This post is the first in a series about language learning goals. Stay tuned for a Learner Edition, a Latin Edition, and maybe a Super-Practical Edition.
My goals as a language teacher are simple–at least to state:
Help each student grow in proficiency as much as is reasonable, given total time and frequency of interaction.
Inspire and train enthusiastic, self-guided language learners.
These goals are based on the following premises:
Goals are meaningful only with respect to individual learners.
I am not preparing students for anything in particular.
Let me unpack these premises, which, I admit, are stated a bit more dogmatically than I mean them:
Goals are meaningful only with respect to individual learners
Specific whole-class goals for language learning based on coverage or achievement make about as much sense as specific whole-class goals for physical education: Does it make sense for a P.E. teacher’s goal to be that each of her students run an eight-minute mile by the last day of the course? Such a goal doesn’t mean much, not least because some students can meet it without participating in the activities of the course, while others won’t meet it regardless of how intensely they participate. Even if the eight-minute mile is considered a goal, what else can the teacher and students do than engage in the kind of training that is known to lead to better mile times, as much as is reasonable given each body-and-brain’s potential and the total time and frequency of training?
Similarly, the best I can do, and the thing I should do, is to engage steadfastly in the types of actions likely to lead to increased linguistic proficiency (as determined by my experience and by listening to researchers and other teachers), and to train my students to engage in such actions. If I have one hour with a student or group of students, my job is to help each individual grow in proficiency as much as can reasonably be expected for that learner in one hour. If I have 237 hours, my job is to help each individual grow as much as can reasonably be expected for that learner in 237 hours. To say that I expect all students to be able to do X by hour 21, Y by hour 53, and so on, is reasonable only if X and Y are so simple and/or so general that calling them “goals” is meaningless.
This is important:
I don’t know of any way to predict the timing of precise milestones for an individual language learner, so “as much as can reasonably be expected” really means “as much as ends up actually happening, assuming students and I operated on good faith and with good information about second language acquisition.” (There exist charts indicating proficiency outcomes for learners who start at a certain age and spend a certain amount of time learning a language, but I don’t find them useful for creating goals or milestones for individual learners. There are too many variables, including teachers’ approaches as well as learners’ individual differences along many parameters. That said, target proficiency levels adopted by some schools and districts are a positive development insofar as they shift emphasis from both year level and topics covered to what students can actually do. Still, it is crucial to avoid the pitfall of thinking that X amount of “time in” should yield a certain proficiency level.)
I am not preparing students for anything in particular
What students actually do with their acquired language and with their language-acquiring savvy outside of class or after my program is up to them. My contracted job might include preparing students for something like an exam or a future course, but this is technically different from helping them acquire a language. In fact, it is devastating just how big a difference there often is between what is appropriate to do for people who have come to me asking to learn German or Latin, and what is necessary to do to help people succeed on a certain test or in a future course or program. This difference exposes serious flaws in the tests and, sometimes, in upper level language programs.
I heartily reject the idea that the goal of a language course is to prepare students for another language course or program, as opposed to habits or pursuits that a learner might choose to engage in, UNLESS
the entire sequence of courses or programs has been designed as a coherent unit by a team of people that includes teachers of all the levels involved
no element of a course or sequence is designed to weed students out or regularly ends up weeding students out
if a student chooses to discontinue the sequence at some point, what the student has done up to that point has been worthwhile per se; in other words, it is not the case that the sequence is only “worth it” if one continues beyond a certain point
the courses and the sequence assume and honor a great deal of variation from student to student
Stay tuned for the other installments! In the meantime, feel free to discuss or inquire about this post below or at holiday meals.
Note 1: I may do things other than fostering language acquisition that arise from or are justified by being a teacher of a school course that has the name of a language as its title. These may or may not relate to my goals as a teacher of the actual language, i.e., as a facilitator of individual students’ acquisition of the language.
Note 2: Goals such as “read X” or “cover Y” or“explore Z” aren’t really goals; they are actions. One could “read X” or “cover Y” or “explore Z” any time, without actual attention or reference to students’ capabilities or development. I often hear teachers say “our goal is to have students reading X in year 3,” which is fine, but (a) is not a goal, unless the type and degree of success in reading X are defined, (b) is difficult to tie to specific actions done to help students get to the point of being able to read X, and (c) can tempt us to treat the linguistic content of the target text as discrete points to be serially introduced, practiced, and mastered. This approach misunderstands or disregards the nature of language and of the brain’s use of language, and has led to immense frustration for teachers and students who wonder why the attempt to read X is so frustrating, even when they have “mastered” the linguistic content. There may be more on this in the Latin Edition…