Can Anyone Say “Helicopter”?

A CI teacher has again locked horns with a parent simply because he uses best practices in foreign language instruction. Are there any CI teachers who have NOT had to deal with confrontations like this?

James’ mother starts off her email to the teacher with:


I wanted to follow up a bit to gain a better understanding of your curriculum and plans to introduce textbook and workbooks. What is the goal for year one of middle school French and how does it compare to first semester of high school French 1/2?

The reason I ask is that as a parent, I notice that James is not understanding avoir or etre and thinks “est” is spelled “a” and vice versa.

He also said he feels the reading time in class is frustrating because he can’t really understand what he’s reading. He is a pretty rote learner and loves worksheets (the opposite of me or his brother) but I also want to support him appropriately and better understand the curriculum so I can correct him when appropriate and ensure he is understanding the language correctly.

We had wanted to meet during the conferences as well but it didn’t work out with the timing of our block meeting. I’m happy to meet with you or have a quick chat on the phone if you have time as well.


Mrs. Nameless-Helicopter-Mom-Who-Thinks-She-Knows-How-To-Teach-French-Because-She Got-an-A-In-It-In-College-By-Memorizing-Verb-Charts

Our colleague’s response:

Thanks for following up and sharing your concerns.  I am passionate about all my students’ success in gaining proficiency in French and I appreciate your enthusiasm for the French language and James’ progress.

As you are writing this on a Sunday afternoon, I assume your concerns could be stemming from your son’s weekend homework.  When he looks at the word “est” in the reading, is he unable to say that it signifies “is”?  Can you clarify what you mean when you say he does not understand “avoir” or “être”?  Please provide me with more information on how he is doing at his homework, especially reading.

Or perhaps your concerns are more general. Is he complaining about class?  Does he not understand what is going on?  Is he not letting me know if I need to slow down or repeat? That is a key skill in my classroom. Language cannot happen when one party only is working at communication. Communication is now the established national standard of the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language, my parent organization.

I must work toward reciprocal and participatory back and forth communication with my students or I would be doing what they did 50 years ago. I can provide you with articles in support of that idea if you wish – just let me know.

I am working from research that says that humans learn languages by hearing and reading massive amounts of input before producing any language in the form of speech and writing. Oddly, there is no known research that supports the grammar translation approach, though that is how most of us now-adults were instructed. Here is an example of a 1967 article that I think you will agree is compelling:

Regarding reading time, perhaps I can be more structured by choosing a common easy text for the entire class to read. Let me try that and we can re-evaluate things in a few weeks on this reading.

I understand that you also have concerns about James’ success in French class at the high school. You have a child who is struggling there currently, so I totally understand your desire to not repeat that experience.

I have met with the high school teachers and I keep a close eye on what they are doing in their French 1 course.

We also have a meeting scheduled for December, after which I will have more information on the plans for articulation and transitioning the students to a successful second-year experience.

I hear your concerns about your son being a “rote” learner.  I understand that acquiring a language might lead a rote learner into some frustrating territory, because languages, much like the skill of playing a musical instrument, are not acquired in a rote fashion.

Even for a rote learner, second (and third and fourth…) languages are acquired in the same fashion as our first language, through comprehensible interaction in the language.

This class is an opportunity for James to experience success in a different way of learning.  That in itself is almost as valuable as acquiring proficiency in French, in my experience of working with young adolescents.  As much as I might wish that I could give kids rote memorization to speed this process up, it would likely do more harm than good, by causing anxiety and low self-esteem in the learner.

As I implied above, recent research has shown that learning a language through memorization, manipulation of forms, or even through forced output does not lead to true acquisition, fluency, and proficiency in the language.  What has been shown to lead to fluency is comprehensible input–messages that the learner hears, reads, and understands.  That is why I think it would be best if I went to a common text through which I can guide him as we work together in class.

Another concern you might have is James’ limited output abilities.  Again, research has shown that a flood of comprehensible input is needed before even a smidgen of output can happen.  At this point in his language acquisition journey, he has been exposed to 55 class periods of input.

He is just taking his first steps in French.  As long as he is able to understand the class’ readings (the weird ones we create together), and our conversations in class, at this point, that is what I expect from him.  For more on that, again, I can provide you with the concrete research on just how long it takes for speech mastery to happen – just let me know. My one goal in teaching is to teach in full alignment with current research.

In my previous position, I sent three groups of middle school French students on to another high school, where they went into second-year French after one year of instruction and were successful.   Their instructor at the high school gave them great feedback on their abilities.  I am confident that James will have a very solid base for his second-year French studies.

Regarding the use of the text/workbook, I do not plan to use those resources until next year, towards the end of eighth grade.  I would not use them at all, because they do not fit with my understanding of best practices in language acquisition.  However, since as of now the students are heading into a grammar-based environment, I will help them in learning how to navigate the text/workbook.

Please know that I am very pleased with the students’ progress and I think that James is exactly where he should be after approximately 50 hours of French exposure.  We are currently, in November, less than 3/16 of the way through our time together.  I understand that it can be frustrating working with human brains and the natural order of acquisition, when our language learning experience was so different.

However, please be patient with his progress.  By the end of the next two years, I expect him to have a thorough, solid understanding of the basics of the French language and be very well-prepared to succeed in high school French.


The teacher

A related question for the group from our teacher:

Hey Ben,

Do you think I really should put that kid on worksheets?  Like make him sit at a separate place and work independently?

My response and I think it’s the best one I’ve ever employed in situations like this:

Great question. One thing you an do, and this is working with my current singleton version of this type of kid is that I tell them privately that since their learning style (visual) does not line up with my teaching style (auditory), I am perfectly fine with James doing grammar worksheets at any time in class. ANY time. This gives HIM the choice of what to do in class. Tell him that if we were to do nothing but work sheets he would be adequately prepared for next year, because that is what they do in the first semester of high school French next year. 

Please note that I am personally unable to teach using the worksheets. I can’t do that because the standard (you can look this up in the ACTFL web pages) is Communication and the research states unequivocally that people acquire language first by listening to them, not by doing worksheets. 

In point of fact, I don’t want to lose my job, so I teach according to the Communication Standard. Next, in levels 1 and 2, I primarily ask my students to read only things that they have created in class – tableaux and stories. Reading novels that they may not have the vocabularies for puts most readers at a disadvantage to the few privileged kids who grew up with actual books in their homes, and that isn’t equitable.  

Back to why I give James the choice: When you do that, you turn the tables on the kid. Instead of being forced to learn a certain way, they have a choice. It changes everything. When he feels that it is he who makes the decision about how he is taught, then the entire dynamic of complaints against you is neutralized. 

Mom can no longer fly her stink-o-copter into your room and complain – you have given him options. The main thing is that you have established your professionalism and expressed a personal interest in the child, which two things are all a parent can ask for in a teacher. 



1 thought on “Can Anyone Say “Helicopter”?”

  1. Good to see you’re back!
    This is the kind of challenge I never look forward to. The letter to the parent is a great resource.I loved the part about giving the student a choice… if you do only worksheets, you’ll be prepared for next year. But I can’t teach you that, because I wouldn’t be doing my job. Also, the perspective… your child is exactly where he should be after 50 hours of exposure to French. Thanks for sharing.

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