Dr. Baros is a dedicated researcher, educator, and LGBTQ advocate. Her areas of expertise are proficiency-based language teaching and creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ students and people.
I'm completely in love with Ben Slavic's new concepts of "invisibles" and emergent structures. Already, my students are more interested, having more fun, and having richer language experiences than I was ever able achieve with "targeted" structures and scripted storytelling. The kids themselves have literally become my curriculum! But, more on that in a different post. This post is about the practical application - I work in a school, and that carries with it certain job "hazards" that can sometimes be difficult to handle with "free range" language teaching like I'm using. Yet, I am finding that it's not so scary after all to jump in and let things go where they will go! Of course, I understand that what I'm doing may not work for everyone's situation, but perhaps my experiences and resources will provide at least some inspiration to other teachers wanting to jump into using emergent structures. And, I am always eager to hear your thoughts and suggestions as well!
My Spanish I (7th-8th Grade) Scope and Sequence - keep in mind that this is adapted from the high school curriculum and that my students are expected to successful transition from my CI program to Spanish II in a textbook-based program, so some of my scope and sequence is dictated by these circumstances.
What do I need to teach? (Scope)
For me, this was pretty easy to figure out. Since my program is an extension of the high school program down to middle school and my students are expected to be ready for Spanish II once they leave me, I have to make sure that my kids get the same information as the students in the HS Spanish I. If it were up to me, this would strictly be the "Sweet 16" verbs along with some other daily-use vocabulary, such as colors, numbers, days, months, greetings/goodbyes, school items that are used regularly, prepositions of place, time, and weather. From there, I also made a list of the other major verbs and thematic vocabulary, along with grammatical structures and cultural themes, that my students are expected to know by the time they leave me. Of course, this short list of verbs is not all that they will know - my total verb list has only 34 words (and it would be half as much if it were up to me). Rather, this gives me an idea of where I should start and a general guideline for what should be given priority - but more on that in the "sequence". I should note that my students are only expected to learn present tense in Spanish I. However, considering the power of CI and un-sheltered grammar, I plan to also expose my students to other forms, especially preterite and imperfect tense. This is not only giving them a richer experience in my classroom and more in line with acquisition theory, but it also gives them a head start for Spanish II.
If I were in higher levels, I would take the same approach - ensure that students know this basic information first, but then allow the emergent structures to flourish. Perhaps I might select a limited number of additional high-frequency verbs (or perhaps that will be done for me by a mandated curriculum), but it's really not necessary. The students may get a repeat of a particular verb or structure due to the spontaneous and messy nature of authentic language, but it will still be compelling, meaningful, and engaging because it will come from the students themselves. And, the repetition never hurt anyone - it can only help students acquire at an even deeper level! The variety and richness in language will continue to come from the students themselves as they naturally expand the things they wish to talk about.
When should I teach it? (Sequence)
Essentially, there isn't one. I simply made a list of what the students need to know by the time they leave me. In fact, even though I have these kids for both 7th and 8th grade, I didn't even separate those lists in to which grade should learn what. Why? Because the words are going to come up on their own. That's the beauty of teaching using high-frequency vocabulary - they are high frequency without any planning on my part! I don't need to target them, because we're going to naturally need to use them over and over and over again. Rather than setting targets prior to class, I simply generate a general idea of what we can talk about today and where that might go, and then I capitalize on opportunities that present themselves to use the language. Sure, I'm prioritizing some verbs and topics over others, but the kids think they are the ones that came up with the things that we're learning and are therefore interested. Case in point - during the first two weeks of school, I started my kids with introducing themselves to one another, describing how they feel, and things that they do. That's an easy thing to talk about, and lent itself to teaching "se llama", "me siento", "es", "juega", "hace", and a handful of common activities that students do ("come", "duerme", "nada", "va de compras" etc.) along with various conjugations to fit the subject who we were talking about. From there, we started imagining "invisibles" together (see Ben Slavic's book, TPRS the Easy Way), which spontaneously necessitated using "hay", "tiene", "quiere", "va", "vive en", "está", and "necesita". By following Ben's philosophy of "asking the next interesting question", the class experienced rich, interesting, spontaneous, and authentic communication with little preparation or even intention on my part. Of course, not all of the above words will come up on their own. However, instead of letting the structures drive the story, I let the story drive the structures. For instance, I may want to work in "wants". Maybe the students haven't learned it yet, or maybe I feel that they need more reps. In either case, I again ask "the next interesting question". So, the conversation might go like this (with circling for reps, of course - student responses are in bold): Class, I need an object. What is there? There is a duck. What is the duck's name? The duck's name is Duke. Class, is duke poor or rich? Duke is poor. What does duke want? Duke wants money. And BAM! There it is - "wants" goes on the word wall, it's now in our collective word bank, and the students think it came from them. They have no idea that I led them right into the question, and now I can ask questions about what any character wants for the rest of the year. I'll probably circle this in the story a few times just to familiarize students with it and increase comprehension (it is, after all, a detail that we will revisit like any other), but the true power will be spaced repetitions throughout the year. I don't "target" it in the sense that "students will learn wants this week". My goal is simply to get it "out there" so that it can be used from now now. I will use it to ask questions, and students will use it to add details. And I'm free to ask any interesting question that uses "quiere".
The results? In the first two weeks, we've already hit 6 of the Super 7, one more of the Sweet 16, and 5 of the additional verbs I needed to teach (not even counting the general "common activities" verbs). If I had planned out ahead of time when exactly I wanted to teach these and used them repetitively, I might have hit 3 per week, totaling 6, and not had nearly as compelling of conversations. Instead, I've already touched on one third of my curriculum - even including the textbook-mandated verbs. My students may not have mastered them yet, but now they are on our word wall and fair game for the rest of the year. When I want to add a detail, I glance to the wall and pick something from there to get more reps. And, incredibly, I've noticed students doing the same! It's an artifact of our collective experience and knowledge and a tool for us to keep acquiring what is there. And, of course, we add to the wall when the opportunities continue to present themselves.
Since the "thematic vocabulary" items that I mentioned in the "scope" are all things that we use every day to communicate in an authentic manner, none of them need to be explicitly taught. Instead, I greet and say goodbye to my students daily, we talk about the date and weather, use page numbers any time we open a book, say what time things are going on, use vocabulary common to school settings, describe where things are in stories, etc. I make an effort to look for opportunities to use the other thematic vocabulary, but I wouldn't necessarily test these items. Unfortunately, because my system requires my students to memorize this vocabulary, I plan to use a "flipped classroom" model for the students to work on flash card sets at home.
One of the beautiful things about the Sweet 16 verbs is that they hit on nearly every grammatical topic that I am required to teach, so students will naturally acquire those grammatical structures as long as I make sure that we use those verbs (which will again happen quite naturally considering they are high-frequency for a reason!). I create characters in present tense and we read in present tense, but we tell stories in past tense. That way, students are hearing un-sheltered grammar and acquiring it naturally, but I am continually reinforcing the present tense since that is what I am required to teach. Since students acquire so much grammar through reading, it is particularly powerful for them to see and discuss the readings in present tense and my hope is that they will "master" the present tense at a level equal (if not ahead of) their high school peers. I will periodically review my scope and, if I find that we are not getting to all of the grammar on our own, I will again capitalize on opportunities that present themselves and work those structures in.
Finally, there is the issue of culture. This is the only thing I plan to "intentionally" teach, but the plan is to use readings utilizing high-frequency vocabulary to discuss cultural topics. This is the biggest "gray area" in my scope and sequence right now, but I'm sure that we'll have plenty of opportunities to talk about these topics once students have acquired enough language to do so.
How do I assess it student learning and growth? (Grades, Common Assessments, and Data)
First, I personally feel best separating proficiency assessments from grades. Everything I know about language acquisition leads me to believe that the only thing I can truly do to make acquisition happen is to provide input at an appropriate level and ensure that students are comprehending that input (and just that is a tall order for classrooms with 20-30 students). I need to make my input as engaging and compelling as possible, shelter the vocabulary in order to make things comprehensible, give students the repetitions they need, and manage my classroom in such a way that encourages students to do their part to comprehend the input. Beyond that, there is not much I can do to control the rate at which students acquire the language. They acquire it subconsciously, so how can I expect to consciously and intentionally control that? If students are constantly comprehending, what can they do to learn the language faster or slower than they are able to naturally aside fpprom seeking additional input experiences? If neither I nor my students can "speed up" acquisition intentionally, how could I possibly hold that against my students in the form of grades based on proficiency levels?
For me, that is the million dollar question. It calls into question the very purpose of grades. But, when it comes to our educational system, grades are necessary. For me, the purpose of grades becomes a way to communicate to parents and the student (and, in some cases, the next teacher) what that particular student has accomplished so far compared to what might be expected, whether they are doing what they need to be doing in order to acquire language, and eventually whether they have acquired enough to be successful and meet the expectations at the next stage of their acquisition experience (whatever that might be).
For this reason, I wholeheartedly endorse standards-based grading, which allow a student to progress toward and exceed standards at their own pace (at least within the confines of artificial deadlines set by grading periods). At the end of the grading period, report cards communicate how well students have met certain standards. In language acquisition, the standards are always the same: students should be able to comprehend input and (eventually) produce output at a comprehensible level. Isn't this the ultimate goal of any language learner at any level? What changes with level is the complexity of the language, rather than the standards themselves (which is in line with the ACTFL proficiency guidelines). However, assigning one grade at the end of the grading period often fails to hold students accountable for all of the necessary steps and exercises that happen throughout the learning experience. Students need frequent feedback about their performance (as do their parents and teachers), and this is often where grading comes into play, especially if your district or school is not set up for standards-based grading (like mine). I give frequent assessments that fall into my three grade book categories: Interpretive, Interpersonal, and Presentational. Because these categories mix skills and can look different in each class based on what the class creates together, they cannot be used as proficiency assessments. In reality, they are feedback about daily performance in sheltered circumstances, which should eventually lead to proficiency. Because what one class experiences may be completely different than another class on any given day, the data is only informative about that particular lesson with that particular class on that particular day and cannot be used to compare data.
Due to the nature of our educational system as well as the need for informed professional conversations, it is necessary at some point to establish common benchmark assessments. These serve to measure overall student proficiency and to ensure that students have reached an appropriate level for advancement. It also allows teachers to examine their practice and engage in the cycle of inquiry for continual improvement. This is where it is important to isolate skills and ensure that we are not comparing apples to oranges, which necessitates that we have common assessments. But how could common assessments be possible when each class is doing something completely different?
They're not. Although every class experience is different and unpredictable, they are still using high frequency vocabulary, especially if the teacher is intentionally capitalizing on on opportunities to use key structures. Thus, any proficiency-based assessment that focuses high-frequency words would be appropriate to measure what students have accomplished. Is that all that they will have acquired? Of course not. But it does give us a benchmark from which to work. Personally, I have chosen to adopt Eric Herman's Speed Readings for Spanish Learners (interpretive mode) and free-writes (presentational mode) to track student growth and facilitate professional conversations throughout the grading period (the Speed Readings are only written for Level I currently; why and how I use these as my proficiency assessments its own blog post; I am still working on a way to efficiently and accurately assess speaking and listening). I enter these assessments using standards-based grading, so that particular grade can change throughout the semester. If we were truly doing standards-based grading, these would be the only grades that counted at the end of the grading period, but only because they would be necessary to communicate whether or not the student has achieved the proficiency necessary for advancement to the next level. Again, it's not ideal since this is an arbitrary step that is in conflict with language acquisition, but it's the necessary evil of our educational system.
So, the answer is YES - it is possible to adapt "free-range" Comprehensible Input to the needs of our educational system and established systems. It's messy, but it is possible. It requires teachers to:
When I was fifteen years old, I was diagnosed as ADD. Some might think that this is private information, and I can understand that perspective. However, I share this information because I feel it's empowering, both for me and for others, especially kids (and their parents) that are struggling and learning how to work with the challenges presented by an ADD brain. I've learned how to cope with my ADD and feel very positive about myself, and I'm able to do so without medications or therapy. That's not to say that all kids (or adults) can or should try to do that - sometimes those things are necessary. This is just some background information about my personal experience, and that it is it. Everyone's experience is different of course.
I'm sharing this here now because I had a very powerful experience yesterday that opened my eyes and reminded me what many students experience on a daily basis. It reminded me not to get frustrated. It reminded me that, even as an ADD person myself, it's easy to misjudge behaviors associated with it and misjudge students' intentions and capabilities.
As an adult, and especially as a professional, I have the privilege of shaping my life around my needs. My students don't have that ability. They have to work in a rigid world of "do this, not that" on adults' schedules and for adults' reasons. And usually, it's a world that's designed for "all" kids rather than tailored to their specific needs and interests. Even in situations where I am required to meet with so-and-so from X time to X time, I can usually schedule around my needs or call for a break when needed (or at least I have the freedom to "create" a break by taking a quick trip to the bathroom or drinking fountain without being questioned). And of course, I'm usually at least somewhat motivated to do the things I need to do, even if it's just because I want to make sure I'm fulfilling my job responsibilities (again, in a profession that I'm motivated to do well in).
Yesterday, however, was the perfect storm. I worked a full day which was more taxing than normal, and then I had to attend some information-heavy meetings back-to-back for another 2 1/2 hours. The information was important, but at the same time it was taxing and a fair amount of it I already understood. But, there was enough new and critical information that I didn't want to leave and risk missing anything. I was tired. I was lacking motivation and interest. And my ADD started kicking in - HARD. First, my foot started bouncing. Then, I found myself reaching for my phone to scroll through any new social media posts. But, I didn't want to be rude, so I started glancing around the room. It was getting harder and harder not to make comments - about anything! The smell of the food in the next room. Asking questions of the speaker (that I didn't really need to ask). Commenting on the topic to my neighbor. I knew that the comments weren't necessary, so I shifted my attention to my hands. I felt so pent up, both physically and mentally, I just had to let it out somehow! So, I alternated fidgeting with my fingers (I would have loved a clicking pen, but for everyone else's sake it's a good thing I didn't have one!) and texting my husband (satisfying both my need to do something as well as to say something). It was literally painful, and I would have given anything to be able to play a quick game requiring body movement or just have a 30 second conversation with someone.
And it dawned on me - here I am, a full grown adult who is highly motivated to try to pay attention and be "good", and it was taking everything in my power to avoid doing the things that many "problem" students often get in trouble for! Is this how they're feeling every day when they have to sit down, be quiet, and do what they're told?
I came to school this morning with new empathy for my talkers, by fidgeters, my pokers, my blurters, my busy-bodies... I know that not all of them are like me, and I'm sure that my own perspective is limited. But, if my own experiences in my ADD mind are any indication of what my students have to go through when they don't mean to be "bad" and it just happens, I get it. I totally get it.
I've noticed I'm not much of a regular blogger. Rather, I tend to engage in "hot action" reflection (immediate reflection and adjustment in the moment) and application to future situations. However, there are those times when I MUST write something down. My "ah-hah" moments are just way to big to wrap my head around, and just too good not to share. This is one of those times.
I just finish the first week at my new schools. It's also the first week of the middle school program for the district, as there hasn't been one previously and I am the sole teacher responsible for rolling it out. For almost every student, it's their first time ever taking a Spanish class. And for me personally, it's the first time I'm doing a curriculum like this and the first time I've tried to teach the way that I've committed to teach this year. And it's not just one new thing - I changed nearly everything. To be honest, I almost felt like a first-year teacher in my first class ever.
AND IT COULDN'T HAVE GONE BETTER!!
I'm amazed. I'm floored. I can't believe this is so easy, and I can't believe what the kids are doing - with less than three hours of instruction. I feel like the heavens have opened and the bright twinkling lights and harmonious music of the heavens are shining down on me and my class, inspiring me and the students all at once to be amazing at teaching and learning Spanish and enjoying it. Even after just one week, I've received multiple messages from parents (and even been approached by the students themselves) telling me how much the kids are enjoying class and that they're impressed by what they're already learning retaining.
Ok, now that I've gotten the emotion out, let me back up and tell you exactly what led to this. It's like the perfect storm - of awesomeness in language teaching.
First, let's start with something very concrete. I finally went desk-less. I couldn't do this before since I also taught AP Psychology and frankly didn't have anywhere to put the desks that I already had. However, when I came to my new school, I ran going desk-less by my admin (both of them). I'm was sharing my rooms at both schools, but one was able to find me a new (albeit small) room and said he could take all of the tables out. I took him up on it. The other one said just to work it out with the other teacher (luckily it's for health/fitness, so I actually only share my room half of the time). Both were very supportive. And, with no status-quo or expectations for what the Spanish program would be like, it was the perfect opportunity to throw something new at students. Of course, being middle schoolers, they were very excited about this idea at open house (parents were intrigued as well). One quick kiddo asked, "So if there aren't any desks, will we be doing worksheets?" When I told him no, I got a full fist-pump with "YES!" Great way to build anticipation! I was a little bit nervous about classroom management, but after one week I can honestly say that the management has been better now that the desks are gone! Every student is facing me on the front row (my students are arranged in a circle, so there's only one row) with nothing in their hands or laps to distract them. They are all accountable. I'm moving around the room constantly - it's now my stage to work! I have instant and frequent proximity to every student. I see every student with a quick glance around the room, since no one can hide. And they can all see each other, so they are all part of the action, whether it's coming from me or from another student. It's AWESOME!
I have never been a traditional or grammar teacher. I literally don't know how to do it - I student taught in a TPRS classroom. I've always based my teaching in Comprehensible Input. Or at least, I thought I did. Ben stated that only about 1% of teachers are actually pure-CI teachers. Many more claim to be CI teachers, but espouse more of an "eclectic" approach. I instantly knew that this was me. In fact, I've even described myself as eclectic CI, but I have to admit there has been a lot of output in my classroom, often in the form that teachers might call "practice" (as in, not authentic). However, this does not align with what the research is. We need to focus on CI for acquisition, and only CI. Anything that is not CI is not facilitating language acquisition. Now, admittedly, there are times that I am teaching more than language. For instance, students also need to learn social skills and understand how others process information (achieved through cooperative learning) as well as build confidence using language (achieved through carefully designed output activities). Thus, I do not believe that these activities should be absent from our classrooms. What is important is that we recognize these "eclectic" approaches for what they are, and use them to intentionally teach what they are good for teaching - and usually it's something other than language acquisition. Then, we need to use them intentionally from time to time, but the majority of our instruction must be firmly grounded in Comprehensible Input. It is a language class, after all. I would rather not kid myself nor waste my time doing things that aren't achieving our goals. So, I walked away with a commitment to CI-only methodology and a burning curiosity to see the differences it would make in what my students achieve this year. With a brand new program and the green light from admin, what better opportunity could I possibly have to really see what pure-CI instruction could do? And, if the feelings expressed at the beginning of this post are any indication, I think the pure-CI methodology is here to stay.
Finally, the curriculum. First, I need to clarify what an "emergent structure" is. It lives somewhere between establishing language targets (meaningful structures that students are focused on learning) and non-targeted instruction (communicating in the language with no specific targets). Essentially, the targets "emerge" from the students and the class environment. Rather than establishing pre-planned targets, what the students want to say become the targets. The students themselves literally become the curriculum, and it's highly engaging as well as lowering stress because students are no longer focused on "learning" the language but rather creating meaning from it and acquiring it. The high-frequency words will emerge over and over again simply because they are that: high-frequency words. It's natural for them to emerge from any communication in the language. So, how did this work in my class?
First, I established a few key words that I would use to get kids going. This week, we started with "¿Cómo te llamas?" (What is your name) along with "me llamo" (My name is) and "se llama" (His/Her name is) in order to introduce ourselves. Later, when describing a character, we added "se siente" (he or she feels), "vive en" (He/She feels), "es" (She/he is), and "hay" (there is/are). This was all that I had planned along with some key CI-activities in this order:
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