Our school year draws to a close. Lesson planning ceases. Time opens up for self-reflection.
What have I learned this year about teaching L2 (second language)? Much!
It’s been a painful year. But growth is like that when pruning takes place.
Year 25 teaching French kicked off in August. A new season to teach the way I believe is best for students. An acquisition-based pedagogy.
The first half of my career, I conducted class the way my mentor teacher had shown me when I student taught – the text book-based ‘conventional’ manner. Only the brightest, most detailed-oriented students succeeded. You know that kind of learner, someone who notices all the picky details of French. But my conscience bothered me. I felt like I was failing all the others. And I was bored with this approach.
In October of year 13, I encountered a different paradigm, one which presented language acquisition as intuitive, effective and more equitable for all kinds of learners. I was hooked. Since 2002 I have invested each year acquiring and practicing the skill of teaching using communicative comprehensible input. Not teaching French through grammar rules and drills.
They say the proof is in the pudding. This methodology, even when I didn’t employ it ‘expertly’, produced kids who enjoyed using their French. Committing to this approach has challenged me to step out of my comfort zone, the safety of a textbook. But the discomfort has been worth it. Students’ joy and delight in communicating fearlessly is what keeps me going. Kids of all abilities DO acquire the language.
In my last school, prior to our move to western North Carolina, I was the only French teacher. I taught levels 1-4 in the upper school. What these students could do in French happened because of the activities in my classroom. My administration trusted me as a professional French teacher to use the most effective methodology. And that was Comprehensible Input or CI. The result? – student success and joy. Kids who didn’t necessarily LIKE French acquired skills. With some skill in French, doors opened for them to travel, research and even take part in missions/humanitarian trips. A few of my former students from that school have chosen to major in French at college.
In my current school, my French-language students leave 8th grade after up to 3 years with me and feed into other schools. Not all high schools are CI-friendly. Many teachers continue to rely on what is comfortable and/or what they believe produces the results they want, given their goals. For some, that is a grammar-based approach and curriculum. Students transitioning from a CI-based teacher to a grammar-based teacher are going to have different skills. Often they will be able to speak French confidently, not bothered by errors. But writing ability won’t match speaking, yet.
No big surprise. My grandson who is finishing up Kindergarten speaks his native language English very well and has done so since he was 3 1/2 but he can’t spell worth a darn. Writing skills will come in time. First things, first. Why does he speak so well? Because he has had TONS of comprehensible input.
Back to this school year and the pruning. Starting in October, I heard from the French teachers in the upper levels at my school how my former students couldn’t spell or write accurately. Sure they were comfortable speaking, but that ability wasn’t what was prioritized. This created stress for ME! In view of a few comments from these upper school colleagues, I started to doubt the wisdom of even equipping students with acquired language. I began to question my purpose and place here.
The other pressure I felt stemmed from the nature of our middle school. Collaboration and projects tend to be valued. I quickly learned my first year here that for my students to consider French ‘fun’, I needed to schedule projects, too. Sounds innocuous, enough. Problem is, for their level of proficiency and skills, any middle school – level projects are going to leave acquisition behind, move into English and NOT advance their French speaking, reading and comprehension skills. But students will have fun and enjoy the ‘down time’ with friends. And so, against my better judgment, I compromised and worked in some of those ‘fun, but ineffective’ French projects.
So as this year dawned, I felt a lot of conflict. I knew in my heart WHAT good CI classes looked like, but I faced real limitations. I had almost given up by the time our administration sent most of us world language teachers to ACTFL in Boston. I’m glad I attended. The conference turned out to be a true Godsend, confirming what I had begun to let go of, that CI IS what works. I came home renewed and re-committed. I had regained the ‘vision’.
How did that occur? I attended Professor Bill Van Patten’s (Michigan State) joint workshop with Dr. Stephen Krashen (Univ of Southern California) and found encouragement and documented evidence of years of research. As a result, I chose all the CI workshops I could fit in during the remaining few days. I came home from Boston revitalized and recommitted to teach via CI, no matter the obstacles.
It hasn’t been easy. The Boston conference took place right before Thanksgiving. Only 3 weeks of classes followed that break and I had already broadly planned out my lessons, with ‘those kind of filler’ projects.
January arrived and I tried out a few new ideas designed to provide rich, high quality comprehensible input to my students. I was rewarded at times, failed at others, but overall learned what works and what I can improve for a new school year.
What I now see clearly is what Bill Van Patten repeatedly affirms:
- What comes out of a student’s mouth in the target language is a reflection of the mental representation of language in their brains.
- So if I want to improve accuracy in their output, I need to find a way for them to listen and comprehend my messages, thereby gradually sharpening the mental representation and filling in the gaps. Like focusing a camera lens. The picture is fuzzy at first. Only CI that the learner takes in and understands will DE-fuzz the messy image.
- CI that students understand is what is effective and will improve output.
- The process takes time, just like with babies and toddlers at home with mom.
Conclusion? Language acquisition is messy, whether for L1 or L2 (1st and 2nd language)! That is the nature of ALL language acquisition. But over time, learners acquire accuracy. Just listen to a toddler’s speech. If you spend one day a month with the child, her improvement in speech will be noticeable. How does this come about? Through constant, repetitive and comprehensible ‘Mommy talk’.
Last year my former principal accompanied me, chaperoning a group of my 8th-grade students to Québec. He heard the local tour guide extol this group’s abilities and willingness to speak French. She explained that most of the school groups she escorts don’t dare open their mouths, for fear they’ll make mistakes. My principal saw first hand how effective a CI-based curriculum is. When he left our middle school almost a year ago, he encouraged me to ‘share the wealth’ and present a workshop at a future conference, such as the annual NCAIS here in North Carolina.
I’ve taken his advice to heart. I submitted a proposal about CI in the L2 classroom for an upcoming October 2017 gathering of NC independent schools. They accepted the topic. I’ll have 30 minutes to make a compelling case for why using ‘comprehensible input’ is effective.
With a clearer understanding of HOW language is acquired, I now will be evaluating each future activity through the sieve of: Is what I have planned the most effective way to sharpen the mental representation in my students’ heads? If it is not, than I need to find one that WILL support my goal.
Step one in Lesson Planning – know what your goal is and plan accordingly.