What Is A Language Curriculum?

Modern and classical language teachers alike have been using big name textbooks for decades, yet there’s been an emerging counter culture known broadly as “untextbooking.” This movement is a response to a) the lack of proficiency, b) dropping interest/enrollment, and c) the kind of exclusivity that form-based textbook teaching has an affect on. Instead, preference within the “untextbooking” movement is given to meaning-based teaching that results in greater proficiency, higher enrollment, and a removal of obstacles, making language programs more inclusive. For years now, I’ve heard things like “there’s not enough culture,” or “this lacks curriculum support,” or some other complaint suggesting that textbooks have something necessary to offer that not-textbooks don’t. It’s been shown that textbooks can overload learners with too much vocab, grammar rules, and target-culture details (in English). However, I’m more interested in the role of proficiency. That is, for all the supplements textbooks might bring to the curriculum, what do they really do for language proficiency? Where does proficiency come into play in a curriculum?

Language proficiency generally refers to one’s unrehearsed ability to communicate (e.g. listening, reading, seeking clarification, replying, sharing ideas, asking questions, etc.). Humans can’t plan to communicate genuinely (e.g. “ready, communicate!”). It’s just something that happens when there’s a reason to do so. The following curricular questions keep language proficiency in mind (vs. studying about languages, or cultures, or memorizing vocab, which requires little to no proficiency)…

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Grammar-Translation: Not Really A Method & Resisting It Now More Than Ever

OK fine, the grammar-translation (GT) method has been used for a few hundred years. It’s still the dominant practice for teaching Latin, and widely known. However, what is there to the method, really? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but it turns out the method is quite simple. GT actually consists of presenting students with textbook grammar rules they apply to words in order to understand the target language. As a method, then, teachers present rules, but what is GT—really—for the student?

Memorizing.

I posit that the entirety of GT can be reduced to memorizing. This makes it less a method, and more just a process. Students listen to or read about textbook grammar rules, and then recall and apply those rules in order to derive meaning. To be clear, this is a fairly complex way to arrive at step zero—establishing meaning. With GT, students not only must do this for themselves, such as consulting dictionaries and grammar notes, which accounts for a lot of “the work,” but the conscious process requires a decent amount of cognitive demand. Actual interpretive communication, on the other hand, either listening or reading, is an implicit, unconscious process, and effortless. In order to effortlessly apply textbook grammar rules while also recalling word meanings, though, a very good, if not uncanny memory, is required. Memory, then, is both paramount to student success with the GT method, as well as something we have no control over…

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“Teaching practice X is at least as supported as Y.”

I read this statement somewhere recently about researched teaching practices:

“X is at least as supported as Y.”

Since we’re talking about something that affects students, I’d begin by asking the kind of questions Eric Herman includes with each of his memos. Then I’d move away from data, and instead consider practical classroom applications, as well as personal observations and reflections (of both practices X and Y when applicable).

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