The miracle that is the PACE lesson

No naciste
Why not use something like this to introduce adjectives?

Guys.  Grammar.  I just…I can’t.

I mean, I can.  I love grammar.  I love love love it.  Linguistics sets my lil’ heart aflutter.

But explicit grammar instruction fills me with dread.  My students rarely are able to identify the parts of speech present in the context of a sentence.  Sometimes they don’t know the parts of speech at all.  My stomach knots at the thought of wasting spending so much time on meta-language in order for me to do explicit grammar without using English for no other reason.

Enter The Epiphany.

Last summer I had the opportunity to attend a workshop given by the marvelous Laura Terrill, one of the authors of The Keys to Planning for Learning.  We started our day off with a discussion of grammar.

“When do we teach grammar?”  Laura asked us.

Crickets.  She asked us how we previously made the decision to teach grammatical concepts, and we responded (sheepishly) that it was usually in the curriculum, or it fit with the vocab that was in the unit.

Shocker: that was not the right answer.

We teach grammar at two times: When students need it, and when students are ready for it.  If they need it, but they’re not ready for it, we give it to them as chunks of vocabulary.

Are you shocked?  You shouldn’t be; you probably already do this.  We teach “I would like” (conditional) in our level 1 food units all the time without explaining what the construct is.  In French, I teach “Il y a” (there is) without explaining pronoun order or expecting my students to grasp all idiomatic expressions.  We just haven’t expanded our definitions of when this is acceptable beyond what we were told we could do when we started teaching.

When our students are ready for the construct–they have enough language to internalize and begin using it beyond parroting phrases–then we let them discover it.  Enter the PACE lesson.

PACE is a brilliant construction that uses an authentic resource, chosen by the teacher, that students process to determine the rules of a grammatical construct.  It is examined in detail by the ACTFL publication Enacting the Work of Language Instruction: High-Leverage Teaching Practices by Glisan & Donato.

A PACE lesson must contain the following steps in this order:

  1. Presentation of meaningful language (this should take AT LEAST A FULL CLASS PERIOD)
  2. Attention drawn to grammatical construct
  3. Co-Construction of an explanation and test of hypothesis
  4. Extension activity to practice


My French 1 class reads “Déjeuner du Matin”, the poem by Jacques Prévert.  They fill in the blanks in a dictée, a listening exercise, with the words that are missing.  They draw pictures to illustrate different chunks of the poem, and then they put the poem in order like a puzzle. (This is the “P” stage.) All of these activities take about two days.

Once I am confident that everyone in the room has a solid grasp of the content of the poem, we turn our attention to the verbs.  (A) I have students find all of the parts of speech, beginning with nouns and articles, then adjectives, then prepositions.  All that’s left is the verbs, and when they highlight them, they realize that the verbs are two words long.  They then create a hypothesis of how the verbs are created and what they mean (C).  Once they have a hypothesis, they test it with a Google Form that I’ve created; they use their “formula” to create the passe compose for verbs not in the poem (E). If they’re wrong, their formula won’t work and they go back to the drawing board.  I am on hand to ask leading questions when they get stuck or are on the wrong track.


1. Process for meaning FIRST. 

This is important because the whole point of a PACE lesson is for students to formulate their own hypothesis in regards to how a grammatical construct works.  You need to expose them to it in context and give their subconscious minds time to chew on it before you draw their attention to it.

Besides, you spent all of that time finding an authentic resource; why shouldn’t you use it for as many activities as you can?

2. PACE lessons can be done with almost any kind of resource.

Music video, comic, newspaper article, poem, movie clip, inspirational Instagram image with caption, tweets, song lyrics, whatever. Don’t limit yourself to something official like an article or a book.  There are too many good options!

3. You MUST use authentic resources.

You can supplement with a teacher-created resource, but in order for PACE lessons to work, your students need to be accustomed to seeing language in its natural state.  If the first time they watch a music video or listen to a song is when they’re responsible for doing grammar, they will associate authentic resources with grammar.  Also, there are so many resources FOR resources out there that you can find whatever kind of help you’re looking for.  There are Facebook groups about how to use music videos in the language classroom, blog posts about lessons using infographics–heck, #authres is a Twitter hashtag that points you to authentic resources!  I know it can be daunting, but start with one thing.  Then add another.  Then another, and keep going.

4. If you can’t find a resource that illustrates the construct…how important is it?

Let’s say you want to teach subjunctive within the context of a food unit.  You’re going to have your students give dietary recommendations to different people, but you’ve searched and searched and you can’t find an authentic resource that uses the subjunctive.  What if your students don’t need the concept in order to accomplish the task?  You might still decide to do a PACE lesson with a teacher-created text, but seriously consider the idea that if the grammatical construct you’re looking for can’t be found with the theme you’re looking for, then maybe you don’t need to teach it right now.

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