A #langchat collaboration
Warning: This is a longer post than normal.
This week we discussed the moment that had the most impact on changing our teaching methodology. Take a look at our responses to the second question in the conversation here:
QUESTION 2: When did you have your “a-ha” moment? What changed your thinking about your teaching especially regarding vocabulary?
@sraslb - I think my moment really came when my own children were in high school and were memorizing lists for English (Word Wealth) that were supposedly designed to increase their SAT scores, and lengthy lists of terms for their various science classes. Not only was the process excruciating and panic-inducing, it was also an enormous waste of time since as soon as the quiz/test was over, the majority of what had consumed so much effort and time was forgotten.
@sonrisadelcampo - My “a-ha” moment started with a huge deal of frustration. I taught levels 3 and higher so I met my students for the first time in my Spanish 3 class. Each year I was shocked how little they were able to do in the language. Their reading ability was very low and their speaking ability was almost non-existent, and this was after two years of “learning” Spanish! Another thing that caught my attention was when I handed out quizzes and students said, “Quick, give me the quiz before I forget it.” I cringed every time I heard that. My goal was not to teach for short-term memory, but apparently, that is how the students had adjusted to the traditional style of teaching which included vocabulary lists and vocabulary quizzes. It was evident to me that I needed to change my method of instruction if I was sincere in my goal to teach for fluency and proficiency.
@Ashida_Linda Even though “giving up the vocabulary lists” started years ago, I think my “a-ha” moment actually came this year. In previous years I knew that it didn’t really make sense to keep teaching vocabulary lists out of context, but students were so programmed to study lists; furthermore they gave me feedback each year that they liked having vocabulary lists and vocabulary quizzes on a regular basis. I think it is because they felt that it was something more “tangible” to study and get a “grade” on, rather than the “less tangible” integrated performance assessments our department was moving toward. I realized that I needed to help them make a paradigm shift (and I was making it with them!). Backward design really helped, connecting students to authentic, and very explicit, communicative goals. In other words, students had a clear communicative goal from the start of each unit of instruction, and from there we learned vocabulary to be able to meet the communicative goal. Then, through a variety of contextualized activities that consisted mainly of learning about the topic through reading and listening (input activities) and pulling key vocabulary from context. I began to realize how much more meaningful the vocabulary study was in this way. In fact, students would remember the vocabulary better, and use it more naturally, when it was learned in context. This process continued over the years, and I had an “a-ha” moment this year when groups of students worked on cultural presentations on Day of the Dead. Each group became an expert on a short video and they were responsible for pulling out and learning the key vocabulary that they would need to talk about the Day of the Dead, and compare this tradition to the culture of their community. We made a class Google Doc for each group to put key info about their video along with key vocabulary. This collaborative Google Doc became a resource for the whole class. Not the teacher, but the students generated the meaningful vocabulary, based on the authentic communicative task. The “a-ha” moment came when I saw one of my students preparing her notes for her presentation. She took a screenshot of the Google Doc that included our class generated vocabulary. She wanted to have that vocabulary picture in her notes for her presentation so that she could make sure to remember to include “rich vocabulary” which was one of the criteria of the rubric (that was front-loaded from the beginning of instruction). When I saw her notes, I thought, “Wow!” this was a class generated vocabulary resource that was so much more meaningful and authentic than the “old days” when I, the teacher, generated (or the textbook provided) lists that had to be memorized and quizzed before any meaningful communication took place. I realized what a waste of time that all was. And I realized also, that in the end my students were learning as much, or MORE, vocabulary than before, and they were much more engaged in meaningful communication in the process!
@natadel76 I think my “a-ha” moment happened right in the middle of Swedish class during NTPRS conference in 2009. It was my first time at a conference other than AP Institute in a long time, and a first TPRS experience. Confession time: I am a grammar geek and must have a really good memory for vocabulary myself so I taught language as I learned it or as others taught around me and knew little about other methods. So there I was, considering myself an experienced language learner, fluent in three languages, bla-bla-bla…
Suddenly I realized that I have not been catching up as fast as other people in class. That little blow to my pride and self-esteem produced a more intense evaluation on what has been happening in that class. To my surprise, I had to admit that even though I was not quick enough in producing the language and a bit slow in listening comprehension, I had no issues understanding a paragraph written in Swedish. I was also able to answer questions about it. After less than two hours of instruction. And all of it was accomplished with no vocabulary lists and and no grammar explanations. Not even a single drill. And we didn’t learn Swedish alphabet either. That class was the absolute opposite of language teaching/learning that I ever known and it worked!
That eye-opening experience sent me into Internet research of everything related to TPRS, CI, language acquisition and beyond. I realized that I was teaching so much vocabulary that my students were overloaded. Some of it they wouldn’t use in real life even in their native language (who will ever need to retell all the minuscule details of their morning hygiene routine?). No wonder they couldn’t communicate: I didn’t provide them with the right tools. Since then, my teaching changed dramatically. Now, context determines everything and high frequency vocabulary takes priority. Real life application became just as important. My students get a lot of input through listening and reading before they are expected to produce anything themselves. And vocabulary lists? I still make them for myself to make sure that I limit the quantity and concentrate heavily on the ones I really want my students to acquire by the end of the lesson/unit.
@fravan: I don’t think I ever had an epiphany, I had a transformation. In other words, there was not an event that made me say, I have to change this. For me, I moved away from the book over a period of several years. I did it one unit at a time. I have always been saddened by the lack of vocabulary retention that my students have. I jokingly refer to it as the Las Vegas rule: what happens in Chapter 1, stays in Chapter 1. It was one of my great frustrations. I developed units around certain themes. Initially, these dovetailed nicely with the book I was using. As I got better at it, I was able to develop my own units, apart from the book. I still have the books but, have not touched them all year. My students are doing much better in terms of retention and are light years ahead of past years in willingness and ability to speak. I think speaking is a habit that we have to develop.
@alenord - My a-ha moment came in 2005 when I was teaching at a very low performing school. My students were in Spanish 2, but their previous teachers had not really accomplished anything with them and if you were to test their proficiency all of them would have fallen into Novice Low. Most were still having trouble managing "to be" and "to have" and this was into the middle of their 1st semester as level 2 students. They knew a few words, but couldn't communicate using the language at all. I realized that if I had been a math teacher, my job would have been in jeopardy because my students couldn't perform! What math or science teacher would keep her job if her students didn't know math at the end of the course? I knew I had to do something, so one day I decided to take the "grammar" and "vocabulary" and anything else traditional out of the lesson. I designed something I called "QP3" to hand out to the students. Basically, it was a simple handout with 4 really common verbs on it: Querer - to want, Poder - to be able, Preferir - to prefer and Pensar - to think. The idea was to teach them "stem changing verbs" without teaching "stem changing verbs." To see the handout take a look below. I decided to just focus on taking the work out of understanding Spanish structure and get the Spanish into my students' mouths. Here's what happened (all quotations were in Spanish):
Since the handout included everything the students needed to follow along, I initiated a conversation with one of the student leaders in the class by asking her, "Can you sing?" modeling the type of text I wanted to hear from them. My student answered, "Yes, I can sing." So, I followed up with, "Do you want to sing?" She responded, "No, I don't want to sing." I asked, "Why don't you want to sing?" She said, "I don't want to sing because I am shy." Then, another student said, "Chris can sing!" So, I asked Chris, "Can you sing, Chris?" Chris responded, "Yes, I can sing!" So, I asked him if he wanted to sing. He said, "No, I don't want to sing." So, then another student said, "I can sing!" Then several students said, "NO, HE CANNOT sing!" At this point my students started talking to each other! I was bumped out of the conversation. IT WAS AWESOME! Here were a group of kids talking to each other who had NEVER had a conversation in Spanish EVER! This moment made me realize that as language teachers we were overcomplicating pretty much EVERYTHING. From that moment forward I started evaluating every practice I had and learned everything I could on performance assessment.