A New Way To Think About Grading

This past Tuesday I got the chance to hear Lance P. give a presentation about his grading system. Lance is a teacher based here in New England who teaches exclusively with comprehensible input (CI). The system he has created is designed to reduce the amount of time teachers spend assessing and grading.

Lance started his presentation by sharing a surprising statistic, namely that teachers in most classrooms spend 20% of their classroom time assessing students. This works out to be about two out of the ten months that classes are in session. In addition, most assessments are obtrusive assessments, meaning that no instruction, and subsequently no language acquisition, is happening while students complete the assessment (even when they’re done early, they either do homework for another class, read, or cause trouble). Considering how much time can be lost due to assessments, Lance said that second language teachers should try to limit the amount of assessing they do so they have more time to deliver input. He continued by saying that constant assessment would do nothing to further student language proficiency. As the saying goes, “Weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter.”

A typical assessment in Lance’s class is a 4-point, true/false quiz given orally based on a reading that is projected in front of the class. For example, if one of the Latin sentences in the reading says that a boy likes coffee, his true/false question might be, “The boy likes tea.” This quiz takes only five minutes or so to administer. When he is done giving the quiz, he has students correct their papers while he reviews the answers to the quiz in the target language (TL), which in his case is Latin. By reviewing answers in the TL, students receive more input and hear more repetitions of high frequency words that Lance wants his students to acquire. Once students are done grading the quizzes, he collects them and puts them in PowerSchool, which is the grading program he uses.

Here is where things get interesting. Lance puts all those assessment scores into his grade book, but they carry ZERO WEIGHT. Let me say that again. They have NO EFFECT on a student’s average. Since they don’t affect a student’s class grade, he does not obligate them to make the quizzes up if they are absent. He marks that student as exempt in PowerSchool for that assessment. Homework assignments also carry zero weight, so instead of chasing students who don’t turn in work, he simply marks the assignment as “Missing” in PowerSchool.

After reading the previous paragraph, you are undoubtedly wondering, “Well then how do students earn grades in his class?” They earn grades by self-assessing using what Lance calls an Input Expectations Rubric. Students self-evaluate their behavior, attitude, class attendance, and work habits in class (I am unclear if he does this once or twice a quarter). Lance then reviews the student evaluations and, if necessary, adjusts the grades based on the homework and assessment scores he has in PowerSchool. So if an exemplary student tries to be humble and give herself a low score on the Input Expectations Rubric, Lance will increase the student’s score and will explain why. That final score on the Input Expectations Rubric, whether adjusted or not, becomes the student’s grade for the quarter (If he has students self-assess twice a quarter, I assume he averages those grades together).

After reading this, you may be wondering, “What about language proficiency? Why isn’t he grading that?” Lance’s answer to this is pretty simple. He says, “students who receive input that they understand (CI) will—WILL—acquire the language.” In other words, we don’t need to measure whether or not students are acquiring language because if they meet classroom expectations, they just naturally are. It’s that simple (He does include an estimated proficiency chart on his Input Expectations Rubric, but that is just to inform the student and parents and does not factor into the student’s grade).

This grading system seems very fair to me. Students who do what they are supposed to do will get a good grade and will acquire language. Those that don’t do what they are supposed to do will not get a good grade and will not acquire language. And by not expecting all students to reach a certain proficiency level or master a certain language component in the same amount of time, the weak processor/slow acquirer will not be penalized for something that s/he has no control over.

Check out Lance’s website for more information about his grading system and his thoughts on CI in general. Could you make this grading system work in your second language classes?



A Valuable Learning Experience

Even though I have been teaching French and Spanish for over twenty years, I still have those days when my lesson plan blows up in my face. I had a day like that this week, which turned into a valuable learning experience for me. But before I tell you what happened, let me give you a little background.

When I first started teaching French and Spanish, one of the issues I had was that I was constantly overestimating my students’ ability in the target language (TL). Many times I gave my students an assignment or an assessment that I thought they could handle only to watch them struggle unsuccessfully and become frustrated.

It was only after I had been teaching for a while that I learned about how much time it takes to advance in language proficiency and what students are capable of doing at their current proficiency level. I found this chart below to be very valuable.


Once I saw this chart, I realized that the language in some of the assignments and assessments I was giving was way too advanced for my students’ proficiency level. For example, students at the end of a first-year class usually end up at a Novice Mid level of proficiency. According to the performance indicators created by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL), language learners at this level have a very limited vocabulary. That vocabulary is made up of mostly high frequency and memorized expressions. In addition, they can understand single, isolated phrases, especially if those phrases include cognates and borrowed words. It is only when students reach an Intermediate level that they start understanding paragraph-length text (for more about what learners can do at different language proficiency levels, click here).

Armed with this new insight, I went back to my first-year class and adjusted my expectations. I began telling stories in isolated sentences. And while I still gave students paragraphs to read, I made sure that those paragraphs were full of high frequency words that my students had already seen multiple times in class, and even then I never gave them a paragraph that had more than three or four sentences in it. I also learned to adjust my assessments so students could be successful and not become frustrated my language that was too complex.

So now that you have a little background on how I try to make sure that I give my students activities that they are capable of doing at their proficiency level, let me go back and tell you what happened last week.

My fifth grade Spanish class recently watched the movie Coco. When the movie was over, I gave them a worksheet to complete. Students had to identify the names of members in the family of the protagonist, a boy names Miguel, based on one-sentence descriptions in Spanish. For copyright reasons, I cannot post that worksheet here, so I will do my best to describe it.

The worksheet has two pictures, one of the living members of Miguel’s family and one of the deceased members. Then the page has seventeen clues to the identity of a character in one of the pictures that the students had to match to a person in one of the pictures. With the sentence-length clues and abundance of family vocabulary that they already knew (but which was translated on the Smart Board in case they forgot essential family words), I figured that my students would breeze through that worksheet. Boy, was I wrong.

So what happened? Why did so many students struggle so much on this assignment even though I made sure the language was right at their assumed proficiency level? After speaking with a colleague and doing some reflection on my own, I have a few ideas about what happened.

First, the worksheet asked students to remember the names of all the major characters, whose names we heard many times, as well as minor characters, who only appeared in one or two scenes and whose names were only said once or twice, if at all. I didn’t have a problem filling out the worksheet because I have already seen the movie four or five times. I failed to put myself in the shoes of my students, who were seeing the movie for the first time over a period of three, non-consecutive days and were not as familiar as I was with the details of the film.

Second, I failed to take into account how overwhelming it would be for my fifth graders to read seventeen sentences in Spanish. It overwhelmed many of them, who started to shut down after the tenth sentence, if not earlier. I probably could have given high schoolers seventeen sentences, but not ten-year-olds.

Third, although I translated some unfamiliar words for students on the board, many of them forgot those words were there. So much incomprehensible language caused them to panic, which raised their Affective Filter and impeded acquisition. In addition, I had over twenty words translated on the board. Just seeing the length of that list was probably enough to freak out some of my students. In retrospect, I should have known that having to translate that many words would make the worksheet problematic.

And finally, I lost sight of what I really wanted to do with the worksheet. My main goal was not to see if they remembered the name of Miguel’s great-great-grandmother. The goal was for them to read sentences in Spanish that would, with any luck, provide the comprehensible input they needed to advance their own language proficiency. If I had remembered this, I would have been able to recognize that the worksheet I had for them was not going to do that.

After some reflection, I came up with a set of guidelines I plan to use in the future to assess whether or not texts are too difficult for my students.

1. Make sure the text is at an appropriate proficiency level for students. I will continue to refrain from giving my Novice students paragraph-length texts unless it has simple, predictable language and, when appropriate, visual support.

2. Make sure the text is not too long. If I give my Novice students sentence-length text, I will limit the number of sentences I give them so they don’t become overwhelmed and I will take into account my students’ age and maturity too.

3. Limit the number of words that need to be translated and put those translations near the text so they are easy to see. Having multiple words translated along with a text doesn’t automatically make a text comprehensible.

4. Don’t lose sight of the real reason students are interacting with the text. The main goal of the text is to facilitate language acquisition and check comprehension, and it’s not worth using if it is too long or complex to do that.

I’m going to alter this Coco worksheet for use next year. I plan to eliminate clues about the minor characters in the movie.  That should reduce the number of sentences students need to read and, with any luck, not overwhelm them. Second, I plan to rewrite some of the clues so the language is more comprehensible to my students. And finally, I may split up clues and separate them into a group about the living members of the family and another group about the deceased members of the family.  Since I will be creating the new worksheet(s) myself, I won’t have to worry about copyright infringement. You can expect to see my altered version(s) on my Spanish Resources page.

How to Liberate Your Language Department Using ACTFL Can-Do Statements

Yesterday, I attended an informal workshop about Can-Do Statements, which were written and then revised by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The Can-Dos are divided into three communication categories (Interpretive, Presentational, and Interpersonal) and two intercultural categories (Investigate and Interact) and describe what language learners should be able to do with their acquired second language based on their proficiency level (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Distinguished, and Superior). For example, some of the things that learners at an Intermediate level should be able to do include the ability to:

  • understand the main idea and some pieces of information on familiar topics from sentences and series of connected sentences,
  • participate in spontaneous spoken, written, or signed conversations on familiar topics,
  • communicate information, make presentations, and express my thoughts about familiar topics, using sentences and series of connected sentences,
  • make comparisons between products and practices, and
  • interact at a functional level in some familiar contexts.

Then based on the category and the proficiency level of the language learners, a series of sample Can-Do Statements are offered for teachers and students to use as a model and alter as necessary. For example, based on what Intermediate language learners can do, sample Can-Do sentences include the following:

  • I can understand essential information in a feature story in a magazine.
  • I can understand some basic facts reported by a witness regarding an accident.
  • I can understand most of what is said in a conversation among characters in a familiar play.
  • I can understand a written apology where a someone explains why he couldn’t attend party.
  • I can understand diners discussing what to order at a restaurant.
  • I can exchange blog posts about raising money for a cause.
  • In my own and other cultures I can compare and contrast how people label nationalities and why they do so.
  • I can choose an appropriate means of transportation based on my location, needs, and local options.

Then, by using the Can-Do Statement as the desired end result of instruction, teachers can determine what vocabulary, structures and cultural products or practices they need to teach in order to reach those results. For example, if my Can-Do Statement is “I can understand diners discussing what to order at a restaurant,” a teacher would have to make sure than students have had instruction about different types of foods and drink, words needed to describe food and drinks, structures such as “I want to order,” “I would like,” and “I don’t like,” interrogatives, and so on. Instruction might also include information about traditional meals in the country or countries where the target language is spoken. All of these lessons can play a role in helping students meet the goal of understanding a restaurant conversation.

I am lucky enough this year to be the only French teacher at my school, so I do not have to worry about staying “on the same page” with other teachers. This is something that I have to do, however, for my Spanish classes. When I started at my new school I was handed a curriculum and lessons to teach complete with worksheets and assessments to use in class. All year I have been having issues. Using lessons, worksheets, and assessments made by someone else feels kind of like walking around wearing someone else’s clothes. As the newest of three Spanish teachers, it sometimes takes me longer to get through a unit than it takes the other Spanish teachers. In addition, I wanted to use comprehensible input (CI) in my classroom, which doesn’t appear in the curriculum as often as I would like, so I spent some time altering lessons and units to do that. And finally, I wanted to be able to use my own materials and approaches, because that is what I am comfortable doing and what I think is the most effective approach to facilitate second language acquisition.

It was after this workshop that I had what I think is a fantastic idea. Instead of writing common curricula, lessons, worksheets, and assessments, what if the three Spanish teachers sat down together and came up with a set of Can-Do statements for our common classes, and then leave it up to the individual teacher to determine how to meet those Can-Do statements? Then if Teacher A wants to use a traditional curriculum to teach descriptive adjectives, for example, but Teacher B wants to do it using CI, both teachers are actually addressing the goal set by the Can-Do statement (Which might be something like, “I can describe myself and my family”) without having to do exactly the same thing (although due to my love of all things CI you all know that I would bet that the students taught traditionally wouldn’t make as much progress as the students in the CI class). Then teachers could concentrate on what they do best, which in my case is delivering input, and not have to worry that they have to catch up to the other teachers and do that worksheet or that assessment they haven’t done yet.

Naysayers may say that this won’t work because of the possibility that students may switch from one class to another due to changes with their school schedules. And while I know that this is a possibility, after the first month of September these types of changes are rare. I really don’t think it is fair to force a teacher to do exactly the same thing as every other teacher of the same level and subject due to the remote possibility that someone may switch from one class to the other during the school year. In high school classes where students need to take a common final exam, that new student can be given extra study topics to close any gaps s/he may have due to a change of schedule. In a class where no comprehensive final is given, I’m not sure it really matters if a new student misses a certain unit. Good teachers (and especially CI teachers) know how to reuse and recycle important elements throughout the year, ensuring that the new student will get those important structures elsewhere.

CI teachers have a special advantage when using Can-Do statements to plan instruction, which is that it eliminates the friction that may surface in a department where only some teachers use CI. In addition, Can-Do statements are not grammar based, so the pressure to teach students to conjugate verbs is virtually eliminated. We CI teachers know that we are not going to be able to convince every other second language teacher to convert, for whatever reason. But, at the very least, structuring instruction around Can-Do Statements should reduce the chances that CI teachers will be vilified for their teaching approaches.

I am going to suggest this when the Spanish teachers in my department meet again, which is tomorrow. I will let you know how it goes.

My Thoughts on Student Input

Wow, my comments about the conference I went to last Saturday has generated quite a bit of conversation on Facebook! All week members of the CI Fight Club have been debating the idea of student output, which was the topic of my last blog post, and have also been discussing another claim I heard at the conference in the Facebook iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching group, namely that of all the talking being done in a language classroom (which should be 90% of the time according to ACTFL guidelines), teachers should be doing 20% of the talking and students should be doing a whopping 80% of the talking. This claim comes from this book and is echoed by the use of this model, which is called the Learning Pyramid. But as a professional who teaches with comprehensible input (CI), I was skeptical, to say the least.

The way the presenter responsible for these claims sees it, by designing speaking activities that students can do in pairs or small groups, the teacher experiences the best of both worlds. First of all, collaborative work makes the class student-centered instead of teacher-centered (The presenter compared the photo of a collaborative classroom full of students happily working together with one of a teacher lecturing in front of a class full of sleeping students to illustrate what he sees as typical student-centered and teacher-centered classrooms), thus fulfilling the 80-20 expectations of the Learning Pyramid, and since the students are spending almost the entire class completing speaking activities where they are talking to each other in the target language (TL), they are meeting the ACTFL 90% Guideline AND are providing each other with tons of input! It’s a win-win, right?

Ummm…no. I’ll give the presenter points for trying to base his claims on research, but he missed the point in two very important areas.

First of all, let’s start with the claim that teachers should be doing 20% of the talking and students should be doing a whopping 80% of the talking. If we want to have students do the majority of the talking in class, they theoretically need to be able to communicate on a variety of subjects and in complete sentences. They should also be able to ask and answer questions. Based on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, I would guess that, to do this effectively, a student would need to be at an Intermediate Mid level of speaking proficiency (“Intermediate Mid speakers are able to handle successfully a variety of uncomplicated communicative tasks [related to] personal information related to self, family, home, daily activities, interests and personal preferences, as well as physical and social needs, such as food, shopping, travel, and lodging…they are capable of asking a variety of questions when necessary to obtain simple information.”) or higher. And yet, most students don’t reach the Intermediate Mid level of proficiency until they have had at minimum seven years of classroom instruction. Consider the graphic below.


It is logical to say, therefore, that reaching that 80-20 split isn’t sustainable in beginner language classes, since they are still in the Novice level and are only capable of short messages made up of “isolated words and phrases that have been encountered, memorized, and recalled.”

Bill Van Patten,  independent scholar and the self-proclaimed “Diva of Second Language Acquisition,” agrees that the 80-20 split in beginning classes is not feasible. He  recently did a live Facebook Q and A where he was asked a question about the 80-20 ratio. He said unequivocally that only in upper levels with students of high proficiency was this possible and that teachers of beginning level classes should do most of the talking and then expect more student talking as the student acquire more language.

Furthermore, let me address the idea that a classroom where a teacher does most of the talking is teacher-centered and not student-centered. I have already written about doing activities like the Special Person Interview, which puts attention on students. And in most CI classrooms, the topics of discussion are often about what students want to talk about. For example, this past Monday when I asked in class what people did over the weekend, one girl said she went to go see the movie Black Panther. This led to a discussion about who also had seen the movie, what superheroes were students’ favorites, and whether or not Batman is a superhero since he technically has no superpowers and is just a guy with cool gadgets (This claim caused quite an uproar, by the way). This conversation was valuable and interactive and totally student-centered, since it was about what the students wanted to talk about. In addition, classes taught with Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and One Word Images (OWI) are student-centered because the students help create the story being told in class. Many teachers also have class jobs, which is another way to make a class more student-centered (For more on the topic of student-centered classrooms, visit this post by Carol Gaab).

So now that I have explained why I am skeptical of the 80-20 claim, let me turn to the presenter’s second claim, namely that students can provide each other with input by completing speaking activities where they are talking to each other in the TL. I have an issue with that as well. Why? Well, I’ll tell you.

First of all, let’s look at the definition of comprehensible input, a term that was developed by Dr. Stephen Krashen as part of his Input Hypothesis (which is now called the Comprehension Hypothesis). Comprehensible input is described as input that is understandable to the language learner but slightly about the learner’s current proficiency level. Krashen describes this type of input as “i + 1,” and says that this kind of input helps learners acquire language naturally.

So with this definition in mind, speaking activities designed for students in the same class, who are more or less at the same proficiency level, may provide “i” but probably don’t provide “i + 1,” which means there wouldn’t be any new language to acquire. That is why teacher input is so important at the beginning levels, because teachers are the best people for delivering “i + 1” input due to their higher proficiency level.

Second, I have a feeling that many second language teachers automatically assume that any speaking activity done in a language class delivers “good” input. I am not so sure. Bill Van Patten talks about good input in his book, While We’re On the Topic. He says in the book that besides being comprehensible, good input “must also be engaging and important so the learner has a reason to pay attention to the message (p. 50).”

I will freely admit that, before I started researching CI, I used to plan what I thought were valuable speaking activities for my language classes. I was a big proponent of information gap activities. For example, I would give my students two incomplete maps of South America and have them ask and answer questions about who went to what country so they could complete their maps. The problem with this activity is that all the people on the map were imaginary. It wasn’t really that important to find out where imaginary people went. Moreover, the real goal of this activity was to practice forms of the verb “to go,” and my students knew it. Therefore, while at the time I thought this was a great activity, it turns out that it did not meet the definition of “good” input, so I doubt it helped further my students’ second language acquisition at all.

Unfortunately, many of the speaking activities that were suggested at last Saturday’s conference were similar to the one I mentioned above. They weren’t “good” input.  That being said, I am thinking of reaching out to the presenter and sending him a free copy of Bill Van Patten’s book. He needs to start his own CI journey.


My Thoughts on Student Output

One thing I like about language conferences is the fact that so many generous teachers are willing to share their ideas and activities with other teachers. I also really love the opportunity to network and make connections with others in the field. Unfortunately, I feel that most state organizations haven’t completely embraced or don’t fully understand the idea of teaching with comprehensible input (CI). This was evident at the state conference I went to yesterday, where even though the words “comprehensible input” were in the title of the conference, the focus of the day, at least at the session I attended, was more about student output.

At first I was happy to hear our keynote speaker, a very enthusiastic and motivated teacher, talked about the importance of comprehensible input. I was glad that she quoted Dr. Stephen Krashen’s work on CI, and I was in complete agreement with everything she had to say until she started talking about comprehensible output (CO). In case you are not aware, the Comprehensible Output Hypothesis was developed by Dr. Merrill Swain, who theorized that learner output could be useful in second language acquisition (SLA). The hypothesis states that people acquire language when they attempt to transmit a message but fail and have to try again. Eventually, a learner will arrive at the correct form needed to transmit that message. As a result, the listener will understand and the learner will acquire the new and correctly produced form.

Krashen has disagreed with the Comprehensible Output Hypothesis and has said repeatedly that comprehensible input is enough to acquire language. Furthermore, Krashen says that forcing students to produce output can produce anxiety and raise the Affective Filter, which impedes language acquisition. Bill Van Patten, another SLA expert, has also said that output is not necessary for acquisition but, unlike Krashen, says that it could be useful if the output is part of an interaction that leads to more input.

The speaker at the conference I went to yesterday doesn’t seem to agree with either Krashen or Van Patten’s view about output. She is a big proponent of comprehensible output in language classrooms, because she says that student output is how teachers can tell if students understand. And while this may be true, she failed to mention that students can convey understanding without having to produce output. I have compiled a short list of those ways I check for student comprehension without forcing output below.

1. True/False questions. In my classes, we may often read a story in the target language (TL). Then I can give a quick true/false quiz to ensure that students understood the story. But my quiz doesn’t have to be based on a story. They could be target structures that I use to describe something about the class, students in the class, the weather, the clothes I am wearing, and more.

2. Matching questions. I take target structures, put them in a sentence, and create a quiz where students match those sentences with a picture or expression in the TL to show me that they understand those target structures.

3. Scrambled sentences. I take sentences to a story we have read in class, scramble them, and ask students to put them in chronological order based on the story.

4. Comic strips. I take sentences to a story we have read in class, put them in a comic strip template, and ask students to illustrate them to demonstrate comprehension.

5. English summaries. I take a story that we have read in the TL and ask students to summarize the story in English.

6. Choral translations. I ask the entire class to translate a story sentence by sentence into English as I read the story in the TL.

7. Total Physical Response (TPR). Students use gestures or movement to demonstrate understanding of a variety of utterances in the TL.

In beginner classes, I believe that activities like the ones I just listed should be the primary ways that teachers should check for understanding, because forcing students to produce output before they are ready can create anxiety and quickly turn students off to language study. Furthermore, students don’t really start to develop any oral or written proficiency besides one word answers and practiced, memorized phrases until they are at the Novice High level, and research has shown that it takes an average of a minimum of 120 classroom hours before students get to that level. That means that forcing students to produce more than one word answers or practiced, memorized phrases before they have been in a class that long is unrealistic.

But by far my biggest complaint about the idea of student output is that so many teachers seem to believe that any time a students says something in the TL, s/he is creating comprehensible output, just as there are a number of teachers who believe that any time they speak in the TL in their class, they are creating comprehensible input. As I have said in a previous post, comprehensible input is not speaking for the sake of speaking, but rather the act of conveying a spoken or written message that a student is capable of understanding. So doesn’t it stand to reason that comprehensible output should be defined as the act of a student producing a spoken or written message comprehensibly? And if that is the case, then the very many presentations that I attended at this conference yesterday that talked about speaking activities just for the sake of practicing speaking totally miss the mark.

I suppose that state language conferences aren’t going to get much better until more CI teachers present at them. Looks like I will be creating some proposals for conference presentations this summer. Anyone want to join me?

Using E-Pals to Increase Student Engagement and Fulfill All Five C’s

Last December, an English teacher in France posted in the French teacher comprehensible input (CI) group on Facebook that she was looking for a French class in the United States to set up an e-pal exchange with (I’m sure many of you know the term “pen pal.” I had quite a few when I was a young teen. These days the students communicate through email, hence the term “e-pal.”). My students were roughly the same age as hers so I set up an exchange with her. We alternate between writing in French and writing in English so that both our students can practice their target language (TL).

For the past two months, I have been conducting Special Person interviews in my class. Here is the post I just wrote about that. As a result, my students have been receiving a steady diet of CI. Each student is interviewed about their family, birthday, likes, and fears. So after I matched each French student with one of my students based on questionnaires the teacher in France sent me, I had my students write an introductory letter to their pen pal. Thanks to the Special Person interviews we have been doing, my students had very little difficulty writing about six to ten sentences about themselves with no supports whatsoever in TEN MINUTES!

The teacher in France sent me a letter with some information about her town and her students. She also sent me the link to her school’s web page, and that is when I had a GREAT idea. Why not take the basic French 1 topics that I am planning to talk about anyway, such as geography of France, weather, school, food, and hobbies and present them while using what we learning about the lives of our new e-pals as a real-world context? That is exactly what I did, and here is how I hit all those topics.

1. Geography of France. Our e-pals live in a town in southwestern France. I projected a map of France from Google Maps in class and used the opportunity to point out some of the geographical features of France in general such as mountains, big cities, and bordering countries. Then I could ask questions like, Classe, nos amis habitent près de Suisse (Class, do our friends live near Switzerland)? Il y a des montagnes près de leur ville (Are there mountains near their town)This particular town is near the Garonne River, so I showed them where it was on the map and talked a bit also about some of the other rivers in France. This helped my students start to acquire words like mountains, rivers, country, near, far, next to, east, south, west…and so on. You get the idea.

Once I was done with the geographic map, I switched Google Maps to the satellite view and zoomed in so students could get a glimpse of the center of town and the school our e-pals attend. Guys, my kids went CRAZY when they saw that they could virtually see what their e-pals’ town and school look like! They were so excited! I thought their heads were going to explode! For more information on using Google Maps in your language class, read this awesome post from la Maestra Loca, Annabelle Allen.

2. Weather. Since class began I have been asking them questions about the weather each day. Talking about the weather in general can get a bit monotonous, but now that my students and I are able to compare weather in our region with weather in our e-pals’ region, it has gotten a bit more interesting. A real world connection makes all that vocabulary and language structure real, relevant, and a lot more interesting than it is when talking in the hypothetical.

We use the Internet to check and compare our daily and seasonal weather with theirs. I can ask questions like, Ici il pleut. Il pleut là-bas (It’s raining here. Is it raining there?)? I only use French weather sites (Look ACTFL, an authentic resource!). These sites are very visual, usually with just a symbol and a temperature in Celsius. I don’t mind the lack of weather vocabulary, however, because I know my students won’t get bogged down by too much unfamiliar language. They only need to concentrate on the pictures. I also get an opportunity to talk about French usage of the metric system and, since French weather sites also give the weather for the overseas départements of France, I have the chance to add in a little more geography as we talk about the weather in places like Mayotte, Guadeloupe, and French Polynesia.

3. School. I plan to write the teacher in France and ask her if she will send us a copy of what a typical school day looks like for her students, because I would like the opportunity to talk about the differences between our school schedule and theirs (Many typical French school schedules are available online, so if need be, I can use a generic one until I get a real one from France). I plan to project the schedule and use the target language (TL) to talk about the differences between our school schedule and theirs. A school schedule comparison is a great opportunity to reinforce time expressions and names of school subjects. Then from there I can personalize the conversation by asking students in French to tell me their favorite classes, and ultimately they will be able to ask their e-pals about their favorites as well.

4. Food. The school our e-pals attend posts its weekly lunch menu online (Another authentic resource! Yay!). This is an amazing document to use when we are talking about food. I project the weekly menu and we talk about what we would eat each day if we were students there (And yes, even though this is a first-year class, I have NO PROBLEM teaching them a conditional form. I NEVER shelter grammar) and compare it to our own lunch menu. The importance of eating healthy food is such an important part of French culture, which is something my students quickly realize when they compare the two menus side by side.

5. Hobbies. One of the questions on our Special Person interviews was about what my students like to do in their spare time. As a result, my students can talk pretty easily about activities that they like or don’t like to do. My class is a nice mix of musicians, jocks, gamers, and book nerds, so my students have acquired about 15-20 different words they can use to express things they like to do. It has been interesting to compare our favorite activities with the favorite activities of our e-pals so that we can compare and contrast and add even more expressions to our internal language systems based on what our e-pals like to do.

Guys my students are SO engaged in class these days, because everything we are doing we can relate back to a real person. My principal came to observe me and she was very impressed by how excited my students were and the fact that they had a real-world connection to their language study. This project has been great for my professional evaluations too, because I hit ALL FIVE ACTFL WORLD READINESS STANDARDS!

If you’re interested in getting your students e-pals, let me warn you about being careful to protect your students’ privacy. I DO NOT allow my students to give their home address, email address, social media profile name, or phone number to their e-pals. The only means of communication for them is through me, and the teacher in France does the same thing. Once our students have written each other more frequently, the teacher in France and I may talk about allowing our students to exchange private contact information so they can communicate directly. I will most likely send out permission slip forms to parents to make sure that they feel comfortable with that. In this day and age, you just can’t be too careful!

This e-pals project is one of the best activities I have ever done in a second language class! And in our Internet world, connecting with a teacher in a foreign country and setting up an exchange is relatively easy. I urge you to give it a try, no matter what language you teach!



ACTFL Proficiency Levels and High School Instruction

In my last post, I talked about The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) language proficiency standards. ACTFL assesses language proficiency levels using the following categories: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Distinguished, and Superior. According to this CASLS study, most students exit a four-year high school language program at the Novice High or, at best, Intermediate Low level. Maybe you are thinking to yourself, “Intermediate? That’s not so bad.” But keep in mind that at the Intermediate Low level, students still can’t communicate that much. At this level, students can only communicate in short sentences on familiar topics and can only understand the main idea of what they read or hear if the language being used is familiar (You can look at this document for a more detailed version of what learners can do based on their proficiency level).

The reason students do not get that far in developing their language proficiency is partially due to the limited number of hours that students study the language. According to this CASLS study, after roughly 720 hours of instruction in a traditional four-year program, only around 15% of students reach a proficiency level higher than Intermediate Low. I also believe that another reason why student proficiency levels are so low after four years of instruction is because so much of that instruction is taught using traditional, legacy methods. And although I have no research to back this up, I fully believe that students taught in an input driven class will become more proficient more quickly.

In an input driven class, the goal is to expose students to comprehensible, compelling input. As Karen Lichtman states on this handout, in a class taught using Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) techniques, which is an input driven approach, “class time is spent using the language for real communication.” This is also true in other input driven classes. This is not the case in most legacy classrooms, where teachers often give explicit grammar instruction, usually in the students’ native language, and present lists of vocabulary for student to memorize without ever using those words for true communication. As Bill Van Patten points out in his book While we’re on the topic…. BVP on Language, Langauge Acquisition, and Classroom Practicemany of the things students are asked to do in a traditional, legacy classroom do not involve real communication. No communication results in no input, which results in fewer words and structures added to one’s internal language system.

As I mentioned in my last post, if the goal of the language classroom is to help students develop proficiency, then everything we do in the classroom should be designed to help students receive the input they need to develop that proficiency. And in case you did not already know this, explicit grammar instruction is definitely NOT input (In fact, if you look through the ACTFL Performance Indicators for Language Learners, the only mention of anything even remotely grammatical in nature is the Advanced category, where learners are able to communicate consistently in various time frames). If you would like more information about how to deliver input in a classroom, read this post or visit this page.

So as you go about planning your lessons, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is this lesson input driven?
  2. Is this lesson going to help my students become proficient in the language?
  3. Is this lesson appropriate for the proficiency level of my students?

And if the answer to all three of these questions is “yes,” you’re on your way to helping your students gain proficiency in their second language.

Rethinking Curriculum in a CI Classroom

A Hebrew teacher recently posted this question on the Facebook CI Liftoff page:

“If you were involved in a shift [of] a group of teachers to CI from traditional language teaching and they repeatedly expressed a need for materials and a scope and sequence, how would you guide them?

Then on the Facebook IFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching page, a Spanish teacher said this:

“As I make the transition from traditional teaching methodologies to CI I still find myself struggling with the WHAT TO TEACH…I feel like there should be some sort of grammatical checklist for each level.”

In both cases, teachers who have made the shift from traditional teaching to teaching with comprehensible input (CI) are struggling with what their curriculum should look like. This made me think about my own struggles surrounding the idea of what a curriculum looks like in a CI classroom.

When I was a traditional teacher, I had a textbook with a scope and sequence that listed vocabulary words, grammar structures, and cultural topics that I needed to cover. Then when I made the switch to teaching with CI, I tried at first to use a traditional scope and sequence, meaning that I was still thinking about what I had to “cover.” I did this partially because my department required me to present certain material to my students depending on what level they were in and partially because I hadn’t had much training yet in teaching with CI. At the time, I was teaching at a high school that followed a pretty standard curriculum. I was required to include certain grammar topics and vocabulary lists in each level. I was not satisfied with this approach, however, because I found that being required to include certain material was counterproductive to my main goal, which was to help my students become more proficient in the language.

Then I was lucky enough to get a new job at a middle school, where I was given complete freedom over what and how I planned to teach. The Latin teacher at my new school is very well-read about teaching with CI, and the two of us started having a preliminary discussion about converting our traditional grading practices into a report about student proficiency levels. We plan to base those levels on the proficiency levels provided the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). ACTFL assesses language proficiency based on the following levels: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished. Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced are also divided into Low, Mid, and High based on what students can do with the language. As we started talking more about converting our grading practices, I realized that if I was going to grade students based on proficiency levels, then I needed to plan my instruction to help students reach that desired level (I only do Level 1 split up over two years, grades 7 and 8, so my goal was to help students reach Novice High by the end of Grade 8).

ACTFL proficiency levels do NOT specify topics that teachers are supposed to cover. For example, you can reach an advanced level of proficiency without being able to name all the parts of an automobile or every fruit and vegetable in existence (both of which I have had to teach at some point). Instead, ACTFL describes TYPES of topics that language students should be able to communicate about. These topics are “familiar and everyday ” at the Novice and Intermediate levels, “familiar as well as unfamiliar” at the Advanced level, “abstract and hypothetical” at the Superior level, and “highly abstract concepts” at the Distinguished level (You can read more about the ACTFL proficiency levels here and here). So in regards to the question posted by the Hebrew teacher that I referenced at the beginning of this post, I would say that, when forming a scope and sequence, focus on topics based on the level of your students. So for students at the Novice level, plan instruction in familiar topics such as family, school, the weather, and student interests. At the Intermediate level, branch out to include other familiar and everyday topics such as dining, popular sports, and shopping. At the Advanced level, start adding lessons about unfamiliar topics like cultural or historical topics of significance (Generally speaking, however, unless language instruction begins early, most students do not reach the Advanced level. According to this study, most students in a traditional four-year language program reach a Novice High or, at best, an Intermediate Low level of proficiency, which means it might not be necessary to plan an Advanced level scope and sequence unless instruction starts at the early elementary level).

Equally important to mention is that fact that not until the Advanced level do the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines mention anything even remotely grammatical in nature. At this level, language students are supposed to be able to communicate consistently “across major time frames.” So in classes where the overwhelming majority of my students were at Novice levels (and again, according to this study, these were not just first-year students), why was I trying to make them memorize things like conditional verb forms, relative pronouns, and si clauses when, according to their proficiency level, they could only communicate in or understand simple sentences? Wasn’t it a waste of time to try to force them to say “If you had a million dollars, would you buy a very expensive Italian car?” when, based on their proficiency level, they were only able to say “Do you want a Ferrari?” That’s like making students run a marathon after they have only ever run a 5K! So in response to the question posted by the Spanish teacher that I referenced at the beginning of this post, I would say no, you absolutely do NOT need a grammar checklist for each level. What you need to do is provide input in all major time frames (past, present, and future) and concentrate on improving their proficiency level by exposing them to language about familiar topics at the Novice level and familiar and everyday topics at the Intermediate level.

So here is the big takeaway from this long post, my friends. To rethink curriculum for a CI class, don’t think about what topics you need to cover. Instead, focus on what your students can do at their proficiency level and what you want them to be able to do so that they maintain and/or advance proficiency levels. For what it’s worth, free voluntary reading (FVR) is a great component to any language class and will definitely help your students become more proficient in their target language. If you would like to learn more about FVR, click here.

Have a great end of 2017 guys!