On Letting Go of Labels

One of the highlights of my time at ACTFL 2019 was a short conversation I had with Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell in the ACTFL Playground Saturday morning. She and her co-presenter, Laura Sexton, had presented a session, PBLL + TCI: Love Connection or Divorce Court that really resonated with me.  In this presentation, Sara-Elizabeth had adopted the persona of TCI (Teaching with Comprehensible Input) and Laura had played the role of PBLL (Project-Based Language Learning) in a skit based on a game show. This format created a context for a detailed conversation about the differences between TCI and PBLL. It was the first time I had heard two experts in our field openly discussing the disparities inherent in these methodologies and I couldn’t wait to find out how the characters in their dramatic presentation would resolve their conflict.  Of course, by the end of the session PBLL and TCI realized (as Laura and Sara-Elizabeth had years earlier) that the two strategies could be used together to build proficiency.

I was so thrilled to see these two amazing women demonstrate a way to bridge the divide that many have perceived in the world language community. It is an unfortunate reality that the labels we use to describe our teaching methodology can sometimes create a wall between “us” and “them.” In fact, I have witnessed some very difficult conversations between those teachers who identify as “CI,” and those who have chosen the “proficiency-based,” label. However, I couldn’t agree more with Sara-Elizabeth who later tweeted that the dichotomy between being a CI teacher OR a proficiency teacher is “NOT A THING.” It was such a relief to have someone as knowledgeable as Sara-Elizabeth so succinctly summarize my own beliefs. Although I sometimes use the term “proficiency-based” to refer to my own constantly-evolving teaching style, this is not meant to deny the importance of comprehensible input for language acquisition.  In fact, I fully agree with Sara-Elizabeth’s explanation (via Twitter) that “proficiency can’t be built without CI and the result of CI is proficiency.”

While most 21st century language teachers understand the role of comprehensible input in building proficiency, there is less agreement on how best to provide this input. Current methodologies differ in both the specific strategies and the types of resources that are suggested. Based on our training, experience and community, many of us have aligned our practice with one of these methodologies and may even identify ourselves as “I am [methodology].” It is so validating to be a part of a specific community and I understand the desire to identify as a member of a specific group. However, I think that doing so sometimes negates the fact that we are more alike than we are different. I love Sara-Elizabeth’s suggestion that we instead describe our practice by saying, “I use [strategies].” In my opinion, doing so encourages us to go beyond the limits of our labels and incorporate strategies based on our knowledge of our students, our unique personalities and experiences, and the requirements of our teaching environments.  Furthermore, by letting go of our labels we might facilitate more inclusive conversations with teachers whose language teaching journeys have led them in slightly different directions than our own. 
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4 thoughts on “On Letting Go of Labels

  1. Susan Bondy

    Yes! I have been teaching French and sometimes Spanish since the early 90s. While my approach has changed slightly through the years, my overall goal has always been proficiency using the “whatever works for my students” strategy. The ability to collaborate via social media with other World Language teachers helps me to stay current with trends but also shows me that we all teach in vastly different school settings with differing expectations. What works well for me and my students in my particular situation may not translate well in a different school setting. And that is OK.

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  2. Sylvie Escande

    Brilliant Lisa! Merci !
    Imagination and ideas cannot be confined in a labelled …… box not even for Christmas!!

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  3. Kaleigh

    I love this!

    Our German department was the first to discover CI and its strategies, and they fully jumped in. I, on the other hand, prefer to use some CI strategies and some proficiency-based activities. I have taken what I love from many types of teaching and made my own thing. I even do some explicit grammar *gasp!*

    I think there is too much koolaid being consumed and too little collaboration and openness. Thank you for this blog post as a reminder that you don’t have to fit in one neat area.

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  4. Alissa Bratz

    I had to laugh because I somehow missed the memo that there was a divide. I consider myself “proficiency-based” but I use a lot of CI and “believe in” using CI for instruction. I guess I have always assumed that the one was part of the other and vice-versa because I have used them in conjunction with each other in class, and sort of interchangeably when I talk about my teaching style/philosophy. I have always assumed they were two sides to the same coin. I have been bumbling along with PB since about 2010, mainly using CI to teach vocabulary and to run my classroom/interact with students; but PB as my curricular and assessment framework. It’s been a (strange, Frankenstein-ish) hybrid all along, as I’ve grappled with developing my philosophy and approach/methods. This post was eye-opening and I agree with the others who’ve commented that what matters is taking what works for students & what fits for us as teachers, and doing our own thing. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight.

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