Constructivist Grammatical Learning: A Proposal for Advanced Grammatical Analysis for College Foreign Language Students

Article excerpt

Abstract: The teaching of foreign language advanced grammar (AG) at the college level nowadays continues largely to focus on form, with little attention to its functions and meanings. The practice agrees with neither the Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century (National Standards, 2006) nor the advances made in basic language teaching pertaining to the communicative purpose and context of language. Since both second language acquisition and pedagogical research demand more attention to contextual use, as well as the active participation of the student in the analysis of the forms, a revision of current practices becomes necessary. This article proposes the study of AG based on the use of unabridged authentic texts and the application of a Constructivist Grammatical Learning Approach.

Key words: Spanish, advanced learning, authentic texts, constructivism, foreign language instruction, grammatical analysis

Introduction

The importance of language as a powerful and global entity that connects us to the world was strengthened with the Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century (National Standards, 2006). Accordingly, the materials for teaching foreign languages at the elementary and intermediate levels tend to concentrate increasingly more on the intent and content of the message and less on memorization and mechanization of grammatical forms. This is not yet fully reflected in the teaching of advanced grammar (AG). Generally, Spanish textbooks published for AG courses are normative and reference manuals. Their focus is primarily on the explicit description of the grammar rules of the language and on production of correct forms by the student. This holds true even for recent textbooks (e.g., Jordan & Pereiro-Otero, 2006; King & Suñer, 2004; Lunn & DeCesaris, 2007). In these textbooks, grammatical structures are presented in context and followed by some guiding questions to direct students to notice the structure. But the focus is still didactic as opposed to discovery-based.1 Such an approach fits well with a traditional language teaching philosophy, the objective of which is almost exclusively the perfecting of grammar rules. However, the change of emphasis in the teaching at the elementary and intermediate levels makes it necessary to develop a pedagogy of grammar that takes into consideration the cognitive and linguistic characteristics of the foreign language (FL) learner. By doing so, one ensures continuity in learning and a deeper understanding of the language.

This article proposes a viable alternative for teaching the AG of an FL (specifically Spanish) that offers students at an intermediate/advanced level (third- and fourth-year college students) the opportunity to actively participate in the discovery of grammatical patterns, their meaning, and their functions. The proposal is based primarily on constructivist2 principles (Brooks & Brooks, 1993) and reflects current research on second language (L2) and FL teaching, learning, and advanced language proficiency assessment (Shohamy, 2006). It also applies National Standards (National Standards, 2006) goals, structured meaningful input strategies (Carter & McRae, 1996; Collie & Slater, 1987; Kern, 2004; Simpson, 1997; VanPatten & Cadierno, 1993; VanPatten & Sanz, 1995, among others), and critical-thinking skills and peer-teaching (Carroll & Lambert, 2006; Schultz, 2002). First, we discuss research on L2 and FL grammar as well as AG teaching and learning. Second, we present a proposal for the teaching of AG. Third, we include a practical application (the Constructive Grammatical Learning Unit) of the proposal. This unit is applied to the teaching of Spanish as a foreign language, but it may be applied and adapted to any foreign language and any grammatical point at the advanced levels.

Research Background and Discussion

Methodology and Theoretical Basis of Current Textbooks

A number of studies have been published dealing with the issue of grammar in L2 teaching. …