Assessing with Storytelling: Homework

 Online grammar workbooks are the trend in higher education, but they aren’t the most efficient use of time.

When I learn languages on my own I read, read, and read some more. This is perhaps the best way to acquire vocabulary and, therefore, grammar. As linguist John Pasden puts it in a post entitled Flashcards: That’s Not How It Works!, “reading is the original spaced repetition.”

I am convinced that the ideal homework for language learners should be to listen to and read level-appropriate language that they find compelling. I define level-appropriate input as i + 1, not i + 100. This means that Language 101 students would be better served to read and listen to language that shelters vocabulary. Reading the newspaper in Spanish won’t hurt beginners, but it will be highly incomprehensible and, thus, an inefficient use of time.

With this in mind, I am piloting* a digital workbook in my 101 classes that will help students acquire 50 of the most important words in Spanish through reading. Each night, students will have reading homework that puts the vocabulary and grammar I want them to acquire in context. The readings build off each other and at the end of the workbook I will test to see what they have acquired.

I will detail this pilot homework program in another post, but this nightly reading homework will give students another chance to negotiate meaning and mentally process the language.

The ultimate goal of this homework program is to prepare students to read one of the many CI readers available for beginners. The earlier learners start reading for fun in the language, the faster they will acquire, the more they will acquire, and the easier our jobs will be as educators.

This kind of homework fits nicely with storytelling. We tell and co-create stories so our students can seek out other stories that interest them. In this way, we create lifelong, independent language learners.

*Unofficially. This is just an experiment my classroom.

Online Textbook Homework

My department adopted Panorama from Vista Higher Learning. This comes with an online workbook that students use to practice the language. It’s better than some online workbooks, but it has a definite grammar focus with videos explaining grammar concepts in English. These videos are dreadfully boring, and they don’t help students build mental representation of the language (Further reading: an excellent post by Chris Stolz that summarizes Dr. Bill VanPatten’s idea of mental representation).

In some cases we can’t escape using the textbook entirely. In my context, for example, I am required to use the online workbook for homework. And since students have to use it, I want to ensure they get the most out of their effort. I do a few things to accomplish this:

  1. I assign mostly listening comprehension, multiple choice fill-in-the-blank, and fill-in-the-blank translation activities (i.e. Pablo ________ [to eat] una pizza). I do assign a few of the paragraphs with random blanks, but they have diminishing returns.
  2. I spend some time in class going over the assigned activities and “PQA”*-ing some of the unfamiliar vocabulary. This helps keep this homework comprehensible and makes it somewhat worthwhile for them to do.
  3. I limit student exposure to this homework in terms of their final grade. In fact, some of my students choose to never complete these assignments, but can still pass the class. The most skipping all the online workbook homework can do is drop their grade by a little less than 10 percent, or about a full letter grade. It’s there to give students a chance to improve their skills, not to as an assessment tool.
  4. I tell students about other things they can do to increase their proficiency (e.g. reading, listening, seeking out other forms of compelling input).

*PQA – Personalized Questions and Answers

I should also note that students always complain about the online homework as being too hard, and I agree with them. It is hard because we don’t learn language by practicing but rather through the mental processing of input. To quote the great Carl Sagan:

“The brain does much more than just recollect. It inter-compares, it synthesizes, it analyzes, it generates abstractions. The simplest thought, like the concept of the number one, has an elaborate logical underpinning. The brain has its own language for testing the structure and consistency of the world.”

Indeed, the brain has its own language for grammar too. Textbook rules only attempt to explain the phenomenon of language as we observe it. They are not what our brains use to produce language.

One day I would like to see us move away from these language “practicing” systems and over to ones that provide more and varied forms of compelling, highly comprehensible input. In this way, students will have the opportunity to acquire language in a more natural, efficient, and self-sustaining manner.

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