Authentic input versus grammar drills, a case study

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 providing 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:

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


  1. Tres interessant, Cecile! Maintenant, qu’est-ce que tu entends par ‘graphic organizer’? Je suis debutante…

    • Bonjour Mme Stein! Un “graphic organizer” est simplement un outil pour aider les eleves a organiser quelque chose: par exemple un tableau, un venn diagram, un dessin avec des fleches, des categories pour prendre des notes, etc. Ici le graphic organizer etait simplement deux colonnes: une avec un sujet, et la deuxiemes avec toutes les phrases authentiques qu’ils ont trouvees sur le Pinterest board.

  2. Your comments are fabulous! I just finished correcting a unit test and had a 10 point question on conjugating ER verbs. Only 1/2 the students “got it”, yet in the more authentic assessment part of the test — writing a letter to a friend and discussing their likes and dislikes and asking the friend about their theirs, scores were either As or Bs. I need training on CI! I’m trying on my own through Youtube and Twitter! Suggestions where to start?? (And I love your profile! I have an MBA in marketing and used to work for Deluxe Check. I left 15 years ago and I too have never looked back!)

    • Thank you! It think your scores confirm that we should stop testing kids on conjugation and grammar outside of an authentic context. While this sounds obvious, as you said, it is difficult to implement.But once you get started it is so much fun and the kids love it! it takes me a long time too to find the right authentic resources. See 10/17 tweet with my favorite authentic sources, hope these can help you too. Stay in touch!

      • Thank you! Love “Je suis nouvelle” under Accueil, Présentation and will pull some examples to use with my students!

  3. Love it! I’ve been on the same journey the last few years. It feels liberating to ditch the verb charts and teach in a way that makes sense!

  4. Interesting. Is it possible that some pupils respond better to grammar drills than others. It’s always possible to combine both approaches, isn’t it? But I agree grammar in context is usually the way to go.

    • Given the proportion of students who got it using grammar drills (30%) and the proportion of students who got it once they saw the phrases in an authentic context (80%), I’d say combining can work but with a heavy emphasis on authentic context. Maybe showing grammar at the very end, once they have naturally acquired the structures, as a way of formalizing…

      • I have used CI for the past 9 years (mainly through TPRS). I have found that using CI FIRST and then introducing the verb chart has met most learning styles. They have the chart as a resource (and honestly they rarely use it…)

    • I agree, there is a happy medium. In a way, a verb chart is a graphic organizer for some learners. One thing I have noticed is that I am amazed at how well my students spell in French — and NOT in English? Hmmm…. Something is working there. I think the CI gets them more comfortable with speaking.

      • In the lomg run CI is most likely what leads to fluency and internalisation of grammar, but I am sure studenst like it structured and appreciate explanation.

  5. My only caveat is the amount of time used to have students learn six verb forms. Two years ! At that rate, will when will they reach Intermediate-high proficiency as described by ACTF? It is always helpful to have the context of the students’ learning. Do they have French instruction once a week for 30 minutes ?

    • JMO, in two years (we meet everyday), my students have meaningful conversations, listen to and read authentic texts, exchange in writing with e-pals but yeah they don’t know all 6 verb forms of the basic verbs. A friendly challenge: find in the ACTFL proficiency guidelines where it says that they need to learn 6 verb forms 🙂 ACTFL proficiency guidelines are all about communicating, which is what my students are doing. Furthermore, take a look at the AP exams for French and Spanish, no more fill in the blanks, no more canned conversations, no more verb conjugation. That does not mean we don’t do verb conjugation any more, that means we do it when it makes sense for the learners; not when it is time to learn all 6 verb forms but rather when they need a few forms to express something meaningful.

  6. As for timing of explicit grammar explanation, I usually favoured doing it later, allowing time for students to work things out for themselves. But you know, I became less dogmatic about that over the years. This is partly because many students do not easily figure out rules on their own and partly because I suspect some students (less able??) enjoy the total clarity of being given a rule, then being able to get success by applying it.

    Early in my career I avoided verb conjugations and chanting, finding them artificial and inauthentic, but again, I began to see some some value in it later.

    Seems like my journey was the opposite to yours, cecilaine!

    • Hi Steve, point taken about students who needs more explicit rules. I guess that’s where differentiation comes to play. I bet our journeys are not over: we keep changing and adapting to what we perceive our students’ needs to be. Bonne continuation!

  7. Can you help me? I am in the middle of a unit covering school supplies, color adjectives, articles (a, vs, some, vs, this/that, vs. the) and I feel like the students and I are drowning in grammar. The goal is for them to be able to express needs and wants using school supplies. Goals also are to acquire some basic school and color vocabulary. Suggestions for ways to give more authentic input?
    Am I worrying too much about how use (pronunciation and spelling) of color adjectives changes based on the noun? (Grammar! Grammar! Grammar!) Thank you!

    • Julie, a few ideas for input:
      1. grab a backpack and stuff it with supplies, then pass the supplies and tell them what you need, ss listen and give you the right supplies
      2. Describe different supplies (inc. colors) and students draw them
      3. Listen to French students describe their school bag (I have a youtube video I can send you).

      Once they have heard supplies w colors in many different ways, they will be ready to describe their own bag, then to ask what they need.

      A few ideas for output: start with lists of words (what do you need for French, for maths, etc.), then move to describing a table with colorful supplies, and finally asking for what they need.

      Let me know if you want to dialogue more over email.

      • This is wonderful! Thank you so much! If you could supply the Youtube link that would be great! And then for mechancis… am I simply worrying too much about placement and agreement of adjectives? Yet this is needed for placement exams! Thoughts? Email me if you prefer. Merci!

      • Several French middle schools have done an assignment where the students describe classrooms so that other students can guess which room is being described. You could find some & turn it into an interpretive reading activity.

      • Wow! Thanks for continuing the conversation! This is a treasure! My students are working on describing homes and their bedroom right now. This is a wonderful interpretive idea! Thank you so much!

    • I searched the phrases (“nous sommes”) and also sometimes another key word like singers I knew they liked (like Chritophe Willem or Mika) or current events (Olympics).

  8. […] this area!  Three years ago, I started letting go of the textbook, letting go of the verb chart, letting go of the worksheets and grammar drills, etc. I will explicitly explain a grammar point once in a while, especially once students have had […]

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