Students Who Just Aren't Getting It?

What to do about students who seem not to be “getting it?” And what about teaching grammar?

I received the following two-part question this week from a friend of mine:

So how do you help failing kids who just don't get it (a very small few)? I tend to feel like --oh well, !!! If they were there and still after all the circling...I have some kids who struggle with vocab and reading in English, much less Spanish!

Also, with level 2 I am finding I am really teaching them how to do verb chart for present tense because without the concept (which I didn't touch in level 1) or conjugating, they can't really learn any grammar.

My response:

Those few that seem lost no matter how many times you go over it...well, I keep having patience as best I can hoping they are learning at least something. I can usually tell that they are picking up at least a bit of language when I have them write 10-minute essays, even if they are bombing all the quizzes and tests, and then that makes me feel better about it. I don't think there is anything you can do except to keep teaching the best you can and wait for them to bloom. I have had students recently - two boys immediately come to mind - who seemed at first not to be picking up anything. One of them was miserably bombing every quiz and test and could barely write two sentences on a 10-min essay, but I just kept encouraging him. By the end of Spanish 1, he could write 4-5 sentences and was able to tell me the basic skeleton of a story in Spanish for the final, so honestly, I counted that as gain. (This kid was on an IEP too.) The other guy was just very slow acquiring Spanish. After struggling through Spanish 1, he took Spanish 2 and that was when I saw him start to show more language growth. In level 2 he usually managed to get 80-85 words on 10-minute essays, and over time that writing looked more and more like real Spanish :-). I think patience is key and just hanging in there. You might talk to them (if you haven't already) and ask them what is making Spanish hard for them, what would help them learn it better, etc.

Grammar, yes. We are teaching some conjugating in level 1, and quite a bit of explicit grammar in level 2. I'm not sure it is producing much growth in terms of language production, but it seems to satisfy our departmental desire to see them doing grammar. :-) My main mode of instruction is still stories to deliver comprehensible input.


She followed up by asking me when I start 10-minute essays in level 1. My response:

I start 10-minute essays in Spanish 1 the first day. Of course, that first day they can usually only make a list of words, but it sets up that expectation (of writing essays and getting a certain number of words.) I have them write another after about 6 weeks. At that point, they can usually do paragraphs composed of very basic sentences. I put up a stick figure drawing and have them write a story about it. For me, this is a very useful assessment technique that shows you what language they have acquired enough to produce on paper. No dictionaries, 10 minutes to write just off the top of your head. I do let them ask me for individual words as they write, but only some kids take me up on that, and you can tell that they are writing pretty fluently with or without your help usually. If you haven't done it, try it! Your kids might surprise you in what they can put down. The first time might be a little slow going until they get used to the idea, but over time they really do see improvement and you will too.

My own favored approach with struggling kids is to keep encouraging, keep helping, keep trying to show them that a) I expect them to learn Spanish, and b) I believe that they can learn Spanish. Everyone acquires at different rates, and I’ve seen over and over that kids who start out slow can still make progress. I admit, I do get discouraged at times with certain ones, but I try not to ever let it show.

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