A key component in this vicious cycle is testing. My students are expected to pass an accuracy based, grammar/vocabulary recognition test to enter into Spanish 2 (I have a TPRS colleague in a similar situation in another school district—so I know this isn’t a unique occurrence). I can understand why the schools do this—they expect this type of grammar recognition, vocabulary memorization ability of their Spanish 1 students and use it to cull out those who couldn’t develop this limited/questionable language skill. Most of my TPRS students won’t fit in well because they haven’t been practicing this. But this is not the central question. The central question is this: does this ability to recognize grammar and vocabulary indicate true language skill and acquisition? I don’t think it does, and many others I suspect would agree with me—but more importantly—experience and research say it doesn’t. A case in point: This was a central question for many years about the ETS TOEFL exam. TOEFL is the standard used by Universities in this country for measuring English ability of speakers of languages other than English for admissions into University programs in this country. TOEFL used a multiple choice grammar and vocabulary format (they also had listening and reading comp—multiple choice as well.) for many years with the base assumption that only students with a high level of acquisition and broad language skills could pass the test under the time constraints (University level, native-like ability). This attitude persisted despite complaints from Universities that significant numbers of students who passed the test were unable to survive in the real language environment of the University (namely in speaking and writing, but problems appeared with students who had crammed for the tests in other areas as well). It turns out that students who had some language ability, but were lacking in broadly defined language skill, could pass it. Their test wasn’t a valid test of language ability. My contact with the exam began in the early 90s (as test administrator and academic advisor) and those complaints had been going on for a few years before that. ETS finally gave in just a few years ago (2005 if my memory serves me) and changed their format, only when it looked as though they might lose ground to alternatives like Michigan ECPE and the Cambridge ESOL exams. TOEFL now uses a format which more broadly and accurately tests language skills.
For those who don’t know the Cambridge exams, they are based on the European ALTE standards which are in turn based on proficiency. The Michigan ECCE and ECPE exams—like Cambridge exams—are also skills based tests which recognize a continuum of language acquisition going from communicative to proficient (fluency to accuracy)—and are referenced to the ALTE standards. These tests acknowledge the fact that accuracy develops with time and exposure to the language. Their stages are based on hours of contact with the language as opposed to “years” which is pretty meaningless when you consider variations in class length and interruptions to class time (not to mention summers off and the effect that has on skill development).
My point in all of this is the importance of good and broad language skills assessment, based on realistic, “proficiency minded” standards like those created by ALTE. I also think we as conscientious teachers need to continue being vocal about the superstitious behaviors (out of context grammar and unrealistic amounts of vocabulary for memorization) and unconscionable practices (culling students based on unrealistic expectations of accuracy at lower levels) which persist in language teaching. If it has been recognized that assessment must look at language skills broadly and it is also recognized across the board (at least outside our country) that accuracy develops with time and language skill can be measured despite that fact, how can we continue expecting our students to achieve unrealistic levels of accuracy at early stages and expect narrowly skill-focused, accuracy based tests at any level be considered an accurate measurement of language skill?
The Problem with CI
Jeffrey Sachs was asked what the difference between people in Norway and in the U.S. was. He responded that people in Norway are happy and