in class (including me) burst out laughing because – well, he was right! How did she get there?! And let me tell you – never was there a more golden opportunity for CI than that moment, because we were just about to embark on a little grammar quest called the pronoun y, which means “there” in French and takes the place of a location in a sentence. It was the perfect chance to throw out the question using that pronoun – comment est-ce qu’elle y est arrivée? (How did she get there/How did she do that?) – and have some great fun with this music video’s plot hole.

Just goes to show, you may find opportunities for CI from some very unlikely sources!

La Révolution Française: Sequence and Assessments

Last year when I went to OFLA, I was really inspired by the message that both Dave Burgess and Carrie Toth communicated to their audiences, which was to teach subjects that we ourselves are passionate about. The basic principle being that students will latch on to our enthusiasm, and engagement will grow.


This year I’ve really tried to take that advice to heart and teach more things that I enjoy – like my mini-unit on privilege, and devoting each Wednesday to listening and singing a new song in French.

In addition to French and music, one of my other major passions is history. I love history. I am a huge history buff and could literally talk all day about how our history is constantly reflected in our present. So, I decided that in my level 4/AP split we would tackle one of the most monumental historic events of all time – the French Revolution.

I was nervous to present this material as I had never taught such a unit before. Let me say first and foremost: This unit was RICHLY enhanced by the resources put together by Noemie Neighbor and I am so, so grateful that she has put this work out there for other teachers to use. 

The French Revolution is a massive unit to teach and Noemie did a great job of breaking it all down. I followed her general schema but incorporated my own level-appropriate assessments, starting with the background information of the Ancien Regime, les Lumieres, and why people were starting to question authority. We went through the major events of the Revolution, and today just finished up our unit following the execution of Louis XVI. There is a LOT more to it after that, of course, but I mostly wanted to highlight how drastically the Revolution changed the entire centuries-old structure and traditions of not only France, but nearly all of Europe as well.

My sequence went basically like this:

Week 1: Life during the Ancien Regime – the separation of society into the three “Estates” and what life would have been like for each social class and the financial troubles of the monarchy.

Week 2: How the Enlightenment influenced the push toward Revolution and the consequences of the American Revolution. Reader’s Theatre of an abridged version of Candide by Voltaire (Tresors du Temps textbook!) and the students worked in small groups to present basic information about major Enlightenment philosophers.

Week 3: The first events of the Revolution – calling of the Estates General, mostly. The students journaled from the perspective of a pre-Revolution citizen of France and compiled their own cahiers de doléances with a modern twist. We watched clips from La Révolution française, available on YouTube.

Week 4: The taking of the Bastille and the March to Versailles. The students did an interpersonal writing assessment via a discussion board on Schoology to determine whether these events were a.) necessary or b.) important to the cause of the Revolution.

Week 5: The development of the Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen. We read the major articles from the DDHC and compared them to our own documents, namely the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The students also prepared a guided debate during which they imagined they belonged to a certain demographic and had to argue yes or no based on their given identity.

Week 6: The attempted escape of Louis XVI, the war with Austria, and the trial and eventual execution of Louis XVI. We voted on Louis’ execution after an in-class “Tug of War” activity during which students placed post-it notes with their comments on a spectrum with “Yes” on one end and “No” on the other.

My assessments for this unit included:

Interpersonal Writing: Schoology debate on the necessity and importance of the taking of the Bastille and the March to Versailles.

Interpretive Reading: Selections from Candide and an authentic document/primary source from a witness present during the taking of the Bastille (Tresors du Temps textbook, believe it or not!).

Presentational Writing: A journal from the perspective of a French citizen under the Ancien Regime.

Presentational/Interpersonal Speaking: Both modes were assessed during our debate on the DDHC.

Interpretive Listening: Assessed while watching clips from the film La Révolution française and an informational clip regarding the invention of the guillotine.

This unit also allowed me to review some past grammar points that sometimes get a little sloppy as time goes by: adjective agreement, passé composé vs. imparfait, and subjunctive were the major points addressed during this unit.

I will write a follow-up post later this week containing links to some of the supplementary resources used during this unit.

Bonne continuation!


Awkward Family (Vacation) Photos

My French 3 and 4/AP students start the year off with very similar material – a back-to-school/return-from-vacation themed mini-unit that serves as our review. To be honest, I used to feel like re-using the same themes for different levels was “cheating” but it helps simplify my planning SO much, and expectations can always be adjusted for each class to make the work level-appropriate. While my 3s need more help remembering how to form and use both the passé composé and the imparfait after a brief introduction at the end of last year, my 4s and APs have an additional year’s worth of practice with the material so they need more opportunities to narrate and spend less time on formation.

I wanted to do something that allowed them to talk about a past vacation, but last year they already dealt with the “ideal trip” prompt. I also thought they’d probably be talking a lot about what they did over the summer in their other classes, so I wanted to make this assignment more fun and interesting and thus the idea of using “awkward” family vacation photos was born.

First, I went to the Awkward Family Photos website and searched their “vacation” tag. I chose a few school-appropriate images and displayed them on the SmartBoard. For each image, I asked small groups of students to imagine what the story was behind the image. I gave them Amy Lenord’s One Sentence Story template (modified for French, of course) to help remind them of when to use the imparfait and the passé composé. We talked through each suggested story and I popped up grammar as appropriate.

Then, I had the students either choose an Awkward Family Vacation photo from an album that I provided, or they could use one of their own family vacation photos. The task was to then individually come up with a 1-minute story that explained what led to the events in the photo. We used my class set of iPads and the ShadowPuppet EDU app to create their individual presentations, which they shared via our Schoology page. I have to say, I was very pleasantly surprised by the results! Click the links below to view our videos!

Se lever du pied gauche

Have you ever had one of those days where you’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed, and for the rest of the day nothing seems to go your way? Me too. I think in this profession it happens more often than we’d like to admit! While I’m a big believer in the idea that life is 10% what happens to you and 90%  how you react to it, I can admit that sometimes I don’t react all that well when I realize I’ve woken up 40 minutes late, or forgotten my lunch at home, or that I’ve washed my face with hair conditioner instead of facewash (yes, this has happened. More than once).

Well, we’ve definitely all been there, and so have our students. Because I’m required by my district to teach reflexive verbs in both the present and the past tenses in level two, I decided to try and make the most of a tricky grammar point and add a little bit of realistic humor.

I based this part of my unit around the French idiomatic expression se lever du pied gauche, which we would express as “to wake up on the wrong side of the bed” but which literally means “to get up on the left foot” in French. This was a good hook for my students, who had fun trying to piece together all of these words (which they know individually) and make both literal and figurative meaning out of them.

I then did a MovieTalk about a guy who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. By the way – have you heard of Film English? It’s aimed mostly at ESL students and teachers but there are so many fabulous short video clips and lesson ideas that it really is a treasure trove for MovieTalk as well. In any case, in this video there’s no dialogue, but there is an interesting twist when the man “splits” in two and we can see how his day would have unfolded normally AND if he had woken up on the wrong side of the bed. I really try to flood the kids with input during this stage and do pop-ups of the grammar where I actually do very little instruction and let them work out the rules on their own. Happily, a lot of the kids got it pretty quickly.

Since this is only level 2, I can’t say that I expect them to reach mastery of these concepts at this stage but they’ll see the material again in level 3 when we reach our friendships and relationships unit. Well, we did a lot of listening, reading, describing the video, and even put together a skit in small groups in which the kids had to describe to a friend their “weird” day – such as I woke up in the dog house or I brushed my teeth with soap and washed my face with toothpaste, etc. When it came time for our writing assessment, I was pleasantly surprised with what some of them had to say:



Bonne continuation!