Houses Built On Clay

Here in Colorado many houses sit on clay foundations and, over the years, lose their stability. Houses built on clay won’t hold up over time out here.
The same thing occurs when a child’s second language foundation is made of clay. The pedagogical discussion around this point is simple – what constitutes clay? What is the best foundation for studying a second language so that the house will remain true and steady?
It begs the point (it’s already been done) to argue for early output in the form of writing/grammar/left brain analysis of language. It also begs the point to argue for forced speaking too early, before the language has been sufficiently (thousands of hours) heard and read.
Both have been tried for a hundred years now, and, not only are the houses built on early output shaky, for most kids they were never even completed (96% opt out of high school programs before completing them).
It is therefore reasonable to assume, from the track record, that output too early has a way of destroying confidence in language learners and makes only a small percentage of them feel that they can learn a language.
If the failed track record of teachers who have asked students to learn by output and analysis of language is not enough, we can look as well to Dr. Krashen. His work indicates that comprehension always precedes production in what is a very natural way, a way that mirrors the silent period, lasting years, before production occurs in small children.
This kind of input, hearing the language all the time in ways that make sense and are interesting to the learner, doing so in such a way that the learner is unaware of the fact that she is even learning the language because her entire focus is directed on the meaning of the message instead of the medium used to deliver it, these things will assure that the foundation of the language learner’s house is solid. It will assure confidence.
Yes, let them output when they want, but let them do so because they want to, because it makes them feel good, but not as a means of instructing them, but rather, as a means of celebration.
As stated, the position of language instructors who support early forced output in the form of too much writing and forced early speech has been seriously compromised by decades of houses that never got built, or are, at best, shaky (“I took four years of Spanish and I can’t say a word.”)



6 thoughts on “Houses Built On Clay”

  1. Yesterday my wife told me that she had been speaking with the mother of a boy in my 7th Grade exploratory class, and that she wanted to pass on that he very much enjoys the class and comes home talking in German all the time. The thing that stuck out to me was that she said she was very impressed because the way he was using the language at home in sharing what what going on in class was similar to levels that she had achieved after three years of French when she was in school herself.
    My first reaction was that this comment was a mixture of a faulty memory and pride in her boy (and output is definitely not a problem with this kid; some days I wish it were), but at the same time this is what you get when you teach kids to do something with a language; they don’t know they aren’t supposed to be good at it yet. This seventh grader hasn’t been trained to know his limitations as exquisitely as a traditional approach would do. He simply enjoys the language and goes for it. That comment made my day.

  2. Nathan, definitely copy that anecdote and put it in your files. Then, when people question the effectiveness of what you are doing or you are otherwise having a bad day, pull it out and look at it.
    I have shared some of my experiences before, but at the risk of sound boastful I want to share some recent comments that have made my day.
    1. At a district inservice, the presenter stopped and told the group that I was one of her heroes. As a senior her son took German 1 while also taking Spanish 4. It was in the German 1 class, not the Spanish 4 class, that he was able to pursue his interests in the language. Today that son creates artificial languages and has had one taken up for use in a cable TV series this fall.
    2. At a school event recently a mother stopped by to tell my friends that her son was returning to Germany for his second year of university study – and it was thanks to being in my class that he was having no trouble.
    3. Last Friday I saw a former student who spent his senior year on an exchange program in Germany. He had no trouble adjusting and understanding, got As and Bs in his classes (in German), and now has a German girlfriend. The only “downside” is that his friends told him he speaks German with a Swabian accent. I learned German and lived in Swabia, so he picked up the accent from me.
    4. On Sunday I was having lunch with a friend when the waitress stopped and asked if I was “Herr Harrell”. She and her family had gone to Germany during the summer. Her brother, who just graduated after four years of German, served as their translator and kept saying (about both the language and the places they visited), “I learned that in Herr Harrell’s class”.
    5. At an evening school event a former student whose name I don’t remember introduced me to his fiance and told her stories we had done in class at least six or seven years ago.
    6. Another former student sent me a Facebook message that a German couple had come into the store where he works near Disneyland, and he was able to help them without any problem.
    I’m definitely going to copy this and put it in my “when I’m down” file, but the real power isn’t me; it’s the comprehensible input. These and the students who place into advanced language classes at university are the real measures of our success, not the numbers on a benchmark or other “standardized” test.
    Reality check: I wish I could say that every student goes on this way, but I know most of my students will pursue other goals and probably not continue with German beyond high school. There will be an inevitable loss of ability because they don’t use the language, but the net gain will still be more students who can use the language than there has been before.

  3. And it matters little if they even go on with the language. Our time is now with our kids. Results are great, and those stories, Robert, are wonderful. But it is in the work I did today to welcome a French 1 AG kid who inexplicably cut the first four weeks of school and whom I welcomed with open arms, supporting him so that in a few months he will be no more worse for his absence, where I find one of the biggest rewards of teaching. He luckily has Spanish to keep the French within grasp. He may not ever graduate from high school, because of what he has experienced in schools since first grade, but he will know that he was met today, in his distress, by warmth and not fault. He is not behind in my class. He is where he is. And he deserves support and encouragement and not condemnation for all the work he has missed.

  4. I’m playing around with gestures and have the kids “output” in a group setting. They say the words as I gesture. Some of them gesture along with me if they wish. I think back to myself in an immersion setting, struggling to say this that or the other thing, and how difficult that was but how desperately I wanted to be able to understand and speak. Sometimes the language just washed over me and other times it was like taking a long drink. I’m playing around with this right now because I’m not “sure” but I “feel” as though there is something to having them follow along and speaking in response to questions or to comment on what’s going in. Sometimes they ask me “comment dit-on” how do we say…. and I gesture and they say the word and I can see their eyes light up. It’s only a word, but it’s been spoken and it’s understood via the gesture.
    It feels to me as though they really want to speak and this gives them an opportunity, in a group setting that’s not so threatening, to do so.
    and I like what you said about “it matters little if they go on”…yeah. I was all caught up in getting in 10 minutes of conjugating with my nines previously, and I told them it was to “get you ready for high school” inevitably, someone felt like a loser because they didn’t “get it” I realize now that I can’t cover everything the grade 10 teacher wants anyway, there will be a myriad of vocab, a novel of verbs past present future subjunctive (gulp) . it feels like an invisible bar that is there to measure how much we haven’t done rather than all the wonderful things we have accomplished together.
    anyway, I don’t have any answers, just feeling my way along, trying to make this the best learning experience I can for the kids. it’s so great, Ben, that you take the time to get us thinking about why we are doing what we are doing and give us a means to share as we learn and grow.

  5. Thanks Lynn. All this is for me is a kind of journaling process. I share it on line because we are all in the same boat. This stuff is not easy. We’re all flying by the seat of our pants. Each year we lurch forward in our ability to do good comprehensible input, even is spite of our doubts about ourselves. This year, I am a better teacher than I was last year. The connection we share is wonderful. We’ll get better at this, for us and for the kids. The old days are over.

  6. Lynn wrote: I think back to myself in an immersion setting, struggling to say this that or the other thing, and how difficult that was but how desperately I wanted to be able to understand and speak. Sometimes the language just washed over me and other times it was like taking a long drink.
    I was in France this summer for the first time in several years. I had a wonderful time mangling the language, and the people – even the Parisians – were gracious and laughed along with me. At times, though, my brain had simply had enough, and even the simplest sentences came across as “wah-wah-wah-wah-wah”. That is something I need to remember when my students look at me blankly when I say something they “ought” to know.

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