The Promise and the Problem

The Promise and the Problem

Excerpted from Foundations:  A Natural Approach to the (Transition) Year
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The Promise

The community of proficiency-oriented teachers is growing at an ever-increasing pace.  The internet has accelerated this growth, as colleagues are able to easily share ideas, successes, and samples of student work.  Proficiency-based teaching has spread from one happy teacher to another, as teachers taking up this new paradigm have been happily surprised at how their students’ language abilities have soared.  In many cases, first-year students from proficiency-based classrooms are able to comprehend, write, and speak at levels far above what traditionally has been expected of beginning language students.

Teachers also find themselves working smarter, not harder, able to leave school while the sun is still up. They can leave work at work and significantly reduce their grading and correcting time.  

Teachers are often motivated by the substantial increase in student engagement they see.  When communicating about interesting topics - and not studying parts of language - becomes the curriculum, most students are naturally more engaged in class.  Many teachers report that proficiency-based instruction has helped them to reconnect with the joy of teaching. Their students are more engaged, and able to do more with the language, and feeling more successful and accomplished.  Engaged, successful students usually feel more motivation.  Teaching people who are internally-motivated is - for most of us - much more enjoyable than working hard to make grammar and vocabulary interesting.

It is a testament to the power of proficiency-based teaching that most of the growth in interest has come horizontally in our profession from word of mouth, and not from top-down mandates. It is a grassroots movement inside school hallways, from one classroom to another, from one building to another. 

At the time of this writing, districts and departments that offer a fully proficiency-based program are few and far between. The change is still happening mostly at the level of individual teachers.  In fact, many teachers are bravely shifting their programs to align with standards, research, human nature, and true communication despite their district requirements.  These teachers are heroes, in my estimation, brave fighters on behalf of students, who often suffer greatly at the hands of district and building administrators and colleagues who have not yet made the shift to standards- and research-based proficiency-oriented instruction.  I know that my own journey with this kind of instruction has not always been lined with cheering unicorns tossing rose petals at me in ticker-tape parades thrown in my honor by grateful colleagues and bosses.  It has been joyful…yet challenging.

I developed the Stepping Stones instructional framework in response to the challenges I faced in fitting student-centered, proficiency-oriented language teaching into the expectations of my colleagues -  making this natural, effortless way of learning a language “look and feel like school.”  It’s an all-too-common problem for so many teachers.

The Problem

The research shows that exchanging meaningful, interesting messages is the path to language proficiency.  However, many teachers who wish to align with the standards and research find themselves unable to do so in their day-to-day instruction, because they are pressured to have their students consciously learn certain language parts. Many teachers thus find themselves in a difficult professional situation, as they work to implement the following important ideas.

The difficulty comes when teachers who want to fully align their programs with the standards and SLA research are required to teach word lists, follow a textbook scope and sequence, or prepare students for assessments of grammatical accuracy and linguistic knowledge.  These requirements are thick heavy cords weighing teachers down, tethering them to ineffective practices and impeding their ability to provide the building blocks of language acquisition through comprehensible interactions in the language. 

Year after year, generation after generation, students show up in language classes eager to use the language, but the vast majority of them leave at the end of the year with their heads full of unconnected words and rules, and worse, a feeling that they are “not very good at languages”.  The feeling is of having participated in something resembling a mathematics class, learning formulae to manipulate parts of the language they never even knew existed - definite articles, indefinite articles, the partitive, past participles, etc.  

Many pacing guides and curriculum documents still reflect the structure of the textbook, its thematic word sets and grammar points. Some districts have cobbled together the new, research-aligned proficiency goals with the old textbook-driven word lists and grammar points.  Many documents now delineate proficiency goals for each year of study alongside word lists and grammar constructions to be learned at that proficiency level.  These documents only partially align with the research and our national standards.

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