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Ditching the Phrase “Struggling Student”

I hear this phrase a lot.

Many language teachers lament about staying after school to help a “struggling student,” that a student is “struggling” with grammar point X, or that they have a group of “struggling students” in their second year, Spanish 2 class, etc.. When it comes to language acquisition, however, there’s no struggling going on, at all. Bill VanPatten recently had something similar to say on Tea With BVP Live From OFLA (Episode 54).

Unless the student has a disability—not a learning disability, but a communication disability in the native language, which even then might not be an issue because students with severe non-verbal disabilities show signs of understanding language spoken to themno student should struggle to understand language in our classes.

These students might have behaviour issues that negatively impact our daily routine and flow of comprehensible input, but that has nothing to do with language acquisition itself. We are all capable of understanding and acquiring a second language. Therefore, “struggling” is only in reference to something else, usually related to explicit grammar instruction, or forced language production, and the assessments that leave students excluded.

For most teachers, then, a “struggling student” is just a student whose acquisition rate is slower than the curriculum pace—a pace that also excludes most students. **Newsflash** ALL LEARNERS have an internal syllabus that WILL NOT CHANGE just because your program moves at speed X, or you explicitly teach Y. In fact, your program’s curriculum is designed for only one student’s pace. The sad part is that you might not even have a student who acquires at that particular rate, this particular year in any particular course!

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Your Program: Basing it on Acquiring Latin (2 of 3)

My last post followed this logic:

  • ALL humans can acquire a second language.
  • Few humans learn about languages.
  • Programs based on learning about Latin are exclusive.
  • Programs based on acquiring Latin are inclusive.

This post addresses how to base a program on acquiring Latin. I’ll begin with an important systematic change that otherwise keeps Latin programs exclusive:

**Stop grading and assessing the identification, manipulation, and/or production of forms.**

Without a doubt, this is the most unintuitive concept for any traditionally-trained language teacher (especially Latin teachers) to fully grasp, but it’s really Step 1. Why? All of that knowledge, drilling, and forced expression has very little, to absolutely no affect on acquisition, and has kept Latin classrooms exclusive and elite. Even if it did, your “struggling” students illustrate that not even daily “practice” guarantees mastery within just a few years, which then leads to exclusion if you expect said mastery. An inclusive classroom is not based on conjugating (i.e. even if it occurs sometimes), which is something you simply must acknowledge and change. If your situation requires you to test these things, realize that your program is already at risk of excluding students. See my posts over at on Reporting Scores vs. Grading on how to not count any of that towards a student’s grade, and instead report scores in a 0% grading category that satisfies most department/school requirements.

**Begin grading and assessing for meaning.**

The student who doesn’t understand the case system, but does understand events in a narrative is doing exactly what leads to acquisition (especially if, or maybe ONLY IF they enjoy the narrative content!), and such an expectation fulfills our updated Standards. The student who retells or summarizes a text in the past tense when all of the forms are present is doing just fine. Even the student who interprets the meaning of vocandum as “having to do with ‘calling'” is right on track. Accuracy increases over time with more language exposure, so your expectations should take that into account. If students understand most of the Latin they listen to and read most of the time, they should get the equivalent of an “A.” N.B. grading as NOTHING to do with acquisition, but certainly something to do with keeping your job and keeping students in your classes. Very few people continue doing something they have low efficacy in, so diminish or eliminate those numbers and letters whenever possible.

There you have it—the first change you need to make—even if it’s just a change of perspective. If you don’t, you risk making class more onerous (vs. rigorous) and even more exclusive once other changes towards basing a program on acquiring Latin are made (i.e. beginning to speak Latin yet still explicitly teaching grammar, and continuing to grade and assess just as before).

My next post will continue on how to base your program on acquiring Latin…

**Read the third follow-up post**