What Everybody Should Know About Comprehensible Input

What Everybody Should Know About Comprehensible Input

Inside: What is comprehensible input? How do students acquire language?

In Part 1, we talked about proficiency: where we are going in the language classroom. Here in Part 2, I’ll talk about acquisition: how students take language in. If our goal is students who “rise in proficiency” (World Language Classroom), how do they grow? What do they need? What is the best way to get language “in”?

 

 

When people find out I teach Spanish, 95% of the time I get a comment like this: Oh man, I took 3 years of Spanish. It’s usually followed by a joke using the few words they remember: Mi casa es su casa. Hah!

Seriously– I get this all the time. From those very informal observations, it seems that we’ve been doing for decades now just isn’t working. When I discovered proficiency-based language teaching, I saw where I wanted to go: I wanted students who could communicate in Spanish, not just perform isolated exercises. And I needed to find a better way to teach them.

(more…)

Back to School Plans: First Two Weeks of Spanish Class

Back to School Plans: First Two Weeks of Spanish Class

Inside: My back-to-school lesson plans for the first two weeks of Spanish class.

 

Every year, I forget just how exhausting those first few weeks are. My brain is spinning. I’m in overdrive, trying to make everyone feel welcome –but not smile until December, right? (just kidding)– be utterly consistent, totally organized, and always engaging.

Whew. The truth is, you just do your best. And that will exhaust you. But it does help if you can see what others are doing, and not reinvent the wheel. That’s why I’ve pulled together my Spanish class first two weeks of lesson plans, to give you a jumpstart.

After a year of intense research, I tossed our textbook and formulated a (developing) personal philosophy of teaching Spanish. I define our classroom as “proficiency-based and comprehensible input-driven.”

I so appreciate other teachers sharing their process (looking at you, Mis Clases Locas), so in this post I’m outlining my first two weeks.

 

Grading, Procedures, and the Syllabus

 

Changing my why of course changes the how, and so I am overhauling a lot.

I am trading in my old categories of tests, quizzes, classwork, etc. for these five categories: reading, writing, listening, speaking, and work habits. I took this directly from Martina Bex here. She also has a great explanation of her switch to standards based assessment and grading. My actual grading scheme comes from MagisterP, who has amazingly helpful rubrics and ideas. I am choosing the option of 90% proficiency and 10% DEA– that just feels realistic as I start out. For Spanish I, we are shooting to be at Novice-Mid by the end of the year.

It is worth clarifying here that being proficiency-based does not mean looking at the ACTFL standards and working backwards by practicing the the standards. Before, my quizzes tested how much the students had memorized and practiced. I looked at a standard (I can talk about my family members), and we would practice talking about family members. Now, I look at that standard and think about input. What stories will we tell? What music will we listen to? What will we read and what structures do we need? When I do assess, and ask a student about her mother, I am not listening to a memorized paragraph and marking errors. I am letting her use what she has internalized to tell me about her mother. This will let me see her actual proficiency, not how hard she studied the paragraph the night before.

“In an effective classroom students should not only know what they are doing, they should also know why and how.” – Harry Wong

This is syllabus I project onto the board the night the parents meet me for back-to-school night:

(The eyes and ears part is quoted from Musicuentos, and the Can-Do’s are modified from the ACTFL standards.) I give a different, black and white syllabus to the students that outlines our specific procedures and rules. Many of those are school-wide and we work through all of them over the first 2-3 weeks. I love this handout from Bryce Hedstrom for procedures. Also, this free syllabus template from Creative Language Class is awesome.

I use interactive notebooks. They record bell-ringers, can-do statements, notes, target structures, and more in their interactive notebooks.

 

Unit 1: Our Classroom & Nuevos Amigos

 

Essential Questions: Who is here? Why learn Spanish? How do I get what I need in class, in the target language?

Macro Targets:

  • I can greet and meet others.
  • I can get materials and information I need in the TL.
  • I can explain why we are here, what I can expect in class, and what is expected of me.

Assessment: Ehhh… don’t have this figured out yet. Something informal, maybe.

Language: Greetings, introductions, classroom objects, chico, chica, tener, ser, hay, numbers, decir, some TPR commands.

 

Here is an overview of the first two weeks, day by day:

 

Day 1: ¿Cómo te llamas?, me llamo, and se llama (Circling with Balls)

Day 2: Introduce proficiency levels. Review se llama, and introduce haychico, chica, and le gusta for brief personalized storytelling.

Day 3: Prep interactive notebooks. (Listen to Puedo ir al baño and Tengo tu love.)

Day 4: Tengo, tienes, and classroom objects. (Play card games with classroom objects images.)

Day 5: Review classroom objects with games. Ask a story using structures from Days 1-4.

Day 6: Read story from Day 5. Begin Martina Bex Unit 1: Dice, recording the 3 targets in notebooks and listening to Los pollitos dicen.

Day 7: Continue with storyasking in Dice Unit. Introduce numbers 1-10 and play games as brain breaks.

Day 8: Continue with Dice Unit, using embedded readings, and work with Los pollitos dicen.

Day 9: Do the Te presento a reading from the Dice Unit, and teach numbers 1-10. Play Mano Nerviosa.

Day 10: Do first FreeWrite assessment, and have discussion in English on class objectives. proficiency, and expectations.

(For week 2, I rely heavily on Martina Bex’s Dice unit . It is available for free! I own many of her units and love them.)

 

Spanish Class First Two Weeks of Lesson Plans

 

Día 1

Micro Targets:

  • I can describe what I need to do in class during a group activity in the TL.
  • I can say my name.

Bienvenidos: Greet students at the door and have some songs on Spanish playing in background. Students find their seat with their name on a post-it note. Follow instructions on board to choose a name from a list of Spanish names, cross it off when chosen, and make these name tags and drawings to prep Circling with Balls activity (my student must draw two activities).

Introductions: Circling With Balls from Ben Slavic. I use this to introduce ¿Cómo te llamas?, me llamo, and se llama. I start with myself to model.

Like he suggests, I have my classroom rules posted in class and point to them as needed. I figure the students are overwhelmed discussing rules in every class,Better just to pinpoint several main things: stay in the TL, give me your eyes and ears, and know that I care about you. Rather than lecturing, we jump in and communicate expectations as we go.

My twist on Circling with Balls is to project a bracket onto the board. I record their responses on the board with a quick sketch. I already have some common activities typed up with a picture, and simply place them on the board as we go. Someone likes to read, and leer goes up on the bracket as a picture of a book.

Icebreaker: I do this towards the end of class, as I like to end the first day on a high note as well.

I have everyone stand up and we do a bracket vote. By this time, the outer brackets are filled in with activities my students like. They all have little drawings next to them– everything is clear and comprehensible. I call out and point to two terms, and they vote by moving to either side of the room. This is completely input– they just listen and vote.

(Keep in mind that my class sizes are on the small side. You might spread this over two days. The Cognates Game II is a simpler version that could work as well, since the terms have pictures.)

Closing: If there’s time, we watch Señor Wooly’s Puedo ir al baño. 

 

Día 2

Micro Targets:

  • I can identify my proficiency level and where I want to be.
  • I can say other names in our class.

Para empezar: Greet students at the door. Have names from the day before in chairs to indicate seating. Instructions on board indicate that students should skim through ACTFL statements (on chairs) and determine where their skills lie.

Input: (Prep: using the name cards from day 1, type up short statements about several students in the class and project them onto the board, using cognates as well.) Write haychico, chica, and le gusta on the board and sketch/write the meanings. Then, describe one of the students.

Hay una chica. Es MUY atlética. Le gusta jugar al voleibol. (With picture clue.) ¿Cómo se llama?

Call on students, having them guess who it is. After several repetitions, call up an outgoing student and ask the class, and story-tell about them. ¿Cómo se llama? ¡Es MUY atractiva! Remember to be super complimentary. I start with this to reinforce expectations of procedures and TL use, and get in some more se llama  reps. It is short, though- the focus for today is understanding proficiency levels.

Icebreaker II/Brain Break: This is to prep our discussion of proficiency. We play a short game of Celebrities OR use the Proficiency & tacos activity. The icebreaker from the day before has given me a good idea of what this group can handle.

Discussion: Discuss what proficiency in Spanish means. Review ACTFL standards briefly, and pass out rubrics to show how students will be evaluated, and where we’re going.

Día 3

Micro Targets:

  • I can show how we will use interactive notebooks to track input and progress in proficiency.

Assignment: Assemble interactive notebooks and number the pages.

(Prep and attach):

Listen to Puedo ir al baño and Tengo tu love while working.

Here’s an overview of how I organize our notebooks:

 

Día 4

Micro Targets:

  • I can get materials in the TL.
  • I can express what materials I have and don’t have.

Para empezar: Copy classroom objects terms into INB Beginning of the Year booklet page.

Input: Write tienes and tengo on the board. Listen to Tengo tu love, zeroing in on tengo. (There a reference– a negative one– to a table dance in the song. I avoid that part, but for some of you it may mean not using this song.)

 

Game/Interpersonal activity: Work on classroom objects. I teach these right away, because I want to be able to give instructions in the TL. My students tend to know a lot of the words already (profesor, estudiante, la mesa, el libro). Depending on time and what they already know, we do several of these options:

  • Do Yo tengo, ¿quién tiene? (freebie) with Classroom Objects
  • Review se llama with pictures or actual objects
  • Hand out picture card or actual objects and ask ¿Tienes ____? They answer Sí, tengo. or No, no tengo.
  • Play Slap–it with picture cards or Flyswatter with pictures on the board.
  • Play Go Fish, using tienes/tengo . If my student already know a bit of Spanish, I use this one. Otherwise, I spread out these activities over the next few days.

Día 5

Micro Targets:

  • I can express what I have and don’t have.
  • I can match a short description with familiar words to a drawing.

Input: Listen to Tengo tu love and complete the accompanying worksheet.
Read the Classroom objects worksheet and sketch what you understand.

Do first storyasking about an unprepared student who comes to class woefully unprepared.

(It can be hard for me to tell an engaging story with so little vocabulary at this point. It helps A LOT to have some funny props– a giant pencil and paper, for example, a little halo to put on the prepared student, a fake bathroom set up etc. I choose several outgoing students to act out the story we come up with as a class, and may tell the actors a bit of the background so they know what to do.)

I follow this outline, loosely, after writing dice (says) on the board:

Hay dos chicos. Un chico se llama Miguel. No es muy preparado. Es creativo. Un chico se llama David. Es MUY preparado. No es creativo. Miguel y David tienen la clase de español. Miguel y David están en las sillas.

La profesora dice: – ¿Cómo te llamas?
Miguel dice: – Me llamo Miguel.
La profesora dice: – Hola, Miguel.

David dice: – Me llamo David.
La profesora dice: – Hola, David.

(Teacher writes their names on board.)

La profesora dice: – ¿Tienen un lápiz?
Miguel dice: – No, no tengo un lápiz. Tengo un ________ (funny cognate…. teléfono, computadora).
La profesora dice: – ¡Ay, no!
David dice: – Sí, tengo un lapiz.
La profesora dice: – ¡Muy bien, David!

(Teacher gives Miguel a sad face and David a happy face on the board.)

La profesora dice: – ¿Tienen un papel?
Miguel dice: – No, no tengo un papel. Tengo un ________ (funny cognate…. foto, tablet).
La profesora dice: – ¡Ay, no!

David dice: – Sí, tengo un papel.
La profesora dice: – ¡Muy bien, David!

(Teacher gives Miguel a sad face and David a happy face on the board.)

Miguel dice: – Profe, ¿puedo ir al baño?
La profesora dice: – Sí.

(Miguel runs to the “bathroom” and grabs some toilet paper.

Miguel dice: ¡Profe! ¡Tengo papel!
La profesora dice: – ¡Jajajaja! ¡Muy bien, David!

(Teacher gives Miguel 10 smiley faces because he is creative.)

Día 6

Micro Targets:

  • I can sing phrases from a short authentic song in Spanish.

Input: Give students the typed story from Friday, with some questions in English. Go over their answers briefly.

Para empezar: Use Martina Bex’s Dice unit slideshow p. 5 or 6. This is the first time using the interactive notebook for the bell-ringer, and I go over the procedure.  I just have a paper with nine blank boxes, and they use block a day.

Input: Introduce Los pollitos dicen, using elements from Days 1 and 2 in Dice unit.

 

Brain break: Review classroom objects. Have the students stand up and touch the objects you say (la mesa, el lápiz, etc), play Slap-it.

Storyasking: Students copy down éste/ésta es, un muchacho/a, and dice into the notebooks using flip-flaps like the ones below.

Closing: Show slide 5, 6, or 7 from the Dice plans. This might make for a good exit ticket.

Día 7

Micro Targets

  • I can ask someone else what their name is.

Para empezar:  Dice unit, slide 8 or 9.

Input & storyasking: Do storyasking from Dice unit p. 19. We don’t copy the structures as we know them from week one.

Brain break: Review classroom objects with gamest, or choose a song to listen to.

Closing: Review dice with p. 20 from the Dice unit.

Día 8

Micro Targets:

  • I can match a description of a scene with a picture.
  • I can sing the chorus to a traditional song.

Input: Me llamo embedded readings from the Dice unit

Interpretive Listening: Listen to Los pollitos, using this free Los pollitos dicen activity sheet. This song has many high-frequency structures, and we’ll come back to it throughout the year.

Brain Break: Review classroom objects with games, or choose a song to listen to.

Día 9

Micro Targets:

  • I can learn other’s names.
  • I can count 1-10.

Para empezar:  Dice unit, slide 11.

Input: Te presento a readings from the Dice unit.

Game: I like to teach numbers early on because most of my students can usually rote count and don’t need lots of input on this. We quickly write down the number words in the beginning of the year booklet and play Mano Nerviosa to practice the individual numbers. (Days, months, weather, etc. get added naturally, as we talk about the date or birthdays during La persona especial interviews later.) We just come back to this booklet again and again until it’s full.

interactive_spanish_notebooks_beginning_of_the_year

Brain break: Classroom objects games.

Día 10

Micro Targets:

  • I can explain why I am learning Spanish.
  • I can explain how to rise in proficiency and what I need to do in class.

Assessment: Do first freewrite for 5-10 minutes. Have the students tell a story without any supporting materials. I emphasize that this one is a FORMATIVE assessment– it will give us a starting place to see where everyone is, and something to compare to as the school progresses.

Discussion: I wait until the end of my intro unit talk about why we’re learning Spanish at all. I used to do this the first day. Then I realized that in the craziness of that first day it would all probably go in one ear and out another. As we close out our mini-unit, we reflect on these first two weeks and digest it all: the how, and then the why. I used to highlight the pragmatic reasons for Spanish: better jobs, higher salaries, improving brain function, etc.. Those are benefits, for sure, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter. I want to make sure to pause and think about how learning a second language makes us better people and touches our souls. We talk about empathy, compassion, friendship, thinking globally, valuing diversity, and caring for others.

Brain Break: Mano nerviosa.

And that’s my tentative plan for starting off the year! Ideally, at this point, our procedures are established and the students can greet and get what they need in Spanish. After Labor Day, we jump into the next unit.

 

Unit 2: My Immediate World and Who I Am (5-6 weeks)

 

Essential Questions: What am I like? What do I like to do? What about the others in the room?

Macro Targets:

  • I can describe myself and what I like to do.
  • I can describe other students in the class and what they like to do.
  • I can explain what fun things I might do today.

Assessment: Quizzes from La persona especial interviews. Perhaps a project.

Language: Sports, hobbies, voy a, vas a, va a, adjectives, estoy, estás, está, le gusta, me gusta, te gusta, article adjectives, ir + infinitive, plural vs. singular

Like it? Pin it!

Spanish Class First Two Weeks of Lesson Plans

 

 

Bellringer Choice Boards for Spanish Class

Bellringer Choice Boards for Spanish Class

Inside: Bell-ringers for Spanish class, with a free download for Para empezar choice boards.

Bell-ringers are my nemesis. Many things could be termed as such– taking attendance, keeping track of late/missing work, maybe– but my para empezar history just might take the cake.

I have lots of different preps, and coming up with something specialized to each class has been overwhelming. I’ve come up with more than one bellringer in the 5 seconds before class started, too.

via GIPHY

Lol. Anyhow–

— as a new teacher, I usually made them grammar-based. While I think there’s a time for focusing on accuracy, the first few minutes of class are precious. Students typically retain information best from the beginning and end of class. And what helps students acquire language the most is comprehensible input, and so CI, exercises, probably belong in those precious minutes.

I was beginning with grammar exercises as my Para empezar— conjugate this verb, translate this sentence, correct the mistakes, etc. The students who “got” grammar easily flew through it. The middle students may have improved their accuracy. The students who struggled with Spanish grammar struggled with it. They walked into class and were immediately frustrated by their novice errors, which set the tone for the rest of class.

The message to all my students? The *most* important thing is to not make mistakes. Because when they walked in, I was immediately asking for them to work on their accuracy.

Since then, I’ve moved to a proficiency-based model. I am focused on my students growing and growing in what they can communicate, not in finding their mistakes. One of my goals this year, then, is to completely restructure my lessons. I want to immediately begin with input, and front-load the lesson with rich, compelling content– like a good song or story, or a novel we’re reading.

(Update: since writing this post, I wrote an extensive blog on Easy Bellringers for Spanish Classes with a ton of ideas.)

Para empezar Choice Boards

To combat the stress of lots of preps and my own disorganization, I came up with these editable Choice Boards. Essentially, I can simply copy and paste any song, text, or story onto the board. The students choose a option with which to respond. Everything is very short, as the point is really that they’re taking the content in. I have the prompts and blank squares ready in their notebooks so that I can check at the end of the week. (Or, let’s be honest… whenever I’m able to get to them!)

spanish _interactive_notebook_bell-ringer_choice_board spanish _interactive_notebook_para_empezar

 

 

When we start off the year, for example, I plan to do Persona especial interviews. The next day, the para empezar could be one of those typed interviews. It could be the chorus to a song we’ve listened to that week, or a short story we wrote the day before.

Hopefully, as they begin class this year, the message is different. Hopefully they walk in and see all they know: that the compelling content itself hooks them, and the confidence carries over into the rest of class.

If I want to, I can choose a specific square and have all the student respond with the same prompt, so we can immediately go over the responses. Grab your editable version today, if you think this might help your bellringer routine for class!

 

Para empezar choice boards

After attending Camp Musicuentos I’m considering moving my bellringer– administrivia, as Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell calls it– 15 or 20 minutes into class, to maximize the beginning. We’ll see. I think these can work either way!

I’d love to know what you think. Let me know if you have any suggestions to make it better!

Grammar vs. Comprehensible Input: Who’s Right?

Grammar vs. Comprehensible Input: Who’s Right?

Inside: The role of grammar, and grammar vs. comprehensible input, in foreign language learning.

From Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition by Karen Glass:

“Let us consider an apple. If we approach it synthetically, we take it as we find it– in its state of wholeness and completeness– and we eat it. Once eaten, it is digested, absorbed, and becomes a part of us. If we approach it analytically, we take it apart– not in a natural way, which is merely a smaller portion (here is half an apple!), but rather, here is the fiber, here are the vitamins, here is a bit of water, and some sugar. Suppose we ingest each bit– a spoonful of fiber, a vitamin pill, a swallow of sugar and water.

On paper, we have consumed the same thing in both cases– equal portions of nutrition– but there is a very, very large difference. Only one of those meals tasted good and created an appetite for more.

When we break apart our food-meals into discrete portions of unrecognizable substances with no wholeness or discernible relation to each other, we have no interest in consuming more of the same unappetizing matter. The same holds true for our knowledge-meals. Given knowledge in recognizable, understandable form, we consume it gladly and it tastes good. Given mere information without context, we choke on the consumption of it and never think of it again if possible.” (Consider This, 37)

Confession: I’m not here to resolve the grammar question. The word grammar— how much? when? how?– often evokes strong reactions among language teachers. I began teaching Spanish the conventional way: grammar as the building blocks to learning Spanish; only recently did I Threw Out My Textbook in search of a better way.  Though I can’t tell you everything about grammar vs. comprehensible input, I want to share what I’m thinking.

The Why of What We Do

As I’ve lurked on language forums and read teacher-authors, I’ve wanted to know what to do. I have wanted to know how Martina Bex  begins with comprehensible input and does pop-up grammar: what is her method? I want to do it too! Glass– writing about classical education– warns,

“When we are more concerned with what the classical educators were doing than why they were doing it, we are unlikely to achieve what they achieved.”

So I am looking for the why. In reading blogs, Consider This, and reading Charlotte Mason herself, the why has became clearer: all of them were advocating a first-whole, then-parts approach.

Glass spends a large portion of the book contrasting a synthetic approach vs. an analytical one. (Last post I cited this video from Musicuentos, which also uses the term synthetic- but very differently. I don’t know why there is a difference, but just a heads up.)

“The word analysis also comes to us from Greek roots meaning “to dissolve or take apart.” If you are alive, and you attended any kind of institutional school, it is almost certain that you were taught to think exclusively in the analytical mode. In fact, upon hearing that the opposite of synthetic thinking is analytical thinking, the first response of those of so educated is likely to be, “what is wrong with analytical thinking?- we ought to analyze things!

Perhaps we ought, but not first. Analysis should not be out primary approach to knowledge or our primary mode of thinking, especially in the in the earliest years of education. We should not begin taking apart the things that we learn until we have put them together first, and so solidly unified out understanding of the world that we will lose sight of the relationships between things when we do begin to analyze. This synthetic approach to learning has been called “poetic knowledge”…”

analytical vs. synthetic thinking

I should have added this to last post: in beginning with grammar, we are asking students to analyze that which they don’t know or love. We ask them to study the colors of a painting they haven’t seen; to practice the notes of a song they haven’t heard. (Idea credit: Joshua Cabral)

If all this philosophizing is getting long, let me give an example.

Grammar vs. Comprehensible Input

I would agree with Sara Elizabeth Cotrell  at Musicuentos that we cannot replicate L1 acquisition with our limited classroom time. Therefore, we must pay attention to patterns when deciding on which comprehensible input to use. When appropriate–after plenty of input– we can stop and consider those patterns explicitly. Let’s use direct object pronouns in Spanish as an example.

You see, back in the day I would have approached them analytically, first– something like this:

  • Define what a direct object pronoun is (in English), and show some examples.
  • Show the direct object pronouns (me, te,  lo, las, etc.) and define each one.
  • Show examples in sentences: Cassie tiene un libro. Cassie lo tiene. 
  • Exercises, games, and practice in using object pronouns. An exercise might be: Replace the nouns with an object pronoun:

¿Puedes ver la pelota?                 →    ¿Puedes verla? or ¿La puedes ver?
Yo llamo a Alicia por teléfono.  →     La llamo por teléfono. 

Though we “learned” this in Spanish 1, I can’t actually recall a student using this spontaneously in Spanish 1 (or for that matter, Spanish 2). Meaning, they weren’t actually acquiring this structure, even though we had worked so hard on it.

If we take a synthetic approach (the way Glass defines it), we might be reading The Boy Who Cried Wolf in Spanish, and come across these sentences: El joven cuida las ovejas. Las cuida por la noche. Las cuida en la lluvia.  It only takes a few seconds to point out that las refers to las ovejas. Later on, when we read Piratas del Caribe, Raquel and Antonio will argue: ¡Tú me abandonaste! ¿Yo te abandoné? and we can pause to talk about me and te and where they are positioned. After. I might even make a lesson of it. We can briefly enter in the direct object pronouns into our interactive notebooks, with some sample sentences from texts we read.

The difference between the lessons is that in the first approach, my students don’t know who Alicia is, nor why she’s getting called on the telephone. That sentence exists entirely to make a grammar point. In fact, the students have never seen a comprehensible sentence with a DO pronon before, because the theory is to only show content after the particular grammar point has been taught.

In the second approach, the sentence “¡Tú me abandonaste!” is packed with emotion. We have been wondering the entire novel, in fact, who actually abandoned whom. That sentence illustrates a pattern my students need to acquire, and its message mattersMeaningful content, and patterns in context, have a far better chance of actually being assimilated. When I introduce a structure by first analyzing it I need many, many examples to explain it all. When we analyze something we already know–something meaningful– the context explains the structure, instead of the other way around..

2

To close with more of the apple analogy, Karen Glass goes on:

Further, we might pursue our knowledge of apples in different directions- many possibilities arise if we find the apple interesting. What would happen if we cooked the apple? Or froze it? Or mixed it with some other food? No affection for apples is generated by the analyzed (broken down) apple, and in fact- the greatest tragedy of all- we might not even recognize a real apple when we encounter one, if we have eaten only analyzed apples all of our lives. The implications of this as an educational hazard are sobering.

Young children should love and know “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” long before they learn that “diamonds in the sky” is a simile. New students to Spanish should have heard whole sentences and cared about them before they begin to take them apart. Though I’m still working on my how, I think I am closer to my why.

Like it? Pin it!

Classical education and Spanish

Why I’m Throwing Out my Spanish Textbook

Why I’m Throwing Out my Spanish Textbook

Inside: Teaching Spanish without a textbook.

 

I finally did it.

Last year, I half-used my textbook, wanting to get rid of it and yet not quite knowing what to do instead. It had been a year of feverish research, scrolling through blog posts late at night, reading opposing opinions and sometimes coming away more confused than ever.

I knew at a gut-level there was a better way. Perhaps it was that years of being homeschooled had impressed the word textbook into my mind as a dirty word. My mother mostly eschewed traditional textbooks for subjects like history and language arts. We were too busy reading real books– living books, as Charlotte Mason termed them. Drills, passages out of context, and multiple choice answers seemed like an oddity, as if one were being asked to study and label the parts of a bicycle instead of just getting on and riding it.

teaching spanish without a textbook

Like most of you, I started with a thick textbook when I first taught high school Spanish. My formal background is Elementary Education, and I’d dabbled in TPRS when tutoring and teaching Spanish in younger grades. So when it came to teaching high school, it was me, my gut, and the textbook. And the internet. Thank goodness for the internet!

Over the first few years, I saw that the textbook wasn’t best. I couldn’t have told you why at first, but I think I can finally explain what wasn’t working and why.

As you read, keep in mind that here I’m referring to traditional textbooks– there may very well be textbooks out there that work better than mine did. Also, I’m not in the “better a bad day of TPRS than a good day with the textbook” camp. To be honest, some of my lessons this year were embarrassingly bad. I’m not about to say that an amazing teacher working within the constraints of a textbook couldn’t possibly teach as well I can on a good or bad day. The point I’d like to consider is whether the textbook is the best tool for teaching language.

(Update: since writing this post, I’ve since created am entire page for all my posts on Textbook-Free Spanish Teaching.)

 

Teaching Spanish Without A Textbook: Why?

 

So, why am I throwing out my textbook? Basically, my textbook does not “get”

  • proficiency (where we are going and what can the student do), or
  • acquisition (how language is taken in, primarily through comprehensible input).

Once I began to understand proficiency and acquisition, it all began to make sense. Research was telling me that a proficiency-based, comprehensible-input-driven Spanish classroom is the path to acquisition. The textbook was just on much a different path, and in fact never used the terms proficiency, comprehensible input, or acquisition.

I’ve got some concrete reasons why I’m throwing out the textbook, but I’d like to unpack proficiency and acquisition first. I’m no expert, but I will cite some authors who are.

 

Teaching to Proficiency: Where are we going?

 

Most textbooks plan to give students an introduction to the language: to teach them about Spanish. Over the course of a few years, students are taught the entirety of Spanish grammar and a smattering of vocabulary themes. Their progress is marked by how many tenses they can use and the accuracy of their sentences, how many vocabulary lists the students have “memorized.”

As I understand it, in the proficiency-based classroom, expressing and understanding meaning is the ultimate goal. The point is not what material has been covered: I am an advanced Spanish student because I can conjugate verbs in the subjunctive. The question is what the students can do to express meaning. Beginners understand and produce simple messages; progress is shown as those messages grow in complexity.

The real goal is to actually “rise in proficiency” as Joshua Cabral at World Language Classroom says. Progression through proficiency mimics the process that children go through in learning their own native language. They begin with words, move to phrases, and eventually string together increasingly complex sentences to communicate meaning.

Proficiency is what a student can do in an unrehearsed context and therefore a true measure of one’s ability in a language. Once I became familiar with the ACTFL Standards and Can-Do Statements, I realized that my lessons– based on the textbook– were designed to help students memorize rules and terms to pass a test. Teaching to actual proficiency was going to require entirely new methods, and certainly new assessments.

This may seem like a lot of theory, but it has a huge impact on where we spend our time. Where we were are going directly affects all the little things we do in class, day in and day out. Will we spend precious hours drilling rules and marking exercises with a red pen? Will we spend time reading real books and having interesting discussions? Are we trying to ride the bike or become bike mechanics?

 

Acquisition: How do students “get” language?

 

Most textbooks are based on the explicit theory of language: that language can be broken into rules which are taught, memorized, and drilled.

Sara Elizabeth Cottrell at Musicuentos has a good breakdown of the approach textbooks take:

 

The problem with this focus on “forms” is that it assumes that language is acquired through learning about the language. Stephen Krashen and and Bill Van Patten have done extensive work researching the difference between learning and acquisition, and both argue that acquisition is achieved through massive amounts of comprehensible input. I still think accuracy has its place, but CI is ultimately how language gets into our heads.

It’s a lot of semantics– when I looked up learn in the dictionary, acquire was a term used to describe the word learn– but this distinction is important. Before, for example, I would have assumed that because a student could correctly conjugate verbs in the present tense, that they had “acquired” the present tense. And I would move onto the next grammar point. If a student couldn’t correctly conjugate verbs, I would have assumed they needed more conjugation exercises– not more compelling, comprehensible input.

Bill Van Patten explains this really well in this series:

 

So, those are the theoretical reasons. Getting down to the nitty-gritty, here are more immediate reasons why the textbook wasn’t working.

 

1. The Crazy Vocabulary Lists

 

I am not entirely ready to abandon vocabulary lists, but I am done, done, done with the ones my textbook created! They usually center on a specific theme, and are unbearably long. Students will make flash cards, take quizzes, see the words in boring worksheets, and then never see 75% of them ever again. But words learned in themes like this, out of context, individually, are actually really hard to get into the long-term memory.

I am increasingly convinced that if lists are to be given, they should be given in context, chunked (set in phrases) if possible, and short. They should also be needed words. My textbook started with greetings, which is a logical place to start. However, since this was the book’s opportunity to introduce greetings, every possible greeting was taught right then. My students authentically needed ¿Cómo te llamas? right away, but el placer es mío, el gusto es mío, igualmente, and encantado/a were overkill. For students two weeks into Spanish class, mucho gusto is plenty to get by on.

I don’t mean those terms should never be introduced. When we do speed dating activities, the students love variety and I build the terms in. But the textbook’s method of introducing every variant on a certain theme, at once, is overwhelming. At the end of the day, students still walk away with ¿Cómo te llamas? and not the other terms, even if all of them were “memorized” and quizzed.

As an aside, Charlotte Mason advocated fewer, but higher-quality picture books and poems for young children. You will hear now that parents should expose their children to many, many, books and poems. The thought is that the more vocabulary and stories children hear, the better and more diverse their own language will be. I’ve come to agree with Mason that fewer stories– but dearly loved, memorized, recited, stories– will actually produce richer language. Sometimes more is less.

 

2. Not ordered by High-Frequency

 

Vocabulary and grammar are introduced as complete, deep themes, to be thoroughly studied before moving on. In my textbook, students spend the first months learning greetings, classroom objects and subjects, ar verbs, numbers, days, etc. Now, I have some fun games to make this less painless. But try creating compelling content and interesting discussions with those topics! –AR verbs are presented first because the pattern is “easy,” not because they are actually higher frequency verbs. So my students were learning la física and descansar before tener and hay.

If I were required to use the textbook, I would still make sure to incorporate some storytelling from the get-go and introduce the “Super Seven” that Terry Waltz came up with:

spanish_interactive_notebooks_super_seven_verbs

 

3. Grammar as the Path to Language Acquisition

 

Most textbooks look at a language and break it down into pieces of grammar. In Spanish, the first year is generally focused on the present tense and all the parts that go with it: ser vs. estar, direct object pronouns, all regular, irregular, and stem-changing verbs.

Instead of introducing real content that includes these patterns, the language is introduced grammar concept by grammar concept and then drilled. When teaching ser vs. estar, for example, the students take notes on every. single. rule. that applies to ser vs. estar. Students who can barely express and understand meaning at a very basic (novice) level are expected to “master” this quite difficult concept because it falls under the present-tense Spanish-One category.

I haven’t, actually, hopped onto the “grammar is evil” boat. I think there’s a time for it. But I used to think that in learning the rules for accuracy, we were acquiring Spanish. I now see grammar as a tool for accuracy, specifically.

 

4. Too Little Comprehensible Input

 

Our textbooks were packed. They just weren’t packed with comprehensible input. Aside from some videos, cultural notes, and song lyrics or emails here and there, the bulk of the program was “practice.” My students need massive amounts of quality input– to be read, heard, watched– to understand and speak Spanish.

Most of the input they DID see in the textbook, unfortunately, was confusing  (= not comprehensible), and made them feel like Spanish was just “too hard.” I think this was because we began with explanations and lists, practiced the skills, and that led up to the content. Of course, because the vocabulary and grammar went really “deep,” it was hard to master both thoroughly enough to be comfortable with the related content.

Here’s another video from Musicuentos that explores grammar, input, and “skill” a but further:

 

5. Comprehensible Input That Isn’t Compelling

 

Of the little CI available in textbooks, most of it is sad, sad, sad. This is true of most textbooks anyway: content is soon outdated, boring, irrelevant, and low-quality as far as literature goes. Most of time, grammar (with vocab), was the point. Content was there as a way to practice the particular “skill.”

Now language, of course, is a means for communicating an actual message, a story, or an emotion. If the message or story is boring, the students will think that language is boring. If the students don’t feel invested in our discussion–i.e., they feel no emotion– then Spanish is tedious.

Reading real living books this year, Esperanza and Piratas del Caribe, showed me what can happen when input is absolutely compelling. All of a sudden we were debating whether romance or money was more important (in Spanish) and boy, did they pay attention to what the others were saying! In a thank-you note at the end of the year, one student wrote, “Now I know the priorities of the guys in our class, hah.” These moments were hard to come by with a textbook. Authentic resources and non-fiction have their places, but it’s pretty hard to find anything as compelling as a story. 

Again, here’s another video from Musicuentos to explain this better than I can:

 

Whew. This post was a long time in coming. The internet can be both an awesome resource and a path to self-condemnation for teachers. I know that many of you don’t have flexibility like I do, and have to follow a set curriculum. I know that many of you have zero time to plan, and go home to kids or other responsibilities. Throwing out your textbook just isn’t realistic right now. Hopefully my complaints against the textbook can just help you think through how to use yours and work with what you have.

Again, Musicuentos to the rescue with a Checklist on when to use textbook activities and advice on when you are Forced to Adapt a Textbook. Be sure to follow Joshua Cabral from World Language Classroom on Periscope– he has great scopes on teaching for Proficiency, regardless of what materials you use. Throw Away Your Textbook is another good resource.

What about you? Do you love your textbook? Are you already teaching Spanish without a textbook? Do you want to throw it out, but can’t? Are you totally starting from scratch like me? I’d love to hear your experience!

Like it? Pin it!

Copy of Why I-m (4)

 

Menu Title