Anne Matava

I got this from Anne Matava. The hog referred to is one of a group of Maine kids who were lucky enough to have spent all four years of their high school careers acquiring – and I mean acquiring – German from Anne, where they heard nothing but comprehensible input with this great teacher:
Hi Ben,
I wanted to post this on your blog but couldn’t figure out how.  I could really use some support.
I ran into one of the Hogs today.  He just finished his first year at a well-regarded state university.  He speaks fluent German after 4 years of CI and a 3-week exchange his sophomore year.  At college they tested him and placed him in an upper-level course.  He did not do well in his German course because of his lack of grammar background, and as a result lost one of his scholarships.
I was in crisis before this, a quiet kind of crisis, the kind that intrudes into your thoughts as you are zipping down the road on a motorcycle or cruising the bay in an 19′ Seaway.  The kind that you can get rid of by shaking your head and vowing to think about it later, late August maybe.  This, though, is big time.  It is heartbreaking.  Bone-crushing.  I feel like going to bed and not getting up for a long, long time.
The kid was so sweet about it.  I said I was sorry and he hugged me and told me not to be sorry, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.  He is a waiter now for the summer and waited on a German couple, they spoke no English the entire time, and he chatted them up for quite a while.  He said that he realized that this was why he wanted to learn a language, to converse with people, and not because he wanted to learn the grammar.  He has switched his major from German to linguistics, saying that hopefully now he will learn grammar, since he didn’t learn it in school in English class or in my class.
Maybe under the bed would be a better place.  Yes, under it.  With a blanket over my head.
That year there were 16 students in my German 4 class.  4 of them went on to take German in college.  All were placed in classes where they were the only first-year students.  All had trouble with the grammar.  One of them had had Spanish in a more traditional setting, and was able to manage.  She must have gotten a grammar book and taught it to herself.  Two of them ended up coming to me during their vacations, we worked together after school.  I filled the board with charts and sentence diagrams, it was just like old times.  The fourth student is the one I saw today.
I think about the other 75% of the class, the 12 students who did not choose to take German in college.  They all spoke really well and loved the class.  I think of them, when I picture myself taking the last semester or quarter of their senior year to drill grammar.  Anyone who teaches seniors knows what shape they are in at that point.  I see their faces, as I start the lecture about direct and indirect objects, weak and strong endings, nominative, accusative, and dative cases.  I see myself trying to convince them that it matters if there is an e or an er or an es at the end of that adjective.
Then I see the faces of the other four, wanting to learn, needing to learn all of that stuff.  I actually tried, you know.  I ordered up a handful of Schaum’s German Grammar workbooks and distributed them in September to anyone interested.  Our plan was to meet after school and do the grammar, they thought they might like to try the AP exam.  We never did end up meeting, there was never a time when everyone could make it, and after a while we all forgot about it.
Students shouldn’t have to stay after school to learn.
Any feedback would be very much appreciated.  This is a real turning point for me, and I don’t know which way to turn.
Thanks Ben.
I responded:
Anne, you can come out from underneath the blanket now. You did the right thing with the Hogs. My own session two years ago with them, teaching them French in that workshop that Skip arranged and feeling them rock and roll and feeling all that mojo because you had trained them so well, was a highlight of my career.
Do you really believe that after all these years and all that we have worked through together and all the pioneering work that you have done in this area of comprehensible input – not to mention your writing those kick ass story scripts – that I would respond in any way in favor of some kind of support of the position taken at that university? Those professors are soon-to-be relics of a bygone era. That they are not so yet should not affect your thoughts and feelings about your work in any way.
I am going to release a set of blog posts next week, ten of them, that directly responds to what you raise here, which is a huge question not just for you but for all of us, right? Those blog entries will be labeled “Brick House 1 -1o” so please look for them here. They are very Mary Poppins and you’ll have to read them to find out why I say such an odd thing, other than for the pleasure that exists in just saying odd things.
My last principal still makes me feel that same wave, that nausea, of unwanted negative school thoughts about myself brought on by people who think that comprehensible input is just another buzz word, by people who just don’t get it. I have spent too much of my summer thinking about how this principal made me feel small, how dismally he handled the issue of comprehensible input in his school, how he botched it and how that department may never heal, but I am in another school now. I have to learn to let those people, who don’t actually understand (bless their brontosaurial hearts), what we do, go.
That is healing for me, to say that. So I’ll say it again. I  have to learn to let those people who don’t get what we do go. That is one of Susie’s greatest attributes – she lets that stuff slide. She waves it away with a toss of her hand. I also want to be so stong in my conviction that nothing, no oppositional force, can make a dent in the purity of my beliefs and my conviction to do only what I believe is best for kids.
Kids have suffered enough in foreign language classrooms. Your Hogs never suffered, from what I could see in those seniors. They wanted to laugh, that’s all. They wanted to be seen as cute, and you allowed them that. You allowed them to be seen as cute and funny and at times hilarious.
You helped them develop bodacious personalities in class over time, letting each one emerge organically, some lasting a month or two and some lasting much longer, over summers. You didn’t hurt your precious children with grammar by keeping them in their heads all the time – they don’t want that!
You brought those Hogs into their hearts. Each day in coming into your classroom, they had something to hope for other than boredom and memorizing stuff (no longer necessary with computers). Anne, that was one of the best group of kids I have ever seen together in one classroom, and you got them for four years and you did right by them, and you made it happen. You didn’t waste their time.
By letting the failure of the college teachers with this boy be turned around on you to the poignant degree you describe above, and, in my case, by letting my principal, who thinks that he understands language acquisition even though he has never taught a high school class even once, ruin our summers, we admit that we have a bit of a way futher to go on this deal of caring about what others think of us as teachers (related link:
But guess what, Anne, I know who you are as a teacher. Knowing that you are up there in Maine doing the daily grind of the work is of great help to me in my own work. Knowing that I have colleagues who can teach language like you is so important to me. Now get this monkey off your back and enjoy the rest of your Maine summer!
I can’t really be the one talk you out of your funk, however, nor can anyone, right? I guess you can cling to all this if you want. We all have to deal in our own ways with the tremendous – and yet largely unspoken in our community – emotional pain of working with people who see us as enemies. We all feel that way at times. The question is, by speaking German to that hog for four straight years without as much as a few flashes of English, did you fail? I think you succeeded. But you have to decide that for yourself.
These are dark times characterized by dark actions by dark souls. It seems to all be getting darker. The people meant to lead us in education – the wringwraith  university people – have abdicated their position and refuse, in their hubris, to see and implement what is best for kids. That is their problem. Don’t make it yours.



13 thoughts on “Anne Matava”

  1. You know, Anne, the core variable here is not as much your teaching as it is the basic college environment your student is currently moving in.
    Exhibit 1: When I went to a Foreign Language Days (a foreign language department outreach to high school students) at UW-Madison two years ago I attended a teachers-only session in which we were told about how the placement system works for high-school students. Of particular emphasis was the fact that the placement tests were designed not to measure how well the students spoke a language, but how well they would succeed in a given class. The presenters advice to high school language teachers, then, was to amp the level of grammar taught during the final year of instruction so that students would be used to the system when they arrived on campus. I can still remember another teacher commenting “Wait. You mean to tell me that all of this stuff I do as the capstone of their language learning—reading novels, having conversations, using the language—is actually counterproductive for the placement tests?” The presenter’s answer: “Exactly.”
    Exhibit 2: At the beginning of last year one of my all-world language students (who even only had one year of TPRS under me) tested into third semester German at UW-Madison. She struggled like mad at the beginning because the grad student teaching assistant was entirely grammar-centric, playing to two superstar Junior students, and she wrote fairly frequently just to let me know she was hanging in there and was up to the challenge. Finally I got a note when she finished letting me know at that point she appreciated having such a varied vocab and high reading comprehension, but adjusting was tough. I had prepared her for use, not for the college environment, and the adjustments were tough.
    My Conclusion: the college language instruction environment is calibrated towards “ready or not here it comes” teaching and less focused on learning. Many Grad students teaching assistants at the university level (of which I was one for three years) are not teaching professionals, in that they are not given the support or training to move them beyond rewarding their students for what they were good at themselves.
    And why can such a grammar-centric approach work at the college level? Because it is dealing with an entirely different student population than we do. The college admissions process pre-selects students who are excellent at abstract thinking (which is what grammar is: an abstract system), not to mention that abstract reasoning develops with age. I struggled with grammar throughout high school (at 17), but was an all-world grammatician in college when I changed my major to German (at 21). My brain needed time to adapt to an abstract system. Our high-school students usually don’t have that capacity yet. Upper level language classes are geared for highly abstract reasoning, and reward only those who can. Your student HAS the language; his brain hasn’t developmentally created a gear for the meta-language yet because language to him is concrete still. That’s not bad, but that’s not what is rewarded in the college environment.
    So—and apologies for the long post—I feel what you are seeing with your student is basically an inevitable consequence of how the college language class is designed and taught.
    That said, the pain is real, and it hurts me too just to read of it.

  2. Also saddened by your letter, Anne. Depressed, even. And I wondered about the flip side of the coin: students steeped in grammar who do quite well in college, but can’t really communicate in the language. Is that what we want? Is that an acceptable outcome? All I hear from grammar folk is “but we have to prepare them for college.” Really? We learn languages just to be prepared for college? No. That tastes so foul, I spit it out.
    I wonder what would happen if we asked our students up front: do you want to learn grammar to be prepared for college or do you want to be able to communicate in the language? If they knew that there was a trade-off, how would they choose?

  3. My hit on that, Lori, is that something like 10% at most would say college and the rest would go for the communicative skills. The odd thing, therefore, if my conjecture is anywhere near being accurate on this, is why we allow a fraction of the student population, the elite (not really), reinforce curriculum decisions while telling the others that they don’t merit taking four years because they can’t cut it.

  4. Ok now…let’s rally ’round a little bit here. This is not a tragedy nor a travesty. There is no reason to expect that college courses would be less grammatical than a traditional high school program. What has happened is that, before TPRS, OUR STUDENTS NEVER TESTED INTO THOSE LEVELS!!!!!!!!!!!
    Now they do…on placement tests that they aren’t even prepared for!!! Until we see changes in the system (and we know how long that could take…) we have to wake up and do what we can to help our students find a way to maneuver this system. Some ideas:
    1. We need to spend a little time, in late spring, with seniors looking at college catalogs and college language programs. Even better if we know which colleges they are going to. They need to know that they may have choices and which choices would be best for them.
    2. We can offer two days per month of “college-focused” work IN CLASS. Not a lot of time, just enough to give them practice and familiarity with the necessary jargon AND the opportunity to ask for help. Practice in a safe setting.
    3. We can showcase colleges in our classroom that offer language classes and programs that are more proficiency than grammar-based. We can show students that study abroad is available and may be more valuable than language courses for them.
    4. We can remind them that they may be HIGHLY ACCELERATED in college which means that they will be in classes with juniors..when they themselves will only be freshmen. We can show them place to go to and people to contact for help with the stress that this may bring along with the reminder that they are not stupid…on the contrary…this challenge is occurring because they have been high achievers!!!! They just have no idea how to ask for help, who to ask for help, or that it is expected that they ask for help.
    5. We need to start brainstorming…and preparing our students for…opportunities outside of the college language classroom where our students can continue to use the language and improve fluency.
    6. We need to remind ourselves (and maybe our students as well) that success in a college-level language class is not the measure of ANYONE’S success..neither ours nor our students’. That responsibility falls squarely on the professor and the student. We didn’t place the student there. The college placement test did. We aren’t teaching the course. We can sympathize and support….but it is not our mea culpa to carry…
    Let’s say we teach English….and our star student goes off to college with all of the skills necessary to become an incredibly creative playwright. The problem is that the college only offers courses in journalism. Is it our fault that the student’s skills and the college’s offerings are at cross-purposes? No.
    But what we can do is to point out to seniors that each college has a unique set of offerings and expectations…and if the student is hoping to be very successful in language study, then it is important to find out as much information as possible about the program.
    Let’s share information amongst ourselves…start a library, so to speak, of colleges whose language programs will best make use of our students’ skills. Comprehensible Input Methods have grown up. We need to educate ourselves about the new places CI grads will go to so that we can help them.
    To Anne and others….this is a mark of your SUCCESS. And the success of your students. If they hadn’t done so well, this would not have occurred. So let’s face it head-on. This may just be the moment when the traditional paradigm starts to crack….what looks like a chasm may just be the great and glorious Grand Canyon in a different light….
    with love,

  5. P. S. Anne….you are loved and respected and have not let your students down one iota. Please know…and let them know…that there is now an ARMY of support out here.
    with love,

  6. Ben,
    To be honest I was so sickened by Anne’s post that I didn’t read your reply right away. In your reply you say “That is healing for me, to say that. So I’ll say it again. I have to learn to let those people who don’t get what we do go.”
    That is fine and one way to “cope” but I think our response has to be greater. The fact of the matter is that this “highly proficient” perhaps fluent German speaker (watching those hogs was one of the highlights of my teaching career as well – it was so very validating) was denied a scholarship.
    How might we effect change in this area? Surely Foreign language programs at the college level are in serious trouble. Enrollment is way down, departments are being eliminated. How might we start a dialogue with colleges and universities about this issue?
    I really appreciate your words to Anne. She is one of the most effective and talented teachers I know. She is the Nolan Ryan of TPRS – a thing of beauty to watch as she effortlessly and skillfully engages her students in CI. She has helped me grow tremendously during the last two “Slavic in Maine” conferences. None of this, however, helps the hogs in college which is what is really bothering Anne and the rest of us.
    What to do?

  7. From what I’ve heard Anne, this kid is lucky, period, to have been able to acquire a great deal of another language in four years in a high school class, because of you and the method you embraced. I didn’t get that lucky. But I did gets lots of grammar training, and did pretty well with all that in college. It was in Mexico, while living on my own, that I realized I had been dooped all along (well, I didn’t really realize I was dooped then, but it was the first big sign of me being dooped in hindsight).

  8. Sorry Laurie, I missed your comment before I posted…. Thank you for articulating a plan….. It offers hope:)

  9. Anna,
    We all support you and you are an inspiration to all of us. We have a lot of work to do. I have been teaching at the college level (Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese) for the last 17 years and also teach at a high school (ESL, Spanish and Native/Heritage speaker classes). The community college I teach has a big foreign language enrollment but no 4 year degree programs. The colleges are such a wasteland. As many have pointed out, so many high schools point to the colleges as the reason why the foreign language instruction should be so grammar based. I was a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Kansas for 4 years. I remember the department head complaining that we (the GTA’s) were speaking too much English in our classes. And of course we were. Every now and then one of the full time faculty would teach a lower level language class and when I remember so well when this same department head taught a second year class and the students would come out of his class commenting about how he spoke so much English. At the community college that I teach at I pointed out to a colleague that none of the descriptions of any of the foreign languages that appear in the course catalog even mention the word proficiency.
    I guess the big question is: How do we bring about change? I think that we have to be more assertive and think more politically. (Of course we now live in a time when so many teachers at the K-12 level are being attacked and are fearful. Krashen’s talk at the NTPRS should be excellent.) The many workshops that have been given by the many talented TPRS instructors over the years have done a lot of good but I would like to see a discussion about how to proceed at the state level. The ACTFL standards are proficiency based. What can we do to make people look at them and try to teach for proficiency. Maybe we could make up/ agree on some talking points to help talk with administrators. I have seen that what often happens is that some of the higher up administrators at schools are actually receptive to the notion that we should teach for proficiency versus whether or not they can explain the difference between the preterit and the imperfect. It makes sense to them but unfortunately they are not able to take on a determined group of grammar eggheads by themselves.
    The high school that I teach at is the largest or almost the largest urban district in the state of Kansas. I am wondering whom I might approach in the upper administration level to talk about what we are doing in the foreign language classes, especially since it is summer and things are not quite as hectic.
    I think that this blog is bringing together some very talented people in a focused discussion. I see energy gathering. I see momentum gathering. After teaching in this district for 3 years I believe that I now have the confidence to talk with anyone in the district, regardless of whatever bourgeois credentials they might have. In the beginning I was a little intimidated. After I became aware (and saddened) of the low level of awareness of any of the SLA research and no appreciation whatsoever for comprehensible input I became bolder. This August I plan to become bolder yet. I think that any TPRS/CI instructor who goes for years teaching and conversing with others about the method should be awarded Ph. D’s in Language Acquisition and Comprehensible Input. This blog has given and is giving a lot of people more confidence to take on all of those in higher levels of K-12 education and academia. Let’s get more bold. How about something a little provocative? How about an intervention at ACTFL? Maybe more discussion about how we approach administrators and the various state departments of education. Krashen is very active in the efforts to build the national Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C. at the end of the month and he will obviously be talking about that in St. Louis next week. Let’s think a little more out of the box and perhaps come up with some concrete actions.

  10. Thank you to all for your kind words and encouragement. It is cheering to feel the energy that you all have for responding to this problem, because I seem to be temporarily zapped of any energy I might have for it. I truly appreciate the support, thank you.

  11. Dear Anne,
    The fact that you have been sucked dry by this event, and that you reached out to share it, and ask for support and wisdom, could very well be the catalyst that many of us have needed to take action outside of our classrooms. If you had bravely shouldered on, alone, we would have missed out on a rare opportunity, not only to support a colleague, but also to think about what we can do to keep the changes going.
    I know that we all feel outnumbered and overwhelmed. But do not forget what the COMBINED energies of a small group of people started. Blaine, Joe, Susie, Contee, Krashen, Jason, Ben, Michele. Each person just one teacher. Think of the thousands of teachers and students whose lives have been changed by folks who were also teaching a full-time job and raising families when they started (or continued) a movement!!!
    As Bishop Oscar Romero wrote…”Sometimes we have to step back and take the long view…” You and the hogs are part of the movement. I’m angry that this young man was denied a scholarship, but my guess is that God has some other great plans with this kid in mind.
    Thank you for being a teacher. Thank you for being their teacher. Thank you for being human. Thank you for not doing it alone.
    with love,

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