Hitting the 90% target for upper levels

Something that’s been on my mind as I progress through this school year is the ACTFL recommendation of 90% target language use by the teacher. Technically, in my undergraduate program, we went through all the ACTFL stuff (modes, proficiencies, and so on) but I don’t feel like I had enough background myself to fully understand what it all meant. Now, I know my proficiencies like the back of my hand and can tell a student instantly where I think they’re landing (and whether or not that is meeting our proficiency goal, and if not, what they can improve to get there). I can rattle off my Spanish standards without a second thought. (Nebraska’s are more or less exactly the same as ACTFL’s, so that helps.) So when I was a novice teacher, none of these things came to mind since I was mostly worried about surviving and not so much about thriving.

But now I’m at a point in my career where I’ve got the survival part down and I am now polishing my program to make it the best it can be. I am super proud to announce that I agreed to teach Advanced Placement Spanish at my school in the 2015-2016 school year. As far as I know, it will be the first Advanced Placement course offered at East Butler (although we offer a few other courses that are of equally high caliber for our high ability students, they just don’t have the designation). I am equal parts excited and terrified, because I want my students to do well on their AP exam but I also know that knowing Spanish does not necessarily equate to doing well on the exam. And also, holy smokes, I’m teaching an AP class!

The thing is, ACTFL recommends 90% target language use by the teacher. The AP designation asks you to specifically state in your syllabus that the teacher will speak 100% target language and encourage the students to do the same. However, I think it’s far more difficult to hit even the 90% target with upper level students than it is with younger ones.

In the lower level classes, especially if you’re a storytelling teacher, it’s actually very easy to hit the 90% goal. It’s easy to ‘stay in bounds’ because everyone is still mostly within the same vocabulary boundaries. If I do a story day or something that involves boatloads of input, the only time I really need to break TL use is for disciplinary purposes. (I make sure to do those in English, just to ensure there’s no ‘I didn’t understand I was in trouble’.)

But once we move into Spanish 3 and 4, I run into the problem of having wider and wider variations of ability. The very lowest self-select out of Spanish, but in this year’s Spanish 4, I have students ranging from intermediate-low to advanced-low. The vocabulary difference between those students is huge – but because I can’t climb into their heads and see exactly which words they’re comprehending, I don’t know how to stay in bounds for the lower students while still challenging the higher students.

There is also the difficulty of grammar explanation in the higher levels, because that’s when students have finally had enough input to make some minor focusing on grammar worth it. I have switched to pop-up grammar for the last 2 years, but my older students were started with the good ol’ worksheet method, which means their grammar is often less accurate because they spent less time seeing and hearing correct grammar in context and acquiring it. Yesterday, one of my high ability Spanish 3s asked me to grammatically explain nominal subjunctive to her. She’s someone who is to the point where teaching her the requirements (trigger word, ‘que’, change in subject) will improve her accuracy because her brain is ready to use that information – that’s why she asked. I guess I could’ve fumbled my way through telling her in Spanish, but it would’ve taken 20 minutes and she might not understand. Or I could take 5 minutes and explain in English, and be done with it.

And then there’s the actual teaching. Chris Pearce, who does teaching comics on his super cool blog that you should totally check out, Teachable Moments, posted a very timely comic that pretty much sums up my dilemma:

Due to the nature of Spanish 4, I don’t use a lot of target language. It’s because I don’t use a lot of language at all! Whereas at the novice level, I have to lead students through every little thing, by the time the majority of the students have reached intermediate and can create their own sentences, I’m not needed nearly as much. I go from telling a 30 minute story in 3rd period (Spanish 1) to asking my students to read the article and answer the questions, then sitting quietly at my desk (Spanish 4). I do use more target language when we do interpersonal mode stuff because their speaking is a little weak (my fault) but again, Spanish 4/AP Spanish is mostly student-led discussion. Is it cheating to hit your 90% because you literally only need to give directions and then occasionally circulate and ask students if they need help? (They usually don’t.) I actually feel somewhat lost during those classes, because I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t need to sit there and stare at them, but I also don’t want to appear to be ignoring my students if an administrator walks in. I usually do ‘fluffy’ things (check #langchat, read my blog feed, organize) but maybe there’s a better way. Or maybe it’s okay that I use such little Spanish because my students are getting their input from authentic resources, and not so much student-modified language from me.

What do you think?

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