Language Educator Response – Eric Herman

Eric’s statement below made in a comment today pretty much answers the ACTFL Language Educators question brought to our attention by Alisa:

“What strategies for evaluation or feedback provide learners with guidance to improve their performance?”

Eric I trust that you will post your answer on the ACTFL site. It will be a sufficient answer to the question and no more of us need to weigh in on it. I think it is a succinct description of the highest order, a truly fine statement in response to the question. And I guarantee that few among the 18,000 ACTFL people will agree with any aspect of Eric’s points below, which I think makes perfect sense in terms of the research. Most of the people in that group won’t read it, for two reasons: 1) they never go to the site; they just need to be a member of a professional group for their school, and 2) they are unconsciously skilled workers. They are not consciously skilled. So they won’t hear what Eric is saying. And the beat goes on. 

Eric’s response:

I don’t agree with the assumption made in the question. It assumes that assessment and feedback actually give students info to improve their performance. Another issue not addressed is whether or not students care enough at all to take the feedback and go work on those areas for improvement.

What would this sound like in a grammar-oriented classroom? Oh, Johnny, you didn’t use the direct object pronouns correctly. Thanks, Teacher, I’ll go acquire those right now.

What would that sound like in an ACTFL Can-Do classroom? Oh, Jenny, you can only speak in short sentences about your after school activities and only a little about your morning routine. Thanks, Teacher, I’ll go acquire the syntax to speak in fuller sentences and practice my morning routine word lists.

The silly part of all of this is the:

1) Misguided idea that we can actually control the rate and route of acquisition. The effects of instruction are nebulous to say the least. There is not a one-to-one correlation between what I teach and what gets learned. Likewise, there is not a one-to-one correlation between what a student tries to learn and what gets learned.

2) There is also this focus on product. What can we get students to “display,” like improving their showmanship on tests. Instead, WE focus on process. Constant interaction day-in and day-out is all the feedback our students need. And we have plenty of actual scientific studies to guide our process. You simply cannot fluently perform (unrehearsed & spontaneously) what you have not acquired. And you can only acquire if you attend to comprehensible input. Even then, there are innate and universal constraints to what comprehensible input can be accommodated into our developing language systems at any one moment.

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31 thoughts on “Language Educator Response – Eric Herman”

  1. Eric,

    This is so articulate and helpful. I would love permission to re-post part of it on the Latin Best Practices list. A very useful conversation will ensue.

  2. Well, I wasn’t going to get involved on ACTFL. . . but I will now post this 😉

    And I will add . . .

    In a communicative class with constant interaction (striving for student “back” for every 1-2 sentences of teacher “forth”) the “evaluation” and “feedback” is moment-to-moment and mostly implicit. By the degree of success (understand and respond) at playing the game (communication!) every student knows every moment how well they are playing. Is it then necessary to explicitly tell them: “you didn’t understand ‘x’ ” or “you can’t say ‘y.’ ” Does the teacher need to formally evaluate every kid to know whether they understand and can respond, or is this redundant? I don’t like analogies from “skill-building” domains, but do you need to tell a kid “You need to practice your shooting” when he shoots 1 for 10 in a basketball game? I think he knows.

    Once again, we see the value of FL teachers understanding more about the route and rate of acquisition. Assessing where every kid is in a developmental sequence and providing each kid with individualized instruction is impractical. And FL teachers wouldn’t have a clue how to assess the sequences anyways. This is why the real-life classroom implication is Krashen’s net hypothesis: pile on the non-targeted CI and everyone gets what he/she needs.

    I am all for end-of-the-semester and/or end-of-the-year global proficiency and fluency-based assessments, but for different reasons. Gives teachers some evidence to support their programs.

    1. Eric,
      You have so many good points here, because we are helping students acquire, we can’t assess them on discrete points of language they have learned. We understand acquiring verses learning. Students, parents, and administrators may not. Like you said, we do need evidence to support our programs. An end-of-semester test may give evidence, but it wouldn’t be as authentic.

      Can we not assess them an acquisition? You gave the example of a grammar teacher (and thankfully we don’t teach grammar directly with TCI) assessing and giving feedback on a specific point of grammar. We definitely don’t give feedback that specific. But does that mean we don’t give feedback at all?

      We do evaluate them with how they respond to circling questions, nonverbal responses, and story retells. Why not share our evaluations (informal as they are) with them? Focus on one student a day for a month and fill out a rubric when they do an oral or written retell of a story, and collect student drawings or writing. Then, share what you observed and collect evidence. If they are learning so much and we see it on their faces and in their writing… why not tell them? Our kids love hearing about themselves, so why not tell them how much growth we see?

      You stated that individualized instruction is impractical, and I agree it certainly is hard. That’s what I hear all day from math, science, and social studies teachers who struggle to modify language for my English language learners. But could we at least try? Try to vary our speech, or even modify the expectations we have for written work (use sentence frames, copy from a model, students dictate or work with partner, etc.) Even if we only use this information to identify the “barometer student” as Ben calls it.

        1. Thank you for clarifying. I don’t have the background you all have, and I should know stuff like that, but I am still new to foreign language.

          I don’t know what Eric knows or see things they way he does, but think we can all be in the TCI thing together. We all do assessments and give feedback, but some times it is less obvious, more informal. That’s fine.

          I think you all have different way of looking at things because Foreign Language is held to a different standard. You are able to focus on the essentials of Comprehensible Input –which is why this blog and TCI in general are amazing. Most of the teachers on this blog can honestly say “My kids are acquiring language because I use TCI and I just know—I can see comprehension on their faces.” The normal rules of assessment do not apply. … and that’s because this blog is made up of amazing educators who have found a better way to teach.

          Unfortunately, as I teach English as a Second Language, if someone asked me the above question about giving feedback and using assessment to guide instruction, I don’t have a choice. I have to play along and document, document, document. ELL teachers deal with scrutiny you can’t image. Tennessee is a Race-To-The-Top State and here ELLs typically fall into the Hispanic, Low SES, and ELL sub-groups. Their scores count triple what others do. Every conversation with my administrators (who seem to forget I also teach French) revolves around the documentation I can offer on how my students are growing. I have to assess, give students and stakeholders feedback, and document everything just to keep my job.

          Also, my kids care about assessments. You will likely not believe this statement, but it’s true: many ELLs don’t care as much about having fun as graduating. Some high school ELLs see themselves as stuck in a cycle of poverty that only English will help them escape. When I taught high school, I had to give them constant feedback and reassurances that they were making progress or they get frustrated and drop out–mostly to find jobs to help their families. They are desperate to see their growth on paper–so yes, I give them feedback on assessments.

          1. Feedback to evidence growth, sure. Feedback so they can acquire a specific structure, vocabulary item, communicative ability . . . not so much. I actually made that distinction in my original comment, the latter half which does not appear in this post. I said how I assess. You can read it on ACTFL or somewhere lost in the Slavic hole of this blog 😉

          2. Yes, I agree our students don’t “learn” but rather acquire, so our assessments are more holistic and can not focus on specific vocabulary or discrete points of grammar.

            I found your comment on focus on the product verses the process very interesting. Were you referring to the product as in summative assessment, verses the process as in formative assessment? Potential for the latter seems to come about spontaneously in TPRS because of the high level of student involvement.

            I would love to read the other portion of the post you mentioned. Thanks for sharing. I’ll take my chances finding your post here in the “Slavic hole” (Ben should consider making that the name of this blog because that’s the best expression ever!)–the ACTFL is a still a strange, scary place for me.

          3. This is the best explanation of the rift between ELL and TPRS that I have ever read. Thank you! It’s so true: if their needs (graduating) aren’t met, then how can they think about having fun? Whoa!

  3. Thank you Eric for your amazing work in

    1) undermining the question by revealing its assumptions.

    2) Making it clear by synthesizing SLA concepts to questions regarding performance.

    I still have a question: What kind of end-of-the-year global proficiency do you give your students?

    I ask because I believe that I can improve in the “finals” area. My classes at my middle school are considered a High School course.

      1. Steven, there have been articles on this side of the blog and I’ve written about this extensively on the forum and also on moreTPRS. I’ve shared links to my level 1 Spanish exams. Try these links:

        https://benslavic.com/blog/forum/general-discussion-1/ci-friendly-test/

        https://benslavic.com/blog/forum/general-discussion-1/elicited-oral-imitation-test-level-1-spanish-version/

        https://benslavic.com/blog/forum/general-discussion-1/a-twist-on-tf-quizzes-an-acquisition-check/

        https://benslavic.com/blog/forum/general-discussion-1/level-1-dictation-final-ddm/

        https://benslavic.com/blog/forum/general-discussion-1/lextutor-the-future-of-test-design/

        Now, I give students 2 types of pre and post comprehension-based fluency assessments.
        1) Speed Reading (2 texts at different levels)
        http://acquisitionclassroom.weebly.com/speed-reading.html

        2) Oral-to-written Narrative Task (2 texts at different levels, also taking texts from my speed reading book). Students hear a story once in L2 and can take notes. Then, they do a 5-minute speed summary of the story.

        I also ask my most advanced 8th graders to take an oral proficiency test, which I designed with 4 sections. The results from last year are filmed here, which includes information about the test content, format, and info on proficiency:
        https://youtu.be/rObxSeoU5CA?list=PL8JqpkCp61R4zRltQHINdM-Mhl5b4gZhZ

        1. Hey Eric,
          For the speed reading, what do you mean by 2 texts at different levels? Do you mean each student does 2 of the different stories with the multiple choice tests? HOw do you choose the levels? Is it by “chapter” or by story? Does it matter? I have only been giving one story, but am considering doing this right now as a start of course (semester 2) assessment to see where they are for my “level 3” class. I think I may have this group do the full-on speed reading sequence, which I have not done before.

          1. For assessment: 2 different stories. Since the course gets progressively harder, I chose one text from the first half and one from the second half. 2 different leveled texts has a better chance of catching a range of abilities and allowing everyone to show progress.

  4. Great post Eric. I just submitted this on ACTFL listserve:

    I give feedback with my face.

    When communication is the process and the goal, the face is an incredible tool. If I don’t understand a student, I will kindly furrow my brow, suggesting I need more or clearer information. If I ask them if they ever go to Colorado on vacation and someone says “yes”, I express amazement and interest in that fact by raising my eyebrows and opening my mouth a bit, and we’ve successfully relayed a meaningful message in L2 that should lead to more messages between me and that student and the rest of the class.

    Likewise, I assess by observing my students’ faces.

    I agree with Mr. Herman that we are misguided in our efforts to formally assess and provide feedback to our students in an acquisition classroom. Yes, perhaps in a language learning classroom (ie linguistics) we should formally assess and provide that explicit feedback when we see gaps in explicit knowledge. But when the implicit system is what we are working on, and given that it is mysterious yet highly successful when afforded the proper conditions and ingredients (ie low-anxiety personalized comprehensible input), I believe our limited time is better spent getting to know students and enticing them to communicate in L2 with us.

    1. Jim I wish someone would read this and respond. Your points cannot be refuted, nor can Eric’s. They can’t be, esp. your second paragraph above Jim. And about how the face reveals more information than any robotic assessment instrument – which is so ego centered, so teacher centered – possibly could. The problem in the WL field with all those robots is at its core about ego and power. What we do is too heart centered for those robots. All 18,000 of them will not read it of course. Only 8 will, because they bore themselves to sleep with their blather like the original ACTFL question in this thread. It is so boring that it doesn’t even make sense. But it makes sense to them in their edubabble. (And we are right to call them on it!).

  5. I LOVE that we are holding feet to the fire regarding definition of terms – i.e., what is “explicit instruction?” Sorry to be catty (not really) but you can’t make up a buncha stuff and post to a professional community with a buncha PhDs and jackals and stuff and hope it holds water.
    Is it clear in the thread (doesn’t seem to be for me) that BvanP debunks the role of explicit instruction in acquisition? Do we need to post the actual zinger quotes from the heavy hitters about the futility of traditional explicit instruction (as opposed to pop-ups)? How about the guy who seems to be contrasting novice learner needs with more advanced learners, claiming that the latter group needs the monitor more (maybe for more presentational and formal functions?)
    Fun times!!

  6. Some of the stuff that is out there is mind boggling. This afternoon I attended a District World Languages Department Chair meeting. We were asked to read an article about Standards jigsaw style (i.e. a couple of people read a section and report on it).

    In the section that I read, the author actually touted the benefits of ACTFL’s AAPL. This is an actual quote from the article: “Performance assessments have the power to transform learners from those that learn about language to those that learn to use the language to accomplish real-life tasks because good performance assessments are the World-Readiness Standards in action.”
    (The Language Educator Jan/Feb 2016, p. 46) My response was that assessments have the power solely to assess. It is the teacher who can transform the learning experience.

  7. There are some great answers going on over at the ACTFL blog–being made by members of this blog. The last time it happened it was a little more combative, but we got to meet some great people. Alisa and Lance come to mind and they have had a lot of input here since then. So it is a great way to connect with like-minded practitioners. There was comment put up a few days ago by a TPRS practitioner from RI.

    1. Yes… that latests posts by Bracey and Alisa were spot on and received a bit “Amen!” from someone. I was thinking it.

      We are doing some serious learning on this PLC here folks!

  8. Sorry, I strongly disagree with the notion that student don’t care or won’t benefit from feedback.
    I use portfolio assessment to document student growth. Then, I sit down with students one-on-one and discuss “how do you think you’re doing” (usually using a simple checklist/rubric in L1) and they have a lot to say. They do care. Mostly, they see themselves as working hard, and they like feeling a sense of accomplishment in seeing growth and having control over their learning. Students reflecting on their own learning empowers them to 1. feel a sense of pride in their work and accomplishment and 2. empowerment that if they haven’t seen the progress they want, they are responsible for meeting me half-way and… they are puts the ball in their court. This is especially true for second language learners (as opposed to foreign language where the demands on their learning are less “academic” and more conversational). Instead of just giving up when they hear language they don’t understand, my English language learners can focus on realistic goals for themselves, and we can share those with their mainstream teachers. Self-assessment creates realistic expectations and is a powerful tool for language teachers.

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