Archive for the 'An Approach to Teaching' Category

No Downside part 5: Fighting The Real Enemy

I had a neighbor—a real neighborhood treasure—who went to the doctor because of severe heartburn. The doctor prescribed the usual medicine designed to treat usual cause of the heartburn, but Paul’s symptoms did not improve. He returned to the doctor, who gave him stronger medicine to treat the usual cause of persistent heartburn. When this didn’t help, Paul returned for some tests. He learned that he had cancer of the stomach and esophagus, and within a month, he was gone.

When you’re trying to defeat an enemy like a deadly disease, you need to be sure you’re fighting the actual enemy. If you devote your attention to what you merely perceive to be the enemy, the real enemy continues its destructive work.

In language instruction, we would all like to eliminate errors in writing and speech. If we think about it for a bit, we realize that that errors are not the enemy, but a symptom; the enemy is whatever causes students to make errors. We blame a lack of effort on our students’ part. We vow to give students more speaking and writing practice. We correct the same errors over and over, year-after-year. We use points in an attempt to bribe students to improve speaking and writing skills.

For most students, that will not work. You can teach them how to trick you into thinking that they’ve learned stuff, by helping them to prepare for the test over it, but very little of value will survive once that test it over. It’s not your fault. You can’t defeat the real enemy as long as you’re devoting your energies to attacking things that, while they may be capable of producing the same symptoms, are not the root cause of the disease.

When we ask students to talk or write, they do what they know: they think in English, then translate into L2. People are not wired to speak or write while consciously processing grammar.

Whether it’s a fourth-year student saying “me llamo es Nathan”, my Brazilian wife omitting her direct object pronouns in English, or a Colombian friend saying “I dreamed with a giant pink rabbit last night”, for people who should “know better”,  the root cause of errors in L2 is thinking in L1.

Here’s the thing: on one level, we all know this, and we tell our students, “don’t translate—think in Spanish”. And that is the solution—thinking in L2 is the only stake that penetrates the heart of the error monster. But that’s way easier said than done, and it’s wrong to tell students to think in L2 if the work we ask them to do encourages translation from L1!

So how do we get students to think in L2? I make no pretense that this is easy—I’d argue “impossible” within a traditional classroom. In my experience, in which my circumstances don’t permit a full commitment to comprehensible-input based instruction, it is best not to tell students to “think in Spanish”, but instead “ask yourself what sounds right in Spanish”. That is much less daunting for student and teacher.

But the short answer to the question “how do we get our students to think in L2?” is simple: we give them no other choice. We structure our classes in such a way that students are immersed in comprehensible spoken and written language. When we abandon activities focused on conscious grammar processing and error correction, we find we have all kinds of time left over that can be used to fill their heads with correct, comprehensible language! When students are exposed to lots of comprehensible language, the part of the brain whose job it is to figure out the rules (and later, the exceptions) gets the opportunity to work the same magic that is worked in its heyday, when it made a dumb little kid who wasn’t even trying fluent in L1 by age 4.

There’s all kinds of research to support this, but then again, there’s research supporting all kinds of crap. The thing for me is that, when we think about it, it’s self-evident. Plus, I’ve tried both ways, and I’ve seen the difference with my own eyes. Here’s an example from my experience that shows the practical difference between the two approaches in a nutshell:

Before comprehensible-input based instruction: tell students until blue in the face, over the course of years, not days, with little to show for it: “the on the possessive goes with the thing owned, not the owner!”

After comprehensible-input based instruction: Spanish I, after exactly zero formal teaching of the possessive pronouns (but after several comprehensible stories and readings in Spanish that included them), in a spontaneous moment with no particular grammatical focus, a student answering a question about who he went to the mall with, says “…con mi amigos”…stops, shakes his head because that didn’t sound right, and corrects himself, “um…con mis amigos”.

Correct grammar, nature’s way.


No Downside: Part 4: The Title, Explained

I spent thirteen years being called “creative” within the parameters of traditional teaching.

I quickly lost my faith in explaining (after getting good at it, but seeing little evidence that it affected my students’ performance), and began to create in-class activities that met the following criteria:

  1. all students would be involved and engaged in any activity I used
  2. prompt feedback would be an integral part of all activities
  3. activities would be intrinsically motivating (no need to bribe students with points)
  4. long-term retention was the only evidence of effectiveness

You can’t please everybody, but the general consensus of what I’ve heard both directly and through the grapevine is that I was very effective. (I hate being called “creative”. “Effective” is all that matters.) Some students studied Spanish in college because of their experience in my Spanish 1 class. Some students became Spanish teachers because of their experience in my Spanish 1 class.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was only serving the top students; the rest could barely retain what they learned through to the final exam—forget the idea that they’d be able to “speak Spanish” in any meaningful sense.

Even though I was innovative and successful within the confines of the “memorize this vocabulary and memorize this grammar and then combine them to make sentences without making any errors” approach, I never considered myself successful until I abandoned that approach. I have titled this series No Downside because for the last seven years I have used an approach that acknowledges and exploits the way human beings are wired to acquire a language—via comprehensible input—and there has been no downside.

Again, you can’t please everybody, but parents have been supportive, class morale has been high, my morale has been much higher, I’ve had to play the “taskmaster” role much less, students at all levels of talent and diligence have demonstrated useful communication skills, and students have demonstrated mastery of the grammar (yes, grammar) at a much higher level than before.

Seniors in my Spanish 1 classes regularly (I never heard from one who didn’t) tested out of a full year of college Spanish the following year. One girl who took three years of French, then had me for one year of Spanish, tested out of more Spanish than French. My students have been successful on the National Spanish Exam (since my big switch, I’ve never given the NSE without at least one of my students placing in the top-five in the state, and my class is in no way geared toward success on that sort of assessment). Most importantly, I’ve seen C, D, and F students glow with pride telling me how they used their Spanish in the real world after as little as one semester of Spanish 1.

And—get this—I really haven’t been able to commit fully to a natural, comprehensible-input based approach. I teach in a large, highly structured department, and must prepare my students to pick up from a pre-determined point at the next level with teachers who use a different approach. So I have had to make compromises. In addition, I see a given student only three days one week and two days the next, which greatly limits how much comprehensible input I can provide.

Comprehensible input is so powerful that, even if you can’t really go all-out, you can have a big impact. In my classes, the biggest results I’ve seen have been:

  1. Students who do no homework or studying outside of class sometimes out-perform “A” students on real-world communicative tasks. And in the real-world…world.
  2. I don’t have to nag students about a lot of the things I used to have to nag them (or write songs for them) about: “don’t use helping verbs!”; “put the “no” before the verb!”; not “mi amigos”, but “mis amigos”!; “put the direct object pronoun before the verb!”
  3. Students don’t give me that look that they used to give me when I speak Spanish with them.
  4. When a student makes a grammatical mistake—written or oral—I can usually get him to correct the mistake by asking, “does that sound right to you?”
  5. Every year I get my favorite compliment from students who find themselves communicating in Spanish in the real world: “I didn’t realize how much I had learned!”

At the height of my burnout, before I was permitted to pursue comprehensible-input based instruction, someone once said to me about comprehensible input, “teaching like that must be exhausting.” My response was, “maybe, but there’s a much worse type of exhaustion that comes from feeling year-after-year that for all your effort, you’re basically wasting your time with the vast majority of your students.”

At the time, I could only guess, from a frustrated and bitter state-of-mind, that I was right about that. But after seven years of teaching students the way they are wired to learn (to the extent possible in my situation), I can state without hesitation that my statement was accurate. It can be tiring getting through the day, but it’s much easier to get through the years, now that I can see real-world results for my efforts. Comprehensible input has brought me back from the depths of burnout and disillusionment, and has made me proud of what my students can do. There has been no downside.

No Downside, Part 3: More Self-Evident Truth

More self-evident stuff:

When you speak a second language, would you say you “know what you’re doing”?

Would you say that you speak as well as or better than a six-year-old native-speaker?

Does the six-year-old (who, be honest now, speaks much better than you) “know what he’s doing”?

Who worked harder to learn the language: you, or the six-year-old?

Who works harder to produce language: you, or the six-year-old?

So, the best language speakers don’t work at learning the language, don’t work at speaking the language, don’t know what they’re doing, and speak better than those of us who have worked hard and know what we’re doing. Hmm.

In light of all this, is it preferable to pour all of our energy into an effort to help our students learn rules that  are predictably and consistently ignored (even by students who “know” them on tests) in real-life contexts (because we’re not wired to consciously process grammar as we speak)? Or is it preferable to pour our efforts into helping students know what “sounds right”, so they have a chance at the mindless fluency of the blissfully ignorant six-year-old language master?


No Downside, Part 2: Self-Evident Things

Let’s examine some things that are self-evident about language-learning in a non-immersion classroom setting:

  1. Most people who study a language neither master nor retain it to a useful degree.
  2. Fluent L2 speakers always credit their time immersed overseas (non-linear learning), not their classroom experience (linear learning), for their speaking ability.
  3. All L1 speakers become fluent in L1 by non-linear means, and are fluent before beginning any linear classroom learning experience.
  4. Despite years of linear L1 language training, students (with the exception of a few who seem hard-wired to seek an identity beyond their provincial upbringing) retain the regional vocabulary, grammar, and syntax that they’re surrounded by, with no regard for what they learned in the classroom.
  5. L1 speakers rarely consciously process grammar rules, instead speaking like those who surround them (or those they aspire to be surrounded by). Conscious processing of grammar rules occurs in L1 only when the speaker is trying to break away from what “sounds right” and move beyond regional dialect. Fluent L2 speakers are able to speak on auto-pilot while occasionally consciously processing grammar rules that differ greatly from their L1, but generally don’t consciously process grammar rules either.
  6. Upper-level L2 classrooms expect and count upon the weak students to have quit or to have failed in order that those capable of high achievement can be taught at a challenging level.
  7. All but the best and brightest in upper-level classrooms commonly make first-year and second-year mistakes on fourth-year essays and speech.
  8. Some students who are intelligent, hard-working, and fluent in L1, seem incapable of retaining a useful amount of what they are expected to learn in a lower-level class.

There are those who will attempt to get around these uncomfortable truths by pinning the blame on students by claiming that students who cannot advance beyond level one or two don’t “work hard enough”.


While this is undoubtedly true for most failing students, for some, we are forced to play the “lazy” card to avoid the conviction that what is failing is the non-immersion classroom system that “worked” (in the sense that it prepared us well enough to get overseas and really learn the language) for those of us who went on to become language teachers. A successful system of language instruction would not rely on mass failure and drop-outs and then trumpet the achievement of the survivors as evidence for its validity.

Listen, before you dismiss me as a cranky old frustrated teacher, or a hippie, anything-goes, touchy-feely softie, let me give you a little background about my path to language-learning and early career.

  1. The non-immersion classroom system worked for me. I didn’t take a language my freshman year in high school. The French teacher cornered me at one point and told me that I needed to take French the next year, so I did. Without doing any homework, I scored fifth in the state on the National French Exam. I ended up taking French III and IV in my senior year, and unlike the parents who come in on parent/teacher night telling us how they took three years of Spanish in high school and can’t remember a thing, I can pretty much remember all the French I learned. My teacher was good, no question—but my sister had her too, and worked harder than I did—and she doesn’t remember much. I’m just wired to learn languages. (Not bragging—I didn’t wire myself!)
  2. When it turned out that there were no jobs teaching history, I went back to school and got a minor in Spanish in one year, taking courses and their pre-requisites simultaneously, and out-performing students who had taken it all through high school and college up to that point. Again, classroom instruction and worksheets worked great for me. (And again, I’m not bragging. My grandmother remembered her French well into the late stages of Alzheimer’s.)
  3. I gave traditional classroom teaching a try. The most natural thing to do when beginning a teaching career is to teach the way that worked for you. I began my career with faith in explaining and error-correction.
  4. When my students did not succeed, my first instinct was to become a better explainer and error corrector. I did. It didn’t help much.
  5. I was every bit as much of a red-pen, no half-points, grammar and spelling stickler as you may be. I tried to increase student achievement through good teaching, high standards, and hard work, but it didn’t work.
  6. I still want my students to speak and write correctly. I’m not one of those “grammar doesn’t matter” people.

But it boils down to the fact that I can’t be satisfied telling my students “memorize this vocabulary, memorize this grammar, and put them together to make sentences without making any mistakes” knowing that it’s not going to work for the vast majority of students—even though it worked well for me. I can’t be satisfied with teaching my students to trick me into believing (wink-wink) that they’ve learned a given grammar point on a test, when I know that they’ll screw it up every chance they get between now and the time they cram for that same topic for the final exam. And that it will take significant review next year for them to trick that teacher into believing (wink-wink) that they’ve learned it all over again. That’s not learning, even by the most charitable of definitions.

Okay, all of that could be construed as a bit confrontational, but I’m not arguing against anything I haven’t done myself. All of this is information that I have been confronted with, and found my approach inadequate. I changed my approach to teaching because this set of self-evident facts overwhelmed the views that I had previously held regarding the teaching of a language. I lost the argument, and had to change.

Now, this will be a long series, so give me time to get my full point across. However you feel about what I’m saying, please do one thing right now. Or later, when you cool down. Go back and read the eight self-evident statements at the top, and ask yourself (given the fact that you have probably said all of those things to yourself), where does our faith in explaining, worksheets, error-correction—all of the hallmarks of the traditional rigorous classroom—where does our faith in these linear things come from?

Does it come from the self-evident success of these traditional elements? Or does it come from the belief that there is no serious alternative that can realistically be used in the classroom?

No Downside: Mid-Stream Switch, Part 1

I write these words thirteen years after writing my first “Mental Notes of the Month” for my old web site. It is interesting to reflect upon how dramatically my approach to teaching Spanish has changed since those days. But it’s also interesting to note that the seeds for the changes that I have made were already present in what I wrote back then.

I wrote a piece that I called “The Relentless Rejection of What Does Not Work”. There’s nothing that opens your mind to innovative ideas quite like having to fill the space that opens up when you stop doing activities that do not work. But activities spring from approaches, and approaches spring from beliefs about how people learn. In the process of rejecting activities and figuring out how my students learned (or didn’t learn), I eventually rejected my whole approach to teaching Spanish. “Learn this grammar and learn this vocabulary and combine them into sentences without making any errors” simply did not work for the vast majority of my students.

I owe the rejection of my initial default approach (the one that had made me successful as a language learner, had spawned some of my songs, and had built me a reputation as an effective young teacher) to one sentence by Dr. Walter Bartz of the Indiana Department of Education, uttered in a meeting that I remember nothing else about (and that I probably didn’t want to go to). I can’t tell you what the actual sentence was, but the way it resonates in my head is, “human beings are wired to learn language by listening….” Whatever he actually said and however that sentence ended, that one observation held the explanation for why I was not getting the results that I had hoped for from my students. It also set my teaching on a trajectory that would lead me several years later to a pride in my students’ results that I could not have anticipated during the dark time when I was working on my second CD, when I felt desperate to get out of the profession.

To the extent that I am known by Spanish teachers outside my school, it is generally for my music—the response to which has been tremendously gratifying. But the success that I had with my songs and other innovations in my classroom did not make me feel that I was adequately serving anyone but my “A” students in the long-term.

A little over a decade ago, I could barely stand the idea of setting foot in a classroom. Only the breaks afforded by student-teacher and then a semester of personal leave (working full-time renovating the house we now live in) made me feel like teaching could be tolerable again. Only changes in my approach to teaching have allowed my enthusiasm and effectiveness to increase with each passing year, to the point where I’m telling everyone who will listen that my twentieth year of teaching was my best one yet.

This series of posts will be the forum for me to trace the evolution of my approach to teaching Spanish—to share with to anyone who will listen the beliefs, ideas, and observations that have allowed me to feel like my life’s work as a teacher might just matter.

Buen camino,