We teach kids to speak real Spanish. For Life

by Erica Fischer on Dec 22, 2014

How do we handle students who might not successfully complete the first semester of our classes?

Welcome back to #langchat! Last Thursday, whether Langchatters were already done with Fall term or will have to wait to wrap up the term until the new year, they all arrived eager to chat. This time, participants discussed how to handle students who are at risk of failing. The end of the hour snuck up on everyone, with @alenord exclaiming, “OMG it is 8:01! #langchat is done… unless you are ready for the afterparty!”

Thank you to all of our participants and to our moderators, Amy (@alenord), Don, (@dr_dmd), and Sara-Elizabeth (@SECottrell), for leading the final #langchat of 2014!

Question 1: What causes students to fail in the first place?

Participants began by reflecting on what causes students to fail. They agreed that a number of factors play into student performance. @dr_dmd said, “Lots of reasons come to mind: motivation, little support at home, lack of organization, failure to plan and follow through…” Some instructors pointed to apathy as the main cause. @alenord wrote, “My experience is [that] mainly apathy causes failure,” and @SenorGrayNVD agreed, noting, “[Students] fail for a variety of reasons, but the biggest is lack of effort.” Other instructors felt that students fail when they feel that the material has no relevance for their lives (@Luzgriselda) or when there is adisconnect between instructors and students (@Profe_Taylor). @dr_dmd pointed out the importance of fostering creative engagement: “So much depends on the teacher providing [opportunities] for creative engagement! Are we boring them to failure?” In addition to capturing student interest, @virgilalligator added that instructors should communicate clear expectations and show students concrete ways to meet them. Finally, several instructors highlighted the role of student image and confidence in success. @Sralandes said, “I think [students] are scared to try because they are worried they will fail or look uncool to their peers.” @CatherineKU72 echoed this sentiment, observing that “[students] start language [classes] usually at 14, [which is a] tough time to speak up, feel confident, [and] experiment [with] identity.” Nevertheless, she noted that “[language] learning requires [risk-taking]!” @carmenscoggins agreed that high school years are difficult: “I agree! What an awkward time in life to have to stand up in front of your peers and feel vulnerable!” Given possible aversion to risk-taking, which is inherent to successful language learning, some instructors encouraged more feedback and fewer grades. For example, @AndyCrawfordTX said, “[When] we attach grades to everything we kill risk-taking,” and @alenord wrote, “I think sometimes how we grade demotivates kids. [I wrote] about ‘perfection’ and how it kills kids here:”

Question 2: How do we support students who are at risk of failing?

To begin with, @sonrisadelcampo encouraged instructors not to be too hard on themselves: “[There’s lots] of pressure [for teachers] to ‘motivate’ [students]. Too many [teachers are] too hard on themselves [when it comes to] this [difficult and] multifaceted task.” Participants suggested different ways to support students who risk failing. Several Langchatters underscored the importance of redefining “success” and “failure.” @tmsaue1 noted, “I think it’s a definition issue. [In] my world students don’t fail, they have not mastered a skill yet.” He explained that “if we want to help students and change their motivation we have to change our language around learning.” For example, @tmsaue once saw a poster defining FAIL as “First Attempt In Learning.” In @dr_dmd’s class, he does not assign F grades: “In my class, no F’s – only ‘not yet’.” Further, @carmenscoggins pointed out the importance of tracking individual students’ progress without comparing them to other students: “I try to see each learner as an individual progressing at his/her own rate instead of where he/she fits in with the class.” Other participants discussed the value of highlighting student successes and focusing on the positive. @alenord encouraged instructors to “give [students] the opportunity to really SEE their success [through] feedback.” @SenorGrayNVD prompted teachers to also “accentuate the positive. Focus on CAN statements, on what [students] can do and have already learned.” Finally, @dr_dmd recognized the importance of belief: “So often the issue is BELIEF! [Students] need to know that WE BELIEVE they can, then support them so they do.”

Question 3: Should students failing a class continue taking it or repeat it?

Next, Langchatters discussed a provocative question, sharing their views on whether or not failing students should repeat language courses. Some participants favored having students repeat a level for a variety of reasons. For example, @SenoraWienhold wrote, “I think [students] need to repeat. If they try that hard to fail, I do not want them to disrupt [class and] bring down all [students].” @MlleSulewski provided another justification for holding students back: “Without a solid foundation, they will not have the input that will allow them to be successful in future tasks.” @SraKuonen agreed that “[language] learning is cumulative [and students] should master skills before moving ahead.” Others wrote that decisions about repeating a course should be made on a case-by-case basis. @Luzgriselda wrote, “Look at the [student’s] situation individually. [Do] they have the skills to perform at the next level? [If] so, let’s go.” She noted that “repeating the course might lead to a sense of continuous fail,” adding that instructors “need to be careful who repeats it.” @alenord agreed: “Wise words! Be very discriminating with those who repeat. Only for right reasons!” @dr_dmd felt that it is more valuable to have students keep moving ahead: “I see more value in pressing on. I have had many [students] get it and then benefit from moving forward.”

Finally, @tmsaue1 questioned the system of numbered language levels altogether: “[You] asked for provocative, so here is my try. [What] if we didn’t have levels 1, 2, 3? After all they don’t mean anything.” @SraCasey built on this idea, writing that instructors could “[try] a rotating every-other year curriculum. [For example,] Spanish 1 [and] Spanish 1B [where students] take 1B if they struggled the year before.”

Question 4: What steps can we take to help students move forward successfully when they remain in our classes?

Participants suggested ways to help struggling students advance. Some recommended presenting the class with a mixture of new content and repeated familiar material. @crwmsteach wrote that instructors should “keep going [and] bring concepts for use in again [and] again in various themes for [a combination] of variety [and] familiar [content].” @SraCasey echoed this point: “Recycle, reintroduce, reinforce. [Use] different approaches, new activities.” Alternatively, some Langchatters favored pair work, with more advanced students assisting those who are falling behind. @MadameKurtz said, “Pair [a struggling student with a] successful student [or make a small] group with other strugglers.” @SenoraSherrow also highlighted the benefit of choice: “Provide all levels with opportunities to show what they can do in different ways.” Additionally, instructors reflected on the benefit of communication between students and the instructor. @alenord said, “We have to have [a] heart to heart with [students] to figure out what is going on and help them [develop a] plan of attack.” @SenoraDiamond55 agreed: “YES! Everyone loves a clear, specific plan of attack: teachers, students, parents…”

Question 5: How do we help students gain a growth mindset?

@tmsaue1 pointed out that a growth mindset is beneficial for students and teachers alike: “[My] friendly amendment for [Question 6] would be: “[How do] we help students and teachers gain a growth mindset?” @dr_dmd noted that #langchat helps instructors develop a growth mindset, and participants weighed in on how to help students gain one. @crwmsteach wrote that the “biggest challenge [is to] teach [students] that mistakes [can lead to] growth,” acknowledging that it is “hard [for teachers and students] in [our] culture of [right answers and] testing.” Other instructors agreed that teaching students to accept their mistakes is important. @SrtaJohnsonEBHS said, “I encourage making good mistakes! Certain types of mistakes show learning progress!” @SraCastle likes to “show [students] that even with low proficiency, they CAN communicate. You work [out] the errors as you progress!” @AndyCrawfordTX added that less focus on grades can encourage a growth mindset, and @jennabrookeharv concurred that more feedback and fewer grades can encourage student progress. @ShaneBraverman reminded instructors to “help [students] see that growth is real, possible, and achievable.”


Participants discussed ways to handle students who risk failing the first semester of class. They began by considering what causes students to fail or underperform, and they then suggested ways to support at risk students. Langchatters discussed the provocative question of whether or not failing students should be held back, and they shared ideas about how to help students who remain in classes to make progress. Finally, participants reflected on how students and instructors alike can develop a growth mindset, and they noted that mistakes should be embraced as part of growth.

Thank You!

Thank you again to everyone who contributed to Thursday’s #langchat and to our moderators, Amy (@alenord), Don, (@dr_dmd), and Sara-Elizabeth (@SECottrell). Join us again on January 8th for the first #langchat of the new year. In the meantime, happy holidays to all of our #langchat friends!

Due to space limitations, many tweets had to be omitted from this summary. To view the entire conversation, you can access the full transcript on our tweet archive. If you have a topic you’re eager to discuss, send in your ideas for future #langchats so that our weekly discussions can become as relevant and inclusive as possible!

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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