My Takeaways This Year

I have already started reflecting on what has worked for me this year and what I have learned about myself as a teacher and about second language (L2) students in general. These thoughts are in no particular order, and many of them echo things that I have already written about on this blog. Below are things that I have been thinking about recently.

1. Before teachers can begin to teach meaningfully, they must make sure to train their students to meet their expectations. As I have already talked about in this previous post, the main priority of all teachers should be to establish class norms, make expectations clear, and enforce discipline consistently. With high school students, this should typically take two or three weeks. As a rule of thumb, the younger the student, the longer it will take to train them. There are always exceptions to this rule, however, since every class is different. In addition, it is also good practice to retrain students after long weekends and vacation weeks.

2. While forced output is never acceptable, it is fine for a teacher to cold call students if the teacher is pretty sure that they know the answer. One of the biggest components of teaching with comprehensible input (CI) is understanding that obligating students to speak will not further proficiency. This is called forced output, and it is common in traditional, textbook-driven classes. As Dr. Stephen Krashen stated in his book Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, making students produce language when they are not ready to do so will raise the Affective Filter and hinder language acquisition.

While I strongly support this hypothesis, I started to notice that, in classes where I wasn’t randomly choosing students to answer questions, some of my students were beginning to disengage and lose focus. It is perfectly understandable. Students in a class who know that they may be cold called (that is, called on to answer a question for which s/he did not volunteer to answer) have to stay attentive in class because they know that they may have to answer a question involuntarily at any moment. But some students will become disengaged if they know that the teacher is not going to obligate them to participate.

3. Teachers can use authentic resources creatively at any level. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) supports using authentic resources in the world language classroom, but many teachers struggle with making those resources comprehensible for Novice students. It takes practice, but with appropriate scaffolding or an attainable underlying purpose for use of that resource, teachers can successfully use authentic resources with all students.

For example, students in a Novice level class can study a song in the target language (TL), but the desired end result may not be that they understand every word of the song. Maybe the goal is for them to understand just one line. Or maybe the song is secondary because it has a great video that the teacher can use as a Movie Talk. In addition, authentic resources like works of art, wordless books, or photographs (that is to say, resources without language) can also be used in Novice classes. Why hadn’t I thought about that before?

4. While teaching culture is an important component of second language teaching, it can be taught in the target language (TL) at all levels. Many teachers talk about culture in the students’ native language because they say that students don’t possess the appropriate language skills to discuss cultural topics in the TL. But if you look at ACTFL’s Intercultural Competency expectations, you will find that, even at the Intermediate level, students are not expected to have in-depth, detailed knowledge of cultural products or practices. Novices are only expected to identify products and practices, which means that while they might be expected to know that September 16th is Mexican Independence Day and that it is a national holiday, they should not be expected to know much more than that. At the Intermediate level, students would be expected to know enough facts about Mexican Independence Day that they would be able to compare it with Independence Day in their home country. It’s only at the advanced level that students are expected to be able to speak at length and with great detail about cultural products or practices. So since expectations are so low (and, in my opinion, completely realistic for the students’ ability level), it is completely possible for students to learn about a certain cultural product or practice in the TL.

5. Technology is a nice tool to use in a second language classroom, but it is not essential. This year I incorporated a lot of technology into my classroom instruction, such as Quizlet, Kahoot, Gimkit, Charlala, Wheel Decide, and Plickers. What I learned was that, although my students enjoyed the novelty associated with using them, they didn’t really add anything to my classroom instruction that I felt I couldn’t live without. If I ever have an administrator that wants to see me use technology during an observation, I will make sure to use one of the tools listed above. I’ll also use one of these tech tools on a day when half the class is on a field trip or right before a vacation. But on a regular basis, I will not use a technology just for the sake of using technology.

6. When it comes to curriculum, less is more. Lance Piantaggini has a curriculum document on his website that I found very beneficial. Basically, he structures his curriculum around two essential questions (“Who am I?” and “Who are the speakers of the TL?”) and a list of high-frequency verbs called the Super Seven (and, once students have mastered those, the Sweet Sixteen. That’s it.

It probably doesn’t sound like much, but when you brainstorm all the possible answers to those two questions, you will find that almost anything you want to or are obligated to teach is an appropriate response to those two essential questions. And while teaching only seven (or sixteen) verbs doesn’t sound like a lot, it is a lot more when you factor in all the different tenses (When teaching in a comprehensible input classroom, teachers are encouraged to use any and all tenses necessary to make their messages meaning and comprehensible). And as you continue to use those high-frequency verbs, you will just naturally include other vocabulary that one would naturally use with those verbs (articles, adjectives, prepositions, common nouns, and so on).

As you embark on your summer break, I encourage you to reflect on what you have learned this year. How will what you have learned about yourself this year guide and improve your practice next year? Let me know.

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