Let’s Talk About Pacing [Four Tips for the Language Classroom]

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Student engagement. Formative and summative assessment. Content delivery (i.e. actual teaching) in a hybrid learning setting. These were all predominant concerns of mine before school officially began for me in early September. After all, this was terra incognita: how in the world am I supposed to teach language online? My students need immediate feedback, engaging and face-to-face conversations, not unsupervised breakout rooms and dozens of more tech apps. And while yes, I handled online language learning from March to May, problems still arose. Students went MIA, in-classroom activities did not always translate to online success, and tech issues were still present. Even with that experience, knowing that I’d have to teach online for a whole year has only worsened my anxiety towards hybrid teaching. Since the start of the year though, my classes have gone well overall, with just one small caveat: we are going at a snail’s pace. 

After three weeks of hybrid learning comprising six 90-minute classes and two 25-minute zoom sessions, I realized that I’ve taught nearly the same amount as I would in about seven 45-minute classes last year. That’s three weeks this year versus a week and a half of classes last year. Stretched out over a year, and that’s equivalent to teaching half of a normal school year. So it is that, among everything else, pacing has become one of my primary concerns for this school year. 

Much of my role as community manager at Extempore involves sifting through social media posts and finding content for both our accounts and our blog. Yet I’ve seen little in regards to pacing plans during the pandemic. Rather, most hot topics in the #edtech social world center on new apps, handling hybrid learning, and student engagement (or lack thereof). Given the current situation, this is entirely understandable. Flashy new apps and digital toys excite us about all their possibilities, and of course, who has ever gone into a school year saying, “Boy, I can’t wait to plan out my pacing for this year!” 

But we cannot ignore our pacing plans, whether for a class, unit, or year. After all, only with a long-term plan with objectives planted throughout can you properly integrate educational technology and hybrid strategies. Anything else and we are simply filling class time. This year entices us with possible experimentation, but we cannot let our learning tools trump our learning objectives. 

Admittedly, there is also a reverse side of the pacing coin, where we get so caught up in covering every language and cultural concept that we neglect room for adjustment, marching forward with lessons and classes regardless of student understanding. While most good teachers know the pitfalls of coverage teaching, it’s still natural to be concerned about how much we will actually cover in a school year like this. For teachers of AP or pre-AP courses, this concern rings particularly true. 

Between these extremes though lies an achievable balance for all teachers. Let’s see how we can get there.  

 

My experience of hybrid learning

In theory, teaching 90-minute classes would allow more time for teacher-produced input, and thus more student practice. Yet in the present environment, this is not feasible. Aside from violating teaching no-no #1 — coverage syndrome, too much content overwhelms students when they need as much understanding and compassion during an unpredictable and demanding school year. Add onto this late entrances to zoom sessions, in-class transitions, students and teachers both juggling dozens of tech platforms, and other unpredictable elements, and class time is quickly cut down. 

How do my 90-minute classes actually look then? In my plans, I reserve only 30-45 minutes of class for teaching actual content — comprehensible stories, vocabulary, grammar explanations, etc. You might be thinking, Well Mr. Castner, that’s a lot of time to teach content, why so worried about pacing? Well, even with this allotted time, I’m not teaching that much. For example, in this past week’s two classes, our language content consisted of talking and asking about classes in Chinese and using a few time expressions. That’s it. As tempting as it may be, I cannot overload on content instruction, especially when I already have some falling behind. The remainder of class time, then, involves (and I imagine this is similar to the approach of most language teachers)

  • interacting with students during content instruction
  • reviewing previous content
  • giving formative assessments of new content
  • having students apply new content to real-life scenarios, and
  • integrating culture into relevant content 

After six classes of doing this in a hybrid setting, I quickly realized that my classes would have a much slower feel than in previous years. But as I’ve said, I can’t force the content; I can only alter my approach. And this new approach has manifested itself in four different focuses discussed below: understanding, ‘need-tos,’ culture, and acceptance of reality. 

 

Prioritize both types of understanding

Achieving student understanding is the opposite goal of coverage teaching. Yet as understanding by design has grown, others have argued that backwards design as a trend does not always work for language acquisition, as instead of covering content, backwards design focuses on covering goals, which, it turns out, is still coverage! Instead, argues Lance Piantaggini, we should be adopting an approach of forward procedure, where we meet students at their levels and adjust our lessons from there. When we think about pacing, then, we need to focus on achieving understanding and assessing students’ acquisition levels before moving forward. 

Here’s how this looked in my classroom in the first week of school. After just two days of Chinese class I realized my level two students were missing some fundamental vocabulary terms. I knew where I wanted to start with them, but there were too many gaps in vocabulary. As much as it pained me to take time reteaching the basics, the alternative (jumping straight into a new unit) would have been unfair to my students. In order to fill in these language gaps, I took a few days to teach an abridged unit on asking friends about free time and making plans during the week. Like any other unit, I assessed throughout, and only when the results of these assessments revealed student understanding did I know that we could advance to our next unit, school life. 

Educational understanding represents the first type of understanding. The second type is related to empathy, being an understanding individual. In the hybrid learning environment, some students will thrive while others will flounder. Some have additional responsibilities outside of school that they may struggle to manage; some may be all-stars in the classroom but become overwhelmed in online scenarios. Our students need our empathy. Sometimes this means leaving homework for the next class period or postponing an assessment. It also means accepting late work, allowing redos, and giving every possible chance for students to show their learning. Through displays of empathy, we show our students that we value their difficulties too. We have to remember that this is not school as normal.

 

Focus on the ‘need-tos’ 

Many of our learning standards are written as can-do statements. Yet often these objectives lack a practical focus. When was the last time you asked for directions in the target language? How often do you actually go shopping and describe what you are looking for in the target language? Our learning objectives should be based on what students need to know to survive in the target languaculture. Sure, it’s nice to teach vocabulary for clothing, navigation, and even animals, and you may even have some fun activities to pair with these lessons. But in all the time I’ve spent in China, Taiwan, and parts of the U.S. conversing with Chinese-speakers, these topics of conversation are nonexistent. Instead, we need to focus on high-frequency words and language objectives for high-frequency situations. Create lists of utility verbs, employ TL exclamations in class, and base your lessons around language that students need to know. 

As I began to adopt this approach, I realized it would directly affect my pacing this year. Earlier I mentioned how my class’s first full unit would be on school. Normally, I would start this unit by teaching items around the classroom: notebook, desk, pencil, textbook, eraser, etc. I particularly enjoyed teaching this because it culminated with a project designing a hybrid classroom that combines the values of classrooms in China, in Taiwan, and those in the U.S. But given our short schedule, and the fact that this would take roughly two months to teach, I had to ask myself: what are my students more likely to talk about in Chinese: the concrete objects around them, or their abstract classes that they attend daily? In my own experience, it’s the latter, and from this decision I determined my starting point for this class. 

I remember a line from one of my Master’s professors some years ago: “if it doesn’t have a purpose in your class, you shouldn’t be doing it.” In a year where we have less class time than ever, students need to learn the essentials, and our pacing should reflect that.

 

Balance language content with culture

One of those essentials is culture, a staple of all language classes. In much of this post I’ve talked about teaching language, but culture cannot come secondary. More than ever, we should be searching for ways to connect our students to other students around the world. Students of all cultures are experiencing the pandemic in different ways, and sharing these experiences with our students instills empathy and understanding within them. Research how less fortunate areas might handle remote learning. Learn about how cities and ethnic groups adjust their holidays and festivals to maintain safety and health standards. Find out different approaches national government’s have taken towards the pandemic, then compare, contrast, and evaluate these approaches. Oh, and one more thing: there is nothing wrong with learning about culture in English (or other native language), so long as your students are achieving understanding and applying their knowledge. Forcing our students to learn culture in language that they have yet to acquire sets them up for confusion and failure while also only allowing for superficial understanding. Even worse, having to backtrack and reteach to makeup for problems that arose because of linguistic barriers occupies more class time. Keep your students’ perspectives in mind whenever you plan your classes. 

What does this mean for pacing? If, like me, you teach 90-minute hybrid classes, consider splitting your classes into two parts, where in the first half you review and teach language, and in the second half you introduce or continue on a cultural topic. Instead of assigning rote, dry language practice, give students articles or videos to consult before a lesson as background knowledge. Make a list of cultural topics and have students vote on which ones they’d prefer to learn. Choose cultural values that can pair with the language you are teaching, then integrate these values into future lessons. 

 

It’s okay to go slow

Realistically, these suggestions would also apply to non-pandemic teaching, so why apply them here? Well, when you’re teaching in a pandemic, a sense of calm is not often present. Emphasizing understanding, integrating relevant culture, and focusing on the need-tos can help us reset and approach our lessons and units with the right mentality. 

Earlier I mentioned the concept of forward procedure, where instead of checking off a list of goals or benchmarks,  instructors adjust to real-time student progress. Learning targets and objectives are flexible. Ultimately under this approach, our students’ progress will directly determine our pacing, and we will likely move at a slower pace. It’s out of your hands, and that’s okay. 

 

Teaching is all about flexibility. We change lesson plans on the fly, we change teaching styles on the fly, and many of us went from in the classroom to fully online in less than a week! We’re teachers: we were born to adapt under pressure. Our students, however, can’t always do that, so sometimes we need to do it for them. Slowing down allows us to meet our students’ needs and ensure understanding during this hectic year. If we accept a slower pace, we can make peace with many of the other frustrations we encounter. 

 

Final thoughts

As I close this blog, I’ve just returned from another hybrid Chinese teaching session. Reviewing my lesson plan last night, I felt confident having a strong amount of language content and adding on to students’ prior knowledge; it fit perfectly in the i+1 framework, if you will. Yet as class progressed today, I had a feeling it was too much. I taught and students applied their knowledge; I taught again and students used the language again, but even after only a simple warm-up, introducing a handful of words, and reviewing one small grammar piece (telling time), it still felt like too much. At the end of class, my exit slips confirmed that we needed more time on this language. 

All teachers know the feeling. The bell rings, you breathe a sigh of relief, yet you know there is so, so much to do. The wheels turn as you take mental notes on how to adjust for tomorrow’s class. As a good teacher, you know that student success largely hinges on your output and the design of your classes. Part of that design is pacing, something we have to constantly adjust. Just remember: there’s nothing wrong with going slower. There’s nothing wrong with reteaching content. What we cannot do, however, is trudge through our content no matter what our student progress tells us. Their understanding and proficiency matters much more.

 

References:

Piantaggini, Lance. “Backward Design: Bad For Languages.” Magister P. 14 June 2020. https://magisterp.com/2020/06/14/backward-design-bad-for-languages/

 

 

Grant Castner joined Extempore as Community Manager in August 2020. While managing social media and creating content with Extempore, he also teaches high-school level Chinese in Minnesota. An avid user of Extempore for language assessment, he’s always on the lookout for ways to improve his teaching practice. Have a question on how to adapt Extempore for your class? Just need help teaching? Contact Grant anytime at grant.castner@extemporeapp.com.