How Can We Facilitate Language Acquisition While Also Meeting the Demands of the K-12 Educator in 2020?

Most of us, I’d surmise, are currently K-12 teachers of World Languages in public or private schools around the world.  And if you are reading blogs about comprehensible input, then you know some things about the process of language acquisition.  If this is the case for you, then you have probably had some of the same struggles and challenges that I have had in my career – figuring out how to be a facilitator of language acquisition for your students while still meeting the demands of being a K-12 educator.   

The requirements of being a teacher are often at odds with being a good language facilitator.  As language facilitators, our job is to get our students to acquire language, not learn about it.  That involves providing comprehensible input, tapping into our students’ subconscious, and intentionally distracting their conscious minds from the fact that they are acquiring language.  We don’t want our students to know that they are learning.  We don’t want them to study, we don’t want them to memorize rules and formulas, and we don’t want them to stress or be anxious.  All of those things make the acquisition process slower and less effective. 

            Our roles as facilitators of acquisition is to lower anxiety, provide input, and ensure we are 100% comprehensible at all times.  The things that should be occupying our minds are which CI strategies to use, how best to negotiate meaning, how to ensure students are comprehending, etc.  We should evaluate ourselves based on how engaged our students are, how long students are sustaining their active listening, and how much they are reading.  The role of output should be a gauge for us to reflect on how much input our students have had, the quality of the input, and the comprehensibility of our input.  Output should never be forced, but rather organic.  Our role should be to encourage our students to write and speak, but only when they are comfortable.  When students make mistakes (if there are “mistakes” in language acquisition), our role is not to correct them, but rather to model the correct way for them.  This is what our role should be in the classroom.    

            This is the rubric (stolen from Bryce Hedstrom) that I used to evaluate myself as a language facilitator in order to make sure that I was doing these things well.

https://www.brycehedstrom.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Checklist-for-Observing-a-FL-Classroom.pdf

Notice what is NOT included in the list of things that we should be doing – giving grades, worksheets, textbooks, assessments, data dives, etc.  We should NOT be quantifying how much language our students have acquired, because it’s not really feasible nor is it worthwhile.  We should not be giving huge assessments that stress kids out and force them to study.  What a dreamy world we would live in if we could just ignore all of those things.  Unfortunately, a lot of us do not live in that world.  We live in the world of K-12 education, and that world comes with things that we must do. 

As K-12 educators, we are expected to teach things – facts, formulas, skills, lists, etc.  We are told that our classes must be rigorous and challenging and that our students should struggle.  Through struggle, we are told, students learn grit, grow their brains, and achieve higher results.  We are expected to give assessments frequently, track data, and respond to data with reteach plans.  People outside of our field see output as the indicator of a successful world language class.  My first principal told me “I want to walk in your class in May and hear kids having full conversations in Spanish”.  My Spanish I class.  My …. Spanish I …. class. 

Other comments I have gotten from administrators over the years included (but not limited to):  I’m too “teacher-centered”, my students are just sitting and listening, my students aren’t studying or memorizing things, etc….  Luckily, I always had two things going for me.  Number one, I taught Spanish in Memphis, and it’s REALLY hard to find Spanish teachers in Memphis.  So as badly as my admin disliked my methods, I knew (and they knew) that they weren’t going to fire me.  And number two, I taught in Memphis, in a low-income school.  Again, I knew and they knew that I wasn’t going anywhere.  But despite these things, I wanted to get my admin off my back.  I didn’t want to go into work every day and have to do the same song and dance with these people.  So, here’s a list of things I started doing, as well as a list of things I stopped doing to get my admin to chill out. 

DO

Give assessments. Create assessments backwards planned from normed proficiency assessments. I essentially created a watered down version of the AP Culture exam along ACTFL standards, showed them to my admin, and got them on board. “Yeah guys, my Spanish I class is like a pre-AP”. They loved it. So when you’re doing a picture talk or a story, just do one around one of the AP themes.

Write and Discuss – every time an admin walks in. Drop what you’re doing, and do write and discuss. Trust me. (Need help? Check out:
https://senorachase.com/2019/01/03/write-discuss/

Independent work time. Sounds strange, right? Do it. Admin want to see kids on task, silent and solo, while the teacher walks around and gives feedback. We can achieve this in several ways – timed writes, vocabulary practice, and FVR. Admin are being trained that the amount of time teachers spend in front of students should be minimal. It’s hard to do that while using CI, but you need to add independent work time to your repertoire. (Need help: https://mygenerationofpolyglots.com/2017/06/18/how-to-add-15-new-beginner-level-texts-to-your-classroom-library-every-week/

Analyze data and show your admin. I use write and discuss data as well as pop up vocab quizzes as my data. I make students count the number of words they write in a 5 minute writing, then we track that over time, and analyze how much new vocabulary they are using. My admin LOVE THIS. It’s simple, takes little time, and gets admin on your side. Here’s some examples:

Tracking Data on Timed Writes over weeks
Tracking writing proficiency using ACTFL goals

DON’T

  • Give no assignments.  I’ve heard presenters at conferences and SLA researchers say that kids shouldn’t have written assignments in class.  It adds anxiety, and it’s essentially pointless if the goal is acquisition.  I agree, but you can’t do that if you’re a K-12 educator.  Give assignments.  Make students write things down.  Make them practice.  Need help?  Check out all the amazing CI assignments that Martina Bex has at https://comprehensibleclassroom.com/
  • Give no grades.  Grades are a thing.  Kids care about them, parents care about them, and admin definitely care about them.  It’s tricky with language acquisition, when we know that the process is slow and shouldn’t be quantified.  So some things I’ve done are:  weekly placket (see my blog here about my weekly packet), participation rubric (stolen from Bryce Hedstrom), reading logs, pop up quizzes, and timed writes. 
I used this participation rubric to assign grades

This is not a complete list.  I’m thinking I’m going to add on to this list every time something pops in my head, so be sure to check back on this blog frequently.  But this list helped me marry the worlds of CI instruction and K-12 education as best as I could.  I was never perfect at both at the same time, and some days I had to prioritize one over the other.  Some days, a story would catch fire, all my kids were sitting forward and engaged, and in walked an admin.  On these days, I refused to stop the learning to appease them, and got low scores as a result.  Other days, on my long formal observation, I sacrificed a potential great lesson for a mediocre one, so that I could get the score I wanted, and get my holiday bonus.  We are humans with lives, after all. 

So if you’ve had a similar moral dilemma as me, remember that it’s ok.   Remember several things.  First, remember that our gurus, the intellects who gave us all of this amazing research to use, haven’t taught in K-12.  We need to take what they are telling us, filter it through the red tape of being a K-12 teacher, and make it work for our students.  Don’t feel guilty if you can’t check off every box that they say we should.  Second, remember that if you are doing great CI lessons and your admin hate it and rate you low, that is also ok.  You know what the research says and you are the expert in your classroom.  Do what is right by children when you can.  Third, remember that every school and class is different.  What is working for one teacher somewhere in some city might or might not work for you.  If what they are doing appeals to you, try it, tweak it, and make it work for you and your kids.  And lastly, remember that you are doing a great job.  Being a teacher is really hard. Being a facilitator of language acquisition is even harder.  But you got this.  

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