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A reductive grammar approach to the teaching of Spanish as a second language. (Language Teaching & Learning).


The role of pedagogical grammar has always been a controversial issue in the second language learning process. According to Krashen and Terrell's Natural Approach (1983), grammatical explanations and exercises are to be written clearly and concisely. Likewise, a reductive grammar focuses on a single distinguishing characteristic in the use of a particular grammar point. The distinguishing characteristic is linked to a conceptualization, which aids in a clear presentation of the grammar point and simplifies the learning process. This article proposes that by using a reductive grammar approach the learners' oral and written performance is positively affected for some linguistic topics.

1.0 Introduction

The role of pedagogical grammar in foreign language instruction is a highly controversial issue. Over the years the pendulum has swung back and forth between great emphasis on grammar as in the Grammar-Translation Method and absence of in-class practice of grammar as in the Natural Approach. Most instructors of Spanish have realized that the grammarless syllabus is extreme.

The need for a pedagogical grammar exists in second language instruction, but many applied linguists question the extent and kind of that need. Terrell (1982) states that in order to increase oral competence our expectations for structural accuracy must be lowered. In opposition to Terrell, Higgs and Clifford (1982) posit that a potential obstacle in achieving a high level of oral proficiency is the de-emphasis of grammatical accuracy resulting in fossilization.

In light of Terrell's and Higgs' and Clifford's observations, it seems that a reductive grammar approach might solve these problems. Such an approach provides the learner of Spanish with a reduced dose of grammar, enough to promote accuracy and enhance comprehension (Zephir 2000) but not too much so as to take away from practice time in the classroom. This approach focuses on a single distinguishing characteristic in usage of a particular linguistic point and links it to a conceptualization thereby clearly presenting the grammar point, while simplifying and simultaneously maximizing the learning process.

2.0 A Definition of Reductive Grammar

By examining the linguistic features of a typical introductory Spanish textbook, it is simple to compile a list of grammatical sets and conceptual systems organized according to similarities or differences between their members from a pedagogical viewpoint. The following is a partial list of binary grammatical features covered during the first year of study at the university level:

1. gender, male and female (both biological and grammatical)

2. number-singular and plural

3. nouns--count and measure

4. adjective position, before or after the noun

5. nouns and pronouns

6. forms of address, tu vs. usted

7. word order, interrogative and declarative statements

8. "irregular" vs. regular verbs

9. haber vs. ser

10. conjugated vs. unconjugated verbs

11. ser vs. estar

12. reflexive vs. nonreflexive verbs

13. saber vs. conocer

14. ...

All the items have high functional loads and involve conceptualizations. Since there is always a semantic contrast between the items in the pair, it is the responsibility of the teacher to introduce the idea of conceptualization from the onset of instruction so that the learner can identify the true, underlying meanings of the items that form the pair. Everything that the teacher says and does in the classroom and any means that brings the learner in contact with the second language is pedagogically relevant.

A reductive grammar approach consolidates the traditional, often multi-faceted grammar rules into one clearly expressed description to capture the essence of a function. In the pedagogical process, once the reduced rule is devised, complete attention should be given to it in such a way that each and every example is related to or justified by it. The benefits of internalizing a one- or two-part rule can be considerable because the learner is able to focus not only on the apparent meanings of the structure but also on its underlying meanings. This is attributed to the inefficacy of mentally passing through the lists of usages, or at least the ones that are remembered, until the adequate application is encountered. Bull and Lamadrid (1971) state that this is "one of the fundamental reasons why many students are frustrated and fail to achieve success" (449). Hence, by eliminating this procedure, the learner is able to redirect his/her effort to conceptualizing the structure, an essential aspect in second language learning that is too often lacking.

A reductive grammar approach centers on a simplified grammar, presented in for-the-student language that considers the student's previously acquired knowledge of grammar, and via direct and clear practice always emphasizing conceptualization. But a "reduced" rule is more than the simplified "rule of thumb", for it focuses the learner's awareness on the essence of the usage, and not merely on when to use a given construct. It requires that the student grasp the basic meaning/usage of a given foreign language item, although he/she may as yet be unable to deal with each and every apparent exception to the rule.

A reductive grammar approach fosters more dependable binding of meaning to form and provides a means for monitoring for access of the needed rule. That is, the appropriate grammar optimally will be available to provide output rather unconsciously, or minimally it will be available via some degree of monitoring. The established goal of a reductive grammar approach is to focus on oral competence, while simultaneously equipping the learner with the knowledge to construct grammatically correct output (both oral and written), resulting from the learner's conceptualization of a succinct grammar.

3.0 A Comparative Analysis of a Reductive Grammar Approach and its Predecessors

To determine how a reductive grammar approach compares to mainstream approaches, it is essential to focus on the roles of grammar, teacher talk, and conceptualization in each method or approach.

3.1 The Role of Grammar

Traditionally, most second language methodologies and approaches such as the Natural Approach have sought the best ways to present and practice the grammar of the target language.

Krashen (1983), as part of his theoretical model of the Natural Approach, presents the natural order hypothesis, stating that "grammatical structures are acquired in a predictable order," and that "certain structures will tend to be acquired early, while others will tend to be acquired late" (28). Hence a trend to de-emphasize the role of grammar in the instruction process and emphasize the development of the students' lexicon.

Frey (1993), explains that "down through the years, foreign language teachers and researchers have acknowledged that linguistically only two things happen in the classroom: grammar and vocabulary. And there has always been a kind of consensus that, of course you need both, and that there is inevitably some kind of tradeoff" and "if you devote more time to grammar, then the lexicon will suffer, and vice-versa" (n. pag.).

Widdowson (1990) takes the position that it is not grammar, but the lexicon that should occupy the bulk of class time. Based on his assumption that communication is driven by words and not by grammar, that is, that grammar is put to the service of lexis, Widdowson suggests that "a more natural and more effective approach would be to reverse this pedagogical dependency, begin with lexical items and show how they need to be grammatically modified to be communicatively effective" (95).

Krashen's (1983) view parallels that of Widdowson in that, although in the Natural Approach grammar has its role, it is a minor one, and the building of an extensive lexicon is more important, especially at the beginning levels of language learning. Their goal is to produce optimal monitor-users, who rely on grammar only when appropriate. For optimal monitor use to occur only certain grammar rules need to be taught in the Natural Approach. This will prevent grammar from interfering with the ultimate goal: communication of the message. However, at later stages in the study of language, overt grammar instruction has an important role. Here, the purpose is different from that in beginning level language classes. It is reserved for those learners who wish to achieve a superior level of second language proficiency.

Pedagogical grammar for a reductive grammar approach is more apparent than in the Natural Approach. However, it would not approach the level of prominence that it has in the grammar-translation setting. Frey (1993) advises that contrary to what Krashen and Terrell propose it is naive and impractical to almost completely eliminate grammar from the curriculum. "Also naive is any expectation that our students would ever or could ever absorb enough comprehensible input to offset any lack of grammatical focus and practice" (n. pag.). This is true because the number of contact hours with the target language is insufficient for learners of a second language who learn that language outside the [L.sub.2]-speaking world. Their hypothesis would attain greater credibility if the learner were exposed to a total immersion environment.

Given the environment in which we as language teachers must execute our instruction, at least some grammar must be taught. The grammar taught in a reductive grammar approach first must be simplified. The term "reductive" denotes a compact, umbrella-type rule of usage, centering on simplified grammar. Second, the reductive grammar rules must be accurate in that they reflect native speaker knowledge, and clearly and simply capture the essence of a usage.

Higgs and Clifford (1982) reinforce the necessity of the presence of grammar in the foreign language curriculum by stating, in direct opposition to Krashen's input hypothesis, that without paying attention to grammatical inaccuracies early in the acquisition process, fossilization occurs at Level 1+ or Level 2+, resulting in the terminal 2 learner. A reductive grammar would appear to provide just enough grammar to appease Higgs and Clifford as it would propel the learner to levels beyond 2+ while simultaneously even surprising disciples of Krashen and Terrell by creating beginning learners who not only are able to communicate, but are able to do so in a grammatically correct fashion.

4.0 The Role of Teacher Talk

Everything that flows from the teacher's mouth is important in the process of second language instruction. The teacher is responsible for explaining, clarifying, and expanding on the information found in the text, providing feedback on grammatical accuracy of translations, and keeping the class moving from one sentence to another.

The Prussian (Berlitz) Method and, later, the Direct and Audiolingual Methods redirected the principal proficiency-oriented goals from reading and writing to listening and speaking. In these "oral" methods what the teacher says is of great importance for the student to hear in order to then speak the language. Apart from modeling the foreign language, the teacher controls the pace and direction of learning and corrects errors made by the students. Essentially, teacher talk is anything the teacher says in class (Richards and Rodgers 1986).

Ellis (1985) compares teacher talk with foreigner talk. He states that a language teacher modifies the register used to best suit the needs of the students. Ellis defines teacher talk as the "adjustments to both language form and language function in order to facilitate communication" (304).

Frey (1988), however, defines teacher talk as a component of the Natural Approach somewhat differently than Richards and Rodgers (1986). He describes teacher talk as not including "fixed or structured segments of a class, such as (pattern) drills, recited or read dialogues, lists of questions, and so on" (681). On the contrary, teacher talk is "anything that the teacher says spontaneously, without a script, the actual linguistic content of which is created to suit a special need" (681). Frey and Grove (1996) further state that "while teacher talk is in fact unscripted and unplanned, a trained teacher can learn to `plan' or fashion ... an utterance to achieve the desired purpose" (19).

This leads to the importance of the role of teacher talk in a reductive grammar approach. The purpose of teacher talk, according to Frey (1988), is "to model and to guide practice in the target language. This includes conveying information and eliciting responses" (682). He continues by stating that methodologies that emphasize oral production also promote extensive comprehension practice. It is primarily in the form of teacher talk that the comprehension practice exists, although the other students in the class, as well as the language lab, provide a language source as well. Frey suggests that the form of teacher talk be established according to the following criteria: 1) an appropriate level of grammatical difficulty of the language, 2) a balance of practice of grammar and lexicon, 3) a varied teacher talk, and 4) an appropriate content of the language. Regarding methodology, Frey proposes a four-step procedure when working with a specific grammatical structure or lexical item: 1) introduce, 2) practice and vary, 3) reenter, and 4) combine with a previously learned structure (683).

Within a reductive grammar framework, teacher talk is of great significance. Introduction of the grammar point, for example, consists of providing the learner with a basic use, function or meaning of the point. In the practice step, the teacher must make every effort to get the students to conceptualize the true meaning of the grammar point. A continuing effort in the form of reentry and combinatory drills must be made to ensure that the students not only control the usage but also the conceptualization of the grammar item (Frey 1993).

Teacher talk is an integral part of second language acquisition (Grove 1999), especially in a reductive grammar approach in which practice supersedes study. Teachers must be aware of what they say in class so that, if necessary, their utterances can be modified in such a way so as to be pedagogically economical and result in the production of more proficient second language learners.

5.0 Analysis of Proficiency Attainment in a Reductive Grammar Approach

A reductive grammar approach ideally would be oriented toward proficiency in all areas of language usage. The following example outlining a lesson treating set and estar demonstrates how a reductive grammar approach achieves higher levels of proficiency than any of the methods or approaches presented herein.

The following is a typical lesson dealing with set and estar in a reductive grammar approach. First, students would orally be presented with a group of sample sentences containing the target grammar (i.e., ser and estar + adjective) in conjunction with manipulatives such as pictures. With the use of these manipulatives, direct attention would be given to conceptualization. The same or similar manipulatives would be used as stimuli to elicit an oral response--a response including the correct verb choice. Additional oral acquisition activities would be performed until the concept is grasped.

The question exists as to whether the reductive grammar rule should be deductive or inductive. Studies have shown that if the student is capable of arriving at the generalization of the grammar rule as a result of being bombarded with conceptualized examples, the student is more apt to internalize the rule. Therefore, if the rule lends itself (i.e., is simple and clear) to an inductive approach, then, by all means, it should be utilized. However, if the rule is confusing--the exact problem that a reductive grammar approach intends to avoid--then a deductive approach may be more effective. An additional writing activity to be completed as homework might be to provide captions to a cartoon in which it is evident that the student must choose between the correct copulative verb--set or estar--followed by an adjective.

Throughout the didactic process of a reductive grammar approach, the instructor must dwell on, focus on, insist on, clarify, define, practice, test, remind, compare, characterize, exemplify and even explain directly, but in a simplified form, the reductive pedagogical grammar; a concept making it different from the Natural Approach (Frey 1993). The principal distinguishing characteristic of the two approaches is the question of grammatical attention. The Natural Approach practitioners--certainly the purists--have all but dispensed with grammar and have focused on negotiating meaning rather than accuracy of form (at least at the initial stages). Thus, an extensive lexicon is essential. The established goal of a reductive grammar approach is to focus on oral competence, while, simultaneously, equipping the student with the knowledge to construct grammatically correct utterances resulting from the conceptualization of a succinct grammar. The question still remains as to why the student should have to wait until the more advanced levels of proficiency to focus on structural accuracy as proposed by the Natural Approach when, from the initial stages, oral and written communicative competence as well as accuracy can be coalesced to turn out a more successful second language learner.

6.0 Conclusions

Upon comparing this reductive grammar approach with other mainstream approaches and methodologies, it is clear that a comparison of a reductive grammar approach with a traditional grammar approach as both relate to long term retention of grammatical structures is warranted.

Clearly, focus on form is beneficial in the second language learning process (DeKeyser 1998). However, the amount, form, and manner in which the grammar is presented are central to a reductive grammar approach. Grammatical explanations should be accurate and simplified in a way that captures the essence of a usage. Pedagogically, the explanations and practice need to be conceptualized. Conceptualizations, hypothetically, should contribute to long term storage. Clear explanation in conjunction with ample comprehensible input should result in producing more highly proficient learners than would any other method of second language learning.

Works Cited

Bull, William and Enrique Lamadrid. "Our Grammar Rules are Hurting Us." Modern Language Journal 55 (1971): 449-54.

DeKeyser, Robert. "Beyond Focus on Form: Cognitive Perspectives on Learning and Practicing Second Language Grammar." Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language

Acquisition. Catherine Doughty and Jessica Williams, eds. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Ellis, Rod. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.

Frey, Herschel. "The Applied Linguistics of Teacher Talk." Hispania 71 (1988): 681-86.

--. "Reductive Grammar for Learners of Spanish." Unpublished work, 1993.

-- and Charles Grove. "How to Enhance Teacher Talk." The Northeast Conference Newsletter 39 (Winter 1996): 18-23.

Grove, Charles. "Focusing on Form in the Communicative Classroom: An Output-Centered

Model of Instruction for Oral Skills Development." Hispania 82(1999): 817-29.

Higgs, Theodore and Ray Clifford. "The Push Toward Communication." Curriculum, Competence and the Foreign Language Teacher. Theodore Higgs, ed. ACTFL Foreign Language Educational Series, vol. 7. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Co., 1982.

Krashen, Stephen and Tracy Terrell. The Natural Approach. Language Acquisition in the Classroom. Oxford: Pergamon P, 1983.

Richards, Jack and Theodore Rodgers. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Terrell, Tracy. "The Natural Approach to Language Teaching: An Update." Modern Language Journal 66 (1982): 121-32.

Widdowson, Henry. Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.

Zephir, Flore. "Focus on Form and Meaning: Perspectives of Developing Teachers and Action-Based Research." Foreign Language Annals 33, 1 (2000): 19-30.

Darrell, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Spanish currently pursuing an active teaching and research agenda in Spanish Applied Linguistics, Foreign Language and Teacher Education, Articulation, and Translation Studies.
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Author:Dernoshek, Darrell J.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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