How much progress is progress?-by Erin

As this school year comes to a close, it seems appropriate to reflect on how the year has gone. In my case, I have had about 40 of my students for the second year in a row,  and about 10 of them will leave me to go to high school next year. Not only do I get to reflect on my performance as their teacher for one year, but I get to process how well I did for both years and if they are prepared for Spanish 3.

I had just begun my CI journey in January 2016, so they have only truly had one and a half years of input-based teaching. This year, Brett (my colleague that I write this blog with) taught some of my former students this year, and today I was able to sit down and look at their exams from last year and this year objectively answer the question: how did I do? There were a few conclusions that I came to that I feel are worthwhile to share. Of course, these are just my opinions, and I’d love your feedback!

  1. The measurable gains in year one of a language seem to be far and away greater than the gains in year two. When your students come to you knowing nothing, and at the end of the year can write a comprehensible, 200-300 word story, it feels like such an accomplishment. They can understand so much and are so excited by their knowledge and familiarity with the language. But what should the gains be from year two? To me, it seems that they continue to add vocabulary to what they already know, and they begin to polish what they have already acquired (spelling, word order). They begin to produce longer sentences and use ‘joining words’ like “but”, “and”, “because”, “that”, “like”.
  2. Their speed of comprehension is much faster in year two. While I still occasionally have to speak slowly and repeat myself if they don’t catch it the first time, by and large they are able to understand a lot more of what I say. They can respond almost immediately after I finish talking, rather than taking a few seconds to process what I have said.
  3. At the end of year two, my students are still hardly speaking. They will answer when spoken to, but usually in one word answers. They will answer if they have been coached, but they are not producing spontaneously. I think this is normal. I believe I read somewhere on Ben Slavic‘s page that sometimes, spontaneous output may not occur for the first year and a half or longer. I have mostly found this to be true, with maybe a few exceptions from the rock star students.
  4. Student story creation from scratch needs to be practiced before they are asked to produce a story from scratch of their own creation, either on the exam or at any time during the year. I found that my students had a hard time coming up with a story concept, characters and plot on their own, and then completing the writing of said story, in the amount of time they were given (roughly 75 minutes). They get hung up on wanting to be creative and want to ask how to say very complex things in Spanish. However, in classes where I practiced story creation throughout the year, students had a much easier time conjuring up a creative (and sometimes hilarious!) stories for the writing portion of their final exam.
  5. For their final exam, I required my Spanish 2 students to write me a 400 word story. However, upon reflection, I don’t think that was really necessary. It doesn’t take 400 words for you to know how your students are doing. And 400 words is a lot to read! Next year, I will certainly not require that much.

What, then, should the gains be in year three? Four? Five? How can we, as CI teachers, measure these gains? Is it in number of words? Accuracy? Fluency of writing? I have heard is said before and I think it bears repeating – acquisition is messy. Just when you think a student has ‘acquired’ a phrase, they turn around and misuse it, or ask, “Cómo se dice___________ en español, Señorita?” So what’s the answer? Moving forward, how can I tell if I am making progress with my students, since I am in a unique position to have them for 2-3 years?

I think it’s normal to ask yourself, “What did I do right this year, and what do I want to change for next year?” For me, one thing I did right is a big, big focus on reading. In Spanish 2, we read 4 novels together as a class. I’m not sure that I will continue that practice next year, especially with all the buzz about the scarring effects of reading a class novel together (you can read about that here and here). However, I cannot deny that my students picked up a lot of vocabulary and fluency from reading the novels together. I am so glad to have incorporated that, and next year I look forward to using a lot more FVR, rather than relying so much on the class novel.

One thing I can’t wait to improve on is speaking more Spanish to my students, especially my Spanish 2s. I am about to complete my 3rd year of teaching, and as I grow in confidence, I feel more comfortable speaking Spanish all the time and using each moment for input! Today we were playing mafia a la Annabelle Allen and as I was speaking to them all in Spanish, I realized that I could have been doing that all year. I don’t need to be afraid that they don’t understand me, I just need to make myself comprehensible.

So, what was one of your successes this year? What was one of your areas for improvement? What patterns did you notice when looking at your final exams?

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This photo is from our Reading Celebration for the short stories the students wrote in Spanish. Thanks Tina Hargaden for the idea and directions! Blog post coming soon on that project.

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