All Words Are Created Equal

All words are created equal.  I heard this at the CSC Conference in Indianapolis in March in reference to language learning.  I’ve been thinking about that statement in relation to teaching verb conjugations.  Verbs are not treated like other words when teaching Spanish; they have a special place in the front and center.  They are the bane of many a language students’ existence and the source of angst for teachers trying to do their best.  Teachers have attempted to help their students to memorize the 14 tenses in Spanish, creating games, mnemonics, chants, rhymes, songs, conjugation web sites, and verb charts for students to fill out.   

Here is what would typically happen in my classroom when teaching verbs.  Let’s take the imperfect tense, for example.  I would explain it in just a few “easy” steps:

  1. here is the infinitive of an -er verb (comer)
  2. drop off the ending (-er)
  3. here are the endings. (Teacher writes verb chart on the board.)  choose the conjugated ending you need to match the subject (yo, tú, etc.)
  4. this is an -er verb so you have to choose and -er/-ir verb ending, not the -ar endings we learned last week.
  5. this is the imperfect tense, so you can’t use the present or preterite tense endings you memorized previously
  6. we’ll talk about the irregular verbs next week.

Imagine that the student is trying to converse with a native speaker in Spanish, and they are mentally going through those steps each time they need a verb.  How long will the listener have to wait for the speaker to come up with the right verb? 

It could be argued that, if the students practice conjugating the verbs enough, it will lead to automacity, and they wouldn’t need as much think time.  Perhaps this is so, but as we are marching through our curriculum, do we stay with any one tense long enough to allow for this automacity?  Does the automacity lead to transfer to authentic contexts for using them?  Why am I handing students the verb parts and expecting them to create a whole?  Why not teach the verbs as a whole to begin with? 

This year in Spanish II, I began teaching the preterite tense, as I always do in level II.  Since I’ve been busy experimenting with level I, my level II class has been rather neglected, so I just taught them the regular preterite by putting the verb conjugations on the board.  I did some whole language things, but mainly it was conjugation practice.  When the students did a presentational oral about a vacation, I heard a lot of nadí and nademos, comé, etc.  Wrong endings on the verbs.  I gave them infinitives and endings, and they had to do the rest, but they didn’t do it correctly.  Should I have drilled the verbs more, or is there another way? 

Next semester I am going to experiment with having the students see and hear the verbs conjugated correctly in communicative contexts over and over, using them just like we would any other vocabulary word, and see what happens. 

I’m thinking about contexts in which I can present the verbs in the preterite.  My last chapter was supposed to be about art and food (weird combination of themes, I know, not sure what the textbook publishers were thinking) but I never really got to talking about the art because I had to get them ready for the semester exam.  I thought we could read some artist biographies and the history behind some artworks, such as Guernica.  I thought I could also create some lessons abound cultural events like the Running of the Bulls, narrating from the point of view of someone who participated.   In short, the verbs are going to be mixed up with all the other words, and we’ll learn them the same as all the rest.  I’ll let you know how it turns out. 😉

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