Questions from Middle Schoolers

Jim Tripp was asked this question, apparently from a group of middle school kids:

“Hello! My name is John (made-up name). I am an 8th grade student at Decorah Middle School. I am involved in a project called First Lego League. This project entails a group of students finding a topic to meet the criteria of a certain challenge and doing some research to eventually find a problem and solution. The challenge this year is to find a way to improve how someone learns something. We have chosen foreign languages as this is a key factor of modern day communication. This brings me to why I am contacting you; I was wondering if you would be interested in answering some questions we have. Thank you for considering this, it will be a huge help to us having first hand knowledge on this topic.”

Jim then sent this person the responses below (they are also posted onto the Forum under General) and received this response:

“I will forward this to the rest of the group! Thanks so much for your time! This will be a big help to us in understanding the problem.”

Jim shares:

“I thought this was very interesting that they have identified foreign language instructional success as a problem, in 8th grade. I’m not sure if they were coaxed to do this specific topic by a teacher, but regardless, pretty cool! I’d love to get feedback on my responses from the group if possible.

Here are the questions from these middle schoolers and Jim’s answers. Please feel free to comment on any of this:

1.) What language do you teach? Spanish

2.) What methods do you use to teach your language? Teaching with Comprehensible Input (TCI) is the umbrella method, which simply means ‘communicating with students using language they can understand’. In other words, they get from the teacher lots of language into their ears and eyes (input) that is comprehensible to them. Under the umbrella of TCI falls other methods that I use: Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), Total Physical Response (TPR), MovieTalk, Read and Discuss, etc.

3.) Do these methods reach the majority of students? Yes

4.) Are there other methods people use to learn foreign languages? If so, what ways? Yes, many other ways. The most common is the Audio-Lingual method. Most language textbooks cater to and encourage this method. The Grammar-Translation method is what we might call the “Old School” approach. This means learning a grammar rule, then translating language that uses the rule. Many Classics teachers (e.g. Latin, Greek) use this method.

5.) Are there methods for learning a language more quickly than others? In my opinion, and based on the research I have seen, TCI is the most effective. But I would like to clarify two terms with regard to languages: learn and acquire. When we learn language, we are conscious of the process. Two words that come to mind when talking about “learning a language” are ‘memorization’ and ‘analysis’. We are memorizing vocabulary, and we are consciously analyzing phonemes, morphemes, and syntax, thereby attempting to “figure out” the language. When we then go to produce the language (write or speak), we must rely on a part of the brain that stores short-term memory. When we acquire language, the process is mainly subconscious. We are focusing on meaning, or semantics, rather than the individual words and grammatical rules that govern the language. When we go to produce the language, our subconscious (wherein our language acquisition device (LAD) resides) is at work, and we tend to say what sounds right, rather than consciously monitoring our output. Not to say that there is no benefit to learning/memorizing. But the latter (acquisition) is what I ultimately want to give my students, as it leads to more spontaneous/real/long term language.

6.) Are there any areas that are difficult for certain students to learn a foreign language? If so, why? Yes, when many students are expected to learn the grammatical system of a language, they find it difficult as they might a math class. The level of ability to consciously do math is a good indicator of students’ ability to learn the language. However, when provided with Comprehensible Input, the LAD does the leg work, while the student focuses on the meaning and actively communicates with the teacher. This responses that the students are giving will be very simple at the beginning (non-verbal responses, one word responses, etc) and increase in length and complexity as they get more and more input over time.

7.) Do you only speak the foreign language or do you speak English during class? My goal is to use Spanish at least 90% of the time in class, per the recommendation from our parent language-teaching organization, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL).

8.) What is the biggest struggle your students have in learning your language? The biggest struggle my students have is understanding that I expect them to show up to class, and by that I mean “show up and be present”. When I am communicating with them, they must communicate back to me. That will mean answering my questions, letting me know if they do not understand, reacting to statements, gesturing or acting out what I’m saying, etc. But generally speaking, my students do not have difficulty acquiring language in my class.

9.) What do you do to help the students who are struggling to learn the language? I check in with them often to make sure they comprehend. If they do not, then I will write unknown word(s) on the board and go back and give many comprehensible repetitions of the language that hasn’t yet been acquired. I will also slow down my rate of speech. I want to make sure all my students understand everything I am saying.

10.) What do you think distracts students from learning a foreign language? The biggest distraction is the inaccurate assumption that one can acquire language through intellectual effort. Humans need to hear and see the language, repeatedly and in interesting context, in order to acquire language.

11.)Is there anything you wish you had for your classroom or access to to make the learning process more efficient? I wish I had more ways to connect my students with real speakers of Spanish, in an efficient and non-threatening way. Oftentimes, even with the Internet as a resource, we run into technical issues or scheduling differences that make this endeavor difficult or impossible. But I think it can be done. Also, I wish there was a foreign country travel component to our public education, so that all students could experience another culture in real life and real time before they graduate from high school.

12.)How do you decide whether or not a lesson has been successful? If my students can understand what they’re hearing/reading, then I have sufficiently “taught” them the language that I was attempting to teach. When they can produce that language (written or spoken) then the student has gone to the ultimate step of acquisition, for that particular language that I was targeting. Also, if I see smiles on students’ faces as they listen/read what I am presenting, then I feel that the lesson is a success.

13.)Do you have any other information that you think might be useful to us? For more information/history on many of these ideas, I’d recommend highly Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell’s groundbreaking book The Natural Approach. While it is was originally published in 1983, the hypotheses presented in the book still guide best practices in foreign language education.



27 thoughts on “Questions from Middle Schoolers”

  1. I would disagree with your answer to #4. The most common method out there is the Communicative Approach–it is certainly the one the textbooks advocate. It is still a grammar-centric method even though they say it has a notional/functional focus. Pairs work, group work, reading authentic texts, projects, student-centered instruction (students interacting around some kind of language task using poor language with other students) is highly valued. Teacher talk is frowned upon. Most textbook teachers would deny vehemently that they use the audio lingual approach.

    This is explains it better than I do.

    1. Jody is right. Everything over here in Europe is called “Communicative”, which sounds great. People think, yes, that’s what I want to do, I want to communicate. And Problem/task based learning is a new name for the same thing. Basically, it’s the “Throw them into the swimming pool and they’ll learn to swim” approach. Textbooks and teachers still cling to grammatical explanations, but they’re not supposed to put them on the front cover.

  2. I get the feeling that the mainstream approach is PPP – Present, Practice, Produce – not really “communicative approach” as it was intended.

    I said a little more about this in the 3rd comment down in this forum post:

    There, I quote Vivian Cook (2008) reviewing PPP:

    “The goals are, in a sense, an updated version of audio-lingualism. . . The version of learning involved is similarly a compromise, suggesting that students learn by conscious understanding, by sheer practice and by attempting to talk to each other. . . Mainstream EFL teaching tries to have its cake and eat it, by saying that if the student does not benefit from one part of the lesson, then another part will help. . . Mainstream teaching does not usually encompass the information communicative style, with its emphasis on listening, preferring to see listening and speaking as more or less inseparable.”

    “In general, there is surprisingly little connection between the communicative style and SLA research.”

    1. Agreed, Eric. The approach hides under the umbrella of the term–communicative approach–a nice place to hide, but meaningless.

  3. Thanks Jody, Eric, and Judy for the helpful comments. I am pretty certain that while in Omaha Public Schools with 100 other world language teachers, we were all pretty much teaching with the audio-lingual method. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that is introducing a grammatical concept, explaining it, having a corresponding theme that presents many vocab items, and then the grammar/vocab are practiced with scripted dialogues and exercises meant to make the rule “automatic” (wishful thinking of course). Or would you all call this “communicative” teaching too?

  4. I looked at Omaha Public School World Language Course Description and found this for a middle-school course:

    In Spanish I-A, students will express basic needs, courtesies, descriptions, likes and dislikes, agreement and disagreement. Also, they will make and respond to simple requests, questions, and instructions. They will read and respond to developmentally appropriate material. Students will identify and react to cultural perspectives and practices in the culture studied. Additional practice and review will be required. This course begins in seventh grade, meeting on alternate days, and will continue every day in Spanish I-B in eighth grade. Spanish I-A/I-B is a two-year course and equivalent to Spanish I taught in high school.

    Same old, same old. Tells you nothing. Looks like a textbook table of contents to me.

    Watch this video which gives a very good example of the audiolingual method. Very heavy output component, lots of listen and repeat, substitution drills, no emphasis on comprehension. Very painful. Watch what happens to the poor latina woman 17:00-18:00. I hope no one is doing this anymore.

    1. Thank you so much for that link, Jody!

      Holy crap that was a horrendous lesson! And that was in 1990! And presented by Diane Larsen-Freeman! (she’s a big name in SLA). I just lost a lot of respect for her. By then, Krashen’s theory had been around a while, TPR even longer, and Natural Approach spreading. Hastings was developing MovieTalk and Blaine Ray had started experimenting with TPRS. And you still have ALM being promoted?!

      I had never seen ALM, only read about it. That helped to understand it. I was never taught this way and I don’t think there are any ALM teachers in my district. I hope not.

      The mainstream, PPP method, is an eclectic approach. Mostly, it’s teachers explicitly explaining a grammar rule and presenting new thematic vocabulary, then having students fill out worksheets that practice the grammar and vocabulary, do controlled dialogues (role-plays) of the grammar and vocabulary, and “games” that often decontextualize the vocabulary and artificially force use of the grammar rule with little meaning-based focus. There is little to no free-form communication. Yet, many would misname this the “communicative approach.”

      In the Peace Corps I participated in a truer communicative approach – in classes of 4 students and a native speaking teacher, we just had conversations for 4 hour-long classes. There may be a short grammar and vocabulary lesson, but the conversation was not controlled and not necessarily based around the grammar lesson. Supposedly, I entered an Intermediate-Mid and 3 months later and after 270 hours of “communicative classes” and living with a host family, I was only an Intermediate-High. 1 sublevel. I do believe I was not a true Intermediate-Mid when I came in and that is why I am very critical of the ACTFL oral interview. That “interpersonal” interview is much more focused on output, than comprehension of input. And I had practiced a lot of that output before and was reasonably good at manipulating forms when I talked.

      1 year later, I took the same OPI and placed Advanced-Low. 1 sublevel in 1 year of immersion. Then, another year later (2 total years of living and working in the country) I placed Advanced-Mid. 1 sublevel in 1 year. So either 1 sublevel improvement on the ACTFL scale is incredibly hard to achieve or else the test is flawed. Or both.

    2. Oh geez, that struggling woman in the video (btw, the teacher laughed at her, what an ass) reminds me of the part in Pink Panther when he goes to learn to speak English “with a flawless accent”.

      So now I get the difference between ALM and PPP/”Communicative” approaches. Thank y’all!

      1. PPP is not a language-teaching method nor an approach. It is a pedagogical strategy which is used in conjunction with many other strategies in a FL classroom–predominantly OUTPUT based strategies, of course. Most language teachers pride themselves on their “eclectic approach” which falls under the umbrella of “communicative teaching,” the actfl standards, the modes of communication, blah, blah. Much smoke and mirrors, imo.

        Even though the PPP strategy has been roundly critiqued and put out with the trash (at least 15 years ago), it is still part of many teachers’ arsenals, but it is NOT the arsenal. Most FL classrooms (including a good number of our supposedly meaning-based, CI classrooms) still include output-based projects, output-based tasks (make a dental appointment on the phone, argue for a longer lunch hour, let someone down easy, etc.), group work, grammar reviews, etc. That arsenal might be describes as a kitchen sink full of textbook-bound activities and cool projects/songs/activities teachers pick up at workshop conferences. I think it unwise to “label” language classes (except our own) with a particular name unless we have observed those classes daily for quite a while.

        I would imagine that most teachers have no idea what the names are of the strategies they are using and whether there is any valid research to uphold their continued use with students. We, in many ways, are the same. We use what we think works. We, of course, are correct. 😉 Your comments, Jim and Eric, are making me think a lot.

        1. Look what you made me do! haha. I went back to learn it better. . .

          Vivian Cook calls them “styles” and distinguishes between “communicative style” and “mainstream EFL style.”

          “A mainstream EFL method is implied every time a teacher goes through the classic progression from presentation to dialogue to controlled practice, whether it is concerned with grammar or communicative function. Many have seen this sequence of presentation, practice, production (PPP) as the chief characteristic of the mainstream style, or indeed of the audio-lingual and communicative styles (Scrivenor, 1994), but not of task-based learning.” (Cook, 2008, p. 265)

          “[Mainstream EFL] has elements of the academic style in that it explains structures. . . It has elements of the audio-lingual style in that it is graded around structures and the ‘four skills’. But it has also incorporated elements of social communicative teaching in pair work exercises. . . The pivot around which the lesson revolves is the grammatical point, couched in terms of structural or traditional grammar.” (p. 265)

          So, PPP has to do with the sequence and is arguably the main characteristic of the mainstream, audio-lingual, and communicative styles.

          PPP = sequence and CT = interaction. Some of the confusion may lie in the fact that it seems that it is possible to do PPP without CT, PPP with CT, and CT without PPP.

          “communicative teaching: this based language teaching on the functions that the second language had for the student and on the meanings they wanted to express, leading to teaching exercises that made the students communicate with each other in various ways; from the mid-1970s onwards this became the most influential way of teaching around the globe, not just for English” (p. 17)

          There are 3 main techniques of CT: information gap, guided role play, tasks

          “Rather the teacher takes one step back and hands the responsibility for the activities over to the students, forcing them to make up their own conversations in pairs and groups – learning language by doing. . . A key difference from other styles is that the students are not required to produce speech with the minimum of mistakes in native terms. Instead, they can use whatever forms and strategies they can devise themselves to solve their communication problem, producing sentences that may be entirely appropriate to their task but are often highly deviant from a native perspective. ” (p. 249)

          “Over time, at least three variants of the communicative style emerged, which we shall call here ‘social communicative’, ‘information communicative’ and ‘task- based learning’. A conversation requires someone to talk to (social), something to talk about (information), and a reason for talking (task). (p. 252)

          TPR is classified as a “technique” of “information communicative teaching.”

          “it (CT) has no techniques of its own for teaching pronunciation or vocabulary, little connection with speech processing or memory, and little recognition of the possibilities available to the learner through their first language. . .In so far as the style uses grammar, it often relies on a structuralist grammar reminiscent of audio-lingualism, for instance in the substitution tables found in many communicative coursebooks.” (p. 251-2)

          Since communicative teaching doesn’t have it’s own techniques for vocabulary and grammar instruction – except that focus on form (reactive grammar) is common in task-based learning – then, this is why teachers may rely on a presentation phase, thus using PPP to teach with the communicative style.

          You make a good point, Jody. We, teachers, do what we think works. I do think many (most?) TCI’ers have a general understanding of Krashen’s theories, but there is so much left to be learned. We need to also educate ourselves on all sides of the argument. Cook says, “They [teachers] must get on with meeting the needs of the students, even if they still do not know enough about L2 learning.” (p. 271)

          And on eclecticism:
          “In terms of teaching methods, the debate has revolved around ‘eclecticism’. Some have argued that there is nothing wrong with eclectic mixing of methods provided the mixing is rationally based. Others have claimed that it is impossible for the students to learn in so many different ways simultaneously; the teacher is irresponsible to combine incompatible models of language learning.” (p. 265)

          Cook sees all “styles” and “methods” as incomplete. From stating that SLA is a complex process, he argues it is reasonable to believe language can be mastered in multiple ways.

  5. I just took a 17-week postgrad course for teaching EFL. We had to read Diane-Larsen Freeman’s book from start to finish. GROAN. According to my linguistics prof, PPP is passé. The Communicative Approach is the holy grail of English teaching–especially in England. TPR was a tiny blip in Larsen-Freeman’s book. TPRS non existent. CI = huh? I tried. Like beating a stone wall. They know who Krashen is and highly respect his theories, but haven’t a clue, not even an iddy-biddy one. The most painful 17 weeks of my life. We read nothing published past 1980 or so.

    1. I’ve noticed the same thing in other SLA researchers’ books, e.g. Vivian Cook. Cook disregards Krashen in a few paragraphs, gives TPR a little space, and TPRS one sentence in the entire book. Absolutely incredible.

    2. So, is PPP an actual method name? If so, then that would be as close to what I would call the teaching we did in OPS as any. “Communicative” seems way to vague (and misleading, giving too much credit to the term “communication”). That being said, I understand your use of it with regard to what method these teachers say they are using.

  6. Jody said:

    …most FL classrooms (including a good number of our supposedly meaning-based, CI classrooms) still include output-based projects, output-based tasks….

    You know what I’m going to say. It is just super amazing to me that lots of output is still on the table for the vast majority of teachers. Output requires thousands of hours before it can occur and when it does occur, after all that invisible acquisition work in the deeper mind (Chomsky), it occurs without effort – it just happens. The person can speak and write (for communication, not spelling accuracy which comes later – which one counts?). Those same teachers who respect Krashen’s unconscious learning position as an idea fail to respect it as a strategy in their classrooms.

    1. Come on, Ben, don’t you know that every subject is learned by doing?! Ha!

      Really, it should be common sense. There are thousands of words and thousands of grammar rules. How could all that possibly be taught, remembered, practiced, and automatized?! Even if you believe deliberate learning can have a role, you have to agree it’s a minor role.

      And the language to use for output has to come from somewhere. If it’s output, it should at the least be meaning-based.

  7. I think most recognizable names in our field recognize & respect Krashen and all, but just don’t know about the classroom strategies rooted in his hypotheses. They think Communicative means natural, authentic, painless, get the gist or main idea, repeat, sing, make a craft, memorize/cloze a dialogue, learn ‘important’ semantic sets like colors, etc. It’s sheer ignorance about the other way to do it. The missing links are the scaffolding & the understanding that the acquirier needs to understand all the pieces in order to be able to use/recombine them in novel ways. And of course, it’s (Communicative) a complete ignorance/rejection of the fact that acquisition is unconscious.

  8. Working closely with the ACTFL proficiency descriptors, it is looking to me that they are not accurate for an environment where learners are allowed to start output at the stage when it is actually acquired language, and unforced. Who speaks or writes like a Novice even in the first year of a CI/TPRS class? What person would spontaneously “list” unless they were about to get groceries? Or were writing for Huffpost? 😉

    1. I agree, Tina. They don’t operate on memorized bits of language when they are taught with CI, which is what the rubric says about novices. At the end of the semester, I recorded my level one students doing 45 seconds of unrehearsed speech… many of them told me a story by describing pictures I had. Some of them listed full sentences about several pictures. No one listed phrases or words; that isn’t how they think.

    2. Tina, I wonder how much of the levels are derived from the results of the book approach.

      1. Kids produce lists because they learn lists.
      2. Kids function best in the present first because that is all they are exposed to for the first year.

  9. I disagree, but for different reasons than you might think. I gave a Timed Write to my classes after 4 days. You BET they could only list words!!! In a CI classroom, those levels are there, but students move through them quickly. I think they shoot right past Novice Low and Mid, but hang out at Novice High for quite a while. The general description for Novice is misleading. Check out what I’ve capitalized in the Novice High description:

    Novice High

    If many of us are still heavily target structures, we MIGHT experience that bit about students “sounding surprisingly fluent and accurate.”

    I know ACTFL is as neutral as possible, but I like to find things that align instead of seeing it more negative. We want ACTFL on our side.

    1. Good points, Lance. At a seminar this summer we were told that proficiency families consist of three sublevels, but not Low/Mid/High. Rather, High/Low/Mid. E.g., the intermediate level is Novice High/ Low Mid/ Intermediate Mid. NH is totally at easy with the characteristics of the Novice Level and is moving into the Intermediate tasks. The key is that the NH cannot sustain the characteristics of the Intermediate level. In other words, Intermediate starts with NH.

      This works for the other levels, too. Advanced is IH/Advanced Low/ Advanced Mid. Novice is merely, NL and NM.

      (This was presented by Greg Duncan. I am thinking this is his analysis. He provides credits for what he borrows and this was not credited.

      1. Great point, Lance!

        And another thing to add that always gets overlooked – the guidelines and the assessment tool go together. You assign a proficiency level based on what happens during the ACTFL proficiency test. You can’t assign an ACTFL proficiency level based on any other test.

        And the way ACTFL is defining proficiency is like “what you can do with language in the real world” – aka when the sources are “authentic” in the narrowest sense: from native speakers for native speakers. So yeah, our beginner students couldn’t do nearly as much with language in this context as compared to telling a story based on pictures.

        1. Our students do use “memorized” words and recombine them. When I say “memorized” I refer to product, not process. The product is language stored in memory as an unanalyzed item.

          Take the simple example of a verb inflection. Our kids use a few verbs, likely without the correct inflection and when it is correctly inflected then it’s not because they’ve acquired that inflection. They’ve acquired that verb and its inflection as one “item.” E.g. “Como pizza” does not necessarily mean the student has acquired first person present regular verbs.

          When the student says “le dice” and “le gusta” it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve acquired the indirect object pronoun “le.” Almost guaranteed they overgeneralize this language chunk/pattern to contexts that would not call for it.

          Actually, the ACTFL proficiency tests are not intended to only be tests of “acquisition” (the implicit system), so hard to say anything conclusive from such tests about what has been “acquired.”

        2. That is where the performance descriptors come in. Performance is focused on what the students can demonstrate in the classroom, as opposed to the real world. The caveat is that if a person demonstrates performance at a particular sublevel on a particular topic, this is not to be taken as being proficient at that sublevel.

    2. “In a CI classroom, those levels are there, but students move through them quickly. I think they shoot right past Novice Low and Mid, but hang out at Novice High for quite a while.”

      That makes sense to me.

      1. It makes sense to me too. I totally agree with Lance that ACTFL should be an ally.

        The ACTFL levels are accurate/useful, but in our classes, unless you are in the very first part of the year, in a CI environment, most kids will not be listing for long. It is sad to me that kids could be expected to spend too much time in the novice-low and novice-mid range.

        My district benchmark guide expects the kids to be Novice High at the end of two years.

        I think the comments above are right on. If you show kids lots of lists, that is what they will produce. If they spend time memorizing lists of thematic vocabulary, that is what comes to mind on an assessment. That is what happened when I assessed my students at night school who had already had two years of Spanish, but who were repeating the course because they failed the fourth semester (end of year two). They were able to write lists of thematically-related vocabulary but not to recombine (or even, mostly, combine) words and phrases.

  10. If Greg Duncan’s analysis is true (Hi/Lo/Mid), then the ACTFL proficiency labelling system is quite confusing – yet another reason it’s a odds with our work with novices.

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