On a language teachers’ List, the comment recently appeared, in the context of a discussion on how to teach ser vs. estar in Spanish using TPRS:

I hope there’s nothing “wrong” in providing a guideline for those students
who are analytical – or who become analytical in a testing situation, when
some students start to doubt everything they know. Some students also need
to be reminded to follow their instinct and trust what sounds right to

This comment made me stop and think. Of course, there are so many ways to teach that no one can really stand up and say doing one thing or another is “right” or “wrong”. There are always students who will be reached by what a teacher is doing. So no, I can’t say it’s wrong to provide the common ser vs. estar mnemonics (like “how you feel and where you are, you have got to use estar”, or DOCTOR ELF (description, occupation, characteristic, time/date, origin, relationship for ser vs.  emotion, location, and feeling for estar). I’ve taught Spanish in rooms that had these plastered up on the bulletin boards (the teacher covered them over for tests and quizzes, of course).

But then, what is our ultimate goal in teaching language? Acquisition. The goal is to produce a fluent speaker and writer. And a fluent speaker and writer is one who, by definition, does not need to stop and rely on rules to grind out a result. That kind of output is halting and labored. We are trying to encourage effortless, falls-out-of-the-mouth output, and stopping in the middle of a statement to say to yourself, “DOCTOR ELF….d-o-c…so it’s ser…él…es!” isn’t the most efficient way of getting the words out.

I think that when we begin to worry about this kind of mnemonic, we are thinking about testing. And maybe we’re getting too concerned that our kids won’t test “as well as” the ones being taught in the next classroom, using the textbook and the grammar sheets and the workbook. We know that by sticking to input and optimizing it using circling and personalization and repetition and going slow, ALL the students will acquire the language, and won’t ever think about saying something like “Somos enfermos hoy” because, well, in their heads no one would ever say that. It just doesn’t sound right.

How can we support the kid who is an analytical genius, and who always second-guesses herself on a test? Those are the kids who finish their writing fast anyway, so they have plenty of time to edit, and “improve”, even in the lower levels where editing usually ends up being detrimental to the accuracy of the final product, rather than being a thoughtful, several-round process of improving the structure of a piece of writing.

I think this is the time to help them discover their non-analytical side. Nothing succeeds like success. The kid who has always thought he “can’t do anything” in gym will perk up if he discovers a physical activity he can be good at (or at least feel he is good at).  If part of our job teaching is to help kids build their study skills when they need to do that, maybe we also should be helping certain kids to “unbuild” some of those skills, and learn to go with what they know is right, instead of overanalyzing.

So how can an analyzer succeed without analyzing? Given tasks that do not allow analysis. The one that leaps to mind immediately is timed writings. Since students are to continue writing during the very limited period alloted, there won’t be the opportunity even for the analyzers to start questioning themselves. Giving some specific feedback on grammatical accuracy (where things are correct, not wrong) to the analyzers might help them let go of the idea that “we’re not learning anything” in TPRS, and develop more confidence in the language that has been effortlessly acquired. Analytical kids often belong to the club of “No pain/study, no gain”. Helping them to realize through this sort of exercise that they are actually making concrete, specific, measurable progress may go a long ways not only toward calming their test anxieties when facing a “standardized” or “traditional” grammar-based test, but also to help avoid negative feedback from them that class is “not challenging” or “we’re not learning anything.”