REPLACE: Don’t Just Add

Someone recently had this to say about a colleague:

…they’re interested in the CI things I talk about, but I guess they’re so busy with traditional teaching that they don’t have time to research and change practices…

This is a common problem, and I’ve figured out a solution…

A lot of teachers find it hard to teach in a different way, but that’s because they’re going about it all wrong. That is, most aren’t actually changing what really needs to change; they’re just piling additional unfamiliar activities onto their workload instead of replacing the dead weight! I’m well aware that common advice is to try one new thing, then go from there. Against popular advice, though, I’m going to recommend that teachers interested in CI not just add activities one-by-one. Instead, it would be better to have a few things in place to support the move towards more comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT). Here they are:

Change Grammar Expectations

Thinking one can continue teaching and testing grammar as usual is just plain old naïve. When students begin listening and reading for meaning, testing explicit knowledge will give the impression that the new way of teaching has been unsuccessful, which is sure to frustrate the teacher, sending them back to the grammar grind. When the focus is on providing students with understandable texts—even just a few sentences—the need for teaching grammar disappears. N.B. the need to teach grammar disappears, although there’s still plenty of room for the occasional pop-up question (e.g. “Mr P, why does that word look different?”). Not only does grammar become unnecessary, but creating and scoring assessments that test such knowledge also serves no purpose at this point.

Therefore, ditching grammar frees up a LOT of time. “No time” is mainly what prevents teachers from enacting change in the first place. This is really step ZERO.

If you can arrive at the fact that grammar is unnecessary to teach—no matter how much you like it—you’ve just made the biggest step towards improving the language experience for all learners. Granted, it’s also probably the hardest practice to let go of, and many teachers then ask “but WHAT do I teach?!” Read on…

1) Stop Grading “Errors”
When grammar stops being the focus, it’s replaced by messages and ideas expressed during communication. However, things students say and write that differ from what is expected from native speakers are no longer considered “errors.” Why not? They’re expected, that’s why. These developmental forms are just part of the process, indicating that students need to interact more with input. That’s it. Any attention drawn to these forms, whether as oral feedback or testing, serves no real psychological purpose. In fact, it typically shuts people down. Just give students input, and make sure it’s understandable and purposeful…

2) Consider Purpose
If students aren’t being entertained, aren’t creating something as a class, or aren’t learning about themselves or the target culture, they likely won’t attend to meaning. This is a human thing. That is, humans don’t communicate for no reason, and even when they do communicate it tends to be with as little effort as possible (re: replying with one word rather than a complete sentence, etc.). So, when students don’t attend to meaning, they receive little to no input (I), let alone that which is comprehensible (C). The solution is to keep an eye on purpose. Luckily, it doesn’t take much to become more communicative and purposeful during class, especially when the focus is on the people in the room…

3) Students as Curriculum
One of the most compelling things students do is talk about themselves, and/or express preference. Many teachers forget that genuine communication is achieved when asking questions about who in the class does what, likes this, thinks that, or says nothing, which is actually quite simple. My curriculum begins with discussions revolving around the self, class, school, family, and community. Target culture doesn’t come in until students have received a lot of CI. Keep in mind, however, that students don’t really play games when it comes to communication…

4) Get Real
Being fake about communication shuts down students. If you don’t want to know who went to the volleyball game, or don’t want to facilitate a discussion for other students in the room who actually do want to know, DON’T ASK! Instead, ask questions you want to hear answers to. By now, my students know what I’m more interested in discussing, and what I’m not. I can also predict what they’re into many times, but kids are still surprising. Half the fun is asking questions just to hear their responses! Oh, and they’re receiving input the whole time.

5) Target Culture
For years I struggled with teaching culture, but that was because culture was always taught in English, or through texts waaaaaay beyond the competency of students. The latest major change to my teaching has been discussing the Romans, the target culture, in understandable Latin, the target language. These discussions are prompted by pictures/artwork, and conducted at an appropriate level. The discussion content is driven by what students themselves want to know, and then compared to themselves and their own culture. The end product is a co-created comprehensible text. I’ll be co-presenting at American Classical League’s centennial this summer with John Bracey and John Piazza on this whole process developed along with David Maust. #ACL100Presenter

Another result is more purposeful communication. That is, one reason to be reading Latin is to learn something. This framework has made it possible to do that.


7 thoughts on “REPLACE: Don’t Just Add

    • Yeah, basically just a pic and its description using mostly top 16 verbs beneath. Very simple, and on the level of what students likely remember about the topic (and not a bunch of random facts they don’t care about).

    • Aside from ditching grammar, I suggested 5 things to have in place before trying new activities.

      Therefore, I must assume you mean “it” as reference to the target culture topic.

      Yes. Show an image, discuss it, then Write & Discuss. Students have a text they could read that night. The final product after the whole unit would be compiling all the images and descriptions into a packet for the Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) shelf. Right now I have 10 copies of our “Roman Housing” printed and on a table, and were now doing “Public Spaces.”

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