Doing Something Might Not Be Doing Anything

I’ve been thinking more about the topic of “doing work.” For example, students who don’t “do the work” could face profound consequences if that work accounts for the course grade, which it usually does. But what really *is* the work? Should students even be doing it? These are the kinds of questions seldom asked given daily demands, yet at the same time significantly affect what goes on during the day itself! Let’s investigate…

Attributing Success
It’s so easy to attribute success to the wrong things. For example, stating how studying Latin will improve SAT scores has been leading people astray for years. Spoiler Alert! It’s not causal; there just happens to be a correlation between the students who have done well on the SAT and the students who have been enrolled in Latin. Perhaps the most common thing to erroneously attribute success to, and is ever the topic of strife, is studying grammar, which many teachers claim “worked for them.” Spoiler Alert! It was input, not textbook rules.

It’s easy to have ideas and make statements like those because they’re logical. However, once you start digging around, it becomes clear that there’s not much evidence to support such claims. Or if there is, there’s often some other true source of success lurking about that wasn’t considered. Therefore, let’s take a moment to evaluate our own teaching practices, asking “are all the activities and tests we spend time creating and implementing causing learning?” and “is the work we’re assigning causing acquisition?”

The Work
To put it one way, we have only X minutes each class to impact learning and acquisition. Surely, there are more and less effective things to do during that time. There have been piles of research on general classroom effectiveness, and piles of research on Second Language Acquisition (SLA). Some of the practices used many by teachers, such as recasting what a student says in an attempt to correct their utterances, used 55% of the time (Lyster & Ranta, 1997), have the least uptake (i.e. 31% effective vs. “elicitation” being 100% effective though only used 14% of the time). Similarly, for all the ways students could “do the work” of learning grammar, consistent disappointing results emerge. Have no fear. It just so happens that there’s one thing that will be effective EVERY single time…


From this perspective, then, any work students do that isn’t input is likely extra. Sadly, this superfluous work (i.e. not input) tends to account for a lot of what students are assigned in schools. The solution? Disrupt the status quo, and provide more input. Get out of the teach + practice + test mindset. Ditch those worksheets, and ditch those vocab quizzes, etc. At the very least, take a look at what’s being assigned. Here are some assignments that appear to be input-based, but could end up being those things that might not be doing anything:

  1. Read & Produce
    There’s a lot that could fall under this category. For example, reading and drawing could result in a student doing a fabulous drawing based on very, very few words, reading almost nothing. There’s also the read a passage and answer 10 questions, etc. Spoiler Alert! There’s no way to guarantee students process the input when there’s a product to complete. Humans generally spend the least amount of time doing a task in order to complete it. If the task is read + something else, there’s a good chance students skip the reading, or do only what’s necessary to complete the something else. Even grad students do this!?
  2. Listen & Produce
    Again, there’s a lot in here. For example, watch a video and write a summary. Spoiler Alert! Listening is just a different process of receiving input. The same from above applies; there’s no way to guarantee students process the input when there’s a product to complete!
  3. Study
    Aside from skewing results (i.e. only being sure of who did *this* work, and not who actually knows/can do what’s being measured in the absence of advance notice), it’s possible that there’s not even really input to process! Consider the student who glances over a passage, then remembers its translation, then reproduces it on a quiz/test.

One solution is establishing realistic and observable expectations for *the work.* If students should be reading in class with a partner, and are sitting there looking at the wrong page, they aren’t doing the work. If students should be responding with one word as a whole class, and four students are staring at the floor, they’re not doing the work. If students should be understanding all the Latin in class (i.e. by way of some in-person real-time accountability system), yet they stare at you blankly, showing they haven’t done their part to understand, they’re not doing the work. If students should be reading on their own and then comparing two texts (in English), but cannot get beyond the first sentences, they haven’t been doing the work. The point? Whatever the expectations are during class, that’s the work we can observe, influence, and at times even control. In closing, ask yourself…

  • “Is the thing I’m having students do the thing that actually results in the success I’m seeing, or want to see? How do I know?”
  • “If students are successful, is there anything lurking beneath what I think/feel is causing that success? If so, can I reduce or eliminate what I thought/felt students needed to do?”
  • “Are the most successful students that way because they’ve been doing what I’ve assigned? How many of them would be just as successful without doing that kind of work?”

2 thoughts on “Doing Something Might Not Be Doing Anything

  1. What are your thoughts on adding a small grammatical component for, say, editing journal entries after the fact? I haven’t been doing anything like this at all, but I’ve been considering if I should add it in a little bit like Dr. Patrick and others have done, I believe.

    • John Bracey once said somewhere that it doesn’t matter whether you teach a little grammar, or a lot of grammar, the results are the same; this knowledge disappears after a matter of months unless one continues to study it, and it might not even be helpful for reading Latin.

      There are reasons you might want to teach a bit of grammar, sure. As for planning it to be part of “the work” resulting in successful learning and acquisition? Naw.

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