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Hera's teaching portfolio 2005

A Constructivist Approach to Grammar
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 *My research was inspired by an article I chose to present in my "Spanish Second Language Acquisition" class.  The article went into depth on the learning of aspect and the different approaches to its teaching. The material below is the handout I made to present that research in one of my graduate classes.

"A Constructivist Approach to Grammar:

Teaching Teachers to Teach Aspect"


University of Texas-Austin



"This article demonstrates how a constructivist approach to teacher education helps inexperienced teachers understand the learning and teaching of aspect, a core grammatical concept. By consciously experiencing the process of narration (i.e. how a speaker perceives real or imagined events and then organizes perceptions into a coherent recounting of events), apprentice teachers construct a deeper awareness of the form/meaning aspectual correlations of the target language. More generally, this study argues that a constructivist approach to teacher education facilitates the development of an innovative grammar pedagogy by challenging TA’s traditional beliefs about the nature of grammar."

Traditional Grammar Teaching: Largely present in current textbooks, due to the old belief that language consists of a series of grammar points. Traditionalists pay very little attention to the effects of input (and limit it to meaning bearing) on students and focus almost entirely on output, or student production. The forming of "rules" and use of drills allows teachers to frequently mistake the rule for what it actually represents (the mental process of the speaker)

Reconceptualizing Grammar Teaching:

Teachers who break away from this traditional, teacher centered approach to explicit grammar instruction, are now opting for "Comprehension Based Pedagogy" where students come to know the grammar through exposure to comprehensible input. This is often described as shifting the pedagogical focus from FORM to MEANING.

"The question is not whether grammar should be taught, it’s HOW it should be taught."

The Constructivist Approach: a poststructuralist psychological theory of learning associated with the work of psychologists Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, and Gardner.

Allows teachers to gain technical knowledge about grammar while also gaining insight into the beliefs concerning pedagogical practices (and construct their own practice).

Five Principles of Constructivism (educational implications pointed towards a learner centered pedagogy)

1. Learning is not the result of development, learning is development.

2. Disequilibrium facilitates learning.

3. Reflective abstraction is the driving force of learning.

4. Dialogue within a community engenders further learning.

5. Learning proceeds towards the development of central organizing principles.

From a Contructivist Approach:

TA’s must gain a thorough understanding of the relationship between ‘aspect’ and cognition by self-consciously experiencing the process of narration.

Aspect: a core grammatical concept particularly problematic. Not concerned with temporal points of reference, but rather with different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation. Aspect is usually explained in the terms of the ‘speaker’s perspective’.

Tense: grammatical category commonly used in linguistic analysis to refer to the way a language encodes the time at which an action denoted by a verb takes place; orders events along a timeline in reference to other events

The Defective Tense Hypothesis: TA’s need to understand that students who confuse ‘inherent lexical aspect’ (the intrinsic nature of an event) with grammatical aspect have an incorrect assumption about the morphological system of the target language. Trying to interpret a text written by someone else would require the student to enter the mind of another person.

In the acquisition of the Spanish tense/aspect system, learners pass through stages

When preterit and imperfect are first employed a ‘lexically inherent prototype’ is used: preterit = punctual events; imperfect = states.

Semantic Features (characterize events):

punctual: instantaneous or momentary.

telic: describes an activity with a clear terminal point.

dynamic: requires some energy to sustain.

*use examples of: to have; to run; to paint a picture; to recognize.

Native speakers and L2 learners...

Learning preterit: usage spreads from situations with all three semantic features ("to recognize") to those containing none ("to have").

Learning imperfect: usage spreads in opposite direction; situations lacking all three semantic features ("to have") to those containing all three (to recognize").

Aspect in Cognitive Linguistic Research: link aspect with perception.

Concept of language as the reflection of human consciousness.

Take the speaker’s perception of events as natural point of departure for explaining aspectual choice.

Visual Perception Research: make liberal use of visual input.

Gestalt Theory: "the intuitive notion of a recognizable form."

Visualization renders notions as complete. Create one concrete visualizable template:

figure vs. ground = plot vs. background = preterit vs. imperfect

Students who use this visualization technique, establish their own pragmatic mappings between "figure vs. foreground" and significantly increase accuracy of preterit/imperfect usage.

Return to:

The Teaching of Aspect (Preterit and Imperfect)