In various writings, Robert Harrell has illustrated and defended the use of comprehensible input in foreign language classrooms. The CI tidal wave, however, has yet to find its defense in most district level Scope and Sequence documents, which are still largely written from textbooks. In this appendix, Robert makes a unique and refreshing argument in favor of an entirely new kind of Scope and Sequence, one based on teaching using comprehensible input:
Many schools are placing increasing emphasis on tools such as Curricular Mapping and asking all teachers to submit lesson plans in a particular format. In many cases, teachers merely copy the Scope and Sequence contained in the textbook they currently use. The problem with simply continuing to use the Scope and Sequence provided by textbook publishers is that these are most often simply lists of vocabulary topics and successions of grammar explanations. This sort of Scope and Sequence needs to be replaced by something that reflects theory and practice of comprehension-based instruction through comprehensible input. The following is an attempt to articulate a possible Scope and Sequence that takes into account the research and findings from such diverse sources as ACTFL, SLA, Brain-based research, Krashen, and others. At the very least, I hope it will begin a discussion of what a “program of study” ought to look like in World Languages.
First of all, the theoretical underpinnings (in no particular order):
1. If, as much research indicates, there is a natural order of acquisition, setting up an artificial grammatical sequence of presentation such as most textbooks use does not aid either acquisition or fluency. In fact, the order of presentation in a textbook often runs contrary to the order of acquisition. Examples of this are the presentation of por/para and ser/estar and their distinctions. Grammar-driven textbooks present these in early first year, yet native speakers often argue about the correct use of them in a particular situation, indicating that they are late acquired. (I’ve observed these discussions personally.)
2. Furthermore, late-acquired items seem to simply require more exposure than early-acquired items. A corollary, therefore, is that delaying exposure to any feature of the language simply delays acquisition of that feature. For example, not exposing students to past tense or direct and indirect object pronouns until year 2 or 3 simply delays acquisition of those forms. Listening to parents and caretakers who speak to children in their first language reveals that they do not shelter the grammar but use all facets of the language’s grammar and syntax long before the child is ready to produce them. What they shelter is vocabulary. Textbooks generally get this backwards as well, giving long lists of vocabulary terms to be memorized out of context while parceling out the grammatical and syntactical structures bit by bit. The conclusion is that teachers must use the whole language the whole time. This in no way even suggests that students must or should be held accountable for all aspects of grammar from the very beginning; they simply must be exposed to it.
3. Researchers (e.g. Asher, Krashen, Van Patten, Omaggio, Wong, Pink) agree that the single most important element that leads to acquisition is Comprehensible Input. Of course, that means input that is comprehensible to the student not just to the teacher. Terms such as the “Silent Period” remind us that this comprehensible and comprehended input must precede output. As Wynne Wong (Ohio State University) puts it, “a flood of Input is necessary to get a trickle of Output”. Bertie Segal observes that “Language is first of all acoustic.” (How many times do people tell us that something “just sounds right”?)
4. In addition, receptive skills precede and outpace productive skills. My observation – and it seems supported by casual research and listening to others – is that the skills develop in a natural order: listening, speaking, reading, writing. Asking students to speak and write before they have had sufficient time listening and reading is counterproductive. In addition, reading and writing are very different skills from listening and speaking and develop later, at least in first-language learners.
5. ACTFL Performance Guidelines, the California State Standards, and Second Language Acquisition Research inform us that students will spend considerable time (often multiple years) in one stage of language acquisition, acquisition does not progress linearly, each person acquires at his own pace, and an individual will not be at the same stage or level of acquisition in all areas at the same time.
6. Studies published in various professional journals such as “The Foreign Language Annals” (ACTFL), “Die Unterrichtspraxis” (AATG) and “The Language Educator” indicate that manipulation of the language before any sort of explicit grammar instruction leads to greater gains in fluency and retention of the explicit instruction. This mirrors first-language practice. Students have (hundreds of) thousands of hours hearing, seeing, and speaking (and even writing) their own language before they receive any explicit grammar instruction, yet they are able to manipulate the language correctly, efficiently and effectively.
7. Brain-based research shows that the brain craves and requires two very different experiences. On the one hand, because active memory is limited to +/- 7 items, it is necessary to automate many functions and processes as well as “chunk” them together. That requires repetition – lots of it. Think of the difference between a new driver learning to drive a manual transmission and an experienced driver who has automated the use of the clutch, gas pedal, brake and gearshift. Now attention can be spared for observing traffic, pedestrians, etc. On the other hand, meaningless repetition is soon disregarded by the brain; what sticks out is novelty. Using the analogy of vehicles again, think of how many times we get from one place to another without consciously being aware of what happened, but when something unusual occurs, we remember it.
8. Brain-based research also shows that the brain craves and requires meaning and significance. This is why people see figures in clouds or the face of Jesus on a tortilla. Language that is not meaningful (and meaning requires comprehensibility) and significant will not be acquired, though it may be put in short-term memory for a test or quiz. The brain also works from greater meaning to lesser meaning. A student will, for example, get the basic idea of (Spiel-/Jug-/Jou- = Play) much faster than “-e/-o/-e = I” because the former carries greater (and more significant) meaning.
9. Acquiring a language is different from learning in nearly all other areas (Van Patten) because it is, especially in the early stages, essentially an unconscious process (Chomsky, Krashen). While one learns history by reading about history in the native language or learns mathematics by working mathematics problems in the native language, this approach does not work for learning a language. Instead, one attends to other things (content) in the language, and the brain unconsciously (or subconsciously) maps the language. We see this in young children: they do not learn the rules of their language first; they have a message to communicate and simply speak because they have been bathed in the language. In the world language classroom, as soon as we begin to speak in English about the target language, we have ceased targeting acquisition and are now studying linguistics. Does this mean that there is no place in the foreign language classroom for explicit grammar instruction? ?? ???????! (me genoito! May it never be!) This explicit grammar instruction follows acquisition and is used to polish the language and help students understand the system, but only after they have sufficient experience and acquisition to see that there is a system. Perhaps an analogy with art or sports will help with understanding this. We do not take the budding artist and teach him color theory, elements of composition, and principles of line, shape and form. Instead, we encourage him to draw, show him great artwork, and make suggestions for small changes: “Why don’t you try this?” Only later do we discuss the “system”, the theory behind the work, in order to polish the product. Even then, there are many artists who cannot articulate art theory yet produce excellent works, especially when doing so for their own enjoyment. We do not subject the promising young athlete to drill upon drill and in-depth discussions of principles of ball handling, offensive and defensive strategy, or even the complexities of the game. Let her kick the soccer ball around and get a “feel” for it. Once she is mentally and emotionally ready to play at a competitive level (club or school), then she can get the instruction that polishes the game. But if she plays simply for her own enjoyment, the technical and regulatory side of the game will remain largely meaningless for her; yet she may have excellent skills and an intuitive understanding of how to play. Learning a language is more like this than it is like memorizing dates and facts for math or history.
Now some related observations:
A. Whether one accepts the distinction between learning and acquisition proposed by Krashen or thinks more along the lines of short-term vs long-term memory (Van Patten), the fact remains that varied repetition is necessary for retention.
B. While most language teachers are familiar with the concept of i+1 as a “formula” for language acquisition, the reality in the classroom is that what constitutes i+1 is different for every student. Teachers cannot be so narrow in their focus that they fail to provide i+1 for everyone. Perhaps counter-intuitively (but reflecting real life first language experience), the teacher must cast a net or web of language that is comprehensible so that students are able to catch what is right for them. That is also part of the reason why the teacher cannot shelter grammar but must use the whole language. As Hart Crane puts it, “One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.”
C. The time necessary for true mastery far exceeds the time available in the school setting. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” postulates that a minimum of 10,000 hours are needed for true mastery of any given subject or activity. He shows how Bill Gates and others had access to those hours before their breakthrough moments. The Foreign Service Institute has published their beliefs about the number of hours needed for “General Professional Proficiency” in various languages. The “easiest” languages (Spanish and French) require 600 class hours at the Defense Language Institute. Exposure to the language outside the classroom (3-4 hours per day) is required at the institute but is not included in the 600 class hours. This additional time takes the exposure hours to well over 1,000 for these “easier” languages. Other important parameters to consider include: language study is all the participants do each day (they don’t have other classes); they are mature (about 40); they have shown an aptitude for learning foreign languages (have already learned at least one foreign language); they are motivated (or they don’t stay in the program); they have classes of no more than six students. Does this sound like any high school situation you know?
D. We need to decide what ought to be accomplished in a high school program and how much can be accomplished. Both ACTFL and the College Board indicate that the AP program is designed for students who have been exposed to the language for longer than 3.75 years; it is for students who have begun as true beginners (not heritage or native speakers) in seventh grade or earlier. (Remember that California’s Standards are for Kindergarten through Grade Twelve.) But is our goal to cater only to an academic use of the language? How many of our students will make academic use of the language? Shouldn’t the real goal be to give students the language they need to interact with relatives, friends, travelers, business contacts and other non-academic people? Most students want to use the language in “real life”, not in a college or university classroom. Nor should we be teaching a course in linguistics (that is, teaching about the language).
Suggested Scope and Sequence
So now that I have prefaced my submission to you with all of that, if I were free to design a Scope and Sequence based on ACTFL, Krashen, SLA, Brain-Based Research, etc., I would have something like the following:
1. In the first year students are introduced to oral language through interpersonal communication in the target language on topics directly related to them and their immediate environment (e.g. personal description, family, friends, and interests) with the emphasis on hearing and understanding spoken language. (90%+ target language in the classroom and out.) As their ability increases, students are given ample opportunity to produce language spontaneously and without coercion. Cultural literacy and competence are developed through embedded culture, just as grammatical and syntactical competence is developed through embedded grammar and syntax. Additionally, students “learn how to learn”, i.e. the conditions and procedures that support maximum acquisition of a language. Students are exposed to written language through reading short texts based on class discussion and storytelling.
2. In the second year students continue with oral language development through interpersonal and interpretive communication on topics related to the students, their community (including school) and their environment with emphasis on hearing, understanding and responding to spoken language. At this level students’ exposure to written language increases through reading graded readers and short, simple authentic texts. [N.B.: I think this would put most “level 1” readers at the correct level for maximum benefit.] Students are supported by techniques such as Scaffolded Literacy, Embedded Reading, Essential Sentences, and Embedded Culture, Grammar and Syntax.
3. In the third year students continue developing oral language through interpersonal and interpretive communication on topics related to them and their larger environment with emphasis on hearing, understanding and responding to spoken language. They begin oral presentational communication. Students continue developing literacy and improve their textual interpretive communication skills through reading increasingly complex texts (both graded readers and authentic texts). Toward the end of the year students begin to develop their written presentational skills, aided by such devices as Sentence Frames.
4. In the fourth year students expand their ability to communicate in all three modes of communication (Interpersonal, Interpretive, Presentational) through listening, speaking, reading and writing about themselves, their environment and the world at large in formal and informal settings. They continue developing cultural literacy and competence as well as their ability to manipulate the language through strategic use of multiple time frames and perspectives. Students also learn how to continue language acquisition in formal and informal settings both inside and outside the classroom.
Rigor and Relevance are addressed at all levels by empowering students to discuss things that relate to them, connect to real life, and are novel, engaging and involving (Relevance), and then pursue those things in depth with integrity and sustained focus (Rigor).
Some may suggest that the above Scope and Sequence is not “challenging” enough, that the “Silent Period” is relatively short for a young teenager, and that high school students can begin responding fairly quickly to formulaic, practiced language, thus calling for the introduction of things like sentence frames at an earlier point in the sequence.
I would certainly not deny that some teens are what we know as “quick processors”. Consequently there is provision, even in year 1, for spontaneous, unforced output. For the school setting, there are multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate what they have acquired in a variety of ways. The distinction is in what is graded. In a first-year classroom, students might well perform a scene from a story they are reading. However, the purpose for the performance is as an aid to understanding rather than a grade for mastery of a standard. I simply believe that Presentational Communication – preparing a product for an audience that is unable to provide immediate feedback, negotiate meaning and ask for clarification and therefore taking into account the audience’s prior knowledge, cultural competence and linguistic ability – is not appropriately a significant component of assessment until after massive amounts of comprehensible input. Part of the divergence of opinion may lie in the definition of “presentational communication”. It isn’t a check of “can you negotiate meaning in the target language so that another person understands you?” That’s Interpersonal Communication. It is, rather, “can you construct and present a text or utterance that is fully understandable to your audience without their being able to ask for clarification or negotiate meaning with you, taking into account cultural as well verbal and non-verbal communication issues?”
As far as writing is concerned, delaying Written Presentational Communication as an emphasis does mean that students do no presentational writing. Writing is a part of both Interpersonal and Interpretive Communication, though. As practiced by many deliverers of instructional services, however, students are asked to “present” in writing before they have acquired the tools to do so. According to ACTFL, Novice writing is primarily copying, so – for example – my students begin writing dictations fairly early in the year and then correct them by copying the text and comparing the two versions.
In addition, I disagree with what seems to be the assumption behind the statement, “The Silent Period needs to be relatively short for a 14 year old”. The phrase “needs to be relatively short” implies that the teacher determines how long the silent period lasts. Second Language Acquisition research and theory maintain, however, that the silent period is unique to each person and “needs” to last as long as necessary for that person; that’s why year one contains the opportunity for “spontaneous, uncoerced output”. If we are to believe Chomsky, Van Patten and Krashen, acquisition is accomplished unconsciously as we attend to comprehensible content in the target language. While focusing on meaning the brain subconsciously maps the language being used. It is a non-linear internal process that does not lend itself to checking off boxes but requires a much deeper relationship between “informant” (teacher in our case) and “learner” (student) for assessment. This is not to say that there is no place for “grammar instruction”, but it should certainly be toppled from its throne as the crowning glory and driving force of instruction. In addition, true “grammar instruction” is simply the use of correct language in communication. It is grammar in context rather than in isolation. One might almost say that it is grammar in 3-D as opposed to the two-dimensional grammar explanations found in most textbooks. A comparison with first-language acquisition indicates that one does not need to know grammar terms in order to speak the language correctly. Think of the many indigenous people groups whose languages have not been reduced to a writing and grammar system. (BTW, I like that term “reduced”; that’s what we are doing with a language when we systematize it according to a set of rules, we’re reducing it from the living, organic thing that it is to an inert set of learned words, morphemes and syntactical units.) The speakers of those languages have managed to learn them just fine without any sort of grammar explanation whatsoever.
Of course, some may object that many students arrive at school unable to “speak correct English” (or the “correct” version of their native language) and have to be taught the rules of grammar in order to “get it right”. We need to take a good look at what that statement truly means. Students arrive at school unable to speak the particular variety of the language that we call “Standard American English” – and that has many regional variants. It is a construct, often artificial, that certain speakers (and writers) of the language have set up as their preferred version of the language. There are certainly other standard variants of the English language, including Standard British English, Standard Australian English, Standard New Zealand English, Standard Canadian English. Would someone who speaks one of these varieties of English also be labeled as “unable to speak correct English” upon arrival at an American school? While I am not an advocate of an anything-goes position in schools, we should understand that we are teaching native speakers a particular version of their Language. It should also be noted that we teach them these rules only after they have manipulated the language – their mother tongue – for years. (See numbers 5 and 6 above.) The advantage in the foreign language classroom is that we can teach true beginners the Standard Version of the language from the beginning. The disadvantage is that there is often more than one Standard Version of the language. Do I teach Bundesrepublik German, Swiss German or Austrian German? Do I teach Castellano Spanish, Argentinian Spanish, Costa Rican Spanish, or another Standard Variant? Do I teach French as spoken in France, Quebec, or Belgium? Spanish teachers in particular often face the situation of having heritage speakers “correct” them because the variant they are teaching in class is different from the language the student hears at home. All languages are pluri-centric, and we acquire a particular variant of a language through exposure to comprehensible input, not through learning rules about the language.
Another objection may be: “sometimes some kids won’t say anything because they’re lazy. Some kids need to be pushed sometimes.”
Certainly some kids need some “nudging” to use the language. However, the truly lazy student is, in my experience, a rarity. Once you get through the veneer of uncaring that is in fact a defense mechanism, the real reasons – at least as I have observed students – generally boil down to some combination of the following:
1. The rewards offered by the school system do not motivate this student*
2. The student does not feel safe sharing**
3. The student is a slow processor of language and is intimidated by the fast processors – which then ties into #2 – or is simply prevented from speaking because of the impatience of the teacher.***
*As I analyze the situation, there are many facets to this issue. Experts in psychology often point to the diminishing returns of external rewards in motivation, yet the entire school system builds on external rewards in the form of grades. Some students simply do not care about grades (for whatever reason), which is a different issue from laziness, and have not developed internal motivation as it relates to school and classes. I know that I would not be motivated by any reward system that relied on coffee as an incentive. We as teachers may have a hard time understanding why a student doesn’t find grades motivating, but there are plenty of those students out there. Part of our challenge is to find what does motivate them and then help them to find sufficient pleasure in our classes that they want to stay and participate. Furthermore, these allegedly “lazy” students may be facing challenges in their lives that take precedence over our classes. If we truly believe in the reality of Maslow’s hierarchy of need, we cannot expect students to expend their energy on acquiring or learning a second language when they are dealing with where they will sleep that night, whether there will be food to eat when they get home, how they can get away from school without being bullied, or any number of other more basic issues.
**The reason the student does not feel safe may have little or nothing to do with the teacher or class per se. For example, I have worked for several years with multiple students who have generalized anxiety disorders and one with significant stuttering. In dealing with both issues, it has helped for the students to come in privately and speak to me one-on-one. My stutterer regularly came in after school and sat down in his seat while I continued my paperwork; eventually he would just start talking without necessarily looking at me. It was clear, understandable, correct German; had I pushed him to speak in class, he would have been completely tongue tied and embarrassed. Speaking in front of others was not “safe” for him, so he would not do it. That had nothing to do with my class, except that it was large, which created more anxiety.
***Setting aside the issue of “safety”, the question of impatience on the part of the teacher is significant, in my opinion. As speakers of the target language (often native speakers), teachers process the language quickly. Often we forget how long it can take a learner to do the same thing. First, the brain must separate the flow of sound into recognizable bits. Then it must decode those bits. Then it must make sure the overall message has been understood. Then it must check to see if there is an appropriate response to the message. Then it must formulate that response. Then it must produce the response, which will often involve using muscles of the throat, tongue, and face (e.g. jaw and lips) in ways that are not “natural”. Concern for correctness will delay the response even more as the brain checks the formulated response against known “rules” of the language and the position of all elements of the vocal mechanism for correct placement. All of this takes far longer than we realize, and teachers often move on while the student is still decoding the message or searching for a response. Thus, the watchword for teachers must be SLOW. A study I read noted that the average adult speaks his or her native language at the rate of about 180 words a minute. The average child of 10 understands his or her native language at the rate of about 120 words a minute. The rate of understanding decreases the younger you go. So, a native speaker who is a child misses at least one third of what adults say. How much slower and repetitive must the language be for a learner?
I certainly don’t believe I have all the answers or have definitively answered anything at all. I do hope that this helps promote conversation that will ultimately benefit our students.