For decades language classes have been devoted to verb charts and verb conjugations.

Students spent hours conjugating the verbs of the chapter:

I eat
you eat
s/she eats
we eat
they eat

And this same process is repeated for each new verb, each new tense.

And you'd think with all this practice, that these verbs would be ingrained in students' heads and that they could recall them when needed and use them appropriately and accurately in sentences.

But that's just not the reality.

Rarely, do students become fluent with this type of instruction.

They're really good at knowing HOW the language works, but can't actually WORK the language.

We must have a mind-shift if we truly want students to be proficient with verbs.

Teaching verbs through verb charts and conjugations doesn't work long-term.

Yes, kids can memorize verb charts and all of the endings, but when they need the verbs the most, the correct form of the verb rarely is recalled.

That's because verb charts and verb endings are stored in the knowledge part of the brain. Where they need to be is in the instinct part of the brain. That way, when they are needed, without thinking, the correct verb form is at the ready and flows naturally.

But how do we get verbs into the instinct part of the brain? We don't have hours upon hours to provide input like in their native language. Can't we just fast-track it through memorization?

According to Bill VanPatten, NO, we cannot just fast-track it.

He says that explicit knowledge can never be transformed into implicit knowledge (instinct). These two sides of the brain just do not communicate with each other.

So what, as world-language teachers, are we to do?

Teach Verbs in Context

In my experience, there are three great ways to teach verbs. Each technique builds upon the other and focuses on students acquiring verbs in the context of real sentences.

The first technique is conversations.

Have frequent conversations with your students about whatever they find interesting. Compare and contrast what students are saying. You can use multiple forms of the verbs easily with this process:

  • You play football.
  • I don't play football?
  • Do we play football?
  • Do they play football?
  • Yes, she plays football.

The second is dialogue.

Whenever you have a story, whether written or oral, be sure to have the characters talk to each other.

This is dialogue and it will allow students to see how verbs work in your language.

Find ways to have your characters interact with each other to give opportunities for even more dialogue. And expand your dialogue beyond the "Hi, how are you?" Engage your characters in small talk.

Lastly, is interviews.

Interview your characters. By asking questions of your characters you can elicit the I-form of the verb as you use the you-form. You can compare and contrast with yourself (more examples of the I-form) and with the class (they- and we-forms).

By interviewing your characters, there are a ton of opportunities to show how verbs work.

Write Verbs on the Board

Whenever you use a new form of the verb, write it on the board with its translation.

Do NOT write them in verb-conjugation order.

Write them in the order they appear. For example, if I'm asking a question about the verb "go," I would first write "you go" on the board because I asked the question in you-form.

I would follow this with the I-form because the answer would require the I-form.

Then when referring to the person, I would use the s/he-form of the verb and would write that form down next.

Once the verb is written on the board, you'll want to point and reference it each and every time you use it so students start to associate the word with the sound along with the context of how it is used.

Coach Complete Sentences

You will also want to coach complete sentences when students answer.

This is not forced output as many believe because we are not asking students to produce language they have not yet acquired.

We are coaching them what to say be having them repeat after us or by reading it from the board.

But by the students answering in full and complete sentences, the class can hear how the verbs are actually used and over time, they will acquire the forms accurately.

Slow Process

We are not running a sprint here. This is a marathon.

No, students are not going to master the verbs in a couple of weeks.

It's going to take many exposures of the verbs in context over a long period of time before they become second nature.

But if you consistently and faithfully use the process, you will see improvement. Accuracy will come. Fluency will develop.

Give it a chance. It works!

If you'd like to have a summary of this article, please download our FREE "Teaching-Verbs" Guide below!

Happy Comprehensible Input!