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National Standards

February 21, 2013

Note to the reader: this post should have been published on 2/12/13. Too many distractions!! Kristy's recent post on #authres reminded me that it was sitting in my draft folder waiting to be published.

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I had to settle to be a passive participant in #langchat tonight. I am making myself hit the treadmill every day (okay, almost every day) since my OB asked me last week, "Aren't there any vegetables you like?" (Yes, there are...all of them. I eat them all the time. Just because I like them. I also eat a lot of cookies because they are delicious and I'm pregnant, okay?). Anyway, I am not talented enough to type and walk at the same time, so aside from a few frantic taps on the screen to retweet and mark some favorite points for later reflection, I was a silent participant.

Tonight's topic was "What do changes in advanced national exams mean for language learning across all levels?" The question referred to (1) changes in AP exams and (2) adoption of Common Core State Standards.

This question is one with which I have grappled (fairly) extensively as I have found my way in the TPRS world. I began in 2009 with strings of silly stories, and after a year of disconnected, directionless--but fun and successful--instruction, I realized that something needed to change. We were eating a lot of Comprehensible Input dessert but skipping the main course. As my school (a Title I school) put together a Level 5 plan and discussed how to facilitate gains in literacy and math in all content areas, I began to change the activities that I was using. When the AP Board came out with their new requirements and Alaska announced their adoption of the CCSS, I had already begun to re-work the content of my courses and the activities used to teach it.

Stories--fictional stories--can only be fun for so long. Milk is considered nature's most perfect food, and cultural content is a language student's milk. We must go beyond mere exposure to culture, and allow students to feast on it. It must become embedded in everything we do: the trick, however, is not to sacrifice language acquisition in this endeavor. We must use the language that we are learning to explore culture. If you are intentional about the structures that you teach, and you focus on high frequency structures, you will find that you can talk about anything with your students. This fits in very well with both CCSS (since students are to read 70 percent informational texts and 30 percent literary), and creates units that fit easily into one of the six AP themes.

In addition to developing a more 'academically rigorous' content for my courses (not eliminating the fun stuff--but adding to it!), I have strived to use activities that practice higher order thinking skills. There are zillions of activities out there that can be used to get more repetitions out of structures and stories and to dig deeper into any resource used in class. Intentionally choosing activities that require the students to practice critical thinking skills is a wonderful way to keep students engaged while you strive to eek out a few more repetitions of the target structures. I notice that my students often grow bored with story activities if the ones that I use do not force them to THINK. I want to do 2-3 activities with each story, and I never (well, never say never) have problems using activities that stay at the "remember" or "understand" level on Bloom's Taxonomy (I love Bryce's adaptation!!). But once students have already participated in storytelling, read the completed script, and done an activity, they are DONE. Their brains disengage. Using critical thinking activities keeps their brains working and engaged in the acquisition process.

One strand of the conversation in which I was particularly interested was the one about authentic resources. Language teachers across the continent are striving to build authentic resources into every lesson plan for many different, valid reasons: they are inherently engaging, they accustom students to interpreting authentic texts (written or oral), they are part of the new AP deal, and more. Many of my favorite bloggers have posted strategies and activities for using authentic resources lately, but I've been 'walking away' from the posts a little dissatisfied. @lclarcq hit the nail on the head:

 Yes! That's exactly it! Laurie, you are brilliant. (Kristy said the same thing, more or less, in her post linked above.) We have precious little time with our students each day, each week, each year. Every minute of class time counts. If I am going to use an authentic resource, it needs to have greater value than just making a cultural connection or checking it off a must-include-in-every-lesson-plan list. I need to make the resource work for me! There is some value in trying to make sense of the largely unknown, but there is great value--huge value, ENORMOUS value--in interacting with comprehensible language. I am guilty of the former, but I'm striving toward the latter. Here are two recent examples:

  • In "Ketchup", students watch a video about the making of ketchup (9 minutes) and complete a viewing guide that requires them to pull out small details (guesswork). We can then spend the rest of the class period (~40 minutes) discussing ketchup with the 10 comprehensible discussion questions.
  • In "Carlos el cleptómano", students watch a 4 minute video making fun of the doofy things that boyfriends and girlfriends say to each other, and they have to answer questions based on a transcript of the video. Then, we spend the rest of the period discussing  all of the ridiculous things that guys and girls do when they're in love.
  • In "El chico del apartamento 512", students use textual clues to match stanzas of song lyrics with comprehensible descriptions.

In this particular #langchat, many teachers talked about the importance of leveling the task, not the resource--meaning you can use any resource you want, really, as long as you give the students a task that is appropriate to their level. I agree with this statement, but I disagree that language acquisition happens simply because students complete a level-appropriate task. The main benefit to giving students simple tasks and challenging resources is to break their fear. It is incredibly overwhelming to hear or stare at an authentic text. Students think, "This is impossible! I can't understand any of this!". Giving them level appropriate tasks (such as identifying the main idea, matching or putting things in order, responding to targeted questions, etc.) helps them to see that they CAN understand authentic texts, and successful completion builds their confidence to try it out in real life. HOWEVER, I do not think that it furthers their acquisition of the language. Hearing one isolated repetition of a target structure in an authentic resources is not going to solidify that structure for the student, it will just make him or her excited that s/he heard it. The value is in the comprehensible input that the teacher generates from the resource. That's it.

When it comes to reading an authentic text, I think that lower level students benefit more from a teacher-created reading about a cultural topic than from an authentic text. It allows them to learn about a cultural topic (engaging!) without pausing the language acquisition process. This is why I try to incorporate cultural readings into all of my units: I use the target structures to explain a cultural topic. For those few authentic texts that a lower-level teacher recognizes to be just out of reach of their students, there is no better strategy than Michele Whaley and Laurie Clarcq's Embedded Readings. If a teacher is able to create a two or three step series of readings that allow students to comprehend the authentic text, then I wholeheartedly agree with this post that I favorited from the #langchat:

However, if two or three steps only brings students to a 30 percent understanding...I'm not sure it's worth the time. Choose your texts wisely! It is most important that we teach our students high frequency structures in the lower levels, because they are building the foundation to a lifetime of language learning. As long as the layered readings are introducing more and more HFS--structures that are foundational to the language, as opposed to highly specialized vocabulary that is just needed to understand that particular text--scaffold away. As @atschwell tweeted, a (successful) "interaction with authentic texts at the novice level IS powerful and motivating".

Needless to say, tonight's #langchat was heavy stuff. I'm so grateful that there are other teachers out there willing to work through these tough topics together!! Maybe after next week's glucose test I'll skip the treadmill and eat a brownie and participate actively in #langchat. Think my OB will object?...

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