How I Feel About Language Teaching

How I feel about language teaching is very simple, and has been expressed perfectly by the pianist Alice Sara Ott, when speaking about music:

“Music is art, and art lives from creativity, and there cannot be any creativity if there is no motivation. And the motivation can only come from the child. So, I don’t believe in any degree of forcing the child to learn. I know that teachers and parents want the best for the children, but in the end they are rather doing the opposite when they force the child to learn something.”

Failure to at least consider what Ott says above, when applied to languages, has in my opinion led to the current train wreck that is language education – which in my view and experience should be looked upon as an art form – in our schools today. We have never considered language instruction as an art form, rather as a mere mechanical process, and the results have been abysmal. We must embrace the truth of what we have done to language students before we can change.

If we don’t make that change away from seeing our work in terms of numbers and how many words a kid can “acquire” from a list, from test scores and all that, our once flourishing profession will, after the coronavirus, slowly recede to be a mere fraction of what its previous funding “justified”. That is because after the coronavirus there will be much less of a system to support us. That’s the nice way to say it. To put it more bluntly, we’ve blown it with our language students.

Thus, jobs in our profession will all but disappear as a result of the decades-long faulty position that children need to be herded physically into a room and then told to memorize rules and verb forms and words from lists in order to succeed at a language.

Although our country was formed around democratic and egalitarian  ideals, from which comes its greatness, the profession of foreign language teaching has always been designed around a for-profit, dominance-by-the-few model. First, it was the textbook industry in charge, which still holds sway in at least 75% of language classrooms currently (probably more like 95%). After that, for a few of us, it was TPRS and CI that unfortunately immediately, in the late 1990s, became a for-profit, non-democratic venture, and “experts” (not really) popped up to sell products that were in fundamental opposition to the research, mainly those class-splitting little novels.

There was no central governing body in the old (1990-2020) Wild West model of promoting the research about comprehensible input, and individuals sold their products, a few making millions, but those experts never sat down at a table to talk with the rest of us about what is best for students. They simply made it their goal to sell as many products and seminars and trainings as they could. They thought about what was best for them as narcissists and businessmen, and not what was best for the students. I know this from personal experience.



19 thoughts on “How I Feel About Language Teaching”

  1. alexanderegorovich

    Hi, Ben and the community. I just wanted to ask what ‘class-splitting little novels’ are as I’m not sure what it has been in Russian school realia.

  2. Alexander –

    Forgive the lengthy response. I am passionate about this topic.

    In 2002, about eight to ten years into the TPRS movement, Blaine Ray and Carol Gaab started selling little simple novels to TPRS teachers who wanted to learn about TPRS. Blaine’s Pobre Ana was the first.

    But over the next 18 years, when all language teachers, not just TPRS/CI teachers, started to use those novels in their classes, a tremendous, almost unbelievable amount of money became available through the sales of those books, so the “TPRS movement”, way back then, became heavily about reading.

    But reading should not precede but follow auditory input, and the balance between reading and just listening to stories – the auditory input piece – was reversed. The problem with that was that the kids, esp. in level 1 classes, were not being given enough auditory input before being asked to read. This reversal of focus resulted in a disconnect with Krashen’s Natural Order of Acquisition hypothesis, yet Krashen didn’t say anything about it at the time.

    The focus continued on with the novels, and many TPRS students and teachers got burnt out on that reversal of focus, and many quit, bc they thought that they “couldn’t do” TPRS. This was most unfortunate, because they were capable, but the focus on reading split their classes between kids who enjoyed strong reading backgrounds in their first language and kids who didn’t. The key to successful CI classes, indeed, is the feeling of community that you can build up in your CI classes, bc CI instruction requires full, not partial, inclusion.

    Since not all kids are strong readers, with most current TPRS/CI classes split in half between the haves and have-nots in terms of their reading backgrounds, the CI movement was basically taken over by a few ppl w a very strong financial interest, which skewed the training. You could see Carol Gaab’s presence at the summer conferences where her books for sale covered up to 50% – 70% of all table space. Conferences became marketing experiences. There was very little auditory input materials or training available. So teachers thought they couldn’t do it, but they just weren’t getting enough direct and high quality training.

    I won’t even comment on how so much intellectual materials have been harvested (stolen) without credit, with the intent on selling the repackaged information.

    I don’t blame Carol and Blaine, but I must observe here that the pursuit of financial interests by a few continues. I get that these self-proclaimed experts are just making money for their family, but there is a definite feeling of greed in what is currently being offered to teachers out there, and the focus is still not where it should be in the CI movement – on delivering interesting auditory CI to students.

    All this has kind of shoved the TPRS/CI juggernaut off the rails and it’s been shoved further and further off the rails of late. Just go to any of the websites of people who sell themselves as CI experts these days. They are selling things, and they aren’t really experts if you define a TPRS/CI expert as a person who can authentically align the research with CI teaching without just throwing a bunch of basically ineffective “CI activities” online to increase their sales.

    The whole thing has lost its charm. Back in the day, when we all met at the summer conferences, we were like little kids at a summer camp, just having fun and learning together. Now it’s become a big greedy mess, with some really dark people selling stuff that they have harvested, that wasn’t even theirs to start with.

    Sorry for the rant, but the fact is that the entire TPRS movement started to go south with those novels, starting 15-16 years ago. I wish we could all find our way back to summer camp, but the deed is done, I’m afraid. The research counts for very little in the CI world of today.

    Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg has said about the novels:

    years ago I walked into my son’s Spanish 2 class for parent night. I was excited to see the teacher hold up one of Blaine’s novels when describing her curriculum. “These novels were written especially for language learners!” she said. Over the next two weeks my son came home w/packets & packets of vocabulary lists, grammar exercises, drills and all the other traditional stuff…clearly that’s not what the movement intended – the novel was hijacked. There was no personalization or class collaboration…he felt no investment in that class whatsoever….

    We must learn to separate research-based facts about CI from sales-driven fiction, or the purity that lies at the core of CI will be lost forever.

    1. alexanderegorovich

      Right, this online teaching time as we are obliged to slap e-hometasks together, I found it really most offhand to just find some text matching my lesson plan and past it to the homework section. When doing it, I fully realize that I ignore the first auditory input principle.
      Also in the Federal Educational Standard for teaching languages, there is a big mismatch between objectives and a curriculum on how to achieve them. Most likely it would be the same proportion as you said it: 70 to 95% of a text-based approach.

      1. …when doing it, I fully realize that I ignore the first auditory input principle….

        Yes but at least you get it. Most people forget that part and so the rest of their instruction falls like a house of cards. That is why the Star Sequence is so strong and important – bc it starts with auditory input and builds outward from there. That’s real CI. What befuddles me is that so many CI teachers don’t get what a real CI curriculum might best resemble. That’s something I can’t explain or understand.

        Some day language curriculums will be aligned with and based on the research, not with textbooks or lists of “activities” from some CI websites – both are equally ineffective.

  3. I got a private response on this comment just now, saying that I am unnecessarily harsh on those trying to make a buck off of CI. My response is that I don’t have a problem with people making money, but that in a world where the paradigm shift is so great, and the need for accurate, non-biased information about CI so paramount, that I can’t defend people claiming to be experts and selling things that just confuse people. In the same way, I defend teachers’ professional choices to teach a language in a certain way but I cannot defend teachers who lean on the textbook or bad CI when it is done at the expense of children. Perhaps to frame the entire argument in a more diplomatic way, I should say that we need a more democratic approach to CI. We need much more open and honest discussions about what CI even is. We’ve certainly lost our way on that one, with the result that TPRS/CI continues to devolve away from its incredible potential and promise. Where are we, really, after three decades of doing CI? We should be far further down the road….

    1. It is interesting all the master classes and monthly subscription deals that have been offered up just in the last year or two. Also shows just how uncomfortable most teachers are to create their own courses. It’s a long chain of regurgitation. Textbook publishers cherrypick grammar concepts sales person regurgitates. Districts purchase textbooks regurgitate to teachers. Teachers adopt curriculum and regurgitate to students. Students want a grade and regurgitate that all back.

  4. And it all flies directly in the face of the true blue research. I know you and I know that we implement it in our own teaching, but what is amazing to me is how the lack of alignment with the research gets overlooked by MOST CI TEACHERS. They use cute little memorization/regurgitation activities by the newest CI “experts” and it doesn’t even approach bringing any respect to any of the great hypotheses of Krashen, all the work of Mason and the other great CI researchers. What I’m really surprised is Krashen’s 2009 endorsement of TPRS. I’ll never figure that one out. I do know that it was a qualified endorsement, bc I was in the room when he gave it – he said that TPRS “comes closest” to supporting his findings. But then as it further careened off the tracks over the past eleven years, he hasn’t put his foot down and the result has been an increasing gap between his 25-30 year old research and what “CI” teachers are doing now.

    1. Also, aside from going against the research the approach basically skirts around and escapes whatever wonderful unconscious process that makes deep language learning possible as it deprives students of rich authentic input. Instead it feeds them input that is shallow and impoverished. The stories lack serious cultural weight and and complexity.

      1. I feel that the Star brings the highest quality look at the TL culture. At least in my own experience.

        I love this comment. It is just so true, and yet so ignored by so many who claim knowledge of CI.

  5. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    To me it boils down to the School Machine that often requires a pre-established roadmap (targets) and (common) assessments. No doubt this prescribed set-up favors canned curriculum over improvised stories, scenes and images.
    When done w/lots of front-loaded oral input the leveled novels can be better than a traditional textbook – but require a strong (teacher) foundation in basic CI-based strategies. Years ago I walked into my son’s Spanish 2 class for parent night. I was excited to see the T hold up one of Blaine’s novels when describing her curriculum. “These novels were written especially for language learners!” she said. Over the next 2 weeks my son came home w/packets & packets of vocab lists, grammar exercises, drills and all the other traditional stuff… clearly that’s not what the movement intended – the novel was hijacked. There was no personalization or class collaboration… He felt no investment in that class whatsoever…

  6. …the novel was hijacked….

    Exactly. And since those novels were written by the guy who started TPRS, they can say that they are doing TPRS. TPRS like the term “organic”, or “socialist”, or “liberal”, or “president”. They’ve all been redefined in the past 20 years.

  7. Alisa did you at all confront the teacher about your boy’s lack of engagement? Knowing you probably not. I didn’t either. I suspect that we are both very good at knowing which battles to choose. My current 8th grader has taken two years of French in middle school. For two years I helped him with the worksheets et al – I knew it would be fruitless. My son knows less than zero French right now, and he hates it. I know you know what I mean by less than zero. Then just before the crisis, my son on a whim approached his French teacher and asked if she knew about comprehensible input. The answer was that yes this teacher had actually taken a workshop with me ten years ago and then explained to Jett: “I don’t teach that way”. So I was right to leave it alone. What concerns me now is that I feel that for the first time, in a very real way, the TPRS/CI freight train that was moving forward with such speed and excitement has now reached a point where it can’t get up the mountain of pushback and ignorance that describes traditional teaching. I never thought that traditional language instruction would beat out TPRS, but I think that is what has happened in the past year or so. It’s because those trainers have abdicated something, I won’t say what bc I want to stop typing now and go sit in my backyard.

  8. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Never has the power of physical proximity and LIVE communication for our language acquisition goals been more clear. The computer is flat. ‘Nuf said.

  9. I am starting a little Zoom group to study the Invisibles. I will teach them French going page by page through the book. I will thus be able find out if indeed the computer is destined to fail as a delivery device for comprehensible input. I have some hope that – because of the design of the book and the wisdom in it – I will be able to succeed with this little test group.

    If the Zoom-Invisibles approach does NOT work, then I will conclude that computers simply cannot work as delivery systems for comprehensible input instruction, and that will be that.

    As you well know, Alisa, and you too Craig, it won’t be for lack of effort on my part. If it fails, if the computer fails via the Invisibles to not deliver CI in the real way, then I personally will accept that message from the universe and stop trying.

    On one level, I do hope that the Zoom-Invisibles plan fails, because I’m ready to stop working so hard to solve the problem that we have all been facing ever since the CI train went flying off the rails and into the sand during the past 10-15 years.

  10. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Some very talented CI teachers have been/do successfully use a distance-learning interface – but (and I may be wrong here) seems like that’s for self-selected /highly motivated & paying adults. If your experiment doesn’t bear positive results, Ben, we can’t necessarily blame the E-format. Lots of variables there. It’s next to impossible to ‘read the room’ when everyone in the class occupies a 2″x 2″ Brady Bunch square. And controlling the environment for distractions & disruptions? I’ve yet to attend a computer-based remote meeting without also texting from my iPhone on the side… Hooking and sustaining attention to the message is hard enough in a live setting…
    Class Norms are out the window. Last week I was invited to ‘drop in’ on a 3rd grade class. The teacher invited all the specialists, so that we could see each others’ /kids faces – more SEL than Spanish. Anyway, it was adorable – kids in their jammies, sitting in dark forts with flashlights, others playing with all kinds of distracting fidgets, baby sibs and blender sounds in the background, doorbells, music, kids Zooming in & out of the convo, issues with turning your microphone off & on to join the convo. These are 9-10-yr olds, for Pete’s sake.
    Then we got word that there is Zoom Fatigue, and a faculty, parent and student survey was circulated… We are waiting to hear the results. Issues of teacher equity (always a dangerously petty direction), best use of specialist’ talent, how many meetings and how long they last; parent request for More, More, more!, the works. I will report back when we hear the ‘results’ and plans for any modification. For now I make at least one asynchronous Spanish video per week – and it gets very few ‘hits.’ My most recent offering got about 10% of the # of students I see, so far. To my mind there are many reasons: Parents are having their young Ss focus on the ‘3 R’s’ – Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic; families are overwhelmed with all the websites, platforms, meetings, activities & assignments; the excitement in elementary WL classes comes from the open-ended interactions and story/scene/image building, which so far doesn’t translate (I’m not doing live-lessons – but even then it’d weird…) I’ll update when I have more, but I am anxious to hear about Online Invisibles.

  11. Alisa I love the point you raise here:

    …that [distance learning interface] is for self-selected /highly motivated & paying adults….

    Totally agree. When kids are forced to do anything, they don’t really give a rip. Witness what Alice Sara Ott said, posted here a few days ago and in my view a key piece of the pathway to success with CI:

    “Music is art, and art lives from creativity, and there cannot be any creativity if there is no motivation. And the motivation can only come from the child. So, I don’t believe in any degree of forcing the child to learn. I know that teachers and parents want the best for the children, but in the end they are rather doing the opposite when they force the child to learn something.”

    1. This connection to creativity is part of the reason I so love the invisibles. It’s the only time students get to create 100% in the classroom with a teacher that looks at the creation and approves of it, loves and enjoys it. Even for super smug teenagers they can lend attention to a class story for 10 minutes at a time.

  12. Also:

    …it’s next to impossible to ‘read the room’ when everyone in the class occupies a 2?x 2? Brady Bunch square….

    I’m going to teach Zoom French to a group of teachers who want to learn about the Invisibles in the near future. I will see if it is next to impossible or impossible. I believe in the Invisibles as the only approach that might even stand a chance at engaging people in the Brady Bunch format. We will see. I will report back here about the results. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I totally get how important physical proximity is. It will be a good experiment, and I won’t try to fit a square pet into a round hole. But (always the child), I want to try it. A big determinant of our success will have to do with who’s in the class, the quality of their hearts, and how much they get how the research works (i.e. to what extent they can identify when they are working within their unconscious faculty towards acquisition as they react to my instruction – if they aren’t functioning in their unconscious mind while their conscious mind is focused ONLY on the message, we got nothin’).

  13. I am anxious to hear about the school’s decision re: Zoom Fatigue. Here’s my take on what I might call School Fatigue – in or outside of a classroom – and it’s taken me 40 years to figure it out, listed as points:

    1. Administrators need to administrate. If they can’t, like now, they get weird. Remember, these are largely people who don’t want to be in classrooms with kids. They want to tell teachers what to do and how to do it.

    2. Since they can’t administrate now, they have to start gathering data.

    3. The data makes them feel as if they are useful, because THEY, and not us, get to be in charge. We have to do what they say to do after they look at the data.

    4. If they had an ounce of insight into the forced Zoom thing, they would stop trying to fix it and give up and realize that when 50% – 90% of kids don’t show up for class, ain’t nothin’ gonna happen.

    5. By the way, this is what happened to Krashen’s research. Since real language acquisition is intuitive and happens deep in the unconscious minds of our students in places we cannot go and CANNOT MEASURE, they don’t like that and younger teachers who still believe that they are there to please those admins adopt the twin sister mix of traditional w CI that I talked about in a post here yesterday.

    6. So there is all this DATA COLLECTION, right? And what good does it bring us? NOTHING. I make that strong claim bc in languages unlike all the other subjects, you CANNOT MEASURE ACQUISITION. That’s a basic chez Krashen. So we can’t measure it, but we like to, we want to and like children we do it anyway. Fools, all those who try to measure progress in a language. The fact is that when they’ve heard it enough, they can speak it, and we don’t get to know why that magic happened.

    7. So we come back to Alice Sara Ott (look her up on YouTube – I personally favor her interpretation of Beethoven) who says that nothing in the arts – and language acquisition is an intuitive ART FORM – can happen if people are forced (ital. mine).

    8. So Covid-19 has set up this MASSIVE CHALLENGE TO WHAT SCHOOLS DO, WHAT THEY ARE EVEN ALL ABOUT, because it has unearthed, revealed in hidden layers of our society in general, injustices, and I certainly consider forcing kids to learn, do mind-numbing drills, stay locked up in their conscious minds etc., an injustice. Zoom or no zoom, in-class instruction or not, it’s all about forcing kids to learn, and therefore cannot succeed.

    9. This work of REVEALING that COVID-19 is having on our society in general will force a turning of the screw on how schools function in terms of teaching languages. No more forcing! No more memorization! No more of what it’s been like for so many decades – boring as hell. Classroom functioning as prisons. Here’s the key idea right here: IF SCHOOLS ARE GOING TO MIX TRADITIONAL LANGUAGE INSTRUCTION WITH CI, AS I SAID IN A POST YESTERDAY, THE ELEMENT OF FORCING KIDS TO MEMORIZE WORD LISTS USING CI INSTRUCTION (WHEN THE BEAUTIFUL STEP SISTER THAT IS CI STARTS TO RESEMBLE HER NOT-SO-ATTRACTIVE TRADITIONAL SISTER), WILL BRING ABOUT THE DEMISE OF THE ENTIRE LANGUAGE TEACHING SYSTEM IN OUR COUNTRY, TRADITIONAL OR NOT. The termites that have been chewing away at our our profession will bring the building down, with so many other COVID-induced changes in our society, and it will all be new, and it won’t be so data-driven, and it won’t be so boring for the kids, and it won’t be so sad. And we will actually look forward to going to work every day.

    It’s hard to write about but easy for me to see. I see it almost with my eyes. The old way of teaching languages of keeping everything in the mind is over. TPRS was supposed to bring it all down into the heart, but it didn’t, because schools and that redheaded stepsister were too resilient, and gave ugliness to the beautiful promise of CI. The entire thing is described in Voltaire’s Candide.

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