1969: 50 Years of “4%ers”

Just a few months after the moon landing, Superintendent John Lawson (Shaker Heights, OH) gave a speech at the Symposium on Foreign Language Teaching at Indiana University. Its age certainly shows. Then again, were it not for the typeface, you’d think some of these statements appeared yesterday in a blog! I find it striking that such “progressive” and “controversial” ideas have been discussed for 50 years, pretty much coinciding with the civil rights movement, yet without much fundamental change to either. There’s no excuse for the latter. As for second language teaching, that’s slightly more understandable considering the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) was hardly established by the late 60s.

To give you a sense of how relevant Lawson’s ideas are today, look at this statement addressing the importance of compelling topics, and what now has become criticism against using unadapted texts driving the AP Latin problem:

There’s also a section, while brief, managing to address topics like teaching to the test, teacher perception of status in their field, elitism, exclusivity, ineffective pedagogy, compellingness, connectedness, comprehensibility, and confidence. All that back in 1969. Holy moly, right?!

That speech also happens to be the source of the “4%er” term that Keith Toda just shared in his latest (and last-for-a-while) blog post. Now, Keith is somewhat of a self-proclaimed man of the shadows not really active on social media, so my first thought was that he didn’t know the “4%er” term doesn’t really come up these days. In fact, I had to go back to a 2015 moreTPRS list email to search for the references contained in here! But maybe that term is exactly what teachers need to be reminded of right now. Let’s start with its history:

1969: Lawson gives figure that less than 3% of students reach Level III
1971: Lawson writes article updating figure to 4%
1977: Asher cites Lawson in “Learning Another Language Through Actions”
Late 90s/Early 00s: Karen Rowan cites Lawson & Asher in workshops, and Susan Gross coins the term “4%ers”
2010s: Teachers share the “4%ers” term in pedagogical discussions using various definitions

It’s important to recognize that “4%” is NOT the percentage of students who can acquire a language with form-based grammar instruction!

To set the record straight, a “4%er” isn’t a student who NEEDS grammar instruction in order to acquire a language—no one NEEDS that. A “4%er” isn’t a student with a particular learning style that you reach when teaching grammar. A “4%er” isn’t even necessarily a student who enjoys grammar instruction at all! This last definition has even been used to refer to grammar-loving teachers—the “we’re not your typical student” message—but that percentage is much, much smaller than 4%. Language teachers are usually a fraction of the fraction of students who stay enrolled. Teachers have actually used these ideas to support their choice of grammar instruction, often claiming how they’re “not leaving out the 4%ers.” That, right there, is making a handful of students seem like victims at the expense of the rest. To be transparent, that’s a powerful tactic used by masters of rhetoric. However, just like responses to civil rights and right now #blacklivesmatter in particular, masters of rhetoric across local, state, and national government aren’t improving the lives of BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color). Such a claim in defensive of a few students is a false, and perverse misuse of the “4%er” term. It’s just not true.

Instead, a “4%er” represents the student who remains enrolled through the end of a program with form-based grammar teaching. That’s it.

Whatever the actual figures are for your program now, the “4%er” term can represent them. For example, if your program starts with 200 Spanish students in 9th grade, and ends with 13 of them taking the AP exam their senior year, those 13 are your “4%ers” despite the math (which I know is 7%). Again, the term represents the fraction of students who stay enrolled when form-based grammar teaching is the focus. N.B. the term doesn’t even address whether those 4% develop much proficiency in the language at all! The 4% are just the students who hang on and persist despite ineffective pedagogy, likely successful from their good memories and certain privilege.

So, that term shouldn’t be used for anything else. Then again, that’s all we need! If teaching languages a certain way typically results in serving just 4% of students at the highest levels, that’s unquestionably a failure of said pedagogy. Time to reflect, right? Also, given the national focus of ending systemic racism, it’s time to reflect on both content and pedagogy. Could your pedagogy be shaping your program? You betcha.

  • Does your program reach more than 4%? Yes? By how much?
  • What kind of community do you want?
  • What changes in pedagogy will you make to have that community?
  • What content creates a stronger community?

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