Declarative vs. procedural knowledge

Right now, I am in the midst of teaching my novels and this year has been so easy. Some of my upper level students have completed 3 or 4 novels this year and I only plan to add more. Of course, the trouble is deciding what to take out! But as I see my students’ abilities soar, I know I can’t go back. My students don’t believe me when I say they are way better at Spanish than I was at their age – after all, I became a Spanish teacher, so I must’ve been some sort of wizard. That’s not true at all, because I was taught Spanish in a declarative knowledge way.

Speaking a foreign language is procedural knowledge, but we used to teach them like declarative knowledge. If you’ve never heard these terms before, declaritive knowledge is facts: the atomic number of hydrogen is one. Cats are felines. The sky is perceived as blue. The kinds of facts that you can google. And I was taught Spanish like that. The yo form of tener is tengo. The tú form is tienes. The él form is tiene, and so on. And then there is this problem where I was taught in a declarative knowledge sort of way (facts, statements) and then asked to do procedural knowledge task. Procedural knowledge is basically doing stuff. Like describing how to ride a bike. How do you ride a bike? I mean, you can tell someone how to do it: you put your foot on the pedals and your butt on the seat, and then you kinda just… go. But you can’t teach the actual skill of riding a bike to them; they have to figure it out on their own. And language is the same way. It’s a skill, not a statement.

As language teachers, the kinds of activities we have students do reflect whether we are asking them to enact procedural knowledge or declarative knowledge. When I was learning Spanish, we did the workbooks and the grammar sheets and all that, and that meant by the time I got to college, I had a hard time actually using my Spanish. I could read and write at a decent level but I couldn’t speak very well. I was always very nervous. My grammar was all over the place. And I realize now it was a two prong problem: #1, I spent so much time working on grammar through worksheets that I didn’t have enough enriching input and repetitions to actually acquire what I was learning. Anecdotal evidence and research studies tell us the grammar will fix itself, for the most part. There are times where we need to step aside and point out grammatical errors, but for the most part, grammar and pronunciation will fix itself with enough input. My knowledge of Spanish was very wide but also very shallow. Yes, technically I had seen and ‘learned’ nearly every grammatical facet of Spanish from present to past subjunctive, from direct objects to the personal a. But I couldn’t apply most of it without major help from Profesor Systranet (the only translator that was even half-decent back in 2002), my gigantic paper dictionary, and the 501 Spanish Verbs.

A wonderful example happened just today when I was working through Pobre Ana with my Spanish 1 students. The sentence is something like ‘-¿Tienen amigos? ¿Estudian en su escuela?- les dice Ana.’ I asked, ‘Okay, so we know le dice very well. Why is it les dice here?’ And when I asked that, one of my students very confidently answered, ‘Because she’s talking to more than one person.’ This is a student that, teaching the declarative way, I would’ve lost after the first quarter. But here she is at the end of the year, confidently and accurately using indirect object pronouns. I couldn’t do that until I had been studying Spanish for years.

Problem #2: I was taught in a declarative way and then asked to do a procedural task. So we learned about Spanish and then asked on the test to do something in Spanish. As you can imagine, this did not go well. The only book I ever read in class was Pobre Ana, and we read it in Spanish 2. And some very capable students still couldn’t do it. Yikes. Maybe we read a little bit more in Spanish 3 and 4. I remember writing a speech, but I don’t remember reading any longer stories. It’s probable that we read some short stories, but I don’t really remember. When my sister took Spanish, we had the same Spanish 1 teacher and different teachers after that. They didn’t read very much either until they read an adaptation of Don Quixote in Spanish 4. So you have these kids who have not read much of anything in Spanish except maybe Pobre Ana, and then ask them to read Don Quixote. Now, Kayla isn’t as naturally talented at languages as I am, but she didn’t have a clue. There were maybe 2 kids who could barrel their way through it, but that wasn’t really learning. They didn’t have the background knowledge. It wasn’t comprehensible. They hadn’t had nearly enough reading practice to tackle something like that successfully.

So this is just another call for comprehensible input, and that you have to teach your kids like you’re going to assess them. But the real life assessment of Spanish is: can you use it to communicate? Ironically, I keep having this problem where I forget to formally assess my students because I assess them informally multiple times a day. If I ask a question and they can’t answer, then I know they’re not at the level where I want them to be. But the vast majority of students have a far greater working knowledge of Spanish than I had at their age. For example, I asked my Spanish 2 students the other day (after reading a story in past tense) ‘¿El doctor recomendió que Chester tomara la medicina?‘ This was their first time EVER hearing or seeing past subjunctive, but they were able to understand the question and respond appropriately. Even though they’ve never heard tomara but we’ve seen tomó la medicina and toma la medicina so tomara la medicina must have something to do with taking medicine.

If we want our students to do a procedural task like read and speak Spanish, they have to practice with lots of reading and speaking. We cannot teach a procedural task in a declarative way and then expect our students to perform well. The more comprehensible input we give them now, and more practice we give them with completing tasks that require them to communicate with their language (not just about their language), the better we are preparing them to use their language outside of the classroom.


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