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Teacher to Parent - Learning a foreign language without understanding its grammar and vocabulary

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Q: My school district has adopted a new curriculum in which foreign language teachers are not supposed to teach grammar or vocabulary exclusively, but students are to learn these things naturally. Any foreign language requires memorization, and for them to water down the program so that students can get better grades tells me there’s little value for their education. There are plenty of students making A’s and B’s with the new standards, but do they really know anything?

Many such spurious attempts to increase learning are done in the name of eliminating the “achievement gap”: broadly, the gap that exists between students who are “getting it” and students who aren’t.

Ideally, the “better” teaching methods would result in all students learning at a high level. In practice, it usually results in everyone learning less. There are two chief reasons:

1.The new practices are not suitable for learning the content.

2. The lack of rigor breeds torpor. Let’s take these one at a time.

On the first issue, foreign language instruction gives us a prime example of the problem. It is virtually impossible to learn a foreign language without understanding its grammar and vocabulary. Therefore any attempt to instill it into students without requiring that they learn these things is just an expensive snipe hunt.

So why do they do it? Because learning grammar and vocabulary is hard. It takes lots of practice, focus, and a serious effort to comprehend them. That’s bad news for slackers, most of whom comprise a big portion of the “have not” side of the achievement gap (genuinely slow learners, as any teacher can tell you, are actually a small minority).

In response, the purveyors of the new and improved “best practices” have devised ways, they believe, of teaching foreign languages to slackers that don’t require all of the hard work, memorization, and study. There’s only one problem: it turns out you can’t learn a foreign language that way.

At least you can’t unless you’re immersed in it, like most of us are with English. That’s one reason why many English courses no longer teach grammar or require vocabulary study: they don’t have to. And because all that stuff was way too hard anyway, a lot of the slackers were failing. So it’s all been replaced with lessons in writing Haiku and building Harry Potter dioramas. This has created a chain reaction that has made it even more difficult to learn a foreign language, because not only do students have no understanding of the foreign language’s grammar, they don’t even have the slightest understanding of their own.

As a result, students are leaving two or more years of high school foreign language study, yet they can’t even hold a conversation on how to get to the bathroom.

The second point − that the lack of rigor breeds torpor (“torpor” means “a state of physical or mental inactivity or lethargy”; those of you who studied vocabulary in high school probably knew that) − is even more problematic. “Rigor” (meaning “activities, practices, and instructional strategies that require students to push themselves”) is what helps make learning fun, challenging, and long-lasting.

Most students (because they’re human) aren’t intrinsically motivated to learn for learning’s sake. They have to be spurred on by a variety of possible influences: an inspiring teacher, the fear of being grounded, positive peer pressure, or, the most common motivator: grades. The “achievement gap abolitionists” have decided that bad grades lead to more bad grades and no learning, so they demand practices that permit all children to attain passing grades, even with very little (sometimes zero) effort.

What gets abolished in that process isn’t the achievement gap, but rigor itself. If you’ve ever stayed in bed an extra hour or two, you’re familiar with this paradox: instead of being rested and rarin’ to go, you’re just more sluggish, and you often end up staying on the couch all day watching Return of the Jedi for the 84th time. The same dynamic (or lack thereof) is at play in school when kids do not have to engage their minds to rise to a specific challenge. The result is intellectual torpor, even among the “have nots” who could least afford it in the first place.

One could not deliberately invent a system of education better equipped to decrease the learning of its constituents.

Thankfully there are still teachers out there who have not drunk this sugary, nutrition-less Kool-Aid and who are still dedicated to challenging their students and making them actually earn an education.

If the present trajectory continues, it will be no wonder that students are failing to learn a foreign language even though they’ve gotten an A in the course. It will be a wonder of wonders, however, if anyone learns much of anything at all.

Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992. He has served as Charleston County Teacher of the Year, Walmart Teacher of the Year, and CEA runner-up for National Educator of the Year. He currently teaches English at Moultrie Middle School and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance.To submit a question or receive notification when new columns are posted, please email him at For easy sharing and notifications, follow Teacher to Parent on Facebook:

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