What if I’m just fed up with my students’ attitudes about language?

If you are, I’d say you’re standing on the same cliff edge that I stood on in 2006!  I was frustrated by my scores on my first attempt at National Board Certification, I was saddened by apathy about language learning and homework.  I was heartbroken that in spite of my best efforts the students were not using language after high school (the vast majority). I was down that they were great at quizzes but terrible at any type of interpersonal interaction.  I felt like I was 12 years into a career that didn’t feel like fun!  So I jumped off.

If you’re feeling brave, let me tell you about the results first: (We are a school of 365 students with 1.5 Spanish teachers, average size of graduating class 80, average class size 20)

  • current retention rate appx. 65% across the four year program (55 level 1 to 36 level 4)
  • of the 36 graduating seniors ALL place Intermediate 1 or better on the AAPPL exam in Reading and Listening.  appx. 90% place Intermediate 3 or better. appx.  70% place Intermediate 4 or 5!
  • of the 36 graduating seniors, 3 place at Novice 4 on the AAPPL exam in Writing and Speaking, appx. 90% place over Intermediate 2, appx. 60% Intermediate 4 or 5!   These numbers kill me because they beat the national average of N4-I1!
  • our student giving project is approaching $10,000 in donations in its 4th year!
  • we have seen a huge increase in numbers of students using language outside the classroom and in their university studies.

So what did we do?

  1. We ditched the textbook.  But not the first year!  I was the lone language teacher back then.  The program at the upper levels was small so we didn’t need a second teacher.  I pared down the vocabulary lists (check out my chuck it bucket post here.) If you are in a district with colleagues who are married to the text for one reason or another, the chuck-it bucket can help you adapt your curriculum so you can be free to be YOU while trying to jump through district required hoops!
  2. We started to USE language.  I will admit it, I spoke about 90% ENGLISH in my classes for 12 years.  When far, far former students tell me how many vocabulary words they remember, it makes me sad because that is all I ever gave them.  A lot of disconnected facts!  No real language skills.  But things are different now!  From day one of level 1 we use SPANISH.  It isn’t scary, kids don’t say “ooooh, you won’t like that, you can only use Spanish…” We use very comprehensible input and we talk a LOT about them and their interests.  YES.  For a whole year!  Tons of fun stories, movies, authentic resources, all things that lead back to great conversations in simple NOVICE appropriate ways.  And we just go on from there.  We can talk about Civil Rights, War and Peace, any AP theme… we just use language appropriate to the level!
  3. We got some training.  I went to TPRS, TCI, OWL, all kinds of workshops and gleaned the most effective ways to present COMPREHENSIBLE input!  It didn’t happen in a day but every year, I learned to slow down more.  To have more fun.  To enjoy our secret code language!
  4. We brought in culture.  I live in a rural area.  It is hard for my students to see when, why, how they are going to use Spanish.  Learning little by little about the lives of the people who speak this language (and learning it as more than a cultural bubble in a textbook) has been eye-opening.   Again, these units didn’t come overnight! I adapted from friends (kplacido.com, Kara Jacobs, martinabex.com, Cynthia Hitz to name a few). I designed 2 per course per year!
  5. We started teaching and grading for PROFICIENCY!  It is not about how many endings students can learn.  Sadly, learning only present tense in Spanish 1 is so unnatural and yet it is how every text is set up!  We use verbs organically.  If I need level ones to use subjunctive “His mom wants him to go” I just teach them that structure.  By the time we look at it more deeply later, I have lots of seeds planted and I just have to water them to get grammatical transference.  Same with past tenses.  We compartmentalize them into Spanish 2 and then move on to 25 other grammar points in 3/4… but you know what holds back student proficiency?  An advanced low speaker has a reasonable control of present/past tenses/and future… After college kids don’t always come out advanced low without a study abroad!  Clearly we are not getting those three key tenses enough repetitions in our 4 years with them!  The other stuff is really great but don’t sacrifice the key stuff.
  6. We started connecting to student careers.  I spent years letting students think that their only option as a Spanish major/minor was to become a teacher.  Some of them want to, but the majority want to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects.  We have cross-curricular lessons that put students in touch with their language study as it applies to their field of interest!  Check out my posts about water for the Engineers, Natural Scientists, and the Philanthropists.  We study music, law, literary features, art, exercise, food, soooo many things that connect Spanish with their lives and loves.

Please don’t feel frustrated about a new generation of kids who just don’t care!  They do!  There are just untapped resources to reach them!  If we truly want to see a nation that values language, we have to help them see where language fits not only for future language teachers but for every student in every career!  Take the plunge!  You won’t regret it for a second.  I’m 10 years in (almost as many as I taught from the text) and I just love the freedom I have to teach the units I love, the topics that interest my students, and the cultures I am so fond of!


  1. Thank you! I needed this. I just dusted off my textbook and decided that “if the kids don’t care and the parents don’t care, then why should i care if a student ‘acquires’ the language?” It has been rough. I’ve taught for 14 years and I am beginning to feel like the only thing world language is good for is “getting into college and meeting graduation requirements.” I want more for my students.

  2. Reblogged this on CI Peek and commented:
    Carrie Toth shares her journey from frustration to a-ha as she discovered teaching with Comprehensible Input! This post is a must-read for anyone experiencing the January doldrums!

  3. This is so inspiring! As I continue to grow and learn as a teacher, I will come back to this post. (Especially the part about not achieving it all in one year!) Thank you!

  4. You’re very lucky. In my student teacher observations, I am seeing inner city and lower/middle class blue collar students who just care about PASSING the class. They don’t do their homework and are happy to get a D. When they get their D for the two card markings, they don’t care about paying attention to the review for the final exam. Even if they fail the final, they still will pass. No matter how I instruct my student teachers on proficiency, they are bewildered, and even their cooperating teachers are disheartened.

    • Check out Denver Public Schools for the exact same types of results with inner city kids! If the input is right, the attitudes change! Hope you’re able to find some great examples to lead your MI kids into a positive experience!

      • Interestingly enough, my experience in Louisville, KY was the same. Teaching for proficiency, giving kids real language goals that they can reach was much more popular in the so-called “bad schools” (filled with inner city kids.) It was there that kids responded, because for the first time there was a teacher that showed them how to be successful. Now, in the so-called “good schools”, resistance to change was much higher as teachers (and their students) were happy with the status quo.

  5. I’d like to get more information about using the AAPPL measure. I am writing a grant proposal to fund my first year of testing. But I’m nervous about having my students tested. It’s a long test, it will be complicated to use the computer lab, and most importantly, what if they don’t do as well as I hope? Right now I’m thinking of just testing my 50 Spanish I students and my 12 Spanish III’s and 2 Spanish IV students. I have a large number of Spanish II students who are minimally engaged, so I may only pick the top 10 to test.

    Would you possibly be available to talk with me about your experience and give me some pointers?



    Rita Barrett Portland Adventist Academy Spanish

    *”It is not important to be better than someone else, but to be better than yesterday.”*

    On Thu, Jan 14, 2016 at 4:39 PM, Somewhere to Share wrote:

    > senoracmt posted: “If you are, I’d say you’re standing on the same cliff > edge that I stood on in 2006! I was frustrated by my scores on my first > attempt at National Board Certification, I was saddened by apathy about > language learning and homework. I was heartbroken that ” >

  6. Thank you soooo much for this post! It shows me that it can be done and hopefully I will get there soon. Can you please tell me what curriculum do you follow for Spanish 1. I have middle school semester Spansih, they don’t get any HS credit for it and I don’t know how to motivate them….don’t know where to begin. I read blog after blog with TPRS/ CI and I just feel like a loser because I don’t know how to apply it on a day to day base.

    • In Spanish one I use chapters 1-4 of Carol Gaab’s Cuentame and I use 4 novels! I’d say if you are able, one of my biggest recommendations would be to try to go to iFLT this summer! It is worth every penny! I didn’t feel confident in knowing how to apply CI methods without a textbook until I went to NTPRS (another great option!) those 5 day conferences really fill you up with great ideas!

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