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.

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