Monday, January 30, 2023

Output is Messy

As I continue to direct my classroom towards a proficiency-based curriculum and one based on acquisition-driven instruction, I am amazed by what students are able to output purely based on what has been input. However, at the same time, so often that output is strewn with grammatical errors, while some students still have difficulty "outputting." When I see students struggle with either oral or written output, as their teacher I have to ask myself some questions:

  • Have they not received enough of the correct kind of input? In other words, while I may have provided students with understandable input, was the input WAY too overwhelming and too much for them to handle? Just because the input itself was understood does not mean that students were able to handle all of that intake. 
  • Was my input even comprehended? While I may have delivered what I deemed to be understandable, was it really?
However, the biggest question which I must ask myself, "Is what I am seeing COMPLETELY NORMAL for language learners in their proficiency journey, so therefore it is I who must be the one to change and to manage my current expectations?"

In many ways we can get a false sense of mastery of output demonstrated by novice-level students, since so often their communication is based solely on an exchange of memorized life skill phrases (greetings interaction, memorized dialogues, etc.). Students seem to progress so quickly through novice-level language proficiency, but then it seems like they hit a wall when it comes to intermediate-level communication. Although there is a higher-level of expectation for these learners since it seems like they should be able to do more with the language, their output is strewn with errors!

I once heard Ariene Borutski, a CI French teacher in Southern California, say that according to one of her professors, "proficiency is communicating using what you know." I really like that definition, because now that I understand more about language proficiency and the ACTFL levels, it makes perfect sense! If you were to take a look at the ACTFL proficiency guidelines, you would see the various indicators which exemplify each level. However, the proficiency guidelines NEVER address grammatical errors (either the amount of or lack thereof) as indicating language proficiency. Grammatical errors at the novice and intermediate levels only matter when they impede meaning for a sympathetic listener/reader (an ACTFL term). In most instances, novice/intermediate level students are indeed using what they know (i.e., their mental representation of language) which probably has A LOT of holes and gaps which need to be filled. Although we may wish to speed up the process of filling those holes and gaps, according to second language acquisition research, no amount of explicit instruction and correction will remedy it. It will happen when it happens.

Intermediate-level communication of any kind is MESSY. While a student at the intermediate level may have been exposed to more language than a novice and therefore be able to wield more language output, this student probably does not possess the language control of an advanced learner. So when I hear a student say "mihi vult comedit Takis," that sentence is SO FULL of errors (instead of "volo comedere Takis"). However, when I take a step back and realize: a) that this is an intermediate level student and b) this student is using/applying what is "known" at that moment (i.e., whether it be right or wrong, this is what the student's mental representation of language is) and c) errors are the norm at this level and d) as a sympathetic listener, I am still able to understand what this student is communicating, then I realize the following: 

It also shows me where the holes and gaps are in students' mental representation of language and where to focus continued input. 

So when I go in with an expectation that Intermediate-level communication is going to be messy and probably laden with errors, it is a realistic view of language proficiency. This is not to say that standards are being lowered and watered down - far from it! Instead, our expectations were way too high to begin with and did not reflect true reality! As an Intermediate-High Latin speaker, I am so glad to know this, because for me, it is absolutely freeing to realize ahead of time that I am going to make mistakes, because it is expected! 

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Variety in a First Read-through

Just recently, for Latin 3 following a movie talk, my colleague and i introduced a reading based on the movie talk. My colleague had created Google Slides with the text and screenshots from the animated short for students to follow along. There were 15 slides, since the reading was long (but very comprehensible due to lots of repetition). However, I also knew that since it was the first week back from winter break, students' attention span would be short. But because this was a first read-through of the text, I also did not want to rush students through it. While they had been exposed to the reading through the actual movie talk, for most students, that is all it was: exposure - there was no guarantee any acquisition had occurred, so I needed to ensure that we went through the passage together at least once in order to establish meaning. 

In the words of Carol Gaab, "the brain craves novelty," as we began to read through the story for the first time, for every slide, I ended up doing something different with students to keep them engaged in order to add variety. First off, every had a whiteboard, marker, and a rag:

  • First slide - I as the teacher simply read the text and translated into English for students
  • Second slide - students wrote out an English translation
  • Third slide - students did a choral translation
  • Fourth slide - read, draw, and discuss
  • Fifth slide - students answered comprehension questions
  • Sixth slide - Stultus
  • Seventh slide and further - repeated sequence or mixed it up
  1. This took 1.5 days to get through 15 slides. 
  2. The change in activity for each slide kept students engaged, since most of the slides involved them interacting with the text somehow, and every slide's activity was different.
  3. It did keep students "on their toes," because for each slide, they would have to do something (except for the ones where I translated). 
  4. Although I could have just barreled through the 15 slides in one day, I felt that mixing it up and having students do something for each slide kept a first-time read-through from getting stale.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Start of a New Year

It is now 2023! Ever since COVID, the lockdown, and hybrid teaching, my sense of time has been totally thrown off - I feel like I have no memory of a few years there (and will I really be turning 53 this year???). 

As things are returning to "normal" (or as "normal" as things are going to get), I truly enjoyed my holiday season. Some friends of mine finally were able to throw their annual Christmas get-together after a THREE YEAR hiatus, as well as another friend holding her annual New Year's Eve bash (again another THREE YEAR interruption!) Wow, it was so good to see so many friends in person at these parties, many of whom I had not seen since pre-Covid! I also had 2 1/2 weeks off for the holiday break, so I traveled to Florida for a bit and then spent my Christmas in San Diego, visiting my sister and her family (yes, while it was 12 degrees here in Atlanta during that nationwide arctic blast, I was in sunny San Diego where it was 75 degrees on Christmas Day - we went to the beach on that day!).

School started up last week, so now we are back with students. On the one hand, I am definitely trying to get back into routine of teaching (and by now, the novelty of being back has worn off for students), but at the same time, I cannot help but look back and think, "Wow, we have made it through one semester already!" 

A new year and a new semester can be an exciting time. It can be a time to restart many of the things which we implemented back at the beginning of the school year last semester but fell by the wayside. It can be a time to build upon your foundation from last semester and introduce new types of activities/expectations. Last week, my colleague and I surveyed our students, asking them three questions:

  1. What are things you enjoyed in Latin class last semester?
  2. What are things which helped you acquire the language last semester?
  3. What are things which you would like to do more of this semester?
Students were very honest in their responses. They could not respond with generic answers as "games and activities," but I asked them for specifics. Interestingly enough, many students responded "timed writes" as something which helped them last semester. Overwhelmingly, my students said, "We want more brain breaks!" (that was something which I unintentionally stopped doing by November).

I hope that you feel refreshed from your holiday break - just one more semester to go!