18 January 2011

They can't speak, and it's our fault: Dismantling the myths

Earlier this month was the deadline for proposals to be submitted for the 2011 conference of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. I have never been to their conference--indeed, I've only ever attended one national conference (TESOL 2007)--but one of my new year's resolutions was to at least attempt to go, and part of that was to submit a proposal to present.

Before proposing anything, I polled several of my colleagues on Twitter to see what they thought about what might have been lacking at the 2010 conference. I got a wide variety of answers, ranging from "how could anything be lacking when there were 600 sessions?" to "oh there was so much lacking, where do I start?". One comment in particular stuck in my mind: @tmsaue1 said that almost no one seemed to want to talk about the elephant in the room- that after all this push for CLT for all these years, we still aren't producing students with any useful level of proficiency. So I made a quip on Twitter about needing a better title for my proposal than "They can't speak, and it's our fault." Something must have resonated because several people told me that either I should stick with that title, or if I changed it, that should still be the topic, because it's true.

In any case, the title I settled on was "Dismantling the Myths that Prevent Proficiency," and before I realized that you only had to come up with an outline if you were proposing a 3-hour workshop, I had outlined several myths that in my opinion are holding back the average U.S. world language teacher from pushing students to real proficiency in the classroom. Since then I have thought of a few more and gotten input from more comments. At this rate I'll have to poll everyone to see which ones to include if the proposal is accepted so I can get them within the time limit!

Over the next few months I'll be blogging about these myths individually. I'll find out in April if I'll be presenting at ACTFL (and if I am, here's hoping I also get accepted to score AP Spanish exams so I can pay for the conference!) but either way, I can reach more people through my blog anyway, with what I think about what's holding us all back.

Here goes. The ones in bold are the ones I think are hurting us the worst--keeping students from interacting with native & authentic input. Please offer feedback and help me add or subtract to/from these as necessary!


1. A person who is not proficient can be a language teacher (Or, "I have a degree in this; of course I'm qualified").

2. Learning about language is enough (Or, "I don't have to speak the TL in the classroom").

and its cousin

3. Grammatical terms are actually helpful in language acquisition (or, "How will they know what it is if I don't call it subjunctive by reason of indefinite antecedent?????")

4. Only the very young or students who have high aptitude are going to succeed anyway (otherwise known as the 'time whine').

5. The textbook and accessories are all I need (or, "my district spent $20,000 on this stuff, I have make it worth their while").

6. Students can learn vocabulary in isolation and in lists of 150 words per chapter (or, "why don't they know what bosque means and that it's masculine? we just studied this!").

7. Media produced for language learners counts as authentic materials (or, "The 'First Semester of Spanish Love Song' is the best video ever!")

8. Low-level learners can't understand authentic materials.

and its cousin

9. Students have to understand everything they hear.

10. Communication among learners is somehow going to equip them to communicate with native speakers.

11. A multiple-choice question counts as a valid assessment of proficiency (or, "I can tell how well students communicate without actually asking them to communicate).

12. Translation helps language acquisition and counts as a valid assessment of communicative ability (or, "I knew she was trying to say 'my nose is running'- how creative!").

13. Finding/creating materials takes too much time (or, "I have to do all this on my own").

14. Tech tool + any amount of language = classroom magic (or, "I'm the 21st-century teacher! Look at that amazing project with almost no communication that my students put together!").

15. Assessment is an end-of-unit activity. (or "I understand it. Surely they must. Moving on.")


Stay tuned!


Erica Fischer said...

I hope your proposal is accepted. It will be fascinating to hear your thoughts on these topics. I like the outline and look forward to seeing some of your ideas to dismantle and destroy these myths as we march towards seeing students develop proficiency.

Sra. B said...

I, too, hope your proposal is accepted. I would love to hear what else you will be saying. You might add that learning vocabulary in isolation (those lovely lists!) will produce communication. Or, 45 minutes in class 5 times a week is enough to produce a fluent speaker and adequate to combat the wonderful refrain from parents: "I had 2/3/4 years of Spanish in high school and I don't remember a thing!"

Sra. Spanglish said...

I might have been more tantalized by the title que me echa la culpa! Maybe that's because I know what you do, and know whereof you speak. Still, I kind of need help with those "myths," because I've been told they're not true enough, but still have a hard time overcoming several. Where is ACTFL this fall?

Sra Cottrell said...

@Sra. Spanglish - I know what you mean - the last one is the one that has plagued me the most, and I think particularly contributing to low listening proficiency in my AP Spanish students. ACTFL is in Denver this fall. I've only been to Denver twice and both times it was to see the Braves play the Rockies. Hoping to get some more out of this trip if I make it. :)

Dee said...

Wow! I love the proposal. I have heard and tried to dismantle many of the myths listed. Another myth you may want to consider is "The Curriculum Guide"...I am following the curriculum or It's not in the curriculum guide, so I don't have to do all of that...As an ESL teacher, I know that the curriculum guide, is JUST a guide that has few guidelines for teaching and reaching ELL's.

Sra. Spanglish said...

Don't suppose you could save this for the one in PA? Denver does not appear to be in the cards.

twelchky said...

Another myth is that in the 21st Century the classroom teacher should still determine WHAT they learn in the language (that carefully articulated curriculum that is useless to student language acquisition, but wonderfully satisfying and necessary for creating whole-group lesson plans that get the teacher from Point A in August to Point A in June), WHEN they learn it (Sorry, Juan, I can't possibly excuse you from the next three chapters' work just because you learned it on your own over the summer), or from WHOM they learned it.

Sra Cottrell said...

@Sra. Spanglish... who knows, these things tend to take on a life of their own, eh? I do live a whole lot closer to PA. :)

@twelch Point A in August to Point A in June: HAHA how true and sad. And as for who determines what and how they learn, I was just telling my students this week that 15 years later I still remember that the way I learned the word hormiga was while swimming in a makeshift pool near the jungle in Ecuador watching ants march around carrying these insanely large leaves and a friend was swimming with me (she didn't speak English) and I didn't know how to talk about the ants and their leaves. So, she taught me. And the way I acquired durazno was by reading the word on a bottle of body wash for a month... at least twelve or thirteen years ago. It goes on and on. Very little of the Spanish in my head came from a classroom of any kind, but that's info for a separate post. :)

Aaron G Myers said...

To number one: They need to be proficient to be a teacher, but they don't need to be proficient to be a coach - they just need to provide the opportunities, provide reasons to be motivated and make it fun. And in today's ultra connected world, why couldn't every "teacher" be a coach. Just a though.

Aaron G Myers said...

And that said, I think the topic is great. Keep pushing in on this!

Sra Cottrell said...

@Aaron first, may I say it's awesome your blog has a tag dedicated to Krashen. Krashen-non-haters of the world, unite. :)

Motivating students to continue in language study is only one of the things that language teachers are paid to do. Primarily, we are hired, and students are told that we are going, to teach language, that when students leave our class, they will be able to do something with the language. If the teacher is not proficient, we are lying, and wasting our school's money. And now you've made me go and jump the gun on my first myth post...

Sra Cottrell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tati said...

Wow! Love these myths! Way to present them! I'm always blown away with your posts and ideas for teaching!

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