Inequitable Grading Practices: Averaging

For my third poll in a large Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers in this mini-series on inequity and grading, I asked about averaging. A FRACTION of teachers responded this time, with a total of just 80. Compared to the previous poll participants of 585 for late work penalties, and then 625 for homework, I wonder if this is because averaging is something teachers let the gradebook handle without giving it much thought. Most teachers don’t question homework, but they still play a more active role in creating and assigning it, right? Even setting late policies is something teachers…do. Averaging, though? Looks like we might be in a “set it and forget it” situation. The thing is, the gradebook only does what we tell it to (or its default setting), so if we’re not thinking about that, well…

Poll results had the majority (60) doing some kind of averaging. Let’s unpack all that.

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Inequitable Grading Practices: Homework & Zeros

Like grades, homework in school is just as expected as yellow buses, questionable cafeteria lunch, rank & file desks, band, and of course, football. Homework is such a part of school culture that it’s hardly given a second thought by the teachers who assign it. I’m sure there’s the following definition somewhere, too:

teacher (n.) = Overqualified and underpaid professional who assigns homework over vacation

Unlike using the lens of standards-based grading (SBG) to illustrate the inequity of late work, the inequity of homework should be self-evident: we cannot monitor student learning, and the home environment—if there is a home—differs from student to student. Some of those environments are conducive to learning, and others not so much. When teachers grade homework, they contribute to keeping those with privilege soaring high while those without get hit with more obstacles. Most teachers not giving homework much thought at least understood how to play the school game (whether or not they did it as students, themselves). Therefore, I’m guessing that the thought of not having a quiet space to do homework, the freedom of not needing to take care of family members, or responsibility of working at the family’s restaurant is questioned by probably just 1% of teachers assigning it. And it’s quite possible that in some communities these situations are completely unheard of. Or, they’re just lurking in the shadows, still there.

For the second week, I polled a Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers, this time on their homework grading policies. After about a week, 625 responded. A little under a quarter (139) grade homework one way or another (e.g., completion, rubric, etc.), with the majority of them (109) dropping a zero in the gradebook if not done.

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Redirecting Attention From Phones…Or Not

I asked a giant Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers how they redirect attention away from phones in a way that doesn’t address rule-breaking. Despite that last part, common comments included restating the phone policy, stopping class to talk about phone use (often directed at whole class instead of individuals), confiscating the contraband, or a point system that rewards not breaking the rule. More than one comment involved a direct negative impact to a student’s course grade (maybe check this out?). Some of those practices do redirect a student in the sense of changing the course of their attention, but in a way that directly addresses the rule. I’m more interested in ways to manage behavior during class without much fanfare or acknowledgment…”sneaky”…if you will. I’m interested in masterful redirections so seamless that students don’t know they’re happening. In this post, I list all the comments that were about redirecting student attention. But first…

Why is this an issue?

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Efficiency & Effectiveness vs. Enjoyment

It’s my 9th year teaching, and I’m done. Finished. Kaputz. That’s it. I’m completely over the approach of talking to other teachers about efficiency and effectiveness. You won’t find me straying into a Twitter discussion circus trying to point out efficient practices for second language teaching. That ship has long sailed. The curtains have closed with me weighing in on comparing the effectiveness of Terrible Practice A and Undoubtedly Much Better Practice B. I might never update my page on Studies Showing the Ineffectiveness of Grammar Instruction & Error Correction, instead ignoring commentary on why I haven’t treated it like a formal annotated bibliography, or lit review, or part-time job. Ah yes, and 2020’s article on grammar-translation could be my final say on the matter.

I’ll be talking about enjoyment from now on.

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Communicate ≠ Communication ≠ Communicative Approach ≠ Comprehension

I thought it’d be helpful to go through some terms that seem to be used interchangeably. Why? The misunderstandings have an effect on pedagogical discussions, and there’s always room for reminders. So, communication, as defined by at least Sandra Savignon and Bill VanPatten, boils down to “the interpretation, negotiation, and expression of meaning.” Each researcher added details like “within a given context, and “sometimes negotiation,” but the basic idea us teachers can focus on is in the three words, also conveniently picked up by ACTFL and keyed to their three modes: interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational.

  • Examples of interpreting Latin would include listening and reading. You can do this alone. It’s one-way (input).
  • Examples of negotiating in Latin would include some interaction, which isn’t necessarily spoken because you can respond in non-verbal ways, and you can also do this via writing, such as email correspondence. You can’t do this alone. It’s two-way (input + output).
  • Examples of expressing Latin would include writing or speaking. You can do this alone, such as when writing a story, or publicly speaking. It’s one-way (output). When giving a presentation, there are people there, but you don’t necessarily have to interact with them. Think lecture without follow-up, or better yet, think videos. TikTok videos are people expressing meaning. Of course, any follow-up would involve interaction, thus becoming interpersonal communication.

OK, those are very clear examples of communication from a second language perspective. However, when most people say that they “communicate” with others, that usually just means speaking, and maaaaaaybe writing. That is, the verb “communicate” is often synonymous with “talk,” and almost always suggests two-way interaction. That’s…fine…but we start running into problems when language teachers use the two interchangeably…

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“All You CI People Do Is Just Quote…”

The typical claim is that teachers cite Krashen—and only Krashen—when talking about, or defending, comprehension-based teaching practices. In the past decade or so, that’s also expanded to include Bill VanPatten. One reason teachers might do this is that they have day jobs, and that day job certainly isn’t researching Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theories. Seriously. The fact that anyone demands evidence from comprehension-based teachers to justify their practices is insulting. Furthermore, the fact that language teachers have *any* awareness of research is amazing when you compare the state of teacher preparation programs/licensing paths with the responsibilities of a classroom teacher. Sometimes I think how INSANE it is that I even blog about teaching in addition to teaching!

Now, time—alone—doesn’t invalidate research, but bad research certainly invalidates bad research. When it comes to science, Krashen hasn’t been all that technical, but you know what? Who cares?! Eric Herman brought up that bad research could have very good implications for teaching, while at the same time good research could have very bad implications for teaching. His example was that if it were replicated study after study that 100% error-correction all the time were effective, just imagine a classroom in which the teacher corrected every utterance/writing of the students! That’d be a messed up, top-down, authoritarian, walking-on-eggshells kind of class for most kids in the room.

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Compelling Diversions: “Who needs a Boost?” and “What would you like, today?

The longer I teach, the more I pull back the curtain, becoming more transparent with students in the room, and better-aligning my practices with core principles. An understanding of communicative purpose has really helped me eliminate some of the charades you tend to see everywhere. For example, what once began as reading textbook passages designed to teach a specific grammar point has now become me outright saying “today, we’re gonna learn about some grammar” (i.e. learning). No veil. Texts are now read for enjoyment (i.e. entertainment), or learning about the target culture (i.e. learning). Any collaborative storytelling or Write & Discuss (Type & Talk) results in texts (i.e. creating), though the process is often enjoyable (i.e. entertainment), and focuses on some topic (i.e. learning). Those three classroom communicative purposes: entertainment, learning, and creating, have all led to great buy-in and trust. The longer I teach, there’s just no need for any of the role-play and ruse within the classroom reality.

Well, it’s that time of the year when I get ideas on what to improve upon or do differently next fall. In particular, I’ve got my eye on a couple new transparent routines that are best established right from the start…

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Methods & Results: To What Do We Attribute Success?

Not every teacher shares how well their students are doing—probably out of fear of being criticized—and I don’t blame them one bit. This data is often kept under lock and key, so it’s hard to get a sense of whether all the talk amounts to something. SPOILER ALERT: it does. The reports I’ve seen on how well students have been doing under a…NOT…grammar-translation approach tend to attribute success in different ways, though. Today, I’m looking at two such programs to see if we can narrow down what contributes success:

Program 1:

  • 69% of Latin V students score Intermediate Mid (I4+) on ALIRA
  • Focus on reading
  • Translation of what is understood (vs. in order to understand)
  • Uses LLPSI (Lingua Latina per se Illustrata)
  • Uses novellas & other sources of input
  • Speaks Latin whenever possible (i.e. judicious use of English)
  • Establishes meaning in English (i.e. fēlēs = cat) when students ask
  • CI is necessary, but not sufficient for acquisition
  • Extensive interaction is most important

Program 2:

  • 64% of Latin IV students score Intermediate Mid (I4+) on ALIRA
  • Focus on reading
  • Translation of what is understood (vs. in order to understand)
  • No textbook
  • Uses novellas & other sources of input
  • Speaks Latin whenever possible (i.e. judicious use of English)
  • Establishes meaning in English (i.e. fēlēs = cat)
  • CI is necessary, and sufficient for acquisition
  • Interaction is important

The results are very close by the end of each program, and there’s definitely more in common than not, but what isn’t in common makes for differently-enough teaching and learning environments. Both are just as successful, but what can we attribute that success to? Let’s look into those differences a bit more…

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100% Coverage ≠ 100% Comprehension

A question by a member of the Latin Best Practices FB group prompted me to look into text coverage, which ultimately led me to comprehension. These are two ideas that a lot of people have misinterpreted, much like the “4%er” figure, and even “90% target language use.” I’m thinking people have a hard time with mathematical concepts, and maybe we should avoid percentages moving forward. But first, we should take care of what damage has already been done by looking at simple examples right away:

Text Coverage
Text coverage is measured by tokens. There are five tokens in the sentence “the bird sees the cat.” Two of the tokens in that sentence happen to be the same word. Therefore, “the” represents 40% text coverage. If the reader doesn’t know “the,” they have a text coverage of 60%. The reader who knows everything except “cat” would have a text coverage of 80%.

Comprehension
Comprehension is a different idea entirely. If the reader who doesn’t know “cat” were asked “what does the bird see?” and it were scored, they’d have a comprehension score of zero. If they were asked two questions about the bird, and two questions about the cat, their score would be 50% comprehension with their 80% coverage of the text. Not the same thing.

Reading
Laufer et al.’s research shows that learners need a text coverage—not comprehension—of 98% ideally to read with ease (and 99-100% whenever possible), but that’s just getting through the reading. That 98% figure is just the start of comprehension.

Hold up.

Yeah, that’s right. Knowing 98% of a text—STOP!!—Remember the first section on tokens. It’s not 98 out of 100 different words, but 98 of 100 tokens (i.e. some words probably repeat). So, knowing 98% of a text doesn’t even guarantee comprehension of what is read. That’s quite the trip, isn’t it? It gets worse when we look at some findings from one of Eric Herman’s Acquisition Classroom Memos on exactly how [in]comprehensible reading can get with what seems like decent text coverage.

There’s a lot in that chart, but compare the text coverage to comprehension scores. Even 95% text coverage can get woefully low comprehension (55%). Keep in mind that the higher scores are still in the “most” range, as in learners are understanding most of what they read when they know 95%+ of a text. Also, those vocabulary sizes are incredibly high for what the majority of K-12 teachers should expect from their students. Eric also adds some context to the research:

“For the most part, the above reading studies were done with high proficiency students, ungraded and academic texts, and count word families. A reasonable prediction is that even higher text coverage and vocabulary size numbers are required to enable adequate comprehension of graded texts by lower level proficiency students. And this is not considering levels necessary for a confident and pleasurable reading experience, which would undoubtedly be even higher!

Higher would be 100%. Let’s make sure we set the record straight:

  • Students need to know 98% of a text to read it with ease.
  • Reading with ease from knowing 98% of a text can still result in much lower comprehension scores, like 70%.
  • Coverage ≠ comprehension

Providing students with texts of 98%…even 100% coverage of known words is step zero. It’s actually the minimum hope we could have for students reading with ease with high levels of comprehension. It turns out that text coverage isn’t very important to look at, because even knowing 100% of the words doesn’t guarantee 100% comprehension. It all goes back to vocab as top priority, sheltering whenever possible so gradual exposure to new words increases vocabulary without the burden of incomprehension. What does this mean for class? Probably using even fewer words than you think! Students can’t magically learn thousands of words, so if we expect them to comprehend high levels of what they read—especially during any kind of independent reading—we must use and create texts with a very limited number of words.

Text Coverage & DCC’s Top 1000

**Updated 2.25.21 with details from this post**

The DCC frequency list is often consulted for choosing which words to use when writing Latin for students. It certainly makes sense to use ones they might encounter over and over again vs. those they might not, but *how* frequent are these frequent words? In particular, I was curious what a student could probably read having acquired the Top 1000 words on DCC’s list. Here’s some quick background…

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