How NOT (I Repeat: NOT) To Assess The Progress Of L2 Students In A 90+% Target Language Classroom

I need some help.

I need some feedback on a thought I’ve been developing regarding how to assess the progress of L2 students who have been learning L2 by being immersed in a comprehensible L2 environment.

Here’s the thought: Don’t expect students (from an L2 classroom where the teacher stays in the target language 90+% of the time) to be able to answer assessment questions like:

  • What is the word for “please” in L2?
  • Match the following L2 phrases with their correct English translation.
  • Fill in the sentence blank with the correct form of the L2 verb.
  • Also…(especially if the student is younger than a 4th grader) I don’t think parents should be shocked if it takes a lot of effort for their child to answer the question, “What did you learn in L2 class today?”

I’m starting to think that foreign language teachers shouldn’t expect students in their #TL90plus classroom to be able to think that way.

Here are two stories that explain why:

Story 1 – “Teach Me Your Language”

Every year I teach 600 elementary aged students.  Whenever I meet a student that speaks a heritage language, other than English, I tell them: “If I teach you Spanish…you should teach me your language.” (i.e. Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese, Turkish…etc)

Over the last 11 years I’ve tried learning basic phrases in the language that these students speak at home with their parents.  (It’s important to note that most of these children speak their heritage language fluently with their parents.  When they’re at home, they can navigate, the Russian language (for example), with ease and fluently talk about a wide variety of topics.
I’ve noticed, however, that when they are with me (a non-Russian speaker in a setting where they never use Russian words to communicate) they struggle to answer seemingly simple questions about their language.  For example, If I ask, “how do you say the word for ‘please’ in Russian?” they might…
  • look at me with a blank stare
  • they think for a while
  • and then they say, “I forgot.”

I’ve also noticed that this happens more consistently with students that are younger.  The older students (4th and 5th grade) tend to be able to give me the Russian word for the English word that I give them.  The younger students, however, almost exclusively, freeze up, seem shy, don’t respond, or say, “I forget.”

When I ask them to make a direct connection between their L1 and my L2…THEY CAN’T.

They CAN fully function in their family’s L1 environment (Russian).  They CAN fully function in the school’s L2 environment (English).  But they struggle when they are asked to make direct connections between the two languages.

Story 2 – “That’s Home!!!”
The other week I got so excited about an idea I had to make a special connection with one of my 1st grade students who speaks Russian at home and perfect English at school.  I recently downloaded a trial version of Rossetta Stone (in Russian) onto my iPad.  When I saw the pictures and heard the Russian audio, I knew right away that my student would love seeing/hearing it.  Remember: this 1st grade girl can speak English just like her 1st grade classmates.  …but at home the family only Speaks Russian.
I walked into her classroom (while she wasn’t too busy with other work) and I showed her the app.  I briefly showed her how to use the interactive features and she saw the pictures and heard the audio recordings of native Russian speakers.
As soon as she heard/saw it her eyes brightened up….and she said, “That’s home!”
Notice that she didn’t say, “That’s Russian,” or, “That’s the language that I speak!”  She said, “That’s home.”
Her statement made me realize that, in her mind she doesn’t think in terms of “languages” or “L1” or ” L2” or “translating.”  If she tries to say something in English to her friends, she probably doesn’t think of it first in Russian and then wonder, “what is the English equivalent of these Russian words that I would like to speak to my English-speaking classmates?”
If she has any thoughts about languages, I would guess that she would think more along the lines of:
“My parents speak to me differently than my school teachers speak to me.”
“The words I use at home (to communicate and get what I want) are different words than the words I use at school (to communicate and get what I want).”
Because of experiences like these, I have developed the phrase:
L2 teachers (who stay in the target language) should try to help students avoid thinking, “this L2 word means this L1 word.”  Instead, students should think, “In this L2 situation, this L2 phrase is used.”
Why is this discussion important?
Foreign language teachers need to assess the progress their students are making.  Foreign language teachers need to make sure that their instruction is effective (i.e. that the students can give an acceptable demonstration proving that they’ve mastered of each day’s performance objectives).
However, foreign language teachers need to make sure that they are using appropriate assessment measures.
It would be inappropriate for a #TL90plus foreign language teacher to teach in the target language and then ask their students to demonstrate language acquisition progress by providing direct translations.  Staying in the target language, as a foreign language instructional strategy, isn’t about helping students to make connections between L1 and L2.  It’s about giving them the tools they need to jump into a different world.  A world where people use different verbal sounds (and read and write different letter patterns/symbols) to interact, enjoy friendship, argue, express passions, create, debate, express their grief, work…etc.
What do you think?
I’m particularly curious about your experience with older individuals.  I only work with young students.
1- Is it ‘easy and natural’ or ‘difficult and strange’ for older students, particularly students immersed in a comprehensible L2 environment, to make direct connections between L1 and L2?
2- Do you think students should be expected to demonstrate language acquisition by making direct connections between two languages, or should teachers keep the following phrases in mind when they are preparing their assessments:
L2 teachers (who stay in the target language) should try to help students avoid thinking, “this L2 word means this L1 word.”  Instead, students should think, “In this L2 situation, this L2 phrase is used.”
Leave comments below or add to the conversation on twitter by using #langchat (for general language teaching comments) and/or #TL90plus (for staying in the target language” comments).

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Señor Howard

Señor Howard – – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – – @calhwrd

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6 thoughts on “How NOT (I Repeat: NOT) To Assess The Progress Of L2 Students In A 90+% Target Language Classroom

  1. Just wanted to tell you as a long-time follower, that this is the best post yet. I just love it! You have made a powerful argument that is both logical and emotional. From an assessment standpoint: absolutely! Assessment should mirror “instruction” so if we are teaching using L2 90% of the time, than the assessment needs to mirror that. From an emotional standpoint: absolutely! Although, I wonder how quickly read that point of “home-language-feeling” in their L2. Seems like it’s our job to help them get there as fast as possible.

    Great post! THANK YOU!

  2. Thanks for sharing this post. I’m not teaching in a 90% immersive TL environment (yet), but as a high school WL teacher at a “legacy methods” school starting to move towards a more proficiency-based approach, these are my thoughts on your two questions at the end.

    1) I think many HS students walk into a WL class “expecting” those L1 -> L2 connections to be made. Many of them think they can’t function unless they “know” what those words mean in L1, and they dislike having that knowledge gap created. It’s difficult for many of them to “trust” in the L2 and feel that “saying this in L2 is what makes sense for this L2 situation”. Lots of L1 interference comes into play here. (I’m not commenting on whether these things are good or bad pedagogically — those are just my observations of student reactions).

    2) I think you already know the answer to this question, since you said in your post “It would be inappropriate for a #TL90plus foreign language teacher to teach in the target language and then ask their students to demonstrate language acquisition progress by providing direct translations.” To me, the interesting part of the question is when you say “L2 teachers (who stay in the target language) should try to help students avoid thinking, ‘this L2 word means this L1 word.’ Instead, students should think, ‘In this L2 situation, this L2 phrase is used.'” From my HS WL teacher lens, my first thought is that my goal (as someone who gets to see my kids everyday, or some equivalent chunk of time on a block schedule) is to quickly get students out of Novice level. I don’t want my students to be producing at the word/phrase level; I want them to be moving from discreet sentences to connected discourse as soon as possible. I’m not sure if it bothers me if they “think” in L1, but I don’t want them to get stuck because they don’t know how to say something in L1. I want them to be able to circumlocute like champions using the L2 they have acquired.

    Since you specifically brought up the topic of assessment in your question, two thoughts come to mind. I think it is valid to give assessment prompts in English, because it is important for students to understand what they’re being asked to do. However, there’s a big difference between “Look at this picture of a family and describe what they look like” vs. “Describe what this person looks like by stating their hair length, hair color, height, and facial hair.” Prompt A gives students some choice in who and what they talk about, while Prompt B reduces them to translating an L1 vocab list.

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