The Big Problem

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18 thoughts on “The Big Problem”

  1. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    As an elem teacher (WL is not a mandated offering) I’ve been told by other elem teachers that parents and adminz want evidence that proves their class is ‘working’ by ‘showing what the kids can do with the language. It’s like the Ts are constantly defending their jobs! I cannot tell you how maybe times I’ve seen and heard this – ACTFL’s can-do statements align with this kind of evidence gathering, too…but it’s ridiculous for elem novices!!

    We need to educate parents and adminz to manage these expectations, so that they know great instruction is happening in a room filled with the target language, in which the kids are engaged – looking, listening, leaning in, laughing, acting, rejoinder-ing, offering details (unless its SL), etc. I’m starting to tell those kinda parents/adminz, come in and observe, or have the T take a video of class. See how much language is swirling in there, and how much evidence of comprehension!

  2. I’m having a bit of a bad day so I’m going to rant on here for a minute. It’s almost on topic. Yesterday I proctored a Spanish 2 Honors test. The writing samples for the kids were pristine. Just glorious. Probably rehearsed but “on fleek.” The 8th grade teacher is an all-star “traditional” teacher. My hat is off to her.

    This made me think, “Tomorrow I’ll see what my kids can do.” We went over the artwork, they re-read the story with a partner and then I asked them to tell me the story out loud. We are 20 stories in right now. I wanted 2 sentences. I offered candy. Nobody would do it. I forced 2 kids to do it. They were terrible. Rubbish. Repetitive and incorrect. Not even comprehensible.

    This is after I made some progress with my colleagues on moving towards CI. So here’s what I think. Some of my kids can read. Most of my kids can listen and understand. None can write, fewer can speak. I’m wasting my time. That is the big problem right now.

    I’m doing more stories and reading than ever before. Probably 70 minutes a day 2-3 times a week (block) asking the kids to sit there quietly and read or listen to me. The research says that they are acquiring, but my research shows that they can’t do anything with it.

    1. I teach at an honors school and though there are fast processors when they demonstrate it in writing, the results are all over the place in terms of word count and sentence complexity. I have 2-3 students in each of my French 2 classes that can create original meaning via speaking.

      I remember Ben noting that SLA is an exponential process. Learners and teachers need to be patient. A Russian teacher here on this PLC pointed out that she had a student silent for 3 years then POOF! in the student’s fourth years starting having original sentence level output.

  3. … none can write, fewer can speak. I’m wasting my time. That is the big problem….

    I agree. I remember being pissed at my own children as they grew up. Really lazy little kids – they never applied themselves to speech and writing. What I did was check their speech at 12 months and their writing at 24 months. They couldn’t do it. If I had just had them memorize what I told them it would have been o.k. Now they can’t say a word.

        1. Just when we’re on the brink, right? But the fact is that we can’t rush and we can’t force output. All we can do is provide interesting, non-boring, non-formulaic, hopefully compelling, (the most compelling we can muster that day at that time of day) and bow down to the smooth grace of the universe in thanks that we have finally learned to stop trying to think our way to good teaching.

        2. Jeff, I feel your pain. I know they understand (well, most of them) but they “can’t produce.” I know intellectually this means they are on the right track. Comprehension precedes production by “miles and miles.” But I am in a school system that is looking for me to weigh the baby every fifteen minutes! I am happy that I’m old and that I’m a department of one, so I mostly just do what I know is right, trying to stay under the radar in some ways. But I also want to shout from the rooftops about these kids because THEY UNDERSTAND UNSCRIPTED SPANISH, LIKE NO BIG DEAL!!! But that is not impressive, because they do not perform like trained parrots.

          Really deep down in my gut, I know I am still doing the right thing even though very few of the kids will even utter a one word answer (fear of ridicule of course). Oh, hm. maybe 2-4% of them try responding. Shocking. For the most part everyone responds immediately by nodding etc. so I know they understand but it is a battle to get them to say “Sí”.

          I decided I am not going to make it a battle. I am working diligently on the atmosphere and I have to hope that is enough. I remember in my bones the days from my own junior high experience, 7th-8th-9th grade. As a heritage speaker, anytime my Dad spoke to me in public in Spanish I felt my face redden. I wanted to crawl into a hole. I would try talking over him in loud English so that my friends would not notice he was speaking Spanish. When I was feeling kind, I would simply tolerate the Spanish but respond in English. This is what my students do. I call it “the Dad syndrome!” So a “natural” conversation would be Dad speaking Spanish and me speaking English.

          I bring this up to myself every time my students respond in English. I think it is a similar dynamic. They don’t want to be seen as different. This is my assumption. I think it will take time for me to create the space where it’s “cool” and “natural” to speak Spanish. Year 2 in this building, I can see some incremental changes. Yay!

          I feel pretty happy that as kids are walking into the room excitedly chatting about their trip to Boston to see the New England Patriots parade, I can join in the conversation (in Spanish) and without missing a beat they answer all my questions and tell me about the parade. That has to count as a first step, right?

          1. …I decided I am not going to make it a battle….

            This is so wise. I mean, really, how many of us are going to lose our jobs over the fact that we didn’t train them like parrots to say things that they don’t really know? Love the parrot analogy, jen, it’s the best I’ve heard to describe what happens. Do we really want to work around such people, who have established the “standard” as one of memorization vs. what the real standard is – actual communication. Why try to measure up to fools?

  4. I like the way that Dr. Bill VanPatten arranges his curriculum at Michigan State University around Tasks. The tasks are very short and only done after the kids have received a TON of input and they can do the task with easy. It serves as a short assessment and also motivation for the students. I had the opportunity to talk to Bill last time he was in town about how these are arranged. It’s basically CI/circling to get info from the students and then take that info and culminate in a task. Much like TPRS oral story will culminate in an extended reading and then timed write.

    If you go here: and scroll down to these titles you will find more information:

    A Sample set of Can-Do Statements for Beginning Spanish at MSU.
    A sample set of tasks. These tasks are discussed in Episode 42, Tasks that promote language acquisition (upcoming).

  5. I’m hoping this is not off topic – It’s about acquisition and output. As teachers we rely on some output to prove that there has been acquisition, but people can acquire a language without output. I told this story to Dr. Krashen. A man I met was born in France, the second child of immigrant parents from Italy. His father came as a baby and spoke fluent French. He went back to the Italian village to find a wife. When their first child was born the mother spoke no French and she and her husband always spoke in their Italian dialect which was not what was taught in Italian schools. The oldest son grew up perfectly bilingual, at ease in either French or Italian. But by the time the second son came along, his mother was comfortable speaking French and he got a lot of French input from his father and brother who both switched languages easily. But when he tried to speak Italian, everyone laughed, saying he sounded French. They also did not want to encourage him to speak what they considered an inferior dialect. So he made no effort to speak, not wanting to be teased or laughed at. Yet he could understand everything. He went back to the Italian village a couple of times with his parents, could understand but relied on his parents and brother to translate for him when he had to speak.
    As a grown man, he decided to take his new bride to the Italian village. She was French and spoke no Italian and his parents were no longer there to translate. Forced to attempt to communicate, after a day or two, he discovered that he could speak fluent Italian. He told me that he has a slight accent and sometimes makes gender mistakes, but otherwise his Italian is near native. He had acquired the language during all those years of listening to his family members, but waited 20 years to output.

    By the way, the input he received was not targeted.

  6. YES!!!! What do we call this phenomenon???

    As a child my parents spoke Yiddish at home when they didn’t want us to understand what (& who) they were talking about. It wasn’t all day every day, and it wasn’t huge or extended chunks, but it fairly regular.
    Anyway, when I went to my first CI conference 4 years ago?, I had the privilege of going to one of Bertie Segal’s sessions on Total Physical Response (TPR). I was stunned to find that her demonstration was conducted in Yiddish, and that I somehow understood a great deal of it!
    I had developed an ear for it, and a comfort with it, immediately lowering my filter and basking me in fond childhood memories. I smiled during the entire demo.

    I find a similar phenomenon with L3+ learners – kids who already have 2 or more languages under their belts. They are more open to a new language – their brains already have a well-oiled App for it, with the bugs worked out and updated. As a group they seem more willing to engage and even make mistakes, as if they know unconsciously HOW to acquire….

  7. …as if they know unconsciously HOW to acquire….

    They do know how to acquire without even using their conscious mind function. I feel that this is the biggest learning of all for us in our profession. We read it in the research but we as a group are not putting that research into place in our classrooms. We have too many word lists to teach.

    1. Ben, what is the status on our word walls? During your intensive in Moraga, we talked about it briefly. I put one up for the first months of school. Now I do not use it. I do not find it useful. I rather put up compelling follow up questions for myself during an invisibles story as a safety net.

      1. I am sorry to announce, after years of trying to make them work, that word walls are just weird, and they don’t work. Much ado about nothing for all these years. If fact, trying to align with lists of any kind is kind of having a bad year now in 2017, and it’s only going to get worse. Why don’t the people who make the lists just stop with all the lists. We don’t learn languages from lists. I am not surprised that you don’t use them Steven. It makes sense to me.

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