Assessment & Grading: Game Changers

When teachers complain about their certain practices that create more work for themselves and take time away from students acquiring the target language, my response is usually “well then, don’t use them.” Follow the logic below to arrive at why you need to wrap your head around changing Assessment & Grading practices so that you can use your prep/planning time, and personal life,  for more useful and enjoyable endeavors…

**The term “assessing/assessment” below refers to traditional “testing/tests.” I, however, promote Authentic Assessments used in communicative events. These could be as simple as asking a student for clarification, or recognizing lack of comprehension and responding/adjusting in real time. Still, until schools allow their language courses to be non-graded, most expect scores to be recorded, so strive to eliminate useless grading, error correction, and wasteful testing**

1) Acknowledge that assessing never causes acquisition.
This one is easy and self-evident. Thus…

2) Spend as little time as possible assessing.
For some reason, the little hop from #1 to #2 feels more like a leap, or a bound for many, but it’s still the next logical step. The informed response to all assessments—ALL assessments—in a language class is to Read and Listen to More Target Language (RLMTL). Seriously, you will never, ever respond to any assessment data by saying “gee, my students are reading way too much,” lol! So, read more, make it comprehensible, and give fewer tests/quizzes. Oh, and design the assessments you DO give to be as short as possible.

3) Make assessments count as little as possible towards the grade.
Yep, this one’s tough, but necessary. No single assessment of mine counts towards a student’s grade, so there’s no risk. Facts. When you start to give fewer assessments per #2 above, the weight of each assessment has more impact, and when you make your assessments shorter, each item counts more when—NOT IF—students get an item wrong. This is when implementing #2 usually breaks down for teachers, and they go back to old ways—DON’T! The solution, then, is to eliminate averaging and lower the impact of each assessment by recording them, yet counting 0% towards the grade (e.g. in a “Portfolio” gradebook category). For the overall grade, I use one rubric to rule them all, at the end of the grading period, that students use to self-assess (then I check). That should be encouraged somewhere in your teacher evaluation rubric!

4) Never announce assessments.
WTF?! I know, right? But if you’ve followed me this far through #2 and #3, this shouldn’t be a problem. Unlike the dreaded “pop-quizzes” in the movies, or in your own experience, your assessments are NOW so low risk that anxiety should be at an utmost low. Students show up, and there might be a quiz, but it’s no big deal. In fact, I’ve had students with IEP/504s—the lucky ones identified, though all students are on an individual acquisition plan and require accommodations—who usually take tests in other locations due to testing anxiety remain in class for every assessment! Oh, and since my assessments are super short (i.e. 4 True/False statements), students never use their “extra time on tests” accommodation. The practices that create an ideal environment for CI really do level the playing field!

What about feedback?
Forget what you were taught, or assume about error correction. Students are expected to be wrong for at least a few years, so get with the program! Authentic Feedback is handled the same was as Authentic Assessment—in real time. In order to give “immediate feedback” (that your teacher evaluation rubric also should encourage, btw), I correct all assessments—ALL assessments—in class immediately following the assessment. You cannot get any more immediate than that…AND…it’s done in the target language. So, my assessments actually—DO—lead to acquisition! Click to see more on Quick Quizzes, and me in action teaching some Spanish.

The No-Travel Story Script

Also from Von Ray’s recent TPRS workshop, his German demo sheltered (i.e. limited) vocabulary so well that it focused on 3 verbs (e.g. is, has, wants) of those top 5 (+ likes & goes). I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of a Day 1 cold opening story, though many skilled TPRS teachers find it to be the most engaging way to start the year, so this script might just be what I was looking for! With no need for any character to travel to the standard 3 locations, the questions and details concern one or two parallel characters—an essential Storyasking skill to begin building.

The conflict to resolve in Von’s story was “is in jail, because doesn’t have.” Here’s the plot outline:

  • there’s a character
  • character is in jail because s/he doesn’t have something
  • parallel character is somewhere, but not in jail
  • character’s mother is in the hospital, and has what the character doesn’t have
  • character laments (e.g. “Ooh noo, mother! I’m in jail! I’m in jail because…I want…”)
  • mother laments (e.g. “Ooh, [character], I’m in the hospital because I’m sick…”)
  • character says s/he wants what the mother has
  • mother says that it’s not her problem (lol!)
  • parallel character(s) has/have what the character wants
  • parallel character(s) may, or may not give the character what s/he wants
  • story resolves, or doesn’t

If a parallel character gives the item to the main character, add “gives,” or the command “have!” if your language can do that, limiting the verbs to just “is, has, wants,” and “says.”

Von Ray on Circling & MovieTalk

I was just with Von Ray—the man, the myth, the legend—at a TPRS workshop in Manchester, NH. It’s been several years since I’ve seen anyone do the 2-day workshop, and I was impressed with the updates. I was also impressed with how magical the experience still was, given my familiarity with all the strategies and techniques of a basic skills workshop, while observing first-time TPRS participants in the room simply dazzled by the experience.

Experiencing Storyasking is really the only way to sell anyone on the idea. Honestly, if I had to work in any of my previous teaching positions—the ones in which pure adversary to new ideas was omnipresent—I’d put away the research, leave student results behind, and instead set up a meeting to demo a language the adversaries didn’t know. If they still weren’t convinced that TPRS were the best method to acquire language, feel included in class, and be excited to return the next day and continue with the language, well, they would be the kind of people I wouldn’t want to be surrounded by anyway, and would stand by my decision to work for those who value what we do.

Here are a couple highlights from Von’s workshop…

No Breakdown, No Circle
A recent discussion about Circling on moreTPRS, which recurs every few months, included the usual warnings about “over-circling.” Von Ray presented the most succinct way of expressing circling too much that I’ve heard yet. If there’s no breakdown (in processing the language), we don’t circle. This explains why students feel patronized when teachers abuse Circling—the students literally don’t need it. Circling, then, becomes language for language’s sake, and bores students. We have no evidence that bored humans have ever acquired language. So, during the Circling segment of Von’s workshop, I was reminded that there are always 3 options to basic Storyasking:

  1. Circle most recent detail (if that new detail was processed quickly, without breakdown, move onto #2 or #3)
  2. Add a detail (by asking open-ended question).
  3. Add a parallel character.

These options represent the type of “basic CI” strategies Keith Toda just wrote about. I recommend revisiting those basics from time to time.

MovieTalk as Transition to Storyasking
The MovieTalk segment highlights the new product, but my mind was blown when Von said that for anyone interested in TPRS, MovieTalk is the easiest first step.

He’s right.

Instead of co-creating a story in what is likely the first time teachers actually pay attention to students during the act of communicating with purposeful intent, the clip used during a MovieTalk has it all! This leaves [cognitive] room for the teacher to work on questioning skills and making sure students comprehend—the crucial elements rather than a series of steps to carry out while, sadly, sometimes ignoring the students in an effort just to finish “practicing” this new Storyasking thing!

But MovieTalk doesn’t restrict everything to just the plot contained in the clip! Adding yourself as a parallel character during the dramatization not only increases exposure to the language, but also gives you the opportunity to build your Storyasking skills without the pressure of a whole story. You can still direct a student-centered task of telling, and co-creating a story for the purpose of entertainment! Adding a parallel character to a MovieTalk clip is simple, just think of someone/something unseen, but who/that believably is in the world of that clip—or not—if you have a zany class. The result is actually a mini-Storyasking moment that you can ditch whenever you run out of ideas (and you’ll run out of ideas) and then be saved by the visually-stimulating MovieTalk clip as you regain your wits—or not—in which case you just continue to talk about what you see while asking questions to actors and students.

In other words, your parallel character is a tiny sandbox, but the MovieTalk clip is the train on the rails. At any time, you can let go of that sandbox, and ride the train to CI bliss.

Input Processing: Implications

On last week’s Tea with BVP, Bill VanPatten discussed what humans do when they listen to and read messages, known as Input Processing (IP), and then elaborated on his work with Processing Instruction (PI). Don’t let that acronym palindrome (PIIP, or IPPI) confuse you! Bill’s Processing Instruction (PI) is an instructional technique used to gently push students into linking form and meaning while processing input, although it’s meaning-based and communicative in nature, not explanation-based like pop-up grammar, etc. Regardless of using Processing Instruction (PI), the language teacher should be aware of what’s going on as students process input. So, what do they do first when they listen to, and read messages?

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Can’t Read Greek—Unsurprised, but Angry

I don’t know Ancient Greek very well, despite “studying it” in college, but recently I’ve had the desire to read it (vs. translating, or just knowing about how Greek works). Desire certainly accounts for motivation, which has a positive effect on compellingness of messages read, yet I’ve been having the hardest time with comprehension—the undisputed sine qua non of language acquisition. I began to look into why, and now I’m just angry…

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“Floor not Ceiling”

I once was told that explicit grammar instruction given in order to develop the skills of conjugating verbs and declining nouns is the “floor, not ceiling” of teaching/learning Latin. What this IS NOT, is true. What this IS, is a common misunderstanding. In fact, it’s an alternative fact. We have no evidence—NO EVIDENCE—to suggest that anyone MUST learn how to conjugate verbs or decline nouns in order to develop proficiency in a language. Wake up, people!

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Active Latin vs. Acquisition of Latin

Justin Slocum Bailey has just written an excellent article about speaking Latin. Though related, my post is about the implications of using the term “Active Latin” as it pertains to classroom practices.

I’ve long felt weird about that term. After synthesizing my thoughts, I now believe that most teachers who use the term to describe their teaching (as informed by Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research) are actually using something closer to “Productive Latin,” which might not lead to language acquisition at all.

“Active Latin” proponents tend to teach how the language works by having students speak and write, which are not the cause of, rather, the result of acquisition. It’s true that some “Active Latin” teachers don’t force speech before students are capable, as well as have a high tolerance for errors, but the emphasis still tends to be on the language itself, with the actual messages being less-important. For example, drills, exercises, and activities focused on a particular grammatical point, even when used in an exciting (= compelling) format, still emphasize forms of words and manipulation instead of the underlying meaning and purpose of the messages. This is not communication that leads to acquisition. Instead, these drills, exercises, and activities are an effort to solidify language “patterns.” The problem, however, is that students might not be ready to use, let alone NOTICE the patterns in the first place (e.g. when unsheltering grammar, my old habits tend to creep up as I scan the room and wait for students to ask questions about indirect statements, yet I’ve come to realize that most students have no idea that the subject has become accusative, and the verb has changed to its infinitive—the students understand the message without noticing the forms!). Furthermore, Bill VanPatten has repeated time after time that these “patterns” don’t even exist—at least not psychologically—in what actually ends up in our minds. All of that “practice” is language for language’s sake, which hasn’t been shown to be significantly beneficial before acquiring a substantial amount of language (conf. young students beginning to study about the conventions of English well after they can already communicate). This “Active Latin” approach is now helping us as Latin teachers, but don’t be fooled—it’s because we already had prior knowledge ABOUT Latin. Our students do not possess anything close to that level of knowledge, so think twice, and thrice, and quadrice before forcing language production.

The only necessary process for the acquisition of Latin, however, is to listen to and read copious amounts of it—no manipulation drills/exercises, no grammar-disguised activities—just spoken and written messages (= input). Input is what every major Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theory agrees is a requirement. Considering our short time with students (i.e. ~120 hours a year?), it’s best if the input is understandable (CI). As Justin Slocum Bailey wrote, CI is neither disputed, nor outdated. The only question is how much “other stuff,” if at all, you need in addition to CI. See commentary on Tea with BVP Episode 36 regarding Interaction as part of that “other stuff.”

So, when using a term like “Active Latin” to distinguish from traditional grammar-translation, the tendency is to place most of the emphasis on writing and speaking—the productive skills. Here, however, the word “active” has been used simply to represent the opposite of “passive.” This is logical, but listening and reading actually can be quite active processes…just try to sustain listening to a new language for ~45min each day! I propose we start ditching the term, eh?