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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9 Years & 90% Uphill Battle: Why I’m Not Choosing To Research Second Language Pedagogy

It’s absurd, really. After nearly a decade as a professional second language educator (i.e., employed AND trained as one, because those don’t always come in tandem), I can say that the opposition has been steep. No need to get into the weeds about Terrible Work Experience X, or Shockingly Obtuse Administrator Y, or even Internet Troll Z whose job seemed to be disagreeing with everyone about A) how languages are acquired, B) why acquisition-focused practices are the most equitable and effective way to teach second languages in public school, C) that you cannot update content without updating pedagogy and still call yourself a social justice advocate who promotes intercultural competence, and D) how all of the above apply to Latin.

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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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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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Something Strange…

Before I started teaching in 2013, I joined the moreTPRS Yahoo list serve. Then in 2015, I joined Ben Slavic’s PLC. At that time, there were daily—DAILY—conversations about Second Language Acquisition (SLA), with really tough questions being asked, answered, and debated ad nauseam. Then Tea With BVP was launched, with weekly shows until 2018—here are my clips down to the nuts & bolts. N.B. That show was rebooted in a different iteration as TalkinL2 until just about a year ago. Needless to say, I learned a great deal in those five years; far more, in fact, than in my MAT program (no offense, just a result of SLA expert-lacking faculty nationwide).

I cannot overstate this enough when I say that those early years were simply *crucial* in the development of what we all learned about SLA, and teaching languages. Furthermore, what we now know has also been around for like 10, 20, 30, even 40 years beforehand! That is, most scholarship in the last decades haven’t really changed the game of what’s been discussed since the 70s. The problem? This stuff wasn’t (isn’t?) mainstream—at all. That “golden age” of my SLA development involved the constant interaction with perhaps 200, maybe 300 teachers, almost all of whom I can reach out to with a click. I also had direct access to researchers, their ideas, as well as teachers implementing and arguing about what is, essentially, “best practice” for teaching languages in schools. When we didn’t understand, we emailed and got answers. And we were fringe. Having been exposed to the same ideas over and over—not just Krashen & VanPatten—thankfully from a variety of perspectives courtesy of Eric Herman, a solid understanding of universal truths (as much as we can call them that in the field of SLA) was being discussed.

Don’t get me wrong. There was a LOT of disequilibrium that nearly everyone had to face (e.g. “wait, so you’re saying that…”), and it was not without major headaches. After all, teachers’ worlds were literally being turned upside-down (no, I do mean literally like what you thought was the cause was just a result). Even the researchers’ ideas were challenged—by “mere” teachers no less—and fruitful discussion emerged, like when Carol Gaab demanded a concrete response about whether co-creating a story was a communicative act (i.e. had purpose). N.B. Yes, it is; entertainment. There was significant growth at that time, but it wasn’t all roses. We could call a spade a spade, or at least all come to agreement that a heart was definitely not a spade, and then talk about how to make that heart into a spade. Granted, this was within the fringe group of hundreds of teachers who had that shared experience, but there was definitely some kind of “tell me if what I’m talking about is complete nonsense” agreement. Whatever it was, it now feels like he heyday of theory to practice and critical looks at each others’ teaching.

Then…

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1969: 50 Years of “4%ers”

Just a few months after the moon landing, Superintendent John Lawson (Shaker Heights, OH) gave a speech at the Symposium on Foreign Language Teaching at Indiana University. Its age certainly shows. Then again, were it not for the typeface, you’d think some of these statements appeared yesterday in a blog! I find it striking that such “progressive” and “controversial” ideas have been discussed for 50 years, pretty much coinciding with the civil rights movement, yet without much fundamental change to either. There’s no excuse for the latter. As for second language teaching, that’s slightly more understandable considering the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) was hardly established by the late 60s.

To give you a sense of how relevant Lawson’s ideas are today, look at this statement addressing the importance of compelling topics, and what now has become criticism against using unadapted texts driving the AP Latin problem:

There’s also a section, while brief, managing to address topics like teaching to the test, teacher perception of status in their field, elitism, exclusivity, ineffective pedagogy, compellingness, connectedness, comprehensibility, and confidence. All that back in 1969. Holy moly, right?!

That speech also happens to be the source of the “4%er” term that Keith Toda just shared in his latest (and last-for-a-while) blog post. Now, Keith is somewhat of a self-proclaimed man of the shadows not really active on social media, so my first thought was that he didn’t know the “4%er” term doesn’t really come up these days. In fact, I had to go back to a 2015 moreTPRS list email to search for the references contained in here! But maybe that term is exactly what teachers need to be reminded of right now. Let’s start with its history:

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How To Teach The Infinitive

But first, what’s an example without a non-example, really? When it comes to pedagogy, I’d call that partial information. Maybe you’ll know what to do after learning something, yet maybe it’s not clear what to avoid while also doing that thing. We can’t just stack practices upon practices and expect things to turn out well.

Typical Instruction (i.e. the non-example)
An introduction to the infinitive is usually taught by first focusing on the form “-re” with an incomplete, yet easy-to-test explanation (e.g. “the infinitive means ‘to X'”). Students are shown examples using different verbs (i.e. multiple meanings) in isolation, phrases, and/or short sentences. Then, students practice identifying infinitives, and changing verbs into their infinitive form. That’s basically it. The kids who memorize the “-re” form (while also not confusing it with the other…hundred?…forms that were taught by now) as well as verb meanings (i.e. the kids who have good memorize) are successful. One thing to note here is that the examples and practice sentences tend to lack meaning or purpose within a context. That is, even if there’s some continuity from sentence to sentence, the purpose is still identifying infinitives, not reading to find out what the messages are about. Stop doing all that. Here’s how to teach the infinitive…

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“Active Latin:” Confusion & Clarification

If you’re within the first years of speaking Latin in the classroom, I urge you to avoid using the term “active Latin.” In a nutshell, referring to “active Latin” is problematic, and just might lead you astray from what you intend to be doing.

A few years ago, some began recognizing the confusion “active Latin” was causing. This confusion is summarized below, with observations of people interpreting “active Latin” to mean that…

  • …Latin was to be spoken all the time.
  • …English was to be avoided, if not eliminated.
  • …students had to speak and write Latin.
  • …grammar had to be taught/learned in Latin.
  • …teaching in such ways meant that one was providing input (I) that was understandable (C) to the student.

**Before I continue, let it be clear that doing or not doing any of the bullet points is not the focus of this post. Instead, the focus is on this particular combination, how it’s referred to as “active Latin,” and its implications.**

When looking at the bullet list, it doesn’t matter what “active Latin” ever meant originally, has meant over time, or now means. What matters is that this confusion led to more emphasis on output, and a more polarized view of teaching Latin, in general. In particular, the combination of the first bullet points above doesn’t cause the last. Due to this confusion, there’s a problematic association with “active Latin,” and CI, which may or may not be provided under the listed circumstances.

Quite plainly, then, just because you’re speaking Latin, doesn’t mean you’re providing CI…

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2018-19 Syllabus & Latin Program Mission & Vision

Unless you’re an island of one, a program Mission & Vision is a good idea to keep the department heading in a similar direction, even if things don’t start out that way. I put a lot of time into crafting the document last spring, and just had some help from my admin for the final touches. Once that was squared away this week, I could hand in my 2018-19 Syllabus. Let’s unpack all that…

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“to be” Task Template

Tasks are becoming popular these days, though I’m not a fan.

The way I see it, a task itself must be so well-constructed that something else—something probably more beneficial—could’ve been done in the same amount of prep time as well as class time. Otherwise, low-prep simple and short tasks tend to lack compelling purposes. After all, there are purposes, and there are compelling purposes, right? For example, most of the Tasks that Bill VanPatten mentions on Tea with BVP are appropriate for self-selecting college students, yet leave the K-12 public school student saying “who cares?” Still, if you’re interested in early input-based Tasks, try using this template…

To Be
This task focuses on all conjugated forms of the verb “to be” in the present, and possibly other tenses. It answers the general questions “who am I?” and “who are we?” and could be used to determine a number of qualities shared in the class, and then to compared to some other source, like a target language-speaking culture. Get creative! In the first few steps, students pair up and rotate briefly to get some data. Then, the teacher elicits data in the final steps, compares, and summarizes the findings. Note how students aren’t speaking in the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) Output sense. They’re saying words, sure, but all the words are provided, and any response options are listed. This is not Output since students aren’t generating any of the ideas, which means it could be done very early on given the appropriate level of scaffolding. The first few steps of input-based Tasks are designed to get information, NOT to “practice speaking” like some might refer to, though it will look similar to observers if you are being asked to have students speak more, or interact more. Most of the input will be provided by the teacher in steps 4+.

1) Student A asks:
Quis es? Who are you?
Quālis es? What are you like?

2) Student B replies:
sum [     ] I’m [      ]. **chosen from a provided list of words—the only prep**

3) Students record responses, switch partners party-style, and get more data:
Student B est [      ] Student B is [      ].
etc.

4) Teacher asks students to share details::
Student A, esne [      ]? Student A, are you [      ]?
Student A, estne Student B [      ]?
 Student A, is Student B [      ]?
etc.

5) Teacher tallies/graphs results, and makes statements:
discipulī trēs, estis [      ] You 3 students, you are [      ].
discipulī quīnque, estis [      ]
 You 5 students, you are [      ].
quattuor discipulī sunt [      ]
 4 students are [      ].
duo discipulī sunt [      ]
  2 students are [      ].
ūna discipula est [      ]
  1 student is [      ].
etc.

6) Teacher compares class to something:
multī Rōmānī erant [      ] Many Romans were [      ].

7) Teacher summarizes results:
discipulī, sumus [      ] Students, we are [      ].

 

Again, I don’t necessarily think students care a great deal about these kinds of Tasks, but if you find that something piques their interest, say, who is the closest to turning 18, or who takes the longest naps, break out this task template and see how it goes!