Navigating the Mysterious 15%: Exploration or Confusion?

“Why does our comprehensive final exam have a reading passage with some passive voice, infinitives, and a phrasal verb when these grammatical structures are too advanced for this course’s curriculum?” I ask during a student learning outcomes (SLOs) meeting. This observation compelled me to reflect on an even more general, global issue.

Most studies show that a well-placed ESL student in a level-appropriate class understands approximately 70-85% of the class material. If the student understands 90-100% of the course material, the class is too easy and the student should move up to a higher-level course. If the student only understands approximately 50-60%, the class challenges the student too much and he/she can lose confidence, feel discouraged, and potentially drop out of school. For this article’s purposes, we’ll just assume a well-placed student doesn’t understand approximately 15% of the class material. We’ll also assume that the majority of this elusive 15% exists in the non-SLO, peripheral, natural language.

Of course, as instructors our responsibility lies in teaching and testing the material that complies with the SLOs. However, as any instructor knows, non-SLO, peripheral, natural language inevitably makes its way into the classroom. Herein lays our challenge, quandary, and dynamic. To what degree do we allow this language to enter our classrooms?

One of my colleagues provided a general, yet appropriate approach to this pedagogical dilemma. “We shouldn’t test this language in specific structures in our exams. We should only allow it in global settings and in limited amounts.” This general comment holds much truth. However, a few different settings might slightly affect our approach to this ambiguous 15%.

One setting, which allows the greatest opportunity for exploration, lies in the classroom itself. General day-to-day lessons throughout the term/semester/quarter offer the best opportunities to explore this magical 15%. I often allow a little class time to help students discover this language. For example our high-beginning course curriculum doesn’t include infinitives, phrasal verbs, or comparative/superlatives. Yet, students hear this natural language everyday outside the classroom. When the time is right and I’ve observed students wrestle, often incorrectly, with these non-SLO grammatical structures, I’ll stop the class right there and give a mini lesson on any of the aforementioned grammar. I always announce and clearly state that this grammar isn’t part of our class and that it might be difficult. I also show them online grammar quizzes I’ve created and direct them there for independent study. I always make myself available for further instruction during office hours, break, or lab time. I then mention that I can’t take too much class time to teach non-SLO grammar.

Evaluators conducting classroom peer evaluations may or may not want to focus on an instructor’s ability to limit and/or explore this non-SLO, peripheral, natural language. For an evaluee, one might really try to limit any use or exploration of this language. Pending the evaluator’s disposition, an evaluator might want to call attention to this “inappropriate allowance of non-SLO language.” Prevention of, or drastically limiting, non-SLO structures and vocabulary holds true for both written class materials as well as any oral discussions.

I personally advocate that the comprehensive final exam possess no non-SLO, peripheral, language. Both the teacher and the students have ample time to explore this magical, mysterious 15% throughout the term. Currently, our students take about 2- 2 ½ hours to complete our comprehension final. Interestingly enough, it also possesses some non-SLO grammar in a global context. Although this 15% isn’t specifically tested, its existence doesn’t offer any significant pedagogical purpose. At this point of the term, the function of the comprehension final should only test the SLO’s. This is not the appropriate time for enjoyable exploration of new material.

Navigating the magical 15% can offer opportunities to explore more advanced language, but it can also challenge and confuse students unnecessarily. How we investigate and synthesize this information will depend and a variety of settings. Every class experiences some exploration and confusion. Some more than others!

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