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 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.
With my grammar-based textbook, I had given my students many rules, explanations, and vocabulary lists. We spent a lot of time practicing how to apply the rules, and I gave a lot of vocabulary quizzes to make sure they “knew” their vocab. And yet after all our hard work, my students could barely communicate.
SLA – Second Language Acquisition
When I first started learning about Stephen Krashen’s work on second language theory, I was equally attracted and scared away. I was hearing about comprehensible input (CI) through the TPRS community, which can be… intense? It seemed like a loosey-goosey approach, and I couldn’t imagine the weird story lines going over well with my students. The community seemed a tad judgemental, so I hesitated to ask questions. If you’re in the same place, I encourage you to take a step back and learn about acquisition itself. Though I’ve come to rely heavily on storytelling as part of my CI toolkit, I got bogged down in TPRS debates when I should have been studying up on SLA. If you are very new to second language acquisition, Bill Van Patten has a good series on how students take in language.
CI – Comprehensible Input
All the experts and teachers I follow at least agree on this: comprehensible input– “meaningful interaction in the TL” (Krashen)– is the key to acquisition. It’s the key to getting language into our students’ heads. Though I was still uncertain on methods, my basic conclusion was that in order for my students to grow in proficiency, they need to acquire language through interesting and memorable interaction in the TL.
Giving Students Whole Language, in Context
The lightbulb finally went off when I realized that in giving my students bits and pieces of Spanish, every time they spoke they were consciously trying to dig up words and apply the rules as they spoke. Of course they avoided speaking when possible! What they needed, I saw, was language in context. I needed to give them entire chunks of language that worked together. Back on the textbook-free cliff, I just couldn’t grasp how this worked, so perhaps a concrete example will help if you’re there too.
I used to introduce the rule for nouns early on. I would present the rules: adjectives have to agree in gender and number with the noun they modify. We would apply these rules to some examples: ____ libro. (Choose el, la, los, las), and then practice, practice, practice. Then, we would have a quiz to see who could apply the rule correctly. Then, of course, we’d quickly come across el agua, el problema, etc., and they would have to memorize the exceptions.
Now, I would approach very differently. I’d work many, many, examples in over the whole year, and briefly point out the patterns. Once I’d introduced a few structures, we’d be creating stories like this: Hay un chico. Es alto y guapo, pero tiene un problema. Es muy desordenado. Su mama visita la casa del chico. Ella dice: “¡Tu casa está muy desordenada!” I could check in quickly and point out that desordenado changes depending on who/what it’s describing. I could ask questions: ¿El chico es desordenado, o ordenado? If I wanted to target the grammar a bit more, I could give an exercise to find and correct two errors: El chico es desordenada. Su mama visita el casa. I have seen much higher proficiency levels through this, and equal or better accuracy.
We could listen to Corazón sin cara by Prince Royce, or do a MovieTalk, too– the key is that the entire time, I am exposing, exposing, exposing them to whole, complete language. Once I understood how students take language in, I saw what they needed. If I give my students pieces of language, it will be hard for them to rise in proficiency. If they are immersed and engaged in compelling, understandable input, they have been given the right conditions to grow.
To be clear, I didn’t entirely abandon grammar, and any explicit instruction. I just recognized that many of my activities were strengthening specific skills, and not necessarily getting language into their heads. In teaching grammar, for instance, we are targeting accuracy– not necessarily acquisition. And whereas I used rely on output activities to “learn language,” I would now say they’re mainly useful to strengthen speaking skills and develop confidence.
The meat of class is “meaningful interaction in the target language” (Bill VanPatten), not talking about Spanish. There are many ways to deliver comprehensible input, but we need to trust that compelling CI will produce proficiency.
If you are still in that place of figuring out how second language acquisition works, these links and videos were really helpful to me. I would really love to hear about any resources that have helped you!
Input vs. Output
What are the roles of #input and #output in #language learning? Where does grammar come in? #ACTFL #French #Spanish
Posted by World Language Classroom on Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Communication vs. Accuracy
Proficiency and Accuracy by World Language Classroom
On Grammar Drills from Musicuentos
Research on Second Language Acquisition
Teaching to Proficiency
5 Minute Language Teaching Tip: 3 Ways to Focus on #Proficiency in the #Foreign #Language Classroom.
Posted by World Language Classroom on Saturday, April 30, 2016