I define traditional language teaching as one were students memorize lists of vocabulary and grammar structures and then do practice activities much like those found in many textbooks today where students take the grammar and/or vocabulary and manipulate them in some way. For example, “Yo/llevar/blusa/rojo” and the student change the words as needed. At the end of the chapter students take a test where they fill out blanks with verbs and translate sentences from English to Spanish. When I took Spanish in high school, it was taught in a traditional way. My college classes were also taught in a traditional way. When I began teaching, all of my colleagues taught in a traditional way. Early on in my career I stopped using the textbook and created my own materials. I thought myself to be more modern, less traditional. In retrospect, however, I realize that my materials were basically a copy of what a textbook would do. Not much difference. Now I’m stuck using a textbook again and it stinks because now I feel like I finally know how to teach without the book.
For those who came to the conclusion early on that the traditional way does not produce the communicative results we as world language educators should be seeking (“Knowing how, when, and why to say what to whom”), or for those who were taught to teach languages in a more modern way, my blog isn’t going to sound terribly radical. But, this is my journey.
Deciding to dispense with traditional methods that do not seem to produce communicative results was not an overnight revelation; this was years in the making. In 1999, I began working on a project in my state with the ACTFL National Standards. For me, that was the first seed of communicative language teaching that was planted. Since that time, I tried to continue teaching the traditional way and putting a performance assessment at the end, always presentational. I drove myself crazy trying to get kids ready to memorize the extensive grammar and vocabulary to take the test then turn around and have them labor to write or speak something to me. Last year things came to a head for me. I was terribly discontent with my teaching, which was ironic to me because I was then in the running for the ACTFL National Teacher of the Year. I knew what changes and trends had been occuring in world language education for the last ten years or so, and I could explain them very well, but they were not necessarily highly evident in my classroom on a regular basis. I found myself teaching a great lesson that I loved one day where I was talking entirely in Spanish to the students about some cultural topic, then the next day feeling like I needed to drill the verbs that would be on their upcoming test so they could perform well. The grading load was another story. I faithfully gave several vocabulary quizzes each chapter, a homework packet, and a test. Then I tried to give a performance assessment at least once per quarter. The grading was out of control. Now that I only grade performance assesssments and short formative assessments along the way, it has helped tremendously with grading.