Barometer Students

Many foreign language teacher like myself  focus our instruction on what we call the “barometer student”.  The barometer student is the kid who is the slowest processor of the language. By carefully observing who seems to least “get it”, we identify our key audience for our lessons.  This helps us mediate our biggest pitfall as language teachers: going too fast.

The game Robyn R. Jackson describes on page 103 of Never Word Harder Than Your Students is a great scenario to demonstrate the teacher-student frustration in language classrooms. The classic game calls for one group to tap out a traditional song (‘Happy Birthday”, “Old McDonald”) for a group of listeners. The listeners job is to guess the song being tapped. Before beginning the game, tappers predict how many times the listeners will guess correctly (groups often predict about 50% success). The results are wildly different than the predictions, with the listeners guessing correctly less than 2% of the time.

The game is a great illustration of the assumptions of many language teachers, and supports the use of barometer students. The barometer student keeps us “honest”; we use language that is comprehensible enough for even the most challenged language student. Meanwhile, the faster processors are challenged by the meaning of the teacher-speech, as well as the back-and-forth questions and answers that the teacher engages in with the gifted students.

By way of constant questioning and checking for comprehension, I identify my barometers. I then focus my instruction and my comprehension checks on those students while I frequently question the non-barometer students about the details of my story (all, or most, in the second language). In this way I can anticipate pitfalls in my instruction long before they can fester and require expensive remediation down the road.

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