Does it matter who is right or is it about finding your niche?

In my first 17 years teaching, I only had 2 students go on to study Spanish in college.  One graduated and decided not to teach immediately and the other is now a much loved colleague.  I was teaching as I had been taught and I was not engaging students in culture or in language.  I was just covering a textbook.

In the last 4 years, I have had one student per year (2 this year) choose to major or minor in Spanish at the University level.  Tyler, health care major, Laura Spanish education, Kayla health care and Spanish, Aly business and Spanish major, and Jessica Spanish education.  What changed?  ME!  My passion for the language and its value beyond the high school curriculum.  What I do works for me and if what you do works for you and is continuing to raise retention rate, proficiency, and the number of students continuing in languages in college, why does it matter if our methods differ?

I want to introduce you to Kayla.  She is a product of 4 years with me in a TPRS/TCI classroom.  Heavy TPRS stories in level 1 followed by language and culture through CI in levels 2-4.  We do very little explicit grammar and no direct grammar style worksheets and activities.  Maybe you disagree with that… It is working for me!  My retention is high, my students are scoring well on the AAPPL, and most importantly, they’re starting to see value in studying Spanish in college.  This is a big deal!  Where we live, being bilingual is not seen as the blessing that it really is!

Kayla went from my classroom directly to a college course that had a core grammar focus… but you know what, Kayla’s teacher loved what he did and how he did it and she flourished there too.  Most importantly, she stayed in the course.  Kayla was in a 300 level course with students who had studied abroad and who had already taken university level courses and she got A’s!  (Sometimes I think she doesn’t give herself enough credit here but that is neither here nor there!) I invited Kayla to tell you about her experience and I don’t want to spoil her main point so I’ll let her take the stage!

You Are Doing Just Fine

Hey everybody! My name is Kayla VonBurg, and I am currently a rising sophomore pre-professional chemistry and Spanish major at the University of Mississippi. I graduated with the Illinois State Commendation Toward Bi-Literacy and now, have scored intermediate highs and advanced lows on the AAPPL examination.  I was lucky enough to be a student of Señora Toth’s for four years in high school and still lucky enough to be able to call her a mentor and friend as I continue my Spanish education through college.  There seems to be a bit of a healthy debate going on whether foreign language classes need to be more focused on grammar and structure or more focused on culture, learning the language by using, in order to prep students for college, and Señora asked me to lend my honest perspective as I jumped right into a 300 level Spanish class right out of the gate in my first year of college.

I’ll start with a quick synopsis on my first year in the class.  Rewind to freshman orientation in May of 2015, I was sitting in my advisor’s office, and the subject of a foreign language class was brought up.  My main concern was that my grammar would not be advanced enough for an advanced class.  The conversation of placement with my advisor was about 13 seconds long and went as follows:

A: How many years of Spanish did you take in high school?

K: Four.

A: Are you good at Spanish?

K: I mean, I guess?

A: 303 it is!

“Wow I am so screwed,” I thought to myself as I left his office.  The class was named Spanish 303: Conversation and Composition I, and I thought it would be the end of my Spanish education.  I frantically emailed my professor beforehand, saying I thought I was placed incorrectly and asking for a little reassurance.  The email I received back was that I was placed correctly and that I would be fine.  I thought that well, if this guy has a PhD in it and is telling me I’m fine, I guess I’ll be fine then.  

First day of class rolls around, and I learn just that—I would be just fine.  The class consisted of two exams, four compositions, some little quizzes over BBC Mundo articles, and a final.  Although the class would be conducted completely in Spanish, students would be able to ask questions in English at any time if the need arose.  Initially, my struggles were to keep up with what he was trying to say during lecture.  This professor spoke a lot faster than Señora ever did, and sometimes it would be hard to understand what he was saying as quickly as he was saying it.  Another big difference between this professor and Señora Toth was that he was tough but fair and that his class was going to be focused on cleaning up grammar.  Not saying that Señora T did not push us to be better Spanish learners, this professor had very high expectations, and class sometimes could be very intense.  This professor often put students on the spot and would be frustrated if students could not give a correct answer quick enough.  A moment in class I remember vividly was when we were learning accentuation and the word “rápidamente” was put on the board.  He called on me, I said the word was sobreesdrújula, and boy, was I wrong.  He called me out on not knowing it, and me being the sensitive soul that I am, I burst into tears in the middle of class.   However, I have this mantra-esque thing where I refuse to be outworked, so I went home and studied this aspect of Spanish until I had it down forwards and backwards.  Very weirdly, his teaching style was incredibly effective for me as I was scared into learning it.  From there forward, I worked my tail off to keep up with the conjugations, accentuation rules, and tense usages because I wanted to see just how much I could improve my Spanish in a year.

You are probably thinking to yourself right now, “Wow this guy must have been cold, robotic, and just plain mean!”  In reality, my professor and Señora T actually had a lot in common—they were decent human beings when it came to dealing with their students!  Señora Toth would start each class with a comforting “Hola clase!” and never let us leave a frustrating day in the classroom without telling us how proud of us she was and how much improvement she was seeing in us.  On the other hand, I would go to my professor’s office for just a quick question, and professor would not let me leave without asking how I was doing (and really meaning it!).  Sometimes, we would just talk about the language and where certain words came from, and it was cool to see the passion in my professor’s eyes as he went on about why it is “la polio” instead of “el polio.”  It made me want to work so that I could eventually become as knowing and intelligent as my professor was.  I think the common denominator between Señora and my professor was that they both actually cared about me.  Personally, when I am dealing with someone who truly cares about my well-being and how I am doing in the class, that’s when I start to care a heck of a lot more about the class.  I’ll touch more on this a little later.

The first composition rolled around, and we were told to write a 400 word paper on a third person’s routine.  It was pretty easy for me because we had just gone over it in class and it was something Señora Toth touched on.  However, professor told us that the first composition was the “first and last composition we’d fail,” which terrified me.  Much to my surprise, I got the composition back and I received a B minus, and it was probably the first time in my life I was ever ecstatic to receive a B minus, especially because a lot of the class did fail the composition.  I did notice that my paper was covered in red marks, fixing a plethora of grammar problems.  Although they weren’t super serious errors (mainly errors with “gender” agreement of nouns and adjectives, errors with gustar like verbs, aka stuff that was super fixable), it was still discouraging to know that as good as I thought I was in this language, there was still so much to be fixed.  I also found trouble with preterite v. imperfect, ser v. estar, conocer v. saber, subjunctive v. indicative, and other things that were apparently learned in early Spanish.  As I started to fix this little problems, I never received another B on a composition.

Although I did not know arguably some of the most fundamental things in Spanish, I had no trouble picking them up.  Easy fixes.  Could this possibly have been because Señora Toth focused more on boosting confidences and learning culture?  Absolutely.  I will not deny that because it is very true that one downside of TPRS and culture study as a strategy for foreign language education is the possible loss of a solid foundation of grammar.  However, there were some aspects of class that I actually did better than some of my classmates (some who had been abroad and others who had taken university Spanish classes before).  Some struggled with, for example, “Comí en el restaurante” v  “Comí a el restaurante.”  I knew better than that because of Señora’s class, but because some of the other students had strictly grammar based classes, they would try to write their “Spanish in English” if you get my drift.  From day one in Señora T’s class, we were using the language, and I believe that made a bit of a difference between my classmates and I.  

So Kayla, now that you’ve told us your life story, where do you stand on this issue?  I have learned from both different teaching methodologies, and I have excelled in both. Here’s the deal—both methods clearly have their merits.  I believe that had my Spanish professor been a little more cruel, I definitely would have been punished for the basics that I did not know.  However, I still do not think it is necessary for high school students to learn how to conjugate “hablar” until the cows come home because that is really not all that useful until it is actually put into play and used in a real life conversation.  A healthy mixture would be ideal for the student, but how to do that?  I am afraid I am not educated enough on foreign language education to give you an intelligent answer.

Going back to what I said earlier, your students are going to care more about your class and learning language if it is clear that you care about them.  Plain and simple.  The methodology, yes, is important; however, it is not going to make a difference which one you choose if your students can tell that you are not passionate about the subject.  The fact of the matter is, whichever methodology you choose, do it right; do it with passion.  Students will still be messy intermediates and novices, and students will still be missing out on some part of the Spanish language, whether it be grammatical or usage.  The more passionate your students are about the language, the more they are going to want to learn on their own; the more they are going to want to work for it.  I’m going to say this once, loud and clear: if you light the fire within your students, they will be just fine in college.   

I’m going to step down off of my soap box and pray that  this was a solid addition to the intellectual conversation going on between teachers.  I apologize that this was like a poorly written paperback novel and hope that this helps teachers understand what exactly goes on in student’s minds.  

Yours in language,


To quote Kayla, “The methodology, yes, is important; however, it is not going to make a difference which one you choose if your students can tell that you are not passionate about the subject.”  Be passionate and be you.  The key is that you love your students and help them see that they can and will be successful studying language!