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Reimagining Grammar Instruction: A Playful and Effective Approach

Overloading on grammar is not the way. It’s incredible how much the brain can notice patterns and naturally see the syntax of grammar worlds without drilling it into their brains. I’m sure you feel it, too. What makes me super sad is that so many students believe they can’t learn a language, and the worst part is that I understand why they feel this way! I’m excited to share my technique and report that IT WORKS! 

There are other ways to reach our grammar goals. Let’s rethink the importance and priority of focusing too much on details when teaching a new language. The most significant consequence of frontloading grammar is its potential to deter students from continuing their language-learning journey. Faced with the overwhelming challenges and perceived lack of progress, students may become disillusioned with the language learning process and lose motivation to persist. This reluctance to continue learning deprives students of the many benefits of language proficiency and perpetuates the cycle of disengagement and discouragement. 

In this blog, I’ll discuss why you might want to reconsider how grammar is taught to your students and offer suggestions and tips for a more natural, seamless approach. 

Hi, I’m Juliana, a multilingual learner from New York, USA. I taught in private and public schools in New York, USA, and I have my Master's degree in education from New York. Before I go into my approach, a little bit about myself is here: I’m a multilingual learner, and English is my first language.

I grew up in a monolingual home with Italian heritage, so Italian words were sprinkled throughout. It wasn’t until I failed the Spanish state exam that I was 14 years old. I FAILED Spanish. Yep, well, I went to summer school, had a great teacher, and started to teach myself French and Italian. I teach children 7-11 all three languages, so when I refer to my students, that is my age range! I even hired a teacher who believes in teaching through stories and natural language acquisition!

I can tell you that every kid can be fluent. 

 I’ve seen so many French and Spanish classes taught like math, with grammar drills and memorization: formulas and memorization! It's boring.  Teaching grammar is necessary, but not for the sake of more students believing they can’t learn a new language!  When students are bombarded with complex grammar rules without adequate support or scaffolding, it’s not surprising that frustration and disengagement quickly set in. Many students struggle to make sense of the abstract concepts presented, leading to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. 

Unfortunately, this approach isn’t just practiced in the walls of schools but also in language schools! While teaching English in Argentina, I remember taking a coffee break and chatting with another English teacher from Canada, which still left a big impression.

This shocked me, and I still remember this more than a decade later. The teacher was beaming because she told me she taught ALL the verb tenses in ONE CLASS! Do you know how many verb tenses there are and how many irregular verbs there are in English? 

So what’s my solution for this? I’ll chat about how I approach grammar with our DECODE IT technique! 

The students I teach range in age from 7 to 14 years, are from America, and are usually monolingual. It’s not very common for children in the USA to actively pressure language learning and pay money for it! #freeduolingo

 Introducing formal grammar rules right at the beginning of language learning, a practice commonly referred to as frontloading grammar, can present significant challenges for students, particularly young learners. While the intention behind this approach may be to establish a strong foundation in grammar, it often has the opposite effect, leading to many drawbacks that hinder the learning process.  

Frontloading grammar, or introducing formal grammar rules at the beginning of language learning, can often overwhelm students, especially young learners. It inundates them with abstract concepts and rules without providing meaningful context or practical application. This approach can lead to frustration, disengagement, and reluctance to continue learning the language.

Example: Imagine a young child being introduced to a list of grammatical terms like nouns, verbs, and adjectives without any context or understanding of how these concepts apply to real-world communication. It’s like handing them a toolbox without teaching them how to use it effectively. #diaster

Reason #1 Overwhelms Students: 

Frontloading grammar inundates students with a barrage of abstract concepts, terminology, and rules, all presented in a condensed and often daunting manner. This flood of information can feel overwhelming and intimidating for many students, especially those with limited prior exposure to the language. Without sufficient time to absorb and digest these concepts, students may quickly become discouraged and disheartened by the apparent complexity of the language. Your student might not feel overwhelmed, but pay attention to signs that they’ve withdrawn from trying or being actively engaged.

Reason 2 Lacks Meaningful Context:

 One of the fundamental flaws of frontloading grammar is its failure to provide students with meaningful context or practical application for the grammar rules they are taught. Instead of relating grammar concepts to real-world communication scenarios or everyday language use, frontloading often presents grammar as a series of abstract, disconnected rules to be memorized and regurgitated. This lack of context robs students of seeing the relevance and utility of grammar in their own lives, leading to a sense of detachment and disinterest.

After seeing students feel confused and disconnected from grammar, I decided to try something new to make grammar more active—almost like a game! This isn’t an entirely new concept; perhaps you can use or modify it, but take the idea and make it your own!

Reason 3: The Power of Symbolic Representation:

 It almost works as a game—kids respond to game-like activities. 

Breaking down language structures into symbols offers a more intuitive and accessible way for students to grasp grammar concepts. Instead of bombarding them with abstract terminology, symbolic representation allows students to visualize and internalize grammar rules in a concrete and tangible manner. Truthfully, we use this terminology with students who don’t fully understand their language, let alone trying to understand it in a new language.

You can have fun making your own set of symbols! I use the symbols in the annotate options provided on Zoom for easy online teaching. Keep the symbols simple so the students can do it quickly and effortlessly.  You can also color code rather than using symbols! 


-LIVING: This category encompasses anything with a heart, such as people, animals, and plants. By associating living entities with the heart symbol, students can easily identify and classify nouns that fall into this category.

- ACTION: The ACTION category represents verbs denoting actions or occurrences. By introducing a symbol that signifies movement or activity, students can identify verbs within a sentence based on their function as action words. We use a check mark, like a checkmark means it’s DONE, action is DONE!

- THING: In contrast, the THING category represents inanimate objects or abstract concepts that do not possess a heart. Using the symbol of a generic object, students can recognize nouns that belong to this category based on their non-living nature.

- DESCRIBE: The DESCRIPTION category represents adjectives, which describe or modify nouns. This symbol is a visual cue to help students identify words that add descriptions or attributes to nouns. Additionally, teachers can use this category to demonstrate adjective agreement, showing students how adjectives must match the gender, number, and/or case of the noun they modify in specific languages.

-WHEN: The WHEN category can be used for the time of day, the seasons, the months, the hour, before or after. Do you see how versatile this is?!

-WHERE: The WHERE category represents places or locations that connect to the question "WHERE?" Answers could be from the house, park, below the desk, at school, or the beach.

Through this expanded symbolic representation, grammar becomes more than just a set of rules to be memorized; it becomes a dynamic and interactive exploration of language. By engaging with symbols that resonate with their understanding, students are empowered to navigate the intricacies of grammar with confidence and creativity. 

You could always have the students create their symbols for what you decide to focus on! The key is to keep it straightforward and attainable. 

Reason 4: Constructing Sentences as Puzzle Pieces:

Viewing language as "buckets of speech" enables students to approach grammar as a creative and dynamic construction process. Instead of focusing solely on memorizing rules, students learn to assemble sentences like puzzle pieces, combining different parts of speech to convey meaning and expression.

In summary, frontloading grammar can be counterproductive, as it overwhelms students with abstract rules and terminology. Instead, by breaking down language structures into symbols and fostering a playful and exploratory approach to grammar, educators can create a more engaging and practical learning experience for their students.

Will you try this technique and approach with your language students? 

Happy learning!



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