Nathaniel Hardt once received this letter from a parent. It is typical of the kind of letter teachers sometimes receive from parents who expect our comprehensible input-based classes to resemble other classes, with lots of memorization and homework, which they decidedly do not for the simple reason that in our work we have to actually teach to a different part of the brain than in other subjects.
Good morning, Mr. Hardt,
My son Gordon is in your Spanish I class. Yesterday, he came home and informed us that he had a pop quiz in class and didn’t think he did well. When we inquired further as to what he’s been working on in class, he didn’t have much to show. We found that he only had a half page of notes. We’ve seen no homework to date and although he’s mentioned a couple of previous quizzes (that he’s said he’s done well on) we haven’t seen them. I also don’t understand why there is no textbook available for this class.
I’m concerned that Gordon may be missing something as I would have thought we should have seen more content, given that school has been in session now for over a month.
Please let us know your thoughts. Thank you.
Any comprehensible input teacher who has received a note like this one knows the feeling of being wrong, of being found out. Some parents, in their understandable ignorance about how people actually learn languages, have broken new CI teachers and caused them to actually quit the profession. So how we respond to such a charge from a parent is most important.
Needless to say, this is where having even one administrator in the building who understands and supports what we are doing with comprehensible input is of great value.
The response letter below is Nathaniel’s. It is a bit lengthy, but I include all of it here as a possible template from which you can draft your own similar response if needed:
Dear Mr. Smith:
I commend your efforts to take an active role in your son’s education. My own background is one of 25 years of teaching Spanish. My training is at the Middlebury College Spanish School. My BA and BS degrees are in Spanish from the University of Connecticut, and I studied for a summer in Salamanca, Spain. Since then I earned my MA in Spanish through California State University, Sacramento by living with families and studying Spanish for three consecutive summers in Mexico, Peru, and Spain (Burgos).
In that process, I used a lot of textbooks and did a lot of grammar study and vocabulary lists, but I found that fluency did not arise out of those resources. It came rather through communicative interaction with speakers of Spanish. That is how I teach, via direct communication in Spanish with my students in the classroom on a daily basis, with lots of reading as well, since we now know that textbooks and the memorization of grammar rules and worksheets are ineffective, to say the least, in teaching languages, and the best gains are made via direct eye to eye interaction and reading.
This is the observation of Berty Segal Cook, a teacher and trainer of language teachers: “Language is acoustical; it is not intellectual.”
Before I understood that current research debunks homework and that the textbook does not produce language gains. Even at the end of four years many students have learned little.
Gordon must grasp that language acquisition is different from any other kind of learning. As Segal Cook mentioned, it is acoustical and must be taught acoustically.
The brain treats language differently from normal human cognition. Most of Gordon’s classes are taught with students taking notes and using a textbook (and that is as it should be, but none of that applies to Spanish).
Spanish should not be studied cognitively via memorization of lists and a textbook. Instead, language is acquired communicatively, by focusing on meaning and not individual words. Gordon and I must interact in Spanish if he is to learn the language.
Since I speak it but he doesn’t, it is only naturally that he would be the one to do the hard work of listening and trying to understand what he hears in class.
That is the amazing thing about language: when we focus on understanding and producing messages we pick up the language in the process. But we have to be present in class, and this is where Gordon can improve. Dr. Stephen Krashen, a world authority on how we acquire language, says there is only one way to acquire language: by understanding the messages we hear (and read).
It should thus come as no surprise that the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages recommends that the language classroom be conducted 90%+ in the target language. This is something I am therefore required to do in my class, and I suspect that this, my use of the language, is at the core of the problem we are seeing here with Gordon. He is certainly not to be blamed. It is a new and different way of paying attention in class, and all students who are new to my class must necessarily go through an adjustment process before they can explain to others how the class works.
So, I very much welcome the opportunity to meet with you as soon as possible at your convenience to get Gordon back on track with my class, since the grade is largely about being present in class when I speak in Spanish to my students, which is so different from being able, in other classes, to simply read a textbook, take notes and memorize a bunch of information for a test. I would like to give Gordon a clean slate on his grade, which is currently a D, so that we can turn this thing around immediately.
I hope this has been helpful.