Sunday, May 9, 2010

What a language teacher's job is

 On Thursday, I had a long, intense conversation with my colleague Kris.  She's our instructional coach this year, and I strongly hope that she will continue that role in the years to come, even as she returns to full-time teaching duties.  She expressed the concern that I jump the gun in my classes--I move too quickly from building buy-in, directly to speaking Spanish.  She worries that the students don't get why they're doing what they're doing, and thus never engage, and thus never really learn.  I take her observation to heart, because I'm pretty sure my kung fu is strong, but my students are not learning Spanish at the rate they should be.  Good practice done badly is bad practice, and if my students aren't learning, I'm not quite doing something right. 

According to Krashen, as cited in Lee and Van Patten (1995), " long as there is motivation and the right affective environment (e.g., low anxiety), a person cannot avoid learning a second language if there is sustained comprehensible input" (29).  They cite other researchers that say this is overstating the case somewhat, and they themselves stake out the position that using the language in communicative settings is necessary for learning languages.  However, to the extent that this statement is true, it has powerful implications for language learning and, by extension, language instruction.  The whole rest of their book is dedicated to outlining what those implications are.

But for now, I just want to worry at that one sentence for a little while, pick it apart and apply it.  I'm writing lesson plans right now, so the action items are immediately applicable--I can go from this blog screen to my unit plan, to my weekly plan, and apply what I figure out.

It looks like this: 

motivation + affective environment + sustained COMPREHENSIBLE input = language learning.

According to a source I don't remember right now (it was in an audiobook I borrowed from a friend, which I've since returned), as cited by Sprick (2007), motivation is a function of value times expectancy of success.  So, if students value what they're learning, their motivation increases.  If the students expect to succeed at a given event, their motivation to do it increases. 

The updated equation looks thus:

(value of learning X expectation) + affective environment + sustained comprehensible input = Language Learning

I don't know enough about what Lee and VanPatten mean by "affective environment" to perform any cute faux mathematical operation on it.  I believe, though, that this largely refers to classroom management issues, about which I've typed extensively.

Lee and VanPatten dedicate most of their book to outlining the concept of sustained comprehensible input.   They later add "meaning-bearing" to the list of qualities of valuable communication.

(value of learning X expectation) + affective environment + sustained, meaning-bearing comprehensible input = Language Learning

This means that a student has to catch that there is a meaning she is supposed to understand in the utterance.  The student also needs to be able to understand some portion of the communication.

This is a pretty clear description of a language teacher's job.  These work out to these action steps:

1.)  Sell the value of the learning.  This means explaining reasons that a student should learn languages, but also why a student would want to.  (I always think of the Rosetta Stone ad: "He was a farm boy from Iowa.  She was an Italian supermodel.  He had one chance to impress her.")  This corresponds to increasing the value of learning.

2.) Increase the expectation of success.  Celebrate baby steps.  Define milestones, and move heaven and earth to drag your students towards them.  Once they get there, make a big deal over it.

3.) Run your classroom well.  I've had a lot to say about this.  Marzano has a lot to say about this.  Jackson has a lot to say about this, Wong and Wong have a lot to say about this, and Sprick has a whole lot to say about this.  It sort of boils down to these.
  • Have a very few rules which apply all the time.  Be consistent about reinforcing them positively and correcting them when necessary.
  • Have procedures for everything.  Teach them explicitly and rehearse them.  (Behaviorism at its finest, but it will help if the students create their own procedures.)
  • Make your classroom a place where it's okay to make mistakes, and teach students how to make GOOD mistakes.  As Kryza likes to say, "This is a risk-taking, mistake-making classroom."  In fact,  Corder (as cited in Lee and VanPatten (1997)) says that mistakes are "indispensable to the learner himself" (in Lee and VanPatten, p. 22.) 
It feels like I'm missing one or two, but we'll go from there.

4.)  Give your students language they can chew.  Lee & VanPatten say that if your students are at level N of comprehension, then you should communicate with them at N + 1.  That's a hard number to hit consistently, especially with a class of 20, 30, 40 language learners.  (Not that I have a class of 40 people, but it's probably not far off for many of my colleagues.)  Lee & VanPatten have things to say about that, too.

So, there.  I've defined what a WL teacher's job is.  Not exactly my original goal, but that's okay.  My next trick:  Matching this up with Marzano's 10 reflection questions from The Art and Science of Teaching, Jackson's 7 principles of master teachers, Kryza's "Chunk / Chew / Check" lesson-planning and differentiation model, the National Board's teacher assessment tool, and Kris's "Hook your students" principle.  Also, what this means to what my class looks like.


Jackson, R. (2009).  Never work harder than your students.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Lee, J., & VanPatten, B. (1997).  Making communicative language teaching happen.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Marzano, R. (2008).  The art and science of teaching.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Sprick, R.  (2008). Interventions audio.  Eugene, OR: Northwest Publishing.

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