Unpacking Common Ground: Second Language Acquisition Theory Goes to the Classroom by Florencia Henshaw and Maris Hawkins

Like many of you, I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of my copy of Common Ground: Second Language Acquisition Theory Goes to the Classroom by Florencia Henshaw and Maris Hawkins.  After interacting with these two amazing women on Twitter for the past few years, I couldn’t wait to read this book. I am happy to say that it far exceeded my expectations, as high as they were!  Although I am honored to be part of the team that will lead a #langbook discussion of the book on Twitter this fall, I didn’t want to wait that long to start unpacking this fabulous book. In this post I will focus on Chapters 1 and 2, but look forward to unpacking additional chapters in the future. For another point of view on the book, I highly recommend this comprehensive blogpost by Martina Bex.  

Chapter 1: Guiding Principles

As the chapter title suggests, the authors begin by presenting reader-friendly definitions of the important terms that will be used throughout the text. While these terms may be familiar to many of us, the simple, clear definitions ensure that the readers will not become lost in jargon as they devour the rest of the book. For example, language acquisition is described as “the process of building a linguistic system by making form-meaning connections from the input” and as “what happens to you while you’re busy understanding messages.” (p. 3). I know that many readers will appreciate this simple, comprehensible definition for a complex process!

In addition to providing working definitions, the authors clarify some important aspects of acquisition. On p. 4, they remind us that it is input that builds acquisition and output that helps learners get better at accessing the system. Therefore, “We don’t acquire a language by learning its rules and applying them.” 

Henshaw and Hawkins then turn toward an explanation of communication, which they define as “the purposeful interpretation and/or expression of meaning” (p.6). Unlike Van Patten, they do not espouse the unalterable communicative context of the classroom,  but maintain that “communicative practice” in the classroom most certainly contributes to students’ ability to communicate outside the classroom. I, for one, appreciate their contention that I can go beyond the classroom context in designing communicative tasks for my students.

Next, the authors turn their attention toward the modes of communication. One of the highlights of this section is an excellent table on p. 8 which outlines the role of both the teacher and the students for each mode of communication. I also appreciated their explanation of interpersonal communication as having, at its core, “an information gap between interlocuteur” (p. 10). While I have used several different descriptors when defining this mode, I think this one might clarify even further why a performance, such as a memorized skit, does not exemplify interpersonal communication.

After additional discussion of first versus second language acquisition and the role of teachers, chapter 1 (like the succeeding chapters) ends with examples that illustrate the chapter topics and a list of excellent discussion and expansion questions. 

Chapter 2: Goals and Assessment

Henshaw and Hawkins begin this chapter with a basic explanation of proficiency levels and their role in setting goals.  I especially appreciate the content of the “In case you’re wondering…” box on p. 32, in which they state that “Differentiated instruction is almost impossible if the proficiency differences among students are staggering.” I know many of us will be showing this section to administrators who insist that we teach various levels in one class since “It’s all French.” 

The authors continue this discussion by addressing the often misunderstood distinction between proficiency and performance. They remind us that “proficiency is what a person can do with the language in spontaneous, real-world context, whereas performance is used to describe what a learner can do after having had the chance to “practice” similar communication activities or tasks in the context of the classroom.” (p. 33). They clarify this distinction further by stating that performance “doesn’t mean memorized or scripted” but that “learners have completed activities to help them acquire the language and develop the skills necessary to perform similar (not identical!) tasks.” (p. 33). It seems clear that an important part of the role of teachers is to provide our students with tasks that will allow our students to both acquire language and develop their language skills.

In the next section, “Planning for Proficiency through Performance,” Henshaw and Hawkins provide a clear framework for curriculum design.  I was relieved that their ideas were closely aligned with the process that I use when working with teachers. In a nutshell, they recommend 1)establishing a proficiency target for the course, 2) setting course and unit goals and 3)planning daily lessons around specific communicative goals.  They emphasize the importance of evidence in this goal-setting and provide great examples in the table on p. 35. This table provides a great format for those teachers who are interested in creating communicative can-do statements for their lessons.

It is in the next section, “Assessing and Evaluating Performance,” where my own understandings and experiences most diverge with those of the authors, especially regarding Integrated Performance Assessment. On pages 38-40 they discuss several challenges to implementing IPAs and I’d like to address each of these individually.

The first challenge they describe is the time-consuming nature of the “unique” type and format of the feedback given throughout the IPA process. They state that this feedback is “co-constructed by the instructors and the students through guiding questions, self-assessment, and reflection.” (p. 38). While these are lofty goals, this type of feedback cycle is impractical, if not impossible, for classroom teachers with 30+ students, several of whom may be absent on a given day.  I would never have been able to co-construct feedback in this way, considering that it was sometimes weeks before all of my students had completed an IPA.  In my opinion, it would be unfortunate if teachers hesitated to implement IPA’s, simply because they could not adhere to this feedback cycle. 

The second challenge that Henshaw and Hawkins address is the difficulty in finding multiple authentic resources for novice earners. While I recognize that finding resources for some languages is more challenging than others, I have personally been able to curate appropriate resources for each of the languages taught by participants in the dozens of workshops I have facilitated. Many types of highly-visual texts, such as infographic, catalogs, menus, flyers, emergent reader texts, etc. are readily available for most languages and can be used as the basis for a novice IPA.  In my work with teachers, I suggest that curating pertinent authentic resources is an appropriate first step in creating a unit. The content of the available resources can then guide them in developing an essential question, learning goals, an IPA and the communicative tasks that will comprise the thematic unit. 

As a third challenge, the authors assert that “In most sampe IPAs, the interpersonal and presentation portions appear to be less developed or specific than the interpretive portion.” (p.39). While I agree with this conclusion, I do not find the difference in these tasks to be problematic. In my experience, the “myriad of questions” in the interpretive task of a typical IPA help guide the learners through the process of showing literal comprehension to demonstrating inferential interpretation. In addition, these question types allow all students to show what they can do with a text, regardless of whether they are fully meeting the targeted proficiency range for the course. Furthermore, because some of these question types have right/wrong answers, the teacher is more likely to be able to provide whole class feedback on this section in a timely manner. 

I find the more open-ended interpersonal and presentational prompts to also be vital in assessing the heterogeneous classes that most of us teach. The general nature of these tasks allows all students to experience at least partial success, and also provides the instructor with important data related to each student’s communicative proficiency. As a result, the teacher can provide the specific, individualized feedback needed to help the student to “level up” on the next assessment.  

In describing the fourth challenge, Henshaw and Hawkins explain that “Creating interpersonal communication tasks that resemble real-word use of the target language and are relatable to all students in the class might be somewhat paradoxical.” (p. 40).  In fact, I would say that designing a task that would be 1) authentic to the students in our classes, 2)completed in the target language, and 3)does not involve assuming the identity of a member of the target culture is darn near impossible. I do not, however, think that we should avoid assessing our students’ interpersonal proficiency.  It has been my experience that students are willing to adopt a suspension of disbelief in order to complete interpersonal tasks in the target language even when it is extremely likely that they would do so in the real world. Likewise, there may be instances in which it could be appropriate for a student to demonstrate their understanding of cultural products, practices and perspectives gleaned from authentic texts by responding to interpersonal prompts as a member of the target culture might respond.  

As a fifth challenge to the implementation of IPAs, the authors suggest that “given the fact that novice learners are exclusively reactive” we might “question the merits of having two novice learners perform an interpersonal communication task based on a relatively open prompt.” (p.40).  However, a Novice Mid example from the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements states “I can request and provide information by asking and answering a few simple questions on very familiar and everyday topics, using a mixture of practiced or memorized words, phrases, and simple sentences.” (italics mine). Therefore it seems to me that a prompt, such as “Discuss what you like to do with your partner in order to identify three activities you both like.” seems to be entirely reasonable for Novice Mid learners. In fact, it is my experience that it is often during a conversation between two novice interlocuteurs that “the magic happens.”  As these students use various strategies (repetition, gestures, binary questions, etc.) to negotiate meaning, they gain confidence and become more proficient communicators. Furthermore, speaking with a classmate rather than the teacher may also reduce the affective filter for many learners, enabling them to demonstrate higher levels of proficiency. 

For those readers who hesitate to fully implement IPAs, the authors do provide suggestions regarding assessment, as well as a discussion of rubrics and grading.  They also introduce terms and ideas related to intercultural communication in this chapter.

I hope this post has whetted your appetite for reading this important book. If so, you can order your copy from the publisher using this link or from Amazon using this one

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