Saturday, March 17, 2018

A CI Teacher takes on IPAs (Integrated Performance Assessments, not the delicious hoppy beers)

Note: I invited my colleague and collaborator to write this post. I was very, very interested in her experience teaching in a very legacy (but not grammar/memorization) way. She is a very highly trained and experienced TPRS/CI teacher who regularly presents at local and national conferences. I am humbled by her openness to try something that she doesn't think is going to help her students acquire language (albeit in the interest of keeping her job), and I deeply appreciate the time she spent both in writing this but also in reflecting on the experience in her classroom. To me, she displays two of the qualities I most value in a teacher: the willingness to experiment, and the habit of reflecting on her work.

Also, IPAs seem to be a hot new-ish trend. I appreciate the fact that they move away from grammar and memorization to actual language use. However, as this teacher discovered, there are drawbacks, especially if you believe that languages are acquired through comprehensible input.

Hello!  I have chosen to write this anonymously because I don’t want to disparage the work of my colleagues.  Hopefully, every teacher is doing what they truly believe is best for students, and I have the utmost respect for my colleagues.  However, I have been put in a position where what I am doing in my classroom is being looked down upon by others in my district and I am being told that the way of the future is the IPA.   In fact, a friend told me that she was told that I needed to get on board, or I would need to start looking for another job.  Yikes!  Can’t we all just get along?!
Image of ACTFL publication

What is an IPA anyway?

In an IPA, teachers create units around a theme.  These could follow traditional themes (daily routine, school supplies) or be more idea-based (love, global warming).  Once a theme has been chosen, the teacher scours the internet for authentic resources* (defined by most as content created by and for native speakers).  Once the teacher finds something (a video, article, blog, etc), they create questions to go with that resource.  In my experience, the questions ask things like “What do you think X means?” “Find the word that means X”, “What is the main idea of this?” as well as comprehension questions.  In addition to the interpretation of resources, there are output activities asking students to take on a persona and write or speak from that point of view (For example: Write a letter to your mother telling her what school supplies you are missing.)  I have not seen an IPA actually taught in a classroom, but I have heard that the teacher begins with a class discussion about the students’ experiences with the themes before beginning the individual activities.

*Authentic Resources: For more information on how to use #authres in a CI classroom and a different perspective on whether or not language teachers should, check out this post by Martina Bex.

In my class, I teach through Comprehensible Input (Comprehensible to me meaning 98% comprehensibility, especially in levels one and two).  In French 1 and 2, that means that I teach through Bryce Hedstrom’s Special Person Interviews, TPRS stories, Movie Talk and whatever other way I can get French that they understand into their heads.  In French 3, we talk more about real-world issues. That means lots of classroom discussions, brainstorming, and an occasional authentic resource if I can find one that’s pretty simple for them to understand.  I do transition in French 3 (and up) to expecting less than 98% comprehension for authentic resources, but I probably only use authres 5-10% of the time in my classroom.  

I have used portions of IPAs in the past because I love that they have all of the authentic resources in one file (provided by my district) and I don’t have to scour the internet looking for them, but I have found that they are either impossible to complete or use so many visuals that a student not taking French could answer the questions correctly.  So there is my bias.  But, as I continue to work with my colleagues, I was curious: is this a better way?  So I decided to try one out with my French 3 students.  

Constraints of this totally non-controlled experiment  

This is a terrible experiment because I don’t have a control group and I don’t have any hard data to prove what they did or didn’t learn.  This is all based on observations.  If I were to do it again, I would choose about 10 vocabulary terms that I want my students to learn through the unit and teach one class my normal way and the other class through the IPA so that I could really compare results.  But I didn’t think of that until it was too late.  Maybe next year ;)

What it looked like in my class

#authres, #maybenotcomprehensible
I printed off an article in French and gave them the packet with the questions and they were off!  I kind of walked around and checked in with the kids...and was really bored.  The kids kept asking me what words meant, and I said, “See if you can figure it out for yourself.”  I was sad that I couldn’t help them more (and maybe in an all-IPA classroom they do give them answers...I don’t know).  When they completed the activity, we went over it as a class.  Then, we moved on to the next activity.  More of the same.  I would ask them at the end of an activity, “How many of you were able to answer at least (a certain number)?”  I would estimate that about 20% of my kids answered half of the questions.  There were a lot of blanks and wrong answers.  It was a huge shift from my normal class, where I shoot for 98% comprehension.

After a couple of days, my kids would groan when I said, “Take out your packets.”  I told them it was an experiment and we would at least finish it before giving up.  

Well...I gave up.  We worked on the IPA for over a month and I just couldn’t do it anymore.  I have other things I want to do.  So, I stopped today and I gave them a survey to find out what their opinions are about the IPA as compared to what we normally do.

Survey results from French 3: 

How do you feel about IPA?
1- Much prefer what we have done in the past
5-Much prefer the IPA

Effectiveness of IPA:
1-Not effective at all
5-Very effective
As far as what they feel is effective, most students said that class created stories (TPRS), class discussions, and translating from French to English help the most and that writing/speaking from an imagined point of view was the least effective.

The Good about IPAs:

  • No direct focus on Grammar instruction (improvement from textbook teaching but less relevant to a TPRS class)
  • Exposes kids to authentic materials, which may better prepare them for AP/IB test
  • Uses all modes of communication
  • Feels like school (sometimes in the TPRS classroom, kids don’t feel like they’re learning because it’s not enough like traditional school)
The Bad about IPAs:
  • Confusion about the language of the authentic materials.  They couldn’t understand the French in them.*
  • No specific focus on vocabulary
  • Feels like school (some kids rebel against school and its paperwork)
*Editor's note: As far as I can see, this is the biggest drawback of IPAs if you, as I do, believe that language is acquired through hearing and reading messages that are understood, i.e. comprehensible input.

My next steps

So...what’s next?  I think that I will do a class story, since we haven’t done one in a long time and most kids feel that it is a very effective way to learn vocabulary.  Then, I’ll do another movie talk...maybe give them a controversial topic to discuss...back to my usual M.O.


  1. Hello!

    I would love to talk about your research methodology for this study of IPA and strategize with you about how to implement IPAs and IPA-informed instruction that engages kids in contextualized language learning with authentic texts.


    1. Hi, Thanks for getting in touch! I did not do the research for this; it was an informal action-research project by a colleague who wishes to remain nameless, so I am sorry that I can not help you with this. As you read, the teacher did reflect on their methodology and suggest ways to make it more robust.

  2. Elicia, Thank you for posting this. I am very biased as a pure CI teacher, so I admit "cheering" as I read it "See? It's a waste of time..." etc. I feel badly about my attitude. BUT I can't make myself do allll that work for little or no return. I'm in the middle of a similar initiative at my school, where we have spent many PD days "creating our QPA" (quality performance assessment). I went along with it, basically tweaking a "persona especial" interview. But then I lost the paper and my enthusiasm. I will still do the interview, but the "product" I was planning to have them do, probably not gonna add that on. It will take too much time away from more input. Honestly I may add the "product" piece on in June when we are all waiting to be done with school, so they can spend a few days creating a "yearbook page" or whatever, and that will go in our classroom library. I think there are probably folks out there creating these types of assessments, and they are probably really cool. At this point I can't justify the enormous amount of time creating and checking boxes and making more rubrics and double blind testing validity...when I could be proving input daily for little time prepping. My humble opinion. I am open to consider other ways as long as they align closely with SLA.