If I Teach with CI/TPRS/Acquisition-Driven Instruction, Will My Students Be Ready to Take the AP® World Language and Culture Exam?

July 9, 2019
Gary DiBianca

If I had $1,000 for every time I was asked this question, I would be driving an orange Corvette convertible to my beach house where I would then write this blog. All dreaming aside, my quick answer is yes, your students will be ready as long as you prepare them to take the task-driven AP World Language and Culture Exam. If teachers are aware of, and building toward, the skills required in the final tasks of the exam, then students will be prepared for the exam, and—frankly—will be better prepared than many other students.

So, let’s begin by defining two common worries from AP Language and Culture teachers or departments who are leery of CI/TPRS/acquisition-driven instruction: language accuracy and, my concern, understanding the AP exam tasks.

Teachers who are fearful that CI/TPRS/acquisition-driven instruction will not lead to good AP scores are often, in reality, worried that this type of instruction will not lead to grammatical accuracy. Yet the AP Rubrics provide a lot of leeway with regard to language and vocabulary usage as long as students know how to complete the tasks required by the exams. 

Truth be told, students’ language at intermediate levels is messy. I still push my students to produce as many sentences as possible and, when the language has been acquired (which it is, through CI/TPRS/acquisition-driven instruction), it flows much more naturally. When producing output, students must make so many choices with regard to time frames, tenses, and grammar markers, that their mistakes really do show us their growth. In fact, to be a world language teacher in most states, you only need to be Advanced Low or Intermediate High in the four skills, and Advanced Low is the only level that requires some control of language, meaning there will still be errors. In other words, we, as teachers, have too often created unrealistic expectations for our students with regard to their errors. Frequently, this results in students being too anxious to even try to use the language. (Friend, let’s think about our own language errors and insecurities as well.)

According to the AP World Language Rubrics, we must prepare our students to communicate with various degrees of comprehensibility, which can be affected by grammar, syntax, and vocabulary usage. Working from the passing scores of a 5, 4, and 3, what does language accuracy really look like according to the 2019 Rubrics?

5: Strong Performance

  • The performance is fully understandable, with ease and clarity of expression; occasional errors do not impede comprehensibility
  • Varied and appropriate vocabulary and idiomatic language
  • Accuracy and variety in grammar, syntax, and usage, with few errors

4: Good Performance

  • The performance is fully understandable, with some errors that do not impede comprehensibility
  • Varied and generally appropriate vocabulary and idiomatic language
  • General control of grammar, syntax, and usage

3: Fair Performance

  • The performance is generally understandable with errors that may impede comprehension
  • Appropriate but basic vocabulary and idiomatic language
  • Some control of grammar, syntax, and usage

As an AP Reader for the Spanish exam, I want to assure teachers that the decision to award a 3 on a free-response section can be really messy, just like our intermediate language students’ language usage. You have to ask yourself: Did this student communicate the message required in a way that is at least somewhat comprehensible even with errors?

So, the question remains, how do we build content knowledge of grammar in CI/TPRS/acquisition-driven classes?  Well, in my classes, I still expose students to all of the language nuances and structure of a traditional grammar-based textbook—I am just doing it in a more natural way (which does require a bit of pre-planning). I still make, and have students make, linguistic comparisons by recognizing patterns and through short grammar explanations.  I provide my students with enough input that is comprehended in order to facilitate the acquisition of language structures that are already manipulated into word chunks. By doing this throughout levels 1, 2, and 3, I am able to continue to provide my pre-AP level 4 students more language structures as well as helping them polish their output. In fact, for those teachers that love grammar and syntax as much as I do, know that I have some direct grammar discussions with students in levels 3 and 4, and these discussions do help clarify some concerns, but this does not often result in 100% accuracy in production, which remains a challenging feat for most language learners—even for us teachers in both our first and second language.

Concerned AP teachers, let’s assess the AP exam. What skills need to be the most developed for your student’s overall success?  INTERPRETIVE SKILLS, reading and listening, because 50% of the exam’s score comes from Part A: Multiple-Choice. But that’s not where the need for interpretive skills ends: In Part B, for the four free-response sections (two speaking and two writing), students must interpret target-language content in three of the four sections. So, including those three sections, strong interpretive skills are required for 67-87% of the final score. 

So, when I look at a strong CI/TPRS/acquisition-driven program and see that the majority of time is spent on interpreting—listening to and reading comprehensible target language—at all levels of instruction, I see great potential for success on the AP Exam. Stephen Krashen’s “i + 1” hypothesis is that to acquire language a learner needs lots of input that is only a bit incomprehensible, or “+ 1.”  So, if our students are progressively acquiring language through input-based instruction and their interpretive skills are nurtured and developed, then we are preparing them for 67-87% of the final score on the AP Exam. 

Of course, as CI/TPRS/acquisition-driven teachers, we also have to do our part in assuring that our students are exposed to the six AP themes and 36 subthemes, a variety of interpretive text-types (promotions, announcements, articles, graphs/charts, letters, interviews, conversations, instructions, and literature), and question-types that require students to show comprehension, interpretation, and meaning-making. 

Moreover, it is imperative that all teachers and students in an AP Language and Culture department know the expectations and goals of the four AP Language and Culture free-response tasks. By knowing how to deconstruct the tasks, teachers can help build the skills that are appropriate at each proficiency level prior to taking an AP course. We must all remember that for each free-response section, a student must complete the entire task given to earn a passing score (3, 4, or 5). Even if a student produces something in flawless target language, they may not pass if the task itself is not completed. This is why developing a crystal-clear understanding of the expectations in the free-response tasks is essential.

Of course, I’m not saying that students who learn language through CI/TPRS/acquisition-driven strategies will dominate the AP World Language and Culture Exam. This is simply not true, unless we are describing strong “target language” students who are master test-takers and have been successful on other academically-intense exams, like the AP English Language and Composition Exam and AP U.S. History Exam. Those exams exhibit many of the same qualities and skills needed to tackle the AP World Language and Culture Exam. This is because the exams in Spanish, French, Italian, and German are designed to show a student’s academic prowess, while also demonstrating an Intermediate High/Advanced Low proficiency level in the three modes of communication: Interpretive, Interpersonal, and Presentational. The AP language exams go beyond today’s proficiency exams, like the AAPPL and STAMP, which only measure students’ abilities in reading, listening, writing, and speaking in isolation. The AP language exams push students to demonstrate their academic finesse as well.

Furthermore, no matter what instructional approach one takes, we all need to realize that the AP World Language and Culture Courses and Exams are not written for the 101 university levels like the majority of other AP courses. The AP World Language and Culture Course should actually be taught at the third-year university level, which—in numeric course codes—is at a 302 level or above. At many Ohio universities, for example, students are awarded 12 to 17 credit hours for a score of a 4 or 5, and 6 to 9 credit hours for a passing score of 3. These scores take years to accomplish, because language proficiency takes years to develop.

Luckily, with a strong CI/TPRS/acquisition-driven instructional plan, we as teachers can create a rich language learning experience starting in level 1, with appropriate scaffolding and a solid foundation, preparing students for success on the AP course and exam.

As I conclude this post, I want to thank all AP World Language teachers and departments, because our classes provide students a level of academic language that surpasses survival language skills, which is a tremendous feat for students to accomplish. And, yet, I also hope that our field continues to move in a direction that allows all students to access a world language for reasons beyond mere survival, and that those students have as much success as the ones currently in our AP World Language classes. I believe that one of the most remarkable features of a CI/TPRS/acquisition-driven classroom is its equitability: providing a path for all students to acquire the language. As teachers, we must reflect on our expectations for our students and for our colleagues, and find common ground that will help all students succeed. Lastly, as professionals, we need to work to understand one another’s methods and strategies as they relate to our National Standards. 

Gary DiBianca is a Spanish teacher, world language consultant and coach, and AP reader. He has presented nationally and regionally on acquisition and brain-based strategies in the world language classroom, big picture planning and unit design, pre-AP vertical alignment and the 21st Century World Language Standards, the inclusion of topics of diversity in curriculum, and teaching with TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Storytelling) and Comprehensible Input.  Gary’s current projects include sharing his thoughts on his blog: My Mosaic of World Language Teaching and working on the team for the digital AP Spanish text: Nuestra Historia AP: Aprender y Preparar.

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