Gretchen on Writing

I post something Gretchen wrote here today as a comment in case anyone missed it….especially the last sentence, which I consider huge in its implications for what is happening right now every day in our classrooms because of our new awareness around CI:
…I see colleagues who, with good intentions, are having their 1st and 2nd year students “write” essays using extensive sentence frames & reference to verb conjugation charts. I think this illusion of accuracy and ability that they see from their students (and think constitutes progress and learning) is what makes me feel so much pressure. When it’s just me and my students in the classroom, I never doubt their learning and their sense of feeling accepted and valued in my classroom. Everything that happens outside that time that doesn’t reflect that reality is not important….



11 thoughts on “Gretchen on Writing”

  1. For those who haven’t heard this story, in my high school in Denver Public Schools about seven years ago the admins put in a school-wide “writing” focus and so, responding dutifully to that well-intentioned initiative but knowing better, we in our WL department had the kids write a lot more that year. Our writing scores went down that spring.
    More reading leads to better writing, and that’s a fact. Why? It is because language acquisition is an unconscious process, one which occurs in the unconscious part of the brain. So trying to “teach” writing in the way described above – appealing to “thinking” and “verb charts” and all that stuff that activates conscious thinking, simply cannot work.
    And yet, as another week in American secondary education cranks up, millions of kids are going to be doing exactly what Gretchen describes above in their WL classes – scratching their heads and thinking. Kind of makes one wonder. Are there any other fields in which the research is so largely ignored?

    1. Yes, and just talk to those kids in the target language after that they graduate high school and come back to visit the school after they are in college (we periodically have alumni come back during their breaks to visit the school). When I taught grammar and forced output and my whole department was textbook based we had kids even that took AP coming back and I would ask them the simplest question in the target language and they had NO IDEA what I was saying.
      It’s like the school system is a huge pyramid scheme. Inside of it people say that everything is great and that kids are learning. The reality in this country is very few students reach an intermediate level in a language in 4 years of high school.

    2. Ben, you wrote: Are there any other fields in which the research is so largely ignored?
      That’s something that has been – and still is – bothering me for a very long time bc I just can’t understand why so many teachers don’t seem to be keen on the research results. But when we go to in-service trainings we get nice ideas how to elicit speech and writing but it all happens more or less in the traditional mind frame of the analytical language approach.
      I’ve asked myself why students at our highschools get to be rather good at speaking English and a possible answer has popped up in my mind: While teachers are focusing let’s say on a special tense (eg present perfect, for which a textbook unit is written) and students are consciously occupied with the grammar tasks, what happens at the same time is that the kids’ unconscious mind is working too and is making the real language gains.
      In short, while teachers and students believe the conscious effort is what counts all the while the unconscious is figuring out other points of grammar and stuff bc grammar comes in sentences and sentences make texts which you have to understand. Actually I can’t think of another explanation. But on this journey many students are left with a bad feeling about learning languages which for me is too high a price to pay.
      Glad my guiding angel showed me the way to your PLC!!!

  2. Ben, what are your thoughts on doing more guided writing after two or three years? I started a GLAD-based unit on the French Revolution (student interest by the way) yesterday. The students are really interested in it. What kind of writing would you do with that? Tina had her students do a guided essay on their geography of France unit. With the French Revolution, I’m not sure if the students will be able to write about it without a lot of support. I suppose if I give them the proper amount of input that they should be able to. Hmmm…

  3. Hi Dana I think it is cool that those AES kids are interested in the French Revolution. So cool. I think Tina should answer the question about the writing output bc you know me – I say wait as long as you can before the writing emerges naturally, which is not “guided” but more cautious. Although with those kids in that school you can probably guide their writing just fine.
    The geography unit is visual and the Revolution is more of a time line, so the spatial nature of the former lends itself to writing units far more than the linear nature of the latter, in my opinion.
    So my answer is, if the content is so linear you might do best by taking a little piece of the Revolution and present that unit to them in as pictorial fashion as you can, if that makes any sense.
    The Revolution is so big, how can one even hope to make it interesting. It is “too big to make interesting” unless you break it into pieces.
    Are those my kids I taught in 6th grade?

    1. Yep, it’s them! Many of them are keen to learn how to edit their writing and produce a piece which is why I’m sure they can handle it. I’m just not sure how much I should push them. On the one hand, it’ll be good for them to have a teacher who will teach them HOW to do it. We can take our time and I can teach them how to use the writing process in the target language and how to effectively revise and edit. This will set them up nicely for high school where their teacher may not go through the process with them and explicitly teach them how to write an essay in French. On the other hand, it would be conscious learning and I don’t know if it’s too early to do this with them.

      1. Nothing wrong with conscious learning. Especially in that school. My barometer on decisions like that is if it creates a situation in the classroom where some kids, for whatever reason, don’t feel comfortable running laps with students like Anoushka and the other super stars on the track, then I don’t want that imbalance/lack of equity in the classroom.

  4. There a gross assumption that “learning a language” has to be hard. I feel that my hours are so little compared to high schools that I need to drop some knowledge. I propose SLA pop-ups instead of grammar pop-ups.

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