Retention rates is a topic that is often discussed on language forums. As World Language (WL) teachers, we want to see students that begin in level 1, continue through level 4 and higher. But, at times, I wonder about the amount of pressure we put on ourselves and our departments when it isn't realistic to expect 100% retention rates. A few things to consider:
1. Let's be honest: What percentage of students are mainly in the WL classes because (a) their high school requires a minimum of X years of language study, or (b) they want to meet college requirements of X years of language study.
Question: Why do we automatically assume that students take a language class with an initial goal of becoming fluent or proficient in the language?
2. Of the students in WL classes that sincerely want to become fluent/proficient, do they realize the time commitment and the number of hours needed to reach that goal? (They learned their first language from infancy, but most likely have not considered the amount of input they received in their first five years of life. As a child they had to learn the language in order to communicate their needs and desires. They didn't have another language to use as a back-up if they weren't understood.) If they do realize that, how many are willing to make that commitment and work towards fluency?
Question: As WL teachers, we were not deterred by the amount of time and commitment needed to become fluent in the language, but then we wanted to teach others the language so we had some mighty strong incentive to want to master the language. Will students not planning to teach the language in the future have the same dedication or time to continue their language study, especially when their major will demand a great deal of their time.
3. In the junior and senior year of high school, many students take AP classes to give them a head start at college. The schedule for those classes are often at the same time slots as the higher levels of Spanish.
Question: If you were planning to go to college for a science degree, and the AP class was offered at the same time as the level 4 or higher Spanish class, wouldn't you also choose the class which parallels your planned future studies at the university level?
4. Knowing a second language, especially Spanish because the Latino population is increasing at a rapid rate, will certainly be beneficial to students in the future.
Question: That's a long-term benefit and we live in a world of short-term goals and rewards. Are students prepared to invest time in something that is not in the near future?
5. When a freshman enrolls in an art class, do the art teachers expect that student to continue to take art classes throughout his high school years?
Questions: Do art teachers, or business teachers, or even core subject teachers, track retention rates like WL teachers do? What percentage of students that take the first level of high school math are sitting in Calculus classes as a junior or senior? If the percentage is less than 30%, or 20%, or 10%, is that viewed as a failure of the program or the teachers?
Likewise, if a high school requires 4 classes/credits of English in order to graduate, does the English department have expectations that the students will continue to select additional English classes after the requirement is met?
This year when I received the course selection information for next year, I was pleasantly surprised to see that our Spanish numbers were up by more than 100 requests, an overall 22% increase from the present year to next year. Every single level, from Spanish 1 to Spanish 5, saw an increase from the previous year. The requests for Spanish 1 was up by
Those percentages have steadily increased over the last ten years. I believe the increase is due, in part, to the method we use to teach language. (Other factors include a change in our Spanish program for 8th grade students and a 5x5 schedule at the high school.) But even with the steady increase, the percentages are not near 50% retention through level 4.
In addition, when August rolls around and I receive my class rosters, those percentages in the upper levels will decrease due to scheduling conflicts.
More than ever, instead of focusing on retention rates and percentages, my goal is to focus on the students in my current classes and set my sights on helping each one to have a successful experience in the language classroom. Some will return to the next level of Spanish the following year and some will not, for various reasons as listed above, but ALL will be equipped with improved language skills and proficiency because of the time I, and others in my department, have shared with them.
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