Tell me if I’ve got it wrong:
The reasoning behind grading students on each unit of study is that the units coming before have to be learned well in order for the later units coming after to be learned. Therefore, if a student doesn’t do well in unit 8, that’s a signal he may falter then on 9, 10, etc. He therefore needs a low grade to signal to him that he needs to “do better”. What “doing better” entails may or may not be made explicit; it often is stated as nothing more than an admonition to “study harder” or “get those assignments in on time”, even though I doubt any teacher could provide evidence that getting assignments in on time leads to proficiency.
And proficiency is the goal, n’est-ce pas? Have teachers any evidence that doing all those assignments leads to proficiency? “Homework provides the essential practice that leads to success” was a statement made recently but without support. Does producing future perfect forms for 18 different verbs in various persons actually lead to proficiency in the use of those forms? I truly do not know but would love to. In fact, I think I’ll try it this semester. I have a plan for my third year students who try to coast without closely reading the stories and the grammar is getting quite complex, what with gerundives and future perfect passives in the subjunctive, etc. I hope it works and I’ll report on that.
However, the thrust of this entry isn’t to question whether practice leads to proficiency but to confirm the thinking behind grading practices. There’s an assumption that L2 is acquired through a building-block type process, often articulated in curricula as “mastering” one tense after another until we are well up into the future perfect subjunctive (if you are paying close attention, you will realize there is no future perfect subjunctive in Latin. In Spanish, Ramsey gives Si para fines del mes la comision hubiere terminado sus deliberaciones, so the common statement in textbooks that a future subjunctive isn’t logical is misleading).
Most of the studies I’ve seen do not support this image of L2 acquisition. Most people simply find grammar rules abstract with no idea how to put them to use in generating well-formed sentences in L2. That’s always the hope: teach them 500 to a thousand rules that they will then apply as they read, speak, listen and write….. oh, and along with that, use rules about the culture for the pragmatics.
For some reason, most people find this impossible and discouraging and abandon any attempt to learn a fl once they’re out of Senora’s Spanish class or Madame’s French class. “I’m just no good at languages”. My favorite is, “I could never learn Spanish b/c I can’t roll my r’s”. Ah, I see; one sound in the language you don’t pronounce like a native and that closes the entire language to you. Yes, of course.
But we cannot laugh at Joe citizen for repeating such canards when professional fl teachers do much the same thing. Where is the evidence that an L2 is learned in a series of proscribed steps? I know one person who believes that sincerely and taught that way for years. He described often a carefully articulated series of rules he taught. Interestingly, along with that he also had conversations with his students every day about the news and current events. Of course, we are expected to believe that the learning took place when the students memorized and practiced the rules and that the conversations in the TL about interesting topics was simply a light diversion.