When to Focus on Writing?

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29 thoughts on “When to Focus on Writing?”

  1. Interesting to think that students in ELA class may write better a couple of years down the road (as juniors) if they are allowed to focus on reading and discussion.

  2. Perhaps your principal realized recently that they’ve forgotten about you, Ben, and thought they’d challenge you to raise the bar on the student growth objective to appear like they have a close eye on what you are doing.

    I, on the other hand, find myself in a wonderful relationship with my principal. She has never formally observed me but has stopped in a couple of times, talks with students a lot, peeks in sometimes… She’s been around Chicago Public Schools awhile and, I have to assume, has never seen students anywhere close to being as engaged with the foreign language as she sees them engaged in my classroom.

    Of course, it’s also the reality of working in a charter school where we’ve cheerfully escaped from standardized assessment tasks and performance indicators (blah blah blah). That is some very important work you guys are doing in Denver; creating standardized summative assessment tools so you can compare growth across classroom and across school. Perhaps the foreign language acquisition is something that really can’t be accurately measured until year 3.

    Anyways, I am certainly interested in hearing more about what’s brewing with you guys in The Mecca (DPS) in regards to measuring student growth.

  3. This speaks to me – I feel it to be true:

    …perhaps the foreign language acquisition is something that really can’t be accurately measured until year 3….


    …I am certainly interested in hearing more about what’s brewing [in DPS]….

    Well, just follow Diana Noonan around at iFLT this summer. She has knowledge that I am convinced nobody has regarding the creation of authentic assessment instruments for CI teachers, but she is so focused on us, and because of proprietary laws involving the district, that that knowledge is not being shared across the country. So over coming years other districts will slowly begin to reinvent a wheel that we have already rolling down the road.

    (We just finished our new exit Level 3 post test this weekend on Saturday, which partially explains Sabrina’s absence from the blog – not to mention her work at UC Boulder with Mark Knowles, and her being in her first year in DPS, if anybody has been wondering where she has been lately.)

    1. We have our speaking rubric which like the writing rubric has been tweaked yearly and keeps getting better. We don’t have rubrics for listening and reading as they are done via direct questioning about texts we write. I will send Diana a request for that speaking rubric and will send it to you when I get it.

    1. Yeah me too. Wish we could get it authenticated so it would be accepted by our districts. It really upsets me that kids have to be formally assessed on output so early……they end up feeling like a failure. So sad.

  4. Nice resp, Ben. I am finding the same thing: written output– other than translating stuff from stories/novels– does not do much for beginners and is often riddled with errors. Much better to wait as long as possible till they write (or speak).

    I don’t disagree with standardised assessment or progress goals, but they have to be reasonable: no grammar testing, and lots of focus on reading and listening to real language, and written output that reflects what they have been taught.

    I can’t remember where I read this, and I could be wrong, but with 2L acquisition one can realistically expect people to produce (at quality level) about 15% of what they have been (properly) taught.

    My beginners have now been exposed to 384 words (too many, I know– no new vocab for rest of year!) and they can write very good pieces around 80 words. (superstars can do around 150-175). If I add no new vocabtell end of jan when the course ends, and they get another about 25 hours of CI, I am expecting solid writing around 150 words on average and superstars around 225-250. End of 2nd year goals are Blaine’s: 100 words in 5 mins and a 500 word story in 30 (mix of verb tenses, and use of dialogue).

  5. That I focused on stories and reading in the first two years has me feeling very happy about the semester exam I just gave to my level 3s. For a part of it, twenty minutes, I just looked right at them and talked, summarizing the book Le Voyage Perdu, which we have almost finished. It was a straight up verbal compte rendu for them with almost zero English.

    (The exam consisted of a series of three quick quizzes spaced every twenty minutes or so over unplanned comprehensible input given during the 70 minute exam period. I don’t test them summatively in the traditional way; we just process stuff in the target language like we do in normal classes and instead of taking one quiz we take three because we have enough time – the quiz writer works hard that day – and I call that a cumulative test. The second day of the exam, tomorrow, they will write out what they heard me say, essentially summarizing the book. Why? Because I have to hand something in that looks like an exam; otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I started doing this years ago. Not one administrator, ever since I first started doing it, has ever challenged me. I am proud that I have been able to completely throw off the old image of what a semester exam is, one pounded into me over so many years, of what a summative exam is. I don’t necessarily even believe in the DPS exams in terms of the idea that we really shouldn’t even test kids summatively until they are in their third year of study. The kids and I don’t even notice the time going by. They love not having to study for the exam. They know they will do will if they just do what they’ve been doing all year, just coming to class.)

    This reflects an ongoing conversation Sabrina has been having with our Mark at UC Boulder about the rationale or lack thereof in current testing practices. Sabrina tells me that Mark (search his name here for more on Mark Knowles) is a former student and acquaintance of Van Patten who believes in having students do something new with the information in reading passages rather than regurgitating information. The message here is to not just evaluate whether they understand, which it does, but to also validate their own thinking processes and personalities/opinions. Doing that kind of testing moves them up the taxonomy so they’re not so damn bored during the exam period as well.

    I do this. There is NO memorization on my final as described above. I just do a story, or read a book and do R and D, doing it as if the final exam period is just another class.

    Anyway, back to that twenty minutes of just talking to them about the chapter book in 99% French. They looked at me and of course I required that they use the hand signal over the head if they didn’t understand (I can always tell). Very few hand signals were necessary. What had happened?

    Well, I had spoken to them and read with them using Reading Option A and R and D and cRD for two and a half years, and now there they were yesterday handling all that French with a clearly high skill set and plenty of alacrity, with expressions on their faces that were full of confident processing. I almost stopped myself a few times so that I could run out of the room into the hallway and do the Twist and the Mashed Potatoes or maybe the the Monster Mash or perhaps the Tennesse Waltz while Prancerizing. But I just kept talking, with a silent prayer of thanks to Susan Gross a few times.

  6. And all of this happened without a textbook. When I watch my French 3’s writing, I am always humbled to realize that most of them started with 0 French. Visualizing your exam description makes me happy.

  7. Thank you Carol. You always see deeply into things that are said here.

    May I expand a little as to why those level 3 kids did that lights out listening on my verbal summary of our chapter book? We must note that this happy result is not a result of ever targeting structures in any of the comprehensible input we did when reading this book. I think that is significant, and has to do with what happens after 2 and 1/2 years of CI as opposed to just months of CI.

    I am beginning to see that the Net (see category if this is a new term) fabric thickens and has smaller holes in it after two years, something we can’t see in levels 1 or 2 (only 18 months of CI). It’s just something new that I am noticing with my level 3 kids, since I never had a bona fide level 3 CI trained level 3 class before this year.

    Yes, we target structures in stories and then we use them as rebar rods (see that category) to form a reading and we have success using Reading Option A there. But in these chapter books, I never have broken down a book to target structures in stories, like many people do.

    (It doesn’t work, in my opinion. Nobody has ever shown me it works. Krashen supports this position, of course, so it’s not just my opinion. It is what Krashen’s research showed him and what my heart tells me and I think that there are too many teachers being confused by this whole topic of targeting structures in novels.)

    Back to my point – those kids understood me at such a high level because we had done R and D for each chapter and I just hammered the information, back and forth from R to D and back to R, over about a period of six weeks (for 1/2 the class) now on that novel.

    So I am just suggesting, and would love to hear from others with true level 3 or 4 CI/TPRS trained classes, that there is an exponential uptick in gains in level 3 when CI is used over 95% of the time in the classroom in the previous two years.

    And I don’t care what any test tells me about what my students can do. I can see more when I teach my kids than a test could tell me. (If anybody needs an excused to walk away from teaching that right there is enough – that one word – testing. It DOESN’T WORK with languages.)

    Not to mention that doing a semester exam in this way requires no preparation and very little grading time.

    1. To throw a wrench into your hypothesis, Ben, about the high gains you’re experiencing in your level 3 classes: perhaps some of it has to do with those students in your level 3 class. If level 3 is an elective, you’d have more motivated students. Is it an elective? I believe that in most states students are only required to take 2 years of a foreign language.

      1. Yes these are the cream of Lincoln High School. But motivated? I wouldn’t go there for but a few. They are savvy seniors who play teachers like violinists play violins. You know how AP kids are. They are trained in preparing for tests. But yes they are smart and yes they behave and yes they pay attention. But the fact is that so called high achieving kids can be just as much as a pain in the butt to teach as unmotivated slackers.

  8. Hi Carol, It makes me happy too. I have been away from Ben’s blog for a couple years and just the last two days posts have really struck me, and made me so happy to be back. My over simplified take away has been patience and perseverance from the gardening post, the need to give ourselves credit for the hard work we do as teachers, from the miracle, and the unbridled joy that comes when our students show us how brilliant this all is from the post above. The image of needing to prancersize while silently thanking Susie and doing the Mashed potato is one I want to etch into my brain . What a great way to end the semester.

  9. Thank you Martha and just to be clear, I would have had to interrupt my own CI had I done that, but I did thank Susie even if I didn’t dance. I would have chosen the Twist, I think. I don’t know how to do the Mashed Potatoes, just to be honest. It has always stayed with me, but I’ll get over it one day.

    The fact is that those kids blew my mind and I get to see them tomorrow for more of the same. Fancy looking forward to teaching the last class of the term, thus reducing the dreaded word “exam” down to what it really should be, just another opportunity to learn.

    You know, when I think about testing now here at the end of my career, I just think it’s so stupid. I don’t know how it helps the kids, and I wonder if we were in a profession that really needed to see real results (instead of just faking them like schools do) and really needed to motivate students (instead of pretending they are motivated and interpreting test results as if they are motivated), that testing would be outlawed.

    Testing scars our hopes, separating kids and making far too many of them feel as if they can’t learn a language even though they have every bit the same ability to master a language as the “smart” kids, since languages are learned unconsciously (new people click on the Unconscious category for more on that key idea in this work).

    Annick told me today something really cool. She said that in one class she has three SPED kids and was reticent to allow them in at the beginning of the semester. She showed me their exams – they were fantastic. She said that those kids just loved learning and were the three best kids in her class, because of their motivation.

    Can you imagine? Three SPED kids, the best in the class? Bam!

    1. Amen!
      I can’t thank you enough for this thread, for the “exam” process, etc. I agree about the whole testing thing. We just know where the kids are. We do not need a test to tell us. I have never broken down the novels. Sometimes I get this voice in my head telling me I “should” but I never get around to it. Most of the issues I’ve had using novels occur when I’ve chosen one that is too difficult. When it’s an easy enough book, we just jump right into the flow, and are not only “able to read and discuss” the book, but beyond that we weave it all into our lives and our own experiences. It’s pretty magical.

      I can totally imagine those three students! Bravo and thank you to them for teaching us! I think we all have those kids, whether or not they are coded, the ones whom everyone writes off or says “they can’t.” That story often takes on a life of its own and the saddest part is when the kids themselves believe it. We are so fortunate to be able to peel back some of these layers of falsehood so that the kids can feel at least a glimmer of the truth of their own power and beauty.

  10. Ben, I’ve got a bit to say. I’ll limit myself to just 2 points so that we can stay focused.

    1) The giving of your exam and Bloom’s taxonomy.
    So the first day of your exam is three 20 minute periods of oral/aural CI around a book you have already read. Basically a summary by you, but do you also PQA the crap out of the book and then do those personal details show up on each of the three Quick Quizzes? If PQA is involved in the discussion then you can really rocket the class up to the top of Bloom’s.

    2) The growth of the Net in years 3 and 4.
    I have noticed this, too. My upper level students, who now have a rudimentary foundation of CI, don’t need as many reps to acquire a new structure. I’d phrase it like this: The slow, target, comprehensible work we have done in years 1 and 2 prepares the Net to work as it is supposed to in years 3 and 4. Think about it: Language is huge. We cannot understand it. The Net is really the only shot anyone has to become fluent in any language. There is just too much language to learn and too short a time (even for L1!) and none of it will be understood consciously. The Net is the only hope anyone has to acquire enough from the vast sea of input to become fluent in L1 or L2. Our business, then, is to prepare and train the Net in levels 1 and 2 and then to tread lightly in levels 3 and 4 when it begins to exercise its raw power.

    I’d really really really like to continue the discussion of this number 2 point especially. I think it might be our way out of the upper level puzzle.

    1. Point 1:

      …do you also PQA the crap out of the book and then do those personal details show up on each of the three Quick Quizzes?…

      Maybe. I really never know where the CI is going to go. If I had a plan in my mind for the discussion, whether it stayed on the chapter book or went into a glorious parallel universe that uses the same structures in the book, then the class would be boring. I follow the energy of that day. I trust in the Flow (see that category or search it).

      One thing I have to say – people don’t seem to get or want to get the Net nor do they want to embrace the concept of Flow, even though those two things are at the heart of Krashen’s work. It’s like they take what they want from Krashen but if it doesn’t suit them they ignore it.

      Point 2:

      …the slow, target, comprehensible work we have done in years 1 and 2 prepares the Net to work as it is supposed to in years 3 and 4….

      It’s like with little kids in their L1. They start with a few words and then bam in a few years they are speaking. It’s definitely not a geometric progression but an exponential one. Yesterday jen also said that she resonated with this idea.

      Point 3:

      … I think it [the Net] might be our way out of the upper level puzzle….

      I’ll bring this up with Krashen this summer. The hinge issue is going to be around the fact that L1 is acquired over a 24/7 time span whereas we have but minutes compared to that.

      Thank you James for saying this. Even if we only have minutes, it is possible that what I saw in those kids was because I was trying my best to stay in the TL as much as I could for the first two and a half years. I would say in real terms I was hitting about 75% of the time of actual CI. The math would indicate then that those kids got about 325 hours of French in the form of reading and listening since I met them as sophomores two years ago. That is not the tens of thousands of hours L1 kids get, but it was a focused 325 hours, so maybe there is something to it.

      Whatever, your hunch that this may be a secret to developing something real for the upper levels is a good one. So far we have not solved the upper level problem that skip first brought up over a year ago. I can say I have, for me, though. And it consists of reading, reading, reading as I have mentioned here in the past few months. (I do believe that stories don’t work past level 2 with older kids. They just get old for them.

      So we read and it works, for me anyway. AND I always see greater gains when my kids do R and D or cRD as opposed to stories anyway. Stories are cool for beginners. But they are not the answer to the whole deal.

      EXCELLENT points you make James.

      1. Totally agree on the stories. They rock for level one and two. After that, there needs to be a shift and reading it totally the key. Read what? Do you read TPRS novels or like you do, Ben, when you read Le Petit Prince. What is going on in those reading classes? Are you just having them read/decode the text and then you translate it and then just circle the hell out of it.

        I have a class of level 3 kids, but they have only had one year of CI. I am having them read the beginners textbook of Cambridge, book I and we do some R&D on it. I probably should do some more, but some of the faster processing kids want to go faster and so they do. It seems that we are really onto something here.

        1. Jeff,

          I think you are right to be using the textbook with the level 3 kids, because it’s not until level 3 that most of them can actually read our Latin textbook past the first few chapters without a lot of additional vocab help.

          Once you progress a bit further in the book, the faster processors will be challenged sufficiently. In fact, you will still probably have to use embedded versions of the stories once you’re well into unit 2, with most students at least. Then, you give the fast processors the actual textbook versions. This keeps everyone on the same page, i.e. in the same story, so you can teach them all at once as much as possible.

          Beyond that, for your 4%ers, you can bring in additional stories (CLC “fabulae ancillantes,” vesuvius plays, or bring in another textbook). There is no shortage of readings once the students are in their 3rd and 4th years–though some are more compelling than others, and you still have to be cautious about too much new vocab.

          1. John,

            Thanks for your comments. I am sensing the very things that you are saying. I suspect that when I get into book 2 there will be the need for even more embedding. I am seeing that my Latin II students still cannot read the level I text easily. I really do think that 2 years of CI is so very critical for them to be able to read the text. Most students stay until level 3 and then they stop taking the language. This happens across the board in our school as Ohio has an Honors diploma that requires 3 years of a language. Once students fulfill the requirement, they quit. Not surprising.

            I really appreciate what you said. I often feel like I am not doing them justice because we are not farther in the book than we are. I am also trying to use some readings from Fabulae Faciles that I edit down/embed. They seem to like them, but it does take time which is something I don’t have teaching six classes and all levels. Nevertheless, I do have some embedded versions from book II. It’s a work in progress and I have to remember not to get to upset about where they are. I foolishly think that if I focused on grammar more of the students would succeed faster, but I know that is not correct.

            Thanks for the discussion.


        2. Jeff I split the class into two parts. We read an upper level chapter book by Blaine and then we move to the Little Prince half way through the class. The chapter book is kind of a warm up for the authentic text. I do R and D, and lots of it, just circling away and personalizing whenever I can. Obviously the Petit Prince is slow going, but I’ve got until June so that is a lot of circling. The hardest part is not going into English, because the book is so beautiful.

      2. It’s definitely not a geometric progression but an exponential one.

        Agreed. I see it even with some earlier years — after a certain point unique to the child, they progress more readily with new words, etc.

        Teaching 4 years in a row, I find it interesting to think about upper levels. My middle school kids aren’t the same as high schoolers, but they’ve had chronological time with me. I think it’s some 8th graders who start getting tired of things they perceive as silly.

  11. I often wish that I were already retired. Not because I want to quit teaching…but because in retirement I could sit and observe teachers and students and really get to the nitty gritty of how things work while NOT TEACHING AT THE SAME TIME!! So …in 2 + years, when I choose a new place to live, I’ll be looking for a place near CI/TPRSers so that I can hang out in their classrooms!!

    with love,

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