What If I’m Stuck With the Text?

You went to IFLT or NTPRS, or you got a Terry Waltz or Wade Blevins workshop, whereby seemingly magically in 90 minutes you became able to understand and tell a simple story in Chinese or German or Cherokee.  You ran into Stephen Krashen at the Starbucks at the conference and bought him one of his trademark gigantic lattes. You’re all hopped up on BVP.  And your Blaine Ray workshop included a set of Look, I Can Talk! and man, is September ever looking fun!

And then it’s mid-August and the email comes from your Head, who says at the first defartment meeting, we will be discussing the grammar and vocabulary target piece across grade levels and classrooms, to ensure that all students in all classes have the same learning opportunities for standards-aligned assessment bla bla bla and suddenly you know exactly how Cinderella felt at 12:01 AM.  Because what the Head is saying is, we are all going to follow the textbook and have students write the same exam.  They might have gussied this up into fancier language, by saying “integrated performance assessment” instead of “unit,” “structures” instead of “vocabulary,” and “proficiency” instead of “marks” or whatever.  To you, however, it’s all lipstick on a pig.

Yes, this totally sucks, because as researcher Michael Long reminds us, the idea that what we teach is what they learn, and when we teach it is when they learn it is not just simplistic, it is wrong.  Language acquisition cannot be scheduled by teacher or text or testing requirements.  BUT…you are still stuck with District/Adminz/Headz who want everybody on the same team and so you are stuck with the text.  Preterite tense mastered by November!  Clothing unit assessment in January!  Numbers mastered on the 13th day!

Anyway, here in no real order are a few ideas about Dealing With The Text.  There are a few basic things that have to happen (other than you keeping your job): educating colleagues, actually effectively teaching a language, keeping the ignorami off your back, and getting kids through the test.

1. Colleagues have to be educated about what actually happens during S.L.A. and what actually works.  Bill VanPatten said these exact words to Eric Herman in 2016.  So, how?  Well…

a. Results.  Nothing, ever, will trump 5-min timed writes and story writes.  If you show at a dept meeting with crusher results, especially from “weaker” students, and/or from students who do not use notes or dictionaries during writing, the resident dinosaurs are going to have a very hard time arguing against C.I.  The C.I. kids will write more, and more fluently, and more interestingly.  Blaine Ray says as much.  Kids who get good C.I. in whatever form (targeted, untargeted, OWIs, stories, Movietalk, Picturetalk, reading) will in the long run outperform grammar kids.  Your colleagues who actually care about kids (as opposed to their own comfort, or keeping their workload low) will notice.

b. Bridge building.  The apparent weirdness (to a grammarian and/or textbook teacher) of comprehsnion-based instruction can be off-putting.  So show them good C.I. that they can do with the text, what I have called the “six bridges.” In my dept., most of my colleagues don’t do or “believe” in C.I.  But my department head likes Movietalk, Picturetalk and novel and story reading.  Some C.I. beats none.

Personal note: you can lead a horse to water, but… It is important to try to show people that (and, later, how) C.I. works, but a best-case scenario is that many listen, a few try, and fewer than that stick with C.I.  In my experience (and I have learned this the hard way), the most important thing is keeping doors open. If you have results, are nice, are open to talk…people will at least listen.

c. Assessment straight-talk.  Sarah Cottrell makes this point: if every teacher has to do the same test at end of year or whatever, the process of deciding on the test (format, material etc) should be obvious.  The only things I can say here are that a. the ACTFL guidelines are your friend.  The ACTFL guidelines do not say that grammar testing, verb tables etc are valid (or useful) assessment of students’ abilities.  b. whatever testing is done, it should primarily involve processing of meaningful whole language and spontaneous production of language.  Reading or listening to meaningful things, like stories and situationally-clear dialogues, and writing meaningful things (ditto) are useful.  Fill in the blanks, verb tables, etc, is not.  And whatever students are tested on should have been taught:   no “authentic resource decoding.” c. State/provincial standards are your friends.  No State or Provincial standard includes “fill in the blanks” as a communicative objective.

If the department/District/whatever decides on (say) a list of nouns and verbs or verb tenses or whatever, best practice will be to not assess these on a schedule.  There is not too much harm being done by asking that, say, all French 2s will know the passé composé, but this should be an end-of-year goal, rather than “by Unit 3 in November, students will ______.” We know acquisition is piecemeal and, as Bill VanPatten says, “unaffected by instructional intervention,” so it is important to provide a lot of varied input of vocab, grammar, “rules” etc over a looong time so kids can maximise their chances of picking it up.

2. For the textbook itself, rearrange order, ditch low-frequency vocabulary, and build simple routines to master boring stuff.  OK, here is how

a. Every text I have ever seen thinks weather, numbers, hellos, goodbyes, colours, location words etc matter.  If you must “cover” these, try this, and let your Dept Head/Amin know, I am doing this, but not in “unit” form, and here is how.  For example, the Spanish Textbook Avancemos Uno puts all of this into the Leccion preliminar…just spread it out throughout the year. This is something even a textbook teacher can get behind: less vocab? Yes please!

b. For low-frequency vocab (especially in programs organised around thematic/topical “units”), ditch the non-essential stuff.  Again, in Avancemos Uno Unidad 1 Leccion 1, some things are not worth spending time on (eg. descansar, andar en patineta (to rest, to skateboard) which are low-frequency vocabulary (not in top-1000 most-used words).  We are always better off spending more time on less vocab than less time on more vocab (and, as Susan Gross, said, shelter vocabulary, not grammar).

c. The daily opening routine is amazing prep for the kids in languages like Spanish where verb tenses are an issue.  One verbform per day = they will have solid understanding by end of year.

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