Equitable Practices

**This is a follow-up to CI, Equity, User-Error & Inequitable Practices**

Equity in the classroom is the work of removing obstacles. Some obstacles are structural ones that have been in place for a long time, beyond the scope of what any single teacher can do on their own. Other obstacles are in the teacher’s control on the classroom level. This post looks into removing those obstacles…

In a language class, acquisition is the priority in order to learn content and develop an understanding of cultures. Why acquisition? The learning of any content takes place in the target language. Otherwise, it’d be a history class or something, taught in English. In order to learn content in a second language with any meaningful depth beyond just groups of words (e.g. food, or clothing vocab), students must acquire foundational language needed to interpret basic, general ideas, with only specialized vocab remaining for the topic at hand. For example, students can’t learn about their friend’s basket-weaving, or target culture products and practices if they have to stop to think about words like “is, has, and, also, the,” etc. Now, choosing content is a big, big, biiiiiiig consideration when it comes to equity. This post focuses on what teachers practically do in equitable ways to prioritize acquisition, independent from whatever content is chosen.

Acquisition also has the benefit of being an inherent human trait (vs. learning predicated on memorizing, made even more inequitable by privilege). However, obstacles have been in place blocking that human trait. Therefore, think of equity work in the language classroom as removing everything that blocks acquisition, chipping away layer by layer until you get to what’s underneath all the rubble, finding what’s been there the entire time. Since acquisition is necessary, that’s the focus of equity. Since CI is necessary for acquisition, that’s the starting point. What follows are equitable practices to remove obstacles blocking what students need—CI—in order to learn content and develop an understanding of cultures.

The most crucial obstacle to remove is incomprehension. Students don’t have a chance if they don’t understand the target language, period. Here are ways that teachers remove incomprehension:

  • Establish Meaning
    Providing an English/shared language equivalent whenever possible, with pictures, miming, and basically any other way that strengthens a form-meaning connection
  • Comprehension Checks
    Asking a student, in English/shared language, what was just said or asked creates an opportunity to establish, process, or clarify meaning—Upgrade: asking a student who knows what was just said or asked allows meaning to be established, processed, or clarified for other students
  • Clarification Tools
    Establish a process (e.g. signals, phrases) for students to use in order to negotiate meaning when incomprehension arises
  • Shelter (i.e. limit) Vocabulary
    Reducing cognitive demand by using fewer meanings to allow interpretation of full messages
  • Slow & Pause
    Speaking at a slower rate, and pausing between phrases to allow processing of meaning
  • Statement & Question Variety
    Asking a question at different levels before accepting responses, and/or rewording a statement to allow understanding at lower proficiency levels
  • Text Versions
    Providing multiple versions of a text to allow understanding at lower proficiency levels
  • Adapting Original Texts
    Scaffolding #authres (“authentic” texts) to a developmentally appropriate level—Several versions of adapted texts might be needed for students at lower proficiency levels to understand

Learned Helplessness & Exclusion
Two major obstacles are the feeling of not being capable, and not belonging, such as saying/thinking “I’m not good at languages,” or having had the scum of this Earth make disparaging remarks about one’s language and culture. This is systemic, no doubt, but to think that some students don’t walk into a classroom already having experienced this even in their young lives is naive on the teacher’s part. Students need to be heard and seen as part of a community, not as outcasts. While this is largely accomplished by celebrating students themselves as part of classroom content, here are other ways teachers remove those obstacles:

  • Confidence
    Reading below-level texts, and asking questions students have the ability to respond to instills confidence
  • Purpose
    Ensuring that input has a communicative purpose (entertainment, learning, creating) gives students reason to listen and participate
  • Turn & Talk
    Giving students a brief moment to interact (e.g. one word, a quick thought, etc.) before asking for any responses allows more voices to be heard—This strategy, shared by Annabelle Williamson, helped give students of color a voice, raising the percentage of their suggestions and responses in two classes from 0-6% to 80-85%!

High levels of output blocks students from what they need—input. Removing this obstacle is straightforward: provide more input. Here are ways teachers keep input levels high without eliminating output altogether:

  • Brevity
    Keeping spoken and written responses during short, such as pauses between activities, keeps focus on input
  • Elaboration
    Restating what a student expressed during a discussion, activity, or as follow up to a one word response provides more input
  • Opportunities for More Input
    Using student writing as texts (i.e. requires editing on teacher’s part), getting more student-centered input to provide

Forced Speech
A specific production obstacle occurs when students shut down when being forced to produce language beyond their individual ability (not to be confused with potential). This obstacle is more than just being uncomfortable, and refers to when students literally block input during a communicative event, receiving none of it. Here are ways that teachers remove the obstacle of forced speech:

  • Non-verbal Responses
    Establishing signals students can use to show understanding, and convey preference, or just confirm/deny (e.g. nodding/shaking head)
  • One Word Responses
    Allowing single words as responses to the lower questioning levels (e.g. either/or, yes/no, fill-in-blank)
  • Filling Proficiency Gap
    Asking a higher question level (i.e. open-ended, why?), then providing possible responses as either/or choices to encourage developmentally appropriate (or even challenging/critical) thought while reducing the burden of responding beyond proficiency

Testing & Grading
This last set of obstacles concerns testing, scoring, as well as arriving at overall course grades in ways that favor memorizing and privilege. N.B. many teachers attempting to close the achievement gap still use tests of this sort to measure achievement. What good are equitable practices if the testing measures used to evaluate their efficacy are biased themselves? Here are ways teachers remove those obstacles:

  • Testing Comprehension
    Creating conditions for students to show comprehension that don’t rely on memorization, such as tests/quizzes reflecting what happens in class that day, with any text being tested for comprehension available for the student to consult in the moment (i.e. doesn’t require memorizing any details from earlier )
  • Scoring Completion
    Assigning scores for completion rather than accuracy to account for expected language learner development (i.e. accuracy doesn’t emerge until Advanced proficiency)
  • Reporting Scores
    Reporting scores in ways that don’t affect the overall course grade (e.g. reporting comprehension scores that might show percentages of correct/incorrect responses, but using a holistic rubric to arrive at a course grade)
  • Expectations-based Grading
    Assigning a course grade the reflects process, not product/result to account for the internal syllabus (i.e. individual rate of acquisition)

2 thoughts on “Equitable Practices

  1. Not only do these strategies support equity, this is a perfect summary of how to teach with comprehensible input. I will be using this article as a guide to refocus on best practices when starting up in the fall. Thank you very much as always.

  2. This offers a great image for equity with regard to language acquisition, viz., removing the obstacles to acquisition, acquisition being a universal human endeavor. The issue of equity in education for all students was big in our school last year. I do not think it will die as a topic very soon and I will refer to this notion in further faculty and department discussions. Thanks for continuing to sort through and distill your thoughts.

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