Common Ground (Henshaw & Hawkins, 2022): First 30 Pages All Language Teachers Should Read

This post includes practical ideas I got from Florencia Henshaw’s and Maris Hawkins’ theory-to-practice SLA (second language acquisition) book. The preface and first chapter contain what’s probably among the best 30 pages a language teacher could read, especially one having little familiarity with SLA, and/or those who missed the Tea with BVP train, and While We’re On The Topic.

My context is teaching first year Latin in a small public high school in a large city. Latin is required. It’s the only language offered. So there. I teach beginning students who have no choice (i.e., this often means no interest or any prior knowledge), and many of them didn’t have a second language experience in primary or middle school. Since “novice learners have a long way to go when it comes to developing a linguistic system” (p. 138), my focus is hardly on any output. Output “helps with the skill of accessing that system” (p. 138), which the beginner is still building, so it’s not a priority. This doesn’t mean no one speaks Latin (students do!). This doesn’t mean there isn’t any interaction. What this does mean is that I’m not thrown off by all the “Get students speaking the TL in just five easy steps!” messages that lead so many language teachers astray. Neither are the authors, although they’ve included stuff in the book for those who might be dealing with an IPA-heavy department (Integrated Performance Tasks), or who might be coming from a more traditional program and isn’t quite ready to give input its due attention. Input is key. I’d actually feel the same if I taught second year Latin as well, and maybe even year three. This would also hold true for any language. That is to say I think all Spanish I & II, or maybe even Korean III teachers would benefit from the same approach: a massive focus on input.

Given my context and comprehension-based & communicative approach, I appreciate strong statements throughout the book like “neither teachers nor students have total control over what will and will not be acquired” (p. 4), and asking “what information or content is being conveyed? What will the audience do with the information” (p.6) to determine communicativeness of the day’s agenda. I enjoyed “perhaps the most challenging aspect is that when we create curricula and courses, we are inevitably rushing a very slow process” (p. 13), and “from a language acquisition standpoint, comprehensibility should be more important than authenticity” (p. 39). Good stuff, right? Other notable quotes include “if you are giving them feedback without any immediate need to use it, then it is probably not worth your time and effort” (p. 143), and “we can’t say something is helpful without specifying how that helpfulness was measured” (p. 189). Strong statements abound, for sure. Some almost contradict each other, though:

“If learners are not understanding, then they cannot make form-meaning connections, and thus, they’re not building a linguistic system in their heads that they can use for communicative purposes” (p. 67).

“If they’re not understanding, it’s just noise, and it doesn’t count as input for acquisition. In fact, students are bound to get frustrated because they cannot understand anything, and that will only make matters worse” (p. 70).


“Our goal as input providers should not be for students to understand every word, every time. In fact, we should help learners feel comfortable with not understanding every word” (p. 69)!


“Without a communicative purpose, students won’t be compelled to engage in communication” (p. 75), and “every time you provide CI, you should give students a clear reason for paying attention and understanding as much as possible. Ensuring that students are processing the TL for meaning is not just a strategy of suggestion, but rather a key quality of the input we provide if our goal is language acquisition” (p. 73).


“If you routinely translate to make sure learners understood, some students might eventually stop making an effort to pay attention to the target language for meaning, which is precisely what drives acquisition” (p. 71).


Although I, personally, can understand the context of those statements, do other readers? Are they left wondering: “What is it? Comprehension or incomprehension? Frustrated or comfortable? Purpose compels or striving to understand language itself compels a learner to pay attention?” Perhaps everything above doesn’t actually contradict, but at times I got the impression that “common ground” was more like taking a neutral position, or even a compromise between two competing ideas when it’s probably best to take sides on some of these issues. Like, research might have some saying X and others saying Y, but it could be best for teaching and learning to do just X (not some combo of X and Y). One message in several places throughout the book was to avoid translating as much as possible. Here, translating means using the shared language to establish meaning. Some of the warnings about other uses of translation make sense in theory, like the dangers of following every Latin utterance with its English equivalent, but no one really does that in practice, and my experience in the classroom hasn’t shown other translation concerns to play out, either. Bottom line: it takes seconds to write down a word/phrase in the shared language, and I’ve seen no evidence to suggest students aren’t processing the rest of what was said or read. That is to say I wonder if some teachers will walk away and poo-poo others for judicious use of the shared language. Another message I got a few times was “the pros of X are these, and the cons are those, therefore do X this way,” whereas my take would be to avoid any practice/resource with cons altogether! Overall, I’d say get the book, and pay very close attention to those first 30 pages, then grab some ideas from the rest. Here are my takeaways…

Tasks (pp. 15-20)
I’m not a task/Task kind of guy. That’s not my teaching approach. However, within the first 20 pages, I walked away with ideas to make some of my go-to activities a tad more meaningful, and more communicative. The additional work is marginal, too. A common theme I found is to do more individual and pair comparisons instead of whole-class ones. I’ve got the latter down pat (e.g., “Who prefers Marvel to DC? Oh, you prefer Marvel, and you prefer Marvel. Class, they prefer Marvel to DC.”). However, I can recognize what is gained with slightly more structure, and slightly more interaction, even if it’s just projecting text and a quick think/pair/share. I’ve always found texts anchoring, and can say that classroom management tends to get tricky when we spend too much time away from a text; the class experience for students edges towards all listening, and it’s hard to maintain that kind of focus, especially as an adolescent, and especially during ridiculous 84-minute-classes. N.B. seriously, who the hell thinks this is a good idea?! So, using the board more might help focus attention on processing language. Here’s a basic format I picked up on from the authors’ examples of how to make activities more communicative:

  1. Read a list of words/phrases & check off what applies.
  2. Compare with a classmate & summarize what was learned.
  3. Respond to a final “based on that information…” prompt.

For example, Slide Talk (Card Talk) is my go-to-start-of-the-year activity. Once we get student interests, I type up a text with everything, and we read and discuss a bit. However, I could easily add a task:

  1. I list some activities from the slides in a Google Form, or just project
  2. Students then rate their interest in each, compare with a classmate, then respond:
    • Activities my classmate likes more than me
    • Activities I like more than my classmate
    • Activities we both like
    • Activities we both hate
  3. Students answer a final prompt:
    • Who would be more likely to be doing something indoors after school? You or your classmate?

What I like about this is that it takes no time at all, adds more interaction to go along with the input, the questions are projected/printed text serving as those “anchors” that I like, and students can respond with just individual words/phrases, making it all level-appropriate. The most difficult step I foresee is coming up with a good final prompt, but I imagine that takes practice. This should work with any category of things students tend to discuss, such as chores, what you did over the weekend, favorite sports/games/shows, etc.

This book also has a high-leverage hidden gem in the example on page 19 of a teacher questioning who likes to go to concerts: “<students raise their hands, and the teacher counts> Teacher: About half of our class, fifty percent <writes “50%” on the board>.” I ask a TON of questions like that, but it never occurred to me to quickly jot down results on the board. I think this goes back to the idea of texts being anchoring. The same thing is true of phrases, especially when they’re meaningful. This simple strategy helps engage and focus the class. Plus, students get to see vocab that might have otherwise just existed aurally. Brilliant. Here is a list of new things for next year. I’ve already piloted some in class this past week:

Dictationy Activities (p. 27)

  1. Pre-read Option
    True/false dictation in which students predict, then read and confirm their predictions. I did this with a novella, previewing a chapter ahead of time and making 4 statements. We did the quick dictātiō, then students called out once we got one of them in the chapter.
  2. Chronological
    Read segments of a new text out-of-order, students predict order, teacher reads again in order and students number the statements accordingly.
  3. Hidden Picture Talk
    Look at a picture (hidden from student view), make statements, students copy verbatim, then start showing numbered pictures (either cropped from a single image, or a series of them, such as MovieTalk screenshots), then students write picture number next to matching description.

Input Brackets (p. 92)
This is a simple way to visualize interests, preferences, petty debates, and what I think will be great for determining story details (e.g., have pairs of ideas voted on, winners advance to the next bracket until there’s an overall). This ensures more voices are heard, and the whole class feels like they contributed each step of the way. Also, see that bit on “anchoring” with text on the board.

Memory Game Picture Talk (p. 97)
Students look at an image for a few minutes, and you do a quick Picture Talk. Then, the image is removed and students use their memory to write down responses to a set of questions (e.g., “how many…?”). Reveal image again, then discuss. Super low-prep in just coming up with several questions about the image.

Quizlet Add-on (p. 117)
This connects the 5-10min. vocab frontload Quizlet time (individual, or Live game) to the actual text. All it takes is students skimming and highlighting a printed version of the text for the words they just previewed. This is super EZ, a tad more scaffolding to help reading flow.

MovieTalk Add-on (pp. 124-125)
Instead of the screenshot Picture Talk method of previewing an video clip, slap all those screenshots out of order and as smaller thumbnail views onto one page/slide. Read aloud descriptions as students match them to numbered thumbnails. This takes prep, but as EZ as no-prep MovieTalks are, I have always benefitted from having a script ahead of time (even if I don’t use it). Since I have texts already written for 9 of these, it’s a matter of selecting some sentences and grabbing the screenshots. I’d still consider this low-prep.

Academic Latin LITE
I was reminded that artwork and artifacts are considered authentic texts. I’ve had this idea to put old textbooks to use by simply opening to the “culture pages” to explore Roman artwork and artifacts via Picture Talk. On the one hand, tying them specifically to novellas, etc. would be a good use of comprehensive curricular planning time, but on the other hand, exploring the “culture pages” could just become a routine during Culture Days when we learn about the Romans. My curriculum vacillates between Class Days (i.e., focus on students) and interspersed Culture Days (i.e., focus on Romans). I’m anticipating the use of textbook images being so short that it wouldn’t require comprehensive planning. A simple “and today we’ll look at…” should establish an overview of products and practices of an ancient culture throughout the first year of learning a language. Culture isn’t a side note (p. 45), but it’s certainly not the the majority of class focus.

From Chapter 2, I got another good idea for exploring products, practices, and perspectives (PPPs). Students are given a definition of each of the PPPs with a few examples that students sort into each category. Answers are shown, and class discusses. Then, teams (2?) race to generate their own list of examples on the board, relay-style. Examples students give should be from any culture they’re familiar with. Then, teacher guides discussion of the process, organization, as well as any examples that might be stereotypical, and/or have negative consequences. This is not EZ, and that’s why it’s not something I’ve been able to do well from the beginning. Now that other practices are solid, I can put more time into intercultural competence, and this strategy will help.

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.