by Anna Matis
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been trained by John Seidlitz on Sheltered Instruction or the 7 Steps. Now keep your hands raised if some aspect of his training transformed your mind (or, better yet, your teaching practice) before you even made it to the lunch break? (Maybe his German simulation?)
That was me on my first day of employment as a district instructional coach, many moons ago.
The stars aligned when my first day on the job included sheltered instruction training with a man who, I was told by my colleagues, was an ESL guru. They literally said, “He is our guru,” and bowed just a little bit in what could only be a subconscious gesture of reverence.
Within the first 20 minutes of of my first sheltered instruction training with the man, I knew I had walked into a gold mine. By lunchtime, I was certain I’d found my holy grail. John Seidlitz had a room of 120 teachers seamlessly turning and talking, taking part in structured conversations with academic language, and reading, writing, and speaking about the solar system in Italian. After another language-immersion simulation, we were reading, writing, and speaking about the American presidents in German. How was this possible? And how could I replicate this as language teacher? Most importantly, how could I motivate teachers so that they could foster this kind of language acquisition in their classrooms?
The answer was the M.A.Q.
What Is M.A.Q.?
Now, spoiler alert: What you’re about to read is the answer to one of the activities we do at our sheltered instruction and foreign language trainings, but you need this gem in your toolbelt! As Jana Echevarria and Anne Graves remind us, there are so many factors that affect how quickly and efficiently students acquire a new language, including motivation, age, first-language development, access to language, personality, cognitive ability, and teachers’ quality of instruction. However, the only three factors that we as teachers actually have control over are Motivation, Access to Language, and Quality of Instruction, or M.A.Q. Understanding the power of M.A.Q. was the first key to transforming the way I viewed and experienced second language acquisition and instruction. This connection became the foundation of my book, 7 Steps to a Language-Rich, Interactive, Foreign Language Classroom, and I’ve borrowed and adapted a few key pieces from the book’s introduction here to illustrate this point.
As a former high school French teacher, I taught students from a low-income population composed of students, largely English learners, who often struggled equally with language and content-area learning. Some of them had spent years in and out of bilingual programs, so a lack of structure in language programming as well as a lot of mobility in and out of the district (and oftentimes the country) led to significant struggles in the classroom and gaps in education.
So understandably, once my students arrived, their first days didn’t go as I had hoped and expected. French class didn’t seem to mean as much to my students as it had meant to me. Many of my students were very reluctant to speak the language, and they were even more unwilling to write. Vocabulary was regurgitated but then quickly forgotten. We moved through the routine of unit-by-unit learning seen in many foreign language classrooms, such as learning about food and culture, and — of course — buying tickets at the train station for a journey they would never take. But actual French language development? Forget it.
What Was I Doing Wrong?
Motivating students in my classroom was tricky — not because I wasn’t funny or engaging (which I was) or lacking determination for my students to succeed (which I didn’t); there was something else happening. I was unaware that acquiring a greater understanding of my students’ backgrounds and ambitions would prove to be paramount to both my teaching and their learning.
I wondered why the kids weren’t motivated to learn French the same way I was. The majority of my students came from low-income backgrounds. Perhaps that was a factor? Many students came into my classroom without a command of academic English or Spanish. Others had personal issues they were facing outside the classroom walls.
I came to find out that, while many of these things were true, they were also beyond my control. As a teacher, I was concerned about all factors that could affect second language acquisition. I spent a lot of time thinking and worrying about my students’ age, native language proficiency, demographics, socioeconomic status, literacy level, and other related factors. But could I change these things? I didn’t realize at the time, although looking back now it’s obvious, that these are factors I just didn’t have control over.
What I Could Control, However, Was the M.A.Q.
Motivation was key. Despite my initial challenge, I had extremely high expectations for my students as they began the journey of learning French with me. This was probably because in my teaching, I attempted to replicate my own language-learning experience from high school. I didn’t realize until after the fact how motivated I was as a learner, and how this level of motivation that was instilled in me by a phenomenal French teacher affected my learning outcomes.
With a strong foundation in sheltered instruction, which the updated Chapter 89 regulations refer to as second language acquisition methods, we learn the transformative power of giving our students access to language. We do this by providing sentence stems, low-stress opportunities to partake in structured conversations with partners, scaffolded paragraph frames for writing as proficiency increases. Comprehensible input is also crucial. The quality of instruction is a factor that is purely in our control as teachers. A high-quality language learning environment is one in which, as teachers, we are able to increase student motivation and provide sufficient opportunities for comprehensible input and low-stress opportunities for output.
M.A.Q. is also the foundation to effectively implementing the 7 Steps to a Language-Rich, Interactive Classroom (and my foreign-language adaptation of the original 7 Steps). Once we make this connection, we can then use this information to more effectively scaffold our instruction and create access points to the language for our various groups of learners. Once you see your students’ performance and proficiency grow, the M.A.Q might just change your life, too.
Want to learn more about M.A.Q. and how to implement the 7 Steps in the Foreign Language Classroom? Join Anna in Houston on April 30 for a day-long training on her book, 7 Steps to a Language-Rich, Interactive Foreign Language Classroom!