The Problem With Worksheets in Spanish Class

The Problem With Worksheets in Spanish Class

Inside: Re-thinking our dependence on Spanish worksheets/practice/skill-based activities in the classroom.

 

Is anyone else a teensy bit obsessed with Cult of Pedagogy?

Minimalist, just-right graphics. Oh-so-cool profile picture. And her content? — excellent. Last week she published another amazing post: Frickin’ Packets. It was spot-on. Stop right now, and good read it.

Honestly– read it, before you read the rest of this post. I’m not attempting a comprehensive essay on worksheets myself, because she just wrote one. Mine is a rambling response to her post.

Let’s talk about… frickin’ packets. Friggin’ worksheets. Our dependence on them runs deep. It says a lot about our thinking as educators. It shows how we believe students acquire Spanish.  

Essentially, in this post, I’m discussing:

  • Problems Behind Teaching Spanish with Worksheets
  • What Makes a Good Worksheet in Spanish Class?
  • Does This Mean Interactive Notebooks are Bad?

 

 

What’s Wrong With Busysheets in Spanish Class

 

“In my experience, when people criticize worksheets, they are referring to a specific type of worksheet, what I will call a busysheet, the kind where students are either doing work that’s fairly low-level recall stuff–filling in blanks with words, choosing from multiple-choice questions, labeling things–or work that has no educational value at all…”Cult of Pedagogy

The thinking behind “busysheets” in Spanish class is the real issue.

Essentially, we use them because we don’t trust the input. We don’t trust the magic of books, the stories, the songs. We don’t trust the curiosity of our students, the natural inclination of the mind to absorb interesting material, or the process of acquisition itself. (Read What is Comprehensible Input? if that paragraph sounded confusing.)

So we boil language down into a set of skills: vocabulary lists to memorize, formulas to practice. We think explaining language will get us to fluency faster than quality exposure to language. So make a packet of worksheets and feel we’ve “covered” the material because we’re holding the papers in our hands. 

Worksheets are pretty darn handy for explaining and practicing things, but they’re problematic in getting us to fluency.

 

Problem #1:

 

Apart from the well-established fact that teaching grammar outside the context of meaningful writing does nothing to help students become better writers, and in many cases makes them worse, the skills being practiced in this kind of worksheet don’t actually teach or reinforce the goals set by our academic standards.  – Cult of Pedagogy

We often use worksheets because we are teaching a “skill.” In other words, we select a rule that can be isolated, explained, practiced, and tested. Verb drills fall into this category:

Yo _________ (correr) a mi casa. 

If we drill and practice enough, our students can become quite skillful at conjugating verbs and passing fill-in-the-blank tests. But if we’re reaching for growth in proficiency (spontaneous communication of messages), busysheets won’t get us there. 

As language teachers, we have to accept that language acquisition is more nuanced and less controllable than a set of skills. Providing our students with rich comprehensible input is sometimes scary because it doesn’t fit neatly into a busysheet, but it will lead to authentic communication. 

 

Problem #2:

 

Worksheets come between the student and living materials. The students knows there are questions to answer, and what happens? The worksheet becomes the center of attention; the text becomes a source to find the answers. 

Worksheets (and textbooks) tend to lift language out of context. The language serves a purpose other than telling an enjoyable or compelling story. Students know this. Years of worksheets train them to look for answers instead of getting absorbed into the language itself. We teach students to dissect language before they have learned to love it. 

Gonzalez notes,

Having students answer low-level recall questions about a passage of writing that offers no meaningful context doesn’t do a lot to make them better readers… So much of what we call “reading instruction” is far inferior to having students read real books.

One of the reasons I hated teaching with a textbook was that the reading passages and listening activities were inferior, as far as literature goes. I mean, would never read or listen them for pleasure. Would you?

When I dropped the textbook and moved away from worksheets, we started reading good books and having more natural conversations. We had time for it. Direct contact with living materials– songs, videos, stories, games– is infinitely more absorbing than an out-of-context passage, rule, or vocabulary list.

I’m not saying I reached a level so compelling they’d choose my class over their phones everytime. But in reducing the worksheet-ish moments, meaningful messages took center stage.

Not sure what teaching looks like outside of worksheets and “practice”?– see my post on strategies for delivering comprehensible input.)

 

 

Do Worksheets Have Any Place in Spanish Class?

 

Ok, so does this mean that you have to feel guilty every time your students touch a piece of paper fresh from the copier? Here’s what Gonzalez says:

Technically, a worksheet is anything printed on copier paper and given to students to write on. And since you can print just about anything on a piece of paper, we really can’t say that worksheets per se are good or bad. 

And:

Some worksheets are clearly nothing but busysheets, while others, like note-taking sheets or data collection tools, directly support student learning; I’ll call these powersheets. I think a lot of worksheets fall somewhere between the two. 

Even after ditching the textbook, paper never disappeared from my class. In fact, I used interactive notebooks– which I’ll get to in a minute.

But I think she’s right: we need to think hard about what send to the copier and what we hand to students. 

We can ask:

  1. Is this better than just reading a book or telling a story?
  2. Am I doing this because it is cute, or because it’s meaningful?
  3. Could this worksheet be reduced by half and still be just as effective?
  4. Is there any way to incorporate choice?

Only you, of course, know your needs and classes well enough to answer this each time. 

 

What can powersheets look like in the Spanish classroom?

 

I’m not advocating 100% input with zero student response. Students will often respond to input in one way or another, and “powersheets” can streamline and support that. I don’t how comprehensively I can answer this, but here are some examples I think of as I move towards powersheets, and away from busysheets. 

 

Good graphic organizers. Why?:

  • They’re usually a form of digesting input– and so the focus stays on input. 
  • They often ask students to think higher on Bloom’s taxonomy: compare, contrast, etc.
  • Even novice students can list isolated words in meaningful context with a Venn diagram, for example. 

 

Freewrites. Ok, so this one might literally be a sheet of paper. (I personally love Martina Bex’s versions.) But SO GOOD. Why?:

  • You find out *exactly* what language is in your students’ heads. What words have stuck, and what level of complexity they’ve reached.
  • Choice. They say what they want and express themselves. 
  • If the proficiency levels are included at the bottom of the paper, the students write and then get immediate feedback– about how many words they can write in ___ minutes and what proficiency level they are reaching. 

 

Multiple-activity sheets. Pardon the self-promotion here, but I’m going to use one of my TpT products to show how I try to judiciously use paper and create my version of a powersheet. 

These sheets help us work through songs in Spanish. I try to pack in varied activities that I use over several days, as an anchor to help us understand the song and work on the skills I do think are important: listening, reading, and writing. I work really hard to fit everything on one sheet of paper, and keep the focus on the music itself.

When I make a worksheet, I think: Does this help us acquire, more than simply listening/reading/discussing the material? If so, I make it. If not, I don’t.

 

 

 

 

What About Interactive Notebooks?

 

Many of our darling activities are not spared in Gonzalez’s post (crosswords, word searches, Google Drive activities, and others get called out). If you follow me at all and use interactive notebooks, you might thinking… umm, do I need to throw mine out???

I mean, she does say:

Interactive notebooks: These vary widely in quality, with some offering true interactivity and others just offering the same value of a worksheet, just colored, cut, and pasted into a notebook. – Cult of Pedagogy

I use and make materials for interactive notebooks. But I think she’s spot-on. 

Our thinking has to change. We can throw out the textbook, and then go make a zillion worksheets. We can toss the worksheets, and call notebooks interactive because stuff lifts up and looks cute. But re-packaging won’t change our content or methods. Interactive notebooks will ONLY support acquisition if we are thinking correctly. 

My interactive notebooks are not the point. Input is the point; the meat of class. Our interactive notebooks simply house and organize the input.

I also believe we should think of interactive notebooks as subordinate to language. I have a rough idea of sections in mind at the beginning of the year, but the writing, journaling, and responding that takes place depends entirely on the class and what we explore.

I’ve always told people not to bother with interactive notebooks if it doesn’t make sense to them. To me, they are a super-convenient, sensible way to store our Spanish input, organize ourselves, and digest our stories, songs, and conversations.

If you want to read more, see my page on interactive notebooks in Spanish class. I have several videos and examples to show what I do. You can take a look and decide for yourself if they’re in busysheet-land or powersheet-territory!

 

 

 

What do you think? Am I too harsh on Spanish worksheets? Do you love them, hate them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 

 

Spanish Worksheets

How to Teach Spanish, Post-Textbook: Finding Your Way to CI

How to Teach Spanish, Post-Textbook: Finding Your Way to CI

Inside: How to teach Spanish without a textbook– finding strategies that really work.

When I got rid of my Spanish textbook, I wanted to jump right into planning. Just tell me what to do, on a day-to-day basis, please!

The WHY has to come first, though. Even really good materials can go wrong if the teacher doesn’t know WHY she’s doing what she’s doing. So I spent a lot of time studying up on HOW students learn language and WHERE we were going as a class. Once you have that down, it’s finally time to look at methods, materials, and strategies.

how to teach spanish without a textbook

When I looked at what was out there, I felt lost in a sea of acronyms. Everyone seemed to be preaching his or her method, and showing off the student success I yearned for. Was TPRS® the only right way? Should I spend my summers hunting down authentic resources? And really– is an IPA a beer or an assessment?

It’s tempting to join a FB group, hear all the awesome things other teachers are doing, and want to do EVERYTHING, right now. My advice is to read up, and choose two or three strategies to begin with. Start there, and watch your students. What is bringing life to your class? What satisfies your school requirements? What do you love to do?

As you research, ask two questions about any method/strategy/activity:
1) Does it provide compelling, comprehensible input?
2) Does it efficiently support growth in proficiency?

Activities that answer “YES” should be the meat of your day.

Under that criteria, I dropped a lot of traditional work: out-of-context vocab lists, isolated grammar drills, projects that looked pretty but didn’t result in proficiency growth, etc. (Caveat: Some of you have requirements to teach explicit grammar, or a certain way. I still do a teensy bit of grammar. But it doesn’t support 1 or 2, so I work hard to keep it to a minimum.)

As a fellow beginner, I’d like to run down the list of popular methods and acronyms, give my opinion if I have one, and then point you to the experts I trust. If something resonates with you– AND supports proficiency/provides good input– start there. Some of these are little pieces of teaching and assessing language, and some are entire methods.

How to Teach Spanish: Finding Your Way Among the Acronyms and Strategies

 

1. CI

It’s important to note that Comprehensible Input is not a strategy or method. CI is a thing: messages that students understand. Through CI, our students acquire language.

Here’s the thing: there are different ways of providing CI. Even a grammar textbook will incorporate a tiny amount of CI. El libro es grande. It’s just normally limited, out of context, and woefully dry.

Our job as teachers is to ask: what activities provide the best input? What is interesting to my students?

When I started to calling myself a “CI Teacher,” it really meant: I believe that students acquire language through comprehensible input. Therefore, I now employ strategies that maximize exposure to quality CI. (Spoiler alert: my favorites are TPRS®, MovieTalk, authentic music, and novels.)

To see how one teacher puts these different strategies together to structure her curriculum, check out Mis Clases Locas’ curriculum map for Spanish 1-4. 

 

 2. TPRS®

Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling® is a collaborative method of storyasking, between the teacher and the class, and originally created by Blaine Ray. I rely on it heavily, though not exclusively or strictly. I found that by using student actors and creating a memorable story, the structures stuck. As in, I almost completely eliminated vocabulary quizzes, grammar exercises, and homework, with better results.

 

Many people picture it as a marathon of ridiculous stories, or repetitive questions. It can be, but it needn’t be. I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with TPRS and doing a training, before you rely on hearsay or one impression to make the decision. Many other techniques utilize and build on the skills you’ll acquire through TPRS.

For Spanish 1 and 2, I story-ask about once or twice week unless we’re in a novel unit. It’s an exhausting day, but the stories remain so vivid that the follow-up activities, discussions, and readings usually go well.

Martina Bex has a VERY helpful post on this: How to ask a story.

Read & see more:

TPRS with Martina Bex
TPRS with Ben Slavic
What I Love About TPRS by Musicuentos
TPRS Strategies I Don’t Put in My Toolbox by Musicuentos
See an example of a unit built around storyasking once a week, from Martina Bex.

 

 

 3. #authres

Authentic resources are materials from native speakers meant for native speakers, not learners. I LOVE a good authentic resource when I can find one. My absolute favorite is authentic songs or video clips that coincide with structures we’re learning.

Where I differ from the #authres movement is the assumption that authentic is always better, or that students will learn better Spanish. I am cautious when I hear of schools trying to base everything they do on authentic resources.

For upper-level classes, they are incredibly useful. For novices, it depends. I think #authres are best used when the end goal is very clear. For example, if I want the students to acquire Spanish efficiently, I’ll grab a novel written for students. If I want them to feel the thrill of reading a “real” Spanish text or work on finding the main idea, I’ll give them an authentic reading.

Too much dependence on #authres: Students acquire less. They have good real-word skills of finding the main idea, or recognizing vocabulary, but fewer internalized structures.
Too little exposure to #authres: students are frustrated that in real life that everything isn’t comprehensible. They are give up easily or lack the confidence to persevere in confusing situations.

Creative Language Class is an amazing resource for centering your lessons on #authres.
How to Find #authres on Social Media from Secondary Spanish Space
Authentic Resources vs Learner Materials from Musicuentos
Authentic Songs for Spanish 1, Spanish 2, and Advanced Spanish Classes

 

4. IPAs

Integrated performance assessments reflect the ACTFL standards. They measure interpretive reading, interpretive listening, presentational writing, presentational speaking, and interpersonal communication. Instead of parsing sentences and conjugating verbs, the students interpret and respond to authentic resources.

In Spanish 1, I diverged a bit from my mainly-TPRS track to do a unit on food. My students travel sometimes or eat a Latino restaurants, and a themed food unit would help them be ready for real-life interactions. I decided to backwards design from an IPA at the end of the unit, in which we would read authentic restaurant menus and watch YouTube videos of recipes made by native speakers. Months after, I had students report back how they’d ordered for their whole family in Mexico, pleased as pie with themselves.

In this case, although I incorporated CI through readings and stories, I was deliberately targeting other skills. We used lots of authentic resources because the goals went beyond just acquisition: we were developing skills of getting the main idea from reading and listening to native speakers.

I am on the fence about IPAs, though that may be because I haven’t been trained to use them. They are far better than grammar-based tests. They do a great job of prepping for Spanish in the real world. They tend to produce confident students with real-world skills.

On the other hand, IPAs are a lot of work without being entirely authentic. The interpersonal section doesn’t reflect speaking with a native, and the #authres are still weeded through carefully, to find resources that are fairly understandable and appropriate. I feel like my free-writes or tests on learner materials (which are way less work on my end) give me an equally good sense of their proficiency levels. I think IPAs can be really great, as long as you are careful to provide rich input, and not just teach to the test.

IPAs with Jen Shaw  Jen is fantastic and will be so helpful for beginners.
Examples of IPAs
Seven Steps to Creating an IPA from Madame Shepard

5. Novels

My favorite way to teach Spanish is through novels created for earners. There’s huge selection available at Fluency Matters. You can develop a months-long unit based on the novel that incorporates culture and history, and read together as a class. Novels are also perfect for FVR (Free Voluntary Reading) or SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), and I often start class with 10 minutes of SSR/FVR.

Why You Should Teach with Novels

Fluency Matter Novels
Teaching with Novels 101 from Secondary Spanish Space
How Should I Use Novels in Class? from Martina Bex

6. PQA

Personalized Question and Answering is as old as the hills: talking with your students, about them and things that interest them. I had tried my hand at it from the beginning, but after seeing it done as a TPRS skill, I learned more how to make it comprehensible and compelling. It can be a way to create input around target structures leading into a story, and some skillful teachers can spend an entire period on PQA.

PQA is very simple and effective: ask students about themselves. Center the conversation on them. It gets in many reps, and is usually high-interest.

How to Do PQA from Susan Gross
PQA in a Wink from Ben Slavic
PQA My Way from Alina Filipescu

 

 

7. MovieTalk®

MovieTalk is another TPRS technique for delivering CI. I LOVE it. MovieTalk is basically narrating a video clip through comprehensible language. The teacher narrates the story, pauses, points, and ask questions as necessary. I actually like it better than storytelling, because it’s so compelling and you don’t have to come up with the story on your own.

After the MovieTalk, you can give readings of the story or do extension activities. I choose MovieTalks that show structures we’re learning and lend themselves to what we know.

See examples of MovieTalk mini-units here from Martina Bex: Justino and The Janitor Story.

 

 

 

 

8. OWL

OWL (Organic World Language) sounds amazing!– but I am not sure how to find out much information aside from attending a training directly from the organization (which I haven’t done). I do know it uses 100% TL, and tons of games, interactive activities, and movement. Several bloggers I follow incorporate OWL into their teaching:

La Maestra Loca
World Language Classroom
Organic Language Learning

 

9. PBL

I know nothing about Project-Based Learning, but Laura at PBL in the TL does!

 

10. Story Listening

I am totally new to story listening, but I’m intrigued. Here’s a video demonstration from Beniko Mason:

 

And here’s the website to read more about the SL method. I like that this method focuses on great, classic stories. One of my criticisms of TPRS has been that it seems to be silly, crazy stories all the time. That’s fun, and effective, but it seemed to be missing the component of filling our students beautiful, good texts. Perhaps this is the missing key? I haven’t wrapped my head around non-targeted input, though, and how it would work to do this full-time.

 

11. OWI

Haven’t done One Word Images personally. Check out the videos below for more:

 

 

 

Like it? Pin it!

How to teach Spanish with Authentic Songs

How to teach Spanish with Authentic Songs

Inside: How to teach Spanish with authentic music, in the middle and high school classroom.

 

I didn’t know how to teach Spanish with authentic music, as a new teacher. Fresh from living in Peru and head over heels for the language and culture, I sat down with the textbook. Apparently, for the first half of Spanish I, we would learn classroom objects, articles, greetings, and regular verbs. Hmm. How did authentic songs with irregular verbs and  fit in?

I tried out some of my favorite music in class anyway, but it kind of bombed. We were listening to noise. Extremely catchy noise, but nothing comprehensible. I reverted to grammar songs and conjugation jingles. They were cute, but I was feeding my students the parts: hoping one day all the pieces would come together into the whole language I wanted them to acquire.

Then I finally got that I needed to start with whole, intact, understandable language. Real-life communication is the goal, and songs became more accessible because we were learning high-frequency verbs right away. I saw how comprehensible input and authentic resources could work together. My students could acquire authentic language and real-life skills like getting the gist of a text and picking familiar words out from unfamiliar word. My job was to introduce songs with the language we needed, and find a way to make it comprehensible.

(Just here looking for music suggestions? See my Songs in Spanish by theme and category.)

So, here’s what I wish someone had told me as a newbie teacher:

 

1. Think through the goal.

 

How will the song connect to your current targets? Will it be a cultural connection? Are you looking to highlight a pattern (present progressive, ir + a, etc.)? Do you want to focus on certain phrases or vocabulary? Here are some huge lists of authentic Spanish songs I came up with for Spanish 1, Spanish 2, and Spanish 2.

 

2. Think about how much of the song can be comprehensible.

 

How much of the song can you use? I used to get stuck because I didn’t know how to use a song that used many words we didn’t know, or grammar we hadn’t learned. I really think that songs are the best way to hook students to content just above their proficiency level. You can, of course, explain the entire song or provide a translation.

– Some authentic songs can be 100% comprehensible, if you work through them a bit. Very simple songs-perhaps children’s songs- are a great way to see how language works as a whole.

– Some are best because they repeat key phrases. Your students might not understand everything, but esto no me gusta and te estaba buscando get repeated a bazillion times and they never forget those phrases. If you are using a grammar-based approach, this is a good way to help set patterns; if you are CI-based, it helps to cement target structures from a different context.

– For other songs, the verses aren’t the focus, but the chorus can be understand and remembered. Voy a reír, voy a bailar, vivir mi vida, lalala…  The chorus is what your students will walk away singing anyway, so in this situation zero in all of your activities on that part.

 

How to teach Spanish with authentic songs

 

3. Plan how you’ll make the song comprehensible.

 

How can you bridge the gap from what your students know, to the song? There’s a whole lot more out there than what I’ve done in class, but here are some ideas. This will of course depend on how much of the song you plan to use and teach.

-Pre-teach important vocabulary/phrases.

– Listen to the song and project the lyrics onto the board. Focus on the parts you want them to know, and summarize the parts in between so they get the gist of the lyrics. Circle the phrases you want to emphasize, asking personalized questions to the students. In La bicicleta, for example, Shakira says, puedo ser feliz… I pause there, and we discuss. Students might fill in the blank for themselves (puedo ser feliz… tomando café, sin tarea, etc.) I don’t pause and translate/discuss every line, as that would kill the enjoyment. We will listen to the songs many times, so there is plenty of time to study different parts.

– Create an embedded reading to scaffold the text of the song, or summarize each stanza in simplified language. 

– Use the story of the song, and re-write it in simpler terms. If the song video shows the story, they can match the re-written paragraphs to the scenes in the movie. 

– Watch the music video if it’s appropriate (preview, preview preview…  I speak from experience!), and pause to discuss. Use language the students know to discuss what’s happening and to help them interpret the lyrics.

I think songs are one of the best uses of authentic resources. While most of the time I want class to be comprehensible, music is a good way to get students to take risks and try to derive meaning from something above their level.

 

4. Create some activities to work through the song.

 

– Try Draw, Write, Check: have your students divide a piece of paper into 4 or 6  parts. Give them a phrase to draw for each part. Then, play the song. Each time they hear the phrase they drew, make a tally mark and check numbers after the song.

– Do an old-fashoined cloze activity. Or, mix it up with movement: students stand up, or do a motion when they hear that term. 

– Type up the lyrics on the left side of a paper, and have students summarize each section on the right.

– Ask several questions (Is the singer sad? What does he wish would happen?) Give the students markers to highlight and color code the lyrics that give evidence for the answers.

– Print the lyrics and cut them apart. The students listen to the song and put them in order while listening. Younger students can do this with picture cards or objects (I do this with Los Pollitos Dicen, using scenes from the song, and Un Elefante Se Balanceaba– the students add elephants to a web).

– Do a music bracket with a list of songs, and have your students vote on their favorites over a month, or set period of time.

– Change the voice of the singer from third to first person, or vice-versa.

– Make up actions and sing along!

 

If you’re looking for an easy activity packet to teach with authentic songs, you may want to check out my bundle:

 

 

 

More ideas from other teachers on how to teach with authentic music:

 

¡La música! from Kristy Placido

What can I DO {-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-da} with a song?

– Create a PPT with screenshots of the music video, a la MovieTalk like in this example from Kristy Placido

Música miércoles for using Spanish songs weekly from Mis Clases Locas

 

Like it? Pin it!

how to teach Spanish with authentic songs

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