What I’ve Been Thinking About This Past Week

This past week I became a member of the Board of Directors of an organization of local language teachers. We had a dinner this past Thursday and I had two interesting interactions that I have been thinking about a lot this weekend.

My first interaction was with a fellow teacher trying to embrace comprehensible input (CI) in her classroom. She told me she was struggling a bit so I asked her to tell me what was going on in her classes in the hopes that I could help troubleshoot.

The first issue she is having is that she does not have control over her students’ behavior. As a result, she finds it hard to get through a CI lesson because she cannot get her students to settle down, pay attention, and contribute to the lesson. So I told her about the rewards system that Craig and Mike from TPRS Books talked about when I went to a training this past March. When they taught in a language classroom, they had a points system set up where the amount of time students spent behaving well and staying in the target language resulted in the class earning points. After a certain number of points, the students got a prize (For more information about this system, read this post.).

I implemented this system after I came back from the workshop and I have noticed three major differences. First of all, the number of discipline problems I have experienced has decreased dramatically. Second, since more students are staying on task and paying closer attention to the target language, they have made some impressive language gains in the past two months. And finally, student morale is up because my students are more motivated and excited about earning a prize.

Some teachers might take a look at this system and criticize it because, technically, I am bribing students to get them to behave with the promise of candy, a movie, or a similar privilege. But I am absolutely fine with that because of how much easier it has been for me to teach and because of the amount the progress my students have made since I implemented this system. In addition, this year I have noticed that I have more of my sanity intact than I usually do in the fourth quarter of the school year. I’m not as easily aggravated or mentally tired the way I normally am from dealing with bad behavior for the previous eight months, and it is all thanks to this system. Do I wish that my students were all so intrinsically motivated to acquire language that I didn’t need to entice them with a reward? Yes, of course. But I will gladly give candy bars or movie days if that’s what I need to do to get my class to behave well enough so I can keep my sanity, maintain control over the classroom, and, most importantly, facilitate my students’ acquisition of language.

The second issue this teacher told me about what that she has to deal with a lot of student anger. She said that her students are often mad at her because she refuses to translate any words into English for them. I know some teachers who do not translate for their students, and while I think they do this with the best intentions, I also believe that it is a practice that can be a substantial roadblock to second language acquisition. It can also kill motivation and create a negative atmosphere in the classroom.

Teachers who refuse to translate expressions for their students tell me that they do this to obligate students to develop the deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills that are involved in determining meaning in the target language (TL). They also say that this practice makes second language acquisition a more natural process because it mimics the way people acquired their first language. But the amount of frustration this creates for some of our students can lead to a scenario like the one the above mentioned teacher is experiencing in her classroom. This practice can cause students anxiety, which can raise the Affective Filter and impede language acquisition overall. Moreover, any teachers who are providing input in their classroom must make sure that the input is comprehensible. The problem with never translating is that sometimes we cannot be sure that are students are understanding us otherwise. As Mike said at our March TPRS conference, the problem with immersion is that it sometimes become submersion, which is what I think is happening in this teacher’s class.

Does that mean that I think teachers should translate every single word and expression they use in the classroom? No, of course not. Teachers should not have to translate concrete words and expressions if they can convey meaning with a picture or gesture. For example, I have never told my French students that the word “chat” means “cat” in English, because whenever I use this word I show a picture of a cat or make cat noises. But if a student ever asked me to tell them what “chat” meant in English I would gladly translate it for them to make my input comprehensible and decrease any anxiety that student may be feeling about not understanding.

My second interaction at the dinner was with a veteran language teacher who is extremely active in a number of language organizations. I told her that I taught with CI, and her response was, “Of course, because you’re a middle school teacher.” I must confess that I got a bit annoyed by this comment, because it stems from some common misconceptions about the CI teaching approach.

One implication here is that CI teaching is not serious enough language instruction for high school level classes. This perception may partially be due to this teacher’s limited knowledge of Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). Teachers who use this approach tell and create stories in their classrooms, some of which are quite ridiculous (In one of my classes, for example, we are working on a story about Beyoncé, who works at Walmart selling elephants). What teachers are missing, however, is the fact that TPRS isn’t just about telling silly stories. Moreover, there are plenty of other ways to provide CI besides TPRS, all of which are listed in the picture below and don’t revolve around silly stories.

ci-umbrella-final-version1

Another implication made by this comment is that CI teaching is not rigorous enough for high school classes. Without emphasis on explicit grammar and long vocabulary lists, CI teachers generally have better grades than traditional teachers do. For the life of me, I can’t understand why this is bad. We should not want our students to be unsuccessful in our classes. We should not want a classroom where only the strong survive. We should not want dwindling class sizes in the upper levels because of how difficult our classes are. We should not want to teach only to the elite few who “get” grammar. Teaching with CI creates an equitable environment where all students have the opportunity to be successful, and I for one am very proud of that. Many teachers across North America use CI in their high school classes, even at the advanced placement level, with very good results.

The second interaction I had at the dinner was with a friend of mine who said, “Even though I am a TPRS teacher, I don’t tell people I am. I just say that I teach with comprehension in mind.” Unfortunately, the myth that teaching with CI is not serious or rigorous instruction has given it a bad reputation in some areas, so much so that some teachers don’t even admit that they use this approach for fear that they will alienate other teachers. The last thing we should want as teachers is create an environment of us (CI teachers) versus them (textbook teachers), because ultimately all teachers want what is best for their students. But I also know that traditional teachers can get intimidated and defensive when CI teachers start talking about what they do and do not do in their classrooms. It’s actually pretty prudent for CI teachers to tread lightly when interacting with non-CI teachers, and is something that I might start doing myself.

At the end of the dinner, the president of the organization asked me if I would get involved in planning and promoting professional development for the language organization. Based on the interactions I had at this dinner, it sounds as if this will be more of a challenge than I thought. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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