What if they…?

My concern is that if these students were to transfer schools and go on to level 4/AP (which our school doesn’t offer yet), would they be totally lost?

When is education going to stop playing the “what-if” game? This isn’t a strike against the teacher who posted the above comment on a language teachers’ list recently — quite the contrary. This teacher is taking the time to think about whether she should or should not have these concerns. But many others are not, or are not being allowed to. “What if they transfer?” “What if School X gives the AP exam in the sixth grade?” “What if a meteor hits the Earth and everyone else becomes a native speaker of French by magical means?” Won’t my kids be — horrors! — behind on the grammar game?

It used to be that when you were in first grade, you learned the stuff people learned in first grade. Now, everyone has to be “accelerated” and ahead of grade level or they’re not going to succeed in life.

When I took Spanish in school in the 1970s, we spent an entire year on the present tense, and the second year on preterite and imperfect tenses. And — wonder of wonders — I became fluent in not one but several languages, and have made my living through those skills, despite my “disadvantaged” and “decelerated” training. Today, although many textbooks still maintain this distinction, district pacing committees are deciding that rules-and-output taught kids have to go faster and “learn” more tenses in less time. And (sad fact that it is) in many districts, textbook trumps curriculum, and the number of chapters in a book determines the pacing, not the students or the outcomes.

TPRS teachers see no problem in presenting the present, the preterite and the imperfect at once. Since we take  a meaning-based approach, we know that it will be awkward and artificial to prohibit students from hearing or using one of those three, since they make up the bulk of simple language in most of the more commonly-taught languages. There will be conditional forms heard in the classroom now and then, and even (get ready for it) — subjunctive. Even past subjunctive! In the first year! So doesn’t that mean that TPRS teachers are cramming even worse than the textbook companies?

CI-based instructors are upping the vitamins and protein powder, but not forcing more food into the brain than it can digest. The textbook approach of compressing more rules into less time and making up for it with snazzy ancillaries is more like the process of producing foie gras or fattening ducks for Beijing roast duck  (which no one really wants to think about, any more than conjugation worksheets).

CI-based instruction, of which TPRS is one method, emphasizes comprehensible input. TPRS specifically shelters vocabulary, not structure.  That is important. We are not preventing our students from experiencing the whole rich structure of whatever language we’re teaching. What we are doing is ensuring that they can appreciate it — that they know what it means — and that what we expect them to acquire is reasonable in terms of how much input they have had of those structures and items. We take responsibility for design based on what we observe happening in their brains. We select structures and vocabulary items based on how well the previous batch have been digested, not based on the idea that we’d better be on Unit 2 (the dreaded family unit 😉  ) since it’s the third week of September.

But what about those “what-if” concerns?

What if a student transfers? Well, what if he does? He won’t have been following precisely the same curriculum in social studies, English, or other classes either. He may have to face a different math sequence, which might cause him to have to go into a “lower” or “higher” class than he was in based on the structure at your school. But if he’s been taught the basic mathematical operations, he won’t have any trouble with that, and if he’s acquired the language he’s been exposed to in your program, he will not have any more trouble with a rules-and-output based program than the next kid — and will do considerably better if he happens to transfer into a CI-based program. Shouldn’t the textbook teachers be worrying about whether or not their kids can write 100 words in 5 minutes, just in case they end up placed in a CI classroom?

We are so used to being pushed into defensive positions as CI-based teachers that I think we go looking for excuses to worry. If you’re in a department with rules-and-output based teachers, communicate with them. If the department won’t budge, find another job, because, like a vegetarian rooming with a butcher, it isn’t going to be a good fit.

What if he has to take a Standardized Test really soon? Well, what if he does? Standardized tests are not proficiency-based. We are not training future language teachers – they will get their language teaching content in their teacher prep programs or in college.

We are supposed to be getting the masses to be bilingual. If little Bobby has to take a standardized test in a language, that’s a business opportunity for someone who will take Bobby’s parents’ money and drill Bobby on the rules of grammar that will make him successful (or not) on that test. The experience will have little or no positive effect on Bobby’s ability to speak French, to read Spanish, or to deal with people from another culture. I get asked to do that kind of tutoring all the time, and I turn it down, because I cannot stomach spending the time and taking the money to do something that I know will have no long-term effect on the kid’s language proficiency.

What if the meteorite gives everyone else native speaker-level French proficiency and my kids don’t know the past subjunctive? Dunno. You’re on your own for that one. But the chances of that happening are probably no less than the chances of a substantial enough proportion of your students transferring into “more rigorous” programs (I love that label for “including more grammar worksheets”!) to make it a reasonable teaching decision to change the way you teach everyone else just to allow for that eventuality.

So bookmark the NASA web site, subscribe to their meteor alerts, and keep on teaching for proficiency, not coverage.

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
Powered by WordPress