My CI Teaching Philosophy
I have been answering lots of questions in the past few days about my Spanish Teacher Success Academy presentation and it’s got me thinking about what I want my teaching to be, right now, (almost) 12 years into my teaching career.
All of this time spent with my students and with the online CI community has changed my perspective from what it used to be…It has led me to the following general beliefs about language teaching and being a language teacher in 2019.
Language Class Should Not Be Difficult
(and all students who complete the class requirements should pass)
Language classes are not like other classes. The things the students are doing in a language class should not be geared towards success on a test or even towards the learning of facts. Students don’t need facts about a language, they need to be able to use a language to accomplish real-world tasks.
It’s not my job to be a bouncer. I don’t want to keep the best students in and the worst students out. I want every single student who comes into my room to leave feeling more confident and competent in the language. For this reason, I teach for acquisition over learning. Acquisition is an unconscious process, which, for many students, translates to: it’s “easy” (there’s no grammar rule memorization, it’s not something they need to go home and study). But that’s not exactly true. The students still need to attend to what the teacher is saying, maybe even moreso than in other classes. But this shouldn’t be a problem as long as we’re giving them a reason to pay attention (more on that later).
As such, they all earn high grades in my class because they are achieving to their highest level. If they are moving along the proficiency path, they are meeting the requirements of success in my class. If they complete their tasks to the best of their ability, they are on the right track and I can’t knock them for it. Should I give a kid a low grade because he didn’t move into Novice High? Acquisition isn’t that neat. It is messy and it is different in every student and their grades should reflect their own personal gains rather than an arbitrary (and possibly unrealistic) goal.
Comprehensible Input is King (or Queen)
Language classes must be based on comprehensible input first and foremost. When you think that the students have had enough comprehensible input and are ready to move on and focus on extended output, you’re wrong. Keep giving them input.
When they start to spontaneously speak a few words or phrases and you want to capitalize on that momentum and focus more on output, you’re wrong. Keep giving them input.
The only thing that the students need at the Novice level is comprehensible input. Any ci that you can get into their heads (Stories, movietalk, news articles, picturetalk, madlib stories, owi, and anything else that gives you an opportunity to speak to them in comprehensible language that they can respond to and show comprehension of), that’s what you give them. As you go on through the year or years, the students will try and talk in the TL and you should be proud of them and you should encourage it, it is the natural progression of language acquisition. But don’t assess it and definitely don’t expect it to happen consistently and across the entire population in the classroom.
Acquisition through comprehensible input is a slow and (on the surface) frustrating process, but it pays off months (or sometimes years) down the road when the students have enough language to have a real interpersonal exchange with real negotiation of meaning, circumlocution, and communication when they are at the novice high or intermediate low level.
And then, when they can have some short interpersonal exchanges with you or other students and you think they might be ready to move into extended output focused instruction, you’re wrong.
Keep encouraging them to take chances, but remember to only assess what you know they can do consistently and always give them more input.
Language is a means to an end, not the end itself.
Communication needs a purpose and that purpose needs to be something more than practicing a vocabulary word or grammar form. If the task doesn’t have a purpose beyond practicing the language, don’t do it. Rather than drilling a certain verb form, create a task that forces students to use that verb form again and again for a purpose.
For example, I like to play a game where the students say their names and introduce other students. They have to say, in the TL, “My name is ___. This is ___.” This could be a very dry activity that practices the forms for “my name is” and “this is” just for the sake of practicing them. But a simple twist gives the activity a purpose: I make it into a competitive game.
Rather than saying their own names and introducing the students they have been with for years to the other students they have been with for years, the students give each other names (of famous people, athletes, characters from books/movies).
I start, “My name is Batman. This is ____.” And I make up a name on the spot, usually Robin. I point at a student and that student is now Robin. That student then introduces me, says his name (which is now Robin) and introduces another student with a name that Robin comes up with. “My name is Robin. This is Taylor Swift.” Then “Taylor Swift” introduces me, Robin, herself, and a new person. And we continue along those lines with everyone stating all the names that have come before and coming up with new names for their friends and classmates.
All of a sudden, this rote practice activity becomes an opportunity for the students to be more and more clever and cheeky. Additionally, there is competition because if they forget one of the names, they’re out and the last one (or many) standing get prizes (stickers, some other small token).
I know that they are practicing a certain language function, but they just think we’re having fun. They don’t know they’re practicing important vocabulary or listening comprehension or memory building skills, they just know that they are competing and are trying to accomplish the goal of the game.
This is also why Storytelling and TPRS can be so effective: the students are engaged because they are invested in the story and they don’t even realize that they are receiving a flood of input in the TL. The purpose of a TPRS story in my class is not to teach any specific language, rather it is to give the students an opportunity to listen to and interact with me in the TL through circling questions, questions from the students, and suggestions from the students for details about the story. Teachers can find a lot of success if they get the students using language in a way that they don’t realize they’re practicing. Give them a purpose to use it that they are interested in and they will use it with more enthusiasm.
L2 learners aren’t native speakers and, by definition, will never be
(and there’s nothing wrong with that!)
Top diplomats from around the world (think foreign presidents and prime ministers) speak English at the Advanced, Superior, or even Distinguished level, but they have an accent. American politicians speak Spanish at the same levels but have American accents (think Florida politicians Jeb Bush and Rick Scott). Do their accents make them any less impactful? Have their accents held them back from reaching the highest levels of government and diplomacy? Of course not.
Now think of your students: They hear people speaking perfectly fluent yet accented English very frequently, but they are expected to speak with near native accent and pronunciation in their L2? What message are we sending them?
My English language accent is Neutral American (I grew up in suburban Florida) with a little hint of Southern Drawl. My Spanish language accent is Neutral American with a little hint of Southern Drawl. That doesn’t make me any less of a proficient speaker and it doesn’t make me any less comprehensible to my students or to native speakers.
There is no “Good at language” or “Bad at language”
Saying someone has a natural aptitude for languages is like saying someone has a natural aptitude for breathing. Speaking is an inherent part of the normal human experience and, like breathing, is something that every normal human has the ability to do*
Language aptitude is something that comes up again and again in conversations with students and parents alike “I can’t learn Spanish,” “I just don’t get it,” “I’ve never been good at Spanish class.”
This is not the fault of the student or the teacher, it is the fault of the method of instruction. Methods of instruction that do not focus on comprehensible input are doomed to fail because the students are not given an opportunity to be flooded with input and let their minds acquire the language.
I am a perfect example of this: I spent most of my high school career in Spanish classes being a straight-A Spanish student who couldn’t speak or understand a word of spoken Spanish outside the classroom. This is because I could ace grammar tests. What I realize now, after years of reflecting and teaching language myself, Learning isn’t what we should be doing; we should be working to acquire. I didn’t acquire very much in my high school classes because I never had interaction with comprehensible input (or at least not enough that I could create a mental representation in my mind of the Spanish language-I had no interlanguage, just a bunch of rules and their exceptions). This isn’t my fault or the fault of my teachers; it’s was a faulty methodology that left students with lots of rules to remember and no unconscious knowledge of the language.
As BVP says in While We’re On The Topic,
I’m much happier if a student knows that something “doesn’t sound right” than if they can conjugate an irregular verb in all 16 tenses.
*I don’t mean to ignore the experiences of those who are not able to speak. Just as some people cannot breathe naturally, there are those who cannot speak naturally for physical or psychological reasons, but these individuals are not representative of the norm.
Additionally, my definition of speaking includes sign language and other forms of communication that do not involve physically speaking, such as technology-assisted communication.