How To Teach a Split Class

I have a Spanish 1 and 2 split right now.  Six true beginners, nineteen level 2s, and three native speakers.  I also have three level 2s who have not had Spanish for 18 months (they had Level 1 in grade 10 and now in gr 12 they have level 2). Ten years ago, with communicative and grammar teaching (the ¡Juntos! Program) this would have kicked my ass.  If there is one thing that totally freaks language teachers out, it is getting a range of grades or abilities in one class.

But you know what? My split’s all right…as a matter of fact, it’s a gas!  So, what is it like having a split class using comprehensible input and how did I do it? I also suggest reading Gerry Wass on this topic.

If your Adminz and Headz insist on a grammar- and/or topically-themed curriculum and assessment even for a split class, I would advise you to look for another job. If the idiots in charge think that “the Unit Two test on -ar verbs, indirect object pronouns and house chores vocabulary must be given on Nov 31,” makes sense, you are stuck and so are your kids. Splits don’t work in classes tied to textbooks. (You might also ask Headz and Adminz why thy don’t have, say, Chemisty 1 and A.P. Chemistry splits 😉.)

Teaching a split class involves a mind-shift, even for C.I. teachers. The first thing we have to do is ditch the idea of “content” and “units.” We are going to provide lots of comprehended input, we will recycle vocabulary, and, by creating stories (and using Movietalks and Picturetalks that recycle story vocab), we will keep things interesting for everyone. Second, as Gerry Wass notes, we are going to stop seeing ourselves as the “Spanish 1, 3 and 4 class,” and start being a community where everyone contributes. The more advanced a student is, the more output they generate (and that output is input for the less-advanced), and they act as “dictionaries” for the less-advanced. Everyone contributes to stories! We all read…but we choose our own novels. We all enjoy the stories we make together. Third, we make sure we diferentiate when we assess. Everyone will do the same simple listening quizzes, but we’ll assess output and reading by level.

It is also instructive to note that the limited research we do have about split classes suggests that the advanced students do not fall behind relative to their peers in non-split classes. Yes, you read that correctly. If we are teaching “unsheltered grammar” (ie all verb tenses, pronouns etc at the same time), what happens is, the more-advanced students get repeated input that “contains” all the grammar, and they acquire it well. Plus, since less-advanced students get all grammar from the start, they get more exposure to it and…get better!

So here it is, in more concrete terms.

First, when I started, I put each beginner beside a Level 2.  The 2s I labeled dictionaries and I told the beginners “ask your dictionaries if you don’t understand it/me.”

Second, we use fully unsheltered grammar.  We do not save “advanced” grammar for later, because there is no such thing.  There is, however, vocabulary which is more (or less) frequently used, and we build our stories around more-used vocab. For example, in our fourth story, we have an “advanced” past subjunctive expression: pensaba que si tuviera otro novio, le fuera mejor (“she thought that if she had another boyfriend, things would be/go better for her”).  PQA is in present tense (except for a brief ¿qué hiciste anoche? routine I do start of each class). This is because in a comprehensible-input classroom, the difference between beginners and others is not in complexity of grammar, but in how much vocab they can fluently use.

Third, I initially used the 2s and native speakers as actors and my superstars for PQA.  All I did with the 1s was check to make sure they understood the questions and answers.

Fourth, when I began doing PQA , all I wanted from the 1s was first sí/no and then one-word answers.  (I also did a LOT of comp checks to make sure they weren’t just bobble-heading along.)  That was sufficient output.  They didn’t need to do any talking to learn the vocab. (I can see the traditionalists raising their hands quelle horreur! Il faut parler pour pouvoir aprender!). Eventually, the 1s just stated saying more and more on their own. I told them “say what you can say without thinking about it.”

Fifth, I have differentiated writing assessment. 2s are expected to write a minimum of 100 words in 5 mins (describing themselves or a picture with content related to a recent story), and 800 words in 45 minutes (telling a story). The assessment is always most-recent-effort-is-mark so while most of the 2s have dropped off in output since last year (we are semestered so often the kids have 7 months between language classes) output goes up each story and so do the marks– their end of year goal is 100 in 5 and 800 in 40.  For beginners I do this.

For listening assessment, it is the same for all of them.  I read 5 sentences with vocab from the story aloud, they write the Spanish, then translate.  Initially I just made the beginners translate but after 2 weeks or so they wrote Spanish too.  Some of the beginners tried to write Spanish and made hilarious spelling errors (“ahsay buen teeempo”) but these have vanished as the beginners started reading.

Reading assessment: everyone reads extended, detailed (and embedded if I have the energy) version(s) of the asked story, and turns it into a simple comic.

Oral assessment: none for 1s. For the 2s, they get an unstructured oral interview at the very end of the course. This is because, as VanPatten notes, practicing speaking does not develop speaking ability– only input can do that– and I would therefore waste time (i.e. not deliver comprehensible input) if I had oral assessment during the year.  We also know from Krashen that conscious feedback (“do ____” or “avoid ____”) does not turn into acquisition.

For me, I take my cue from the amazing James Hosler: listening and reading assessment is just an excuse to deliver more comprehensible input.

Sixth, we maintain interest by using comprehensible stories.  Everyone understands everything and contributes details. Both 1s and 2s focus because stories with fun details, characters and situations are interesting for everyone.  I’m not teaching Spanish– I’m teaching stories in Spanish.  The 2s act (though now after 8 weeks I can use some of the 1s as parallel characters) and do most of the extended PQA.  The 1s listen and do y/n or one-word PQA.  Everybody does choral responses.  Every story is different; every version is different; kids are interested because the subject matter is interesting in and of itself in that it involves people, humour and suspense.  Note that I am not assuming that the kids care about Spanish, nor that they want to go to Spain or Honduras and that therefore I am “preparing” them for the real world, and so they should suck up boring instruction for a payoff in five years.  No, I want to make what we are doing right now interesting. 

However, if they do end up in Mexico or Colombia, they will have been exposed to an ocean of high-frequency vocab– and all of the grammar that there is in Spanish– and so they will have a rock-solid foundation for understanding everyday speech and for adding new vocab.

Seventh, reading is important in any class, and luckily with some planning we can do it in a split class. We use four kinds of reading.

1. The stories the class comes up with. A good class job for an advanced student or native speaker is to be the secretary, who, while the story is being asked, writes it onto a tablet or other device. The secretary emails you this, you fix the inevitable errors, print it, distribute, and away you go with reading activities (volleyball/pingpong reading, choral translation, running dictation, paper airplane reading, copy-and-translate, etc). If you save these, next year you can use CTRL+M in MS-WORD and replace this year’s students’ names with next year’s 😄 thereby building your FVR library.

2. Novels. Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab, Andrew Snider and a growing crew of self-published writers have novels and comic books with a growing number of themes, levels etc. These are specifically designed for learners: they carefully restrict the number of unique words, focus on high-frequency vocabulary, often have culture-specific themes, and often feature adolescent or animal protagonists.

La Capibara Con Botas, for example, has a mere 70 unique words, and Carol Gaab’s hilarious Brandon Brown Wants a Dog is about the same. My own Berto y Sus Buenos Amigos has 108 unique words and can be independently read after about 60 hours of input. On the other end of complexity, Vida y Muerte en la Mara Salvatrucha is a gripping, gang-themed novel with 428 unique words.

Generally, as Beniko Mason (2004, 2005) and Elley and Mangubhai (1983) point out, the most efficient use of reading time is just…reading, without followup “activities.” However, if you want them, there are a zillion novel-reading strategies (and most novels come with teacher’s packages that include reading activities).

You want 5-10 copies each of as many novels as possible. Students will choose a novel, and you give them 5-15 minutes per class to read (and do “activities,” if you need them). Since the kids are choosing, you don’t have to worry that The One Class Novel is too hard/easy for any group in class.

3. Other good reading input is the class soap opera, which you build for 4-5 classes (writing on the board, with the Class Secretary writing it down), and then edit and print out for reading. Rinse and repeat!

4. My kids make comics of class stories. I save and laminate these, and they become FVR material.

And how is it working, Stolzie?

It’s working fine, thank you very much! 😄👍 The 2s’ Spanish keeps on improving in both quality and quantity. The 1s, same. I have no management hassles.  We are a functional happy community. Everybody understands and can participate.  What else could I want?

Anyway, I no longer worry about split classes.  I am managing and I am not especially good at this, so anyone who uses C.I. should be able to easily do two levels at once by

  • keeping everything comprehensible
  • using advanced kids to generate quality output which is quality input for the less-advanced
  • not forcing beginners to talk
  • using stories, which are inherently interesting, to build broad “buy in”
  • having appropriately differentiated assessment
  • not sheltering grammar

Got a split and feeling the pinch? Try C.I. And if you have other suggestions for teaching a split, leave a comment.

13 comments

  1. Great ideas!

    I had a split level class a couple years ago, and had grand ideas for a rotating curriculum and differentiating for the 1s and 2s. Alas, it was split back into single-level classes. However, I think we naturally get a mix of fast- and slow-processors in every class, so these strategies will still work.

    For novels- have you had a chance to check out the TPRS Publishing novels? Lots of great books where the themes are complex but the language is simple. I’ve read “Noches misteriosas” (history! fantasy!), “Esperanza” (immigration! corrupt governments!), and “Robo en la noche” (conservation! drama!) with my various classes this year, and I could see any one of them working in a mixed-level class.

    1. I have a few Gaab etc novels (THANKS, Carol!) which I’ll use. Brandon Brown good– past tense versions + pics. I also like the ones from Blaine Ray– Berto y Sus Buenas Ideas and Carl No Quiere Ir also good.

  2. Do you have any videos of your teaching this class (or another that is split like that)? We will likely have split-level in middle school next year. And the following year high school level 3/4 (which I think is easier than 1/2, but still challenging).

    1. Hi Diane. No video. But it looks/sounds exactly like any other TPRS class. Would prolly be harder with 12 yr olds than 15 yr olds– my kids can sit & listen– but certainly not impossible.

  3. You are right that not sheltering grammar, as radical as it sounds, is easy to do even with true beginners.

    And there are great benefits: at this point in the year most of my level 1 students have passively acquired enough grammar that FVR is an easy reality (i.e. my students do not often produce the imperfect subjunctive on their quick writes, but when we do choral translations the entire class does not even stumble when they read something like “Juan quería que su hermana comiera el burrito, pero su hermana sabía que había ratón en el burrito”.

    Once FVR becomes a regular part of the class then it is like oiling the brakes… acquisition speeds along in unexpected, wonderful ways. At least that has been my experience.

    1. How do you do FVR? I still havn’t got there. I make them all read one novel. I saw Bryce at IFLT and he basically said “provide options” but I guess I am too much of a control freak still…

      1. I am putting together a presentation for NTPRS this summer that will describe my personal experiences with putting together an FVR program. My intention is to be able to scaffold the process for other teachers interested in FVR. As I go through this process of self-reflection I am realizing how important it has been, in terms of preparing my students for reading on their own, that I teach without sheltering grammar so that they can read with confidence. All of the presentations will be on the NTPRS website, I will definitely make my powerpoint as complete as possible so that you can understand it if downloaded at home.

      2. Great! Love to see yr ppt.

        I agree for unsheltered grammar’s value for FVR. Again, all they have to do is understand, and they can read, and with unsheltered grammar, we are expecting just that, not complex production of all tenses.

  4. i’m in year 2 teaching a split level 1 and 2 Spanish class. The basic curriculum is thematic units, and I have to give assessments which are personalized essays that reflect the students’ proficiency with the unit topics (self, family, house, etc.) The essays end up being a hybrid of memorized and acquired language. Wound in with that set curriculum I do lots of stories and movie talks, free writes and all the other CI stuff, built around the super 7 (T. Waltz) and sweet 16 (M.Peto) storytelling verbs My problem is that my level 2s do not get “new stuff” in their second time around, and they kind of drop out of leadership roles. I feel like they are getting more proficient, accurate, and many are increasing their output, but I don’t think they necessarily feel that happening. The stories and MTs are different the second time around, but the thematic units are the same. Often they get surpassed by level 1s. I feel like I need to train them to appreciate doing things again and going deeper, but maybe I’m kidding myself and they’re just bored out of their skulls. Do you encounter anything like this?

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