What’s it like teaching 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 is 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?

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, initially I used the 2s 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 with the 1s, all I wanted 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, the only thing I have not done yet is novel reading, and this is gonna be the toughest nut, because the 2s can comprehend more than the 1s.   Joe Neilson however has something to teach us here: read at a low level, and use the advanced kids to generate comprehensible higher-level conversations around the low-level stuff. I won some Carol Gaab books at IFLT 2014 and I am psyched to try unsheltered reading with the kids (Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro will be our first).

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 T.P.R.S. 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 T.P.R.S.– and if you have a better way of dealing with a split, leave a comment.

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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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