Quiz for you: What percentage of target language use does the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages recommend teachers and students use in the classroom?
Almost every teacher I know and work with can answer this question. How could we not when it becomes such a torment for so many? Answer: 90% or higher.
Next question: Why? Where did this magic number come from?
Last year, I had a most stunning conversation in which someone told me where the 90% in the ACTFL position statement on target language use in the classroom came from. Caveat: I wasn’t able to verify this information in any online source, and I did look, but I’ll tell you that it came from one of the people involved in producing the position statement, so I feel comfortable blogging about it. (If you have different information, please offer it in the comment section below or to me in email.)
ACTFL leadership knew they wanted to develop a position statement asking teachers to increase the level of target language they were using in the classroom. A very worthwhile endeavor, to be sure; in my first three years of teaching, I probably used Spanish in class about 5% of the time, and most of that was reading questions and answers out of the textbook. But what number? How to find out? To come up with a percentage, ACTFL surveyed teachers. As the surveys came back, said former ACTFL leader, they kept seeing the number should be 90%.
It came from surveys?
I suppose I had assumed it was much more… scientific than that. Wasn’t there a research project done? Some published paper that told us how much students needed to hear? You mean that the number so many teachers fight with is based on surveys?
But it makes some sense, does it not? I’m not sure how else we’d come up with it. My 90% doesn’t add up to as many minutes as yours does. You can do 90% with the second graders you see for 20 minutes per week and they still won’t show significant proficiency gains. And of the 90%, how much needs to be comprehended? Clementi and Terrill tell us “Don’t confuse comprehensible input with 100% comprehension.” No number on that. It couldn’t have been a research project that came up with 90%.
Do you see what I mean here?
A research project designed to test what percentage of comprehensible target language use results in proficiency gains in a classroom setting involves so many undefinable terms and so many unanswerable questions and so many unavoidable variables that in practical terms it is impossible to do scientifically.
What do you think? What about the problem of actually defining comprehensible input and measuring how many of the students comprehend each utterance? What about issues in working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory, and which actually constitutes proficiency gains? What about such overwhelming issues as keeping track of when a student is absent from class and how that reduces the number of minutes that individual student received and thus skews the data? What about measuring whether or not each individual student is paying attention every single minute you’re counting as comprehensible target language? Impossible.
But really? The number we talk so much about is… well, arbitrary? And when you check the position statement, the number is (in parentheses). The actual position is “as exclusively as possible (90% plus).”
Want to go further into the complications? Here’s my problem with equating comprehensible input with 100% comprehension: I can’t do it with students who have no language without being unnatural. I can’t contrive it and keep them engaged. I have seen presenters do this successfully. But not with students, personally. I’ve seen it successful with teachers who love teaching language and are geared to language and who paid to be there so they are inclined to be engaged anyway. And I’ve only seen it done by people I could describe with the phrases “stand-up comedian” and/or “energizer bunny” and/or “person who has been doing this demonstration for 20 years.” It looks exhausting. I can’t do it. So what can I do? What works for me?
This is a wall of text already, and I’ll take a break to tell you the purpose of this thought process and post is to show you how I decided to develop a position statement that worked for me and my students in my classroom and I’d love to see you do the same and share it on your own blog, here in the comments, or with me via email. But first, let me briefly explore two directions I have been before and did not want to go.
Charlie Brown’s teacher: X% TL with little attention to comprehensibility
I’ve heard many colleagues talk about jumping on board with using 90% or higher target language without paying too much attention to whether or not – or how much – students were comprehending. And boy, have I done this too! But saying “90% target language” isn’t really an accurate summary of the ACTFL recommendation. From the position statement,
a variety of strategies to facilitate comprehension… provide comprehensible input… make meaning clear… conduct comprehension checks… teach students strategies for requesting clarification…
I tried this before, specifically my first year teaching elementary school after all my training was in secondary. I’d just come out of discovering the input hypotheses in grad school and thought if I just told the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar enough times that acquisition would happen. (It didn’t.) Now, in my journey to develop Russian skills for demonstrating CI strategies, I’ve been reminded just how much clarification and simplicity have to be a part of what we do in order for people to understand.
So my question now is not:
How much target language can I use?
How much target language can I help them understand, and how?
X% TL with little attention to targets
Children acquire language naturally without anyone paying too much attention to what we teachers call target structures, target vocabulary, lesson goals, etc. I can say with a lot of confidence that that is not going to happen with your students. It’s not and I know it’s not for one simple reason: there is not enough time. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of patterning input (far more than most CI teachers) and using strategies like diagrams and changing marker colors to focus student attention on those patterns. I think this is the best way I’ve implemented to fight our time problem. Now, I have targets, and they’re directly related to ACTFL proficiency standards. In my novice units, we’re going to be regularly seeing patterned comprehensible input on (what some might pejoratively call sheltered) novice-level goals: talking about my likes and dislikes, giving biographical information, engaging in a conversation about activities or plans.
Unless my students are growing up to be native speakers within the target-language culture, which they most certainly are not, why should I make my teaching match the input that produces that kind of speaker?
It’s a can of worms, I get it. I’m in a place where I’m okay with that. Because this is my position statement, not yours, and not his, and not theirs over there.
Speaking of which…
The Musicuentos position statement on TL use
I’ve thought about the wording here for a long time. I wanted something deeper than comprehensible because I wanted to emphasize realistic targets that are within students needs. I kicked around “apprehensible” because it’s related to aprender (Spanish: “to learn”), and I wanted it to be able to be comprehended and learned but then it turned out apprehensible just means comprehensible. Then I contemplated “learnable” but it still wasn’t quite what I wanted. So I landed on attainable.
In a graphic:
That text again:
I aspire to…
infuse my class with target language interaction focused on 100% attainable, useful targets that are related to my students’ needs. I define focused as 100% comprehension of learning targets with 80% or more of class time and activities directly related to those targets. I will define and continually evaluate what students can do and limit my content and requests for output to what will push them without overtaxing them. We will explore attainable language in contexts that will inspire them to step forward on their own, because whether they care is as important as whether they can.
Do I think this should be your position statement? ABSOLUTELY NOT. If I’ve learned one thing from all the arguments and fuss about what comprehensible means, what’s compelling, what’s acquisition, what percentage, how to hit the percentage, and so on, it’s that
people are different
and the more we lie to ourselves that they’re not, the more frustrated we’ll be in this profession. So now I advocate that you 1) reflect on yourself, 2) reflect on your school and your students and their goals, and 3) formulate your own position statement.
What do you aspire to?