The Way Forward? Ben Slavic, envelope-pusher.

Ben Slavic, the “retired” French teacher, has been crusading around the U.S. with energy ball Tina Hargaden, showing people how to use what he calls “untargeted input” to teach languages.  Slavic’s passionate announcements and fascinating ideas have earned him a lot of respect, and also anger from some people in the C.I. universe, but, whatever, haters gonna hate and there is no progress without friction.  Whatever you think of One Word Images, untargeted stories, the Invisibles, etc., you have to hand it to Ben: he is doing the most important work of all:  he is making us radically question our practice.

On a recent Facebook post, Slavic discussed the C.I. practices which he`s dropped, and why.  This is fascinating reading.  Slavic is in italics and my comments in boring normal.

I have dropped the following things – weights around my ankles for more than 15 years:

1. Targeted language – pre-chosen structures and words that I want the students to “acquire” (more like consciously learn) in my lesson.

Slavic’s thinking here is, students will learn best when they choose the agenda (vocab, verbs etc).  Slavic’s work is actually not “untargeted”– it’s like he says in his book, the targets emerge while stories are built.


2. Massed reps of targets Students can smell agendae, which are off-putting, and massed reps (what Slavic calls heavy circling) slow down stories.

4. Reading up*  This means, you don’t make kids read to acquire language– you allow them to choose reading which they decide is at their developmental level.

5. PQA – it didn’t take long for the kids to see that I was asking them personalized questions merely in order to try to teach them a structure, not to have a true conversation with them.

Ben has a point, but this is to a certain extent a straw-man  argument: Personalised Questions and Answers should always follow what students are interested in.  Good, organic PQA emerges when students have more control over stories.

6. Establishing meaning- this is not necessary if we are teaching slowly enough and the content is interesting.

Here, I could not agree less. It seems like, no matter how clear I make it, I always have a kid ask me “how do you say there is in Spanish?” after four months of C.I.!  I have learned, you can never be too clear when teaching a language, and there is no research supporting the idea that guessing/deducing meaning supports acquisition.

7. Having kids supply cute answers – this puts stress on them, favors the louder, bolder, and more socially gifted students (linked to privilege), thus dividing the classroom among the haves and the have nots.  

Absolutely.  Bang on.

8. Gesturing as a group – because we forget to do it half the time. Now I just do light gesturing. (I think of light gesturing as a kind of embedded form of TPR that we just do with our hands, while seated, during a story but is not a separate activity like TPR.)

I’ve never done this.  I gesture as a teacher– I have gestures for many nouns, verbs, verb tenses and we, you, I etc.

9. Lengthy undisciplined stories that last more than 25 minutes. Once the kids know that in class they won’t get to know what happens in that class period they tune it all out and by springtime they are all the way tuned out on stories. Short 25-35 min. stories that actually have an ending are necessary. The students need for the story to end that class period.

Do they?  I have had stories go on for up to three periods.  This depends on how good you are at asking stories– it’s not everyone’s forte, and it’s work– and what your class is like.

10. Class reading of novels – that is a school thing and leads to rule by the few. I suggest that we never do a single class novel in Level 1 anymore. So what do we read as a class? Just our own class-created stories. They are more interesting and comprehensible to the kids. And what about novels, magazines, and books? Free choice for SSR is what works best for me. I find that when I do it that way some kids in Level 2 choose Level 3/4 books and some choose Level 1 books, as per their own processing speed. It’s all a big plan to reduce stress in the classroom and fight hard for the most important thing in a school classroom – equity and no-stress learning and no-stress teaching. 

Do you generate enough reading from asking stories that you have enough reading in level 1?  If so, great.  If not…you are going to want some SSR choices.  I use Berto y sus Buenas Ideas, my own Berto y sus Buenos Amigos, and two Brandon Brown books by Carol Gaab. If I keep novel reading to about 10 min/day, kids stay pretty tuned in.


11. Using celebrities as characters in stories. I don’t know or care who they are, and many of my kid don’t either. Who is Justin Bieber drinking Cheerwine on the beach with? I simply don’t care. It’s about a section of the class – the kids who know the celebrities – running the class again. Why not we make our own characters up? It’s much more fun!

Whatever works for you and yours.  The key for me is to really dig at all the kids and get the quiet ones to also suggest ideas, to use Invisibles (class-created, drawn), to use kids as parallel characters, etc.

12. Feeling as if I had to do a story even when I wasn’t having the best day. I always felt pressure to do stories even when I didn’t want to.

BOOM!  Exactly.  Good PQA, Movietalk, Picturetalk, novels, word games….there is loads of stuff one can do that delivers compelling C.I.

13. Trying to finish a story that was too long. Long stories only stay long bc of the few kids of privilege who turn the class into THEIR class bc they have the social skills, learned them at home where the other kids didn’t because of poverty. 

What’s “too long?” As long as kids are listening and understanding, all is good.

15. Dominance of the classroom by the few because of the targeting of lists (high frequency lists, thematic unit word lists, semantic set lists, lists of words taken from chapters in novels for backwards planning, TPR lists). 

I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve never done any of this, other than to direct student suggestions toward higher-frequency language.  If they want Selena Gomez doing whatever, wherever, with whoever, fine…but if the kids want her vacuuming the beach, nope: aspiradora is low-frequency, so I’d steer them toward limpiar.

16. Being cute. I can’t be cute anymore. There is nothing in the research on CI that indicates that cuteness is a requisite ingredient of good foreign language teaching. An example is cuing of any kind, like the “Ohhhh!” thing. Or the “Oh no oh no oh me oh my!” thing. […] When we cue them, it is like controlling them. That’s not what I want to do. I want to let interesting input drive the class. Each student will respond in their own way, how they would in a free and open conversation.

Sure…but cued responses– when minimally used– add to the theatre atmosphere of TPRS, and are another way to check comprehension.

*Reading up is where the teachers hand the kids books that they can’t read. When it is in the form of a class novel, it is especially onerous to the students who come from less privileged backgrounds. Now I just do SSR/FVR to start class for ten minutes. They read what they want from a pile of books on a table. The feeling for over the half of the kids when we do class novels is like standing under a cherry tree and being told to jump up to get the cherries. Some can’t jump as high as others. This reduces equity and inclusion in the classroom and divides the class. It is the teacher’s job to pull the branch down so that all the kids can easily do the classroom assignments and thus make it effortless for them, because that is what the research says how we acquire languages – when it is literally effortless. So I say we need to implement more “reading down” in our classes.

Bang on.  As Marco Benavides shows, if we don’t have 98% comprehension, we don’t have much acquisition going on.  The key, as legendary Spanish teacher Joe Neilson explained, is to use “simpler” novels with higher-level students, and to use a broadly shared meaning base that erveryone gets to generate grammatically more complex discussion.  A sentence in my book Berto y sus Buenos Amigos where Paquita says estoy haciendo un video (“I am making a video”) is easy to understand.  The slower processors get it.  Now, we ask the faster processors questions like ¿te gusta hacer videos?  ¿prefieres hacer videos o tocar música?  ¿es divertido hacer videos, es difícil, o los dos?  ¿por qué? 

It should also be noted that much of what Ben is advocating was part of Blaine Ray’s “classic” TPRS.  He wanted a lot of student input into stories (and targeted that vocab/grammar, etc), has specifically said that TPRS does not always need to be cute, etc.  The idea of “planned” stories came when Ray was asked by Susan Gross to explain his methods (which he did with his Fluency book.  Faced with the inevitable question of where do I get stories? from teachers, Ray published the Look, I Can Talk series (and similar texts soon followed from Carol Gaab, etc).  This was inevitable, but any attempt to systematise what appears to be a freewheeling method inevitably loses some of the method’s magic, when Slavic ha clearly rediscovered.

Anyway, thanks to Ben for getting us thinking about our practice!

Icebreakers…why bother?

How do you start the school year? asked somebody recently.  After I said, I ask a story, somebody asked what do you do for an icebreaker to get the kids to know each other?  Another teacher wrote that she was shocked how, at the end of the year, a couple of the kids in her class still didn’t know each others’ names, and wanted to create a more caring and supportive environment.  

Image result for icebreakers groups

At this point I had a flashback to when I was 13 and switched schools and had to grind through the make-new-friends-and-figure-out-social-hierarchy thing.  I knew a few kids from my old school, but most of us didn’t know each other much.

In English class, Mr Maunderson had cunningly devised a game wherein we ended up having to tell each other names and basic personal info.  I was super-shy and wasn’t much into it; my neighbour (and future Christian, then meth dealer, then again Christian), Cory, was much more forthright, muttering this is fucking gay loudly enough that he and Mr Maunderson became enemies on Day 1. Not only did I have to talk to twenty-seven strangers that hour, but I had to deal with girls who had in two brief months gone from being like boys– they would ride bikes, go on expeditions, play Lego with us, etc,  but sometimes wore dresses– to another species entirely, which species had the magic power of making me feel like an idiot as soon as I even thought about opening my mouth, which I very much wanted to do, because, well, they were girls.  And I was thirteen.  Oh my God was I glad when class ended.

When the flashback ended, I realised, I never do ice breakers.  You know, the games or activities that get people to interact, share info, and, you know “get comfortable” with each other.  Yet, oddly enough, my kids all know a ton about each other by the end of the year.   Anyway, here is why I don’t do icebreakers.

  1. If they aren’t in the target language we are wasting precious input time. Why spend an hour talking in English when you could be asking a story, or doing Picturetalk?


  2. You don’t need icebreakers to personalise a class.  Good personalisation has two qualities: that what happens in class is interesting to (and modifiable by) students, and that students know that teachers know (and acknowledge) them.  With TPRS, students are driving the story, and with PQA (basically, asking students the same questions as the actors in stories) students will eventually know that the teacher knows and cares about them.

    When I’m asking my first story, I might ask the actor do you like dogs? and, after they answer, I would ask a random student the same question. If I’m on the ball, and I can remember, I can bring this up later:  class, does Mandeep like soccer or cricket?  That’s right– Mandeep likes cricket.  As soon as the student knows that I know (and remember) something about them, they get a bit more comfortable in the room.  As the year goes on, both I and the class know more and more about each other.  Right now, in my Spanish 1 class, off the top of my head, I can tell you that Kauthar likes Hector Bellerín, Isha watches 13 Reasons Why (and regards Profe Stolz as a total fashion disaster argh), Dalawar is dating Miley Cyrus, Avlin likes smart boys, Abdullah is an expert in kissing Selena Gomez, Ali hates X-box FIFA, Sundus dances with Chris Brown, Brian both reads and is buddies with Obama, Idris works as an assassin when not playing NBA 17, Zahra is fasting, Kajal has three boyfriends and a giant silver ring, Noor loves K-Pop, Samrina plays clarinet, can’t stand stupid boys or bad music and is dating young Leonardo DiCaprio, Taranjot has a guitar and a pit-bull, Avleen likes sleeping more than anything else, Riya likes smart boys and good books, Ravneet likes cooking but hates science…and I could tell you ten more “facts” per kid.

    Note that in my class, I encourage kids to invent a “Spanish self” which can be whatever they want, provided they are OK with others and their parents hearing about it).  And because PQA is done aloud, and because everybody has to listen, the kids get to know something about each other without straight-off-the-bat face-to-face awkwardness.Psychologists will tell you that if you can remember somebody’s name and one or two specific facts about them, they will like and trust you a fair bit.

  3. Icebreakers make people self-conscious.  Nothing– nothing– is as uncomfortable for a teen as forced social contact. Ask your students:  most would rather wash dishes for three hours than have to spend face-to-face time with total strangers.  Why do teens text all the time and start relationships by texting?  Because texting takes the edge off of self-consciousness. For kids with anxiety, autism or stress, or for people with limited/newer English, icebreakers are simply awful.


  4. If we want TL output on Day 1 (eg class, everybody ask 3 ppl ¿cómo te llamas?) we are again wasting our time:  output does not develop speaking ability, it makes people uncomfortable, and most language learners inevitably make mistakes when they speak (bad input for other learners). What kids most want in a language class– to understand what is going on— is not something that practicing output develops.

One question I have never seen answered is this: do people actually want to know others (or have others know them) immediately in a new social situation?  I suspect that for a few kids, the answer is yes…and those kids are going to be chatty and putting up their hands right away.  The rest?  Mostly what they want is to understand what is going on, and to feel comfortable.  With time, they will “feel out” the social world.

EDIT: teacher Jeff Brown writes this:  on the first day I have the kids take home a questionnaire in English. The last question is: Tell me something interesting about yourself, Then after reading all of them, the following day I introduce everyone in the target language knowing the little bit the students wrote about themselves in English. It’s always a blast. I love it. It’s one of my favorite days. I have had triplets, concert musicians, children of CEOs, etc. The kids love it too and it’s all target language (works for all levels). This is done on the third day to be exact.

I think Jeff’s idea is great:  kids don’t have to talk, it personalises language, and it helps people know each other without having to get in each others’ faces.


Anyway, this is why I don’t do icebreakers.



Frequency List Lessons

There was a recent discussion in which a teacher said, my department head insisted on teaching only the present tense in Level 1, the preterite in Level 2, etc.  This Head’s reasoning was, people must “master” one set of “vocabulary” at a time. Bad idea.

Anyway, let us look at which verbforms in Spanish are actually most frequently used.  Here, from’s Spanish Frequency List, are the most-used verbs in Spanish, then some ideas about what this means for teachers.

The verbform is as given, and the number refers to how close to most-used the verbform is.  The lower the number, the more often used the verb is. Reference point: in Spanish, the most-used word is que (“what” or “that”) whose number is therefore 1.  The second most-used word is de (“of” or “from”) whose number is 2, and the articles la and el (“the”) are the 6th and 7th most-frequently-used words.  OK, verbs:

8.             es
22           está
42           vamos
44           hay
47           estoy
48           tengo
53           ha
55           sé
56           estás
58           puedo
60           quiero
62           soy
63           tiene
68           fue
69           ser
70           hacer
71           son
73           era
74           eres
76           tienes
77           creo
79           he
81           voy
82           puede
83           sabes
91           quieres
100        estaba
102         están
103         va
109         siento
110         tenemos
111         puedes
115         ver
124         decir
128         ir
132         has
136         estar
137        estamos
141        quiere
146        trabajo
148        mira
149        vas
150        sea
154        hecho
156        dijo
157        pasa
162        hablar
169        espera
171        han
173        sabe
177        fuera
181        podemos
182        dije
184        necesito
185        estado
186        podría
187        acuerdo
189        tener
190        dice
192        crees
194        gusta
197        será
198        haciendo
202        había


First, the facts.

A.  The top 202 most-used Spanish words include

  • verbs in seven verb tenses (present, preterite, imperfect, present perfect, present progressive, formal future, informal future e.g. va a hablar)
  • verbs in two subjunctive moods (present and past)
  • reflexive verbs

B. Verbs we think are oft-used such as gustar are less-used than for example fue

C. The traditional textbook order of teaching verb tenses (typically, present ⇒ preterite ⇒ imperfect ⇒ present perfect ⇒ subjunctive) is totally at odds with how frequently verb forms are actually used.

The implications (in no particular order):

  1. Traditional textbook verb sequencing will not help students in real-world use. Most students will not take five years of Spanish– two is more typical– and so traditional sequencing will overplay less-used “categories” (e.g. stem-changing verbs) and underplay what actually gets used (everything, basically).  They will therefore understand less than they should/could.

    We know this:  according to Davies and others, the 1500 most-used words make up 85% of all spoken language (in any language).  A reasonable target for a five-year high-school language program would therefore be, 300 words per year, more or less.  What if students only take two?  Well then, they will get the most benefit from using the 600 most-used words.

  2. Textbook sequencing does not properly “model” grammar “rules.”  It is pretty obvious that everything normally used is “mixed together.”  A four year old will say something like yesterday Daddy took me to a playdate.  I hurt myself playing with Jason. But it was fun.  I like playing with Jason.  He’s nice.  Here, there are three verb tenses and a reflexive verb.In Spanish, English speakers have a whack of verb subtleties to soak up.  For example, the term “I was” could be estaba, estuve, me sentí or fui. If we teach one tense as a time, as the textbook does, we play up the morphology (form) at the expense of contextual “rule” awareness.  E.g. a Colombian will say cuando estaba cansado ayer en la tarde, me tomé un tinto (“when I was tired yesterday afternoon, I grabbed a coffee”).  The Colombian has acquired the “rule” that the preterite tense “interrupts” the “background” that the imperfect tense establishes.In a traditional textbook, however (eg the ¡Juntos! books I used to use), students will spend quite a while on the preterite, and then on the imperfect.  Even if they acquire the specific forms (which they generally don’t, because nobody is on anybody else’s schedule in terms of acquisition), when a new form shows up, two things happen:

    a. they will start using the new form (verb endings) everywhere and apparently forget the older form’s endings.  Kids who knew to say ayer yo fui a la escuela now say ayer yo iba a la escuela intending to mean the same thing.

    b. when (if) they pick up the new form, they will have huge problems “knowing” which form to use where.  Why?  Because there are so many “rules” to remember that the only effective way to pick them up is from contextual input modeling.  Basically, we need to hear an ocean of meaningful Spanish sentences which use both these verb tenses together.  This is true in any language of any grammatical structure.

    An English speaker can do a thought experiment here:  what is the “rule” for using the very high-frequency English words some and any?  Why can’t I ask do you have some advice? or answer no I don’t have some advice for you?  Why can I say do you have some of those washers for my drum? but not do you have some ideas? 

Anyway.  There you go: some data and ideas about word frequency.  Comments as always welcome.


Stuffies, Students & Stories: a simple Monday opener.

My Spanish classes are fully “unsheltered” grammar, which means we use past tense, present, subjunctive, whatever right from Day 1.  We need a lot of varied input for this to work, so stories are asked in present tense but read in past, and Movietalk and Picturetalk are in present.

In addition to my daily intro routine, I have started playing around with student-generated stories.  Each weekend, a student takes Victor the black-and-white monkey home.  They have to take five photos of Victor that tell a story.  They email me them, I project them on Monday, and we ask a past-tense(s) story.

So, this week Zahra had Victor and his wife/girlfriend/partner bla bla Victoria.  Here are the photos she made, and what we did with them in class.  We are working on quiere impresionar (wants to impress), le da (gives him/her) and quiere ser (wants to be).


There was a monkey named Victor and another named Victoria.  Victor was [invent details] and Victoria was [ditto].  They lived in ____.  Victor liked ___ and Victoria liked ____.


Victor saw Victoria.  He liked her.  He wanted to impress her. He gave her a rose.
Victor said you are very beautiful.  I am rich, handsome and nice. Would you like this rose?
Victoria said your rose does not impress me.


Victor kissed Victoria.  Victoria was not impressed.
Victoria said your kisses do not impress me.
Victor said what impresses you?
Victoria said rings impress me.


Victor gave Victoria a ring.
Victor said does my ring impress you?
Victoria said yes your ring impresses me.
Victor said do you want to be my wife?
Victoria said yes I want to be your wife. 


Victor and Victoria had a son.  Their son was a cat.  Their son’s name was ____.

I will narrate, kids suggest details, and I ventriloquise voices for the monkeys.

ANYWAY this is easy.  Just send a character home with a student.  Get the student to take 4-6 photos that tell a story.  Kids can use just the character, or add themselves, or use their friends, etc.  They can digitally manipulate the photos if they want.  Then, they email them to you, you project, and you can either ask a story, or Picturetalk them.

BTW this is not my idea– it comes from The Internet.  This is just an example of how one can do it.

UPDATE: so when the photos came to me, we “picturetalked the story” and then there was a twist.  Kajal asked, if the two monkeys had a baby tiger, did the girl monkey Victoria cheat on Victor? Who is the real Dad?  The vocab introduced here was ¿es posible que _____ engañara a ____ (“is it possible that _____ cheated on ____?”).  Yes, it’s past subjunctive and these are Level 1s but some circling and comp checks and they get it.

So…Kajal is this weekend taking the stuffies home and is going to create a backstory that explains how Victoria had a baby tiger.  This is the cool stuff, when stories take twists the kids come up with.





How Do I Explain Comprehensible Input?

Kids, parents and colleagues often ask us why do we do stories in Blablabian class, and read so much Blablabian? or why don’t we practise speaking Blablabian more? or why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s class?

These are good questions.  Now, since most kids and parents, and an unfortunately  staggering number of teachers, administrators, heads, and methods instructors in Uni don’t, won’t or can’t read S.L.A. research, we have to be able to get people to think about why we teach languages basically by using comprehensible stories and reading that recycle vocabulary a lot.  Our best explanation will be, because it works, and we show the kids, colleagues, parents or admins what kids can understand and do.  We can also point them to the user-friendly Tea With BVP radio show/podcast. We can also do the best thing of all time: ask our students, do you feel like you are understanding lots of Blablabian, and is it easy?

But sometimes you want to make a point quickly, or get people thinking, so, today’s question: how do I explain comprehensible input teaching?  Some of these are my ideas, and others come from Robert Harrell and Terry Waltz.

Q: Why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s Blablabian class?

A: Ask the questioner, so knowing grammar rules is important to be able to speak a language?  When they say yes, say OK, let’s do a simple experiment.  First, ask them to tell you three things they did last night.  They’ll say something like first I went home and ate Pizza pops, and then I did homework that totally sucked, and after dinner I played Minecraft on my Xbox.Then, say OK, now tell me three things you did last night, but do not use the letter “n.”  This will open the door to a conversation that can show them why having to consciously think about language while using it will basically cripple our ability to talk.


Q: Why don’t we/your students/my children in your classes practise talking?

Ask the person what language that you don’t know would you like to learn?  They might say Urdu, or Dari, or French.  Then say to them OK, let’s start speaking Urdu.

At this point, they will say yes but I don’t know how to say anything. Then you say something like well, how would you like to learn to say something, and they will say something like by listening to it or by reading or watching it and you say exactly!  You can now talk about how input, and lots of it, must– and does– precede any kind of output.

Q: Don’t people need grammar rules explained to them to be able to speak?

A:  Ask whether or not the sentence “I enjoy to run” sounds right.  When they say, no, ask why not?  Most people will say uhhhhh, while the grammar freaks will say well the verb to enjoy must be followed by a noun or a gerund bla bla bla.  Right…and now you ask them when you were a kid, who explained that rule to you?  What, wait, nobody?  Well then how did you pick it up?

This is where you can talk about what polyglot Kato Lomb (21 languages) said:  we learn grammar from language, not language from grammar.


Q: Don’t people need to memorise a lot of vocabulary to learn a language?  Why don’t you get your students to study vocab lists?

A:  Ask them, could you explain how to turn a cellphone off? Obviously:  simply find the button, and press the button long enough.  Now, ask them, can you tell me how to draw a cube?  Here, I have pen and paper, explain away.

Image result for cube

When they try to tell you what to do to make this cube, you will probably end up with something very different from this nice neat cube.
The point? Some activities that we do are simple enough to first explain and then simply do, like turning a phone on or off.  In school, things low on Bloom’s taxonomy, like memorising some dates for a history class, or doing long division, can easily be broken down into steps, practiced, and mastered.  Basiclaly, if a computer can or could do it, we can learn it by breaking it down into steps.

Other activities, however, are so complex that breaking them down into steps or chunks is either impossible or not worth the effort.  You could theoretically “explain” how  to draw a cube, but it would be way easier to just show somebody a cube and have them go at experimenting with copying it.  Similarly, you could ask students to memorise twenty Blablabian words (or some grammar “rules”) for a test.  But it would be much simpler to get them to listen to some sentences containing the words, explain what the sentences mean, and then ask them some questions about the sentences (ie circle them) in order to recycle the words.

Q: I learned Blablabian from textbooks, memorising word lists, and studying grammar.  I can still speak it.  Why should we do anything differently?  (This question  btw is one that I have never heard from a parent, but rather from some older languages teachers.)

A: First, we ask Mr Old Grammar Student a couple of questions in Blablabian, speaking at the speed of at which native speakers of Blablabian.  One of two things will happen: 1. MOGS will not understand the question, or 2. MOGS will get it and give us a fluent answer.

If MOGS doesn’t understand, the point is moot.

If MOGS gives us a fluent answer, we then ask, have you done anything to acquire Blablabian other than study the text etc? The answer is always one or more of the following: yes, I lived in Blablabia for three years, or I married a Blablabian who did not speak English, or I watch Blablabian-language news, or I really enjoy watching the Blablabian soap opera ROTFL BFF OMG LULZ on Netflix. 

At this point, one can politely bring up Lance Piantaggini’s point that how we actually acquired Blablabian might differ from how we think we acquired it.  The way I put it is this: can you tell me how much of your Blablabian came from Blablabian experiences, and how much came from the text?  Even if people don’t know, we point out that, at best, a student of Blablabian in a five-year high-school Blablabian program got 500 hours of Blablabian (and, if the teacher was using a textbook, probably a lot less). If they lived in Blablabia, they got that much exposure to Blablabian in six weeks!

At this point, only a hardened grizzled grammarian fighting the noble battle of the textbook will stick to their guns, and say something like well grammar preparation made it possible for me to go out and experience real-life in Blablabia successfully.  At this point we might say, and what percent of your students will eventually end up in a Blablabian immersion environment? but frankly I would rather at this point go and grab a couple of beers.


Ok folks, there it is, a few simple ways to get people thinking about why C.I. works.

Why Don’t I Take “Late Marks” Off?

This teacher is angry cos a student dared to show up late at his class, and have the audacity to tell him I know it’s due today, but I’ll hand it in tomorrow.

Image result for teacher angry with student


A recent discussion had people asking, what do you do about kids handing work in late– do you take marks off?

My answer to this question: no, never.

Why? Well, for many of the same reasons I don’t mark behaviour, plus one more: when I am marking student work, and telling them/Admins/their parents etc their mark, that mark must reflect the curriculum and map onto criteria.

So here’s today’s though experiment about two students, Chris and Enid.

Chris looooooves Mr Hardass’s Spanish class. LOOOOOOOOVES it. He likes Spanish class soooooo much he wants to be a Spanish teacher just like Mr Hardass when he grows up. But Chris, sadly, is an idiot. He is s.l.o.w. and, well, not very good at Spanish. His mark is 75% despite extended Duolingo sessions, tutors his parents have hired, and even a crew of Latino kids in high school.

Then we have Enid, who is a major badass. She starts with a late-morning blunt sesh to a. take the edge off her Tuesday hangover, generated by partying with her 23 year old coke-dealing boyfriend until Falstavian hours, and b. make Math class less tedious.  Even if she could be bothered to go to Mr Hardass’s Spanish, she sure wouldn’t do/bring any homework cos omfg I have way funner things to do.  However– and this irritates the crap out of both Mr Hardass and Chris– Enid is really good at Spanish. Her drug dealer’s best friend is Latino, and she’s acquired a bunch (of Spanish) from him over bong hits. She also works with a crew of Latinos. She also, well, likes a lot of salsa music, and has a thing for Mexican reggaeton, and has been secretly following Corazon Salvaje for a few years.

So at the end of Term 1, poor dunderheaded Chris scrapes by with a B, because Mr Hardass mercy-ups him to 75% from 71. Enid, meanwhile, crushes on everything and gets an A, 95%…but then the penalties kick in. Mr Hardass, who fancies himself a teacher of “soft skills” and “rigor” and “reality preparation,” and who wants his students to “respect” him and the system, deducts late marks, missed homework marks, attitude and participation marks, bla bla bla, until Enid is down to a 75%.

Enid and Chris, both disappointed, go to see Mr Hardass about their marks.  Chris’s question is what can I do to get a higher mark? and Mr Hardass knows, not much, everybody is different and hems and haws and prays that Chris’ helicopter parents don’t email the principal.

Enid meanwhile struts in, reeking of cigarette smoke.

Enid: ¿por qué me diste una B si hablo español, y lo entiendo?

Mr Hardass: Well, you don’t hand work in, or pay attention, and your attitude is terrible. This means marks come off, so your mark is low, as explained in my fascinating course outline, which I know you read, because I gave you a 5-mark test to ensure that you’d read it, because in my experience if marks aren’t attached to something, students don’t do it.

Enid: But I can speak, read and understand everything in Spanish.  Every test I do I get 90% or over on, and I can answer any question I hear.

Mr Hardass:

Riddle me this, my brothers and sisters:  how does a mark of 75% accurately reflect both Chris’ and Enid’s skills?

Anyway, here are some comments about this and my responses:

That’s great. Does the Spanish (or whatever) curriculum specify that marks should partly be based on attendance? No? Hmm… And sure, “soft skills” like punctuality matter…but shouldn’t a student’s Spanish mark be based on Spanish skills? Does the curriculum say,  students will hand things in on teacher-decided due dates?


Sounds like a power tip to me: do it my way– which is correct– or be penalised.  Who cares if a kid “blows off” one’s class?  If they aren’t in class, or doing homework (and the class and homework provide useful and meaningful input and activities), their language skills will drop, as will their mark.

False analogy.  You have to be ready to effectively teach for Friday.  If your Adminz require lesson plans, they are missing the point, and wasting your and their time.  I don’t follow or even have lesson plans, but I show up and get my job done.  In a language class, a student’s job is to acquire language.  Being on time, or handing work in on time, matter, but they aren’t the point.


This assumes, falsely, that obvious work habits = acquisition.  This is simply not the case.  JGR is not a valid assessment tool.  As I noted in an earlier post, my best-ever student would have lost about 20% of his grade had I used JGR for his mark.

Now, here is my own policy.

  1. We have work to do which builds mental representation of language.  This work includes PQA, storyasking, reading, Movietalk, Picturetalk, etc.
  2. We will try to do as much of this as possible in class.  If it doesn’t get done in class, it’s homework.  Students in my class can generally expect about 30 min. of Spanish hwk per week, and it’s easy: it is all basically read and translate, either on paper or through Textivate.
  3. If the homework is late, I put an INC in the spreadsheet where the mark should be.  The computer does not generate a mark if there is an INC.  The kids all see the marks they have for various assignments.  However, if they have not handed something in, the computer generates an INC for their overall grade. This is motivation for most kids to do and hand in their work:  they always ask what am I getting in Spanish?  When work is done and marked, I add the mark and the kids know what they are getting.
  4. If the homework they have not done can be copiedand I have handed it back to those who did it on time, the kids who have not done it agree on one after-school day or lunch where they can come in and do it, supervised by me, so there is no copying.  If they miss this, they get a zero.
    Why do I use zeros?  Because I don’t have infinite time and patience, and because…
  5. …when the next story cycle starts, all previous marks now don’t count.  My students’ marks are always their most recent scores.  At any given time, their mark is combination of one or two listening tests, one or two reading assignments, and a writing score based on a five-minute write and a story write.
    So if Johnny blows off homework, he gets an INC until he hands work in or comes to after-school make-up session.  If he doesn’t, his mark drops…until the next “story cycle” starts.

And some final reasons not to “take off late marks”

Grades, as Alfie Kohn and many others have argued, should not be used for motivation. We want work to be intrinsically interesting, and not a “payment” for “work” done.

If a kid isn’t doing work, we also have to ask ourselves the teacher’s difficult question: is there something I need to change? Is the homework too difficult?  Does it take too much time, or time away from things that kids would get more out of?  Is the homework stupid? (by which we mean not teaching students anything useful)  Does it reflect what is happening in class?


The Great Wooden Satellite

A few years ago the American Space Society was going to build its first satellite.  It was back when America had to start competing with dogs in space, etc.  They had this crew of engineers there debating, “what material shall we build the satellite out of?”  The satellite’s mission: to take killer photos of everything from stars to America The Beautiful.

There were two schools of thought.  The first thought, you know what, space is like the sea, and ships were traditionally made of wood, and people 1,000 years ago sailed around the world in wooden ships, so let’s make this satellite out of wood.  These were the Woodsmen.

The second school of thought had only two engineers in it.  One was this madcap Jewish intellectual cum weightlifter named Kreve Stashen, a man who literally could not function without coffee.  He would shake and vibrate without it and had joked about having an intravenous caffeine drip installed in his arm, and was actively looking into a Barstucks sponsorship.  Stashen had had a remarkable insight one day, when, overcaffeinated even by his own high standards, and driving down a Pomona freeway, looking at old buildings, he  noticed that wooden structures– old farm shacks and barns– warped and twisted in the dry California heat, while metal buildings looked a bit worn but were otherwise 100% serviceable.

Stashen wrote up his insight into a book called “Principles and Practices in Satellite Photo Acquisition,” which argued that satellites should be made of metal, not wood, and which received some accolades but was otherwise either mocked or ignored.  This book was read by a Mormon engineer named Laine Bray who,  for religious reasons, had literally never tried even a single cup of coffee.  The coffee irony was probably not lost on someone, somewhere.  Bray, who had built many wooden satellites, all of which had crashed, decided to make all of his subsequent satellites out of metal.

Stashen and Bray called themselves Thinking Pragmatically with Research about Space.

At the materials design meeting, the TPRSers proposed a totally radical idea.  “Let’s build the satellite out of metal,” said Bray.  “Research shows that metal does fine in dry, cold space-like conditions,” said Stashen, reaching for the day’s 27th espresso as Bray wrinkled his nose.

“You guys,” said Chief Woodsman Ace Tofl, who moonlighted as president of the American Space Society, “are nuts.  Wood has always worked fine for ships.  OK sure, it will be harder to seal.  Take a lot more wood than metal.  Need a bigger rocketship.  But it will be fine.”

Seeing no support from the A.S.S., Bray went to his workbench and started fiddling.  $300 later he had a metal box big enough to hold a radio, a basic telescope and camera, and a crude solar panel.  He strapped an old Army parachute to it, added some heat-resistant tiles, and presto! satellite.

The A.S.S. meanwhile had crews of engineers from companies like McHill-Graw and Moughton-Hifflin beavering away, and finally built a wooden satellite.  Like schooners and clippers of yore, it had sails and keels and even a rum barrel so that errant Martians could grab a nice drink should they run into the A.S.S.’s masterpiece out in the aether.  But it turned out that there was an unanticipated problem.  The wooden satellite needed an enormous set of never-before-built boosters to get it off the ground, bigger than expected.

Luckily, the U.S. and Canadian forestry industries were right there egging the A.S.S. on, ready to cut down a few million trees should the wooden satellite program get off the ground, and so Tofl sent A.S.S.’s crew of diligent private contractors back to work building the boosters.

Meanwhile, Bray used an old rocket that he found out behind a garden shed at Cape Canaveral to launch his crude, ridiculous metal satellite.  The satellite went into orbit, took lovely photos of Earth and the Milky Way (and a few selfies, because Instagram!), then returned in one piece to Earth.  Bray’s mission, Stashen calculated, cost $26,300: $20,000 for an old booster rocket, $300 for the satellite, and $3,000 for fuel. It generated 3,141 excellent photos (and got 100 Instagram followers) at a cost of about 13 cents/photo. Also $3,000 for Stashen’s coffee habit.

The A.S.S. then launched its wooden satellite into orbit.  When it came time to do satellite work, numerous problems came up…but thankfully these had been anticipated by the cunning engineers. Because it was wood, and wood shrinks and warps, the wood had to be enormously thick, and covered in many layers of insulation. This meant that the camera housed inside the wooden satellite was deep inside the satellite– it had to be, as wood, unlike metal, was a poor shield against cosmic radiation– basically peering through a tunnel of wood, and had limited range to take photos, and so the Great Wooden Satellite took only 173 photos.  And no selfies.  (However, NASA knew that it was important to keep the American Pubic up to speed, so they had cleverly launched a public-relations campaign on twenty-seven social media platforms which boasted amazing shots of the satellite sitting in the hangar, magnificent in its wooden artistry.)

Another GWS problem was reentry. The GWS was so big that it needed an enormous parachute to get back, and it then needed a couple of battleships to find it in the ocean and bring it back.

But Tofl, the forestry industry, the satellite design contractors, and a few dozen other hangers-on were undeterred, and finally when the GWS had been towed back to Cape Canaveral, its designers pronounced its mission a success.

However, Kreve Stashen, who never saw a data set he couldn’t grok out over, drank another cuppa Joe, and did a bit of number crunching.  The GWS program– by A.S.S.’s calculations– cost $3,289,000.  It had taken 171 photos.  Stashen then calculated the arithmetic mean, standard deviation, chi-squared function, theta-z correlation and the independent variability function, and concluded that each photo cost $19,233.

In terms of photo quality, Bray’s satellite crushed the A.S.S.’s, as the camera– mounted close to the edge of the satellite housing, and therefore capable of rotating and zooming at will– proved a much more flexible and accurate photographic instrument than the identical camera buried in the bowels of the GWS.

At the American Space Society’s convention, Stashen laid the facts out: Bray’s simple, improvised satellite was demonstrably cheaper and more effective than the A.S.S.’s G.W.S.

Following Stashen, Tofl appeared onstage, and delivered a paper entitled “Building A Better Beautiful Limitless Experience,” wherein he suggested that

  • engineers keep a portfolio detailing the GWS’s successes as a way to authentically reflect on their growth as engineers
  • iPads be used to track the GWS’s future launches and touchdowns
  • the GWS itself reflect on its own progress, and identify further areas for growth
  • the GWS be exposed to culturally rich stories about space travel, aliens, etc, so that its motivation to take good photos increase, motivation logically being a key factor in the GWS’s ability to take photos.

The American lumber industry, the Navy, an army of contractors, tech giants MicroApple and Soft, and a zillion wannabe amateur space engineers applauded.  Then came question time.

“Isn’t a satellite’s computer system intrinsically unable to self-reflect?” asked a diva named Vill BanPatten, “I mean, is it even alive? Can a computer do that?”

“How exactly is using an iPad to document the GWS’s launch going to help it?”

Tofl kindly responded with “a scaffolded, peer assessed authentically self-reflective process which leverages genius hour accountability into personalised evaluation.”

“Umm, I’m a blogger,” said this one total idiot, “and I am wondering why we are even talking about this GWS project.  The other one is cheaper and better, totally scaleable, simpler, you know?”

“We must respect ALL perspectives,” said the A.S.S.’s Tofl. “Everyone has something valuable to contribute. We need unity in the space community.  We must have respectful dialogue.”

Another audience member then said “well, we know that the Moon is made of green cheese, so could maybe GWS take some photos of it next mission?”

“The Moon,” said BanPatten, “is not made of green cheese.  We have spectroscopic data that disproves this absurd–”

Mr BanPatten!growled Tofl, “we must respect and value all A.S.S. members’ views. Everyone has something to contribute, and every view has merit.”

This meeting broke up acrimoniously.  For some odd reason, the fact that Bray’s dirt-cheap and very effective satellite massively outperformed the A.S.S.’s cumbersome wooden antique made no impression on Ace Tofl or on A.S.S.

Then suddenly it was 2015 and President Obama announced that, by golly, 1,000,000 American satellites needed to be launched into space to keep up with the Chinese (that would be one satellite per Chinese citizen, just keeping tabs, you know).

It was crisis time.  How would 1,000,000 satellites be launched?

Enter Werry Taltz, a Hawaiian engineer who had successfully used and tweaked Bray’s designs.  Taltz, addicted to both satellite design and drawing, sent the White House a message, stating that “if we want to make 1,000,000 satellites, they’ll have to be of modern design, efficient, and with actual tested results.  Given what Bray has accomplished, we should be able to do it for about $250 per satellite, or $250,000,000.”  A.S.S. was also asked for its views, and, instead of responding to Taltz, stated that “good old American derring-do and the forces of industry can launch 1,000,000 satellites at a cost of only $348,987,881,888,000.”

We all know what happened next: Donald Trump got elected.  And so our story awaits an ending:  will Taltz’s proposals win?  Will Stashen’s statistics and design ideas trump A.S.S.’s?  Will Bray’s dead-simple design become de rigeur?  Stay tuned.  On this day in 2018, we’ll check in and see and, as always, bring you alternative facts and truthiness.

What Is My Daily Intro Routine?

I open every class with an intro routine.  I add one or two words per day, and by the end of the course, the kids have picked up about 90 expressions from just intro alone.  Here’s how I do it

  1.  I ask, class, what is the day? and class, what is the date? Then, I answer in the affirmative and ask a few questions:  class, is it Tuesday or Wednesday?  That’s right, it’s Wednesday.  Class, is it the 28th or the 29th?  That’s right:  it’s not the 28th– it’s the 29th.This will teach kids days and numbers 1-31 with zero effort.  Time: 1 minute

  2.  I ask class, what is the weather like today? That’s right, class: it’s snowing.  Class, was it snowing yesterday? That’s right:  yesterday, it wasn’t snowing: it was sunny! If the weather where you are never changes, talk about weather elsewhere.  Time:  1 minute.

  3.  Next up is The Missing Kid: I ask, class, where is [a kid not in class]?  Sometimes kids know (Johnny’s at the doctor, or Manjeet is in a soccer tourney).  Then, I ask some y/n and either/or questions about that kid. Sometimes, we have no idea, so here we speculate:  Class, is it possible that Baljit is playing soccer with Leonel Messi in Barcelona?  For people with the subjunctive tense in their target language, this is a goldmine.  Time: 5 minutes

  4. Finally, we do what did you do last night?  First, I model it myself:  I tell the kids about my evening, thus: Class, last night I drove my  purple Ferrari home, and then I had a date with Angeline Jolie.  That’s right, class:  Ang is single so we had a date.  Our date was fun and romantic.  We went to McDonalds!  Ang was very happy.

    I ask, Suzie, what did you do last night/yesterday?   Yes, I do this with Day 2 beginners.  I use the following “past tense PQA” chart.  Initially, the kids just read off it.  On Day 2, the question was what did you do last night? and they could only pick I went to…. and I played…

So I would ask a kid what did you do last night? and they would (in the first few days) read something like last night, I played GTA 5 or yesterday, I went to Wal Mart.  I would ask questions about their answers, re-state in 3rd person, and then do compare and contrast questions.  Here is a sample dialogue from today (we have had about 27 classes):

T:  Manpreet, what did you do last night?

S: last night, I went to Wal-Mart.

T:  class, did Manpreet go to Wal-Mart or to Safeway last night?

C: Wal-Mart.

T: Manpreet, did you go to 7-11 last night?

S: I went to Wal-Mart.

Here we are getting 1st, 2nd and 3rd person reps on the basic past tense.  I “allow” one new word per day, so after 8 days the kids at least recognise the basics (ie what is on the chart).  Yes, you can do this with total beginners and it’s a not-bad idea…because the longer people hear  _____, the more chances they have of picking it up.  After they recognise everything on the chart, I add a new word or two on the board per day.

Time: 5 minutes.

5. Finally, we do soap operas, which grew organically out of  me blatantly lying about my evening activities.  Kids, were like, well if Sr can date Angelina Jolie, *I* can kiss Dave Franco.  For soap opera details, read this.  Soap operas have two parts:  creating the story, and (once enough has been created to fill a page) printing it out and reading it.

Anywaythe aims with the intro routine are to

  • keep all language 100% comprehensible
  • introduce a variety of grammar and vocab incrementally
  • tailor language to student interests
  • recycle things daily
  • avoid themes or topics
  • unshelter grammar



Soap Operas (3): a simple verb trick

I’ve been playing with soap operas (details here and here).  Our telenovela is La Muerte y las Rosas (death and roses) and every day we add a few sentences to it.  I write these sentences on the board, circle them a bit, and when I have enough for a full page, I type it into my telenovela Word doc and hand the kids another page of it.

I am storyasking (and doing Movietalk and Picturetalk) in the present tense, but we are also doing our ¿qué hiciste anoche? class opener routine in the past and the telenovela in whatever tense(s) we need.

Written on the board (from yesterday) what happened in the present tense: Will Smith está en el hospital, porque se le cayó una coco en la cabeza.  (Will Smith is in the hospital, because a coconut fell on his head).  Yesterday, when this had come up (student Kajal’s dad is Will Smith, and her Mom is Rihanna, ssshhh don’t tell Mrs Smith), I had written it down, and circled it.  So today, a simple trick:

I just changed the verb endings into the past tense and added a tense marker word: Ayer, Will Smith estaba en el hospital, porque se le había caido una coco en la cabeza (Yesterday, W.S. was in hospital, because a coconut had fallen on his head).  I circled this for a bit.

This might be a not-bad idea because we have 95% of meaning established when we generate the sentence, write it down, and circle it.  When we switch to the past tense, we only really have to circle the verb a few times so the kids can hear the difference.  I’m going to make this a regular routine: generate ideas in present, then rehearse in past.  Blaine Ray has done something like this– storyasking in present, and reading in past.

Anyway, simple trick: translate from one tense to another, keeping rest of vocab the same.



How Much Does T.P.R.S. Cost?

books pic

Image:  Omaha Public Library

Being poor sucks.  It is well-known that the poorer (and darker-skinned) you (and your school District) are, the worse your educational outcomes are, anywhere in North America or Europe.  In language education, the bias is even more specific: in a traditional “communicative” language program, by 5th year, the few remaining students will be affluent, white, with educated parents, and often female.  Yet everyone has the same innate capacity for language learning, so it’s got to be teaching that separates wealthier and whiter from darker and poorer.

Grant Boulanger has done some exemplary work in Minnesota, showing how good C.I.-based language instruction will enable all learners to do more-or-less equally well.  And the research is clear:  C.I.-based teaching narrows marks ranges and raises all of them.

We tend to argue for C.I.’s effectiveness by saying it works better and showing how amazingly well kids can write Chinese or Spanish, or speak it, etc.  Kids who get C.I.– through free voluntary reading, Movietalk, T.P.R.S. stories and reading, Picturetalk, etc– never do worse than grammar kids, occasionally do as well, and generally do significantly better.  But what if there were an economic argument to be made for adopting a C.I. program?

Our beloved Monsieur Tabernac has 30 kids in his French 1 class.  Every 10 years, his District replaces his French textbook program.  This year, he has options.  He can get the Communi-quête program (traditional “communicative” teaching, with videos, audio listening stuff, cahiers, etc) or he can go in for, say, Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk books (which include readings, and let’s throw in a Movietalk book too) .  Let’s take a look at the costs of these options.

We are assuming that
1.  The resources will serve 30 kids, for 10 years
2. At the end, everything will get thrown out and bought anew
3. Each year, in each program, the kids will buy the workbook.


Text: 30 books x $65/book = $1950
Teacher book:                            $350
Audio CDs:                                   $200
Video DVD:                                   $190

TOTAL                                             $2700
Workbooks: $13/student/year

Look, I Can Talk

Textbook:                                  none
Teacher book:                            $30
Movietalk book                         $30
Green Bible how-to kit          $40
props for stories                       $100

TOTAL                                          $200

LICT workbooks (these
include readings)                     $14/student/year

So…the textbook option costs thirteen times as much as the T.P.R.S. optionwhile the per-year cost to the students is $1 higher for T.P.R.S.

So if Monsieur Tabernac was given $3,000 for his language program–use it or lose it; if you don’t buy stuff, the English department gets to order 400 more copies of Lord of the Flies etc– what should he buy?  The answer is obvious: the T.P.R.S. curriculum, and novels!

If he ditches the text, Tabernac has $2,800 to buy novels.  At about $5/novel from Blaine Ray or Carol Gaab, he can buy 18 class sets of 30 novels each.  Or, he could by 36 sets of 15 novels each (so the kids can have more free voluntary reading options).

Given what we know about how much student choice and readings and personalisation matter, the answer is a no-brainer: a C.I. curriculum will be cheaper, more fun, and waaaaay more effective.

This is also a significant issue for poorer Districts.  In wealthier areas, the richer, whiter kids can hire tutors, go to France in summer, etc, if the textbook is useless and they want to get better at French.  Poor kids don’t have those options…and if we want them to have a shot at college or Uni, money shouldn’t be wasted on bad textbooks that aren’t fun, don’t work, and cost too much.

But ssssshhhhh….don’t tell ACTFL or the textbook companies…