Rigor in the World Language Classroom - An Interview with Robert Harrell

Last November I sat down and called Robert Harrell. I very much value Robert's insights, and hard work trying to answer questions in our field. He graciously agreed to help.

The purpose of the phone call was to ask Robert some questions about the edu-buzzword "Rigor" and what it means in the world language classroom. The exchanges that transpire below helped me understand this topic much better. I've finally got around to sharing it here. Enjoy.


Jim Tripp: Hi Robert, I’d like to talk today about what rigor should look like in the 21st century foreign language classroom. But first, what should rigor not look like?

Robert Harrell: To me rigor should not simply mean more work. I think that would be one of the big things – rigor should not simply mean doing more things. Rigor should also not mean doing a lot of things that do not require thought .

Jim: What do you mean by thought? Can you define that more?

Robert: Let me use an example from when I was in school. When I was going through the public school system the method that was in vogue at that time was the Audio-Lingual Method, and it used a lot of substitution drills. My mind works so that I can perceive patterns pretty easily, and once I had seen what the pattern was I could do those substitution drills without any thought of the language whatsoever. I could do those drills without knowing what anything meant; I could do those drills without communicating in any way, shape or form. I didn’t really have to think to do those drills. And my learning the language was not because of doing those substitution drills. My learning the language, which at the time was Spanish, was the result of making sure that I interacted with the teacher during class, but then also going outside the class and speaking Spanish with my Spanish-speaking friends. That was really how I learned the language, not doing worksheets and drills and things that I could do and still be thinking about other things.

"rigor should not simply mean more work."

Jim: And what elements of rigor did those conversations that you had with the teacher and with people outside of the class have for you, as you define it?

Robert: Right, as I define rigor… the element that they had is that I was able to keep testing my idea of what was correct in the language. The Department of State lists, as an element of its understanding of what rigor is about, the 'continuous testing of hypotheses'. So I would be given examples of things and as the teacher talked I would think “Oh, ok, that’s how you say that” and then I’d go and I’d try it out and my friends would either confirm that it was correct or they’d laugh at me and tell me that it was wrong.

Jim: (laughs)

Robert: And so I was continually testing those hypotheses of how the language works and that’s one of the elements of rigor according to the Department of State.

Jim: You mention the Department of State. I’m aware that you studied in the Seminary. People may wonder, since the concept of rigor is traditionally thought of as hard and more work… Was this information divinely shared with you?

Robert: (laughs) No, I actually did a Google search on academic Rigor and Relevance in schools, and came across a website from the U.S. Department of State intended for American Schools abroad. It’s really quite a lot of document and in Section 7.4, that’s where they actually talk about Rigor and Relevance. And there’s a page where they list both the elements of Relevance and the elements of Rigor as they understand it. One of the things they have on there, talking about rigor, is specifically what I said, that rigor is not simply adding more work. They said there are four elements to it:

1. Depth and Integrity of Inquiry

2. Sustained Focus

3. Suspension of Premature Conclusions

4. Continuous Testing of Hypotheses

They even quote Alfie Kohn, who is widely known for his stance on various matters related to education, saying that too often we confuse burdensome or onerous with rigorous. So they wanted to be certain that American schools abroad don’t fall into that trap.

Jim: You’re saying the Department of State is trying to explain this difference. Why don’t you think it has caught on? Why don’t you think people get it yet?

Robert: I think that part of it is, at least for American schools, that nobody ever looks at that website. It’s intended for American schools abroad, and that’s a completely different conversation from what is happening in the American mainstream. The American mainstream has a completely different conversation going on, all about standardized testing.

Jim: So moving on to the classroom a bit and the actual practical applications of this new definition that you are telling us about. I know that you use stories to teach language. How is storytelling, or perhaps story-asking better describes it… How is that rigorous according to this new definition?

"complexity of thought... is not identical with complexity of language."

Robert: Before I go into that, I think that there’s a distinction that we need to make that people fail to realize and that is, complexity of thought, depth of thought, is not identical with complexity of language. You can do very deep thinking with very simple language. For me, one of the key examples of that is found in the Bible, in the Gospel of John, Chapter 1 Verse 1. You can state that entire verse in one and two-syllable words. And pretty simple syntax. But it presents concepts that have kept theologians busy for centuries. So, depth of thought and complexity of thought does not depend on the language. So for example with the John 1:1 passage, “At the start of all things was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And going on to Verse 2, “All things that were made were made by Him, and without Him, no thing that was made was made.” Those are all, in both the English translation and the Greek original, one and two (maybe 1 three) syllable words. That’s simple language. It’s stuff that you get right off the bat. But it’s extremely deep thought.

Jim: And are you trying to differentiate language acquisition from the acquisition of ideas and intellectual thought, or are you using it to back it up?

Robert: What I’m saying is that in my situation in the public school, I’m dealing with students who are in 9th through 12th grade. They are 14 at the youngest and 18 or 19 at the oldest. They already have very good cognitive ability. They have the minds of 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 year olds. So the thought they can put into things – the ability to make deep inquiry into things – is not limited by the vocabulary that they have from the second language. They already have all of this ability, and so when we create stories in the class, the fact that the story is couched in extremely simple language doesn’t mean that the thought that goes into it is equally simple.

(In a subsequent communication, Robert adds: “I think that disjunction between cognitive and communicative abilities in our students presents us as teachers with a challenge that potentially produces a creative tension that can elicit wonderful expressions of deep thought as well as acquisition of language.”)

"a class in which the students are creating the story, and therefore needing to remain focused on the story, would be rigorous."

Jim: To use an example of a TPRS® (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) story –somebody wants or needs something, they don’t have it, so they go somewhere to get it – the thought of that can be complex. What is rigorous about it in terms of language acquisition? And why does that provide more rigor than, say, taking this story, or maybe not even a story, just taking the individual words and learning them via vocabulary flashcard drills and grammar substitution drills or training in that way?

Robert: The first element that I would mention is Sustained Focus. A class that is working on a story requires students to remain focused on the creation of that story. Whereas if you’re working on just, say, a worksheet – we see it all the time in classes – students do a little bit, turn to their partner, have a little chat in English, do a little more. There’s no sustained focus there. But a class in which the students are creating the story, and therefore needing to remain focused on the story, would be rigorous. Now that doesn’t mean we extend the focus beyond sustainability. We have to take breaks and we have to give students’ minds a chance to rest a moment. But I think that’s one difference where the TPRS classroom is more rigorous. And another one, whenever we tell students a rule and say “Ok now go practice it,” we have not allowed them to have any testing of hypotheses or to suspend any sort of premature conclusion. We’ve already told them the conclusion. We’ve already said, “This is how the language works.” Whereas in a TPRS classroom or a Comprehensible Input classroom, we’re making certain that the students are understanding the message. That’s what researchers – Krashen, VanPatten, Omaggio-Hadley, Asher, Wong, Lightbown and Strada – that’s what everybody says, that you need the input, the comprehensible input, in order to acquire the language. So by giving that in the classroom, the students then are able to, as VanPatten puts it, create their own mental representation of the language. And that requires them then to begin making hypotheses.

"if we keep telling them what the conclusion is, then... we are not allowing them to really create that mental representation of the language that is necessary for true acquisition of the language."

Whether they make them consciously or unconsciously – and VanPatten, I believe, says that it is primarily an unconscious process – they are creating hypotheses about how the language works, and they need to keep from coming to premature conclusions. So if we keep telling them what the conclusion is, then we are not allowing them to have that necessary rigor and we are not allowing them to really create that mental representation of the language that is necessary for true acquisition of the language. So on that count, the TPRS/TCI classroom is more rigorous because you’re not just being handed a set of rules. Memorization is on the bottom end of the level of thought that we talk about. And this is one of the things that I do appreciate that’s going on in education, that there’s an increased emphasis on Bloom’s Taxonomy and Costa’s Levels of Questioning. The emphasis is on trying to get students to do the deeper thinking, the higher level questioning, go up Bloom’s Taxonomy, and work on that level. Well, when I’m telling them the answers or telling them to go memorize a bunch of words out of context, I’m keeping them down at the level of the simplest on Bloom’s Taxonomy and the easiest of Costa’s Levels of Questioning. Whereas when I present them with whole language, where the emphasis is on meaning, the brain is doing all of this work to map the language, to build that mental representation.

Jim: You brought up the term ‘unconscious’ or ‘subconscious’. Most of the people we work with and work around aren’t aware of this distinction. Even many foreign language teachers wouldn’t agree that we would do best to let our subconscious handle these issues, these details of the language. So how do we show, given that so much of what’s happening in the brain isn’t really conscious thought... How do we show that this is rigorous when it’s really hard to show, or explain, or grasp? Do you know what I mean?

"What we need to do is create assessments that can assess what students are acquiring."

Robert: Well, I think part of the problem in traditional education is that we make assessment easy for the assessor without stopping to think about what it is that we’re truly assessing, and how that works for the person being assessed. It’s easy for me as an assessor to create a test that asks for discrete grammar items or simple L1-L2 or L2-L1 translation. Those are very easy things. But again, those are way down on the list of Levels of Questioning. Those are not higher level thinking skills on Bloom’s Taxonomy. So we are, firstly, asking the wrong questions on that kind of assessment. But it’s done so much because it’s the easiest thing to do. What we need to do is create assessments that can assess what students are acquiring. If fluency is the ability to produce language spontaneously, then we need to have assessments that are assessments of how well students produce language spontaneously. But that’s a much more difficult and time-consuming assessment to grade than a multiple-choice, true/false, translate this word and there’s only one right translation and things like that. So part of it is the nature of the assessments that we use. Also, we need to stop and think about the levels of acquisition and the proficiency guidelines that are provided to us by ACTFL and be certain that our assessments follow those guidelines and that we’re not asking students to do things of which they are incapable. The first thing we need to do is deal with comprehension and understanding. There are things we can do to make sure that comprehension and understanding is going on. But it’s not ‘Give me a translation of this one word’ because comprehension, true comprehension, is comprehension of meaning, not recognition of isolated words and discrete grammar items.

"The hard part is then converting that assessment to something meaningful yet acceptable to a typical grading program, a program and scale that is actually quite arbitrary."

(In a subsequent communication, Robert adds: “As I think about it a bit more, I think the hard work is in creating the assessment. If it is authentic assessment, that is, assessment that reflects a real-life task, then “grading” it can actually be fairly easy. For example, interpersonal communication is a real-life task. It is pretty easy for me to assess a student’s performance based on a couple of questions: Did the student communicate? How clear was that communication? Did the student indicate comprehension or lack thereof? To what extent? (Can be non-verbal) Did the student attempt to negotiate meaning? I can assess a student’s performance in these tasks very easily once I’ve developed an appropriate rubric that takes into account what the research tells us about language acquisition, levels of acquisition, and expressions of acquisition. The hard part is then converting that assessment to something meaningful yet acceptable to a typical grading program, a program and scale that is actually quite arbitrary.”)

Jim: With that in mind, and you’re focusing on the comprehension here, what is the most rigorous thing, according to this more enlightened view of rigor, that you do in your classroom on a daily basis, or often?

Robert: Probably one of the most rigorous things that I do is make my students engage in genuine conversation.

Jim: Are they being provided new information during this time, or is it working with what they have at the moment?

Robert: It’s a combination. Sometimes I present them with new information, and sometimes it’s working with what they already have. When you stop and think about the process in being able to carry on a conversation, we do it so naturally in our first language that we probably don’t even stop to think about everything that’s going on, but you get a flow of sound when you’re carrying on a conversation. Some languages define word boundaries a little bit more than other languages do. I teach German. German tends to define its word boundaries in speech more than French or Spanish do. In French and Spanish, often the words just flow together in one long sentence. They almost sound like a single word.

"one of the most rigorous things that I do is make my students engage in genuine conversation."

And so students are receiving this flow of sound. In order to understand it, in order to process it, they have to then break that sound, that flow of sound, into individual components that have meaning. They have to see if they can recognize those individual components. First of all they have to distinguish speech from other sounds. They have to be able to distinguish sounds that are not native to them – sounds that they perhaps have seldom heard before. They have to focus all of that out from somebody who is just making up nonsense sounds. They sort that out. Then they have to see if they understand those bits of that flow of sound. If they do, they have to subconsciously see how all of that fits together, and does it have meaning, do they understand that meaning. And once they’ve got that figured out, then they have to process, if it’s a question… Do I even know the answer to that question? If I know the answer to that question, can I answer it? If so, how do I formulate the answer? And do I know all of the words to give that answer? And if I don’t, is there a way to work around the words that I don’t know? And, do I have an understanding of the sounds that need to come out of my mouth in order for the answer to be understandable? That is an awful lot of work going on in the subconscious brain.

Jim: But not onerous.

Robert: But not onerous! If the conversation is interesting, then that work is not onerous. This goes back to something that I read many, many years ago, actually in the novel Black Beauty. And I think it’s as true today as it was then, that people who are doing something that they like will gladly work far harder than they will for something that they don’t particularly like, even if they are getting paid for it. And the difference is, the interest that they have in what they are doing. And so the extra work, that hard work, is not onerous. But if you don’t have the interest, it is.

"people who are doing something that they like will gladly work far harder than they will for something that they don’t particularly like."

Jim: And that’s why a huge charge to foreign language teachers is to personalize the content.

Robert: Exactly. Because what subject is anywhere near as interesting to people than themselves.

Jim: Right. Thanks Dale Carnegie for that.

Robert: Exactly. How to Win Friends and Influence People. Talk about them.

Jim: Speaking of books, I want to plug your novels and free reading in general. What are the names of your two novels? Or are there more now?

Robert: At the moment I have two. One of them exists unfortunately only in German and it’s called Ritter von Heute, translates to Modern Day Knight. I do have a Spanish version of it completed, but I’m waiting on an illustrator to finish the illustrations for it. And I’m going to be doing some research this summer to try and do both an English version and a French version of that, with appropriate changes of setting and things like that to make it appropriate for those language classes. And the other book that I have is called Nordseepirat in German, or North Sea Pirate, and it’s based on a German legend of a particular pirate active in the North Sea at the end of the 1300’s. The legend is such a unique one that when I translated it we didn’t change the setting so it’s still just that pirate’s legend, but that one is in German, Spanish and French. I’ve got an English version for ESL that hasn’t yet been published but is pretty close to being ready to be published.

Jim: So wait, you’re saying the Spanish version exists and is already available?!

Robert: The Spanish version of the knight book exists on my computer and hasn’t been published yet.

Jim: [pouts] Well, I’m loving all the novels that are coming out right now. I often tell my students I want them to find something easy to read so that they can sit down and get into that state that Csíkszentmihályi calls Flow, the optimal experience of human living where we are so absorbed that we lose track of time. Do you find any similarity or synergy between Rigor and Flow… that state of Flow we might find ourselves in when we get lost in a book?

"no matter how rigorous it may be, when we’re in that state of Flow it’s not burdensome."

Robert: I think that it goes back to that idea I mentioned from Black Beauty. When we’re in that state of Flow, then nothing is onerous. No matter how rigorous it may be, when we’re in that state of Flow it’s not burdensome. Carol Gaab has some excellent books for beginning readers and I just recently translated her Brandon Brown Wants a Dog book into German, so that’s now available. As you said, we need more books for more people on things that students can read. I have some copies of the Brandon Brown book and what I see my students doing when we do our Sustained Silent Reading, I see my students who are in levels 2, 3 and 4 picking up those books just because they know they can read it and it’ll be easy and it’s fun for them, but they’re still getting the language. That language is still coming in, and it’s reinforcing the things that they have been working on, but in a way that, again, is not onerous to them. It’s a way that their subconscious mind is being able to take over… ‘Oh yeah, I understand this… this is easy.’

Jim: And they’re probably better able to test hypotheses, more hypotheses, in a safer environment because language is so complex and so rich that there are countless grammatical aspects and they’re able to test those out constantly without sacrificing comprehension.

"[grammar questions] are coming because the student wants to know the answer, not because I’m forcing an answer on them."

Robert: Exactly. And that also provokes questions, because having gotten the meaning, they are then able to sometimes consciously attend to ‘Wait a minute, Why is it this way here and this way here?’ and then as I give them opportunity I’ll get those questions… they’re straight up grammar questions. But they’re coming because the student wants to know the answer, not because I’m forcing an answer on them. I will then ask them ‘Why do you think that happened? What do you think is going on there?’ And so they’ll say ‘This is what I think.’ That’s their hypothesis. Then I can either confirm or modify their hypothesis.

Jim: That’s wonderful. Robert, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Robert: My pleasure.

Robert Harrell is a German teacher in Garden Grove, CA. When he’s not riding horse or guiding other teachers, Robert writes leveled readers for students in several languages, and publishes materials for language teachers that encourage L2 interaction and teach about culture. Two more recent projects are Kick It!, a guide to bringing the excitement of professional soccer into your classroom; and Virtual Move, upper-level curricula that take the class on a virtual move to present day Vienna as university students or back in time to the Middle Ages. Robert invites you to check out his books and other creations at compellinginput.net, and to read his thoughts on teaching and learning at compellinginput.wordpress.com.

Jim Tripp has been teaching Spanish in Spring Grove, MN for the last 8 years and is excited to start working in his home state of Iowa at MFL MarMac Public School this coming school year. He writes story scripts that he hopes will translate into greater joy and engagement in the classroom for both the teacher and student. You can find Jim’s stories, opinions, and reflections at www.trippsscripts.com.

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