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.

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Content To Pedagogy: The Natural Progression Of [Latin] Teachers

I’ve observed how teachers first start out all about content. This makes sense. Teachers generally really like, or maybe even love their content area. In the classroom, they’re certainly the experts. That doesn’t mean they rival scholars in terms of knowledge, of course, but most college undergrads possess enough content knowledge to teach what they know. You can even obtain a teaching license in some states having never taken an education course, instead passing tests (e.g., Praxis, MTEL, etc.) almost entirely content-based, with just a fraction of items related to teaching. Quite bluntly, the state of education is such that even with some training, many teachers are missing an overlooked aspect of teaching: solid pedagogy…

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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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Independent Reading & Speaking Latin

I recently updated the Universal Language Curriculum (ULC) to include ongoing Class Days and Culture Days. This provides more of a balance to the year without the previous “Unit 1/Unit 2” structure that each lasted approximately an entire semester. I also made sure to list independent reading as a key component. Yeah, I obviously have a stake in whether teachers build class libraries and include my books, but the whole reason I got into writing novellas in the first place is because I bought into the idea of independent reading tenfold…

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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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Survey Says…Kids Like Self-Assessment! (et cētera)

Considering how impersonal the year felt, the responses from this end-of-year survey support an early prediction many of us had that learning and growth/development would take place this year after all, though certainly different from what we’ve expected in the past. To be clear, “learning loss” is a myth, and you should stop anyone trying to talk about that dead in their tracks. You simply cannot lose what you never had in the first place. It was a talking point used to get kids into schools ASAP, and nothing more. If students, or even just their learning were truly the priority, the conversation would be about improving living conditions for families at the societal level, as well as fully-funding our public schools.

Anyway, let’s start with the first question on my mind: grading. I’ve settled on the system after experience with a LOT of different ones, but what about students? The open-ended responses explaining what kind of grading students preferred are quite genuine. Scroll through the slideshow to see:

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Core Practices

I got thinking about what I’d say my core practices were if anyone wanted to learn more about CI and get an overview of what comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT) looks like. Would it be a list of 10? Could I get that down to five? Might it be better to prioritize some practices like the top 5, 8, and 16 verbs (i.e. quaint quīnque, awesome octō, and sweet sēdecim)? Would I go specific, with concrete activities? Or, would I go broad and global, starting with principles and ideas?

I highly recommend that you do this just as an exercise during a planning period this week, making a quick list of your core practices. Doing so required me to sort out a few things in the process, and helped organize and align my practices to certain principles. Of course, terms and definitions can get tricky, here. I just saw that Reed Riggs and Diane Neubauer refer to “instructional activities (IA),” which covers a lot of what goes on in the classroom. It’s a good term. I’m using “practices” in a similar way to refer to many different methods, strategies, techniques, and activities that all fall under a CCLT approach, as well as general “teacher stuff” I find to be core as well.

Another reason for this post is that I’ve seen the “CI umbrella” graphic shared before, but that doesn’t quite fit with my understanding of things. Rather than practices falling under a CI umbrella, I envision CI instead as the result of practices under the umbrella of CCLT. I also consider such an approach a defense against incomprehensibility—the first obstacle that needs to be removed—and I thought a more aggressive graphic of a “CI shield” might best represent that.

Here’s the first line of core practice defense:

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Flashcard Blitz

As a comprehension-based and communicative language teacher, I’ve largely dismissed promoting any use of flashcards due to their connection with memorization. Beyond disappointing research about this kind of explicit learning, my classroom experience has confirmed that the more students are aware of language, the less fluent they seem to become. For example, the frequent note-taking academic students are typically those who can’t respond without second-guessing themselves and checking said notes, overly concerned with accuracy, etc., which slows them down quite a bit. Above all else, teaching practices requiring memorization lead to inequity since individual differences can’t be accommodated. Then, Eric Herman lobbed some mind grenades in Acquisition Classroom Memo #39. He can be trusted to do that, and we’re all better teachers for it…

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CI, Equity, User-Error & Inequitable Practices

I don’t agree that the statement “CI is equitable” is harmful. Yet, I also don’t think the message behind “CI isn’t inherently equitable” is wrong, either. John Bracey said one can still “do racist stuff” while teaching with CI principles. Of course, we both know that’s an issue with content, not CI. Still, I get the idea behind that word “inherent.” In case you missed the Twitter hub bub, let me fill you in: People disagree with a claim that CI is “inherently equitable,” worried that such a message would lead teachers to say “well, I’m providing CI, so I guess I’m done.” I don’t think anyone’s actually saying that, but still, I understand that position to take.

Specifically, the word “inherent” seems to be the main issue. I can see how that could be seen as taking responsibility away from the teacher who should be actively balancing inequity and dismantling systemic racism. However, teachers haven’t been as disengaged from that equity work as the worry suggests. I’ve been hearing “CI levels the playing field” many times over the years from teachers reporting positive changes to their program’s demographics. What else could that mean if not equity? But OK, I get it. If “inherent” is the issue, maybe “CI is more-equitable” will do. If so, though, at what point does a teacher go from having a “more-equitable” classroom to an “equitable” one? And is there ever a “fully-equitable” classroom? I’m thinking no. So, if CI is central to equity—because you cannot do the work of bringing equity into the classroom if students aren’t understanding (i.e. step zero), and nothing has shown to be more equitable than CI, well then…

For fun, though, I’ll throw in a third perspective. Whereas you have “CI is equitable” and “nothing makes CI equitable per se,” how about “CI is the only equitable factor?” I’m sure that sounds nuts, but here it goes: Since CI is independent from all the content, methods, strategies, etc. that teachers choose, as a necessary ingredient for language acquisition, CI might be the only non-biased factor in the classroom. Trippy.

I don’t think that third perspective is really worth pursuing, though, so let’s get back to the main points. Again, I understand the message behind “CI isn’t inherently equitable” as a response to “CI is equitable.” However, I suspect the latter is said by a lot of people who aren’t actually referring to CI. Don’t get me wrong; some get it, and are definitely referring to how CI principles reshaped their language program to mirror demographics of the school. However, others are merely referring to practices they think is “CI teaching.” This will be addressed later with the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Otherwise, let’s talk equity…

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