9 Ideas for Reinventing America’s Language Education System

Early last month I put together a blog post called Sage Advice from 20 Amazing People for the Beginning Language Learner.  I asked host of folks to participate and in the end received a lot of really great responses and it was well recieved and an encouragement to many readers.  One thinker I respect is Seth Godin and so was extremely pleased to get an insightful and rather Sethesque response just moments after I sent him an email.  Here is what he wrote:

 I did very poorly in language in school. My worst subject, by far.  Then, one summer, I had to teach 42 kids from Mexico how to paddle a canoe. In Canada! ¡Remate!    Immersion seems to be the only answer. We ought to shut down and reinvent language education in public school… it’s a waste.

Seth’s response reminded me of a conversation I had had with another friend in the language acquisition field a few years prior and set me to thinking about what it would mean for the public school systems of America to “reinvent” language education.  And so in a diversion from my normal posts about language learning tips and ideas and thinking, today I want to offer a few thoughts on what it might look like to “reinvent” language education.

Reinventing Language Education

I wouldn’t go as far as Seth and say that what is happening in the public school systems in regards to language education is a waste, but I think most of us will agree that if we were to talk to ten friends who sat through two semesters of high school Spanish, most would say they learned very little.  Even fewer perhaps could actually speak any Spanish.  So while I wouldn’t call it a waste, anecdotal evidence at least would point to something far less than success.

In today’s post then, I want to offer a few of my thoughts as to how we might reinvent the system.  I put quite a bit of thought into this but in no way think my ideas are great.  They are I hope, a beginning.  I would love to see a serious conversation take place, for ideas to be shared, for risks to be taken.  I would love to hear what you think.  I especially want to hear your thoughts from your own experiences.  I write the post about the American system, but would like to hear what my international readers have to say from their experience as well.  An outside perspective is always a good one to have.  And we need to hear from those of you involved in language education.

Nine Ideas

I am not putting forth ideas to ‘reform’ the present system.  I am suggesting that we start over.  Not an easy task and not an idea that will be readily accepted. The status quo has a certain power to remain.  Change is always hard work but often well worth the risk and the effort.  And so today I want to present nine ideas as a starting point for reinventing the language education system in America.  They are undeveloped ideas at best, but perhaps can act as a catalyst for conversation.

1 – The Only Goal

The goal of the reinvented language classroom will be this: To see students develop a life long love of language learning that will continue for the rest of their lives.  To my mind there is no other goal that is higher than this one.  It is not a goal I see communicated clearly to students in our language programs today.  When I took German in university, the goal was to learn some German, not to fall in love with the German language and German culture.  When the end of the semester came, I wiped my brow, took a deep breath and promptly moved on.  So did all but one of my classmates.

2 – Scrap The Way It’s Been Done

I don’t think the status quo can be reformed in any way that will truly lead to a transformation that will affect significant change.  Because of this I think that perhaps it is time to scrap the way we’ve done it and start dreaming about new ideas and approaches to introduce young people to the wonderful world of language learning.  It won’t be easy and it shouldn’t be a top down, the White House has a new plan sort of change. It starts with a conversation which moves onto action.

3 – No Language Specific Classes

The first thing I would suggest is to do away with language specific language classes.  High schools would no longer offer Spanish or French but rather would offer a general class that would introduce students to language learning and would allow students to chose what language they would like to learn. The main goal of this class would be to help kids fall in love with a language and give them the tools and knowledge to become life long students of it.   I’ll expand on this later.

4 – Teachers as Coaches

Not having to specialize in a specific language, teachers would move into a coach/mentor role and would work to learn new languages along side students.  Teaching would still take place but would focus on teaching students how to learn a new language, presentation of ideas about second language acquisition and instruction on how to access the language on the internet and in the community.  The teacher would act as a facilitator, regularly introducing students to new tools and activities for learning and monitoring progress as they empower students to take control of their language learning.  Modeling language learning would be an important part of the job and they would work more than anything to help their students become independent, self-directed learners.  They would not teach grammar. They would not give grades.  They would not need to ‘have arrived’ as a distinguished speaker of a particular language but rather would be a passionate and joy filled traveller on the language learning journey – toward any language(s).

5 – Students Are In Charge

Students in this new system would be placed in charge of their language learning. They would chose which language(s) they want to study and to what level they would like to master them.  They could focus on one language or may chose to switch languages every month or two.  They would create (with their language coach) a personal language learning program and then chose the daily activities they would work on during class.  They would regularly reflect on and self-evaluate both their command of the language and their personal learning program.  This will all be a big change from anything they have done before and so teacher/coaches will need to work to empower and equip students to take responsibility.

6 – No Levels

There will no longer be levels in the language program.  The first year will be required but after that students will chose whether or not to continue to sign up for the language learning journey.   Each year they will pick up where they left off.  The end of the year will no longer signal the end of their interaction with the language but rather the opportunity to continue through the summer.  Teachers will model the life long learner attitude and invite students to see language not as a “class” to be checked off the list, but an amazing lifestyle into which they can enter. The goal will no longer be to pass level one and improve the GPA.

7  - No Grades 

GPA will no longer be important because grades will not be given. Grades are a sacred cow in our education system, but I think we need to do away with them in language education.  I am not sure what purpose they serve in actually helping students learn another language but they seem one part of our traditional system that may be preventing students from really entering into a passionate pursuit of learning another language.  Grades will always set the bar too low.  If a student needs to learn 100 words to get an A, they will inevitably learn 100 words and no more.  Students will study for the Final Exam in a crash course cram session after which everything ingested is promptly purged.  When grades are no longer the goal, the bar can be raised to something worth shooting for – learning a new language so that they can speak and interact with native speakers confidently.

This is not to say that their should be no assessment of or requirements on students.  Just the opposite. Students will engage in high quality self-assessment (guided by their teacher in the beginning) that assesses both their ability to use the language and their language learning program.  Teachers will also create certain requirements for students to meet.  One of these should be for students to demonstrate that they have created real engagement and friendship with native speakers using the language.  Perhaps they will be required to demonstrate 600 minutes of spoken conversation or 10,000 words of written communication. What ever it is, it should be real life stuff.

8 – Internet Is Central

Opportunities for language and cultural learning are available today in ways we could only dream of even ten years ago.  Until recently, teachers were the main means for student to receive comprehensible input. This was the reality of the pre-Internet world. With the Internet however, high quality opportunities are more abundant  than ever before.  Teachers must learn to help their student plug into these and use them as efficiently and effectively as possible.  It could very well be that the bulk of a student’s time in this new system then will probably be spent in the computer lab.  The Internet is the one tool that will allow us to create near immersion like experiences for our students.

9 – Human Interaction Is More Central

The main reason we learn languages is to communicate with real human beings, beautiful people from all over the globe who speak other languages.  Everything that happens in the language classroom should work toward creating human interaction.  The Internet is key only in that it is the best tool we have to help students develop the necessary language skills to be able to connect and communicate with native speakers of the languages they are learning. It is a tool and rightly used will allow student to create valuable interaction with students from the target language country.

A Final Thought

I do not offer these nine ideas as an expert in any way.  I do not pretend that they are fully developed nor is this intended to be a coherent plan for a new system.  They are ideas.  Plain and simple.  I know that there are some amazing teachers out there whose students are falling in love with the language and who are becoming life long students and so I in no way want to take away from the work that you do. This is in no way intended to be a critique of language teachers but rather ideas for changing the system within which they function.

I was both an ESL teacher and a regular high school English teacher in the states before moving to Turkey and so have some experience in this field. My work and writing now are directed at helping learners become independent and self-directed. It is from these two experiences that I have learned to believe in the power of giving students more choices and more responsibility to direct their own learning.

My goal with this post then is merely to see a conversation take place.  I could be way off base and many of you will likely disagree with the above, but I feel like there is some need to consider new and creative ideas for the future of the American language education system.

I look forward to a robust and productive conversation.

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63 Responses to 9 Ideas for Reinventing America’s Language Education System
  1. FaniBhusanDas
    October 31, 2011 | 10:40 am

    I agree with you.Spiritual technology and Peace Technology should also form part of education system for healing,purifying and unifying the disturbed education and world.

    Prof.Fani Bhusan Das

  2. KirstenWinkler
    October 31, 2011 | 1:35 pm

    Hey Aaron, thanks for sharing your post. Your list resonates pretty well with the approach I have for language teaching. From my experience, the key is the desire of the learner to start the journey which can be the pure interest in a new language and culture or simply the need due to work / relocation.

    I also agree to your Internet based approach. In order to get kids / teens interested we should use technology to connect them with peers around the globe. Pen pals 2.0 based on Skype. People want to talk to each other and when you can interact with the person, language barriers are broken down much faster. One of my first posts for Big Think was on that topic: http://bigthink.com/ideas/31552

    • aarongmyers
      October 31, 2011 | 9:23 pm

      @KirstenWinkler Thanks so much for stopping by and adding to the conversation. Desire to learn is such a big challenge and one that I don’t see us overcoming very quickly in the present situation. Some will always have it. Some will never have it. We have to figure out how to engage that large majority in the middle though. Great blog post by the way!

  3. seburnt
    October 31, 2011 | 4:30 pm

    I’m not involved in secondary school language education, but I do mimick some of the thoughts mentioned about it. However, despite the lack of conversation I had during French class beyond substitution drills using model conversations from the text, my interest in language learning itself drove me to extend my learning beyond the classroom. Of course this love of language learning would be great to instill in all students, but as with all educational contexts, there are always going to be those students who are not motivated.

    I also like some of the ideas you have for the classes themselves. In particular, I think it’s great to have a general class about language learning from the get-go, instead of focusing on one language in particular. That, I hope, would instill that desire in as many students as possible. However, I’m not convinced that allowing students to pick the language they primarily learn is realistic. There would need to be one-to-one facilitation and it ignores the fact that some countries, like Canada, require French as the official second language to learn. Maybe picking the first language to learn and then giving students an independent project of applying language learning techniques to one of their choice might be more doable. Then those students could present on how they’ve applied those strategies to, Russian, for example and host a learning workshop about it for fellow students.

    • aarongmyers
      October 31, 2011 | 4:40 pm

      @seburnt Hey thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think in most situations you will always have 10-20% of students in any given class who are just going to work hard, enjoy the work and engage the ideas and material even after the class has finished. And then there will be the 10-20% who won’t engage, who will lack motivation and just not care. I think my hope in thinking about new ideas for approaching language learning is to positivley engage the majority in the middle and help them become life long learners.

      Hadn’t thought about Canada. And perhaps it would be similar in the South West in the states where there is a greater percentage as well as closer proximity to a Spanish speaking Mexico. So maybe chosing a frirst language is a place to start.

      Anyway, thanks so much for joining the conversation.

  4. Ketutar
    October 31, 2011 | 7:45 pm

    Our language education in Finnish public schools seems to be very similar to yours. We start with simple phrases, listen to them from a recording, perhaps repeat after the speakers, or not. We get a dose of grammar and exercises where “the correct form/word” is to be filled in, a list of words to memorize, and then this is tested by us needing to do those exercises without any help from books or dictionaries, or filling in the missing word of a L1/L2 word pair, and answering questions after having read or heard a text. Very passive. Oh, and we do practice producing written language by writing VERY SHORT essays, after 3-4 years of studying the language. Still very passive. There might be some conversation exercises, where we sit in pairs and read the dialogue from book out loud.

    Our English teacher TRIED to get us more active, but I hated that, because I hated public speaking. Going in front of the class and tell something about my summer vacation or my pets was a hellish experience. I suppose it was the best they could do, considering the target group. I mean – teenagers? In Finland the kids who are taught foreign languages are 10-16(-18). The worst possible target! I mean, teenagers are so into themselves, so painfully self-conscious, so afraid of making mistakes, making fools of themselves, looking ridiculous, it’s a wonder anyone WANTS to teach languages to them!

    1) limiting the goal to one seems to me very shortsighted. People study languages for different reasons. You should be able to catch all these reasons. No reason to study a language is wrong, and you don’t NEED to love language studying – it’s enough you love ONE foreign language… I might remind you of the fact that often you only need to get a foot in the door… once they have learned one foreign language, it’s easier for them to study a second foreign language, and so on and so forth.

    Now, that the language is the carrier of a culture, a point of view, a whole world, is a valuable thing that shouldn’t be ignored.

    2) I don’t think it’s necessary to SCRAP everything old and start anew with teaching languages. There must be plenty of good things in the old that are still useful, or can be repurposed, recycled, re-invented, renovated… When you start talking about “cultural revolution” – let’s destroy everything there is to build new – you get into such nasty little details like money… and that’s the first thing every new idea stops.

    3) I don’t think scrapping language specific classes is a good idea. Some sort of introduction to language learning and linguistics is a good idea, but in addition to language specific classes.

    • Ketutar
      October 31, 2011 | 7:45 pm

      4) education by peers, huh… No. Teaching is not easy. Sure, anyone can do it, but a few can do it well. If you plan on renewing and IMPROVING the language education, you need GOOD teachers. It’s not only the teachers’ fault that kids don’t learn. It’s not even the system’s fault that kids don’t learn. The kids do have some responsibility too :-D

      There’s nothing wrong with grammar, and there’s nothing wrong with goal setting and a followup. “Monitoring progress”. Which is what grades were originally designed to be.

      5) Of course the students should have a say in which languages they want to study, how they want to study these languages and for what purpose. Of course they should be able to sample any languages and all the possible study techniques, methods, systems and strategies.

      4-5 The idea of independent, self-directed learners who have the control of their language learning sounds like a wonderful idea – for 10-18 years olds? Not so much.

      I would not have studied much anything if I had been in control of my curriculum. I liked the fact that someone else had done the job of collecting material, finding out grammar, recording, and writing everything. It was an easy way to a language, in that someone else had taken those decisions and all I needed to do was to add myself in the equation…

      Now, I would have wanted to study a lot more languages, I wish we had had a much more demanding pace, that we would have been watching movies and tv shows, reading books, writing more, producing more language, that we had have pen friends or some sort of student exchange system in place – learning languages for life, not for tests. No way I would have wanted more responsibility, control, self-evaluation and such things.

      6) That is wonderful, if you have small classes – or no classes at all – which means you have few kids and many teachers. As it is now, we have big classes, many kids and only one teacher for each class. I don’t see how you can circumvent this with your new system.

      • Ketutar
        October 31, 2011 | 7:48 pm

        7) What is GPA?

        Grades are there as a method to see how well the student manages to reach the preset goals. “Monitoring progress” if you wish.

        What’s the difference in “600 minutes”, “10.000 words”, “100″ words? Nothing. It’s just a bar. Besides, some learn easier than others. 10 hours conversation is a piece of cake to some kids. It would have been an impossible hurdle to me, with my social phobia.

        Test the kids in “real” situations. Create an “obstacle course”, where the obstacles consist of real people with a piece of a puzzle and the child has to get the piece by answering questions, doing some chores, like for example one “obstacle” is a post office, where the child needs to buy a postcard, stamps, write the postcard and post it, and if the text on the card is understandable and reasonable, the “post office manager” gives the child the missing piece of a puzzle, for example a card with a letter on it. In the end the child makes a word of all the letters. If he/she gets through the obstacle course, he/she “passes the test”, and can move on to next subject.

        8-9 Internet, schminternet. Bah, humbug!

        My niece, 9, lives on countryside in Eastern Finland. They are slowly stripping the countryside of all the infrastructure. The telephone lines are taken down. “Use a mobile phone”, they say. Soon there will be no postal services in countryside. Internet is slow as hell, and damn expensive. They can’t watch youtube videos and any kind of streaming, like podcasts, is just a distant dream. The internet is too slow.

        I am 100% sure of that that is the situation everywhere else in this modern, Western, civilised world. As long as you live in a bigger town, you have all the conveniences handily available. The minute you move away from urban areas – and there are plenty of kids out there, going to schools in two house towns – the access to all these amazing opportunities is gone…

        Also, we might be on our way to a time where there is not much electricity.

        Or what if the power’s off? What if, what if…

        Of course it is one more tool to be used, but it’s not more than that. Make the kids write with their own hands on real paper.

        The internet is NOT the best tool to help students develop language skills. Human interaction is. The world is getting smaller, and I’m pretty sure you’ll find people around you who are either native or good enough speakers of any language kids want to learn in school. Invite these people to school to interact with the children. Let them speak about their job in their mothertongue, and answer the children’s questions. Let them speak about a subject of their choice, something close to their heart. They could teach the children something special for their culture, like how to cook or craft, or a folkdance or a game they used to play.

        • aarongmyers
          October 31, 2011 | 9:01 pm

          @Ketutar GPA = Grade Point Average and is perhaps an American thing. Not sure how Europe or the rest of the world uses grades and grading.

          I guess I see 10,000 hours as a bar. But its a bar based in real life interaction with real people and is filled with purpose and the reward of new friendship and communication with another person. In this, i see it as a better bar than needing to recieve a 60% or better on a test in order to pass. You have some great ideas too in how to create this obstical course that is filled with negotiation and self-correction and interaction.

          As far as the Internet goes, it is a tool and whether we like it or not, provides amazing opportunities for connection that were not available ten years ago. Is it a double edge sword? Absolutely and is every bit the pit of time wasting as it is of opportunity. And the opportunity it opens up to students more than ever before is the chance for real human interaction. A child in Finland with the Internet (even rural Finland) now has an opportunity to become friends with and write/talk with a student from nearly any country on the planet. And the situation in Finland sounds a bit different than in the states. Even the smallest of rural schools have high speed internet and in general more than enough computers to go around.

        • Ketutar
          October 31, 2011 | 10:57 pm

          I might sound as a regular “vastarannan kiiski” as it’s called in Finnish – having only objections and complaints – but I’m deliberately trying to find the downsides, because those are the oens that needs adjusting :-D My objection to internet is mostly because I want to move back to Finland but have become addicted of internet and it’s really hard to think a life without internet… and then think about school based on internet… how the kids without a computer home would be depended on the internet access at school, and all that stuff… but you are , of course, correct in that internet is an amazing resource and as the language teaching must be changed and improved, it would be stupid to ignore one tool just because it’s not as readily available for all… just a reminder of that not everyone has the same resources. Grades we have, and I don’t know how they work, precisely. We have tests and the teacher grades us by a) test results b) activity in class c) how well we seem to get the subject and d) how much we have improved since the beginning. When I was at school we had this thing, Gaussian distribution, and the teacher had to fit the class on that, but as far as I know it’s not done anymore. I hope. The next year’s grade was based on all this + the previous year’s grade as start point. One could not get a grade worse than two steps from the previous year’s grade [there were no such restrictions to improvement :-D ) The grades were from 4 (fail) to 10 (outstanding).

          Also, the effort was rewarded – if you ahd two students getting 7s and 8s in tests, one with grade 6 from previous year and the other with 9, it was more likely the 6 student got 8 and the 9 student 7 – for lack of effort and interest. You could also discuss about the grades, and if you could explain well enough, the teacher might raise your grade. Bad times at home were accepted as an excuse to perform weaker at school.

          The grades were meant to keep us informed of our level. No-one has ever been even remotely interested in our school grades since school… I mean, when applying to university, they are only asking about our matriculation exams, and that’s the only place where even those are interesting :-D

          I don’t know how much of this fits the American schools, or the modern school system – I am 42, so it was some time ago I was at school. :-D

      • Ketutar
        October 31, 2011 | 7:50 pm

        I really miss the use of ALL our senses and the whole body in studying languages.

        How could you involve seeing and tasting and touching into language learning?

        Try to come up with different ways of learning languages through physical activity. Is there a folkdance or game with a song? How about games with rhymes or questions… we had one, in Finland. You needed a staircase for this. One, the game leader, was standing in one end of the staircase and the others in other end. Then the game leader said “everyone wearing red, take one step” or “everyone with glasses, take two steps”. That was a great way of learning both colors and names of clothes, even numbers. They could also say “everyone with letter H in their name, take one step”. Things like that.

        Also, the human mind works at least in three different ways. Some think in pictures, some in words and some in patterns, music and maths. Find ways for each way of thinking.

        Or the ways of learning – visual, audiel and… what was the third one? Something to do with fibbling things… tactile?

      • aarongmyers
        October 31, 2011 | 8:51 pm

        @Ketutar I wish you could have moved at a more demanding pace as well, that you could have been watching TV and movies and reading books and writing more – and had you been trained over the course of a semester and then had continuing support from a teacher/coach, you could probably have done all of that – even as a 16 year old. This is not about turning students loose to do whatever they want. This is about teaching them how to learn, how to plan and make goals and assess thier own progress and discover their own learning style.

        • Ketutar
          October 31, 2011 | 11:07 pm

          @aarongmyers

          I get that. It’s just that there are kids who don’t want that, who are happy to sit in a box, and those kids should get a good language education too… so you have to think about the possibilities of keeping the box, but improving it, and perhaps adding a ladder to those who want it…

          I saw a video about a teacher who taught kids language through music… the children could make their own songs, rap and such, they were taught all kinds of things about music and composing and writing lyrics, and they learned the language while doing other things… that’s wonderful that kind of thing…

          It is really great what you are doing, Aaron :-)

    • aarongmyers
      October 31, 2011 | 8:45 pm

      @Ketutar Thanks so much for your thoughtful interaction to this post. I guess I would start by disagreeing with your assessment of teenagers. I loved teaching them and see them as full of potential and passion – if only we can empower and then allow them to step into something they are excited about and have some say in. As to your first point, I couldn’t agree more. I see some of these ideas as the way to get the foot in the door. And in your second point, I agree there too. There is much that is happening in the classroom that would continue to valuable, different perhaps but extremely valuable. And there are some really amzing teachers out there doing amazing stuff in the langauge classroom. Point three – maybe it is a bad idea to not just chose a random language and require all students to study it – an maybe it’s worth a try.

  5. aarongmyers
    October 31, 2011 | 8:48 pm

    I want to encourag interaction with one another in the comments section as well. It is not the perfect forum for this discussion, but it a place where we can all interact and react to one another. Let’s hear those ideas!

  6. mmmonearth
    November 1, 2011 | 3:30 am

    I think #9 is the most important.

    Without interaction, there is limited development. Growing up in a country like India, where the nation itself has a multitude of languages, it is common to learn about 2-3 languages in school (English, Hindi,and the Local Language. for e.g. I learned Marathi since I grew up in Mumbai which is in the Maharashtra state where the “official” language is Marathi). BUT, if I had not used the 2 additional languages everyday since I was about 2-3 years old, I probably would not have retained or “developed”. Even now, I think my expertise in these languages from most to least fluent would be English(since all my education was in English and we spoke a good amount of English at home), Hindi – Since that was my “daily” language of communication with friends and Marathi-my second most used language on a daily basis purely due to the fact that I grew up in Mumbai.

    And, lastly but not in the VERY least, the very first words I spoke were in a totally different language! That is my native language where my family was from – Kannada. And to this day (and I am not proud of this), I cannot read or write the language, I only speak it.

    But, in the end, I have to say this.If formal education AND “linguistics” is offered to students as early in their academic years as possible, I think there will definitely be an exponential result in increasing interest of younger minds towards learning new languages and appreciation for new cultures. However, if left to their own whims, the success rate will surely be impacted. In the age of such strong competition and everyone looking at the “numbers”, scoring higher will trump the love of linguistics.

    Very good post, Aaron !

    Ciao

    Ajay

    • aarongmyers
      November 1, 2011 | 9:09 am

      @mmmonearth Hey thanks for stopping by and adding your perspective. Oh that we could all grow up in three languages. But to give American’s a bit of a break, most don’t grow up hearing anything other than English. We get a bad rap for being monolingual but are mostly a product of our environment. Not to say that doesn’t need to change. India on the other hand! I have a friend who like you speaks Kannada, English, Hindi and one other language from India.

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  8. SteveKaufmann
    November 6, 2011 | 8:19 pm

    A great post on how to change language teaching. I largely agree. The Internet and iPad age make many of these things possible like never before.

    I have pasted a link to this article at my blog and on a thread on our Forum at LingQ.

    • aarongmyers
      November 6, 2011 | 8:59 pm

      @SteveKaufmann Steve,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and thanks as well for posting a link at your blog. I am honored. More than anything i would like to see a conversation take place that might lead to some serious thought about challenging the status quo. I am hopefull that some of the LingQ community will stop by and lend their thoughts to the discussion as well. Have a great week!

  9. alexreverie
    November 6, 2011 | 9:18 pm

    I agree with Ketutar on essentially every point. Namely, that giving self-involved teenagers that much control over their learning can be a wildly unpredictable risk. Sure, sometimes you have to take risks in learning; that is how we thrive. But a big problem in risk-taking here is the fact that our enormous society has very fixed laws and benchmarks in place for student achievement. Failed risks can be detrimental to both student and teacher success.

    Although I think many of the principles of this post are great, I think they are based on a student body of high-achieving, upper-middle-class learners who have had well-educated role models. Because you commented that “Even the smallest of rural schools have high speed internet and in general more than enough computers to go around,” I suspect your knowledge of middle America and specifically the low funding available to many schools, is limited. I’d be interested to see your source on that information.

    I agree that a top-down, governmental change is nearly impossible for this kind of revolution. Maybe someday with the right leaders, it will be feasible. But for now, the best way to encourage best practices language education is to start in the classroom. Standards are important, for students’ nominal success, but with a balanced emphasis on standards and *actual* learning, I think your ideas might work. Let’s hope future educators see this post somehow!!

    • aarongmyers
      November 6, 2011 | 9:31 pm

      @alexreverie Thanks so much for entering into the conversation. I too am not sure that this will work. I am not sure it is a risk though. It would be a risk if the present situation were working really well, if most students left their high school language class with a real sense of success and a desire to continue on the language learning journey. (And in this I could be off the mark. As I mention in the post, I am relying on anectdotal evidence and have not looked for any real research on the topic).

      As to my knowledge of middle America, again it is based on my experience having worked in South Dakota’s school systems (teaching at a school in a town of 800 and a town of 1,000) and upon my siblings teaching experiences in Kansas and Oklahoma. I am certain their are schools out there who do not have these resources, but my experience has been that most do. But again, I could be way off on this one.

      I am sure my ideas are frought with issues and problems. Hopefully the give and take of discussion like this will bring out new ideas that will lead us into an exciting future.

      • alexreverie
        November 6, 2011 | 9:43 pm

        @aarongmyers First, my compliments on fostering this discussion!

        As for the risk, I meant “risk” in the bureaucratic sense. Certainly, taking risks in learning, trying new methods, is a boon, not a negative. But in a system where teachers are held accountable for students who sometimes don’t care about their education, I think too much liberalism can be dangerous on the professional front. Personally, I’m not excited about teaching in America because I think the system is awful! But I know that public education is the best starting place for change. Unfortunately, that system is run by a lot of people who prefer standards over progressive learning. This is why the change may need to happen in more subtle ways, at least until legislators wake up.

        Perhaps rural schools in the areas you mentioned are more blessed financially than I was aware; I’m glad you cleared that up. But I know that many inner-city locations in the US are floundering and have much more on their plates – student attrition, parent absenteeism, violence, old-fashioned/conservative teachers with tenure, funding – than the hope of implementing new-tech learning.

        Alex, http://readtainment.wordpress.com

        • aarongmyers
          November 6, 2011 | 9:53 pm

          @alexreverie Yes I agree about the risk in the that sense. And it only works if the system, top to bottom, buys in. Perhaps it could begin at a certain district. After all, when I looked at the state standards that I was required to meet, I pretty much came to the conclusion that there were a lot of new and innovative ways to accomplish the job and in the process give students a lot more choice. But no teacher could go lone ranger on this without getting a ton of kick back. It is a process, a conversation that needs to happen across the board.

          And as I was writing before, I was remembering back to my student teaching in Minneapolis and thinking this would be a difficult task if a teacher had class sizes in the 40s and not enough resources to support the work. Still lots of problems to be solved.

  10. lclarcq
    November 7, 2011 | 3:50 am

    I cordially invite you to observe and participate in a language taught by a Comprehensible Input or TPRS teacher. You will see a completely different, and highly effective, language acquisition environment. Feel free to contact me ( I am a teacher using this method and a national trainer/presenter/coach.

    with love,

    Laurie Clarcq

    lclarcq@rochester.rr.com

    http://www.heartsforteaching.com

    • CarlaB
      May 30, 2012 | 6:00 pm

      Laurie Clarcq is an amazing teacher! I met her in California and was coached by her at a conference. I ran across your blog looking for one of her helpful resources online. In my opinion, she’s one of the best. If you get a chance to observe her, go!

      There’s a whole wave of teachers who are doing things differently, using interaction and multiple senses and intelligences, doing grammar in context instead of as an end in itself. I have seen it work much better than typical high school Spanish ever did. And the kids get involved and start using the language outside ofclass. But there’s a whole system that’s holding them back. I totally agree with you that there needs to be a change in language education. And I appreciate that there’s someone like you out there speaking up for the change. Language teachers can’t do it alone. I once spoke with a bilingual parent who told me she didn’t teacher her daughter Spanish as a young child, because, how was she going to conjugate!!! She thought I should do more conjugation drills in my class. The resistance crushes a lot of teachers. But when someone shines a light on the immense failure of the system, hopefully that will create some freedom for teachers to teach in ways that work.

      In my experience, when I could get students to love the language, they would do the kind of independent language study that you described, using the internet, music, etc. But I hooked them in an interactive, whole group setting where we focused on the students and their interests.

      please, though, while you’re proclaiming the problem, don’t limit the solutions (and I’m not saying that you are, but that does tend to happen with education!). There are literally thousands of people across the country who have poured their lives into this problem for years who would love to be able to weigh in on the solution, if a grand solution to the problem is to be found.

  11. propugnatorfidei
    November 7, 2011 | 4:51 am

    I tried #3 and #4 in the middle school language classes I teach. Most students burned out on self-motivation. Also, it became clear that many did not have a clear sense of what language they wanted to learn and picked something somewhat at random, losing interest in it several weeks later once the initial excitement was gone.

    • aarongmyers
      November 7, 2011 | 6:27 am

      @propugnatorfidei It is great to hear of your experience with trying some of these ideas. Did you spend a significant time teaching how to learn languages, exploring different languages and cultures and introducing students to tools they can use to access the language before you started them on their journeys? Middle school? I wonder if they are too young?

      • Ketutar
        November 7, 2011 | 10:57 am

        @aarongmyers@propugnatorfidei I don’t know if I told this already, but my first foreign language was English, chosen to be so because most students chose English from the choice “English/German/French/Spanish/Russian” I was 9.

        My second foreign language was the second domestic language, Swedish – as I am Finnish – and that started when I was 14. I would have wanted more languages added there inbetween, because I love languages, and when in school, you study what you are being taught. A new language every year or every other year would have been okay with me.

        My third foreign language was German, added when I was 15. I wanted to study Latin, but the class would have been too small (I know only of another person who wanted to study Latin), and they just decided one language is as good as another. I would have preferred French, and I would have traveled to another school several miles away just to be able to study French.

        Considering all the stories about the polyglots’ language learning history, the interest seems to lit up at 12-13… I wonder if it’s because teenagers are trying to get this communication and understanding thing working,

        If you give the kids a good “world language” first, as their first foreign language, and teach them how to study languages with that, you’ll have plenty of material, plenty of possibilities to avoid the children getting bored with it, plenty of rewards.

        • propugnatorfidei
          November 8, 2011 | 4:49 am

          Spesifista kieliä huolimatta ne opiskelijat voivat menettää heidän motivaationsa kun vaikean työn puoli saa alkunsa. Es ist abhängig vom spezifischen Student. It is true that I have more success in my Spanish classes than my Latin ones, but it’s still not possible to make someone learn Spanish who doesn’t have a real drive to do it.

        • Ketutar
          November 8, 2011 | 10:22 am

          @propugnatorfidei (jätä pois “ne” ja “heidän”)

          What do you mean with difficulties? If I have understood correctly with Aaron’s method the children learn the difficult bits easy through a method that works for them – for example kids who love grammar can study as much grammar they wish, and learn the languages through grammatical examples and exercises, kids who don’t love grammar learn grammar through hearing and reading grammatically good and correct language.

          As you learn the vocabulary as you go, as you need it, learning the vocabulary will never be bothersome – there is never any such “I must learn these 100 words today, or…” stress.

          Of course, there are kids who are not interested in learning languages, and don’t need to be, either. Not everyone needs to. But as the language teaching is today, or 20 years ago, it usually kills the interest there is by being boring, focusing on wrong things, separated from reality, not individual enough, made too complicated and “academic”, too one-sided, limited, traditionbound and the goals seem to be success in tests and good grades, not using the language. How could the school embrace the interest and make it grow, instead of killing it?

          Of course there are kids who get bored with anything how ever interested they were in the beginning. That’s okay too. (I can think a couple of ways to go around that too… I mean, they have already learned one language well enough to manage by it, find out how they managed to stay interested in that for long enough and see if you can replicate the circumstances… I’m married to a guy with ADHD, and he is trilingual, learned all his languages before he was 7. Now I’m trying to teach him Finnish, and a) it’s too slow and b) he hates grammar and I love it, and have learned to explain the language through grammar, so we aren’t doing much progress :-D I should need to force him to communicate in Finnish, only use Finnish when I speak to him, but it’s too frustrating, so we both turn to Swedish or English. We already have to common languages, there really is no need for a third one…

      • propugnatorfidei
        November 8, 2011 | 4:57 am

        @aarongmyers The first time, I prepared the students a bit haphazardly. A few of them had extraordinary, perhaps life-changing, success, the rest had amounts ranging from pretty good to none. The second time, I prepared the students thoroughly. The whole thing pretty much flopped (with some exceptions). It all depends on the individual student’s desire to learn AND ability to take charge of their learning. General lack of these two qualities in the student population point to deeper issues that won’t be fixed just by changing the format of language classes.

        I’m not trying to be a downer, really : ) I like your ideas. I’m just thinking about the things that could get in their way.

  12. Andrew18
    November 7, 2011 | 5:00 pm

    The best form of learning is entertainment.

    People perceive such learning as rest, not as work.

    an interesting concept for ESL – http://www.easychannel.tv

    TV channel in special English – 1500 words (comprehensible input) + video social community + Q&A linguistics service As they say: It’s just what you need, and nothing you don’t..

    Demo video: http://youtu.be/hCHuYhvnrOY

  13. marga
    November 7, 2011 | 6:26 pm

    Hi all,

    very nice post and comments. Nowadays the challenge is definitely online. i’m an italian teacher and I got my students involved in the learning process by using their communication channels.

    I discovered an online platform (www.12speak.com) where people can chat with native speakers, personalise the vocabulary and play didactical games, a kind of social network with a noble goal: learn languages having fun.

    When I was young I had an english pen friend and I was looking forward to receiving a letter from him once a month. Now my students got virtual friends and they are very happy to chat with them, practicing what they learn in the real class.

    So, the main point is that grammar books and traditional lessons are still important but we can combine them with more modern ways of teaching. Peer to peer education is for me the best solution to make students comfortable with the learning process.

  14. Lindsay McMahon
    November 8, 2011 | 3:57 am

    Hi Aaron,

    I think you have some great ideas here. The idea of motivating language learners to take primary responsibility in their own learning is powerful. I also think students could really benefit from creating their own individual language learning plan with a coach.It would be a great way to allow the student to learn based on his own learning style. It is absolutely true that human interaction should be central to language learning and I would add one point to your list- acquiring a deep understanding of cultural assumptions, values, communication styles that are present in the language (verbal and nonverbal) that the student is pursuing should be a central piece of the language learning process. If human interaction is the end goal for learning a language ( as well as the best method), I believe students and professionals of all ages need an understanding of culture to truly communicate effectively. I have written a post about the importance of understanding culture for effective communication:

    http://www.englishandculture.com/blog/bid/59451/English-and-Culture-Why-Just-Learning-English-Is-Not-Enough

    I enjoyed this post and I look forward to reading more posts in the future. Thank you!

    • aarongmyers
      November 9, 2011 | 8:40 am

      Thanks so much for stopping by Lindsay and for sharing your thoughts on this topic. Thanks as well for the link. I’ll take a look at it. Stop back by soon.

    • aarongmyers
      November 10, 2011 | 2:38 pm

      @Lindsay McMahon

      Thanks so much for stopping by Lindsay and for sharing your thoughts on this topic. Thanks as well for the link. I’ll take a look at it. Stop back by soon.

  15. lolly
    November 8, 2011 | 9:24 pm

    I love some of your ideas– about students becoming life-long lovers of language, and no grades, especially–but I think that you give short-shrift to the powerful things a competent teacher can do.

    Using comprehensible input, humor, music, personalization and other techniques a teacher who is a fluent speaker can enable language acquisition the very first time a class meets.

    I have been a high school foreign language teacher for a long time. The most important thing I have learned is that students want to be able to understand and speak the target language. They want results. A motivated adult would be able to plan out a computer-based course of instruction and stick to it, but I doubt many high school students would. I regularly get students who have been home-schooled with a computer-based language program into my classes, and I have never met one who could understand and speak as well as students who had been attending classes in person. Explaining how a language works has nothing to do with understanding or speaking it, especially at first. It is after students have achieved some degree of language competency that finding friends to speak with is possible.

    Your ideas for improving language instruction are valuable and thought-provoking. The only thing they don’t address is actual language acquisition.

    • aarongmyers
      November 9, 2011 | 8:39 am

      I am sorry if I have given short-thrift to language teachers. That was not my intention and my wife warned me that questioning the system will in effect question the teachers who work within that system. That is not my desire. There are many amazing teachers of language out there doing amazing things in the classroom. I also think that those teachers have probably already begun to function within a new paradigm even as they continue to teach within an old system. I do want to clarify that I don’t see what I am talking about as a computer based course. The Internet opens up all sorts of opportunities for language acquisition through access to comprehensible input. In that it is only a tool. A tool to be utilized as best we can. But it is not a one trick pony. Books, other media, and most importantly, real people would all be a part of the language learning journey. The goal is to get students into human interaction with real people. In this I really agree with you – students want to be able to understand and speak the target language. I want to teach students how to learn language on their own and give them the tools to do that. Then they can learn any language and they can continue to learn even after they step out from under the caring eye of the teacher.

    • aarongmyers
      November 10, 2011 | 2:38 pm

      @lolly

      I am sorry if I have given short-thrift to language teachers. That was not my intention and my wife warned me that questioning the system will in effect question the teachers who work within that system. That is not my desire. There are many amazing teachers of language out there doing amazing things in the classroom. I also think that those teachers have probably already begun to function within a new paradigm even as they continue to teach within an old system. I do want to clarify that I don’t see what I am talking about as a computer based course. The Internet opens up all sorts of opportunities for language acquisition through access to comprehensible input. In that it is only a tool. A tool to be utilized as best we can. But it is not a one trick pony. Books, other media, and most importantly, real people would all be a part of the language learning journey. The goal is to get students into human interaction with real people. In this I really agree with you – students want to be able to understand and speak the target language. I want to teach students how to learn language on their own and give them the tools to do that. Then they can learn any language and they can continue to learn even after they step out from under the caring eye of the teacher.

  16. mj13
    November 9, 2011 | 7:48 am

    I wonder whether you’ve heard of the quiet revolution called TPRStorytelling, a method that provides the comprehensible input that lolly describes. It covers all your bases above well except for #3 and #8. Grades are only as important as the teacher is required to make them, but typically grades as we knew them are very different in a TPRS classroom. I would highly recommend that you check out TPRS Publishing’s conference next summer, where folks will learn a great deal of Spanish in just four days in a relaxed atmosphere. Or come to the NTPRS conference in July in Las Vegas, and learn (Russian? Chinese? probably hasn’t been decided) a lot of a “complex” language. In my area (Alaska), we’ve hosted two Russian sessions (four days of 3 hours each) and one Spanish session of three days, and people have been simply amazed by how much language they acquired. If you are serious about helping goad America into changing the way we teach languages, you owe it to yourself and America’s kids to check this out. The growing army of TPRS teachers (who know we can do it better, because we’re proving it every day) will be delighted to welcome you to a classroom.

    • aarongmyers
      November 9, 2011 | 8:28 am

      I am famailiar with TPR and TPR Storytelling and think they are both the best thing we have going in language education today. I even posted – with Dr. Asher’s permission – A New Note About TPR here at the blog. I think TPR should probably be the foundation of all English language education. I wonder if it isn’t limited though in that the teacher needs to be proficient and confident in the language. That makes it the first choice for ESL in my mind. But I think many are a bit intimidated to use it to teach a language they have learned. Even though I speak pretty good Turkish, I would be hesitant to think that I could effectively use TPR myself to teach Turkish. Also, the majority of foriegn language teachers (in the US) is presumably Spanish. But what if kids want to learn Russian? Or Chinese? How do we give students a chance to explore languages if we don’t have trained (in TPR) teachers to teach each language. Anyway, I too agree that TPR is amazing! I am working to figure out how to turn it around so that independent language learners can use it to “pull” the language out of native speakers. And perhaps this could be something that students could be trained to do so that they could then meet with native speakers and use TPR principles without the native speaker being trained in the method. Anyway, there are a few of my reasons for pointing to a new paradigm of independent language learning (under the watchful eye of a teacher) rather than towards TPR. TPR is great and I think in language specific classes, the best choice. Anyway, so there are my responses. Are they valid? Does that make sense?

    • aarongmyers
      November 10, 2011 | 2:39 pm

      @mj13

      I am famailiar with TPR and TPR Storytelling and think they are both the best thing we have going in language education today. I even posted – with Dr. Asher’s permission – A New Note About TPRhere at the blog. I think TPR should probably be the foundation of all English language education. I wonder if it isn’t limited though in that the teacher needs to be proficient and confident in the language. That makes it the first choice for ESL in my mind. But I think many are a bit intimidated to use it to teach a language they have learned. Even though I speak pretty good Turkish, I would be hesitant to think that I could effectively use TPR myself to teach Turkish. Also, the majority of foriegn language teachers (in the US) is presumably Spanish. But what if kids want to learn Russian? Or Chinese? How do we give students a chance to explore languages if we don’t have trained (in TPR) teachers to teach each language. Anyway, I too agree that TPR is amazing! I am working to figure out how to turn it around so that independent language learners can use it to “pull” the language out of native speakers. And perhaps this could be something that students could be trained to do so that they could then meet with native speakers and use TPR principles without the native speaker being trained in the method. Anyway, there are a few of my reasons for pointing to a new paradigm of independent language learning (under the watchful eye of a teacher) rather than towards TPR. TPR is great and I think in language specific classes, the best choice. Anyway, so there are my responses. Are they valid? Does that make sense?

      • mj13
        November 11, 2011 | 4:48 am

        As a Russian teacher, I can still say “TPRS works!” I am careful to check with native speakers if I have any hesitation. TPR is very different from Storytelling; it’s a great tool for a long while, but not a good total methodology for any but the most talented in it’s use. Luckily for me, TPRS works even for beginning teachers. I think you are right about the idea that motivated learners could figure out how to get people to teach them languages through storytelling techniques if they have the experience. (I’m doing just that with my Spanish-speaking custodian at school.)

        Great ideas…I’ll come back later and comment on other aspects of the question.@aarongmyers

  17. goldenboy
    November 9, 2011 | 1:10 pm

    That is a very very good way to bring about actual learning. It gives kids a little bit of direction, and it helps them build tools for learning as well. However unlikely, I do not believe the school system would like a class that could not be measured. Maybe it would fit in as an after school club.

    I’m not trying to be cynical, I just think that this change is so huge. However there is hope! I would love to see this system take place. There are special chartered schools that have this sort of direction. Also homeschooling can take this sort of direction as well.

    I can’t wait till the day that we can see public schools that offer kids a more autodidactic way of life.

    • aarongmyers
      November 10, 2011 | 2:44 pm

      @goldenboy I agree with you that the biggest hurdle is the system itself. Unless the suggested alternative proves itself to be overwhelmingly a better choice, the change will not happen. Hopefully charter schools and private schools will lead the way and provide the testing ground and thus the evidence needed to compel the change. You’re not being cynical, just realistic. I recognize that challenge and yet still feel it is worth starting the discussion. The more teachers who begin to explore new ideas and try new non traditional approaches, the quicker we will see whether or not these ideas (and others) will work.

  18. erinrussia
    November 10, 2011 | 8:57 pm

    I read through all the comments and, as an American who’s been teaching English in Moscow for the past 21 years, I like the vision of an open, creative and innovative approach to language learning. I, myself, never took a language class in American schools (though my brothers had Spanish and my sister had German- and was an exchange student to Germany when she was 16).

    One crucial element, however, you have left out: working with young (and very young) learners. That is really where effective language mastery should begin, as well as gaining a deep love of the language and culture. I also think that introducing preschoolers and elementary children to new languages would make your vision for a learner-centered, resource based program succeed in the teen years.

    What I might propose is that, children (ages 4-8) be exposed, playfully and joyously, to several languages, maybe beginning with one related to their mother tongue (or English). There could be a rotation every 6 months, say, in the language presented through songs, games, cartoons, folktales and storytelling as well as conversation (a whole lot of comprehensible input). Of course there are no grades and it would be a fun exploration for kids.

    After children had encountered and enjoyed say, 4-6 different tongues, they’d be in a better position to choose the ones they found fun, useful or interesting to study later on. Plus they’d already have a “feel” for it, it’s rhythms and character. I can remember as a young child how proud I was when I learned to count to 10 in Spanish, German and Chinese. There would be no motivation problems if the teachers are enthusiastic, relaxed and playful in their approach. A lot of listening and participation would be stressed but production would be secondary. Grammar rules would be off-base, but “patterns” such as forming plurals for animal’s names, or simple articles or prepositions would be appropriate to introduce (and the cleverest kids will get it). At the least, such an approach would widen each child’s vocabulary and give them a start in natural pronunciation that is so hard to recover later on.

    I better stop there, but, from my perspective, introducing foreign languages (and taking the “foreign-ness” out of them) to young children is the real revolution that is needed and, from that awesome foundation, students will be empowered– yea, inspired, to become global citizens in the linguistic sense. This is especially so with all the technological and travel options available in the world today.

    • SteveKaufmann
      November 11, 2011 | 3:22 am

      I have long held the view that kids should be introduced to a variety of languages largely through listening to and reading stories, rather than trying to force them to learn a compulsory language. What we are doing now, at least as far as compulsory French instruction in English speaking schools in Canada, is largely a waste of time.

      I would like to find out if this has been put into practice anywhere.

    • aarongmyers
      November 11, 2011 | 1:35 pm

      @erinrussia@SteveKaufmann I am not sure about young kids. I have thought about it and almost incuded it as something that “wouldn’t work” because of what I see in other countries who start their kids in English in the beginning years and don’t have much luck. That is the case here in Turkey in the public schools. What does excite me is immersion schools. I have heard mostly positive stories from these experiences and it becomes a family experience rather than just some class the kids “have to” take at school. Your last idea Erin is different though and sounds like one worth exploring! Take the “foreignness” out of foriegn languages! Great!

  19. MichaelCorayer
    November 17, 2011 | 4:24 am

    While I agree with many of these ideas and their importance for learning languages, I’m not sure that the implementation of these ideas would actually be considered an “education system” by those with the power/authority to actually do so.

    In many ways, it seems a bit like study hall; a “teacher” who can’t answer specific questions about what one is learning, no structure for using one’s time, and no clear assignments to complete or ways to measure progress or identify errors. It’s true that some students are very productive/creative in these situations and it would be great for more students to be. Unfortunately administrators, parents, taxpayers, etc may not be particularly happy with this arrangement. I’m sure that the same ideas for learning about literature (read any books you want) math (choose those types of problems you want to solve) or history (choose the time period you are most interested in) could potentially inspire and motivate learners but would also provide many students the opportunity to take a path of least resistance. Would people pay for their children to attend a literature class in which the teacher had not read the same novels? Would they pay for their children (via tax or tuition) to attend a “Mandarin class” in which the teacher did not speak Mandarin and none of the other students were studying it?

    Although I am a teacher in a traditional school environment, I believe that self-directed learning is the key to true education. I’m all for the encouragement of independent learning and student choice, but I don’t feel that the ideas above address the improvement of an actual class environment. Students should be encouraged to learn independently, explore their interests, and realize that learning is not all about grades, but these activities don’t take advantage of some of the circumstances that actually being in a classroom with a teacher and other learners (who are learning the same material) can provide. If I’m going to study on my own, use the internet, and talk to people, why bother making the trip to the classroom at all?

    In order words, if we assume that we must work within a particular educational paradigm in nearly all schools (language-specific classes, teachers, curriculum, assignments/grades) what can be done to improve the quality of learning in that particular classroom? How can we take full advantage of the features of this particular situation?

    • aarongmyers
      November 17, 2011 | 1:03 pm

      @MichaelCorayer Thanks for the thoughtful reply. You bring up a lot of the challenges and it is this sort of pushback that helps the discussion grow and evolve and the ideas to improve. I think you highlight some real issues with my ideas. I would say that what I envision and what you have described (no clear assignments, no ways to measure progress, no way to identify errors) are not the same. I envision clear, practical and real assignments that are even more robust than what a teacher is able to offer working from a textbook. Assignments like writing real letters to real friends and getting clear, immediate feedback from native speakers. Assignments like recording a twenty minute skype converstaion with a native speaker. And some more mundane assignments like completeing a certain number of levels on Livemocha or Rosetta Stone by a certain time or having 500 or 1,000 known words identified on LingQ or Learning with Texts. So I think you can create some really great assignments for students and get real, immediate feedback/assessment. There will be a lot of legwork in getting teachers into this new paradigm. I happen to think it worth the effort. And in this regard, i don’t see it like a study hall at all, but rather a rich environment (lead by a teacher) of discovery based learning.

      In regards to comparing language to math, history and English, I am not sure I would make the same comparision. Our society has determined that students master these topics in specific and of course logical ways that support thier success as memeber of society. As for language though, the requirment is most often that they have taken “a” foriegn language. If we have decided that the idea of learning another language is important, but agree that the particular language is not important, then we ought to focus on teaching kids how to learn any language. We don’t do this with math because we all agree that we need to teach addition and subtraction, followed by multiplication and division before we can get into geometry and algebra – and wall agree that every kid should get into geometry and algebra particularly. And so I hope my son one day has a math teacher who not only loves math, but is an expert at math.

      Anyway, there are a few of my thoughts.

      • MichaelCorayer
        November 21, 2011 | 4:40 am

        @aarongmyers Thanks for your response. I particularly like hearing more ideas for the types of assignments that you mentioned (I really liked the skype conversation idea, create X number of LingQs, etc) which give flexibility to the learner but still provide clear expectations and guidelines . Of course, even these more “realistic” assignments occasionally run the risk of becoming artificial when assigned and “due” (I recall, not fondly, writing fake letters to imagined friends in high school Spanish class) so another important aspect is encouraging students to engage in these activities on their own, outside of the class time/location.

        I think that these are ideas that can and should be incorporated into all specific language classes. These are things that teachers can immediately start implementing in their specific classes, without reinventing the entire system. I think that students can be learning “how to learn a language”, by doing so in the context of a specific target language. In other words, by learning X, they will also learn how to learn a foreign language. I think this also applies to other subjects, as we may learn to think critically by examining a specific novel in a literature class, without necessarily having a “critical thinking” class.

        • aarongmyers
          November 21, 2011 | 7:12 am

          @MichaelCorayer I like the idea of trying a lot of these ideas in a regular language classroom. I think that would be a great place to start. A part of it will be teachers getting used to new ideas and ways of teaching – which takes time. Another part will be getting kids used to new ideas and ways of thinking. I taught HS English. Every year I had freshmen boys tell me they had never read a book (a boast!). They weren’t planning on reading one. But through a lot of different creative teaching and coaching, in almost every circumstance, by the time they were sophomores they were reading whole books on their own and enjoying it. The goal was not to make sure they read that first book as a freshman. The goal was to help them fall in love with reading so that by the time they were seniors they were “readers.” Language teachers need to move to a similar long term goal.

  20. [...] allow student to create valuable interaction with students from the target language country.” 9 Ideas for Reinventing America’s Language Education System “Do only half the job (or less), using only what tools are immediately available.” The [...]

  21. rachelcinis
    February 29, 2012 | 10:33 pm

    When I was learning languages, I was taught using grammar-translation.  I studied German in high school, and Spanish and Latin in college.  I came out of that experience fluent in none, though I did actually pursue Latin and now teach it. So I know the ineffectiveness that a grammatical approach, full of charts and memorization, brings to the table.
     
    And I understand your concerns about the method that the majority of language teachers seem to use in the United States. I started using TPRS in my own class by my second year teaching, despite my complete lack of fluency in Latin, because I really felt strongly that it was the right way to do things.  My students were supportive and we worked together to help me learn how to teach them.  Now I’m pretty proficient at TPRS and gaining fluency in Latin.
     
    The problem with TPRS comes up in your 9 points listed above: it is completely teacher-centered instead of student-centered.  I do focus on the students, ask them questions, let them decide what happens in the stories we tell, etc., but in the end they are listening to me and responding to me and interacting with me.  So I love it, but am still (always) looking around for something better.
     
    I’m currently learning about a method called Where Are Your Keys (http://www.whereareyourkeys.org/) which combines movement (ASL) and language-learning.  The coolest thing about it is that it’s also all about comprehensible input but it is more student-centered.  It also is about teaching students to be “language hunters” which is a phrase that I like.  
     
    To avoid sounding like an infomercial, I won’t give too much information about the method, but I am looking forward to experimenting with it in two weeks when I get a new pack of 7th graders!  I am always looking for ways to make learning about the student and his or her relationship with the language.

    • aarongmyers
      March 1, 2012 | 5:04 am

       @rachelcinis Rachel. Thanks for your great comment!  Wow, usiinging TPRS to teach Latin! That is fantastic.  I think that TPR and TPRS are on the forefront of best practice when a teacher needs to direct the learning – ESL classes, English classes overseas or any language class for that matter.  The trouble is reversing the process and allowing the students to draw out the language, to be “language hunters.” (great phrase!)  ’Where are Your Keys’ sounds fantastic and looks interesting and I look forward to looking into it.  I’d love to learn more.

  22. [...] few months ago I wrote 9 Ideas for Reinventing America’s Language Education System.  It was an article that I hoped would spark a conversation about how to create a better [...]

  23. [...] functions, and the possibilities for problems and successes to come about. I like the idea (put forward by Aaron Myers on The Everyday Language Learner, see point 3) that classes should often be language learning theory rather than language itself, especially in [...]

  24. Bekah Palmer
    May 7, 2012 | 11:05 am

    Interesting ideas you have here! I especially like #3 (No Specific Language). It would be such a benefit to language learners to take a short series of linguistics courses before actually studying a specific language. I’ve been trying to think of a way to incorporate general language teaching into my language-specific language teaching, but I think that you really would need a separate course to cover the important things.

    • aarongmyers
      May 7, 2012 | 11:13 am

      Bekah,
      Hey thanks so much for stopping by and adding to the conversation. I wonder if you could take two weeks at the beginning of each semester to sort of focus on teaching students how to learn languages (in general) so that they could then focus what they have learned on the specific language of the classroom. Of course you have to sort of give them the reigns then and let them use what you have taught them. Another idea might be to have the students sign up for something like my Ten Week Journey (you’d want to go through it first) and allow it to guide them with you as a coach and teacher. Thinking out load here.

  25. Marco Polo
    August 7, 2012 | 10:57 am

    Interesting ideas. MichaelCorayer pointed out the reasons why almost none of this will ever happen in any but a tiny number of schools. But the main reason is, it’s already happening OUTSIDE of schools. Or in “free schools”. What you’re talking about, it seems to me, is removing the coercive aspects of school – not just language-classes – (the grades, the GPA, the threats, the compulsion, the stupid choices (“either German or Ancient Greek: choose!”). But then you run into all those people who think those things are important, necessary (“Unfortunately administrators, parents, taxpayers, etc may not be particularly happy with this arrangement”).

    Ivan Illich (e.g. in Deschooling Society) and John Holt (in pretty much every book he wrote about schools and learning, starting with How Children Fail through to Instead of Education and What Do I Do Monday?) have said things similar to you, with regard to learning in general, not just learning foreign languages. Holt (and others since, e.g. Gatto) concluded that, because the main purpose of school isn’t to enable children to learn as fast as they can, real learning/growth will never happen in school. And the problem is the intrinsically coercive nature of schools. Everett Reimer wrote in School is Dead that school is 4 things: children, teachers, classrooms, and a graded curriculum; remove any one element and you no longer have a “school”. That may not be a bad thing. Good luck.

  26. [...] Here’s a language teacher in a high school (I think), who has some suggestions for improving language education in schools: I wouldn’t go as far as Seth [Godin] and say that what is happening in the public school systems in regards to language education is a waste, but I think most of us will agree that if we were to talk to ten friends who sat through two semesters of high school Spanish, most would say they learned very little.  Even fewer perhaps could actually speak any Spanish.  So while I wouldn’t call it a waste, anecdotal evidence at least would point to something far less than success. [...]

  27. [...] bit to get Annette on the phone and hear all about her classroom.  If you read my past article, 9 Ideas for Reinventing America’s Language Education System, then you will  understand [...]

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