You’ve been on this teaching path with me for quite a while now, so I think you may agree with today’s newsletter. Yet, gulp, this is one of my more polemic opinions.
I frequently come across opinions that a ‘real language class’ should be meticulously planned. Or that the ‘more professional’ language educators among us are planning a lot more than just compelling conversations.
If you are following the easy path that I advocate, a barely planned path of two conversational activities per class period without unit plans, without detailed scope & sequence, without posted student learning objectives or performance assessments planned to culminate each lesson, then I believe you are not only on an easier path, but also a more efficient and more effective path.
Effective approaches to language acquisition recognize that the one and only way that language is acquired is through exposure to comprehensible input. Understanding what they read & hear is the foundation of everything. Efficient approaches to language acquisition prioritize the amount of time that students read & hear the target language in compelling, comprehensible contexts. Other activities certainly show up in my classroom, for example to develop students’ love of language and the target cultures, to help students recognize the progress they are making and thus value our conversations, and occasionally to help me understand how to improve the input that I am providing. But careful: those activities may pull students away from precious acquisition time.
One problem with a meticulously planned curriculum with frequent targeted structures is that, in the classroom, language learners acquire on their own timeline. They need many, many onramps to access the class conversation. We cannot leave them behind because they were mentally absent. Our easy path solves this problem by constantly recycling a small pot of high-frequency language while only introducing new language each day according to students’ own linguistic needs in the moment. If they keep needing those language structures over the course of time, they will be acquired naturally. If students don’t ever need them again, why insist on the repetitions needed for full acquisition?
Teachers can introduce targeted concepts and language structures, especially in the second “Voices of Others” activities, but there is no guarantee that students will acquire language that they do not find interesting (or are not cognitively ready to acquire). But guess what? No approach guarantees that students acquire everything that the teacher thinks is important. To verify this, instead of assessing your students the day after, try assessing them on that important language chunk several weeks later. The overplanning mentality assumes that the teacher is in control of the acquistion journey. Nope!
For example, I consistently work certain transition words into the daily Write & Discuss because I know that students need many opportunities before they find a context in which these abstract transition words are compelling enough to be acquired. Every once in a while, I get fixated on a certain language structure that I decide I need to repeat over and over (a Matava script is the best activity for that, btw).
However, if I am being honest with myself, besides the highest-frequency structures, it is the quirky language from our spontaneous conversations that is more likely to show up later in student output. And quickly: some compelling language can be acquired very quickly indeed. Make the mistake of swearing in class and see how quickly that gets acquired! Language that students themselves find compelling, important, or necessary is naturally recycled so that students quickly end up using it at the speed of a native speaker.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we just teach swears if that is what kids want. I am also not suggesting that we don’t purposely open new doors to new experiences that students would not have chosen on their own. What I am saying is this: the more we target specific language in class, the slower the process will go and, overall, less language will be acquired in the long run.
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Isn’t that ironic! The urge to plan seems like it should lead to an efficient approach, but…
The easy path asks us to be very judicious in the language we choose to include in class so that students can populate our class activities with words that they are eager to acquire. Words that students are eager to acquire ARE acquired more efficiently than words that are thrust upon them. A tightly scripted curriculum, even a highly comprehensible curriculum, leaves us little flexibility for student choice.
The easy path is not the lazy path. It is not a ‘less professional’ path.
It is a brave path that reflects hardwon understanding about the nature of language acquisition. A brave path that recognizes that if we teachers try to over-control the process of acquisition, we end up strangling it. The easy path to acquisition puts the students’ needs ahead of the teacher, prioritizing language that they will draw on for a lifetime of bilingualism.
I am reminded of a wise comment expressed by Ben Slavic about what he wanted to accomplish with his workshops: for teachers to learn how to simply talk with their students.