Defending Curriculum Change

Recently my county world language teachers underwent 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 previous curriculum documents for levels 1-3 are grammatically sequenced with thematic units. The grammar sequence is mandated by unit as is traditional. The vocabulary is also mandated through vocabulary lists. Standard traditional curriculum stuff like all over the country. The new county world language specialist has asked us to revise this structure to match the Second Language Acquisition research.

In short, the research, ACTFL guiding documents, and state standards contradict this curricular structure in a number of ways, both explicitly and implicitly. I wrote this blog as I processed all the arguments for why curriculum should be changed from the traditional world language structure to something different.

The first bit is why things should change, and my ideas for what we can move to are towards the end.

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:

 

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.”

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 that world language education in the USA has been ineffective for a long time, perhaps forever. How many intermediate speakers do our high school programs produce? Does that number actually increase any after college for non-majors? How many of our college minors even can actually participate in a spontaneous conversation to any real extent? I couldn’t after graduating college which included an additional 5 Spanish classes past high school…

Almost all of my conversations with adults about their world language classes lead to them reporting having learned very little in their 3 years of high school language. College courses, quite frankly, are even worse in that there’s even more focus on grammar sequencing with even less class time. Nearly 100% of the adults I talk to report not liking world languages, feeling like they were bad them, and feeling like the problem lied with them and their lack of talent or ability in world languages. All of this adds up to them having no interest in continuing to study it.

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. This is essential if we are to motivate students to continue learning world languages past the graduation requirement, which is absolutely necessary to reach any useful proficiency. 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 implicitly condemn this style of curriculum organization. We need to move past this. We need to EXPLICITLY condemn it, and discuss its shortcomings out in the open. 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 and push for change.

Below are some real solutions you might use to fight for change for your students!

 

Real Solutions to Fight For

 

  1. Can-Do Statements instead of specific vocab lists and grammar structures

The easiest change to push for is to delete the vocab lists and grammar mandates from curricula and implementation guides. In their place, push for unit-end Can-Do statements. This is neutral territory for traditional and CI practitioners. Curricula are still based on the idea of units of thematic vocab, which is a concession by the CI folks. But grammar can be taught implicitly, which is a concession by the traditionalists. Traditionalists can still teach the grammar explicitly if they want to, and assess it explicitly if they want to; meanwhile, CI practitioners can focus on teaching grammar implicitly through input and pop-up grammar. Traditionalists can still require out-of-context vocab memorization and vocab quizzes, and CI folks can concentrate on personalizing the vocabulary to the students interests within the unit theme. ACTFL, once again, has already paved this path by communicating their own Can-Do’s and encouraging them as a curricular organization. CI trained students have no problem with end-of-unit Can-Do’s, so this is an easy option to push for. This is what my county did, and it seems to be a good compromise so far.

If you get that done and want to take it a step farther, push for the Can-Do statements to be only interpretive for as long as possible, ideally for years. This is a harder battle, because ACTFL publishes Can-Do’s for interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational for all levels, including level 1. But the research clearly indicates that requiring production does no service to the language learner, and it has very real potential to make them feel anxious, uncomfortable, and inadequate. By asking for production, you are communicating to them that they SHOULD be able to produce, which isn’t true for the lower levels based on SLA research.

If you want to push even harder, push for only end-of-year Can Do statements, rather than dividing the year up into units. Just say that in level 1 you have to cover, say, identity, family, school, and popular extracurricular vocabulary. This would be a big boost for the CI practitioners because it would allow for the coverage of individual vocab themes organically over the course of the year, which is way more interesting to the student. Even the sports unit gets boring after 3 or 4 consecutive classes. It’s way more effective to talk about sports in the fall post-season excitement, then again with winter sports, and finally again with spring sports. That way the vocabulary has a real purpose, to discover and celebrate the talents and interests of the students in class. That’s way more powerful for the students’ language development than covering sports all at once in a unit, and the same for all the vocab lexicons.

The role of what specific vocabulary needs to be covered and exactly when is entirely blown out of proportion in world language pedagogy. The only thing that matters is that students generally move from the self to the community to the world to abstraction over the course of level 1 to AP.

 

2. Mike Peto’s Sweet 16 Verbs Curriculum for Levels 1-4

Okay, if you want to be super ambitious, go read about Mike Peto’s ideal 4 year curriculum here. This is a gem of a quote: “We recognized that in any classroom there will be many different interests, and that when students are following their own interests then they perceive the input as more compelling, which leads to faster acquisition. That is the funny thing about those studies which try to count how many times a student needs to hear a word to fully acquire it… teachers know that swears might be fully acquired the very first time they are understood whereas an abstract transition word that the student never uses in their own L1 could be uttered comprehensibly 500 times and not be fully acquired. The Sweet 16 gives a department the flexibility to allow their teachers and students to pursue different interests in class, to use different language, but guarantees that there will be a common communicative foundation throughout the entire program.”

It’s brilliantly simple. In my experience reading everything I can get my hands on about CI it’s the best idea for curricular development. Some people love talking about culture. Some love Sr. Wooly. Some love student interviews. None of the variance matters if all teachers are focused on delivering comprehensible, compelling messages and then looking for comprehension in the eyes of their students. The problem is that this sounds absolutely ludicrous to a non-CI teacher, so I don’t think it would work in uniting districts. But, give it a go!

3. Text Type as Curriculum

I actually love this idea from the brilliant Tina Hargaden. When I asked her how she thinks we can build curricular guides that unite departments, districts, states, and indeed the entire nation, she pointed to text type as the driving force. I think this idea could be married to Mike Peto’s Sweet 16 High Frequency curriculum. We could provide end-of-course text samples that each level student should be able to achieve for all the skills: interpretive listening, interpretive reading, interpersonal speaking, and presentational writing. This marries well with ACTFL’s own Can-Do statements from above as well as the proficiency descriptors. The important point is that text type moves the conversation from specific vocab and grammar topics to proficiency. The role of worrying about what vocabulary to teach is astronomically blown out of proportion in world language curriculum creation. All that matters is that from level 1 to AP, the student’s ability gradually extends from the self to society. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if learning about food comes in the fall of level 1, the fall of level 2, the fall of level 3, or sprinkled in all over the place. It’s a red herring. The thing that actually matters is students being able to interpret and produce more and more sophisticated text types, which is a very powerful idea indeed from Tina!

To assess students in the text type curriculum, one would just ask students to interpret a text at the level, speak interpersonally at a certain spontaneous ability in comparison to a standard interpersonal recording, and write a writing sample to compare in text sophistication to the text type standard. As you go up in level, the vocabulary context would slowly extend from the self (levels 1 and 2 perhaps), to community (level 3 and 4 perhaps), to the world (level 5 perhaps), and finally abstract concepts (perhaps at AP).

 

So, godspeed everyone! I hope these resources included in 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.

 

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3 comments

  1. I’m with you. Loved the part about best practices should be allowed to coexist. I’ve been confused this year as a first year teacher trying to use CI but being told to use the online textbook. I haven’t. At this point in the year, my kids would rebel if I switched to a text book. Glad you are in there fighting for CI. Hope to help somehow.

    Like

  2. Great read. Thanks for sharing the research you’ve done and your personal experiences. Change is possible and it seems that this is the right time. Looking forward to both systemic change and change in my classroom.

    Like

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