Selfietalk!

The selfie is everywhere.  Even I have taken a few and I am the ugliest guy in the world and don’t much like looking at myself.

BUT selfies are loads of fun especially when the kids come up with them.  So how do we do selfietalk?

a. Get the kids to take a selfie.  Ideally, this will be taken somewhere there’s background that’s identifiable, and also ideally there will be two students from class in it.  Oh and it’s gotta be appropriate.

b. They email you the selfie.

c. Project it, and then Picturetalk it.  You make statements, and ask questions about it, and here, you ask the person(s) in the selfie to talk (in first person) about what was happening.

So the other day the foods teacher was teaching pancake-making to her grade 8s and brought me a plate of pancakes.  I couldn’t eat ’em but Neha– who had rolled out of bed late and had forgotten to eat breakfast WAS ALL OVER THESE and her pal took a photo which got sent to me.

So here’s some sample Q&A about the photo that I did:

Who’s eating? –Neha is eating.

What is Neha eating? –She is eating pancakes.

What is Neha wearing? –She is wearing a bunny hug.

Is her bunny hug blue or black? –Her bunny hug is blue

Is Drake or Neha eating pancakes?Neha is eating pancakes.  Drake is not eating pancakes.

 

Then, I asked Neha some questions:

Did you like the pancakes?  — Yes I liked the pancakes

Why did you like the pancakes? — I liked the panckaes bc they were delicious.

What were you eating? –I was eating pancakes.

Was SpongeBob eating pancakes? — No, *I* was eating pancakes.

That evening I made a crude meme out of this with a simple  sentence (“I like pancakes a lot”)

The next day, we spent a few minutes talking about the photo.  The cool thing here: the photo and Spanish were 100% comprehensible, and the writing 100% supported the picture.  I was able to ask the kids questions like ¿te gustan los pancqueques? and ¿te gustan los panqueques un poquito, o te gustan mucho? (do you like pancakes, and do you like panckaes a bit or a lot?) and they could easily answer from reading.

Here’s another: Max the Samoyed and me going climbing. 

The question reads “why are they happy?” and of course this is tailor-made for Sr Stolz to make fun of himself and the kids to go AWWWWWIEEE at Max. 

Anyway…happy selfietalk!

 

 

 

 

 

Should I do Word-For-Word Translation?

A recent Facebook group post asked about whether or not teachers should do word-for-word translation.

Word-for-word is not necessarily the same as direct translation, though it can be.  For example, in German we say mein Nahme ist Chris (“my name is Chris”).  In this case, the two languages use the same word order.

Here are some more examples of what word-for-word translation looks like:

In Spanish, a grammatically good sentence is estudiar no me gusta, which literally means “to study not pleases me” but an English speaker would translate this as “I don’t like studying” or “I don’t like to study.”

In other languages, things get weirder: some languages don’t (always) use pronouns.  When I acquired a bit of Mandarin years ago working for Taiwan-born Visco in the camera store, some of the sentences in Mandarin were something like “go store yesterday” which translates into English as “Yesterday I went to the store.” In other languages, like French, you can’t just say “no” or “not:” you have to wrap the verb with ne…pas.  In some languages in some places you do not always need a verb.  E.g in German, if somebody asks you Bist du  gestern nach Berlin gegangen? (meaning “Did you go to Berlin?”), you can answer with Nein, gestern bin ich nicht nach Berlin (literally “No, yesterday am I not to Berlin”).

I think we should generally not use word-for-word translation.  Why?

  1. WFW unnecessarily confuses the kids.  The point of direct translation is to clarify meaning.  You want to waste as little time as possible and having them think through weird word order is not doing much for meaning.  Terry Waltz calls this “a quick meaning dump,” by which she means the point is to get from L2 to L1 in as simple and easy a way as possible.

2. WFW turns on the Monitor.  In other words, when we do this, students start to focus on language as opposed to meaning.  We know that the implicit (subconscious) system is where language is acquired and stored, so there is little point in getting them to focus on language.  Both Krashen and VanPatten have argued (and shown) that conscious knowledge about language does not translate into acquisition of language.  Monitor use is at best not very helpful so why bother?

3. WFW can cause problems for people whose L1 is not English.  In my classes, we have lots of kids whose first languages are Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Tagalog etc etc.  Some of them are fairly new to English (they speak with accents and their English output has errors).  For example, a classic South Asian L2 English error I hear/read in my English classes all the time is “yesterday he had gone to the store” instead of “yesterday he went to the store.”

What these L2s need, more than anything, is not just grammatically good L3 but also gramamtically coherent English.  We tend to forget that, say, the Ilocarno-speaking Filipino kid who is in our Spanish class is also learning English in our Spanish classes.

 

Powerhouse Spanish teacher Alina Filipescu writes

I tell students what “ME LLAMO” means word for word, “myself I call,” then I add that in other words it means “my name is.” Since I’ve switched to this instead of just telling students that ME LLAMO means “my name is” like a textbook says it, I’ve seen a lot less errors. I now rarely see students make the mistake “ME LLAMO ES John.” When students do volleyball translations, then I have them do translations that make sense and not word for word. I do it word for word as a class so that I can control where it goes. I also like that students can “feel” what the syntax of the sentence is in the language that I teach. Just like Blaine always says, if there is something better than I will try it and adopt it. This is not written in stone for me, it’s what I do right now because it made sense when I heard/saw somebody else do it.

Filipescu makes three good points here.  First, students should know that you generally cannot translate most things WFW and have it make sense.  We all know what happens when legacy-methods assignments demand output beyond kids’ abilities:  Google transliterate!

She also says that she gets less *me llamo es (“myself I call is”) as a result.  I don’t doubt it…but she raises the interesting question of why and under what conditions?  Was this compared to when she used legacy methods?  Or compared to when she started C.I. and just did general meaning translation? I too get a lot less me llamo es and other such errors, but I think it has more to do with C.I. allowing me to spend way more time meaningfully in the target language than anything else.

Third, Filipescu translates me as “myself” which is correct…here.  However, elsewhere me means “me,” rather than “myself,” more or less like in English, eg me pegó means “she hit me.”  Now if we obsess over WFW (not that Alina does so) we are going to focus the kids on two different meanings “anchored” to one word.  Which I could see being confusing.

Filipescu’s post also raises the interesting question of under what conditions the kids write.  I have found that the more time they have, the more they screw up, because when they have notes, dictionaries, etc, they start thinking, and thinking is what (linguistically speaking) gets you into grammatical trouble.  One of the reasons C.I. uses little vocab and LOADS of repetition (via parallel characters, repeating scenes, embedded readings, etc) is to automatise (via processing, and not via “practise” talking) language use.   The less time they have to write, the less they think, and the more you get to see what the students’ implicit (subconscious) systems have picked up.

Anyway, overall, I would say, point out the weirdness of word order (or whatever aspect of grammar is different) once, then stick to natural, meaningful L1 useage for translation.  Mainly, this is to keep us in the TL as much as possible, and eliminate L1 distractions.

C.O.F.L.T./W.A.F.L.T. 2016 

C.O.F.L.T. and W.A.F.L.T. under the conference leadership of energy ball Tina Hargaden jointly put their annual gig on in Portland.  I got to meet, well, a zillion interesting languages teachers and a few luminaries, and sit in on a load of workshops, oh and enjoy the rain, epic Mexican food and arguments about gluten-free diets. So here’s my notes in zero discernable order.

First, we got a TPR demo from the glowing Karen Rowan.  Total Physical Response– revived and popularised by James Asher in the late 1960s (he did not invent it)– is basically, the teacher says and does an action, and then students do the action while the teacher says it.   T.P.R. has its advantages: it’s easy, fast, memory-sticky and fun. Its disadvantages: it gets old really quickly, it’s basically limited to command forms, and what is “TPR-able” tends to be low-frequency vocab (eg touches, walks, hand, eye etc).

Rowan threw down some good reminders: we aren’t teaching all you teachers here just a method, but mostly a way to meaningfully connect with students and we are always trying to keep everything 100% comprehensible even though we can’t always do that.

Now if caffeine is available, your odds of running into one Dr Stephen Krashen are higher than they would be if you went to, say, a Donald Trump rally (not that Trump would come to Oregon– he would be murdered by people hurling artisanal tofu at him).  And there was Himself, ordering literally 6 coffees for a crew which included one Dr Beniko Mason.

 For himself, Krashen ordered– and I quote– “a gigantic latte with extra espresso.” The good Doctor said hello in einem ausgezeichneten Deutsch and then threw down some Japanese to get Dr M. a cuppa Joe.

Now when you get to meet Dr K. you better have your questions ready.  Here are mine:

Me: So did you have any specific epiphanies on the way to developing the hypothesis that languages are acquired through getting comprehensible input?

Dr K.: Yes, two. One was in 1975 in New York when I was giving a presentation to language teachers.  There was a Japanese student of English there whose spoken English was not very advanced, yet her English writing was excellent.  And then it hit me that there were two systems operating here: the conscious and the implicit, and they either weren’t or were only minimally connected. 

The other was driving down the freeway in Pomona, when I asked myself “in what order should we teach words and grammar rules?” and I realized, it doesn’t matter, because the order of acquisition [of grammar “rules,” as has been confirmedis mostly fixed, and there is very little we can do to change them.

Me: so do you still lift?

Dr K.: OK let’s start that again, you should be saying “so I see you still lift.” 😉

Me: Yes of course [he was wearing a huge baggy jacket and pants!] I can see you still lift.  When you won the press award, what did you weigh and lift?

Dr K.: I weighed 181 and I incline-pressed 285.

Me: Wow; cool you still lift.  May I ask how old you are?

Dr K.:  I’m 75.  But I read like an 80 year old.

Me: Well I’m 47 but I lift like I’m 10.😜

Dr K.: [switches into German] Well, you’re on the uphill.

Me: [in German] Hey I loved that video of you doing C.I. in German.

Dr K.: See how much German you picked up from just five minutes of comprehensible input?

Me: LOOOOOL

 Dr K.:  LOOOOOOOL

So after that bit of banter, Krashen wandered off under loads of coffees, muttering I’m going to find a piano, and there were more T.P.R. basics with Karen.  Here is one cool idea: dialogue bubbles!  Here are Lynn and Ethan acting a scene from Karen’s demo.  A great way to start with relative beginners.  Lynn’s reads “I want to touch your hand” and Ethan’s reads “with what?”😉

So then there was an epically varied lunch set out.

In the afternoon, C.I. offerings being as scant on the ground as Donald Trump in Oregon, I went to something I ended up hating: ” _______ In The Second Language Classroom.”  Here was the schedule:

  1.  10 minutes  “everybody say your name and where you teach and what brought you here”
  2. 15 min.  “OK everybody share with your group on thing related to ______ that you did recently”
  3. 15 min. “OK can each table report out to the whole room please”
  4. 15 min. the presenter showing us how to do two things which, basically, you learned when you yourself were in high school
  5. 10 min. feedback and fill out the form.

If you’re gonna present, plz a. have something to present, and b. if it’s a “sharing session” please CALL IT a sharing session, and c. we want to learn things other than each others’ names.

That evening after Mexican with my teaching BFF Sarah-Beth, it was the COFLT/WAFLT social where I got to finally meet Mike Coxon and Karen Rowan.  I had made some offhand online comment about “Karen if ever I meet you, beers are on me” so the cunning Karen had me buying her evening’s worth of drinks (two whole glasses). She likes red wine, can’t remember what kind. Also present was Von Ray who is this mass of warm vibes just like his Dad but not drinking:  the Rays are L.D.S. folk.  Then appeared Martina Bex and her husband.  Bex, who has four kids under 5 (she left them with Oma in Alaska) AND who publishes non-stop, was presenting Sat, but tonight was Date Night and hubby Matt hung around while Bex made precisely one tour of the room before whisking her off to kid-free cocktails YOU GO GIRL.

Then appeared Carol Gaab who at 4’11” you have to look carefully for but OMG what an energy ball, first ppl she is 32 not 52, second she is a grandmother (how do grannies look 32?), third she has the most solid sage advice on anything you can imagine and fourth Gaab has a remarkable quality of fusing public principles, private beliefs and personality, etc, into one package.  You always feel when talking to Carol that you are getting the full meal deal.  Gaab’s point from her #iflt2014 session: it is quite possible– indeed easy– to do higher-level thinking even with beginners. Women are superhuman, basically, is what I realised AGAIN watching the energy-tornado Gaab, Supermom Bex and multi-tasker Rowan.

Friday the Philipines had extra rain so they sent it over.  Now it was time to see Dr Beniko Mason‘s presentation about free voluntary reading (FVR)  and story listening in the 2nd language class.  I’m gonna sum it up quick:

  1. Mason has experimented with having  her Japanese-speaking students do a ton of self-selected reading in English, and write occasional summaries in Japanese (L1).  At the end of this process, she found that despite having not “practised” English writing, their writing was much improved.  She speculates that this is because when they are summarising in Japanese, they are focused on reading (processing) the English and don’t worry about English writing, so they absorb more.  [edit: Mason clarified that it was not the Japanese writing per se that improved acquisition, but rather that it was the English input]. Bill VanPatten has also replaced writing exercises with processing exercises in his Spanish classes.  Students get the individual sentences from a story, and have to read and order them, à la Textivate).

2. She had students who had failed English 1 classes at Japanese universities who spent one semester in her class doing only FVR and listening in English.  These students outperformed the second-year students of English who had passed English !!

3. Mason discussed how she uses folktales translated into English.  She said she is not a huge user of props, actors etc (partly cos Japanese kids are trained to sit and listen) but prefers reading and asking questions, which her students seemed to enjoy.  Here’s  Claire Ensor’s intro to how to do story-listening.  Insofar is it is possible to measure…

4. …FVR seems to double the rate of acquisition of language by direct instruction or other non-C.I. classroom practice.  

5. [edit: Mason also mentioned how corrective feedback did not do anything to improve acquisition of English.]

The vendors’ area was interesting: in one room you had vendors like these side-by-side.  The language teaching world in microcosm: weird new-wavish (and fun, and effective) on the left (that’s Mike Coxon and Von Ray), and tradition on the right.

In the background of C.O.F.L.T. was the debate on targeted vs. untargeted input. Basically, how much control over the story vocab— and not just the details as in classical T.P.R.S.– should the kids have?  Ben Slavic, Tina Hargden and others have been experimenting with 100% student-generated stories and love it.  Others, such as me, were initially somewhat skeptical.  So it was cool to hear Mike Coxon and Von Ray and whoever stopped by their or Carol Gaab’s table to argue the this way and that.  And then Mike said, “this is amazing…we’re arguing like we always do about teaching…but we’re arguing C.I. methods vs other C.I. methods, rather than C.I. versus other approaches.”

One of the things I love about the C.I. world is what Blaine Ray has repeatedly said:  “if we find something that works as well, or better, we add it to T.P.R.S., or we change T.P.R.S.”

AND THEN I GOT TO POSE IN A PHOTO WITH THE COOL KIDS!

L-R: Karen Rowan, some guy, Terry Waltz, Martina Bex and Craig Sheehy

Terry Waltz was passing through so she got railroaded into coming and hanging out.  Of course I have been fanboying away to meet all these people, and there was Terry, ripping along in fluent Mandarin with a crew of Chinese teachers.  After I said hello, we chatted:

Me: OMG so you can speak 13 languages?  OMG

Terry: Well, I can get into trouble in 13, but I can only get out of trouble in about 7 

Me:  LOOOOOOL

Terry: LOOOOOOL

Terry’s T.P.R.S. With Chinese Characteristics is being translated into written Chinese.  Terry told me that this had proven a bit of work, as somebody either knows killer Mandarin but not T.P.R.S. well enough, or they know killer T.P.R.S. and not Mandarin well enough.  Classic translation problem in any field.  I also thought, translation is a good idea, because there is something authoritative about the heft of a book in your own language, plus you can spend your time going back, re-reading, re-thinking, etc.  T.P.R.S. is work to master; in Chinese, you have additional steps and tricks (e.g. cold character reading) cos the language is not written phonetically and it has zero cognates.  It will be very helpful for Chinese-literate teachers to have these tricks in the language they are teaching.

Terry also made remarks about Chinese teaching culture, to the effect that books still carry a weight of authority about them in a way they don’t in North America.  E.g. you can officially learn via webinars, blog reading, group Skype lessons etc in North America but the Chinese– with their 4,000 year old tradition of literacy– still like books as authorities.

Note the amount of brain power in that pic, minus the random guy.  Karen and Terry are legendary disagree-ers and have generated some amazing discussions about everything from targeting to method labels to the value of output.  Sometimes, when you hear them discussing C.I., you imagine this:

but then when they talk in person it’s more like this:

OMG awieeee OMG

ANYway, the targeting debate came up again, and some of the points raised included

  • if you want to train a newish T.P.R.S. teacher, is it not easiest to start with structured stories so they have one less thing to think about while learning to slow, circle etc?
  • will kids “choose” low-freq vocab if you let them decide whatever they want?
  • how do you support untargeted stories with writing (eg novels)…do you simply write up what each class came up with each time? (cool, but lots of work)
  • Terry brought up some solid points re: Mason’s research, noting that the Japanese students reading English had a massive foundation on which additional English input scaffolded and that it was not necessarily best practice for Level 1 and 2 students in any L2 to just read a ton.

No, I do not have any answers heh heh.

The human buffet continued:  next I got to meet the smart, funny, articulate, determined (oh and gorgeous) Claire Ensor come all the way from Tennessee.  Here’s Claire and Dr. K:

Claire is cool.  She teaches E.S.L. and is going to do her PhD in S.L.A.  She is interested in untargeted input, and how poverty affects S.L.A., and a million other things.  How awesome is that, running a thesis idea past Dr K.?  Claire and a few of us discussed her research project idea:  measuring acquisition gains through comparing story listening with FVR and “standard” TPRS…details to come when the experimental design gets hammered out.

So Friday late aft was Dr K. showing & discussing C.I. case studies and other, more general educational stuff. I’ll be brief:

  1. Mexican immigrant Armando worked at a Moroccan restaurant run by Moroccan Jews in L.A., and acquired enough Hebrew– via listening– that he fooled Israeli embassy staff and other Hebrew native speakers into thinking him a NS.  Krashen notes that he basically only listened, got unsheltered grammar, and got restricted vocab mostly focused around customer service, food, kitchen stuff and “hey what did you do last night?”-type routine conversation.
  2. Hungarian Kato Lomb acquired dozens of languages– starting at age 20– basically by reading books she liked and listening to whatever radio she could get.
  3. U.S.-born children of various immigrants who find interesting reading– in any format– in their parents’ language acquire and retain significantly more language than do other second-generation immigrants.  If you have native speakers in your class, get them to read.
  4. There is basically zero research showing that anything language-related that people do on a computer– other than read or watch understandable stuff they find interesting– helps anyone acquire a language.
  5. Because I stopped caring about Star Trek about the time Picard’s series got canned, I tuned out of the alien languages discussion but apparently Arrival is worth a watch.
  6. Ok modify that, I watched Arrival and I hated how it pretended to be deep bla bla, however, the aliens and their writing were cool.

Saturday morning was Tina Hargaden showing us in French how to use “the Invisibles”:

Basically, this is what you do for The Invisibles:

  1. The kids invent a character– a talking potato, a doll, a human, whatever.
  2. The class artist draws the character while it’s being developed.
  3. The class invents one or two more.
  4. You show the class the drawings and circle a bit.
  5. Then the kids make up a story about them.  You can have kids holding the (in)Visibles and doing the dialogue or teacher can do the dialogue.
  6. There has been argument: should teacher have a plan re: grammar and vocab (a list of “structures”), or should kids run the narrative show?  Dunno…as long as you restrict the vocab, get loads of reps, and keep it comprehensible, it doesn’t really matter.
  7. You provide some kind of reading once the story has been asked.  The challenge with the Invisibles is, if the stories are newly-made every time, you have to write each one up which takes a lot of time but also it’s customised for each class.

Saturday afternoon was Bex-a-rama.  Martina’s Herculean task: show us how to use “authentic documents” in the language classroom.  Nobody– including Bex herself– has been able to convince me its realistically possible– or worthwhile– to use things made by and for native speakers in a language class, but by golly did Martina ever come close.

The gist of it is this: you have to use something that has as few words as possible (songs and short newscasts/articles best), that repeats the words as much as possible, and you have to not focus on all the words, and go for general rather than specific meaning.

I personally don’t buy it, but Martina is super-helpful for teachers who are forced to “use authentic documents” by Adminz or Textz that don’t get S.L.A.  If you must use # authres, Bex’s plan is where you start.

Finally, in the evening I managed to round up most of the cool kids and convince them to let me tag along, and we went for beers and dinner.  Dr Beniko Mason speaks killer German (better than mine anyway) and Krashen can throw down pretty good in prolly six.  He is enjoying Aramaic (what Jesus spoke; still used today) but griped about troubles finding people to acquire from.  So here is the random good stuff from Dr K, Dr M, and a fascinating crew of teachers.

  1. Krashen studied classical piano for a bit when younger (and still plays).  For him a major breakthrough was the fake book.  These are simplified versions of complex music, most often jazz standards and now pop music.  These are the C.I. of music: they make something that’s too complex for beginners comprehensible and playable.  Just as you don’t start acquiring Blablabian by reading legendary Blablabian writer Jðkvar Sqkvðd’s 3,700-page opus “Krœy Hrâ B’nÿä Pö” with its 19 unreliable narrators and allusions to everything from Moby Dick to the Baghavad Gita to Taylor Swift longs, so we don’t start learning music with Rachmaninoff concertos. 
  2.  Mason: she acquired a LOT of her very excellent German in Germany not just from reading etc but from routine interactions.  If every time you go to the store you hear kann ich Ihnen mit etwas helfen? (literally “Can I you with something to help?”), you will first understand and then over a longer time pick up the “rules” behind this odd word order).  This is good C.I.: restricted vocab, unrestricted grammar, and useful repetition.

3. Mason: loves folktales (and simplified versions of Hollywood etc films) because if people know the story in advance, much of the decoding work has been done and the brain can focus on meaning. Mason does not do much T.P.R.S.-style co-creation but is 100% into stories.

4. Krashen: in music as in language, listening is the foundational pre-requisite.  He praised the Suzuki method, where students acquire music from songs, rather than songs/pieces from musical theory, as the C.I. of music.  In the Suzuki method, students first learn a super-simple song (say “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), and then gradually more complex pieces.  Sight reading comes much later, and musical theory last.  Man, I wished I’d learned piano this way: I started with sight reading at 6 years of age and I’ve been trying to un-learn classical habits ever since.  This echoes what Bill VanPatten wrote me when I asked him about language and music: “most of what is in a musician’s head does not get there from conscious learning and practice.”

5. Krashen reminded me of my Uncle Alan, who was sent to Jewish school 50 years ago in Montréal and who can to this day throw down a whole lotta Hebrew songs despite not having spoken it for years…because of music.  The kids were taught Hebrew hymns (?) and these were also discussed so Alan has a stock of Hebrew from which to draw. Music anchors this stuff in memory.  But does it help us acquire language?  Hmmm…I know that I remembered (and still do) a lot of French songs from French Immersion kindergarten.  I also know that I didn’t know what most meant until later, because we did a lot of singing and clapping but most of the lyrics were not explained.

6. I thought about my Muslim kids, who come (linguistically) in two varieties: those who have been forced to simply memorise the Qu’ran, and those who have memorised and learned meaning.  In some places– e.g. rural Somalia– simple Qu’ranic memorisation seems to be the norm and the imams appear to think that, gosh, the meaning of words will simply reveal themselves. These kids can say things in Arabic, and make sounds from written Arabic, but literally have no idea what they are saying.  In other places, the kids memorise bits of the Qu’ran, but also learn its meaning and discuss it.  These kids are the ones who can actually understand (and sometimes speak) Arabic.

Islamic religious instruction could be good C.I. if the Arabic’s meaning were made clear, the Qu’ran were presented in a compelling way, etc. The Qu’ran (which I have only read in English) uses a lot of classical liturgical tricks:  it repeats things a lot, it plays around with variations on sentences e.g. “Allah asks us to keep our houses clean.  Why does Allah ask us to keep clean houses?  Because a clean house…” when it takes up a topic, it restricts the vocabulary, it “circles” its thematic words, etc.

After bringing the Drs K. and M. back to their hotel, I went for locally-sourced, artisanal, organic, vegan, free-range, fair-trade craft beers with this pair of live wires, Elena Overvold and Tina Hargaden.

Elena is like 20 years younger than me which makes for super-cool intergenerational teacher talk.  We had a discussion about feminism applied in the classroom.  A few of the topics that came up:

  • there’s a lot of heterosexism built into many TPRS story scripts e.g. the girl obvs wants a boyfriend, the boy obvs wants a GF, etc, and…
  • …this is also an opportunity to “undo” this…through gender reversal, LBGTQ characters, surprise endings etc (“no, class, the girl didn’t want a boyfriend…she wanted a good book!“)
  • to what extent am I, a male teacher, being sexist when during PQA I say something like “I like Angelina Jolie”?  Elena pointed out that this could be interpreted two ways: I value her as a good-looking woman (and nothing more) or if given context as good-looking and an interesting human being, and…
  • …this point transfers over to the kids.  Say we do PQA (or stories) and we ask a student do you like ____? why? and the student answers because _____ is super hot!    Fair enough…appearance is the first thing that grabs our attention.  But we can– and probably should– also take it a step further by (even humorously) asking questions like is ____ a nice person?  do you like ____ because they are hot, smart, compassionate, or all three? etc.  We have the chance to remind kids that life (even their language-class-invented-personality lives) can be more complex than what popular culture often hands us.

Ok well that was COFLT/WAFLT. Great workshops, a fascinating crew of people, good food and Portland delivered on its rainputation.  I hope C.O.F.L.T. does another such conference and thanks to Ms and Mrs Mason, Krashen, Rowan, Waltz, Bex, Gaab, Hargaden etc for their contributions & workshops & willingness to sit and chat with all comers.

Ok here is a picture of some guy and Stephen Krashen.

 

Old Myths Debunked

This post comes from Carol Gaab.  She is an author, teacher and San Francisco Giants language coach, as well as a presenter and all-around thinker.  Gaab has one of the most critical minds I have ever run into, and likes to dismantle misconceptions almost as much as she likes to show us interesting and effective ways to teach languages.

So here she is, responding to myths like “we must use authentic documents” and “we must practice speaking,” etc.  A fascinating read, and great if you are having discussions with colleagues who embrace older methods.  Thanks, Carol!

Dear Mr and Mrs Smith

So you have parents– or Adminz–going, Johnny ‘s taking Blablabian, and he likes it, and he talks a lot about stories.  But I don’t see worksheets and essays or other homework.  Can you explain your methods?

Sure you can! Here is my take on explaining T.P.R.S. to parents.  If you repost please provide a link to this.

 

Dear Parents or Guardians–

Your son or daughter is enrolled in my Beginning Blablabian language class.  The language-learning world has changed a lot since you and I were in school, so I thought I’d let you know what we do to help our kids succeed in Blablabian.

In our class, we acquire Blablabian by first making up stories together in Blablabian. I provide the Blablabian, and students the story details. We act out our stories (including dialogue), answer oral questions about our story, and then we read  versions of our story which “recycle” the vocabulary from our story.  We also watch videos, which we discuss in Blablabian, and Blablabian novels written specifically for students.

Our goal is to provide lots of interesting spoken and written Blablabian which students understand, and to re-use these words over and over so students feel comfortable with Blablabian and have lots of chances to pick up the words and grammar.

We know from modern linguistic research that interesting comprehensible input–compelling messages we understand– in the language we are acquiring, allow us to  subconsciously and easily pick up both the vocabulary and the grammar.  It turns out the those grammar worksheets and talking drills which were probably a part of our high-school Blablabian classes do very little to help us pick up language.  Reading and listening do a lot more for both adults and kids.

If she or he regularly attends and pays attention in class, you can expect your daughter or son to first understand Blablabian and (a bit later) to start speaking it, beginning with words and phrases and then sentences, the way babies first understand Mom and Dad and make simple statemens before getting to complete sentences. If your son or daughter does not speak lots of Blablabian right away, that’s natural and OK: we need lots of input before we can speak, and even in our first language(s), we recognise more words than we can produce.

If you want to help your son or daughter to acquire more Blablabian, having them do any of the following will help:

  • watching interesting videos in Blablabian, with English subtitles to keep the Blablabian understandable
  • reading anything that is both interesting and easy to understand in Blablabian.
  • using online platforms such as Dulingo, as long as they are interesting and understandable
  • re-reading anything from class and translating it for you

By the end of the year, I am expecting students to write 600-800 word Blablabian stories (without using notes or dictionaries) in one hour; to understand basic written and spoken Blablabian, and to orally respond in Blablabian to basic questions about themselves, family, stories, etc.  The course outline in their binders explains how students are marked.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

 

Yours truly,

Mr John Talkalot

Department of Ancient, Modern, Futuristic and Non-Existent Languages

Yapperville High School, home of the Yap Cats.  GO YAPCAT PRIDE!

Should I Mark Behavior? The Great JGR Debate, and a Silver Lining for Behaviour Rubrics.

Some years ago, a teacher built a rubric for her C.I. classes, which Ben Slavic named JGR and which was discussed on his blog and then elsewhere.  Here is a version I have played around with: INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric.  I initially opposed the use of JGR, then used it, then ditched it, and now I use it (but not for marks). Note: this is a modified version of the original JGR; and I don’t know for how long she used her rubric, or if she still does, or what the original looked like.

JGR was developed because– like all of us, especially me– the creator had some challenges managing her C.I. classes in her initial year with T.P.R.S., which can in (especially my) rookie hands turn into a “woo-hoo no more textbook!” clown show.  JGR basically “marks” classroom behaviour.  JGR specifies that students make eye contact, add story details, ask for help, not blurt, not use cell-phones etc.  Jen used it (and if memory serves Ben also recommended its use) by making part of her class mark a function of behaviour as marked by JGR.  So the kids might get, say, 20% of their mark each for reading, writing, listening, speaking and 20% for their in-class behaviour.  Part of the thinking here was that some behaviours lead to acquisition, while others do not and also wreck the classroom environment, and so “acquisition-rewarding” behaviour should be rewarded.

JGR– for many people, including me– “works.”  Which is why– especially when linked with allegedly “acquisition-promoting” behaviours– lots of people are interested in it.

JGR is a kind of “carrot-and-stick” marking tool:  if the kids engaged in the behaviours JGR specified, their marks went up, partly because (a) they got marks for those behaviours, and partly because (b) the behaviours should– in theory– help them acquire more language.

This can of worms was shaken around a bit on Ben’s blog, and recently, thanks to the always-remarkable Terry Waltz, there have been FB and Yahoo discussions about it.  So, today’s question:

Should we assess in-class behaviour for final marks purposes?

My answer: no, never.  Why?

1. Behaviours typically asked for in JGR– or other such rubrics– are not part of any     curricula of which I am aware.  Every language curriculum says something like, students of the Blablabian language will read, write, speak and understand spoken Blablabian, and maybe say something about Blablabian culture.  Nowhere does any  curriculum say “students should suggest details for stories” or “students will lookthe teacher in the eye.”

If it’s going to get a mark, it has to be part of course outcomes.  Any assessment guru (Wormelli, Harlen, etc) will tell you the same thing: we do not mark attitude, behaviour, homework, etc, as these are not part of final outcomes.

To put it another way, how do we judge the New England Patriots football team?  By how well, often and/or enthusiastically they practice and look Bill Belichick in the eye, or by how many games they win?  How should Tom Brady be paid: by how often he shows up for practice, and how nice he is to Belichick, or by how many yards he successfully throws?  That’s right.

We could– and I often do– end up in situations where a “bad” kid does well, or a “good” kid does poorly.  I have had bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teacher’s pet-type kids who were not especially good at Spanish, and I have had giant pains-in-the-butt who were quite good.

My best-ever student in TPRS, Hamid Hamid, never added story details, never looked up, and always faced away from the board.  Yet he CRUSHED on assessments and got 100% in Spanish 2.  Two years later, his younger brother, Fahim (also a great student) told me that Hamid Hamid was both shy and deaf in his left ear, so always “pointed” his right ear at the board (and so appeared to be looking away).  This kid’s mark would have been lowered by assessing his “in-class behaviour,” which– given his epic Spanish skills– would have been absurd.

2. As Terry Waltz points out, neurodivergent kids can– and do– acquire language without engaging in many behaviours typically required by participation and behaviour rubrics. She also points out that forcing neurodivergent kids into the “normal” mold is at best less than productive. If you are autistic, anxious, suffering from PTSD (as my stepdaughter does) or facing any other neuro challenges, “engagement” rubrics can make your life miserable while not appreciably meaningfully measuring what you can do with the language.

3. The only thing required for language acquisition is reception of comprehensible input.  While the focus of behaviour rubrics is designed to get kids to tune in, it does not follow that many behaviours which do make for a good class– e.g. people adding good details to stories, looking at each other– are necessary to acquire language.

All of us have been there: you have a plan, you did your story warmup or whatever, but the kids aren’t into it.  You bust out a Movietalk but they aren’t into that either.  Dead class. Now, in a C.I. class, we don’t have recourse to worksheets or whatever, and we still have to teach the language. I have a bail-out move here: direct translation, and I always have a novel on the go, so I can read aloud, and Q&A the novel.  If I’m being particularly non-compelling, I’ll throw an exit quiz at them.

The point: if the kids are getting C.I., they are acquiring.  If they are miserable/tired/bored with stories, fine.  They are gonna get C.I. one way or another.

4. Any kind of behaviour rubric plays the awful “rewards” game.  Ask yourself this question:  why do I teach? The answer– other than because I have to make a living— is probably something like, because it’s interesting, I have some measure of control over my work, and I love kids and my subject.  Some will add that teaching, properly done, opens doors for kids.  Teachers do not teach because they want to be evaluated, or because they want to use the latest gizmo, or because they want public praise, etc.  They are, in other words, intrinsically motivated.  They want to work because the work is good and worthy in itself.

When we institute rewards for behaviours, as Alfie Kohn has spent a career arguing, we destroy intrinsic motivation.  We turn something interesting into payment for marks.  The point stops being paying attention to the story– or adding to it cos you actually care about it– and becomes something rote.

5. Using behaviour rubrics can dampen professional self-examination. If my practice is such that I have to use marks as a stick to keep kids in line (the policing metaphor is not an accident), there are two possibilities: tough kids, and/or I am doing a bad job.  The question why are they not tuned in? might be answerable with any of the following:

— I am not being sufficiently comprehensible

— I am ignoring the top or the bottom end of the class– too fast/slow or simple/complex

— my activities are not interesting, varied or meaningful enough

— the kids see no purpose

— accountability: they don’t see tuning in as something that results in real gains

— I lack basic skills (smart circling, control of vocab, etc etc)

— my story sucks😉

I had better be able to look in the mirror, consider and then deal with these possibilities, rather than merely acting like a cop and demanding obedience.

Now, behaviour does matter.  You cannot run a T.P.R.S. class without rules etc.  My basic rules:

  • no phones or other distractions (including side-talk, blurting etc)
  • no insults of anyone other than oneself or of rich entitled people
  • listen, watch and read with the intent to understand; ask when you don’t
  • do not create or engage in distractions

The tools that we have for dealing with distracting behaviour include

  • warning the offender, standing by their desk, calling Mom and Dad, etc
  • pointing, with a smile, to classroom rules every time there is a problem
  • sending them to admin if necessary
  • taking their phone until 3:15 (most kids would rather die)
  • detention, where we discuss behaviour
  • assigning read & translate (quiet seatwork)
  • taking the kids outside for a walk, or doing some other kind of physical brain-break
  • changing activities
  • doing a quiz
  • talking to kids one on one and asking what do I need to do to get you focused?

 

The upshot?  We should not, and need not, mark “behaviour” or “participation.”

 

Addendum:  is there ever a use for classroom behaviour rubrics?

Yes.  I get my kids to self-evaluate using JGR every 2-3 weeks.  My version generates a mark out of 20.

Nineteen out of twenty kids will very honestly self-evaluate their behaviour, provided they understand exactly what is expected.  One kid in twenty will heap false praise on him/herself.  For the false praisers (“I never blurt in class!”), I sit them down and explain what I think, then we agree on a more realistic mark.

I save these JGR “marks” and once in a blue moon, when a helicopter parent or an Admin wants to know, how is Baninder doing in Spanish, I can point to both the spreadsheet with Numberz and JGR.  This frames the inevitable discussion about marks in terms any parent can understand.  Any parent, from any culture, understands that if Johnny screws around and/or does not pay attention in class, his mark will drop.

JGR– in my experience– accurately “predicts” the marks of about 80% of kids.  When I can show a kid (or a parent or admin), look, here are Johnny’s marks AND Johnny’s own description of how he behaves in class, we can have an honest discussion about marks, Spanish, etc.  Win-win.

You Are Now Playing the Long Game 

So you’ve had The Experience. During a comprehensible input demonstration– maybe you acquired some Russian from Michelle Whaley or Chinese from Linda Li– a lightbulb went off, or you saw a colleague’s beginners writing loooong awesome stories without using notes or dictionary, and you thought, somebody finally cracked it, and then you decided, I’m going to go full C.I. in my classes, and then you wondered, what can I expect?

Today’s question: what can I expect when I switch to using comprehensible input?

Expect to screw up.  You are going to finish your threee-period story in twenty minutes, at which point you will feel helpless, almost naked, in front of the kids, minus a plan.

Expect to say something and stare at a sea of blank, silent faces.

Expect a kid to ask in March, after hearing it two thousand times, “how do you say there is in French?”

Expect to have your colleagues ask “but how are they going to learn to conjugate verbs and use pronouns if they don’t practice doing that?” and to not yet have an answer, because the SLA research is complex and voluminous.

Expect to wait a long time for speech from the kids.

Expect to walk past your colleagues’ rooms during your planning period, and see their kids beavering away at worksheets, or engaging (possibly even in Spanish) in their communicative pair activities, or dutifully listening to the Russian audio dialogues and answering multiple-guess questions, or “practicing their German dialogues,” and wondering, are my kids actually doing anything?

Expect to be out of your seat, out from behind your desk, and out of your comfort zone.

Expect to feel like nothing is happening.

Expect to feel like an alien at Department meetings, where topics such as “how can we get the kids to speak Spanish more?” come up, and you want to answer– “Why bother? Let’s wait until they want to talk, and until then give them lots of good reading and listening.” But you don’t say anything because, well, we’re all on the same team here, aren’t we, people?

Expect to finish a class with 30 new words on the board, despite injunctions to carefully shelter vocab, and then find kids throwing random junky words into their stories.

Expect the kids to say “but last year when we took Mandarin, Mr Yu made us write the characters out thirty times each, and we got marked on it, and that mark boosted our overall mark,” and expect to explain, again,  why they now have to listen and read for comprehension, and then show understanding, which they cannot do while plugged into devices or fiddling with the font colours on their educational software self-assessment portfolio plans.

Expect to pray that your Adminz will judge you on your end-of-year results, and not on the fact that if they observe you in October, they will wonder why the class doesn’t prominently feature all of the kids constantly speaking the target language.

Expect to look online, and see experienced T.P.R.S. teachers’ results– kids’ writing or speaking, the same results that inspired you to start C.I.– and wonder, how come my kids can’t do that?  Am I useless?  What am I missing?

Expect all this because you are now playing the Long Game.

In the Long Game, as Scott Benedict and Susie Gross remind us, you are teaching for June and not for the next “unit test.”

In the Long Game, while you are planting language seeds now, these will become amazing flowers only after months and months of careful watering with input.

In the Long Game, you are not there to hand out worksheets or police the textbook’s “communicative pair activities,” where the kids correctly wonder why should we ask each other questions in French if it’s soooo much easier to get the same info in English?  and speak French only when you wander by their desk.

In the Long Game, you are not there to tick off boxes on a Common Core curriculum list, or make sure that the textbook’s stupid worksheets are done.

In the Long Game, you do not assume that just because you’ve “taught” the passé composé, the kids have “learned” it. You do not assume, while playing the Long Game, that just because it’s November, the kids are ready for Grammar Item #237 on Page 89 of the textbook, which is what your Department has always done in November, because by golly, if all our kids rose to the level of Superstar Suzy and actually studied their Grammar Iten #237, they would do as well as her, would they not?

When playing the Long Game, your old anally-retentively prepared Integrated Performance Assessments– the wrong kind of IPA for a teacher– wherein you carefully designed a set of inter-related activities to “teach” Vocab Set A and Grammar Set B, and then some tests to measure “ptoficiency,” are going to flop.  Because, as Long says, “the idea that what we teach is what they learn, and when we teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.” And you are going to wonder, if I taught it so well, why did they not learn it?

In the Long Game, you have to follow Papa Blaine’s dictum to trust yourself enough to shut your door and do what is best for the kids.

In the Long Game, get ready for paradoxes.

But most of all…in the Long Game, get ready to be stretched. Sometimes it’ll feel like yoga, and other days the rack.  But when come June the classroom is finally still and full of echoes, you’ll feel like, wow, I did it, now I can do almost anything. 

How Easy Is Easy, or How I Learned to Avoid #Authres

Reading.  Everything we know about reading suggests that doing reading of comprehensible and interesting texts is a major booster of language acquisition.  But what kind of reading?

Well, the traditionalist will say something like this: “in order to acquire, practice and maintain decoding skills, and to learn about the culture where the target language is spoken, it is necessary and best for all language learners to read authentic documents written by and for native speakers.” So the kids get menus and airport directions, they set their social media platforms to Chinese or Spanish or whatever, and if Monsieur Tabernac does a good job with his five years of French “communicative” (by which we mean role-plays and grammar worksheets 😉), by Year Six his students will be able to hack through some of Le Petit Prince or possibly even a sentence or two of Proust. 

This is recommended practice from ACTFL, an awful lot of language bloggers, various Canadian educational ministries, most American state Education departments, etc. It’s also generally totally wrong. 

Today’s question: why should we generally avoid the use of “authentic documents” in the language classroom?

There are three basic arguments against using most “authentic documents,” called #authres on Twitter, in most second language classrooms. 

1. Most #authres are low frequency vocabulary
. The top 1500 most-used words in any language are about 85% of spoken language, and suprisingly few are numbers, colours, clothing, body parts, food, animals etc. Seems counterintuitive, but most of what is taught in at least levels 1-4 (in any textbook I have ever seen) is in fact low-frequency vocab. So, the seemingly useful– the menu, the clothing store website or Twitter account, the unit on sports where we learn body parts and injuries– are actually not that useful. 

Much the same goes for more “advanced” stuff– short stories, newspaper articles, blogs etc– where there is a LOT of low-frequency vocabulary. 
If you want to make people fluent, you must start with high-frequency vocabulary, and most #authres does not supply that. 

2. We know that people need to hear and read the words (and grammar etc) they are learning over and over, and that they have what Bill VanPatten has called “constraints on working memory.” This basically means that, in order to acquire language, people need to hear a limited variety of it over and over because “too much stuff” is hard to both “keep in the head” and remember, and therefore process. 

And this is the second problem with “authentic documents”: they don’t repeat the new stuff enough. People generally won’t remember things that they only see/hear once in a blue moon. 

If you want to see how little “authentic documents” repeat high-frequency vocabulary, check this out. 

Suppose you were teaching English to non-English speaking kids and you want to use an “authentic resource,” in this case a kids’ book. Dogs are interesting, right? So maybe you use this book. Say you avoid spending tons of time on the dog-specific and you focus on “easy” and generally useful vocab.  Here’s a page:

It seems pretty obvious that the words ears, funny and confused are important.  According to Wiktionary, however, “funny” is the 486th most-used word in English, while “ear” and “confused” are not in the top 1000.  Ironically, of course, the words “fuck” and “sex” ahow up in the 605th and 640th spots 😜. 

I went through the book and found that “ear” and “confused” show up exactly once each, and “funny” shows up once while “fun” makes one appearance. 

I then took a look at El Nuevo Houdini (a first-year C.I. novel by Carol Gaab, which is also available in English). In one chapter, I counted the word beso (kiss) twenty-two times, and I found it a few more times in subsequent chapters. 

So…if you want to do two essential things necessary for acquisition–restricting vocab variety and repeating that vocab a lot– which is going to help your kids more?  That’s right: it’s not the “authentic resource.”

3. The most compelling “anti-#authres” argument, however, is their unreadability. 

We know that people will read if three conditions are met:

  • they can choose the reading
  • the reading is interesting 
  • the text is 98% comprehensible

Most of our kids can’t choose most of their reading (although Bryce Hedstrom has amazing suggestions for making and using a free voluntary reading library in his class). So if we assign reading, the choice factor is out. That means that the assigned reading MUST be compelling and comprehensible, unless you want rebellion in class and/or kids not doing reading at home. 

So, compelling…in my experience with both legacy authentic texts and modern, TPRS-friendly books from Karen Rowan, Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab et al, the modern stuff wins hands down. They are kid-friendly, they use high-frequency vocabulary, they recycle vocab and they have characters and plots that range from funny to moving. 

Now, comprehensibility? Here is where it gets interesting. Let’s see how “easy” reading is in English, with a text that goes from being 98% comprehensible to 95%, then 90%, then lower. 
Have a look at Marco Benvenides’ short readability presentation. 

What did you notice? Yup. And you’re a competent English speaker! 

The lesson: if you assign reading which is less than 98% comprehensible, meaning starts to break down very quickly. Most kids tune out under these conditions. 

And this is the main argument against “authentic documents”: if even one word in twenty is incomprehensible (and/or requires the dictionary), we are wasting our time.  

The traditionalist here says “but what about culture”? Well, unless you are using music– which repeats loads of vocab and is easy to remember– you are going to be struggling with making culture non-banal.  So I do it in L1. 

Anyway…as usual, comments are welcome. 

Tech Done Wrong…and Right.

“Techmology,” as Ali G. says, “is everywhere,” and we feel forced to use it.  E-learning! i-Tech! Online portfoli-oli-olios! Quizkamodo!  Boogle!  Anyway, the litmus test for tech in the language classroom is the same as it is for anything else:  does it deliver compelling, vocab-restricted comprehensible input?

Today, a look at two ways to play with tech.

Here is a recent #langchat tweet from a new-waveish language teacher:
What’s the problem here?

1.  As Alfie Kohn has noted, using rewards to encourage ____ behaviour turns teaching & learning into a payment & reward system: kids buy a pizza by doing ____.  But we really want to get kids to acquire languages because the process itself is interesting.  If we have to pizza-bribe kids, we are doing something wrong.

2.  The kids get a pizza party…during class time? Is this a good way to deliver the target language to kids? What about the kids who don’t write une carte?  Do they not get to be part of the pizza party?  Do they sit there and do worksheets or CPAs or whatever while their peers gleefully yap in English, chat and cram junk food into their mouths?  What if kids are good at French, but can’t be bothered to write “une carte”?  What if they are working, or lack digital access?

3.  Output, as the research shows, does not improve acquisition…unless it provokes a TON of target-language response which meets all the following criteria:

  • it’s comprehensible
  • it’s quality and not student-made (ie impoverished)
  • it actually gets read/listened to

So if the teacher responds, and if the student reads/listens to the response…it might help.

4. Workload.  Kids don’t benefit from creating output.  The teacher also has to spend time wading through bad voicemails, tweets and what have you.  Do you want to spend another 30 minutes/day looking at well-intentioned– though bad– “homework” that doesn’t do much good?

5. What do kids do when they compete?  They try to win.  So the kid who really wants pizza is going to do the simplest easiest thing in French every day just so s/he can get the pizza.

 

Now, while the “tweet/talk for pizza” idea is a non-starter, there are much better uses for tech out here…here is one, from powerhouse Spanish teacher Meredith McDonald White.

The Señora uses every tech platform I’ve ever heard of, among them Snapchat (a free smartphone app).  You get it, make a user profile, and add people à la Facebook. Once people “follow” you, you can exchange images and short video with text added, and you can do hilarious things with images (eg face swap, add extra eyeballs, etc).

Her idea is simple and awesome:

  1. She sends her followers (students) a sentence from a story or from PQA.
  2. The kids create or find an image for which the sentence becomes a caption.
  3. They send her the captioned image.
  4. She uses these by projecting them and then doing Picturetalk about them.

You can also do the same thing with a meme generator program (loads free online):  write sentence on the board, kids copy, and they email you their captioned pics.

Here is a crude example:

  1. Teacher sends out/writes on board a line from a story, e.g. La chica tiene un gran problema (the girl has a big problem).
  2. Kids use sentence as a caption & send back to teacher, e.g.

meme

3.  This serves for Picturetalk:  Is there a girl/boy?  Does she have a problem?  What problem?  What is her hair like?  Is she happy?  Why is she unhappy?  Where is she?  What is her name? etc…there are a hundred questions you can ask about this.

Not all the kids will chat/email back, and not all images will work, but over a few months they should all come up with some cool stuff.  You can get them illustrating stories (4-6 images) using memes…

This is excellent practice (for outside class). Why?  Because the kids are

  • getting quality comprehensible input
  • personalising the input without having to make or process junky language
  • building a community of their own ideas/images
  • generating kid-interesting stuff which becomes an in-class platform for generating more comprehensible input

And– equally as importantly– the teacher can read these things in like 3 seconds each, and they are fun to read.  #eduwin, or what?

Here’s a few examples done by Meredith and her kids.


 

Do You Even Lift? S.L.A. and Free Weights

Part One: The Basics

weightlifter_1216621c

My Mom– who at age 75 is still ski-touring, mountain biking and hiking, and is doing a three-week non-sag cycle tour in Quebec this summer!– is my stay-healthy role model.  Thanks to her, I’ve always been interested in– but lazy about– general fitness.  I’ve always thought, I hate fitness and training, but I like climbing, hiking and cycling, and acro yoga.  Through years of activity, and recent discussions with athlete Will Gadd, I’ve learned a few things about fitness– for anyone, not just athletes– which we can boil down to three things

  1. Everybody should have basic cardio fitness.  A total of 60 minutes a week of sweat-inducing heavy breathing will do it.  You can do this in fancy running gear, or in a gym, or in your living room, skipping.
  2. We all need functional strength, i.e. the ability to lift and move things.  This can be done in about 50 minutes/week, in a gym or around the house.
  3. If you have basic cardio and strength, you can easily pick up anything else
  4. You may much later want some feedback to improve yourself.

On recommendation of one of my partners, I tried Pilates last year.  It’s a set of exercises that stretch and work various muscles, and also aligns various bits of anatomy.  I did it for a few months.  I found it worked– it sure targeted specific muscles, and I got better at the exercises– but it was boring as hell and I did not see any overall fitness or strength gains.

And then I read this article about fitness. And started lifting free weights: squats, bench-presses, vertical presses, power cleans and deadlifts, five sets of five each, twice a week, after school in our weight room.  I’m not trying to gain in size (that’s bodybuilding) but rather in functional strength.  My total weight room time is about 50 minutes/week.

The results have been remarkable (for me).  All my weights have gone up.  I also feel much more stable while on trails and on the bike, and I can “do” more stuff, like carry a week’s worth of groceries with one arm and a climbing pack in another.  I’m not much of a hiker– hiking is the boring warm-up on the way to the base of the climb– but now on trails, despite me never “training” by walking or running, my legs are waaaay more solid.  Although my weights are up, I am not feeling much bigger. I feel “connected” to myself in a way that vaguely resembles a post-yoga feeling but stronger.

I thought weights would be boring, but oddly I am not bored.  The post-first-set body buzz is killer, and since I am rotating through the various weights and it only takes about twenty-five minutes, and I blast music, so I am not bored.

Bottom line: basic cardio fitness, and then weight training make everyone healthy, and make it much easier for us to acquire other activity skills (climbing, tennis, paddling, etc).

Can you see where we are going with this?  

a. The basic cardio of language acquisition is oral input and reading in any language.

The person who can’t get their heart rate up won’t benefit from any activity-specific training.  But the person who can get the heart and lungs cranking can do/learn other stuff.  Yes, you can lift, or play tennis, if you’re a two-pack-a-day smoker…but you can’t do it very well, and you sure won’t make much progress.

If you get basic spoken (or recorded) comprehensible input, and you read in L2, you are going to be able to acquire a ton more language than if you don’t.

b. The strength training of language acquisition is whole language, not “exercises” and “practise.”

Free weights, as Mark Rippetoe argues, effectively train the whole body, because all bodily systems work– and must be trained– together.  A squat fires basically every muscle from the shoulders down.  A vertical press engages everything from the waist up.  Balance, co-ordination, big muscles, small muscles, tendons and ligaments: all are working together, the way the body is meant to.

In terms of method, Pilates (or exercise machines) are to fitness what the textbook is to language learning.  It breaks movement down into components, you “practise” each one, and your individual “skills” get better…even while the overall functional fitness gains are minimal.

Free weight lifting is the comprehensible input of fitness.

Bill VanPatten (1998) also notes that “[a] reading of the literature on second language acquisition and use suggests that communication is not the result of learning discrete bits of language and then putting them together. 

Language learners need big meaning chunks– meaningful sentences as part of conversation or description, which are in turn part of stories, etc– to acquire the language.  The “stuff” of a language– vocab, grammar, pragmatics, semantics etc– can only be acquired by exposure to “whole” input and can not be developed by “practising” various “skills.”  Sure, students will get some incidental benefits from worksheets or textbook exercises if they are attending to meaning.  Kids often don’t, though.  The worksheets I see kids copying in the morning don’t suggest kids are doing anything other than making the teacher happy.  And Bill VanPatten notes that “building up in a learner’s brain [are] simultaneously  lexicon and morphology, syntatic features and constraints, pragmatics and discourse, interfaces between components, communicative discourse [and] skill” and that “these happen all at once.  They are almost impossible to isolate and practice one at a time, because they don’t operate one at a time” (2013).

You might be the one in twenty people who can assemble textbook fragments into something like language– and you might enjoy practicing and getting marks for your various “skills.”  But you would get more out of good interesting comprehensible input, and most people do get much more from C.I.

So…let’s get into beast mode and get swole!

(Totally random side-note:  Doctor Stephen Krashen was once a champion weightlifter!  He weighed 181 and incline-pressed 285 💪💪)

Part Two: Planning and Feedback

So…what can athlete stories tell us about the language class?  Do planning and feedback work in a language classroom?

Other than a teacher clarifying what was said/written, feedback does nothing…because it comes via conscious awareness, and language is processed and stored in the implicit (subconscious) system.

Planning, i.e. organising sets of vocab and grammar “rules” in a sequence (what textbooks do)  doesn’t work very well, mainly because it is the brain, and not the teacher’s or student’s desire, that controls what gets acquired (see this).

Now, here is an interview with top climber Chris Sharma.  Sharma, who has done routes that only two or three people in the world can do, has never really trained.  To stay in shape, he climbs a lot.  But then he hit a wall trying to climb a route called Dura Dura graded 5.15c (imagine climbing 30 meters along a 45-degree overhanging wall, using only one fingertip per hand, and one foot at a time!).  He tried and tried, and failed and failed.

So, for the first time in his life, Sharma went into a gym and trained.  Circuits.  4x4s.  Hangboard workouts.  Weights.  Structured rest and recover, mesocycles, the works.  And…filmed feedback.  His trainer Paxti videotaped Sharma trying moves and sequences, they watched them, and Sharma was able to adjust body position, timing, foot position etc.

He eventually climbed the route (after Adam Ondra got the first ascent).