Grammar in Context

A Core Practice of World Language Teaching

Lucas Hoffman, OFLA Treasurer
Sylvania Southview High School

This is the fifth article in a series about the nationally developed core practices of world language teaching.  Are you new to the Core Practices? These are researched-informed best practices that should be mastered practices by any beginning teacher in world language education.  

In previous articles, I wrote about:

  • shooting for 90% target language use
  • giving better feedback to learners
  • planning with the backward design model
  • helping students to interact with authentic resources

Core Practice: Teach Grammar as Concept and Use in Context
Students focus on meaning BEFORE form.

What does this mean for you?

Well, this might mean a real shift in teaching and learning.  Perhaps a bigger shift than with the other core practices. Many teachers, both traditional and modern, have already sought to follow some of the other core practices: use of target language, planning with the end in mind, etc.  

So how do you teach grammar?  Do you teach to use the language?  Or do you teach about the language?  

This core practice might ask teachers to totally reorganize how and why they “teach” grammar to students.  In this article, I’ll introduce Dr. Bonnie Adair-Hauck & Dr. Richard Donato’s PACE Model. It’s an inductive approach that asks students to observe language and later make some generalizations and perhaps rules, with the teacher’s guidance.  If you follow this approach, you will be making a purposeful shift away from teaching about the language to teaching to use the language.

Why make this shift?  Anecdotally, I say that students enjoy this process much better!  As language detectives, they are more involved in the language learning process.  Many educators also claim that inductive methods lead to better student learning. Finally, as we think about AP, APPPL and STAMP testing or ACTFL’s OPI, learner achievement is no longer measured by the conjugation of a verb.  If perfection in grammar is no longer a goal, why do many programs still continue to focus on that? Should we not teach instead with an approach that places emphasis on communication before form?

THE PACE Model: a 4-step inductive method for students to make sense of the “rules”


The teacher selects a text with a frequent and salient grammatical form (present tense use of -er verbs  in French,  past tense of -ar verbs in Spanish, the use of the subjunctive, etc.)  This works most easily with a hard-copy text. The teacher then presents the text to the class, and students then interact with the text.  This step is critical and does take time. Students might annotate the text, complete a study guide, summarize or paraphrase the text, make connections to the text and/or make predictions, etc.


Once students have been able to “make sense” of the text, call their attention to the grammatical form that you preselected.  Are they going to observe how verbs are conjugated in the past tense? Explain that they will need to look for patterns (-é, -aste, ó) that reoccur in the text.  The teacher can guide their observation by highlighting or bolding verb endings on key expressions.  


As a whole group, the teacher guides students to develop a “rule” about the grammatical form.  Note that for this to be an inductive process, the teacher should not give students answers. He/she offers questions to prompt student thinking.  For example: What time frame was this writing in? Is this present tense?  How do you know?  How does the “yo” form end in this text?,  What do the “yo” form endings all have in common?,  Or are there any exceptions?, etc. Note that with proper planning and teacher creativity, this process can be done in the target language.  Once again, this stage will take some time. It should not be rushed.  


Once the teacher and students have agreed upon a rule or perhaps a set of rules, the learners should have an opportunity to extend their thinking by using the form in context.  For example, learners might write a short paragraph telling what they did yesterday or this past weekend or they might summarize in the past tense what happened in the text from the “yo” or “I” point of view.

My PACE example

Goal: To tell one daily routine (using the reflexive se expressions) in Spanish

Present: I read a copy of La ardilla miedosa via the video projector. We pause frequently to check for understanding.  My students might also fill out a comprehension guide or we might play a comprehension check game.

Attention:  I ask students to notice patterns in the squirrel’s daily routine.  I’ve highlighted the “se”.  We reread certain passages where “se” is frequently used.  

Co-construct: Through guided questions and answers, my students should determine that the “se” is used to indicate actions that the squirrel does to himself as he gets ready and goes through his daily routine.

Extension: I ask students to tell me their own daily routine by filling out a graphic organizer formatted after one they saw in the story.  Note that I’ve designed this to allow for additional input with limited output.

What does this mean for your students?

This process allows students to serve as language detectives to identify patterns and make generalizations about how the language works.  This approach is friendly for student-centered classrooms.  

Some examples or resources to consider:


The Pace Model by the WL Classroom


What is the take-away?

By focusing on the meaning before form, students continue to interact with language and have a clearer context for how and why certain grammatical features are used.  Even though it takes time, it is at the heart of communicative language teaching.


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