Preterit versus Imperfect Unit: A critique

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I wrote this a view years ago in my personal journal/notes.  I never shared it with anyone but I found it to be a great reminder as to why I follow an input-based approach that emphasizes building an implicit linguistic system in the minds of my students.  From day 1 students in my classes are exposed to preterit versus imperfect tenses.  What I wrote below was clearly a frustration to what I was being forced to do with a textbook in a large WL department. 


During the course of the Spanish level 2 curriculum students are being exposed to past tenses by using El Nuevo Houdini reader, a textbook section that emphasizes preterit irregulars, a textbook chapter that emphasizes the imperfect tenses, and finally a separate unit that emphasis the use and contrast of the preterit and imperfect tenses in less than 5 months. After 5 months of this work, the results are still very poor.

In my estimation of the preterit versus imperfect unit, I have counted 140 unique word items on the grammar alone. This includes 22 trigger words, 10 unique meaning changes between tenses, and approximately 15 different rules for tense usage. If you drag out all the grammar rules (habitual action, repeated event, series of events, description, completed action in the past, state of mind, etc.) we are NOT asking the kids to base their language on meaning. We are asking students to base what they know about language on understanding conceptual differences of tenses by applying a set of complicated rules on a language that have been exposed to for at best 250 hours Spanish 1 and 2 combined. The consequences of teaching such rules include:

  1. Students are confused and frustrated and stressed that they aren’t learning.
  2. It takes a long time for students to catch on even though weekly assessments continue to assess them and influence their grades.
  3. It turns off a huge bunch of students from enjoying class because they think learning a language is too difficult.
  4. Those who are turned off will drop the foreign language and not continue to the upper levels. This is why we see a dip after the “required” 2 years.

As Bill VanPatten argues, grammar rules are mental representation of language, not skill. Yet, we are trying to practice rules as if they were a skill. And Van Patten continues . . . rules as written in textbooks are not how rules are stored in the brain. We are stressing accuracy before proficiency and this causes various unsatisfactory outcomes.

  1. Teachers must extensively curve assessments in order to conceal learning results.
  2. Students take group and open note quizzes which conceals learning results.
  3. Students are being exposed to large amounts of English in Spanish class.
  4. Students work hard to memorize rules only for assessments and fail to learn how to use the language.

Students need to be exposed to large amounts of the preterit versus imperfect language in class in ways that they understand. I believe for the benefit of the Foreign Language program at DV this should occur from the very beginning of the program. For several years my students in my classes have been exposed to past tenses and are able to use high frequency verbs in the past tense. They are able to do this quickly, with accuracy, and without the use of notes, homework, or study.

Grammar rules are not a skill.

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  • Spot on, Mike!!

    Carol hill 1 year ago Reply


  • Mike, thanks for sharing this. I feel like I participate in a lie every time I push this preterite/imperfect enchilada. Students that were doing great suddenly feel like they just don’t get it. Their fluency flops, and they give up. Spanish becomes rules not communication. It sucks! It has to change!

    Mike 7 months ago Reply


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