Category Archives: Teaching Methodology and Research

Make Sure “I Can” Statements Are Communicative

We have made major strides toward language proficiency in recent years.  Classroom instruction, activities and tasks have all become much more communicative in nature.  Assessment has moved more toward what students can do with the language rather than simply what they know about the language.  One of the most important and effective tools available in this shift toward proficiency has the publication and implementation of the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can Do Statements.  The simple use of the phrase “I Can” has put the focus on what students are able to accomplish in the foreign language and move beyond just listing vocabulary and manipulating grammar structures.

Is "I Can" Enough to Demonstrate Proficiency? (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

The Can Do Statements are intended to be used for any language and any age or developmental level.  The reality is that a “one size fits all” approach is often challenging, particularly when a novice mid can be 6 years old or 30.  For this reason many teachers have developed classroom or unit-based Can Do Statements that are developmentally appropriate to the age of the students.  As many of us create individualized Can Do Statements it is important to keep our communication and proficiency goals in mind.  It is easy to assume that simply putting “I Can” in front of a prompt will make it communicative.

Take a look at these “I Can” Statements and determine if they are communicative and based on proficiency:

  • I can count to 100
  • I can say the days of the week
  • I can day the date
  • I can say I like and I don’t like
  • I can say sentences in the present tense
  • I can say sentences in the past tense
  • I can say sentences in the future tense

These are a good starting point, but they can be more communicative by providing context.  Essentially they should provide an opportunity for students to do something with the language that they can produce.  The above statements demonstrate what a student knows about the language, but a change in the prompt toward more communication will allow students to show what they can do with the language.

  • I can tell you my phone number, age and address (using the numbers 1-100)
  • I can tell you what day(s) I have a class, lesson, sports practice or rehearsal (using the days of the week)
  • I can tell you my birthday and the birthdays of my friends or the date of an upcoming or past event (using knowledge of how to say the date)
  • I can tell you what activities, food, movies, books, art, sports that I like to do or don’t like to do (using the phrases “I like” and “I don’t like”
  • I can tell you what I typically do during the day or on the weekend or what I am doing right now (using the present tense sentence structure)
  • I can tell you what I did yesterday, last week, last year or earlier today (using the past tense sentence structure)
  • I can tell you what I am going to do tomorrow, next week, next year or later today (using the present tense sentence structure)

The examples above show that “I can say” does not lend itself to a conversation, whereas “I can tell” invites more detail, interaction and personalization of the language.

“I can say” is good starting point when working toward proficiency, but be sure to add in I can Statements that give students an opportunity to use the language in a communicative context as well.  These are the types of tasks and prompts that will lead to increased proficiency.

Foreign Language Modes of Communication (ACTFL)

What is the purpose of communication?  Is it to practice language?  Maybe it is to polish our verb forms and word order?  Perhaps it is to use all the vocabulary that we have learned in a language?  Hopefully, we can all agree that this sort of “communication” that has not have a clear goal is not the reason that we engage in language learning.  The reason we communicate in any language in any form is to convey or understand a message.

The Importance of Message when Communicating in a Foreign Language (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com When it comes to understanding or conveying a message there are three ways of looking at the communication.  The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines put communication to these categories: interpersonal, interpretive and presentational.  Each of these modes of communication looks at the message in unique way.  A solid understanding of how a message is conveyed or understood when speaking, writing or reading is essential to using various tools needed to effectively communicate.

Presentational communication is one-way speaking or writing that does not allow for real time clarification of meaning.  This means that the speaker/writer has to be sure to “fill in the gaps” and have a solid understanding of what the listener or reader knows or needs to know to interpret the message.

Conversely, interpretive communication is one-way listening or reading that also does not allow for real time clarification of meaning.  When reading and listening in this context the reader/listener needs to fill in their own gaps in understanding.  This may require accessing personal knowledge of the topic or doing research.  The most effective tool is the use of context clues and identifying what is understood to make meaning globally.

Interpersonal communication, on the other hand, is two-way speaking that allows for clarification of the message in real time.  When communicating interpersonally all speakers and listeners are involved in creating and interpreting the message and work together to assure that there is a collective understanding.

These tables below lay out the three modes of communication.

The Importance of Message when Communicating in a Foreign Language (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com The Importance of Message when Communicating in a Foreign Language (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.com

Language Learning with a Growth Mindset

I wrote a post previously about how a change in words can change a students mindset.  Essentially if students change the words and questions they use to approach their work, the outcome will be different. A mindset that is more focused on growth and overcoming challenges will lead to higher confidence and a clearer understanding, whereas a fixed mindset causes students to limit their confidence and potential (Carol Dweck, Mindset).  I wanted to approach this topic again, but from a more linguistic perspective.  Here is a more focused list of ways that language learners can use a growth mindset to learn the target language more effectively, efficiently and with more increased proficiency.

Language Learning with a Growth Mindset. (French, Spanish, ACTFL) www.wlclassroom.com

The Role of Short and Long-Term Memory in Language Learning

We’ve all been there.  Students learn a new language structure (i.e. grammar point) or vocabulary words, take a quiz, do well, and then a few days later they are unable to produce the structure or vocabulary.  What happened?  Where did it it go?

The Role of Short and Long-Term Memory in Language Learning (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.com

First, let’s look at Interlanguage.  This is the language that a learner speaks that is on a continuum between his native language (L1) and the target language (L2).  Selinker explains that Interlanguage has these characteristics:

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 6.36.16 AM

Bill Van Patten takes this a bit further in his work (particularly in Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen) and presents the ideas of intake and uptake along this interlanguage continuum:

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 6.36.37 AMInitially, language input becomes intake or part of the short term memory of the learner.  This is consciously attended to and learned by the learner.  When structures and vocabulary become uptake, part of the long-term memory, it is considered subconscious and acquired. The uptake is the proficiency level of the learner.

When students take a quiz on the new material and do well it is because they are being assessed on their short-term memory (intake).  When new material comes along and that older materials has not moved on to long-term memory (uptake) it is replaced by the newer material.  That’s why the grammar structure they knew so well for the quiz is not as easily produced a few days later….and the reason we need to spend so much time reviewing for final exams at the end of the school year.

So, this begs the question, “How can we help students acquire language so that it becomes part of their uptake (long-term memory)?”  The answer is not complicated and involved, but does take persistence and consistency.  It comes down to providing as much comprehensible input as possible to students, both listening and reading.  The more exposure students have to input that is comprehensible to them the more likely the language will become uptake and make its way to the long-term memory.  Again, this is mostly a subconscious process in which language is acquired so comprehensible inout is the most effective tool.  This is yet another reason to use the target language as much as possible (90-100%) in the second language classroom.

I want to end with a quick word about learning grammar and vocabulary, as opposed to acquiring.  Steven Krashen, who is best known for his input hypothesis (i+1), does speak to the usefulness of studying and learning grammar and vocabulary.  He describes this learned language as a monitor that assess output that originates in the long-term memory for accuracy.  This learned, often intake/short-term memory, language is useful in writing as well because the writer has the time to reflect and monitor the output.  When communicating interpersonally in real time the output is often less accurate with novice and intermediate students because the more accurate and native-like language has not yet made its way to the long-term memory.

VanPatten, B. (1996). Input processing and grammar instruction: Theory and research. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

VanPatten, B., & Cadierno, T. (1993). Explicit instruction and input processing. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15, 225–243.

VanPatten, B., & Oikkenon, S. (1996). Explanation versus structured input in processing instruction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18 (4), 495–510.

Staying Up-To-Date in the Changing-World of Foreign Language Teaching

Take a look at your foreign language textbook.  How long has it been used in your department?  Look at the publication date (the original one, not the new edition with new photos).  Does foreign language education look the same today as it did when that book was published?

Staying Up-To-Date in the Changing-World of Foreign Language Teaching (French, Spanish) wlteacher.wordpress.comThe reality is that when many of these books were first published they were based on current foreign language teaching trends at the time.  But, times change.  As much as we try to keep up with new research and do our best to modify our teaching to keep current many times we are restrained by textbooks that were published before the dawn of the age of communicative and proficiency-based foreign language teaching.  If we continue to use (sometimes because we are mandated..I get it) these textbooks and accompanying materials we are unable to fully embrace proficiency.

It takes years to write and publish a textbook and the cost of buying new textbooks needs to justify the investment, which means that the book will be used for many years.  The issue here is that teaching changes quite a bit on a regular basis.  So what is a teacher to do?

Several years ago I completed a graduate program in applied linguistics with a research focus on psycholinguistics and second language acquisition.  I had already been teaching for ten years, but my understanding of technique and methodology changed so much throughout my research and studies.  I was devoted to embracing communicative and proficiency-based language teaching, but, of course, the textbooks in my classroom were not going to be helpful.  Don’t get me totally wrong here.  There is surely a place to focus on the accuracy of language typically presented in traditional textbooks, but there was clearly a void when it came to proficiency.  Back in 2009 I started googling around and found Teachers Pay Teachers.  There I found materials from teachers who had also embraced proficiency-based language teaching and were making their materials available.  For me the true genius and worth of Teachers Pay Teachers is that it allows educators to quickly and efficiently adapt to the changing climate of education and provides materials that respond to this change in a fraction of the the time and cost that it would take to write, publish and purchase a textbook.  Teachers are dedicated to keeping up with teaching trends and methodology and now there is a way to share well-vetted resources with the larger teaching community.

If you have spent any time here on my blog, you know that I am dedicated to foreign language proficiency and bringing tips, tools and resources to teachers so that their students can rise in proficiency and communicate with confidence.  I often present these ideas at conferences and throughout social media.  The immediacy of sharing out in the constantly-changing world of education has been invaluable.  Teachers are held accountable for emerging standards, curriculum, evaluations and expectations, but traditional resources, such as textbooks, can’t keep up.  This is the beauty of Teachers Pay Teachers.  The resources on the site are from teachers in our situation who are providing what we need to succeed.  The fact that it is an open marketplace means that you can see the reviews of other teacher and determine very quickly the quality and usefulness of a product.  Does this happen when it comes to textbooks?

I’m assuming if the title of this post piqued your interest that you are in fact interested in staying up-to-date in the changing world of foreign language teaching.  I’m sure that you create great materials for your students in your classroom.  Keep it up.  Take a look around by blog by clicking on the categories to the right.  You will see some interesting topics and new ways of approaching foreign language teaching.  You’ll also see posts describing proficiency-based speaking and writing activities available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.  Read the comments and decide if these products will help you foster language proficiency in your classroom.

Here are some posts to get started:

 

 

Assessing Proficiency with Student-Friendly Can Do Statements

The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are a very helpful tool in the Foreign/World Language Classroom.  They provide teachers and students with clear guidelines and descriptions to assess proficiency levels.  They are also an effective tool for students and teachers to set achievable and concrete goals.

Assess Proficiency with Student-Friendly Ca Do Statements (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.comAssess Proficiency with Student-Friendly Ca Do Statements (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.comThe ACTFL Can Do Statements provide detailed examples of what students could/should be able to do at each proficiency level.  The challenge I have personally had with the Can Do Statements is using them for various age and developmental levels.  There are some Can Do statements that address such things as making reservations and asking questions about particular academic subjects.  While these are very applicable to older students, they are not developmentally appropriate for younger students.  For this reason I have developed, with the help of a few colleagues, Student-Friendly Can Do Statements.  These statements honor the text type (individual words and phrases, discrete sentences, connected sentences, paragraphs) of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, but are more applicable to elementary, middle school and high school students.

Assess Proficiency with Student-Friendly Ca Do Statements (French, Spanish) wlclassroom.com

Target Language Use and Student Accountability

Language teachers know the importance of target language use in the classroom.  Regular exposure and interaction with the language leads to acquisition and a higher proficiency level.  In order to promote, expect and respect the use of the target language in the classroom teachers should support students by creating a classroom community that makes students feel safe taking risks with the language and teach the tools needed to communicate.  Students should also know their proficiency level and be personally accountable for their commitment to using the target language and striving to raise their proficiency level.

Target Language Use and Student Accountability (French, Spanish) www.wlclassroom.comIn my classroom I have a 20 point rubric that I use to assess students each week on four focus areas: Community, Commitment, Proficiency, and Preparation.

Each category is based a five point scale.  Students are aware of these criteria and they are posted in the classroom so that they can be references regularly. I typically grade each student myself for the first few weeks of the school year and then students self-assess, but I of course reserve the right to modify the self-assessment grade if necessary.  The grade is given holistically for the entire week.  Here is the breakdown of each category:

Community:

  •  5  Choices and interactions enhance the classroom community.
  • 4  Choices and interactions almost always enhance the classroom community.
  • 3 Choices and interactions sometimes enhance the classroom community.
  • 2 Choices and interactions often hinder the classroom community.
  • 1 Choices and interactions regularly hinder the classroom community.

For recommendations on classroom community building see my post on Building a Community of Confidence.

Commitment:

  • 5  Always speaks target language and circumlocutes.
  • 4  Always speaks target language with some effort to circumlocute.
  • 3 Makes an effort to speak target language, but need to circumlocute more.
  • 2 Resorts to native language; no circumlocution.
  • 1 Little use of target language.

For tools and strategies for students to remain in the target language see my  posts on circumlocution, functional chunks and language ladders.

Proficiency:

  • 5  Regularly speaks at expected proficiency level and strives to speak above level.
  • 4  Regularly speaks at expected proficiency level.
  • 3 Usually speaks at expected proficiency level and below level at times.
  • 2 Regularly speaks below proficiency level.
  • 1 Always speaks below proficiency level.

See my post on Foreign Language Goal Setting Using ACTFL Proficiency Levels to learn about assessing students’ proficiency levels.

Preparation:

  • 5  Punctual, has all materials, assignments complete.
  • 4  Punctual, has most materials, assignments complete.
  • 3 Punctual, has all materials, assignments incomplete.
  • 2 Late or missing materials.
  • 1 Late or missing materials, assignments incomplete.

Try out this rubric system and modify to fit the needs and of your individual classroom.  I’m sure you will see an increase in student accountability for using the target language and you will feel confident that you are supporting your student in their language proficiency growth.

90%+ Target Language Use, Questions and Answers

How do we get to 90%+ target language use in the foreign language classroom?  We need to rethink how we have been teaching over the past few decades and be willing to leave some of it behind.  Traditional teaching practices were not designed to promote a high percentage of target language use.

90%+ Target Language Use in the Foreign Language Classroom (French, Spanish) wlteacher.wordpress.comIf you want to get to 90%+ target language use in the classroom reflect on your teaching through the lens of these four questions and recommendations.  Take some time to contemplate how you can move your teaching in a direction that is more proficiency-based and promotes regular and confident use of the target language in your classroom.

  • Q1: Are prompts and tasks at the appropriate proficiency level?
  • R1: Assess the proficiency level of students to make sure that prompts are not above students’ proficiency level.
  • Q3. Are students held accountable for using the target language?
  • R3: Include goal setting, consistency, commitment and proficiency in grade.
  • Q4. Are all the students actively engaged and interested?
  • R4: Provide choice and opportunity for personal interest, investment and active engagement.

Foreign Language Lesson Planning

I learn a lot from the teachers that I work with when volunteering in Nicaragua.  These are teachers that have very limited resources and often don’t see their students regularly.  For various reasons children are unable to come to school.  Many times they must help cart water to their houses from a distance or there is a need to stay with younger siblings our cousins while parents work.  The reality is that the Panamá School teachers must take full advantage of the time that they have with their students to make everything that what they teach is directly applicable to the lives of their students.  There is a mantra among the teachers, “APA…Aprendo, Practico, Aplico,” which means “Learn, Practice, Apply.”

Foreign (World) Language Lesson Planning (French, Spanish) wlteacher.wordpress.com

They explained to me to is not a good use of the kids’ time to learn and practice anything in school if there is not a clear and obvious application to their lives.  It’s a simple, yet profound, way of approaching education that I try to keep in mind as I plan my foreign language class lessons.  It’s a small change in approach, but now I first consider how the structure or vocabulary could be applied to accomplish a task (apply) and let that inform how students will learn and then practice it.  If I simply consider the learning and practicing and only get to the application if there is time I have not made the best use of my students’ (and my) time.  Here is a post that describes activities that I have created using “Learn,Practice, Apply.”

Foreign (World) Language Lesson Planning (French, Spanish) www.wlteacher.wordpress.com

Tips for Teaching in the Target Language

Teachers are teaching more and more in the target language.  The first step is to commit to using the target language at least 90% of class time.  This is the ACTFL recommendation.  The second step is to acquire some strategies.  Here is a simple system that I follow that helps me to teach in the target language.

Tips for Teaching in the Target Language (French, Spanish) wlteacher.wordpress.comRoutine:

  • Use routines in class as much as possible so that students are not constantly trying to decipher language.  Routines provide context to the language and students are better able to comprehend what they hear when it is in an expected context.  They will also begin to pick up on language as they associate it with the actions that they see.  Routines can also include Functional Chunks of Language, which are expressions, phrases or words that students learn as a chunk without necessarily understanding the grammatical structure.  These Functional Chunks of Language help to keep the target language the dominant language in the classroom by both the students and the teacher.

13Comprehensible Input (CI):

  • Comprehensible input is language that students understand.  The teacher can help students comprehend by providing visuals, making gestures and using language that is familiar to students.  Another great way to make input comprehensible is through circumlocation. (You can read more about circumlocution HERE.)

i+1 (Input Hypothesis):

  • i represents a student’s current level of language  (Krashen).  i+1 represents language that is just beyond the current level of students.  i+1 is a way of advancing students in language proficiency by having students rely on the language that they understand to make sense of new language.

Context is the most important thing t keep in mind when teaching in the target language.  When a familiar context is used students are better able to use their understanding of a situation to understand language that they are hearing.