I used to teach the verb “être” (to be) using a fun grammar song. We would learn the song, put all the verb forms in a verb chart, and practice, practice, practice through drills, conversations, and various writing activities. Sounds familiar? Well, these past two years I have completely changed the way I do this, and this week, rubber met the road on my proficiency philosophy.

No more verb chart, no more grammar drills

First, I ditched the verb chart. Boy I was scared, how would my students remember all the forms? Then I implemented comprehensible input and learning phrases as opposed to grammatical forms. Since the 7th grade, my students have been learning various forms of “to be” in context: we first learned to talk about ourselves so they picked up phrases such as “I am intelligent”. Then we moved on to questions and answers, so they picked up phrases such as “are you mean or nice?”. Then we talked about celebrities, family members, friends, and they picked up phrases such as “Justin Bieber is nice, Taylor Swift is nice, but The one Direction boys are awesome”. With lots and lots of input, they got most parts of the verb without ever having to put it in a verb chart. I never assessed them on what part of the verb they knew (such as a “fill in the blank” or “match subject to verb” or “conjugate this”), but rather on what they could do with the language (click here for an example of performance assessment with an emphasis on what students can do as opposed to just demonstrating grammar accuracy). My students were communicating, doing well, I was on a roll, I was invincible…


Temptation to revert back to grammar drills is high. It is easy, there is a process, it is explicit.

At the beginning of 8th grade, I thought I should show them the rest of the verb “être” (“we are” and “you guys are”) but I could not find any authentic resources that would circle the phrases I was interested in. So I made up silly conversations for them to play with such as “are you guys ugly? ” “no we are beautiful”, etc, and I also ended up pulling my silly grammar song. The kids had fun with it and after a few days I did a formative assessment (talk to me about you and your friends): only 6 kids out of 22 had actually gotten it! I felt frustration rushing through, I started doubting whether I should have ditched that verb chart, and finally I looked up online grammar games. I was feeling pretty defeated. But then I had an epiphany. Since I could not find authentic texts with phrases using  “we are, you guys are” in high frequency, I decided to generate frequency myself by creating a pinterest board with tiny excerpts from all over the internet using the phrases I needed. It took me good 2 hours that week-end to put the board together because i looked for excerpts that would pique my students’ interests. That Monday, I asked students to explore my board, grab the phrases, and put them in a graphic organizer. At the end of the activity, I took another formative assessment, this time 18 out of 22 kids got it!

If students don’t get it, they need more authentic input!

This adventure with “être” taught me several lessons but the most important one is to really persevere with authentic input. If students don’t get it, they just did not get enough input! Assess and try again. Moving to a proficiency-based classroom takes time, dedication, and a lot of authentic input! There is  a place and time for explicit grammar teaching, I am still trying to exactly figure out when that occurs. On this particular example, we did end up playing the online grammar games right before the quiz. It felt like the right final step though I am not sure how much of an impact it really had on my students at that point. I would love to hear your thoughts on the right balance between learning in an authentic way and teaching grammar!



Wonder woman image credit: http://www.fanboynewsnetwork.com/wonder-woman-pilot/

02/09/14 edit: latest Pinterest board: “faire”