Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

The Key (for me) is “Traction” not “Grit”


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There’s a lot of discussion about ‘grit’ these days in education. I am unclear where it originated, and for what purpose, but the chatter has moved beyond the educational idea realm and even entered the ‘political’. Some feel it is even a negative term implying a ‘failure’ of the part of students or their negative attitudes/attributes that hinder learning. I must admit I’ve never seen the word as ‘negative’ but the more we talked about it on #langchat last week the more I feel it isn’t the right word for me. I’m not looking to develop students with grit I discovered. The word that describes what I want to build in my students is “traction”. It can be defined as:

the ability of a wheel or tire to hold the ground without sliding” *

Yes – I want my students to have traction. To not ‘slide back’ when the going gets tough; to not get ‘stuck’ when the road gets a bit muddy. What do they need to be able to ‘stick’ to the language-learning road?

They need to know where they are going – It’s hard to hold course when you aren’t sure of the destination and easy to get lost or distracted. Students need to know the destination – the ‘why’ of what they are doing. It may be as simple as putting the day’s objectives on the board. Sometimes it’s that moment in the lesson when you stop and do a quick pop-up grammar reminder. It may also include “I can” statements on unit plans (something I finally have started doing – why did I wait so long?!).  In any case if students don’t know where they are going – they are less likely to stay on the road to successful learning.

They need to know how to drive for the varying road conditions – I don’t think of this as the ‘road’ changing as much as helping students to acquire the skills to deal with increased variability – that is “choice” – in the language classroom. The more I give up the control and allow for that choice (and the amazing benefits it brings) the more I see the need for skills to negotiate meaning – to ensure that all students can communicate to/with each other. My rule has become “you can use a word as long as you can get its meaning across to someone who doesn’t know it”. We are spending time, more time than before, on practicing circumlocution skills. For my beginners it means starting them out with phrases like “For example…” and ” a __like __”. For my seniors it means time during a unit where they get time to practice ‘how’ to explain what their chosen words mean.

They need to know what to do if their tire goes ‘flat’ –  There will be times when maintaining traction is more difficult because students will occasionally ‘go flat’ – and try to ‘give up’. In these times I want them to be able to look for assistance to get going again. From the first day of class I try to let students understand that ‘not understanding’ isn’t their fault. They should be able to ‘ask’ for assistance from their partners, or me – without feeling like this is a bad thing. So we practice not understanding – we practicing saying it, and we practice screwing up! The idea is that when it actually happens – and it will – they are equipped to both ask for assistance (and/or give it).

Traction then is my alternative to idea of developing ‘grit’. After all  I want my students to move forward along the road of their language-learning journey…and not slide backwards…


*Definition Source:   Cambridge Online Dict. (spelling changed from ‘tyre’ to ‘tire’)

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