The Grammar Wheel

All right, my last post caused quite a stir. It went viral, was seen by over 20,000 people on Facebook, and was shared hundreds of times.

As a blogger, I’m thrilled. And surprised. But I’m also a little concerned that the post was taken out of context—both the context of my site and the context of my complex feelings toward Bloom’s taxonomy and grammar instruction. In simplest terms, I have mixed feelings about the subject, and I don’t think that was the impression I fully gave people. And that’s my fault.

Honestly? I mainly wrote that post to set up this one. Here, I want to propose a (sort of) new way to study grammar that can actually be useful for language learners.

Should we even study grammar?

There’s a lot of science that says second-language learners shouldn’t be taught grammar explicitly. A lot. Yet every successful language learner I know has studied grammar. So what’s the reason for the disconnect?

It’s complicated. For more discussion on that, here’s a video of me explaining the issue in more detail.

If you skipped the video, I said that I think some grammar instruction is beneficial—or can be beneficial, anyway. I’ve tried pure acquisition strategies (like extensive reading and listening), and while they’ve been effective, they’ve also left me lacking, especially in the speaking department.

And before we get too crazy, explicit grammar instruction only constitutes about 10% of my efforts. Yet it’s an important 10%, and if I’m going to do it, I want to do it right.

Language learning is recursive.

One thing I’m not crazy about in any Bloom’s taxonomy chart is that, at first glance, you might think that you have to master one area before moving on to the next. For instance, you might think that you have to learn all the vocabulary words before moving on to listening, all the grammar rules before moving on to speaking, and so on.

A little common sense tells us that’s not true. I’ve got around (that is, stumbled around and barely survived) in foreign countries by knowing how to greet, exchange pleasantries, and make simple requests. I only knew a few basic things, but I operated at higher cognitive levels with the limited language I had.

So I’m saying the language learning process is recursive, regardless of whatever model you want to use to analyze it. That is, you’ll learn a couple words and understand some sentence constructions (perhaps intuitively), use them or recognize them in a sentence, internalize them, and maybe even get creative with them. Then you repeat the process with a few more words and sentence constructions, and repeat the process ad infinitum.

The rolling wheel.

What I propose, then, is to do the following activities for every grammatical rule* you want to learn:

  • Step 1: Learn the rule
  • Step 2: Drill the rule
  • Step 3: Create sentences using the rule

Then repeat steps 1 through 3:

  • For the rule you’ve learned, periodically, as review
  • For every new grammatical rule you want to learn

*I understand the concept of a grammatical “rule” is controversial in language-learning circles, but for the sake of brevity, I’m using the term.

grammar_wheelNow, I’m not saying that this rolling wheel is all you need. What this is supposed to do is teach you the rule enough so that you can use it (imperfectly) in conversation and also understand it in the text you read so that you can glean meaning. As you actually communicate in the language (read, write, listen, and speak), you will internalize this rule better over time until it becomes second nature.

Here are the steps, in detail.

Step 1: Learn the Rule.

Read an explanation of the rule and try to actually remember it enough so that you can reproduce it or paraphrase it.

I know you can pick up patterns organically or by looking at a chart, and I’ve advocated exactly that in the past. In fact, I’ve often been resistant myself about seeking out explicit grammatical explanations. But when I sit down and actually read an explanation of the grammar, I can understand it better. It’s made a huge difference in my ability to retain and eventually internalize the rule.

Quick example: I had difficulty remembering the accusative case articles (den, die, das/einen, eine, ein) in German. I had seen the charts and had listened to thousands of hours of German, but I couldn’t remember if I said “einen,” “eine,” or “ein” for a given word and would get tripped up in speaking. Then I read on Wikipedia that only articles for masculine nouns were affected in the accusative case. This was a simple explanation of a pattern I hadn’t identified on my own, and with it I now make fewer mistakes.

Step 2: Drill the rule.

After you learn the rule, drill it. You can find grammar drills online for most popular languages, and they’re available in books and textbooks as well.

I really believe that drilling requires higher level cognitive skills. If you do the drills attentively, you are forced to identify possibilities and then discriminate among those possibilities to get the right answer. Then as you check your answers against the key, you are forced to identify why your answer was incorrect.

I’ve discovered that grammar drills impose a lot of the same cognitive demands on me as speaking or writing. In some ways, it’s much easier than speaking or writing, but in others it’s actually harder.

As Kev the Pharmacist pointed out on Twitter, a big key here is attentiveness, at least in the beginning. If you do the drills half-heartedly, you won’t be challenging your brain the right way. At first, really pay attention to the choices you’re making. Then as you review the material again over time, you’ll be able to recall the right answers quicker, almost on auto-pilot.

Step 3: Create sentences using the rule.

After you’ve drilled, go ahead and make your own sentences following the pattern you just worked on. You can write them out or say them out loud. For example, keeping with the German accusative article example, the drill might ask you to fill in the correct article:

Ich habe einen Hund. (I have a dog.)

Ich habe einen Apfel. (I have an apple.)

Ich habe eine Tasse Kaffee. (I have a cup of coffee.)

Ich habe ein Haus. (I have a house.)

Ich habe ein Auto. (I have a car.)

Well, when you write or say aloud your own sentences, you could try the same pattern with a new direct object:

Ich habe einen Mund. (I have a mouth.)

Or maybe change the verb:

Ich nehme einen Apfel. (I’m taking an apple.)

Or maybe change the subject:

Wir haben einen Hund. (We have a dog.)

Get creative, while somehow incorporating the content from the drill.

You’re not going to have an answer key, so you’ll just have to do your best. Doing well and improving over time is the goal. Perfection isn’t. If you really want to know if you’re on track, you can check your answers in Google Translate or another translation tool.

Back to Bloom’s.

The main point that I wanted to make by bringing up Bloom’s taxonomy in the first place is that different language learning skills make different demands on your brain—some easier, some harder.

Essentially, the grammar wheel requires you to increase the cognitive load as the wheel turns. You:

  • Start out with the easiest demand—remembering and understanding the rule.
  • Make the demand harder—drilling the rule.
  • Make the demand harder still—creating original sentences with the rule.
  • Go back to the easiest demand as you review the rule later and as you keep the wheel turning.

Is this the Grammar-translation method?

What I’m proposing isn’t really new. People have been doing a variation of this for years. What I’m trying to contribute is the “why” to this, as well as emphasize why each step is important.

It’s similar to something called the Grammar-translation method, which fell out of fashion in language learning a long time ago. But it’s definitely not exactly the same, if for no other reason than the following: I’m not telling you to stop here or to limit yourself to doing only this in your language learning. I’m telling you to use this to help make speaking minimally possible and help make texts minimally comprehensible. At that point, you can use authentic communication to really acquire the language. (Incidentally, this is the same attitude I have about explicit vocabulary instruction.)

Think of the grammar wheel as the vehicle that drives you to the gym, and using the language as the workout itself. Yeah, you could walk to the gym, but why not get there faster and easier?

  • Jakob Gibbons

    Great post man! Sorry to read about all the haters getting up in arms about Bloom’s Taxonomy.

    This is almost exactly the same approach I take to balancing grammar learning with ‘organic’ language learning. Ideally you learn grammar sort of by osmosis (okay, by subconscious recognition of patterns), and I guess scientifically speaking if you had unlimited time and were immersed then probably you would learn all or most necessary grammar rules that way eventually, but realistically I don’t think most of us learn that way as adults. I’m also a big fan of doing a bit of grammar drilling, if nothing else being aware that some rule exists (like your example about only masculine nouns changing in the accusative) so that you have a framework for interpreting it as you come across it.

    Enjoying the blog (and nice to see another Floridian language blogger 😛 ) and will be referring to your bit on Bloom’s Taxonomy in my own next post!

    • Ron G.

      Hey, thanks! Most of the reception was positive, but you know how it is–you can’t help sometimes but pay extra attention to the negative. (Some people really, really hated it, though. haha)

      I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said about grammar. I go back and forth myself, because I really wanted to believe in the “natural method,” but I just wasn’t making enough progress with it alone. At the same time, if I don’t actually use the language–listen to it, especially–then I don’t really “absorb” the grammar and I end up treating the language like computer code.

      Fellow Floridian language blogger?? Awesome. We’re a small group, for sure. Let me know when your next article comes out and I’ll definitely share it on social media.

  • Mark Voss

    Comprehensible Input Theory recommends a lot of reading and listening for beginners. “Pop-up” grammar is a foundational strategy in CI instruction. That is, when you see a structure that is new or relevant to your teaching objective, call it out and “circle it”, that is, call attention to it and ask questions from several angles. When you come across that structure in the future, call attention to it, remind students of the grammar rule that it exemplifies, and move on. Over time, eventually, it will be acquired. Drill and kill results in short-term learning. CI with frequent grammar pop-ups results in long-term acquisition.

    • Ron G.

      Hi Mark, thanks for the comment and the heads up. “Pop-up” grammar sounds like a great idea, and I’m glad to hear that some CI practitioners are using it. It sounds similar to the way I learn vocabulary words. I’ll read more about it and give it a try, except in my case as a self-studier I’ll have to use some common sense on identifying structures since I won’t have a teacher helping me.

      Just to make sure we’re on the same page, I really like the overall idea of CI myself, and it informs about 75% of what I do in my own studying, with grammar, vocab, and other studying activities rounding out the rest. I do think there are people who take some of the principles of CI to extremes, though, and shun the idea of *any* kind of grammar, vocab, or explicit “learning” techniques. Any language learning forum has its share of people with that mindset. And I’m not so sure that grammatical drills only result in short-term acquisition. I can still remember Arabic grammatical drills I practiced in speaking classes in 1997. Perhaps it was because those drills were tied to a communicative function (speaking)?

      But again, I’m intrigued by the idea of pop-up grammar and I want to look at it some more. I take it you’re a language teacher and you’ve seen good results with it?

      Thanks again!

      • Mark Voss

        Thanks for your reply and curiosity regarding CI. I think if grammar drills contain relevant, compelling, and comprehensible subject matter that is, ideally, personalized to the students’ level and interests, they can be an excellent enhancement to a CI-based curriculum… when done in moderation.