Saturday, September 13, 2008

Procedures and structure in the World Languages classroom

Everything I've read ever suggests that the single most important element of classroom management is to establish and teach procedures consistently and well. (Wong & Wong 2005, Marzano 2007, Flannery 2008, and an e-mail I just got from the State Education Association illustrate the point, but I'm pretty sure that that's far from exhaustive.) It's an aspect of teaching that I've had to get a lot better at in my classroom, since I'm not inclined by nature to be procedures-driven.

At the same time, communicative language theory suggests that you start speaking the target language immediately and more or less constantly (Lee & Van Patten 1995, to name one). The act of a student understanding a language they're learning is referred to in the literature as "comprhensible input," and its importance in the language classroom cannot be exaggerated. The mor of it, the better. This is an aspect of my job that DOES come naturally. I love speaking Spanish, and to be perfectly frank, I like the sound of my own voice.

However, I've always had a problem with these two key elements of my job, because they seem to come into direct conflict with each other. I base a lot of early-stage language education on playing off of prior knowledge--my students know that they're students, they know I'm a teacher, and they know they're in school. In the younger grades, that's 4 sessions worth of lesson plans, after you get done adding songs, pictures, TPR activities, and the like. Even for the 1st-year high school students, that and peripherals make for a good chunk of vocabulary acquisition. But procedures require great precision and absolute clarity. In order for a procedure to be effective, a student has to know when, where, how, and WHY. Beginning-of-class procedure doesn't work for coming back from a fire drill. In the same vein, if you're making up procedures as you go along, students are (rightly) going to think you're asking to jump through hoops; besides, the next day, I never remember which procedures I said were in effect. This is the antithesis of a procedure, it's the whim of a dictator.

So, marrying these two practices suggests that from day 1 a language teacher should teach procedures in the target language. But the chance for miscommunication in such occasions is great, and the consequences include misunderstood, misapplied, or ignored procedures. This as good as plunges a classroom into chaos. (At least, it did mine.) Another potential solution is to teach mostly procedures in English with some Spanish content instruction. This feels like a splitting-the-baby solution, one that satisfies neither the need for good procedures nor communicative theory. It's failed to work for a long time, though, so it's what I went with this year. We're two weeks into the school year, and my high school students seem to be pretty okay on the procedures, as well as on the smattering of Spanish we've covered so far. (I'm thinking about my Spanish I students here.) Not an ideal solution, but an okay stop-gap measure so far. One could, I suppose, simply ignore one beginning-of-the-year obligation or the other, but that sounds like the makings of a hard year.

A related subject to this is the level of structure during instructional time. I have boardwork at the beginning of class and I try to have an assessment on the lesson at the end of the class, but what happens in between varies wildly--instruction? practice? speaking activity? listening activity? vocab?. I imagine it's the same with other teachers, that it isn't simply my disorganization biting me in the tail yet again. Ideally, in order to maximize comprehensible input in Spanish, my students should know what to expect every minute of the day before the tardy bell rings. My plans are thorough, but they're not prescient. So balancing structure and comprehensible input again seem to come into conflict. It's an issue that I've noticed, but I haven't thought a lot about it yet.

I don't think that I've read anything that addresses this apparent contradiction. I'd hoped to acquire a copy of the ACTFL's Keys to the Classroom, a book designed for new World Language teachers, to see if the pros had any suggestions. So far, no dice. If anyone in the real world has seen anything like this, or otherwise has suggestions, I'd appreciate hearing them.

Works cited:

Lee, J., and VanPatten, B. (1995.) Making communicative language teaching happen. McGraw-Hill.

Wong, H., and Wong, R. (2005.) The first days of school. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications.

Flanery, M. E. (2008.) "When the ship sails adrift." NEAToday, 27 (1), 30-31.

Update: I just looked at the program for the State World Languages Association conference coming up one month, and there appears to be a session that strives to resolve the very conflicts I mention above. More about on this after the conference (assuming I can go).

1 comment:

Ray said...

I think you have begun to solve your dilemma when you began to reflect on your classroom. Reflection can open doors that we may have never seen. Taking the time to ask ourselves questions similar to; why did this instruction work for some students but why didn't it work for another? If I was to teach this lesson again how might I change it to better engage every student? Or the reflection you have begun, When I teach a room full of students what is it I want them to get out of it today? You have posed a very intriguing conflict.

I do not have an answer or solution to your conflict but might suggest that you prioritize what you believe to be the most important aspect of your class. What do you want kids to learn and why? Do you want them to follow procedure, memorize words and phrases, use the language as a tool to better understand their world, or compliment and build on what other teachers are teaching? What is the true focus?

If it doesn't improve learning, why are we doing it? That is a question I often ask myself. No matter how I answer the question I do realize I must have some since of order and management for the instruction to be successful. Perhaps we sometimes include to much mangament when maybe less is better.

Good luck in your quest of searching for the solution. Please keep us posted on what strategies you are using and how they are working.