Grammar & Vocab

Teaching without textbooks doesn’t mean you never talk about grammar, that you inhabit some free-form Shangri-La where there are no rules and everything happens magically. What a lack of textbooks has actually meant for me, is that my class discusses grammar every day. We talk about it in context – as a tool to understand the films, stories, or songs we’re working on at the time. But we definitely talk about grammar. Out loud, on purpose, explicitly.

All. The. Time.

(Mostly in the target language.)

Vocabulary acquisition, however? That does indeed begin to stray into  seemingly magical territory. I never make students memorize vocabulary – I never distribute lists, I never quiz them or test them on the words I want them to remember. If they aren’t remembering a word, either it’s not being used enough, it isn’t connected to a memorable story / personality / song / film. Or, for reasons we can’t predict, it just hasn’t been worth remembering.

I’ll tell you a quick anecdote that was a seminal moment for me: A colleague told me he had a list of the 100 most common words in Spanish. I was very excited by this and asked if he could send me a copy. Sure, he said; I’ll send it right away, he said. But for days, he didn’t get around to it. I’d remind him, bug him about it – I searched for an easy version to copy from the internet, but they kept contradicting each other. I needed this list; I was hungry for this list. I checked my inbox for it constantly.

But the time I spent waiting for the list, anticipating it, cooking up ways I’d use it, made me think about the list in the cold light of day, beyond the excitement of hearing about it, or of holding it in my hands. And I realized  something important:

The list was an interesting artifact, but it wasn’t an efficient way to communicate this information to my students. Provided I speak to them in Spanish all the time – which I do – and provided I have them read / watch / listen to Spanish all the time – which I do – those 100 most common words will come up so bloody often that the list itself will be totally redundant. I realized that I could probably already guess what the 100 most common words were. And I felt sure they’d be words my students could have kicked out effortlessly, in their sleep.

I started seeing quizzes and tests in general in a whole new light. The time my students could have spent memorizing the list, with flashcards and quiz-bots, would have been far, far better spent actually meaningfully interacting with the language.

The 500 most common words in Spanish? Same thing. The most common 1,000? 3,000? 10,000? Same.

As an educated adult, native speaker of English, I myself probably have a working English vocabulary of about 20,000 words.

Guess how many I learned with flashcards.

Talk, watch, read, listen, ponder. Analyze, rephrase, explain; write down, connect, wonder. The vocabulary takes care of itself.