Language Teacher vs. Acquisition Facilitator


Carol Gaab
focuses on the learners in front of her, not on a method, a curriculum, or a plan

Fill in the blank with the correct form of the word.
Select the correct tense of the verb for the following statements.
Which subject pronoun is correct?

If this is reminiscent of your language study experiences, you are not alone. Over the past century, the majority of language study has resulted in little more than flashbacks of blank filling, memorized dialogue practice, and conjugation drills.
Traditionally, language instruction was driven by the notion that by simply memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary lists, students would be able to mechanically manipulate language enough to communicate. All learners needed was practice, but what worked in theory is not what actually happened in the classroom. All of that practice resulted in many good grades, but in little to no actual communication.
The contemporary definition of communication, according to Sandra Savignon (as edited by Dr. Bill VanPatten), is “the expression, interpretation, [and sometimes] negotiation of meaning [in a given context or social situation].” The language classroom is its own specific context, far different from the infinite number of authentic contexts and social situations that one encounters outside the classroom. Teachers are often trapped in the fixed context of the classroom and, as a result, tend to create contrived situations for the sake of practicing communication.
The notion that humans can somehow overtly practice memorized words and grammar rules and then move them into an unconscious linguistic system is like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole or like trying to meld water and oil. We plainly see that these physical items do not fit together, but understanding language acquisition is not quite so obvious, since we cannot see it, it is not a static process, and the rate of acquisition varies from person to person.
So how can language teachers facilitate “communicative” experiences that will lead to real communication and result in acquisition? The first step is to shift one’s mindset from that of being an instructor to that of being a facilitator, since explicit instruction will not result in unconscious acquisition. The second step is to recognize that acquisition can only be facilitated by providing sufficient doses of comprehensible input (CI).
There are a handful of contemporary communicative approaches that show great promise for facilitating acquisition, but there is also a great deal of debate about which one is best. There is danger in believing that a single approach is best for every group of learners every day of the year. The approach and the teacher’s adaptation of each approach should change based on the unique group dynamic of the learners who are in front of that teacher and the unique circumstances and personalities that pervade the learning environment. In addition to the uniqueness of learners—individually and collectively—another factor to consider is that brains crave novelty. Students need consistent access to comprehensible input, but novel ways to access it.
Although the approach one uses may change from day to day or week to week, there is one component of each approach that will not: comprehensible input. As a facilitator of acquisition, I strive to create communicative experiences that are natural, engaging, and so compelling that students focus exclusively on the message, not on the class or the task of learning. The approach I choose will be dependent upon the needs of learners and also on the purpose of the experience (e.g., teaching content/required information; discussing personally relevant situations; preparing for a communicative experience, such as a reading, a song, a visitor, a task; etc.).
If each experience is truly communicative, it will be rich in high-frequency vocabulary, which is the linguistic data (words and phrases) that are inherently part of everyday conversations. The presence of high-frequency words is not necessarily intentional, nor is it unnaturally constrained. It is simply the by-product of authentic communicative experiences. One cannot avoid them. There may be other content-specific and context-specific words that come into play, but the bulk of each communicative experience will be driven by everyday high-frequency terms.
As I plan curriculum and lessons, I first consider the needs of my students. As an ESL and Spanish teacher of professional baseball players, I have students with unique needs. They must be prepared to communicate about a variety of topics, including body parts, injury and health, and baseball-specific issues; to engage in appropriate locker-room talk; to order and shop for food; to meet and greet friends, coaches, and reporters; and to have everyday conversations with teammates and opponents. As I consider the wide variety of contexts and the vast amount of linguistic data needed for each, I evaluate which approaches will most effectively help me facilitate acquisition, and I build cohesiveness over time by focusing on one overarching theme. To illustrate, I will share what a complete unit based on multiple approaches and contexts looks like.
In 2013, my theme for all levels was civil rights. Keep in mind that under the veil of my theme, I am required to help my students communicate in a wide variety of contexts. We started by focusing on psychosocial aspects of language in an effort to help players get to know their teammates. To accomplish this, I organized various video exchanges to help foreign-born ESL students get to know their U.S.-born counterparts, who are also required to study Spanish. Each video introduction was brief, and each player spoke in his first language to provide authentic sound bites of CI in a relevant way. Each year, I ask a different question, based on the theme of the season. For civil rights, I simply had students state their names, their homes, and what they liked to do (e.g., dance, listen to music, play sports, watch movies, play video games, etc.). During subsequent classes, we watched a few of the video clips, compared and contrasted likes and dislikes, and determined if there was a cultural difference in preferences. We discussed that although listening to music is globally universal, the type of music preferred is not. We also learned that movie preference is more sensitive to gender than ethnicity. But most importantly, we all got to know each other and learned to appreciate cultural differences and similarities—all in the target language.
Whenever possible, I like to use what I call “human #authres” as a platform for providing CI and enriching our themes. My students and I have been blessed with visits from Felipe Alou, the first player to be recruited out of the Dominican Republic (DR) to play Major League Baseball, Orlando Cepeda, a Hall of Fame inductee from Puerto Rico, and even Hall of Famer Willie Mays. Admittedly, my beginning students struggle with understanding guest speakers. To improve comprehension, I ask guests to speak slowly, to pause between points, to allow me to interject comments and questions, and to invite questions from students. In spite of my efforts, much of the input is still not comprehensible enough for most novice-level students. In those cases, I increase comprehension by reviewing videotaped footage of the discourse, selecting key parts of the discussion in short increments of 30 to 60 seconds.
I begin class discussion by reviewing a few points that the speaker made, strategically embedding into the discussion the linguistic data used by the speaker. Following the review, we read a written transcript of the selected sound bite from the visitor’s discourse, discussing various points and making personal connections and comparisons as we read. We watch and rewatch the clip until learners have reached an acceptable level of comprehension. Depending on the interest level of students and the relevancy of the content, we continue to move on in a similar fashion to other sound bites from the discourse.
In addition to live guests, I also invite a large number of cyber visitors into the classroom, one of my favorites being Dr. Martin Luther King. I select level-appropriate sound bites from a speech, following the same procedure as described above. I strategically embed words (linguistic data) into class discussion, read and discuss the transcript, and listen and relisten to parts of the speech as many times as students need or desire. While ESL students are learning about MLK and other heroes of the civil rights movement, (U.S.-born) Spanish students are learning about leaders who were key figures in the civil rights movement in the Dominican Republic.
Because videos of all types are a powerful tool for engaging students and delivering CI, I use them in a variety of ways. One video-based approach that I use is a modified version of MovieTalk, a focal skills approach to teaching language created by Dr. Ashley Hastings to develop students’ listening comprehension skills (http://www.focalskills.info/articles/moviesfs.html). In terms of civil rights, I use the movie trailer for the movie 42 (the Jackie Robinson story) to hook students and teach U.S. history. Meanwhile, my Spanish students focus on the trailer for the movie In the Time of the Butterflies, about the Mirabal sisters, who were key figures in the civil rights movement in the Dominican Republic.
I begin by strategically weaving linguistic data from the movie trailer into class discussion, which is driven by scaffolded questions in the target language. (E.g., Does discrimination exist in [your country]? Have you been the victim of discrimination in the U.S. or [your country]? Which of the following are motives for discrimination: skin color, financial situation, weight, physical appearance, etc.? How do you respond to acts of discrimination?) As key linguistic data emerge from the discussion, I write words and phrases on the board and continue the discussion as long as I can sustain it, generally 20 to 30 minutes.
Following the discussion, I play a select portion of the movie trailer, muting the sound and starting and stopping the video, discussing what students see happening, making inferences about the possible content of dialogue, and making predictions about what will happen next. It is a process of playing a few seconds of footage, asking questions, making predictions, rewinding the video, and replaying the clip incrementally until the full clip has been played and discussed. Finally, I replay the entire clip without stopping and with the sound unmuted. For novice-level students, I have the transcript available to read and discuss before we view the entire clip. When available, I also like to include the movie subtitles (in the target language). In addition to movie trailers, I use video clips of hidden-camera pranks, TV commercials, public service announcements, news footage, movie shorts, and even home videos.
Music is another powerful tool for providing CI and for helping students develop cultural competence. We begin by linking meaning to the chorus of a song and, if the lyrics are level appropriate and relevant, we will incrementally discuss and make meaning of the lyrics as well. In relation to civil rights, I introduce ESL students to the song “Black and Blue” by Louis Armstrong and Spanish students to “Colores, Colores” by Bacilos. Each song is reflective of discrimination and diversity and contains relevant vocabulary (linguistic data).
In addition to videos and music, I use TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling) to engage students, improve comprehension of key linguistic data, and in some cases build background knowledge of various topics or events. Some stories are original stories that students cooperatively created, as I ask hundreds (literally) of “story-asking” questions. Other stories are cooperatively developed from various sources, such as picture-based stories (from Tell Me More, Picture Stories for Beginning Communication, or Easy True Stories), news articles, legends, fairy tales, culture-based vignettes, content-based stories, and historical events.
All of the previous activities provide background information to prepare ESL and Spanish students to read the nonfiction book Felipe Alou: From the Valleys to the Mountains, a comprehension-based reader published by Fluency Matters. The book provides an overview of the historical events that encompassed the civil rights movements of both the U.S. and the DR while telling the true story of Felipe Alou.
The story is highly comprehensible to even beginning language students and is strategically written to provide repeated exposure to high-frequency vocabulary via a compelling story. Students are so engaged in the story (focused on the message) that they do not notice repetition of vocabulary and key phrases, nor do they consciously focus on learning language.
Although my thematic units are strategically planned, I am flexible in how they progress and evolve. I use my curriculum map as a guide, not an anchor, because true communication is spontaneous and therefore cannot be planned. If I have learned anything over the years, it is that true communication requires me to pay more attention to my students than to my curriculum. Never has this been this more apparent than a few years ago while I was teaching ESL in the DR. It was December, and I was charged with the task of preparing students to travel to the U.S. in the upcoming months. To accomplish this, I used the John Denver song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” as my theme.
Because it was December, I included a cultural comparison of Christmas in the DR and the U.S. I had asked numerous questions about what gifts students give to their fathers, mothers, and girlfriends. At one point, a student excitedly asked, “Teacher, how you say noche inolvidable (unforgettable night)?” After I gave him the answer, he went on to say, “I give my girlfriend present for unforgettable night.” As students were roaring with laughter, I quickly pulled up the music and lyrics to the song “Unforgettable,” sung by Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole.
As soon as students heard the music, they were completely captivated by the song. They hung on every word of the lyrics, wanting desperately to understand the message of the beautiful melody. They refused to leave class, wanting to listen to the song over and over again, and I let them—even though the song was not part of my thematic plan. Several days later, after a long week of intensive classes, my students were streaming away from our last class of the season when one student turned around and said, “Teacher, you [are] unforgettable.” That was an unforgettable reminder to focus on the learners in front of me, not on a method, a curriculum, or a plan.

Founder of Fluency Matters and organizer of the iFLT conference, Carol Gaab has been providing training in CI-based strategies since 1996. She was a presenter for the Bureau of Education and Research for nine years and a Spanish/ESL teacher for 25 years, most notably 20 years teaching/directing the San Francisco Giants’ U.S. and Dominican language programs. Carol also writes/publishes SLA-friendly resources for novice to advanced levels. Part two of this series will share practical and powerful strategies for sustaining continuous interaction with CI in multiple contexts. To see SLA-informed instruction in action and learn and practice strategies firsthand, visit the iFLT Conference in Denver, July 11–14. See FluencyMatters.com for details.

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