Stop Using the Word “Rigor”. Say this instead.


It seems like every year in the world of education someone creates a new buzzword that quickly becomes ubiquitous.  The most recent one I hear a lot is “rigor”, and how to make our classes rigorous.  The Google definition or rigor is “the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate … demanding, difficult, or extreme conditions.” Yikes.

Math, science, and language arts teachers who I have worked with generally love this word.  They view it as a way to make sure their classes are challenging, stimulating, and on par with other schools’ rigor across the district.  World language teachers, on the other hand, have generally approached this word with hesitation.  We learn from the research that acquiring a language is natural and should be seamless.  We are trained to use strategies that make sure our teaching is 100% comprehensible and told that anything less than that is ineffective language teaching.  When we read with our class, if they can’t understand EVERY word, we’re supposed to stop and pre-teach more. 

I recently went to an embedded reading PD with Michele Whaley who demonstrated the frustration of reading at 70%, 80%, and 95%.  I walked away from her session dismayed at how hard reading in another language is when you don’t understand every word.  The next week, I was in PD at my school and our principal facilitated a PD about rigor.  To paraphrase, she said something along the lines of “our students should not understand everything from the material.  That’s part of rigor, is that they persist through the struggle and learn to be gritty in their misunderstandings.” 

My math colleagues, the physic teacher, and our AP English Language teacher nodded and snapped in agreement.  The other Spanish teacher and I, who had just returned from iFLT, exchanged knowing looks of “what the hell?”  What does this look like in our classes?  How do we marry the academic idea of “rigor” with best practices we know to be true in WL classes? 

Out with the rigor, in with the Mental Lift

That was 2012.  Now, there’s a new buzzword (buzzphrase?) that I actually like:  Mental Lift.  The best way I can explain “Mental Lift” is “who is doing the thinking.”  As teachers, our job is to get students to think, and think hard, about the content and ideas that we are presenting.  When students are doing the mental lift, they are grappling with the new information they’re receiving, processing it, connecting it to prior knowledge, and considering how that information will change once manipulated.  This is what fires the synapses and builds those dendrites in our students’ brains, and where learning and acquisition happens the most.  The challenge in our work is to facilitate the mental lift and put the onus of the mental lifting on our students, not on us. 

I got into teaching through an alternative licensure program that shall not be named, and to prepare me to teach high school Spanish in the inner city, they made me teach algebra I to 9th graders during a 5 week summer school.  (Brilliant … I know).  But that experience wasn’t 100% useless.  In fact, when I think about “mental lifting”, I think about how hard it was to get those kids to THINK about the math, the procedures, and the application of the formulas without giving the answer away.  The first lesson I taught, I literally talked at the kids for 30 minutes and worked out 5 linear equation problems in front of them while they copied and pasted what I wrote.  Then, when I released them to try it themselves, no one even knew where to start.  So I’d bring it back together, re-“teach” the problem (by just doing it in front of them), and again tried to get them to do it independently.  Again, they all failed. 

The reason was because I was doing all of the mental lifting.  My “teaching” was just me solving math problems while my students watched, never having to think about what I was doing, why I was doing it, or what was going to come next.  After some reflection, I changed my lesson for the next day and tried again.  I modeled part one of solving the equation, then asked questions.  “What did I do first?  Why?  What would have happened if I had inserted the function before reducing the equation?  Etc.”  Then, I’d make a student tell me what was going to happen next, and why.  No matter what the student said (whether she was right or wrong), I’d ask “who agrees, who disagrees, and why?”  Sometimes, this would spark a good class debate and we’d all go around and defend our answers.  This was the students doing the thinking, the hard work, and I just simply listened and facilitated the discussion.  The results on the quiz were much better.

Mental Lifting in the World Language Classroom

The reason I like this phrase better than “rigor” is because it fits more with the CI research.  Language classes are not supposed to be hard, but our students are supposed to be doing the thinking.  And think about it, if we’re 90% in the target language, teaching at the i + 1 that Krashen recommends (or zone of proximal development, for us old school education folks), then our students are being challenged appropriately and doing the bulk of the mental lifting.  Someone, somewhere, once said “rigor in the world language classroom is demonstrated by students sustaining their focus while listening to the target language.”  (Robert Harrell, was that you?)  I actually think the phrase “mental lifting” matches this idea better than “rigor”, since it defines our students sustaining their thinking and hard work while comprehending our language.  Tomatoes tomahtoes, but I digress.  Here’s the good news, if you are 90% in the target language with 100% comprehensibility and you are engaging all of your students, you are doing a great job at this “mental lift” thing.  If you want some strategies or ideas, here are my thoughts: 

4 ways to increase mental lift in your classroom:

  • 1 TPR/ TPR gestures
  • Every day, when you introduce new words, use TPR or TPR gestures.  Make all of your students do the gestures, and spiral the gestures in with older words. 
  • Use the model-hesitate-stop formula.  That is, say the word an model the gesture, then gradually stop modeling, hesitating slowly after you say each word. 
  • STOP MODELING.  I train a lot of newbies in TPR, and the #1 pitfall they have is that they continue to model while they say the words.  Think about it – if you are saying the word AND modeling it, how much mental lifting are your students doing?
  • 100% When you use a word that has a gesture, prompt your students to do the gesture. 
  • Pro tips:  Make your students close their eyes while you continue saying the new vocab and prompt them to do the gesture.  Then, once they master that, have them say shout out the vocab to you while you do the gesture.  THEN, you do the gesture and prompt them to shout out the word in the TL. 
  • 2 Pause and point
  • When you use your new phrases / new vocab in class, pause after you say it, look your students in the eye, and then slowly point. 
  • Avoid pointing as you talk.  This takes the mental lift away from the students and puts it solely on you.  All they are doing is looking at the English and ignoring your TL voice.
  • TAKE THE ENGLISH AWAY.  Do this gradually.  After you’ve done some TPR or gotten into the story, see if you can take away the English supports.  Still check for understanding (what did I just say … show me the gesture for …), but take away that support and make your students lift. 
  • Give wait time Every time you ask a question or make a statement, give your students wait time.  Say “I’m going to ask a question and then count to 3.  You may NOT answer until I count to 3.”  This makes every student listen silently and think about the question and the vocab without your fast processors ruining it.
  • 3 Questioning Strategies
  • Mix up your questions.  Mix up whole group with individual cold calling.  Don’t fall into the pitfall of ONLY asking whole group / choral response questions.  When you do this, the only students who are doing the mental lifting are your fast processors / extroverts. 
  • Cold call – Ask the question, make everyone wait silently, then call on a student.  Differentiate your questions to meet your students where they’re at.  Make sure to ask easy questions to your slow processing students (yes/no, either or), middle questions to your middle students (who, what ,when, where), and high level questions to your fastest students (why, PQAs, etc.).  AVOID calling on a student first and then asking the question.  When you do this, everyone else tunes out and only one student is doing the mental lifting.  When you cold call correctly, all of your students will be listening and thinking about the answer, in case they get called on. 
  • 4 Give thinking tasks
  • Listening tasks When you’re telling a story or facilitating a reading, give your students something to think about, instead of just listening / reading passively.  Whenever I talk about my weekend on Mondays, I say “something sad happened this weekend, I’m going to describe my entire weekend, I want you to listen for the sad part.”  You can switch it up.  When you tell stories, project or write on the board some thinking tasks.  “Why did the character get angry?  What were 3 problems you heard?”  Etc…
  • Reading tasks When we do readings, I say “in this paragraph, the character changes her emotion because of something that someone says.  When you see it, underline where she changes her emotion and put a box around the dialogue that prompts her to change.”  You can give simple tasks to engage lower learners such as “circle every cognate you see” or “put a squiggly line every time there’s dialogue.” 
  • Presentation tasks – For the love of God when you show a video or if a student is giving a presentation, GIVE YOUR STUDENTS A TASK TO DO.  Don’t let them sit idly and zone out, because they will.  Tell them to look for something, to write something down, to react to something.  I give sentences starters in the TL like “I liked how … I was surprised by … I wanted … to happen….  You can use these for readings as well.  It engages everyone and makes them think at a deeper level beyond basic comprehension.  It’s … dare I say … rigorous? 
  • When one student is sharing out – Give one of these tasks when one student is sharing something out.  One of the hardest parts of class to manage behavior or engage all students is when one student raises a hand to share something or answer a question.  While that student is sharing, what are the OTHER students doing?  When Bryce Hedstrom facilitates Star Student interviews, he makes every other student jot down facts about that student and the MAKES THAT THE QUIZ.  Wanna know who is doing the mental lifting while the teacher and star student are chatting?  EVERYONE.  Norm this across your class.  Any time a student has the floor, tell EVERYONE ELSE what they should be listening, and hold them accountable to do the mental lifting. 

When should students be doing the mental lifting?  As much as is humanly possible in your class.

Want some further reading on the the topic of rigor? Check out Jim Tripp’s interview with Robert Harrell from 2016 titled “Rigor in the World Language Classroom”. It’s a great read:

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