A Second Language Should Not Just Be For Brainiacs

The other day I ran into Henry D., a guy I used to work with who left to take a job elsewhere. We talked about some of the differences between my school and his school (His school is bigger, services a more ethnically diverse population, and has air conditioning in all rooms. My school has less than 450 students total, is about 95% white and has no air conditioning, which means I break out in a heat rash every June). But one big difference between my school and his school is that his school requires all students to study three years of a second language in order to graduate (my school has no such requirement but most college bound students take at least two years because colleges require it). “Can you believe it?” He scoffed. “Even kids with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans, which are special plans for students with learning or intellectual disabilites) have to take a language!”

I understand Henry’s reaction as it applies to a traditional language classroom. I too was a traditional teacher once, focusing mainly on grammar and vocabulary with a bit of reading and a small amount of speaking thrown in here and there. Generally speaking, the kids who were in the honors level classes were the ones who had A’s in my class, as they were the ones who were bright enough to handle all those grammar rules I felt it was important to teach. The students in the college prep track had the B’s and C’s. They were strong in vocabulary but weak in grammar, which is what made an A unattainable for them. Students who were in the general education track were the ones who scored the D’s and F’s. They were not willing or able to memorize 50 vocabulary words at a time or master verb paradigms. So then you add a student with learning disabilities into the mix? Many times it was a recipe for disaster.

In a CI classroom, however, students of all ability levels, even those with IEPs, can be successful. Here are some reasons why.

1. Grammar is no longer a main focus of the class, which means that students who can’t master its complexity aren’t doomed. In my experience, the easiest way to tank a student’s grade in a second language class is by giving him or her a grammar test requiring a lot of memorization. This happened to me, where a low grade on a test on preterits in Spanish turned the solid A I had into a fragile B+ (Yes, I’m still bitter). And, I’m sorry to say, this happened to many of my strong students when I taught traditionally. By focusing on comprehensibility and downplaying grammar in the CI classroom, we level the playing field, so to speak. The focus in class is on the message, which is much more logical that focusing on the grammar rules that make up the message (Besides, according to Bill Van Patten, language is too complex to teach using grammar “rules” anyway). In a CI class, the goal is for the students to understand and react to the language, and we see a student’s production of the language as a measure of the student’s level of proficiency and progress, nothing more. Does that mean we don’t teach grammar? Absolutely not, but it plays a supporting role instead of being the star of the show. For example, on Day 1 of French 1 my students learned that French has two words for “a/an” and that the word they used depended on the gender of the noun in question. And in one of my recent Spanish 3 classes, students learned that if they saw an entire infinitive plus extra letters added on that the verb translates into English as either “will” or “would,” depending on what those extra letters are (Not to worry, you grammar nazis. We will fine tune this at a later date).

2. In a CI class, if a student doesn’t understand the language, we slow down to make that language comprehensible and don’t penalize a student for failing to understand. A student I know in a traditionally taught language class has to answer a question at the beginning of every class as a warm-up. Her (valid) complaint is that the teacher asks the question very quickly and expects an answer very quickly. If the student is unable to respond in a timely manner, she is given a zero for the day and the teacher then moves on, asking another question to a different student and so on until all students have been given the opportunity to answer one of the teacher’s questions. In this  situation, many of the slower students in a class are doomed to failure. Once again, the brainiacs have an advantage because they can think quickly enough to respond. The students who process more slowly are more likely to become tongue tied and unable to answer. In contrast, in a CI class teachers speak slowly to make sure their language is comprehensible. If a student is unable to answer a question it is because either the student doesn’t understand the question or doesn’t have the language skills necessary to answer the question. It is not the student at fault for being unable to answer the question but the teacher’s fault for not supplying the necessary input to make answering the question possible. In my class, I employ a scaffolding technique, where I start with simple questions that the student can answer with just a yes or no. Then gradually the question gets a bit more complex and the student must choose between two options given. This is called an “either-or” question. Only after the “yes-no” question and the “either-or” question might I dare ask an open ended question. An exchange between teacher and student in a CI class might go like this:

Teacher: Sam, ¿te gusta la clase de español? (Do you like Spanish class?)

Student: Sí. (Yes.)

Teacher: ¿Es interesante la clase? (Is the class interesting?)

Student: Sí.

Teacher: ¿Es interesante o aburrida la clase? (Is the class interesting or boring?)

Student: Es interesante.

Teacher: ¿Te gusta la clase porque es interesante? (You like the class because it’s interesting?)

Student: Sí.

Teacher: Sam, ¿por qué te gusta la clase de español? (Why do you like Spanish class?)

Student: Porque es interesante. (Because it’s interesting.)

This technique I learned at a TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling) workshop with the fantastic Blaine Ray, who is the nicest man in the universe.

3. In a CI class, we employ the 80-80 rule. The 80-80 rule states that a teacher can consider a certain subject mastered when 80% of the class can score 80% or higher on an assessment of some kind. And the teacher does not move on until this goal is reached. If the goal is not reached, it is assumed that the student did not have enough of an internal language structure in place to attain that 80% and needs more review. In most traditional classes, teachers are so worried about “covering” certain topics in the textbook that even if half the class does poorly on a given assessment the teacher will feel the need to move on and start something new. When I give an assessment that doesn’t reach that 80-80 mark I know that I have not been proving enough input and that I need to review. This is something else I learned from Blaine.

4. In a CI class, the focus on correct spelling, often a huge problem for weaker students, is minimal. In a CI class, if a student is spelling something wrong it is because the student has not seen that word in print often enough to internalize the correct spelling of that word. Once again, a student’s error is the result of lack of input. I am not one of those teachers who constantly tells students that they need to spell things correctly. My students just figure out how to do it (after an appropriate amount of input). And one of the languages I teach is French, which is notoriously hard to spell because of how many silent letters it contains (By the way, I don’t have too many students with major pronunciation problems in French class either. Once they hear a word repeatedly students can usually figure out how to pronounce it on their own). In my French 1 class I have a student with an IEP who had an A- on her recent report card even though she can’t spell in French to save her life (and guess what – she can’t spell in English either) but her comprehension is really outstanding. She can read and speak  as well as anyone else in class. If she had been in a traditional class, even with accommodations, I don’t think she would have the same level of success.

At one of my first TPRS conferences, Blaine Ray stated that he had once taught someone with Down’s Syndrome to speak Spanish. He had figured out a way to make second language acquisition accessible to students of every ability. And that should definitely be our goal. Think about it. We all acquired a first language. So if done correctly, why can’t we all acquire two?

Student Attitudes about my CI Teaching

I love my French 1 students. Part of the reason I love them is because they are just great kids, but another reason I love them is because they are willing to go along with every crazy activity we have in class. They love my games (most of which I lifted from Keith Toda‘s fantastic blog) and practically fall over each other volunteering to help me act out whatever crazy story I happen to be doing that day. They have never been in a traditional grammar/vocabulary class and have no idea that my way of teaching is not the norm. I like the idea that if they ever end up in a traditional class after being with me, they will think that the new teacher’s method is a strange way to teach! All in all, teaching them is great fun and they are acquiring a lot of language as the year goes on. 

I love my French 2 students too. All of them are students I had last year when I was doing a hybrid traditional/CI method that I described in a previous blog. They are all very happy that I have abandoned the traditional grammar/vocabulary methods and have focused on CI full time, because they never particularly liked the traditional portion of French 1 class with its photocopied grammar worksheets and incomprehensible listening activities. They have all bought into the CI approach and are turning into great readers and writers. They are already asking who will teach French 3 this year and I am flattered that they want to stick with me.

My Spanish students, however, are another story. While they are nice and I think they are having fun in my class, I don’t think they have bought into the CI approach. My Spanish students spent the last two years with a very traditional teacher. For them, the traditional method is how second languages should be taught. They may love that I don’t give mountains of homework like their previous teacher did, but I think many of them believe that they aren’t learning anything. One boy even complained about not doing speaking activities in class, like the activities where students have to ask each other questions using a new grammar concept (such as this example: ¿Tienes mi bicicleta? Do you have my bicycle?–Sí, la tengo. Yes, I have it.) or the dreaded personal questions that go along with new vocabulary lists (¿Tú te duchas antes o después de desayunar? Do you shower before or after breakfast?). That is just so, so boring and a waste of class time. Then again, I suppose memorizing a list of 20-30 vocabulary words makes them feel as if they have accomplished something, and passing a vocabulary quiz makes them feel as if they have “mastered” new material. Of course, the irony of this practice is that none of them know the words two days later. But at least they aren’t rebelling against me and are just grumbling to each other. So far I haven’t had any parents call and complain, so I’m not worrying about the status of my job. But I would be lying if I said that it didn’t upset me, especially considering how hard I have been working.

Hindsight, they say, is 20-20. Looking back on how I started off the year, I realize now that I should have done a few things differently with my Spanish students. My thoughts are as follows:

1. I should have explained my teaching philosophy to them, explaining why I teach the way I do and what my expectations were for them as students.

2. I should have shared SLA research with both students and their parents so they could see that my techniques are based on solid, current research.

3.I should have spent more time getting to know them personally, because maybe then they would be more open to my methods due to a closer relationship with me than the one we have currently.

When student come to us from legacy teachers, students come with the idea that the traditional approach is THE way to teach a language class. Students become accustomed to the style, even if they don’t exactly like it, and create an expectation of what a language classes should be like. So it only makes sense for all CI teachers who inherit students from legacy teachers to spend some time trying to educate our students about why we use our methods. I think students will be more likely to buy into the CI method if they know the why. Moreover, parents deserve an explanation of CI as well. While one reason for this is so the parents know what kind of homework to expect their child to bring home that day, but another reason is to ward off any parent complaints (hopefully). 

I’m looking forward to next year when I can set the “reset” button and start off the year more effectively. I’m going to be very busy with my preparations this summer!

How It All Began

Today when I was on my way to the gym I tried to figure out how long I have been teaching using comprehensible input strategies. I guess that I have been dabbling with CI for about seven or eight years. And while I don’t know exactly when I started, I definitely know how it began.

It all started when a colleague of mine named George had a Spanish 2 class next door to my Spanish 1 class. His class was small and made up almost entirely of students who had barely passed Spanish 1. They were nice kids but hated to study and do homework. In addition, they were very social and loved being the center of attention. A class that was made up entirely of boys, George christened this group “The Tough Customers.” At first, George taught his class using traditional grammar/vocabulary lessons, but the students hated learning Spanish that way and completely tuned out. Some of them began to be disruptive in class, and their relationship with George began to deteriorate. After about a month of being frustrated, George finally threw in the towel one Friday, when that class met last period of the day before a long weekend, and just started talking to them in Spanish and asking them questions about themselves. George was both surprised and pleased that this approach worked so well. He then began using some Total Physical Response and playing a wide variety of games in class. Pretty soon the kids were actually looking forward to coming to class. Shortly after that, he went to his first TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling) conference, and after that he completely changed the way he was teaching in all classes. It was George who gave me my first book about TPRS (a book which in some circles is called The Green Bible) and shortly thereafter I went to my first TPRS conference.

When I went to my first TPRS conference, Blaine Ray, our presenter, taught the conference attendees German. It was amazing how much German I could speak and understand after just one short TPRS lesson! Some of the words and expressions I learned in that conference I still know today. After that conference, I was convinced that TPRS was the best way to help students acquire a second language.

Old habits, however, are hard to break, especially when one’s department head, who was very much a traditionalist, doesn’t approve of your new approach. I was chastised repeatedly for not following our curriculum and not explicitly teaching grammar. So unfortunately, the pressure got to me and I compromised, using a hybrid approach that was part TPRS and part traditional grammar/vocabulary lessons. We would spend a week doing TPRS and then go back to traditional grammar/vocabulary activities the next week. And what I found was that my students made a ton of progress during our TPRS week but would then regress when we switched over to the grammar/vocabulary lessons the following week. And each year, the pressure to follow our curriculum and my desire not to get in hot water with my department head drove me to do less and less TPRS and more and more grammar/vocabulary lessons (although to be fair, my department head didn’t get too critical of my teaching methods. I think my own lack of knowledge and confidence played a role in fueling my anxiety). It was frustrating. I began considering a career outside of the classroom and soon got certified to be a school librarian so I could leave my failed language teacher career behind.

Unable to find a library job, I had no choice but to try to make language teaching work. I looked for some professional development and ended up going to the ACTFL convention in Boston in November of 2016, where I attended a number of great workshops. It was here that I learned that TPRS is not the only method that helps student acquire a second language using comprehensible input (CI), and I was able to explore some other approaches. I also listened to Stephen Krashen talk about his research findings, which demonstrated that teaching using comprehensible input is the best way to help students acquire a second language. I met Carol Gaab and Kristy Palacio from Fluency Matters and learned more about how to use novels in a second language classroom. I met Señor Wooly, whose music videos and activities (all based on CI research) are so popular in Spanish classrooms around the country. I met Jason Fritze and Grant Boulanger, both honored CI teachers who helped me connect with other CI teachers across the country through social media. Those two days in Boston were by far the two most rewarding days of professional development I’ve ever had! After the conference was over, I started reading anything and everything I could get my hands on about comprehensible input. I read a number of articles from Stephen Krashen’s website about second language acquisition (SLA) theory. Then I read this book by Bill Van Patten (more SLA theory) and subscribed to his weekly podcast, Tea With BVP, on which he talks about SLA theory and methods. I joined a TPRS group and a CI group on Facebook, where I learned about Story Listening through the work of Beniko Mason Nanki and The Invisibles through the work of Ben Slavic. And I read a ton of blogs about CI (I highly recommend blogs by Martina Bex, Keith Toda, and Mike Peto).

So, armed with a ton of knowledge about SLA and teaching with CI, I summoned up the courage to throw out those grammar/vocabulary lessons and transition to comprehensible input with all my classes. I feel confident should my department head question my techniques due to the research I have done recently on second language acquisition, and I’m encouraged by the feedback I’m getting from my students. Recently I asked my student Chris O., who was my student last year when I was still doing the hybrid TPRS and grammar/vocabulary lessons about what he thought about the way I have changed my teaching recently. “It’s way better,” he told me. “When I come to class, it doesn’t feel like a traditional school class.” “But are you learning anything?” I asked, “and do you feel that you are acquiring language?” He looked at me like that was the stupidest question ever. “Of course I am,” he said, and then he reported that he felt that it was much easier now to read and write in the second language than it was for him at the beginning of the year (partially due to the fact that we do timed writings and silent sustained reading in class on a regular basis). In another class, I have third-year students who had a traditional teacher for the last two years. While they resisted my lessons at first, they have started to come around. This is partially due to the fact that I give way less homework than their previous teacher but partially due to the fact that they can see that it is possible for them to learn language without doing grammar drills and memorizing vocabulary lists.

That is how I ended up where I am today, although my CI journey is far from over. I should also add that I am really happy that I never found a library job, because I am loving what I am doing in my classroom these days!