That's a big statement, I know, but it is 100% true.
My teachers meant well. They taught me to conjugate verbs and different tenses. They exposed me to a million and one vocabulary words. I could write really well, but I could not speak and I was a weak listener. My university conversation classes (all 2 of them) helped some, but I had absolutely NO CONFIDENCE in my ability to communicate.
I am the product of textbook Spanish. I was also a grammar teacher for years until one day in my classroom I took the "grammar" out of the lesson and in five minutes my students (from a low performing school) were having conversations with EACH OTHER. Those students had never spoken Spanish ever. They were level 2 students who really hadn't been taught anything in level 1 and here they were conversing! It gives me goosebumps to this day.
So, if no one else will say this, let me. Grammar and textbooks do not teach people to be speakers of a second language. If you don't believe me, ask the hundreds of parents who come to open house every year. Ask them how fluent they are now, because most all of them took at least 2 years of a foreign language in high school.
Here's the good news, the way to teach students to become speakers of the language they are studying is simple. Less is more. The old paradigm is that the more language we expose them to the more they will know, connect together and then speak. It just isn't true. Remember how children learn. They hear repetitive words, phrases and sentences until they are confident enough to begin to use them on their own. We don't have to make a bunch of worksheets and give them loads of homework, we just have to provide the context and opportunity to practice. The more they listen and speak, the more they figure things out.
Here's what the research-based national standards (ACTFL) say about beginning language students:
When students listen to a new language they can understand:
- Key words
- Cognates that are easy to hear and understand
- Formulaic expressions within a familiar context
- Expressions they can anticipate they might hear
- Words and phrases from simple questions, statements and commands
To be able to do this, they will need:
- Slow speech
- Gestures / Non-verbal cues
When students read new language they can understand:
- Key words
- Formulaic expressions within a very familiar context
- A limited amount of information from highly predictable text on a very familiar topic
To be able to do this they will need:
- Familiar structure and organization
- Their own background knowledge
This is really all that is needed to start a performance / proficiency based plan for any classroom. Set down the textbooks and create scenarios. Give up the worksheets and use language to teach language. Tell a story and give students a graphic organizer to support them as they listen. Present vocabulary that way. Students catch on. Set goals for your students to have conversations about topics they are familiar with. Set goals for them to write letters and emails, not just words and phrases to fill in the blanks. Most of all, give up the need to control the language they speak and the accuracy component.
The key is planning ahead what the input (listening or reading) will be and keeping it simple, giving it structure and following up by making students use the language they just read or heard. My boss says that students should never leave class without having to speak in the target language, so I make that a part of my lesson cycle every day.
Finally, become really familiar with the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. Reading them changed my career. Just click that link and get ready to have your mind blown. Your students will never be the same again. It is so worth it!
Give it a try and...
Happy Language Coaching!