Let’s say “adiós” to conjugation charts

When I first began teaching, conjugation charts were part of what “I did” because I had learned Spanish grammar in a memorized way.  I believed it was vital for students to copy down charts and change verbs from here to there, forward and backwards, practically in their sleep.

My thoughts have drastically changed since I began my journey in the world of second language acquisition and foreign language teaching.

This antiquated style is still used in the majority of foreign language classrooms.  Teachers will argue…but they need it… it is important…how will they ever learn grammar without these types of activities?

Surprise! Did your parents sit you down when you were two years old and say, “Remember this and memorize: I am, you are, he is, she is, etc.” as a native speaker of English? I would say…certainly not! Now, when comparing first to second language acquisition, reality does set in. No, our students are not fully immersed on a daily basis in the second language. Boy, wouldn’t that be nice? Due to this, we are limited with our daily block of time, in terms how much “language” they are hearing and truly acquiring. However, making the most of this time is essential and critical to their language development.

Some Steps to Saying “Adios” to Conjugation Charts

1. Avoid the textbook “grammar” sections

Sure, they make sense. To you! You are a passionate teacher of this second language and you love grammar! Now, take a look at your student population, how many of them jump out of their seats to tell you the difference between direct and indirect object pronouns? Yes, I thought you might think that very low number. Majority rules, students have no idea which tense is which or why certain words come before others. They understand the language and use the language because of the context in which the grammar was presented to them. They understood patterns as children, identified similarities and rationalized when to use one tense or another. And, they had models of good language that they listen to and made sense of, little by little. Parents never scold children for saying “You is happy”, they simply say, “Yes, you are happy.” and consistently provide good input in a non-threatening, positive environment where mistakes are seen as moments of moving forward because this young mind is constructing language independently and finally able to articulate thoughts.

So, language teachers, relax with the perfection. Be a model of good language but don’t force feed the drills and charts into these young minds. In developing language classes, embrace those moments of student output because how wonderful for that student, they took a chance and were able to use the language they know, to express their thoughts. As students continue in the study of the language and the rigor increases naturally, students can discover patterns, understand the grammar in an authentic context and ultimately formulate as a class, why certain structures exist. Allow students to identify the grammatical components of the language and you as their teacher, be their guide to discovery.

If you are shaking your head in disbelief of this recommendation, I ask that you try this with at least one grammatical concept. Put that worksheet packet aside for one day. See how they do when grammar is presented as a backdrop, not as the main stage act. Allow grammar to be a tool in understanding the language, not the guide to your daily language instruction.

2Appropriate input: Use reading materials daily

Students should be reading in the target language every day, as much as they can. Now, this reading should be at a level of i+1, meaning there is a focus on high frequency structures or it has been adapted to fit their reading needs, with a few vocabulary words that may be new.

Let’s imagine a 1st grader attempting to read through the New York Times, that would be too cognitively demanding for that student with the array of new vocabulary, topics that may or may not be of interest and a considerable amount of reading skills needed to comprehend that level of writing.

Start small. Target high frequency words in the language. Select or create reading materials based upon those structures and allow students to add in their own vocabulary of importance to the overall reading material. Students want to read, as long as they are interested and are able to find success in comprehending what they are reading. Long lists of isolated vocabulary words are daunting. Which vocabulary words are most useful for the students to learn, given their frequency and use? Which vocabulary words will students actually use if placed in a situation where they must communicate with a native speaker of their language of study? Look at your current list of words from Chapter X, and cross out everything that seems silly to teach. Using readers, short stories, songs, and advertisements: anything that is linguistically appropriate to their level of proficiency…that is what you strive for.

Team up with your colleagues {who are willing} and begin to cross out the unnecessary fluff that is added in. Agree on those common structures and make the language meaningful for your students by emphasizing the structures and phrases that are most useful. If proficiency is your end goal, build in as much reading as possible into your current curriculum and allow student interest to drive vocabulary instruction.

Good readers = Good speakers & writers! 🙂

3. Scripted or memorized dialogues…prove?

It was always a little funny for me when students asked if they could write down and use their “lines” for an interpersonal scenario. My response was, “Do you write down what you plan to say to each other in English?” They would shake their heads and go back to their partner, as they would continue  to practice discussing a variety of topics with one another.

I evolved my “interpersonal” communicative activities from in front of the whole class {which is nerve wrecking!}, to a “round robin” approach or “standing line/movement” approach. We want to hear spontaneous language in use, when appropriate. Students would either work in partners, sitting in a circle formation (inside/outside) or stand in a line, that would move to the right/left/two people/three people. During each movement, I would display/announce either a topic or question to the group. Students would randomly speak with their peers in this informal, non-scripted setting. I would listen to their comments to one another and not provide grades, but overall feedback to the group. I would pose questions to the students about the grammar they had used or the vocabulary they choose. As a class, they would reaffirm their grammatical knowledge by saying they had to emphasize the “o” because it is in the past tense or use “Ellos” instead of Maria y Juan multiple times in their speaking. Students would continue to formulate their rationale behind the grammar in the language and I would facilitate and fill in the gaps when needed. A “feedback” activity such as this, took no more than 5 minutes in my class. Quick, simple and to the point! As second language learners, they can all have gentle reminders about grammatical patterns and structures, it was not necessary to be explicitly explained and provide instruction on for 45 minutes.

If a teacher does plan to have students “script” a dialogue, let’s step out of our comfort zones and not waste valuable in class time on individual or paired presentations. Have students create a video, presentation or podcast. They can they share with the group {using social media such as Edmodo makes it simple for the whole class to view} and select which students they would like to listen to, view their presentation and possibly provide feedback. This then becomes a presentational/interpretive task for students. The teacher can also assign specific tasks while listening or things to “look out for”.

Ideally, if the classroom teacher can provide an informal setting for non-native students to speak with native students- this is where magic happens! Students learn best and use all/any means necessary to get their message across. Native speakers act as fantastic language models for the non-native students and ultimately, students will be proud of their resilience in articulating their message as best they can. I have found that teaming older students up with younger students also provides a nice dynamic.


I hope that saying “adios” to conjugation charts doesn’t seem like too radical of an approach. World language teachers have the daily opportunity to create meaningful, engaging lessons for their students, tailored to meet their interests & needs. What a unique ability- compared to the other disciplines! So, go ahead, make your math teachers jealous and rock the boat a bit, as you begin to ditch those conjugation charts and look forward to warmer waters, in this sea of comprehensible input.