Changes are coming in our local language instruction ecosystems. Administrators who are paying attention to what happens in their buildings have become concerned about the lack of equity in language education in the United States. The programs that “succeed”, succeed only when they service the highest achieving among the student body and only to the extent that they can respond to prompts about familiar topics with memorized phrases or short sentences.
When administrators begin to understand that method is important (it isn’t important in all subject areas) and shifting method (which we can do if we have a growth mindset) can improve results, they begin to understand that the goal of comprehension-based language teachers is not a personal vendetta against colleagues who do things differently. but rather a movement to obliterate the traditional gate-keeping that reserves upper-level courses for the academically well-prepared, college-bound individuals (who are, relatively, few).
Comprehension-based teaching provides the opportunity for more students to become “college ready” by getting more and more people of all shapes and sizes through second year language classes and into upper levels. If we, as professional educators, grow, change and adapt, we can improve our practice for the benefit of our students.
Darcy Pippins, a teacher-leader in Oklahoma, has some amazing statistics as her department has transitioned to comprehension-based instruction (TCI – Teaching with Comprehensible Input) over the last six years – going from approximately 15 kids in 4th year and 15 in AP to 30 in each. Besides that, she went from around 30% passing the AP test (that’s about 5 kids of 15) to around 75% passing (that’s about 23 kids of 30). Those are impressive stats.
If we contrast this with existing district statistics where TCI is not used, it’s all the more powerful. What is your district’s retention rate over four years? Retention rate in a traditional public high school, which will be mirrored across the country, will be less than 10 % over 4 years.
Those students who make it to upper levels of language study will be mostly white, mostly female, nearly all high-achieving students. Does that reflect your district’s student demographic? If not, why not? Should it? If not, does that mean only high achieving students can acquire language? I refuse to believe that’s true.
Do your district’s retention rates reflect your district’s dedication to closing the achievement gap? If not, should it? If so, what changes do we need to make?
Ah, but these are just statistics. And people are naturally skeptical of statistics, as they should be. It’s only one part of the equation.
The stories that are being told in schools across the country right now are what people are starting to notice and respond to. It is the stories about comprehension-based instruction that will create in other teachers the feeling that they can be a part of this change. Everyone wants to feel successful and feel like they’re good at what they do. Everyone wants their kids to buy-in and feel successful too.
There’s the special education student who speaks better Spanish than all the higher-achieving kids.
There’s the social outcast who raises her head, laughs, smiles and contributes quirky ideas to your stories while being completely quiet in other classes.
There’s the obnoxious ADHD kid who can’t sit still and gets kicked out of all his other classes but not yours.
There’s the high-achieving kid who is writing with more fluency by February than many level three kids from grammar-centric classes (and without ever having done a worksheet).
There’s the shy kid who doesn’t say a word, yet tracks and lip-syncs all you say, who scores at Intermediate Low on listening and writes beautifully. Will her speaking come? I trust it will.
What’s the common denominator here? How do we tell these stories to colleagues and administrators?
In addition, there are other stories. Stories of teachers who, despite all odds, shift. Teacher X, who just a couple years ago was a staunch traditional grammar/book based instructor who took lessons from file cabinets, honing explanations and packets for years and who had written off TCI because of an underlying fear of change. It may have sounded like, “I tried that already and it doesn’t work”. But, after more encouragement, a better understanding of the method and an honest effort, he now says things like, “Wow, my kids are so much more engaged. They’re not resisting me anymore. We have so much more fun and I’m so much happier.”
These are the stories that are being told in various parts of the country and the world. Tipping points are being reached inside many WL departments one teacher at a time even as the corporate model applied to education is moving students and teachers into a more robotic mode.
Teachers are being evaluated now largely in terms of work accomplished, and kids are increasingly becoming mere robotic memorizers plagued with more work than can reasonably be accomplished in one day. There is less pursuit of happiness and more pursuit of rigor.
When comprehension-based instruction/TCI is used in a classroom, however, the opposite happens. The human part of language acquisition, which alone guarantees mastery of the language, is preserved in classrooms that are based on genuine interaction using compelling, understandable messages. Great gains in actual fluency (vs. bogus testing) are the result.
In my district, we’re reaching the tipping point. Working from within the existing structures, we have crafted and presented a TCI-friendly goal statement that will be adopted for the district secondary language classes. It’s only a starting point, but this statement is clearly drawn from our district’s own language around equity and the ACTFL 90% statement published in 2011.
It’s a statement of district intent that is very hard to argue with. The harder part will be putting the goal statement into action. But our district is supportive. They’re implementing Balanced Literacy in language arts and it’s a big shift for a lot of teachers.
So, the district people are saying that they will support our department in the same way, with ongoing training and a transitional period so people don’t feel as if they need to change tomorrow. This is critical. They’re recognizing that change is scary, but that transitioning to a growth mindset is the first step.