Friday, January 29, 2021

Part 2: Reframing Accountability in a comprehension based classroom

If you haven't read Accountability, Part 1,
please do so!  

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green with the words Let's talk about accountability.

What does it mean to reframe accountability for a comprehension based classroom?

Thanks for asking!  I think there are some very concrete steps that we can take to support learning for the sake of learning and move away from the point based transactions in our classrooms. 

Please remember that changing the culture of a classroom, department, school, and community is not going to happen at once. Sometimes, all you can do is start behind your closed door, and that's ok.  Sometimes you might have to be
quietly subversive- which is OK too because being subversive might mean doing what is best for your students behind closed doors.  

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green with the words 1. Grade and report on mastery. 2. Set achievable standards. 3. Change the focus from points to proficiency. 4. Build relationships and community. 5. Teach content that is relevant.

But what do I do???

1) Grade and report on mastery of standards.  

This is also known as standards based grading. You can do this even if your school reports grades on an  A-F scale.  A key idea in standards based grading is that teachers report accurate information about mastery of standards, and exclude information about engagement, timeliness, behavior, and practice in the mastery grade.   

2) Set standards that your students can reach, and celebrate what they can do!

Here is a brief article with suggestions for reasonable standards in a comprehension based classroom: Performance Targets.  

3) Change the focus from points to proficiency.

Teach what different levels of proficiency look like to your students and share that information with administrators and parents,  and be transparent in how you grade and assess.  Put rubrics directly on assessments and use consistent language for all assessments.  This helps change the conversation from "how many points is this worth?" to "look what you can do"!  Here are some ideas and a lesson plan to address how I did this with students.   I am proud to mention that the head of the school used the display  that we created from this lesson as a regular stop on tours for prospective families and school visitors.  It helped frame expectations for all stakeholders and create a common language. 

4) Build relationships and community. Connect with students.

Use all the wonderful comprehension based strategies that you learn in workshops (or wherever you get training!)  to build relationships, connect with your students, learn about their interests, and build a community where students feel seen, safe, and joyful.  

These strategies might include: Special Person Interviews, One Word Images, Chit Chat, Card Talk, Weekend Chat, Personalized Questions and Answers, and my all-time favorite: Story Asking.  There are SO many more things that can be done in comprehension based classes-don't be limited by my imagination!  

 Remember that learning how to do this kind of collaborative teaching takes some skill, practice, and might feel different for you as the teacher and very different for students. That's ok!  Give yourself some grace. 

Also remember that these strategies, when grounded in a framework of communicatively embedded input, are based on a principled understanding of the mechanics of language acquisition.  While it may look like just talk and play, these principles truly meet the definition of "student centered."

CARLA (The Center on Advanced Research for Language Acquisition (CARLA) defines student centered instruction as “Instruction that builds upon what students need, already know, and can do.” Note that the definition does not dictate roles or activities in a lesson, but instead tells us that the content of the lesson is what makes something student centered.  In our framework, what students need is consistent and comprehensible target language input, what they already know is about their own lives and interests, and what they can do is communicate (which includes interpretation) about those interests. Thanks to Martina Bex for making this important and relevant connection and her explanation in her article Proficiency Oriented Language Instruction.

Here are a couple of video resources about connecting with students: (Although I have been ignoring this little blog quite a lot lately, I have been incredibly busy doing other things!)

5) Find and teach content that is relevant and moderately interesting.

Use the information that you learn to find and create comprehensible content that is moderately relevant and interesting to your students. You don't have to have a home run story or unit each day or week or month- but trying to keep class personalized and connected to their lives is important.  

Even if I know that I want to teach about something that is content-related, I am going to try to use student experience and background knowledge to build interest and connect them to the content. Pro Tip: The SOMOS / Nous sommes / Sumus curriculum uses this framework for all units and it works incredibly well.  

A concrete example from my own classroom might be a learning sequence that looks something like this: 

Novice Spanish 

Note: I have done variations of these activities in Spanish 1a, 1b, and  1 honors. 

Content: Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro, by Carol Gaab (Fluency Matters)

Connection/relevance: Pets that students have or want to have/have had.  Responsibilities and fun/not fun parts of pet ownership.  


Students submit 1-2 pictures of their pets (or pets they want/have had, stuffed & mythical animals included)  and a short L1 paragraph about their pets. I put together a slideshow of their pets with L2 sentences that I am confident that we can read together.  I show 1-2 slides each day as a warm up and lead a comprehensible L2 discussion about the information.

Discussion: Which pet would you rather have? I present 2-4 different types of animals as pets and we discuss the pros/cons of each, in a scaffolded L2 discussion.   

Story: We co-create a story or two (TPRS©) to pre-teach vocabulary from the book that is unfamiliar. Using actors, pictures, and student ideas, we build the story then play with it.  The story becomes part of our community narrative- relevant, personal, and usually hilarious.   

Having created some community experiences around pets, shared opinions and laughter and probably disagreed about pets, moving into the book (the content) suddenly feels more relevant. When Brandon's dog chews his favorite pants in the narrative, we can relate that to the time Luis' snake ate his sister's hamster, and then perhaps have a whole discussion about gross things that pets eat and shouldn't. (True story. One of my best classes ever!)  

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green with the words My Vision: All students feel like they can succeed. Classrooms are places of joy, language acquisition, and equity.

But wait! Don't you have to give grades? Sure, of course!  The difference is that I don't want to trade points for behavior.  I want students to be interested in what we are doing in class because they are motivated by relationships and relevant content. (For more great information about motivation, please check out Liam Printer's The Motivated Teacher resources and podcast.)    

You can read about what goes in my grade book if you like.  Notice that I had to fit my beliefs about standards based grades and what should go in the grade book into the culture of my school (and make compromises).  

I recognize that all 5 of these steps are big. None of them can be accomplished over night, but I do think that in reframing accountability and points-as-motivation,

I am positive that we can make sure that all students feel like they can succeed and center our classrooms as places of joy, language acquisition, and equity. 


  1. Excellent points!
    Now can you explain the processes/time frames you use for students who opt for recovery, and retakes ?

    1. Hi, I am so sorry for a SUPEr delayed response; all comments were marked as SPAM and I didn't see them! To answer your question: it really depends on your system for how you want to do retakes and recovery. For me, it looked different with different kids and at different levels, but generally speaking I asked them the following:
      1) to commit in writing to a retake (so that if I had to prepare something for them, I knew they were going to show up)
      2) To commit to getting some input on what they needed support in- reading 2-3 stories, for instance, or coming to my office hours to work with me (reading together).
      3) I did have a Hard Deadline- a date and time after which I could not accept late work- simply because I need to honor my own time and deadlines, and I have a right to create some boundaries. When I was able to do so, I did not put 0s in the grade book for missed work- I put incompletes and reported grades without that piece of evidence. When/if the student made the work up, I re-issued the grade report.
      That being said, that is not what I would have done if I had my preference of working in a wholly standards based framework.