The No-Fail No-Burnout Language Classroom

This title and concept comes from Bob Patrick’s presentation at ACL which he moderated with Lindsay Sears-Tam. I wanted to summarize the main points here, offer my own perspective and implementation of these principles, and provide teachers with resources that they can immediately put to use in order to prevent two largely avoidable problems: teacher burnout, and student failure.

PART ONE: Teacher Burnout: causes and potential solutions.
Teachers, especially new teachers, spend an enormous amount of time preparing lessons and grading/assessing student work. Both of these can be streamlined without negatively impacting student learning goals, and may in fact contribute to student success. Here are a few immediate steps that teachers can take to minimize the time spent planning and assessing. This is about working SMARTER, not harder.

Free Voluntary Reading / Sustained Silent Reading.
Students in their first year will require a lot of support, and you may not want to implement FVR until second semester of first year or even the beginning of second year. But with year 2 and above, students should be able to spend some time reading on their own during class, as long as teachers are able to provide books and readings that are comprehensible (90+% known vocabulary) and interesting. Studies have shown that most of student proficiency in language comes from reading books that they choose.
For kids who have never developed good reading habits, teacher support will be necessary. See Mike Peto and Bryce Hedstrom’s web pages for strategies and resources.

Student self-assessment.
Most tests and quizzes can be self-assessed. The advantages for students include: instant feedback, empowerment over the subject matter, a view that this is about the student’s grasp of the material rather than teacher vs. student. Doing self-assessment requires trust. Most students will not feel that they have to cheat if they trust that the teacher has set them up for success, is not going to try to trick them, and that there will be opportunities for retakes if they do badly.

On a larger scale, that of final summative assessments, self-assessment of a writing portfolio is a powerful tool in helping students to see their progress in the language, and reflect on next steps. Here I describe the writing portfolio that my students complete each year.

Teaching similar lessons in multiple levels.
Since most Latin teachers (and many FL teachers) have three or more preps, it is important that they use and/or adapt similar lessons at multiple levels. This can refer to basic routines, lesson plans, or even content. Here are three ways in which a teacher can synchronize their different levels to reduce the daily busy-work.

a) identical basic procedures at all levels
A teacher can set up all their classes to begin with a greeting, the date and weather in Latin (or the target language), followed by a song of the week and/or a discussion or writing prompt about what they did or are going to do on the weekend. Notice that all this can be identical for all levels. See my example of a Monday routine

b) Redundant lesson planning for activities and assessments
In terms of lesson planning, a teacher can make sure that the same kinds of things happen in different levels on the same day. E.g.

Monday is reading and discussion of the weekend, followed by learning a new song.
Tuesday is FVR followed by a drawing activity, followed by a quiz (based on a Quizlet study set);
Wednesday begins with a NLE warmup followed by a partner retell of the class story, followed by a discussion of a grammar topic;
Thursday is test day and/or FVR followed by culture research on computers;
Friday begins with a discussion of the weekend, followed by a game based on the week’s vocabulary, and then ending with a 10 minute timed write.

Notice that although the content/materials are different in each level, the procedures are identical. See my example of a weekly schedule

c) Teaching the same content at different levels (adapted or unadapted)
(adapted) In terms of teaching THE SAME CONTENT at multiple levels, teachers could take a myth from Ovid, or a story from Vergil’s Aeneid, and adapt that reading (or use pre-existing adaptations) into 3 or 4 levels. Many textbooks contain simple re-tellings of these myths for students in years 1-4, on up to the unadapted text. Some adaptations may still be necessary depending on your students’ particular reading ability, but there is no need to create these from scratch. Embedded reading strategies will be helpful for ensuring that adaptations are level-appropriate.

(unadapted) Another strategy is to use a simple reading with upper level classes (especially at the beginning of the year as a review), but make the comprehension questions and/or discussion or writing assignments more demanding in terms of richness of language. More complex versions can be available for students who want the challenge. Then no adaptation of content is required.
In addition, teachers with mixed-level classes can benefit from having all students interact with the same content, but interacting with that content at an appropriate level.

Part TWO: Student Failure: practices that can reduce or prevent it.
In foreign language classrooms, many students do not find success because they are asked to learn ABOUT the language rather than use the language to understand and interact with people and texts that they feel connected to. Overall, by shifting the emphasis away from learning about a language, and toward acquisition of the language, teachers can retain students who would not normally succeed in a traditional foreign language classroom. See THIS PAGE of links to articles which tie in these practices with social justice and equity. In addition, activities and assignments (homework, elaborate independent projects, etc.) which assume the trappings of privilege necessarily discriminate against those who do not have extensive support at home. When these procedures do not directly lead to increased acquisition (through providing comprehensible input), there is no reason to continue requiring them. This section focuses on alternative practices which do not penalize students because they are marginalized by our society.

Focus on language as communication, and limit forced output.

All students are able, and most are willing, to participate in communicative activities using a language. It is when we shift the perspective from USING the language to learning ABOUT the language, that we lose many students, especially students who are already marginalized by school culture. By keeping the focus on comprehension and student interest, we can keep all students longer.

It is no longer controversial to say that learners acquire language mostly (if not exclusively) through receiving input, not through a traditional notion of “practice,” especially those activities which force students to speak or write beyond their level. By limiting the required output to level-appropriate expressions of simple communication and/or demonstrations of comprehension, we will be more likely to support all students in reaching these goals.

Student choice during assessments
Tests are incredibly anxiety provoking, even for students who don’t struggle with anxiety. For those who do, traditional tests can border on traumatic. One way to reduce anxiety while still measuring proficiency in reading, is to offer some choice. Here are two ways:

1. Simple: instead of ten questions all of which students must answer, try offering 15 questions, and students must answer 10 for full credit.
2. More involved: You could offer two readings of similar difficulty level and vocabulary, and have students choose which one to answer questions about. In both of these strategies, students are able to choose how they demonstrate their understanding and progress.

Allow Retakes
There are many ways to do this, but if students know that they have a second chance on an assessment, they are less likely to panic and/or cheat. This goes back to the issue of trust  discussed in the above section on self-grading.

Missing work make-up day (my STUDENT FLEX DAY)
Students who are missing work are usually the least likely to complete that work on their own or even meet with teachers outside of the school day. By dedicating one day per grading period to helping students who are missing work, or need to make up assessments, we can help prevent unnecessary failures.

No mandatory homework
I expect my students to spend 10-15 minutes every evening reading and reviewing whatever we have done in class. In addition, I make all materials and resources available through Google Classroom so students can access those materials wherever they are.
If there is a test or quiz, this review time is especially important for their grade.
Beyond this, I do not give homework, in the sense of a daily assignment that students must complete for credit toward their grade. This traditional form of homework can be incredibly stressful on students, parents, and teachers. While there are times when a take-home assignment is necessary and beneficial, a daily homework assignment routine may not be worth the stress.


For more information on how to structure your class days and weeks, see this page

This article by Mike Peto outlines how teachers can set up routines that do not rely on them to be the entertainer for large portions of class. In addition, if we focus on input and acquisition instead of skill-building, we can make these changes without feelings of guilt or professional compromise.