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?


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