Pre-ordered copies of the anticipated text Common Ground: Second Language Acquisition Theory Goes to the Classroom by Florencia G. Henshaw and Maris D. Hawkins arrived in mailboxes around North America this past week. Both authors have been active contributors to the community of language educators through online and real-world forums, and so it is no surprise that this new release quickly reached number 1 on Amazon’s list of New Releases in Language Arts Teaching Materials.
My copy arrived Thursday evening, and I devoured it. By Friday afternoon, I was finished with my first read-through! The speed with which I was able to read Common Ground speaks to its practicality and demonstrates that it was written for a target audience of language teachers. Although the text is packed with citations from various Second Language Acquisition researchers and theorists, it is not a research book– it is focused on practical application of theory.
With these ideas freshly swirling in my brain, I am sitting down to write this post in the spirit of the text– to share the “common ground” that I have with Common Ground… and also my questions and points of departure. I reached out to the authors on Twitter (@Prof_F_Henshaw and @Marishawkins) to ask for permission to share some quotes from the book in this post, which they granted. Whether or not you are reading Common Ground, you can find valuable conversation surrounding the ideas presented in the text by following the official hashtag for the book, #UnpackingCommonGround.
Acquisition cannot happen without input.
Just as Dr. Bill VanPatten shared in his interview on The Motivated Classroom podcast last fall, the authors of Common Ground affirm that there is a consensus among researchers that in the process of language acquisition, it is input that is building the linguistic system. This is not a controversial statement, but it does leave space for unpacking (which, hey! That’s what author Florencia Henshaw does on her podcast, “Unpacking Language Pedagogy”).
The first thing that I think is valuable to unpack is that, in this book the authors are speaking to instruction that is focused on facilitating language acquisition. In the last two years, Director of Training Elicia Cárdenas and I have moved away from ONLY saying that “Language is acquired, not learned”, and instead clarifying that there IS more than one way to build linguistic competence. Linguistic competence can be built through explicit instruction (learning and practicing rules and memorizing vocabulary), but that is not the same as language acquisition. I thank Eric Herman for helping me to see this through his Acquisition Classroom memos. Common Ground does not explicitly make a case for choosing to help learners build linguistic competence implicitly versus explicitly; it works from the assumption that language teachers desire to facilitate acquisition. I don’t think that this is a problem; I think that it is a valid starting point.
With facilitation of language acquisition as the common goal of the reader, the authors take care to help the reader develop a practical understanding of what language acquisition is, how it happens, and the extent to which specific instructional practices may impact that goal. For example, on Page 4 they state, “Output does not build the system, and neither does learning about the language. We don’t acquire a language by learning its rules and applying them ”. It is important for me to note that this statement is not a complete dismissal of output or explicit instruction, as later sections of the book are dedicated specifically to the role(s) that research has suggested that they may play in language acquisition. However, the emphasis throughout the book is on how can we build the linguistic system. As the Common Ground authors state, “The simplest definition of language acquisition is: the (mostly) implicit process of building a linguistic system by making form-meaning connections from the input. Basically, acquisition is what happens to you while you’re busy understanding messages.”
Acquisition is out of our control.
I was encouraged in Chapter 1 when I read the authors’ declaration that, “Neither teachers nor students have total control over what will and will not be acquired (p. 4)”. I had to change my thinking on this topic after listening to Dr. Bill VanPatten, particularly to his talks about the Order of Acquisition. When I first moved away from explicit instruction and began focusing my teaching on acquisition, I still very much believed that I could control what my students acquired. I would choose structures and constructions to target, and I would intentionally repeat them over and over so that my students would acquire them.
Now, I realize that I was wrong to think I could do anything that would guarantee that my students would acquire a given linguistic form. In fact, I recently wrote about this in a post on vocabulary instruction. On pages 76-79 of Common Ground, the authors address some of the common ways that teachers, including myself, will sometimes use to try to buck the system, and why those strategies don’t work. I believe that it was this episode of author Florencia Henshaw’s podcast Unpacking Language Pedagogy that best connects to this section of the book.
Input that counts
Common Ground keeps coming back to the idea that teachers have to make input comprehensible in order for learners to acquire it. However, although the authors define what Comprehensible Input is and outline some of the big ideas and criticisms surrounding the theory, they do not actually use the term “comprehensible input” or the adjective “comprehensible” much at all. Instead, they refer to “input that counts” for acquisition. This stood out to me as a very smart choice, because “comprehensible” is a loaded adjective. Many teachers have preconceived notions about what is and what isn’t “comprehensible input”, as well as just how comprehensible something has to be in order to be, well, “input that counts” for acquisition. Furthermore, as Dr. Terry Waltz has emphasized, it isn’t the potential comprehensibility of a bit of input that makes it count for acquisition; it’s the act of comprehension. For this reason, she coined the term “comprehended input” as her description of input that counts.
So, what IS “input that counts”? Well, you’ll have to read the book! The authors come back over and over again to the concepts of processing and creation of form-meaning connections, which could largely be contributed to the work of Dr. Bill VanPatten. Furthermore, they give specific examples of techniques that teachers can use during instruction in order to maximize processing in the class. Even better, in the “What does it look like in the classroom?” section of each chapter, they often include example activity transcripts, so that we can see exactly what a teacher might say and do during an activity in class in order to ensure that students are processing the input (understanding; making form-meaning connections).
Processing doesn’t guarantee acquisition.
A huge idea related to input processing that the authors bring up several times is that processing doesn’t guarantee acquisition. While it is true that learners have to process a linguistic form in order to acquire it, processing does not guarantee acquisition. This is really important for managing expectations as teachers and curriculum designers.
The authors share that one thing that teachers CAN control is the likelihood that learners will process a given linguistic form. In addition to broad strategies for boosting processing that the authors present throughout the book, they dedicated one section of the text (beginning on page 80) to strategies that teachers can use to boost processing of SPECIFIC linguistic forms. One of these strategies made me think of an ad that I have seen for a language game/app. The challenge is to read a sentence and determine which word is unnecessary. For example, in the sentence, “The arrival of Common Ground on Thursday was an unexpected surprise”, the word “unexpected” is not necessary because “surprise” is, by definition, “an unexpected or astonishing event, fact, or thing”. In order to understand that sentence, the learner wouldn’t need to process both “surprise” and “unexpected” in order to accurately interpret the meaning of the sentence. This is just one example that the authors share of ways in which processing of a given form may not happen, even when it is contained within input that learners are understanding.
This idea of increasing the likelihood of processing gave me a lot to think about, and it definitely included some strategies that I will be keeping in mind in my curriculum writing work. Overall, though, my takeaway from this section was, “the juice ain’t worth the squeeze” when it comes to trying to increase the likelihood that learners will process specific forms. Because processing does not guarantee acquisition, it does not seem like a wise use of time and mental effort to carefully plan the wording of discourse (written and oral) in order to ensure that students are processing a specific form that you want them to process (and I don’t believe tha the authors of Common Ground are arguing that it is). If students are spending the majority of class time being exposed to “input that counts” in many different contexts, they’re going to process the form eventually. I felt like this was one of many examples in which the authors provided strategies that teachers who are tied to a grammar-based curriculum and pacing guide can use to ensure their instruction is acquisition-focused but still check the boxes laid out by their department.
To me, the most important idea here is: If they do process it, acquisition is possible– but it is critical to remember that there is nothing that teachers or students can do to make acquisition happen. All that we can do as teachers and curriculum designers is to open the possibility for acquisition by (1) using the bits of language that we hope our learners will acquire and (2) helping them to process those bits of language. If we do that, there is no guarantee that they will acquire the form. Dr. Bill VanPatten has said it like this: “Comprehension does not guarantee acquisition, but acquisition cannot happen if comprehension does not occur”. When it boils down to it, I think that most of our well-intentioned attempts to "help students acquire language" (teaching some rules, being super strategic about the input we are providing, etc.), boil down to an attempt to control that which we know we cannot control. So, as the authors encourage their readers, let's just give communication a try and see what happens, eh?
You must have gas for the trip.
Perhaps my favorite analogy that the authors presented is found on page 29, in the chapter on assessment. They explained why it is important to understand proficiency levels, and as a Certified Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) Tester, author Florencia Henshaw is well qualified to speak to proficiency goals for language learners. The analogy is this: when you are planning to go on a drive, you need to know how long the trip is so that you know whether or not there is enough gas in the car’s tank. To determine how long the trip is, you need to know the start point and the end point. I thought that this was such a smart comparison. In this analogy, gas represents your time with learners. Do you have enough class time to get your learners from Point B to Point C? Are your learners actually at starting Point B, or are they at Point A? Is there enough time to get them from Point A to Point C, or do you need to change your destination? These questions are important, but the answers are not simple, as Director of Training Elicia Cárdenas demonstrated in this post on setting standards.
In addition to the goal-setting portion of the chapter, I thought that the authors made some very valuable observations and recommendations about how to design assessments that measure “Proficiency through Performance” (which I thought was a super smart way of phrasing the connection between the two) (p. 34). However, all of the examples that the authors provide in the application section of the chapter on assessment are IPAs, or Integrated Performance Assessments. The authors do acknowledge that IPAs are an imperfect solution, and I personally have chosen to use different kinds of performance assessments (see what I do for productive here and interpretive here). It was really good for me to read through their thinking and their examples and reflect critically on my vision for assessment. The performance tasks that I use on assessments are much less directly connected to real world (meaning, outside-the-classroom) communicative tasks, so I see how they are far less reliable in demonstrating or predicting proficiency through performance. However, the sticky point for me is… does it matter? It seems that there is a consensus that when it comes to context, “the classroom can only be the classroom” (Dr. Bill VanPatten, While We’re on the Topic). This is why tasks such as inventing hypothetical dialogues between waiters and clients are not true communication. Each IPA presents a hypothetical, real-world context and asks students to complete a series of tasks within that invented context. So, I guess my sticky point is– what is the value of trying to predict real-world proficiency with the greatest degree of accuracy possible? Is it enough to demonstrate growth in proficiency within the classroom context?
As I reflected on my aversion to IPAs, I concluded that the biggest thing that keeps pushing me away from them is the level of effort required to implement. The authors do list this as one of the major “cons” of IPAs, and for me I think that the level of effort required breaks one of my non-negotiables for teaching practices: it has to be easy to implement. The juice has to be worth the squeeze! I don’t think that the benefits of IPAs (principally, the accuracy of the real-world predictive proficiency) outweigh the cost to teachers and departments in designing them, in preparing students to succeed on them, or in administering them. I look forward to talking about this with the #UnpackingCommonGround hashtag on Twitter!
Input must be compelling.
The authors state that the two qualities of input that counts for acquisition can be boiled down to (1) learners are able to understand it and (b) learners are compelled to understand it. In several places of the text but especially beginning on page 73, the authors talk about strategies that teachers can use to compel learners to understand. More than any other section in the book, I am looking forward to dialoguing with the authors about their definition(s) of the term “compelling”. On the one hand, this section seems to be focused on the importance of making sure that students actually understand what you think they are understanding (Dr. Terry Waltz’ concept of Comprehended Input), which I am totally on board with. Many commonly used Comprehension Checks are not foolproof, and the authors lay out specific strategies that can be used to determine ‘for realsies’ if your students are understanding a given bit of language. So, to the extent that the authors use “compelling students to understand” as “ensuring that students are understanding”, I’m totally on board.
On the other hand, the authors seem to present these “compelling” strategies as strategies that create opportunities for compliance. The authors suggest building short tasks into instruction, such as asking yes/no questions, having students draw what they understand, etc., in order to compel students to pay attention to, or remain engaged with, the input– knowing that they will be required to respond to questions. I don’t think that this is inherently bad, and I absolutely build this kind of activity into the lessons that I write. However, referencing Schlechty’s Levels of Engagement, which were introduced to me by Dr. Ted Zarrow, I think that this definition of “compelling” leaves out the kind of compelling input that creates true engagement: the kind of input that students are so interested in that the teachers don't HAVE to create tasks that make them understand. I don’t think that it is possible to create true engagement for all students, all the time– so I am totally good with building in some strategic compliance. Furthermore, I think that the tasks that the authors suggested in this chapter are brilliant examples of activities that students can complete without distracting from the discourse: they are short, low-stakes, and boost processing. But for me, when I think of “compelling input”, what I am really going for is finding something that is so interesting or stimulating to students that the Northern Lights could be dancing on the ceiling of our classroom and they wouldn’t care because all that matters to them is the topic at hand. (See this article from Dr. Stephen Krashen.) I completely acknowledge that this sounds like a fairy dream world, and that it is not possible all the time, but those magical moments are not as hard to come by as you might think, and for me they are the life-giving force of the classroom language learning experience.
Interpretation is more than just comprehension.
I thought that it was really important that the authors dedicated separate chapters to Input (Chapter 3) and to Reading, Viewing, and Listening (Chapter 4). The way that they organized these chapters really helps the reader to understand their core idea that interpretive proficiency is not just about understanding input. In order to understand discourse (whether spoken or written), the receiver must do much more than just interpret words. They are constructing meaning from the whole of the discourse, and there are many factors at play. I credit author Mira Canion for growing my thinking in this area (see this blog post), as well as author Jennifer Seravallo. In Chapter 3, the authors of Common Ground present some factors to consider when selecting texts or planning oral discourse for your students. They also share many ideas for pre-, during, and post- listening or reading activities that will support students in interpreting the message(s), in addition to understanding the words. The authors affirm that the activities that you choose must not be “more distracting than helpful (p. 113)”.
Not all output is output.
Just as not all input counts as input for acquisition, not all output counts as output. Although my takeaways from the book thus far have focused on the authors’ writing about input, there is plenty of discussion surrounding output and its role in acquisition throughout the text. This idea that not all output counts as output is, for me, a big idea to chew on. This seed was first planted for me in an episode of Talkin’ L2 with BVP. For output to count as output, there must be an “intention of conveying meaning”. A chart on page 136 lays out some examples of what does and doesn’t count as output. When students repeat words in the target language, that is not true output because there is no communicative purpose behind it. Another example is choral reading– neither the locutors nor the listeners must understand the language being produced in order to complete the activity.
This chart did raise some questions for me, however, and I look forward to discussing on Twitter with the hashtag #UnpackingCommonGround and more in depth this fall with the semi-weekly #langbook book study of Common Ground. For example, what if a student reads aloud a short story in the target language TO another student, who draws a storyboard of the text as they listen? The output is being produced in order to express meaning, but the speaker does not need to understand the meaning of the words that they are saying. Another non-example provided is having students rewrite a list of present tense sentences in the past tense (also known as Horizontal Conjugation). I understand that any communicative purpose for this activity would be contrived or hypothetical. For example, consider the task “Imagine you are Renata Flores and you are telling someone who you are. Rewrite this biography from your own perspective!” The student is not actually Renata Flores, only Renata Flores is Renata Flores, and so the task is not real. I understand how that is not considered to be communication. However, within the context of the hypothetical scenario, the student IS engaged in expression of meaning. So, is it true that if communicative purpose doesn’t exist, output doesn’t exist? Or, are there situations in which there is no true communicative purpose, but true output can still happen?
Proven activities for class
One of the most valuable aspects of this book is the section of each chapter entitled, “What Does It Look Like in the Classroom?”. I was pleased to see many familiar activities, such as Input Brackets, Write and Discuss, the use of news articles such as those from El mundo en tus manos (of which Maris Hawkins is a co-author), Storytelling with drawing, Calendar Talk, Card Talk, Weekend Chat, etc. These activities are not always referred to by these names, but the fact that they are scripted out and embedded in practical instructional sequences will be immensely useful to new and seasoned teachers alike. It is especially exciting to think about this book being used in Methods courses, placing these proven activities in teachers’ tool kits from the start of their careers. Awesome!!
Read Common Ground
There is so much more that I have to say about this book. From the segment on feedback (curbing expectations, considering the affective side of feedback) to the the similarities and differences between L1 and L2 acquisition, to the warning against making pedagogical decisions based on students' preferences ("I want to learn grammar!"), there is so much good stuff to chew on, and a lot of ideas that I look forward to talking through further with the authors and the greater language teaching community.
If thinking about these ideas get you excited, join me and hundreds of other language educators that are reading Common Ground. It can be purchased from Amazon (here) or directly from the publisher (here). I would also recommend following authors Florencia Henshaw and Maris Hawkins on their various professional social media platforms:
You can also catch the authors at the AATSP conference in July and at the ACTFL conference in November! Finally, mark your calendars for September 15, 2022, when the semi-weekly #langbook chat begins on Twitter– or join the conversation NOW using the hashtag #UnpackingCommonGround.