Along the path to proficiency, we encounter many things in our classroom, in our department, and in the field. In this series, we would like to share some notes from the field from educators who have made an impact and have learned something impactful along their journey. Here they will share their notes from the field with us and how their learning has helped shape them, as well as its impact, as they help their students along the path to proficiency.

All of us who are proficient in a second or third language have a long story to tell.  Usually, it involves some classes, maybe a study abroad, maybe some travel or heritage within the family, maybe some volunteer work, but this broad path of proficiency has a lot of branches in it.  I want to invite you to the beginning of my path, into an intimate moment to enjoy my dad with me.  These days, my dad only visits me in my dreams, but whenever that happens I feel incredibly blessed to savor every moment and that’s how I feel now, to start this story with you and my dad, and talk about my path.

When native Spanish speakers hear me speak Spanish, which happens frequently because I often speak to my children in Spanish, I get three questions.  Always.  They’re so predictable that my husband, even before he could understand a lot of Spanish, would get a little smile that got a little bigger with every successive question, like, here we go again.

Those questions are:

  • “Where are you from?”  They know I’m not from their country, but maybe I’m from another country, they’re not sure.  So I say, I’m from Georgia.  Cue a puzzled look.
  • “Where did you learn Spanish?” Answer: My dad started teaching me at home when I was 10. Ah, now a light bulb.
  • “So, your dad is Latino?” No.  He was just one of those brilliant people who can put something down for 20 years and then pick it up again and learn it like that.  He learned Spanish in college and then 20 years later decided to pick it up again.  In those pre-internet days, he was the most resourceful person I know.  He picked up a Spanish textbook from the 70s, probably at a Friends of the Library sale, and a short wave radio that he used to tune into Voice of America broadcasts.  And then, so far as I remember it, he spoke Spanish.

At the time, I was 10 and I was homeschooled, and my dad decided to start a Spanish class for homeschooled students.  Yes, I was homeschooled, and I don’t have 10 siblings, I did go on to get a college degree, two of them actually, and I carry on fairly normal social relationships and have never in my life churned my own butter, so I know I just broke some of your stereotypes, I’m sorry.

In our homeschool Spanish class, I had to go because I was the teacher’s kid; every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5pm, there I was with my friends, working through that same 1970’s textbook and doing crazy skits about wearing a cheesy sombrero and ordering food from a homemade menu laminated with contact paper.  That’s not all that was cheesy- this was back in the early days of 8mm video cameras and I remember putting the video “credits” on a poster and slowly lifting it in front of the camera to “scroll” the credits at the end.  Good times!

But could I speak Spanish?  Not really.  I even hated it.  I fought every minute for two and a half years.  “I can’t do it,” I said.  “It’s too hard.”  “I’ll never use it.”  The same arguments I hear from my own children now.  And then I met people.  People who spoke Spanish.  I got involved in tutoring, I picked a few blueberries, and my dad took me to Ecuador.  I couldn’t talk to people yet, but I was getting there.  I was trying.  I went to college to get a degree in English and teach ESL and then discovered it was only a couple of extra classes to double major in Spanish.  Then I met a friend whose family ran a ministry in McAllen, Texas, and I got the opportunity to work there for two summers.  McAllen is in Texas technically but it’s almost not.  There are 10 pages of Garcías in the phone book and two people with the last name of Jones.  That’s where I really developed the ability to converse with people, I think.  So the real answer to “where did you learn Spanish” starts back there sitting at the dining room table with my dad and his 1970’s textbook but we both know it’s a lot more complicated than that.  It wasn’t in a classroom that I became a proficient speaker.

But I was called to pass that proficiency on to others who could have this beautiful world of possibilities opened up to them, and so I ended up in a classroom after all.  My own classroom.  After college, I taught for three years, a few hundred students in all, and I admit I couldn’t have even told you what comprehensible input was.  Within a year of graduation perhaps five of these students still had measurable proficiency.  But that’s because of bad teaching, right?

After graduate school, I fixed a lot of things in my pedagogy and engagement and success in my class, in school, skyrocketed.  We went from no Spanish 3 class to 40% of eligible students electing the class within one year.  But the long-term proficiency stats? They were maybe just a little better – maybe ten to fifteen percent of students reported to me some measurable proficiency a few years after high school.

Then a while back someone asked me, do you know any teachers who developed any significant amount of their proficiency in a comprehensible input-based classroom?  No, I did not.  And every teacher I’ve asked that question to doesn’t either.  Every teacher I know found their own pathway to proficiency and it wasn’t in a school classroom.

What does this mean?  Well, it hints that the SLA models + classroom pedagogy is not the key.  It’s important, but it’s not the key.  You know this is true, because I want you to be honest, how many of you frequently hear the comment “Oh I’d love to learn Spanish, do you give lessons?”  And how many of you answer, “What you need to do is take a class at the local community college!”  We’re classroom language teachers and we don’t even believe in our own profession.  But I’m not willing to stay in a profession I don’t believe in- so I asked myself, can classroom teaching even work?

To answer this question, I began to reflect on my own pathway to proficiency and ask others about theirs.  When I was being introduced to Spanish and the Spanish-speaking world, my dad did crazy things by any standards.  He took my class and me to the Chinese restaurant to sing “Silent Night” in Spanish to the undocumented Mexican couple working in the kitchen for very little pay and living in a tenement apartment owned by their boss who charged them way too much rent for it.  I remember tears coming down Rosi’s cheeks as she stood there, 19 and pregnant and far from home, listening to “Silent Night” in her own language.

My dad took me to the local blueberry patch to hang out with a group of rough, undocumented Mexican guys, most in their late teens and early twenties.  What dad today does that?  But we laughed, we sweated, I picked along with them, we sang songs and talked about their home. I remember Gerardo, about 18 years old and already in the U.S. 2 years, telling me about having been sent away from home because there were too many mouths to feed and not enough to put in them and he had to find his own way up north.

I got involved in 4-H and in the days when Burke County, Georgia had never heard of ESL, much less an ESL teacher or endorsement for teachers, I ended up tutoring two immigrant children in the local elementary school.  I helped Margarita with her worksheets and she even came to my house and played with my dog.

My dad took me to Ecuador when I was 15 and stayed with me two weeks.  While we were there, there was an earthquake and then he actually left me there, with friends yes but friends we hadn’t seen since I was 9.  But I made friends and I remember swimming with Edith in the middle of the jungle in a pool that was basically a hole lined with cement in the middle of a cold jungle stream that flowed in one side and out the other.  I watched the leafcutter ants march with enormous leaf pieces on their backs and practiced, hormiga, hormiga, hormiga.

My dad signed me up for Voice of America penpals he’d heard about over his shortwave radio and I started getting letters from men asking me about my hair color and eye color – lest you think early novices don’t actually have a reason to talk about their hair color and eye color, that’s what these men wanted to know and he shrugged and said hey, what are they gonna do?  Write them back.  It was pre-Google and it wasn’t like they were going to show up on my doorstep.

And then of course, there were my friends in McAllen.  I remember going from gas station to gas station looking for a watermelon for our Fourth of July celebration and practicing this new word: sandíaSandía, sandía.

So I can look back and say that my proficiency path has names: Margarita. Gerardo. Rosi.  Edith. My friends in McAllen.

That was me.  What about all the other people who have attained proficiency? What pathway brought them there? There has to be something in common that we can identify and capitalize on to make this group of people bigger. What about you? I have a few questions and we’re just going to go on a show of hands and here are the options- so you became proficient, and maybe there was one major reason that happened.  I’m framing this with the three great motivators identified in Daniel Pink’s amazing book on motivation, Drive, where he says we’re all motivated by a combination of autonomy, purpose, and mastery.  So those are my three options – autonomy, you were in charge of your own learning. Purpose, you found people you needed to talk to. Mastery, you felt successful and the more successful you felt, the more you wanted to learn.

I asked this same question in a poll, and let’s see how this turned out.  I think the majority of respondents are teachers, but not all, as I asked the question on social media openly to anyone who wanted to answer. 

173 people responded and the answers were: Autonomy was the low one – only 11% said that it was because they felt creatively in charge of their own learning.  Purpose was clearly better: 41%.  Mastery was the “winner” here: 48%.  Well, that’s interesting – almost half identified that it was that they felt successful, and the other half identified the purpose of “there were people I needed to talk to.”

Well then I wanted to know more about this mastery thing – what was it that they felt made them successful?  So I polled again, this time asking people to identify what it was that contributed most to their proficiency.  There were a lot of options and you may or may not be stunned by what I found out.  It’s the elephant in the world language classroom.  This time I got these results: 10 people, just under 6%, developed real proficiency in a proficiency-based K-12 classroom.  16 people, just over 9% said it was in a proficiency-based college classroom. There could be a lot going on there, like how long it takes to develop proficiency or the lack of really proficiency-based classrooms, but still, it’s low.  11 people chose self-study.  And the big winner? Study abroad. More than half, 96/171 said they became proficient by studying abroad.

We could take this a number of ways.  One way to look at it is to say 10 people learned in a K-12 classroom, 11 by self-study, looks like our students are better at this than we are.  But in the big picture, this told me where the mastery and purpose were meeting – even though people thought they were being motivated by mastery, it wasn’t disconnected from the people who speak the language, because, as I’ve come to believe, people are the great motivator.  They are THE difference between success and failure.  They are the way we actually measure our mastery.  In our field, purpose is the way we measure our mastery.

Okay, what does all this mean for our classrooms?  On the purpose side, that one’s easy, the purpose is imbedded in the people.  On the mastery side, we know now that we can give them As and say “look, mastery!” and in a few years that won’t mean anything.  But now I know even the mastery, the success, is tied into the people. So I started incorporating people along the pathways to proficiency wherever I could.

In our quest for autonomy, on the choices they can use for their homework, this is a sampling of options that connect them with people.

Also, I decided to make an authentic audience a required school supply.  I don’t give grades, so I’ve really got no external leverage here, but it’s a way for me to at least communicate with my students that it’s important to me and ought to be important to them.

We’ve established contact with a school in our sister city in Argentina and another via Edmodo. Did you know that the Edmodo foreign language group has over a quarter of a million followers? No matter what language you teach, the people are out there if you look.

With my own child, we have done Skype Saturday after Saturday for months and months with the children of a teacher friend I met on social media.  For so long it was like pulling teeth, like how can she be asking me how to say this when I know she is bilingual?  Then a few weeks ago, this happened.

I was a vocal critic of project-based language learning at the early levels, but then the more I discovered about motivation and purpose and how they affect long-term success, the more I thought maybe these project-based learning people, teachers like my friends Don Doehla and Laura Sexton, maybe they’ve got it right.  But what project could I do with my novices?  In our investigation for our ‘show you around my city’ unit our authentic resources were focused on our Sister Cities in Latin America and I discovered guides to these cities called 48 hours in… – and it hit me, there’s our audience.  What if we created a guide to our own city, a guide showing what to do if you have only 2 days to spend there?  What if we opened up the project to Spanish classes anywhere who wanted to create a 48 hours in… guide to their own city?  And so the project was born:

Using good pedagogical principles, proficiency-based teaching, IS relevant for student success, but it’s not the only thing, and it’s maybe not even the most important thing.  I’m asking myself a scary question and that question is: what if the measure of success at the end of our classes cannot be given a grade – we knew that – but what if it isn’t even in a proficiency level label?  What if it’s in how much we inspired our students to connect with people?

Last year, 3 out of 4 conferences I went to had keynote speakers who were monolingual, including ACTFL.  Clearly, there is a disconnect in what we are saying and what is actually happening, in what we are actually doing.  One of these speakers got up and the first thing she said was, “I actually got my degree in French, but don’t speak to me in French, except maybe to ask my name, because I don’t speak French.”

Ah, you say. But her teacher probably practiced bad pedagogy. Ah, I say, but so did mine.

Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell
 is a Spanish teacher and consultant based in central Kentucky. She is also a curriculum specialist for Calico Spanish and the creator of