This spring my county world language teachers are beginning the process of revising the curriculum to align better with the second language acquisition research from the last 50 years or so and with the ACTFL standards and my state’s standards. The context is that our curriculum documents for levels 1-3 are grammatically sequenced with thematic units. The grammar sequence is mandated by unit as is traditional. So we are supposed to start with the verb “to be” with the first unit on personal descriptions and then the verb “to have” with clothing and colors, and so on. Ar verbs in the singular come with family vocab. And then in the plural next. Then -er and ír verbs. Etc.. The vocabulary is also rigidly mandated through vocabulary lists. Standard traditional curriculum stuff like all over the country.
In short, the research, ACTFL guiding documents, and state standards contradict this curricular structure in a number of ways, both explicitly and implicitly. Here are the significant contradictions for grammar sequencing and then vocabulary lists, in the order of importance as I see it. It should be noted that I don’t personally care if other teachers still use hierarchical grammar design (skills building) and vocab lists. It’s just countywide curriculum mandates shouldn’t force those practices upon everyone, because they aren’t research-based. Best practices should at least be allowed to co-exist.
(If you just want the supporting documents, skip to the end).
Many people think CI practitioners hate grammar. It’s just not true. Grammar is an essential aspect of communication. However, it’s place in learning a second language has been inflated in ways that don’t match the research (which is obvious when compared to how everyone that has ever lived on this planet since language has been invented has learned their first language). The second language acquisition research indicates that grammar sequencing is inefficient for a number of reasons:
- First, the research indicates that almost all language development comes from interpreting messages from the target language. Grammar has been sequenced in curricula because classes have been about production, even in the early levels. In that setup, of course grammar would have to be sequenced because students can’t get good enough to produce without highly constrained practice scenarios and lots of explaining in English about how the grammar works. But the research indicates that language learning occurs almost exclusively via interpretation, not production. In a classroom set up to match that research, input (interpretation) is the focus, so grammar wouldn’t need to be sheltered or sequenced nearly to the extent it is currently.To illustrate the point, students have no problem interpreting complex and varied grammar right from the beginning because the vocabulary and the context are sufficient for comprehension. When I say in October of level 1: “Ayer yo fui a Ruby Tuesdays y comí una hambguesa enorme,” students have no problem understanding what that means, despite the fact that “fui” is an irregular verb in the preterite and “enorme” is a neutral adjective that doesn’t match the feminine letter on the end of “hamburguesa.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any grammar can be used right away. Students would certainly get lost in a sentence like, “Si yo hubiera nacido en alemanía, yo hubiera jugado mucho más fútbol. But within the constraints of student comprehension, why not use whatever grammar is comprehensible, especially stuff like all verbs categories (-ar, -er, and -ir) and the basic time frames of the past and near future–all from the very beginning?
- More to that point, we have this idea that grammar concepts are hierarchical: present tense is easier than the past, noun-adjective agreement should come early in level 1, etc. However, the research doesn’t support this hierarchy. It does indicate that there is a general order of grammar acquisition, but that every students’ order is different and largely unpredictable. This is Krashen’s i + 1 hypothesis. So it’s ineffective to build a sequences grammar hierarchy. This is illustrated so well by both conjugation endings and noun-adjective agreement, two classic level 1 topics. Students may appear to have mastered these concepts in practice scenarios, but as soon as you put them into spontaneous communication in an unrehearsed scenario in a somewhat new context, their accuracy wanes as their attention becomes overwhelmed by the vocabulary of delivering their message, not the grammatical form. In this type of spontaneous (actual, real) communication, instinct is what dictates grammar, not explicit study of the grammar structure. Level 1 students haven’t internalized those conjugation and agreement concepts because generally speaking second language acquisition research indicates that those two concepts are late acquired language functions. So it’s largely a waste of time to focus on students being able to produce them in a practice situation.
- On the other hand, there are many reasons to use lots of grammar variety right away rather than restricting it to a hierarchy. The research indicates that language learning is a function of interpreting a certain number of meaningful repetitions of a language structure. If teachers wait until year two to use the past tense, or year three to use the subjunctive, or year four to use the perfect and past perfect tense, they are depriving students of the exposure they need over time and a variety of contexts in order to internalize those structures. We should be using lots of grammar all from the beginning so students can learn to interpret it as quickly as possible. And that way there won’t be a lag between the present tense and the past and future and perfect, etc.
The argument behind not mandating vocabulary lists is more subtle, but just as important.
- The first problem with mandating vocabulary list is a lack of student interest. What tends to happen with vocab lists is that teachers focus on the words and not the students. This can lead to conversations that students don’t find personally meaningful, which is key because the research indicates that the less meaningful the interpretation, the less the language gets transferred to long-term memory. This is why students will remember curse words for the rest of their life after just one repetition. It’s also why working with student-generated stories a la Ben Slavic’s Invisibles is an excellent teaching activity because the students find it extremely interesting. And it’s why teachers’ primary goal every day in class is to try to make the target language exposure as interesting to students as possible. That is our primary job function as language teachers.In its worst form, vocab list curricular design puts kids to sleep and the second language becomes a chore rather than a part of their identity and something they want to continue in for years and years. In its best form, the teacher spends a tremendous effort trying to jazz up the vocab theme to draw the students in. I used to do a huge city diagram on my back wall in which students designed roads, plazas, buildings, the whole works and used magazine clippings to put objects for each place. It was a whole thing. But if I’m being completely honest, it still wasn’t that interesting to them (or me). They just liked it because they got to chat with their friends for a class while they did the art/craft portion. As soon as I started actually using language to discuss the city, attention dropped off consideribly because the students didn’t really care about that imaginary city. It wasn’t meaningful to them.
Now , I just chat with my students in the target language about what they like to do in our local area: What movie theater they prefer and why? What are their favorite restaurants? Who has their license and can drive around town themselves? What are their favorite stores? Which is their favorite shopping area–a mall, or Carytown with its pedestrian friendly nature and boutique stores. It’s way more interesting to the students than talking about a hypothetical city on my wall, or in Mexico.
And that’s my biggest point about why we shouldn’t mandate vocabulary lists, why we shouldn’t develop curricula with specific words in mind. Not having the list encourages the teacher to personalize the conversation to their students, to make the language interaction and interpretation personally meaningful, and therefore more effective. In the place of lists, I recommend guiding questions (see below) for thematic units. That way teachers still have guidance, are still united across different classrooms and different schools, can still share common assessments across teachers, but are encouraged to engage the students in a meaningful way.
Here’s the rough draft of the guiding questions I’ve put together for my local curriculum. It’s a rough draft, but it’s still over 25 pages! https://docs.google.com/document/d/1g3k4On1j3i2h5IGkzqs37nNCnZdY0Ms4ud5vJoXl8Mk/edit?usp=sharing
- Another reason why we should move away from vocabulary lists is that they so often lead to student production practice, rather than student interpretation practice, when the research overwhelmingly indicates that most learning (if not all) comes from interpretation. Teachers so often hand out a vocab list and then design practice writing activities, rather than interpretive assignments.
- Third, vocabulary lists should not be mandatory because they encourage uncontextualized study of vocabulary, when the research overwhelmingly indicates that vocab development is much more efficient within context. So often, teachers hand out vocab lists and students study the list, or make flashcards, or study quizlet. While those things aren’t inherently bad of course, they are less efficient than students understanding new vocabulary in context and discourage teachers to focus on vocab use within meaningful contexts of whole sentences, paragraphs, and groups of paragraphs.
Documents to Support Curriculum Change
Here are the documents I’m using as support. I’ve highlighted the pertinent sections. I think they all have links in the footnotes. Or just search google for the title:
- ACTFL 21st Century Skills pg 4-A Description of Teaching Then vs Now
21st century skills world languages map (pg 4)
- ACTFL Teaching Grammar As Concepts in Meaningful Contexts in Language Learning
ACTFL On Grammar
- ACTFL Use of Target Language in Language Learning (2010)
Use of Target Language through CI
- ACTFL Use of Target Language in Language Learning (2018)
Use of Target Language (Interesting how ACTFL has become much firmer and more in depth from the 2010 version to the updated 2018 version)
- ACTFL Strategies for Supporting the Use of Target Language
Use of Target Language
I’m in Virginia, so here are the state curricular guiding documents:
- VA Standards: VA Standards with Highlights
- The important aspect about this document is that there is no grammar or vocabulary specifications beyond stuff like
- pg 7: “The vocabulary, concepts, and structures for each level should be presented in a spiraling fashion that reintroduces them with increasing complexity at subsequent stages of language development.” That’s a CI layup.
- The closest the document comes to specifying vocabulary is in the introduction and Communication descriptions. Even then, it’s really general language like: pg 15:”The student will exchange simple spoken and written information in Spanish.
1. Use basic greetings, farewells, and expressions of courtesy both orally and in writing.
2. Express likes and dislikes, requests, descriptions, and directions.
3. Ask and answer questions about familiar topics, such as family members, personal belongings, school, and leisure activities, time, and weather….“The student will sustain brief oral and written exchanges in Spanish, using familiar phrases and sentences….
1. Initiate, sustain, and close brief oral and written exchanges with emphasis on the present time.
2. Use proper formal and informal forms of address in familiar situations.
3. Use nonverbal communication and simple paraphrasing to convey and comprehend messages.”
- The important aspect about this document is that there is no grammar or vocabulary specifications beyond stuff like
My point is that our local curriculum does not have to include any specific vocabulary (aka vocab lists) to satisfy the state standards, which helps open up a conversation about curriculum change to allow more personalization to the students in the room and certainly a more input-based approach.
- VA SOL Implementation Excerpts VA SOL Implementation with highlights
- Pg 6: Target Language and Comprehensible Input
- Pg 12: Tolerance for errors as proficiency builds
- Pg 18: Change from linguistic analysis to communicative competence
- Pg 19: A Description of Teaching Then vs Now reproduced from ACTFL’s 21st Century Skills publication above
Here’s a slideshow I’ve made to deliver these documents and arguments in presentation format: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1ExF-ocwhqp3XxCnm7Q757tztkMcREhT2ACFZHD0-HfY/edit?usp=sharing
The reality is, world language education in the USA has been ineffective for a long time, perhaps forever. 9 times out of 10, people report having learned very little in their 3 years of high school language, and they had no interest in continuing to study it. College courses for 100 and 200 level basic language instruction, quite frankly, are even worse in that there’s even more focus on grammar sequencing and even less class time, so interpretive opportunities are more limited.
I have seen comprehensible input instruction drastically improve my students’ abilities. Many more students are proficient at or above grade level–not just the ones that like school, not just the ones that have parents who value education and enforce expectations, not just the high fliers.
Just as importantly, their attitudes toward learning a foreign language have improved drastically. Many more of my students enjoy studying the language and want to continue. I just spoke with one of my graduating seniors yesterday about what types of sources he can use to keep on learning on his own after graduation!
But the world language landscape as a nation isn’t going to change until county curricular mandates change. CI practitioners are discouraged, and at times downright scared for their jobs, when curriculum is organized in a grammar hierarchy and/or with vocabulary list mandates. Yet curriculum doesn’t have to be organized this way. In fact, the research, ACTFL, and many state standards full-on condemn this style of curriculum organization. But precious little has happened on a local level in terms of curriculum revision to allow CI practitioners to coexist. And nothing will change unless CI practitioners advocate together and push for it. So, godspeed everyone! I hope these resources and this blog post help motivate you and support you in working for curriculum revision. We have to do it. We have a responsibility to our students to do what is best for them.
All the Best,