Thursday, April 20, 2017

Know Thyself

On last week's Tea With BVP show (episode 56), Bill Van Patten had a great discussion about explicit grammar. A listener had called in asking if there were advantages in explicit grammar instruction in a language class, as he and his wife felt like they had both greatly benefited from it when they were learning Spanish; knowing endings and grammar charts considerably aided their learning experience. I really liked Bill's answer: while there are explicit learners, there are also implicit learners. There are indeed those for whom explicit grammar lessons are beneficial, but for most, explicit grammar is not effective, but rather affective. In addition, in a research experiment of two groups where one was given explicit grammar instruction but the other was not, there was no difference between the two groups in terms of performance.

Why I enjoyed the discussion so much was because I felt like the caller perfectly described me and my experience of learning language. I LOVE grammar, so for me, when learning Latin (in a grammar-translation setting), the language made perfect sense to me. Visually, I could see the charts in my head, identify the patterns, and isolate words into its various parts. In fact, in my learning of other languages, I cannot help but to see the patterns and to create a working grammar chart in my mind. Grammar just makes sense to me.

About four years ago, though, I came to this realization: the majority of my students are not like me and do not share the same passion for grammar. For my first 16 years of teaching, however, I taught as if they did (and should), and I blamed them for not being like I was. In reality, the issue did not lie in my students, but in my thinking that they should be like me and learn exactly like I do. 

I think that the problem lies at times when our classes are composed of explicit learners. As an explicit learner myself, I LOVE those kinds of classes. Unfortunately soon that becomes the norm, as only explicit learners are the ones who take my class. But essentially all I am doing is replicating myself. If we wish for our language programs to grow, we need to attract all kinds of students in the building. This syndrome is not just limited to explicit grammar instruction, as I have seen teachers who flourish as learners in "incomprehensible" (and I mean that to mean "incomprehensible to me") immersive-language environments replicate the same setting in their classrooms. Soon, unintentionally, it becomes a rather exclusive setting where only certain types of students succeed.

On today's Tea With BVP show (episode 57 - Blaine Ray was his guest!), Bill Van Patten addressed this issue, calling it a situation where we teachers are projecting ourselves onto our students (starting at 38:57 in the episode): "If all students were like language teachers, then they would be teachers of language, and they're not. We're the weirdos." When we transpose ourselves and our natural passions/strengths onto students and expect them to learn in the same manner which we do, then we are only successful in teaching students who are like us. In the episode, Blaine even says that we teachers cannot think like teachers by focusing on the textbook and where we think that learners should be by X, but rather we must think like students and focus on their needs (starting at 37:17 in the episode). Well put, Blaine.

To me, this is the key: know thyself. We need to be aware that whatever attracted us as students ourselves to language learning is not what will attract the average student to our classrooms. We as language teachers sometimes are the biggest obstacles to our own students' learning. When we can get past ourselves, then successful learning can occur.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Support the Statement

On many occasions, I have been asked about ways to assess reading comprehension, outside of the traditional "What is X doing?","Where is X?","Who is X?" because that gets very boring and predictable for students (see previous post regarding why we should assess reading comprehension in L1, instead of L2). An easy way to assess reading comprehension is to give a statement to students, and they must find the sentence(s) from the reading passage which supports that statement.

  1. Using a known-reading, create statements in English about something in the passage. The statements need to be in English so that when a student writes down an incorrect answer in the target language, then you as the teacher know that the student did not understand the target language in the reading. If the statement itself is written in the target language and the student writes down an incorrect answer in the target language, then too many questions exist as to why the student missed it: did the student not understand the target language in the reading? did the student not understand the target language in the statement? If the statement had been written in English, would the student have written down the correct answer in the target language? 
  2. Give students both the reading and the statements. 
  3. The statement should not contain the wording itself of the sentence which you are asking students to find. That makes it too easy; in addition students will look for those exact words instead of reading through the passage.  
  4. The answer to the statement needs to be obvious to students. What may seem obvious to you as the teacher is not always obvious to students. 
  5. It is okay if there are multiple sentences from the reading which support the statement. 
  1. If students are familiar with the reading, this type of assessment should not take long at all.
  2. This is a great way for students to re-read a passage with a purpose. 

Latin Example - Dragonboy (based on a Movie Talk)

Puer florem facit. Puer picturam in flore ponit (puts). In picturā sunt puella et puer. Ecce puella in castellō! Puer et puella in fabulā sunt. Puer puellam valde amat. Ecce alius puer! Puer est dux in fabulā.

Puer valde tristis est, quod putat (he thinks) puellam amāre ducem. Puella in castellō ducem non amat, quod dux molestus est. Dux puerum pulsat, quod dux molestus est.

Subito dracō apparet! In fabulā est draco! Puer est dracō in fabulā. Puella in castello fingit sē valde timēre, quod est actor! Puer fingit sē esse draconem, quod est actor! Auditorium laetum est, et plaudit. Puella laeta est - non fingit sē esse laeta!

Subito dux apparet! Puella in castellō fingit sē amāre ducem, quod est actor! Puer valde iratus est, quod dux molestus est. Dux puerum petit. Dux puerum pulsat, et puer ducem pulsat! Puella in castellō valde timet! Quid accidet (will happen)?

1) The first boy is not a real dragon but acts like one in the play.

2) The first boy thinks that the girl does not like him.

3) A fight breaks out in the play.

4) The second boy is a pest and harasses the first boy.

English example - Dragonboy
The boy is making a flower. The boy puts a picture in the flower. In the picture are a boy and a girl. Behold - a girl in a castle. The boy and the girl are in a play. The boy loves the girl very much. Behold - another boy! The boy is a leader in the play.

The boy is very sad, because he thinks that the girl loves the leader. The girl in the castle does not love the leader, because the leader is annoying. The leader hits the boy, because the leader is annoying. 

Suddenly, a dragon appears! In the play is a dragon. The boy is a dragon in the play. The girl pretends that she is very scared, because she is an actor. The boy pretends that he is a dragon, because he is an actor. The audience is happy and applauds. The girl is happy - she does not pretend that she is happy.

Suddenly, the leader appears. The girl in the castle pretends that she loves the leader, because she is an actor. The boy is very angry, because the leader is annoying. The leader heads for the boy. The leader punches the boy, and the boy punches the leader. The girl in the castle is very scared. What will happen?

1) The first boy does not like how the second boy is treating the girl.

2) The audience likes the performance of the boy.

3) The second boy is a bully and harasses the first boy in the beginning.

4) The girl is pleased with the performance of the boy and is not acting.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Three C's of Comprehensible Input

These past few months, I have given a number of CI-related presentations, and in each, I have included a brief explanation of Comprehensible Input theory. If you are remotely familiar with CI, you know that this is no easy task. Luckily, my Latin colleague Rachel Ash has come up with a quick way to give an overview of the topic: she calls it "the Three C's of Comprehensible Input." NOTE - I am assuming that Rachel is the one who devised this. By no means is she trying to oversimplify Krashen's Hypotheses on Comprehensible Input, nor do I believe that the hypotheses can be reduced solely to three words. However, I do like this explanation, because for those unfamiliar with CI, it gives a great, focused, brief, easy-to-remember synopsis. 

I do realize that for ACTFL, there are the 5 C's (Communication, Culture, Connections, Comparisons, Connections), and if you are familiar with Instructional Technology, there are the 4 C's (Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Critical Thinking). Hopefully, you will not dismiss the Three C's of CI as just another set of acronyms.

The Three C's of Comprehensible Input - Comprehensible, Compelling, Caring
(I have taken some of this information from a presentation which Bob Patrick has given on the basics of CI and consolidated it here)
  1. Comprehensible - We acquire language subconsciously through the delivery of understandable (and of understood) messages. We only acquire that which we understand; therefore, that which has the most meaning is acquired first. In order to achieve this, we need to implement the establishment of meaning early. It is important that we as teachers constantly facilitate comprehension checks in order to determine the comprehensibility of these messages. We must focus on the message, not on grammatical forms; as a result, a grammar-based syllabus has no value in language acquisition. Progression in language acquisition occurs when messages become one step beyond a learner's language competence (i+1). Output is the natural overflow of receiving comprehensible messages.  
  2. Compelling - We want to hear and to read that which is personally interesting to us. Because a message is understandable does not necessarily mean that it is interesting. When a message becomes interesting, language becomes secondary; learners become "lost in the moment" and are no longer focusing on the language but rather on the message. Grammar is not compelling or interesting to the normal language learner. 
  3. Caring - When one's stress level (affective filter) increases, learning decreases, even if the message is comprehensible and compelling. As a result, it is important that we establish a safety net for learners, whereby they can communicate to the teacher incomprehensibility of messages and their rising stress levels. Being an external monitor (corrector of form) to learners only raises their affective filters. 
I know that these explanations do not fully encompass Krashen's Five Hypotheses, and I am certain that there are folks who will say that I have left out key components in my explanation here. I do hope that Rachel's Three C's helps some folks understand CI better, because it has certainly has helped me to explain it better.