A storm has blown up once again in the blogosphere over grammar McNuggets and it got me thinking about how I serve them up with my present class of beginners. So I decided to pick out one particular nugget and follow the thread from its first appearance to its present state.
The nugget I’ve chosen is the simple past. On the suggested syllabus and pacing schedule supplied by the school, the simple past appears somewhere towards the end of term two. It cropped up much earlier for us. In the fourth week of the course (we have two classes a week of an hour and half so this was after about 10 hours of class) we looked at jobs: the lexis of jobs, the conditions and responsibilities, the qualifications and training, and of course we answered the question, What’s your job? Two of the students in the class are retired, so they needed the following language to be able to answer the question:
I was a secondary school teacher.
I worked in a bank.
I gave the chunks, we used them in conversation. We looked at “was” and identified it as the past of both am and is. We looked at “worked” and I pointed out that the “ed” ending denoted the past. We used worked in context in our conversations but we didn’t delve any further. This short note on morphology was the first bite of the nugget.
When I was writing up the summary of that particular lesson I decided it was time to expand on my style. The initial summaries had simply been lists of useful language gleaned from our mini conversations. E.g.:
Hello, good morning!
How are you?
Fine thanks / very well thank you/ OK
What’s your name?
My name’s …
Pleased to meet you
You too / and you
They had evolved over time and I started to include comments and short tasks but now that the –ed nugget had emerged, I could start to use a more narrative style:
Here are the questions you remembered. You know a lot of questions from only three weeks of classes!
Over the next three or four weeks, we didn’t go back to focus on the past at all, but I peppered the summaries with regular verbs and examples of was and were. Here is the description of one of our conversations a few weeks later:
3 favourite foods
We talked about the food we like to eat at different meals. It was a great conversation. We talked about a lot of different things. Here is some of the new vocabulary we looked at:
Tastes: bitter, sweet, sharp. Can you think of food for each taste? For example, coffee is bitter.
Herbs and spices: cinnamon, mint, vanilla. Do you like them?
Can you remember the words in bold? What do they mean?
We talked about making fresh juice in a blender and José Antonio told us a story about his grandfather who put a big watermelon on the table for the little José Antonio forty years ago. He talked about the delicious heart of the watermelon. We talked about the difference between grape juice and mosto and wine. José Antonio explained that real mosto is light and thick and perfect for barbecues. You can drink a lot of mosto but you don’t get drunk. We also talked about barrels of sherry and bottles of wine. And then we talked about siestas. Do you have a siesta?
Looking back at this, it’s clear that some at least of this conversation with José Antonio involved past verbs. I guess we dealt with them as they cropped up. I can remember we quickly talked about the fact that some verbs are irregular in Spanish and the cuteness of kids mastering (or not) the irregular endings. I explained that when the past was irregular, I’d give them the form they needed but that we wouldn’t start a list quite yet. Looking back over the summaries in those three or four weeks, the following examples of the simple past cropped up again and again: looked at, talked about, described, practised, listened to, remembered, played, introduced, explained – and I started to add negative forms too: You didn’t have any questions from the last lesson.
We generally kick off the class by looking quickly at the summary of the lesson before and airing any questions or doubts. Not once did the students ask for clarification of a past verb. I like to think that the initial explanation and the gentle drip-drip exposure meant that they were slowly acquiring the form.
In the first lesson after the Christmas break, it seemed the right time to look a little closer at the simple past. This was more than a month after we’d first noticed the –ed ending. Here are the notes from our summary:
In this lesson we talked about the Christmas holidays and we looked at:
1 How to form the past simple
2 Ordinal numbers
3 How to say dates
Here are our notes for the past simple:
|?||questions||DID + subject + verb||Did you have a good holiday?|
|+||affirmative||Verb + ED||We stayed in Puerto Real.|
|–||negative||DIDN’T + verb||We didn’t go away.|
Remember we used the past simple to talk about jobs.
José Antonio: I worked in a bank.
Lourdes: I was a Science teacher.
The verb to be is irregular in the past. Look at this table.
|I amYou/We /They are
He/She / It is
|I wasYou/We/They were
Some verbs are irregular. Here are some common irregular verbs we used in the lesson:
The presentation part of the lesson was very short, board-based and grew out of the language that had emerged from our chat about the Christmas holidays. During the chat I’d been using a mini whiteboard at my elbow on the shared table and I’d made notes of useful and new language with a box set aside for past verbs. The students were using past verb forms with very little prompting. There were questions about the use of the infinitive with didn’t, but as most verbs were in the affirmative that area will need more exposure and practice I guess.
In the next lesson (which was a Monday) we talked about weekends and looked at a very small set of irregular past verbs: had, made, went, did, and commented on how much we could say with just four verbs. We collected examples of collocations. In the summary I set them the task of thinking of more. We looked at these again at the beginning of the next lesson.
We looked at expressions with each verb. Can you think of more?
We had a big lunch. We had a coffee at home. We had a beer in the sun.
I made Paella. I made some pastries.
I went shopping. I went for a walk.
We did some cooking.
The lesson after that we talked about the upcoming exam (more about that to come in another post) and the students asked that they not be tested on the past verbs. I was fine with that, but actually, when it came to the speaking section of the exam, they all used various simple past forms with no problems at all.
So what? Well, it was interesting for me to see how this particular nugget emerged. It needed a little pushing, it needed time to grow and it’s still growing. But looking back at how I had “taught” this area, there was very little classroom time devoted to teaching. I shared links to simple presentation videos on youtube that the students watched at home (3 or 4 minutes maximum and everybody did watch them) so I guess there was more “teaching” going on there as well, and I was consciously using and re-using and embedding examples in my post lesson emails and in the summaries on the blog as well as in teacher talk during class, but I was still pleased to see how painless the whole process had been. And only once did we actually focus attention on the form and on practising the form. The rest of the time it’s just come up in conversation. Oh, and yes, we’ve looked at pronunciation, but you know, that classical –ed extra syllable sounding has hardly been a problem at all. I think there’s a lot to be said for growing grammar slowly at this level.
At present I’m taking a back seat as I watch the present continuous slowly sprouting. It isn’t on my suggested syllabus until the third term, but the students have already spotted the –ing ending for nouns and are slowly moving towards a natural translation of estar + present participle in Spanish. I think it’ll probably be time to acknowledge its presence very soon.