Daily Archives: September 10, 2011

Teaching French This Year

I have decided to teach a French exploratory class at the Middle School this year. Many people are surprised at this because I don’t speak French. Really, you ought to blame Ben Slavic. I remember a conversation we had one May afternoon when he told me that he was teaching a Spanish exploratory.

“Dude, you should teach a French exploratory,” he said. I remember thinking at the time that he was nuts because the only French I knew was oui.

“Ben, how would I do that? I don’t speak French,” I said.

“You need to think 4th dimensionally on this. Look, I don’t speak Spanish and I’m teaching an exploratory. You just have to learn the words you need and make sure that your pronunciation is good. It’s not that bad, man. You should totally do it.”

That conversation has been on the back burner of my conscience for the last 3 years. I started to think about it. I continued to ponder about how we learn languages and if we truly acquire from understanding messages, then one could actually teach a language without being fluent because you would acquire it with the class a little at a time. In fact, the class will probably acquire faster because you are going so slow. There are a few things you need to be solid on, though.

  1. Your pronunciation needs to be legit. You can’t mess around on this and need to make an effort to be as close to native as possible because you are the source of your students input and you don’t want it to be tainted.
  2. Start with a TPR phase to get command of some basic vocabulary.
  3. Buy a basic grammar handbook to help you understand a few basic grammar concepts.

I went into this year with this little guide and believe it or not, I am actually acquiring French. It’s not as hard as I thought it would be and you know what, the students are acquiring it, too. The hardest part is getting over the fear of learning a new language. It’s kind of like jumping off of a diving board for the first time. This is so monumental because as I see it, there is no limit how many languages we learn.

I remember a conversation that an expert language interpreter, Lomb Kato, had with Stephen Krashen. She said to him, “Stephen, you’re so young. You’re only 53. So many years left, so many languages to acquire.” I am starting to understand what she means.


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The Textbook. Enemy of Acquisition or Useful Tool?

For a long time, I was frustrated with textbook companies and saw them as the enemy of acquisition. I felt that they were useless and didn’t help me to acquire when I was in school. I felt that they were a big waste of time. When I decided to be a Spanish teacher, my disgust for textbooks only got worse as I saw how they provided everything for a teacher causing them to be lazy and engage students in activities that didn’t lead to acquisition.

I was so refreshed when I came upon TPRS® because this allowed me to teach Spanish without using a textbook and gave me a little more credibility. Also I was in contact with several older teachers that were fed up with textbooks and abandoning them. As a young teacher, I thought to myself, “If they have spent all of these years with textbooks and are getting rid of them, why do I need to make a mistake by using them.”

Well, toward the end of last year I started to notice that my students were missing some important skills, such as greetings, thematic vocabulary, and some essential grammar. I had placed them into stories, but somehow it didn’t get acquired. I realized that I was shorting my students by not helping them gain mastery in these skills.

So, I had a few choices.

  1. Continue to insert this thematic vocabulary into the stories, but be more intentional about it.
  2. Use the skills in a textbook and present them to the students using comprehensible input activities.
  3. Use stories and comprehensible input to give the students more exposure to thematic skills commonly found in a textbook.

I chose to do number 3 and for the first time in my teaching career, I actually checked out textbooks to my students.


Now just relax and let me explain. This doesn’t mean that I am going all textbook and making the main focus on learning versus acquiring, but it does mean that I am using the textbook for its thematic vocabulary and activities for bell work exercises. The thematic vocabulary helps me to stay on track with giving them the skills that they should have and the activities provide brief bell work activities that get them focused on the language before class starts.

The great part about it is that I am not bound by the textbook. I can choose what I feel is an important skill versus insignificant vocabulary that I will just skip. I actually had a process that I followed when I was considering a textbook and the skills. First, I skimmed the textbook to see if was broken up by skills or if it was just vocabulary that didn’t relate to each other. Then, I identified each skill and developed criteria for what I want the students to master.

I think that this is important especially for young teachers because we are not walking curriculums. Many teachers can ditch a textbook because they have already been using it for over a decade. They have taught those essentials so many times that they could do it in their sleep. They already have an idea of what a beginning language student should master. Young teachers do not have this experience and need a guide if they want to help their students to be well-rounded in the language.

I finally realized that the textbook does not have to be the enemy. It can be a guide for teachers to help students master some basic language skills. However, if a teacher over-uses a textbook and depends on it for every minute of class, then it can become the enemy of acquisition. It all depends on your understanding of acquisition and how you decide to use it. If you have an understanding of how we acquire languages, then you are not bound by the activities in a book. You are simply just using the book as a pacing guide for introducing meaningful skills through an array of comprehensible input methods. If a teacher focuses on comprehensible input, I believe that the students will acquire the language and be successful.

In the end, we must realize that we do not have a lot of time with the students and we must be as effective and efficient as we can. The gift of language is one of the best skills that we can give students and I don’t want to waste one minute!


Filed under Teaching Discoveries