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:
Dr. Beniko Mason
Dr. Stephen Krashen
Dr. Krashen's Blog
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