Monday, February 7, 2011

Second Language Instruction through the Decades

No one ever warned me that the older I got, the more I would have to live down. Yes, things just change over time and you are truly humbled to realize that you taught one way, only to learn ten years later that it was not the "right" way. I was one of those second language teachers who hung on tight to that pendulum that swung from one end to the other.  It is little wonder that educators become cynical with age.
I learned Spanish in high school and college at a time when you learned a language by learning "about it."  Yes, hard-core grammar in a vacuum. My naivety did not permit me to fully understand that there were real people who shared a common culture that was connected to the language I was learning, just to elaborate on the isolation affect of that method. However, as a double major in Spanish and Education, I left San Jose State University to enter the teaching profession as none other than a seventh- and eighth-grade Spanish teacher.

It was such a shock for me to find out that the junior high school that hired me had suddenly purchased a new Spanish curriculum based on a new and innovative approach called the Audio-Lingual Method (ALM). Although it is said that we teach the way we were taught, no one had prepared me for the sudden paradigm shift into an entirely different pedagogy, not even my student teaching.  In one way, I was saved by this new "kill and drill" method based on B. F. Skinner's behavioral psychology because I could lead those drills and memorize those dialogues in a way that prevented my students from realizing that their "professora" was not much of a speaker of the language that she was teaching.   

In retrospect, it is quite bizarre that I could not speak this language that I had labored so intensely to learn over an eight-year period while in high school and in college.  I knew the grammar rules better than most native speakers of Spanish, but I could not use the language with any level of fluency or spontaneity.  I had what you call "analysis paralysis" whereby I could parrot something off if I had memorized it in advance, but to participate in a conversation with a native speaker -- that was a whole new arena.  I was so busy thinking about "how to say" what I wanted to say, compounded by the effort to say it with grammatical accuracy, that I was tongue-tied when it came to face-to-face conversation with a native Spanish speaker. 

Those first two years of teaching junior high school Spanish 1 were surely trial by error.  Fortunately, I was absolutely motivated to be the best I could be at the task of teaching Spanish to English-speaking students. Thus, I did everything in my power to make my classes exciting and engaging.  I took those dialogs about "la biblioteca" (the library) and "la cafeteria con albondigas" (the cafeteria and meatballs for lunch) and changed those boring dialogues into real authentic conversations that would capture the interest of my students.  Instead of memorizing a dialogue about the library and the cafeteria, my students experienced creative dialogues about a guy asking a girl to the school dance or a student taking the car out when the parents were away.
At the end of two years of teaching, I decided to take a leave of absence for a year, knowing the only way that I would ever become proficient in Spanish was to go to Mexico for an extended period of time, a place where the language would come alive for me.  And that is what I did.  I enrolled in a language school in an area of Mexico City called "la Zona Rosa" or the Pink Zone, right off of the main avenue of the city called La Reforma, a replica of the Champs-Elysees of Paris. It did not take me long to find a Mexican boyfriend, Mario, who was more than willing to help with my Spanish. I fell in love with Mexico (and Mario, too!) and my Spanish language skills improved overnight.  It was not until late November that I ran out of money and decided to return home with my aching heart longing for Mexico, my other country, and Mario.

Not even a week had passed by when I picked up the morning newspaper and checked for teaching jobs in my hometown of Napa, California.  Suddenly, before my eyes was an advertisement for Western Airlines, precisely looking for ladies (no men flight attendants at the time) with bilingual skills in Spanish and English.  In two days I found myself participating in a course to become a "stewardess" (flight attendant was a term that came later), and within six weeks I was the Spanish-speaker onboard Western Airline flying south to Mexico City out of Los Angeles.  Being the only Spanish-speaker among the flight crew meant that once again, I could pretend to be proficient by memorizing the take-off and landing announcements and even the emergency announcement if needed.  Little did I know that the Mario in this story would soon after become my husband and I would become a resident of Mexico City.

This was the true test for Ms. Smarti Pantalones, yours truly, living and breathing Spanish every waking hour.  I have to admit that immersion does work, but it really works when you already have the tools (the rules) of language as I did.  Within two years my fluency and academic language skills were well developed and I was actually comfortable in the language, no longer translating in my head to stay abreast of a conversation.  Spanish television and the newspaper in Spanish were by then an integral part of my daily life and for the first time it did not matter whether the language I was speaking was Spanish or English, I could speak them both with ease.

Returning to the United States some years later to resume life here again, I found myself in another paradigm shift with regard to language teaching.  I applied for a Spanish teaching position, and on the first day of school, the principal informed me that I would no longer be needed for Spanish classes as the need for English as a Second language (ESL) was much greater. Within a day I was thrust into an ESL classroom teaching six periods of ESL (the label used then). That is what you would call teaching by default as I did not have a clue how to do it. I had not even heard of the acronym ESL. The bombardment of a whole new language of acronyms was fascinating.  I had NES (non-English speaking) and LES (limited-English speaking) students and the minute they spoke enough English to survive they became FES (fluent-English speaking) and were pulled from my classroom and put into a regular classroom.  Shortly after, the students were relabeled NEP (non-English proficient), LEP (limited-English proficient) and FEP (Fluent English Proficient) by the California State Department, and now they are English learners or FEP once they achieve grade-level proficiency. 

The following year I was moved to the elementary schools in the district and became the roving ESL teacher for two different schools, pulling children out of class for twenty minutes per day. These students were the recent arrivals who needed to learn English "quickly" (as if that were possible) to participate the mainstream.  Shortly thereafter, I began to attend trainings and in-services on how to teach ESL.  A new face in the form of Stephen Krashen emerged as the "guru" of a new theory that revolutionized second language teaching overnight.  He theorized that the best way to teach English was not to teach English.  In other words, I needed to focus on real authentic communication and to become a facilitator of the new language as opposed to a teacher "installing" the language in the heads of my students.  My role as language teacher shifted drastically from the idea of teaching this new language to becoming a facilitator or rather guide on the side.  My job as teacher was then twofold: a caretaker of the language and a confidence builder.  If I just made everything comprehensible and accomplished it in a low anxiety environment, then my students would learn English and learn it well.  Wow, what a revelation!  Suddenly, child language development had become the blueprint for second language teaching, and I no longer had to correct their grammatical errors when they spoke English incorrectly.  (My ESL colleagues and I thought it was a sin to do so!)  Just like children are not taught the grammar of their first language and acquire it innately, I was led to believe that over time my second language learners would self-correct by just using the language for meaningful communication, much like their English speaking counterparts. 

And so for the next several years I worked at embracing this method and every chance I got to hear Dr. Stephen Krashen again only bolstered my opinion that this was the "right" way to teach a second language.  I even pursued a doctorate and my dissertation gathered more research and empirical data to support the "comprehensible input" theory advanced by Krashen.  Not only did I embrace this approach in my teaching, I even began doing lots of teacher training at a university as an adjunct professor and out in the field, I was advocating this as the be all, end all of successful language teaching. 

I devoted two years to developing and publishing an ESL program rooted in the comprehensible input theory. However, as time went on, many teachers discovered that their former students were still in English Language Development (ELD) classes after five or more years. They began to realize that a lack of explicit language instruction was in part responsible for poor academic performance. Professors in top universities noted a high percentage of students formerly labeled FEP (fluent English proficient) were required to take remedial English classes as freshmen. I knew many former ELs aspiring to become teachers whose written work reflected grammatical gaps and the inability to use academic language in formal English discussions and in their writing.

Witnessing these testimonials and sharing my own experiences as a former language learner of both Spanish and Italian as well as a director of English language services and a part-time professor at the university level, I became thoroughly convinced that a balanced approach in language teaching is critical.  Currently as an author of second language teaching materials, I truly embrace a methodology that both implicitly and explicitly teaches language. I remain convinced that grammar instruction in a vacuum has no meaning, but when a meaningful context is developed first through visuals, gestures, pantomime and comprehensible informal discussion, then teachers must highlight and explicitly teach those specific grammatical forms embedded in the language in which students are purposefully using to carry out one of its many functions.