Bad Language Program Organisation

After I wrote about bad language teaching ideas– the best ways to suck, most of which I have personally tried– I thought I’d write about the best bad ways to run a languages program. So this week’s question– what is a really bad way to organise a languages program?

The answer is simple: do what textbooks, and many U.S. districts already do, which is, make lists of vocabulary and grammar concepts by grade. Here’s an example. Greg S. just won Ben Slavic’s “Teacher of the Month” award. Awesome and congrats, Greg! Greg wrote a pretty good entry on Ben’s and I am gonna share two parts of it here. Greg writes:

“[I had] a phone interview I had last week with a district WL supervisor for a middle school French position. The woman told me that students are expected to leave the middle school’s language programs able to conjugate verbs in at least passé composé, present, and near future. Then she asked if I feel confident in making that happen.”

Holy crap, that is an AMAZINGLY BAD way to organise a languages curriculum. How is this stupid? Let me count the ways…

a) We know there is an order of acquisition for everything grammatical, and we also know that you cannot force people to acquire things before they are ready. We also know that what this District wants is counter to the natural order of acquisition: research indicates that there are a bunch of imparfait verbs which are acquired before– and used more frequently than– many present tense verbs. In French (and Spanish) the top 200 most-used verbs include verbs in nine tenses. Indeed, there are past-tense subjunctive expressions used more frequently than some present-tense verbs.

So when this genius District says “kids must know x, y and z when they leave the 8th grade” or whatever, it’s clear: they want people to do things they may not be ready for, and which are not frequently used.

b) If you want to teach people language that’s actually useful, you should teach them the most-frequently-used vocab. Anyone who wants to see what French words are most used should see this. Why would middle-schoolers need to learn to conjugate verbs in present & passé composé when there are loads of verbs in other tenses that are more frequently used– and used earlier– than passé composé verbs?

c) Greg himself said the best thing of all: “What does the ability to conjugate verbs in the past, present, and future -in and of itself – have to do with anything? Even dressed up in snazzy games and projects, how is that expectation even remotely meaningful? Conjugating verbs in different tenses is just a natural result […] of using the language to communicate about things which actually MATTER. [Conjugating verbs is] not an objective, it’s a side-effect]. Conjugating verbs in different tenses as an objective isn’t worthy of one second of a kid’s time in a school building, which is why most kids wouldn’t give it one second (maybe many seconds in the “school mode” of their brain, but not one in the “this is me” section of their brains).”

d) What if you’re a kid who’s low-income? What if your parents– if you have them– can’t afford a French tutor, or language software? What if, because your parents– if you have parents in the first place– are poor, and working multiple jobs, and don’t read a lot, you didn’t get exposure to loads of written language as a younger person? How are you going to thrive in a classroom where symbol manipulation– tacking endings onto verbs– trumps actual meaningful learning?

d) You’re in Greg’s T.P.R.S. class, and at the end of 8th grade you can tell the following story in French (and this would be a low-end student in the 2nd month of the course; T.P.R.S. kids will do much better by the end of the year):

Il y’avait un garcon qui voulait avoir dix chattes bleues. Il etait en New York et il etait grand, fort et tres inteligent. Il est allé a France, ou il a vu une jeune fille qui avait beaucoup des chattes bleues. Il lui a demande “puis-je avoir tes chattes? Je les aime beaucoup!” La jeune fille lui a dit “Non. Ce sont mes chattes et je les aime aussi.” Le garcon n’etait pas hereux. Il est alle a France, ou il a trouve dix chattes. Il les a dit “vous voulez etre mes chattes?” Les chattes lui ont dit “Oui…nous voulons etre vos chattes.”

Then you go into 9th grade, and your 9th grade grammarian teacher says “OK let’s conjugate vouloir in the present tense” and you have no idea what “present tense” or “conjugate” or “verb” means. But hot DAMN look at that story! 3 verb tenses, pronouns, connecting words, you name it, it’s in there, plus IT’S AN INTERESTING STORY! Well, it’s a LOT MORE INTERESTING than conjugating.

What would you rather that you, your students, or your own kids be able to do? Conjugate vouloir, or tell a cool story?

e) We also know that mastery is not linear. I.e. you teach your kids the present tense in 8th grade. However, as soon as you do your passé composé unit in 9th grade, the kids lose their present tense skills and EVERYTHING becomes “j’ai whatever.” The present tense will kick back in later…at which point the passé composé will vanish for awhile. (there is research that examines this in Lightbrown and Spada, 2013). I noticed this when I taught “communicatively”:  when you introduced the imperfecto everything else got ditched; so much for all that hard work hammering in the pretérito etc.

Now, the natural and smart way to teach is, mix all the tenses and grammar in together from Day 1– like in real life, or like Blaine Ray does. Second-best is, do a few stories in present tense, then once they have the basics start throwing in various past tenses (and all other necessary grammar). If you do it in these ways, the kids will have constant exposure to everything, and, as a result, two things can happen:

(1) they won’t “forget” as much because everything will always be there

(2) they can acquire whatever they are ready for at any time, because the input is comprehensible and rich (“three dimensional”) as Susan Gross points out.

But if you insist on sequencing your grammar, verb tenses, etc in order, your results are gonna be in-and-out acquisition. So Greg’s District is doing it wrong.

So. The moral? If you are a District (or a textbook), and you want to ensure that your languages teaching sucks, just make a list of stuff-to-learn-by-grade, and insist that people learn that stuff, in order.

Having read the research on bad organisation, and having for years poorly organised my own teaching, I can report that a rigidly organised curriculum is definitively a good way to make sure your– or your District’s– language teaching will suck.


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