Failing Students (i.e. Denying Experience), “Struggling Students,” and Who’s Doing The Work?

This post seems to address quite a bit, but stay with me. As experts, teachers can design a quiz or test that every student would fail, instantly. Aside from designing those individual assessments, teachers can also design and implement grading systems prone to student failures.

That’s a lot of power.

When teachers fail students, especially when they haven’t been careful with their grading system, they deny students experience. Not only are these students unable to continue with their peers—a major aspect of adolescent development—but they’ll miss out on any electives having to retake the failed course for credit.

I’m not making a case for all As, all the time, although it’s shocking to hear stories of administrators questioning teacher practices because “too many students are succeeding.” Then again, there’s no reason why students who meet expectations should get anything less than an A, right?

We should recognize, though, that even when students are really far below expectations, failures are still hard to justify for the reasons above. Alternatively, low grades, like Ds, still convey that the student didn’t meet expectations, but also don’t deny an experience. N.B. Also, students who fail language courses tend to drop the second they have a change, not electing to continue. Aside from negative impacts on society when people build walls instead of bridges between cultures, good luck with your language program’s longevity if you find yourself justifying failures!

Struggling Students
The biggest issue is when teachers view student failures as a result of not learning particular content. In reality, though, if language classes truly are inclusive, and teachers take a comprehension-based and communicative approach, there really isn’t such thing as a “struggling student.” That is, input is being provided, to all learners, at a level they can comprehend in order to participate. How could a student possibly struggle with that?! Granted, they might not be meeting expectations in a way that prevents them from receiving CI, or that results in far less CI, as Matthew pointed out in the comment on the blog linked above, but that “struggle” has nothing to do with content, and probably everything to do with connecting to students.

Who’s Doing The Work?
Of course, the whole reason teachers view student failures as a result of not learning content in the first place is that Latin class has been reduced to the language itself as content to be learned (vs. acquiring the language and learning other content via communication, in Latin). That is, when content is anything other than what is experienced, interpreted, or expressed in the classroom, like morphology, or textbook language rules, the possibility of failure emerges. To explain…

John Bracey once wrote how most Latin students and scholars spend their time doing a host of things (e.g. consult dictionaries, memorize and apply textbook rules, refer to notes, etc.) that basically amount to establishing meaning (i.e. “this Latin phrase X means Y in English”). This has generally been accepted as standard practice, and that practice falls upon the student. However, is comprehension really every teacher’s end goal? Is the translation of a sentence into English the goal? How often do we hear of teachers saying “OK that’s a great translation, now tell me what it’s about” followed by crickets, or confusion? Consider how a teacher’s view of student failure changes with comprehension being the end goal vs. just the beginning. Of course, that begs the question “who’s doing the work?”

If the teacher provides CI, the student doesn’t need to work for comprehension. In a comprehension-based and communicative approach, this is really Step Zero since no major theory of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) disputes that understandable (C) input (I) is necessary. If students receive CI, there’s no struggle, especially with their internal syllabus driving the rate of acquisition—something that neither the student nor teacher has any control over.

If, however, the teacher tasks the student with being responsible for creating their own CI (e.g. consult dictionaries, memorize and apply textbook rules, refer to notes, etc.), the story plays out differently, and it’s one that’s been around for years—failures. That is, legit course failures for some, and major to minor disappointments for most.

So, if the teacher’s gonna put in some time to do the work to make Latin more comprehensible, they end up saving themselves additional time of teaching, testing, scoring, etc. otherwise required when making students do the work of arriving at Step Zero. The added bonus? Students receive CI, and don’t struggle. This is win-win.

One thought on “Failing Students (i.e. Denying Experience), “Struggling Students,” and Who’s Doing The Work?

  1. Thank you so much for your “advice” and thoughts. I eagerly await your posts and consult your blog on a regular basis.


    Amy Gawtry, Charlottesville High School

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.