There was a noteworthy article in the May 1, 2021 Atlanta Journal Constitution, Foreign Language Classes Get the Conversation Going, by H.M. Cauley. You can read the original article here.
Below are some select quotes from that article and my commentary about the world language classrooms of Allyson Segal and Mary Block at Hopewell Middle School in Milton, Georgia, and how they unite solid Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theory and practice. These teachers are using many effective comprehensible input practices that engage students and get them to acquire language.
USEABLE LANGUAGE & REJOINDERS
“The idea is to give students usable language – phrases that keep a conversation going rather than, ‘Where is the milk?’” said Allyson Segal, the Milton School’s World Language department chair, who also teaches Spanish. “That’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t keep students engaged.”
Usable language that keeps conversations going and keeps students engaged is what it’s all about. Language chunks that students can use right away include short phrases that students hear and can say often in a classroom. These handy expressions are called these rejoinders, and they are extremely useful to language learners.
Rejoinders allow students to respond naturally in the classroom, and in conversations with native speakers in ‘the real world.’ Rejoinders show that you are engaged and encourage the speaker to keep on talking to you. In fact, my tagline for rejoinders is:
“Rejoinders keep the conversation going.”
What world language teachers need to be going for is engagement. Engagement increases acquisition and lessens behavioral problems in the classroom. When students can see that what they are learning is useful, and that they have permission to use it, involvement and attention increase and misbehavior diminishes.
REPEATED INPUT IN SMALL DOSES
“Our philosophy is that second languages are acquired similarly to the first – with repetition, context and small doses,” said Segal. “We give our students small pieces of language, like you do when you’re talking to a baby. Then we layer in more complex language as they build vocabulary.”
Second languages are acquired in much the same way as first languages. Learners go through the same predictable steps and in much the same order. Segal and Hunt are using a real communication in most of the daily classroom conversations. The language is being used for a purpose, not merely rote, decontextualized, random items. They are integrating all of the elements of what we call SCRIMP input.
HIGH-FREQUENCY VOCABULARY & MEANINGFUL INPUT
“By exposing students to the most frequently used words and phrases, they learn to recognize and communicate with them, which is different from textbook learning that often times is unrelatable, with old vocabulary that kids won’t use,” said Segal.
High frequency vocabulary is crucial for new learners. 65% of anything anyone ever says is comprised of the, most frequently used 100 words. Why wouldn’t we teach those?
They also get the order right: recognize first and communicate second. Input comes first, then output. As legendary world language teacher trainer Susan Gross put it: “Input precedes output… by a mile.” We want students to recognize and show they understand first, then later, much later than is traditionally thought, use the language via output: speaking and writing.
These teachers are tailoring the lessons based on classroom conversations so that students are talking about what they actually want to talk about. This gets students to be more enthusiastic about speaking.
“We personalize our curriculum by having the content created by our students,” said Segal. “We may spend days talking about their lives and interests. As long as we’re making it comprehensible, they’re interested.”
The way to get and keep the attention of students is to talk about them: What they think, what they like what they hope what they want, what they do. That is precisely the focus of Special Person student interviews. It’s also how to reduce misbehavior and disruptions in the classroom.
“We talk about what happens to them on a daily basis, what they’re interested in, what sports they’re playing and books they’re reading,” said [Mary] Block. “This approach builds community while guiding students through the process of language acquisition. It feels great for everyone and is highly effective at the same time.”
What are students interested in talking about? Their own lives and those of their classmates. They are trying to figure out who they are. They do that by talking it out and listening to one another. This is my Special Person Interviews concept.
THE RESULTS OF EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATIVE TEACHING
“80% of our World Language students earned a novice high or higher on national proficiency tests given by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages,” she [Allyson Segal] said. “And at the end of the day, that’s what we want: to have our students communicate effectively.”
Allyson Segal and Mary Block are doing it right. They are not holding back on any of the elements of my acronym for effective and long-lasting teaching:
SCRIMP: Sustainable, Comprehensible, Repeated, Meaningful, & Personalized Input.
When I asked what they would like to add to the article, Allyson said, “We, teachers and students, are much happier in a personalized, communicative language environment than in a traditional grammar-based classroom.”
Mary added, “We desperately need more positive PR. We work in a district with 94,000 students in metro Atlanta and 250 WL teachers. We have tremendous support within our building, but have been marginalized by district leadership and feeder programs for the last 8 years. It has been horrible.”
Allyson and Mary, you’re doing it right. Highest kudos. Here’s hoping this positive PR helps…