Make America Great Again Trumpers— MAGATs— are the redpilled. They are those who ignore the minstream media (MSM), and who do their own research. And by “research” we mean, I watched some Youtube videos.

These people are SO SMART that they see RIGHT THROUGH the liberal conspiracy to take our Constitutional right to not wear masks and turn us into socialist sheep. Sheep are people without guns.

Here is seven images is the story of a brave MAGAT, Richard Rose.

Slow Down Tools

Ben Slavic once wrote that “the single most-important skill in language teaching is going slowly,” and he’s right: audiologist Ray Hull responded to my inquiry about ideal language speeds with “[f]or an adolescent, spoken speech at around 135 words per minute is perfect for speech understanding, particularly when the student is learning a new language. So, 130 WPM may be even better. It will seem very slow to you, but the central auditory system of the student will appreciate it.” We should note that adult speech is about 170-180 wpm, so…no slow = no go for kids.

Linguist Bill VanPatten also added that clear “spaces” between words are useful, as the learner’s phonological and other systems need clarity.

People speaking too quickly is always a problem for language learners in any context. Luckily, for input outside class, we now have some options.

YouTube has two useful features, both accessed through the gear icon. First, it can generate subtitles. Second, you can slow down the playback speed without changing the pitch. This is a feature I regularly use for learning tunes (because you can hear individual notes without the pitch dropping) and it works wonderfully for watching L2 video. Before COVID, when I occasionally used Spanish YouTube videos, I turned on subtitles and slowed to 80% speed and the kids were happy with that.

(Side note: as an English, Philosophy & Social Justice teacher, I have learned to always put on English subtitles in English-language films. All kids find adult speech too fast, and half of my kids in any class are ELLs who can process writing more easily than fast English speech)

If you watch Netflix through a Chrome browser, you can add the free Language Learning With Netflix extension. This has a whack of cool features. I have two faves:
a. two-language subtitles. I watch & listen in Spanish, read Spanish subtitles, and can read English subtitles when I don’t get the Spanish.
b. slowed playback. You watch the show at 70-90% of original speed (pitch stays the same) so the sound gets much clearer.

I find Spanish Spanish basically incomprehensible– it’s fast, it has slang that Mexicans don’t use, it uses vosotros— so I tried the slow-downer. And guess what? It wasn’t 90% speed or even 80% speed that worked. It was, yup, 70% of standard speed! That is where I could hear most of the words clearly.

Anyway, two good tricks.

PQA Without Output? Sure!

Image result for self conscious student"
We don’t want our kids to feel self-conscious…which is what speaking often does, especially for beginners.

Great question on CI Liftoff today: how do we do PQA without forcing output? Don’t students have to talk during PQA?

Yes, they do, but only to indicate comprehension. You could have them answer questions in English— which sometimes is a good idea, because that is the fastest way to know exactly how much they understand— but…but…but…it’s kinda cool to stay in the target language, right? Right? Sure!

So how do we do personalised questions and answers— PQA— with minimal output? Easy! But first, let us remind ourselves: science says, people do not need to speak the target language to acquire it. They need only understand the message. So teachers— those new to C.I., and those who have levels 1 and 2— need to ditch the kids-must-talk urge.

So what do we do? Easy. We use ourselves as models in PQA conversations.

Say I want to teach them the essential teen words “I can drive (a car)”. I will write on the board— with translation— puedo manejar un carro.

Then, I will say a few sentences, such as clase, ¿qué quiere decir “puedo manejar”? and “puedo manejar los Ferrari, pero no puedo manejar los Toyota Yaris.” I will do comprehension checks.

Then, I ask eg Granthi— who cannot shut up about cars— ¿puedes manejar? He will answer with or no. Then I ask, what did I just ask you? and he will (hopefully) say can you drive?

Now, we are all set. I am going to ask Granthi first— and then others— ¿puedes manejar?-type questions, restate answers, and talk about myself, like this:

Granthi, ¿puedes manejar bien?

Granthi, yo no puedo manejar bien. Tengo muchas multas (fines). ¿Tienes multas?

¿No? ¿No tienes multas? ¿Eres experto en manejar?

Bueno, eres experto en manejar. Yo no lo soy. ¿Qué manejas— un Mercedes o un Dodge Caravan?
un Mercedes.

Bueno— tú manejas un Mercedes…pero YO manejo un Ferrari.
ya whatever Mr Stolz I saw your Yaris in the parking lot.

¡Granthi! No es mi Yaris. Es el Yaris de mi novia, Angelina Jolie. Ella no maneja el Yaris porque ella maneja mi Ferrari.
ya whatever she’s rich why would she even HAVE a Yaris?

¡Granthi! Ang tiene un Yaris para disfraz (disguise). Es muy famosa. A veces, ella maneja su Yaris.

All we have to do is ask questions, have kids provide answers, and we model “proper”— ie more complex— answers by comparing ourselves (or other students, such as native speakers) with students.

So…do we need output other than yes, no or one-word answers? Nope…and kids will acquire just fine.

Nothing But Stories

How well should students be able to write in the L2+ after 300 hrs of class? It depends what they do. The more time they spend listening to and reading comprehensible input, the better a grasp of the L2+ they will have, and that, depending on the individual, will enable them to write and speak a bunch.

If, on the other hand, they do practice dialogues, grammar worksheets and so on, they won’t do as well as kids who get lots of C.I.

Today, I’m sharing my 3rd year Spanish student Gursher’s final story. He did this in 50 min, without notes or dictionary. He has never seen a worksheet and he couldn’t tell you what a verb conjugation or boot verbs are. He has never “reflected on his learning,” or done “goal setting” for Spanish, or revised a Spanish portfolio, or any other conscious-learning blather. All he has ever gotten was lots of C.I.

Most interestingly, although he was in Spanish 3, I never gave him any Spanish-3specific work. He just hung out, did PQA and stories and Movietalks and whatever random babbling I managed, along with the 2s. So what, exactly, did he “learn”?

What he learned was, he got way better at Spanish. You will note teacher-geek qualities such as subj-verb and adjective agreement etc. And he got better at it just by being in class. This is something Blaine and Von Ray noticed some years ago: the greatest beneficiaries of mixed-level classes are the advanced kids, who seem to soak up “better grammar” (and some vocab from whatever they are reading that the lower-level kids aren’t reading).

This is the final writing assignment. Kids had 50 min. No notes, no dictionary. We will let the evidence for C.I.’s effectiveness speak for itself.

Story Listening? Oh yea!

Dr Beniko Mason.

This post encourages you to try Story Listening, and responds to objections to it.

Story Listening— SL— is a comprehensible input teaching technique developed by Beniko Mason, who taught English to Japanese Uni students, many of whom had failed first-year Uni English. Mason’s students— the “bad” ones— consistently outperformed their traditionally-taught peers, in many cases acquiring twice as quickly as other students.

SL is very simple. The teacher tells a story (ideally, a folktale or sometthing from literature) in the target language and illustrates it on the board by drawing pictures, writing key words, using arrows etc. The teacher can translate and answer any student questions. When this is done, students read the story. Some teachers have students write an summary of the story in their L1. The SL program is supplemented with as much free-choice reading as students have time for. There is no “accountability piece”: the work is done in class, there are few or no quizzes, and students’ homework— should they choose to do it—- is just…reading!

SL does not involve homework, output, grammar (or other) “practice,” grammar instruction (other than the teacher answering student questions). The instructional sequence moves from shorter, simpler stories to longer and more complex ones.

SL is a “pure input” technique, and it works. Read the research here.

Story Listening has many advantages:

  • In my experience, it’s effective, easy and fun, and I regularly use it.
  • It’s also low-prep, and you can use the stories on the website (you need an email to sign up). This is the least expensive SL method there is.
  • It’s low prep.
  • It generally avoids controversy, because it focuses on folktales and literature, rather than news or teachers’ experiences. People whose students have religious parents will very much appreciate this
  • It is a way for teachers to maintain their target-language skills. SL uses actual real folktales, or abbreviated literary works, so teachers are being exposed to non-learner-focused language.

Here in North America, lots of us want to use SL in our classes. But there are some biiig differences between Mason’s teaching and research context, and those of eg most North American teachers. These differences will (in my experience— your mileage may vary) pose challenges. The differences between Japan and North America— and objections to SL— include

  • Mason’s research does not look at pure beginners.
  • Mason’s students tend to be 19 and up.
  • The Japanese school system is very big on “sit, listen and learn.” In Canada and the US, uh, not so much 😜
  • English is a fairly phonetic language (unlike say Chinese).
  • Neither Mason nor her students have to be “accountable” to anything stupid, such as a set of textbook exercises, or a set of dumb and scheduled exams, etc. They get one big comprehension & writing test at the end of the course.

There have also been other comments. Here are some.

Today’s question: how do we deal with these problems and objections? Answers follow.

1. SL hasn’t been studied/tried with pure beginners. Sure. So, I don’t start with story listening until kids have had about 40 hrs of L2 input. This is enough time for them to implicitly understand sweet 16 verbs, basic sentence & question structure, and some high-freq vocab. This is the platform onto which SL builds a bigger language stack.

The idea is that a basic gut feel for the language will make adding new words easier by reducing the processing load. To illustrate processing load challenges, here are two German sentences:

1. Mark hat einen Fisch.

2. Mark ist gestern nach Hamburg mit seinem Kumpel gegangen.

You could probably figure that the first sentence means Mark has a fish. The only really new word is einen. So it’s 25% unfamiliar.

In the second— which has the two obvious words Mark and Hamburg— you have 6 totally new words, and you might have guessed that ist means “is.” So this is 66% unfamiliar words. We also have some weird word order. That sentence literally translates as “Mark is yesterday to Hamburg with his buddy gone.”

Sooo…when the new-word ratio is low, we have much easier processing

There are teachers who start SL with beginners. You can talk to them (and to Beniko Mason) on Facebook here.

2. Mason’s students are older, and have been trained to sit, listen and be quiet. Sure! So, we do a few shorter stories instead of one long one in a class. Or, we do SL for part of a class only. We have brain breaks! We do some PQA when a story is done (point to board, and ask basic questions). We can add PQA to the story. No, these modifications of Mason’s method are not ideal, but we do what works in our context.

Mason has correctly commented that anything other than C.I. isn’t helping acquisition nearly as much as does pure C.I. However, our objectives may well include generating output (for admin/observation & teacher eval purposes), and they will certainly include classroom management. So we might well have to mix other things in to SL.

3. English is fairly phonetic, so SL won’t work for non-phonetic languages. True. For F.P.I.G.S. teachers, SL works (in part) because literate L1 learners can read (and there are cognates). SL will not work for eg English L1s acquiring say Chinese. You can’t read a Chinese character, sound it out, and map that sound onto your understanding of spoken Chinese.

If you taught Thai, Hebrew or Hindi— non-Roman alphabetic languages— to English L1s, you would want to ensure a massive amount of vocab-limited input (aural and written) before you started SL, and people would have to be able to read. If ppl cannot read the board, they have problems.

4. There is no “visible accountability”— i.e. there’s no evidence the students are “doing anything” with the language— in a SL class. This is a problem for teachers being observed/tied to a specific curriculum.

If you are tied to a stupid textbook sequence, and/or have dumb grammar-focused exams, SL is not going to work that well.

If you are being observed, and your observer doesn’t understand SLA, I would do something other than SL (unless observer has an open mind 🤣🤣). If they do understand SLA, we tell them this is CI delivery, followed up with reading, and we could— during the reading phase— ask some questions to keep kids visibly focused.

If you must occasionally have kids show output, I would do some TPRS-style stories, and make (and write up) OWI stories. Especially in Levels 1 and 2, these will give kids the simple language chunks they need to throw down some stories or descriptions.

5. There is “no assessment of any kind.” This is not true. Although Mason, with her college students, can avoid tests etc until the final, we can easily do tests to assess comprehension. You can do a dictation to assess listening. You can also have students either summarise or translate the written version of the story. This can generate two marks/week.

My experience with Story Listening was at a demo with Mason herself, who told a very short story in Japanese to us (she wrore the Japaense words with Roman letters) and none of us knew any Japanese. I was lost within two minutes, because I saw pictures, and heard and read words, but they didn’t go together. I got the gist of the story but found the language hard to follow.

When she was done, I counted about 25 words. I could follow the story via pictures and I knew a couple of words— ojo (princess) and shinrin (forest)— but I would not have been able to read a Roman-alphabet version. Japanese has weird word-order and question “rules” and few cognates.

From this I concluded that SL would work best if students had some base knowledge. This would focus mental energy on new stuff, rather than having to focus on everything new all at once.

Anyway, overall, Story Listening is fun, effective, low-prep, and low-cost, and is therefore well worth learning and using. 😁😁

What is my C.I. Workload?

Recently somebody asked how do I reduce my marking load? This is a crucial question. Anyone who is overloaded/tired makes poorer, short term choices (and is functionally less intelligent than) the non-overloaded.

Blaine Ray once joked that TPRS was developed partly to improve his golf game. There is a solid kernel of truth here: when teachers have family lives, hobbies and rest, they are much better focused in class. Same for kids!

So…here is a look at the workload in Spanish 1 to offer people perspective.

Background: my language teaching is about 50% classical TPRS. On top of that, we have Movietalk, Picturetalk, opening routine, Story Listening, zero-prep activities and of course reading (and I use OWIs in TPRS-style stories). I more or less base everything around a story cycle.

I also want to spend as little time as possible testing and marking (these take away input time, and are boring).

The Marking Workload

I deliver C.I. for 75 min/day for a total of 6 hrs/week for five months per year. My testing includes

• one or two 5-7 sentence-story listening quizzes per story cycle (about teo weeks). I read a 5-7 sentence story aloud, sentence by sentence, the kids copy them down, then translate into English.

• one reading assessment per story cycle. Here, kids translate any of the following: a short story (using recent story vocab), a Wooly story, sentences from the novel we are reading, or I upload a class story to Textivate and use that.

• At the end of every story cycle, we test writing. First, kids have 5 min. to describe a picture. Second, they have between 15 and 50 min. (depending on grade & time during semester) to write a story.

It takes me about 15 min/block to mark & enter quizzes, so 30-45 min every two weeks for quizzes (faster if it’s Textivate or I’m using Wooly for listening).

5-min writes = 15 min/class to read & enter.

Stories take about 40 min (you don’t have to read all of each story— reading 5 random sentences will give you a very accurate picture of their writing).

So 95 min biweekly of work.

Marking load per block per week: 45 min.

The Preparation Workload

I have a vague idea pre-story what vocab (usually verbs, adverbs and prepositions) I want in each story. So prep is zero.

Once a story is asked, I type it up (15 min), look for & cue up some Movetalks (5 min), look for & load pics for Picturetalks (5 min) and type up the most recent bits from the Soap Opera (10 min). So the prep takes 35 min/two weeks = 20 min/week.

So Spanish workload = 1 hr 5 min per block per week outside of class time.

This seems to be a bit lower than the workload in English, about comparable to Philosophy, and much higher than for guitar. One thing is for sure: I get waaaaaay better results, have much more fun (as do the kids), and work a lot less than I did when I used the textbook.

In other words, as research shows, C.I. is not just fun and effective, it’s efficient! 😁😁

So…what did I do to reduce marking?

  1. I stopped giving out & marking stupid cahier/cuaderno homework.
  2. I stopped planning “activities.” C.I. stuff delivers everything we need to acquire language.
  3. I ditched huge projects. Output and translate-into-TL don’t do much for acquisition.
  4. I got rid of most electronics. I’m too lazy to plan QR-code this and Quizlet that. A flashcard on a smartphone is still a flashcard.
  5. I stopped giving stupid “unit exams” complete with multiple-guess questions which took forever to mark.

Different = Better? A Look at New Wave Untargeted C.I.


Q: Do methods for teaching languages need updating?
A: DUH. As Blaine Ray put it, “if we find a way to make TPRS better, we will change it.”

The first broadly-used comprehensible input-based languages method in the US– TPRS– has enjoyed both enormous success and substantial revision, both by Ray and his crew, and by outsiders.

In the last few years, two newish C.I. methods have landed in the U.S. and Canada: Story Listening (developed by Beniko Mason) and the ideas broadly called “untargeted” comprehensible input– UCI– developed by Ben Slavic, Tina Hargaden, me and others. UCI– a term not everybody uses– has taken bits of TPRS and modified or added to them. Things such as Calendar Talk (or my version thereof), Card Talk (the artist formerly known as “Circling With Balls”), One Word Images etc have been added to (or have replaced) TPRS-style stories.

What has been loosely called “UCI” was developed because– as with every technique in teaching– not everybody could make “classical” TPRS work for them in their specific situation. Your kids, your department, the standardised exams you might have, your school’s socioeconomic status, your sense of humour, your flexibility, your creativity, bla bla: these might affect how well a method works for you and your students.

So people innovated. And now, you can go to C.I. demos and acquire bits of a language via classical TPRS, new-wave UCI, or Story Listening. I use all three, by the way: I loooooves me some OWIs, I do card/calendar talk, I like old-school TPRS, and every Friday I do Story Listening.

I have had the chance to learn bits of many languages via TPRS.  I remember learning some Russian in Victoria a few years ago.  To this day, I can hear it in my head: Maykl yest velosiped.  Maykl khochet velosipedo. Velosipedy vpechatlyayut devushek. “Mike wants a bike.  Mike has bikes.  Bikes impress girls.” TPRS does that with language: it makes it stick.

Does UCI work? We don’t (yet) know. We do know some teachers like it. We have anecdotes.  So, I thought I’d some experience it for myself! It being Fall and so conference season, I had the pleasure of attending some Pro-D which involved acquiring a language– Bréag–which is unlike English but is written with our alphabet. I spent a total of 6 hrs over three days acquiring Bréag.

The challenges (ie non-Englishy aspects) of Bréag include

  • no cognates
  • SOV word order
  • consonants regularly change sounds they make, or don’t make any sounds
  • consonants appear in words sometimes and not in others and slightly change pronunciation of the word
  • inflection
  • unmarked noun gender
  • “conjugation” of prepositions

So, it’s very hard to pronounce, and you cannot guess at meanings unless the words are between names of people or places. On the upside, no verb endings etc.

My experiences acquiring other languages via C.I. have included Story Listening and TPRS. In TPRS, there is close focus on a limited set of vocab, and as much repetition as is possible without making things boring. In S.L., you get to see/hear a story being told, and then you read it. 

Our teacher was a wonderful, warm person who is fluent in Bréag. She knew to go slow, translate when necessary etc. IE she was very good at making things comprehensible. In three days, we did the following:

  1. made an OW and put it into a story (over 3 days)
  2. did Calendar Talk (every day)
  3. did Card Talk (ditto)
  4. used Write and Discuss at the end of each class

Q: How did it work?
A: Well…

The class was fun. Lots of laughing. I was very happy to acquire bits of a language I hadn’t learned. I came away with a few new words! Also, the bizarre word order and other weird grammar stuff felt natural within about 20 min as the brain adjusted. 😁😁

As with any method, your UCI mileage may vary: every teacher, student and class is different. This is what I noticed in my UCI class that I would change.

1. The vocabulary load was way too high. At the end of our first two-hour class, 32 words had been introduced (none cognates). Second class, 16 more, third class 14 more, to 62. (This works out to about 10 words/hour. If this was a high-school class, we would have been on track to using almost 1,000 words in one year.)

I found that I simply could not remember the meanings of even close to all the words. I had to guess at words sandwiched between or near other words that I (thought I) knew, and by constantly looking at the board or at a steadily-growing forest of posters crammed with vocab.

2. There was far too little repetition. Partly because “circling”– asking varied questions about a sentence, in order to repeat it– is not emphasised in UCI, I found sentences introduced, and then poof! another would come along shortly after, with no or minimal repetition.

Because of the vocab load and the lack of repetition, I was lost about 25 min. into Day 1. and I had to constantly ask “what does ____ mean?” Now, I was a keen learner, so stayed focused, but I am not sure that a typical 8th grader would have been as tuned-in as I was.

I wanted to hear fewer sentences repeated more. I never had Ben Slavic’s “invisible ka-thunk” moment when the language just…felt 100% automatically easy to understand.

3. Card Talk and Calendar Talk were boring. In Card Talk, the teacher discusses student interests drawn on the name cards they have on their desks. Eg, if a kid has a picture of a basketball, you are supposed to talk about basketball. (eg You play basketball.  Do you like it? Who plays it? Where? Do you play with Big Bird or Kobe?, etc). In Calendar Talk, discussion revolves around who did/is doing/will do what and when.

Card Talk and Calendar Talk were boring, because, basically, I just didn’t care that Mike liked wine and Carmen didn’t. I also assumed that they didn’t really care whether or not I liked wine. I also was not especially interested in what people had done the evening before. Now yes, we got to “practice,” but this wasn’t especially compelling. Also, none of us could properly speak Bréag, so I’m not sure how useful the input was for the rest of us.

This is making me rethink how much PQA I do. One or two questions is loads. Better might be classical TPRS: just question the actors, because they have interesting situations and people don’t need to talk to acquire language.

What I noticed after about five hours: I could only really remember the story. I could not remember the words from Calendar or Card . I think this was because there was much more repetition of the story (because on days 2 and 3 we had a recap of previous bits of story) than in Card/Calendar Talk. I also found the story much more interesting than hearing about the weather or food or what Consuela did last night for 15 min.

My lesson here, again: put more stuff in stories and less into intro activities.

4. The presentation of One Word Images (OWIs) was not repeated (memorable) enough. We made a three headed vacuum that loved to argue with itself. I loooove OWIs and so do kids (I am basically a small child 😁😁, thank you Ben Slavic for OWIs and Invisibles), and the process was fun. But I also found that, because circling and repetition is discouraged in UCI, once we got our OWI into its story, there wasn’t enough repetition of Q&A to remember the vocab (and there was a LOT of vocab).

The lesson for me: use native speakers/fast processors to speak for the OWI, add human actors, and, yes, figure out ways to repeat the sentences. Circling is not a dirty verb.

5. There was no repetition of dialogue. The story we made with our OWI had almost no dialogue.

Breag like French Spanish etc has a lot of different verb endings.  I didn’t get to hear or read nearly enough of these because the stories had almost no dialogue.

6. Write and Discuss was distracting. This is a technique where basically teacher writes & kids copy what was done in class (eg OWI details, story, etc), and while so doing, discussion about the sentences happens. I did W&D this year and I enjoyed it and my kids didn’t complain.

But…does it work as well/easily as…just reading something that re-uses the vocab from the day’s OWI/story/Card Talk? In my experience, no. Here is what me-as-student found challenging about W&D:

  • I’m not sure writing (eg copying) helped me remember anything. And before you Google “does hand writing help us remember?” articles, and get 1,000 “yes!” answers, note that those studies refer to conscious learning and fact retention.
  • I would much rather have been given something to read, and some basic questions. I found the constant switching between reading, copying and questions (and English) tiring, and I never really got into the groove of enjoying understanding. With just reading (or listening) and dealing with questions, you have fewer energy-draining attention-switchers.
  • Some ppl (eg me) were very slow copy-and-understanders. Others were ultra-quick. So while slow me was copying away, others were either waiting for Sluggish Stolzie, or there was discussion going on which I couldn’t follow and whose English bits were distracting.

There was a BVP show recently where The Diva was asked about note-taking and writing down meanings of words.  He said that his concern was that this would get students to rely on conscious memory as much as on processing input.

So, overall, I’m gonna hafta rethink whether or not– and how– to use W&D. My feeling right now is, reading (with old-school comp. questions, or done volleyball-style, or just…reading!) will work as well as W&D.

7. There was far too much visual clutter. Because the vocab load was so high, and there was relatively little repetition, our teacher wrote things on giant Post-Its. And by the middle of Day Two, it took 5-10 seconds to sort through the word-ocean and find what you didn’t understand. My conviction– less is much more– was reconfirmed for both vocab and wall/board visuals. If you have to see it written to remember it, you havn’t acquired it. 

At the end of the presentation, I talked to an experienced C.I. teacher, and told them that I didn’t feel like I had learned much (compared to what I had picked up in TPRS demos). They said “TPRS is for in-the-moment acquisition. UCI is something that works over time.” Hmmm.  Maybe they were right.  But I can tell you, I have had consistent success with focused, TPRS-style input, and with UCI– at least the way it worked in the demo– I didn’t feel at all successful.

A few weeks after this, I was on YouTube and chanced across my Breag teacher. What struck me was, she was saying words I distinctly remember from class, but I had no idea what they meant. To me, that is not successful teaching.

This made me think, how well would this work for kids? I don’t know, but I do know how I felt. And I resolved to use less vocab and to repeat it more, do much less calendar and card talk, to mostly abandon Write and Discuss, and to focus on stories

Getting Rid of a Big Buuuuut

Image result for bottle of wine

This is a decent bottle of wine. It’s also a bet. I bet you this bottle of wine that nobody can refute what follows. Go on…take  the bet! (Mormons and other teetotalers, we can do a bottle of Portland’s finest kombucha, how’s that?)

We all know that C.I. works for language acquisition. Actually, we know that C.I. is the only thing that works. As linguist Bill VanPatten put it on his show, “the benefits of grammar-focused teaching are purely incidental.” That is, when we give students worksheets, or force them to talk/memorise scripts, or memorise lists of words or grammar rules, or whatever silly thing the textbook preaches, they pick up (a wee bit of) language not because of these activities, but despite them.

We have research to support these claims.  Yet, we still have colleagues, Headz, Adminz, Faculty Adjunctz, Evaluatorz, some Parents, and even some students, who say a version of “buuuuut…C.I. doesn’t work, because _______.”

That’s a biiiiiig buuuuut, and nobody’s pedagogical self wants to walk around dealing with THAT, sooooo…TPRS Questions And Answers is proud to present, Getting Rid of a Big Buuuut, aka “the short n sweet for the haters.” Some people don’t like, can’t or won’t read, or don’t “believe in” science. This is for them. Here goes. Thank you: BVP, Robert Harrell, Terry Waltz, Blaine Ray, Bob Patrick, Tina Hargaden, Eric Herman and others for many of these ideas. Note: these work. But you have to tailor them to audience, etc.  As always, YMMV.

  1. “…buuuuut people need to talk to acquire language.” 
    Robert Harrell: OK, so you need to talk to learn to talk. Right. What language would you like to learn?
    — Uhh, Urdu.
    OK, let’s start by speaking Urdu.
    — But I don’t know any Urdu

  2. “…buuuuut we need to [consciously] know grammar rules to speak a language.”

    Me: Which sounds better, I like to run, or I enjoy to run?
    — I like to run.
    — …
    Who taught you that “rule”? Did you practice that “rule”?
    — …

    Terry Waltz: *takes out phone and turns stopwatch on*
    Terry: Say three sentences about what you did last night.
    Uh, I cooked dinner and ate with my kids.  Then I watched the news. Later my husband put the kids to bed.
    OK, now, say three sentences about what you did last night, but don’t use the letter “s”.
    I, uhh, cooked dinner and I ate with my uhhh children. Then I watched uhhh TV. And my hu– er, partner– put our ki– err, children– to bed.
    Terry: Your first took you 4 1/2 seconds. Your second took you 16. How easy is it to speak when you have to think about your own language?

  3. …buuuuut if your kids don’t know how to conjugate verbs and fill in the blanks, how are they going to be ready for [high school/middle school/Uni]?”

    Vice-Principal in a Portland school: Riiiiight, good point.  Let’s have a look at State/provincial standards. Hmmm. I don’t see anything here about our curriculum preparing students for any specific subsequent classes.  Could you show me that?
    Colleague: …

  4. …buuuuut they still NEED those skills.”

    Tina Hargaden: Suuure. Let’s have a look at State standards.  There is going to be something in there that says, “students will be able to conjugate verbs and fill in worksheets.”
    *looks up the Oregon World Languages Standards re: what
    Novice High students should be able to do.*
    Tina and colleague: read that students at this level “understand, exchange, and present information about familiar topics in everyday contexts using a variety of rehearsed or memorized words and phrases with attempts at creating simple, original sentences and questions.”
    Tina *shows colleague examples of how students can read and write stories in, and understand spoken Blablabian*
    Tina: sooooo those verb conjugations.  Where do the Standards mention them?
    Colleague: …

    Note: if you can find ONE State or Provincial language curriculum that includes verb chart filling out, pronoun-placing etc work as an objective, that bottle of wine is on me cos you, uh, “win.” Go on, get your Google on!
  5. …buuuuut students need to know all the words for food if they will ever survive in France.”

    Terry Waltz: I’m a certified, professional Mandarin-English translator and I  lived and worked in Taiwan for years. I still don’t know all the words for the food I typically eat there. Neither do the people who live there. And when we don’t know, we just point, and say I’ll have that.

  6. …buuuuut students must know all the numbers from 1-3,998,231.6, all the location words, all the colours, the alphabet, all the basic body parts, and the words for clothing.

    You (in your head): ya right cos when I go to Taiwan, I’m gonna need to say “I need 87 pairs of blue pants to wear on my legs A and B under the raincoat.”
    You (actually; thanks Eric Herman): Why?
    — Well, these are the basics of language.
    You: What do you mean?
    — They are used a lot. Basic. Also they are in our textbook as the first units and they are on the exam I have been giving for the last 45 years.
    You: I wonder.  How about we look at frequency lists to see what’s most used?
    — Sure.
    You: *show them the Wiktionary Frequency Lists*
    You: *press CTRL F to search the list.*
    You: OK, let’s see whether or not “yellow” is in the top-1000 most-used words in Spanish.
    You: *type in amarillo. Nothing comes up. Type in sea (“is” in the subjunctive form, typically taught in Level 4 or 5 in textbook programs). Sea is the 150th most-often-used word in Spanish.*
    You: Hmm that’s weird, well I guess we better ditch colours in Level One and start teaching the subjunctive.
    — …

  7. …buuuuut when *I* was in school, WE learned Latin by memorising verbs and lists of other words.

    Bob Patrick: You took Latin in high school?
    — Yeah, and I got 91.358%.
    Bob: Quid agis hodie?
    — …
    Bob (s.l.o.w.l.y.): Quid agis hodie?
    — …
    You: It’s normal for any student to forget some language over time. But you had trouble understanding me asking you how are you today? in Latin.
    — …

    Note: Kids, don’t try this in parent-creature int– err, I mean, student learning reflection conferences. And if you do, let me know how you did it politely.

  8. …buuuuut that input stuff doesn’t work, because students aren’t learning grammar.”

    Blaine Ray: I believe the best thing a department can do to show who is learning the language and who is not is to share timed writings. If departments required teachers to bring all timed writings from their classes, then it would show who is teaching well and who is not. Teachers wouldn’t be able to pronounce that their students are learning. They would show what their students have learned by bringing in writing samples of all of their students.”

    You: That’s possible.  Why don’t we see? I propose this: let’s you and I choose a picture of, I dunno, a boy walking his dog. We’ll each project that in front of our classes. Students will have five minutes to write about the picture.  They can’t use phones, notes, dictionaries, etc.  Then, we’ll compare.
    — ….

  9. …buuuuut [C.I. instruction, using stories and other interesting materials] is too teacher-centered.”

    Bill VanPaten: The [C.I.]  classroom is NOT teacher-centered. It is teacher-led.

    …buuuuut [C.I. classes are] too much about fun, and not enough about real communication.”
    BVP: Entertainment is a valid form of communication.

    …buuuuut [C.I. classes are] too much about stories and characters, and not enough about exchanging information.”
    BVP: [C.I.] is communicative, since it has an expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning in a given context.

    …buuuuut teachers who use TPRS [and other comprehensible input strategies] do not teach enough explicit grammar.”
    BVP: What’s on page 32 in the textbook will not be the language that winds up in a student’s head.

    …buuuuut in a C.I. class, there is very little interaction with input, because students are listening to stories and questions, not engaging in conversations.”
    BVP: Interaction with input simply means indicating comprehension. Students can do this in many ways.

10. Colleague/Head: “We all have to use the textbook, common assessments, etc, because we need to make sure everybody’s students have covered the same material, so if one teacher’s kids go to another teacher next year, they will be prepared.”

(Ideally, read Mike Peto’s response and try that).

You: such as?
— well in level 1 students learn food vocab, to eat, regular present tense verbs, pedir, etc
You: does it say that in the State standards? Is that a level 1 outcome?
— well no, but, we need some kind of framework
You: I agree. Let’s base it on State/ACTFL standards, and not textbook units.

K folks, have at it.  Refutations = you get a bottle of wine!

Gianfranco Conti’s Claim and the Evidence

Dr. Gianfranco Conti just joined CI LIFTOFF. Yay! Now, along with Bill VanPatten this group has two experts. VanPatten has a PhD in linguistics (where he focused on SL processing stregies) and has written a few hundred articles in scholarly journals and books, a whack of books, some textbooks, and some novels (his 2011 CV is here). Conti is a French and Spanish teacher with a PhD in applied linguistics (his CV is here).

Conti  and I have divergent views about SLA. Mine is pretty standard: during a discussion, I wrote that “the only way language acquisition occurs is through processing comprehended input.” Whatever else may be going with a learner and their class/learning environment (e.g. forced output, grammar teaching & practice, grammar-“rule” feedback, etc), it is the C.I. that the learner is getting that drives the acquisition bus.  That’s my claim.

Conti countered with this: “Chris Stolz you are welcome to your viewpoint, but the weight of research is solidly against you. Explicit instruction appears time and again to be superior to implicit instruction and there is an argument that it demonstrates to the learners that they can approach language empirically, just like biology or chemistry, and thus makes it more interesting to a wider range of learners.”

Note that Conti’s claim has one giant problem: he doesn’t define what “superior” means, or to what it applies. I give him the benefit of the doubt and guess that “superior” means “generates more durable and accurate mental representation of the target language in the learner’s brain.”

Being the data-slave that I am, I asked for evidence. Conti immediately sent me what looked prima facie like a bibliography for a book. It is a list of articles that he says support his claim that explicit grammar instruction does more for acquisition of language than does mere input.

Here is Conti’s support for his position. My comments follow each work he cites.

Chan, A. Y. W. & D. C. S. Li. 2002. ‘Form‐focused remedial instruction: an empirical study’. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 12/1: 24-53. This study of Cantonese L1s studying L2 English lacks a real control group. When it was begun, the control group instructional materials were so boring that the researchers were forced to treat them with almost the same instruction as the treatment group. Both groups experienced equal gains on post-treatment and delayed post-treatment assessment. The absence of a real control group– eg one which got regular English instruction, or just comprehensible input aurally and/or in writing– means we have no idea what the intervention did relative to other interventions. The assessments also focus on conscious learning. This study therefore does not appear to support Conti’s claim.

Craik, F.I.M. & R. S. Lockhart. 1972. ‘Levels of processing: a framework for memory research’. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11: 671-684. This article does not look at the role that grammar instruction plays in language acquisition, and therefore does not support Conti’s claim.

DeKeyser, R. 1994. ‘Implicit and explicit learning of L2 grammar: a pilot study’. TESOL
Quarterly 28/1: 188-194
DeKeyser’s study used an artificial language (Implexan)  and examined whether people who were told grammar rules (and then given input) acquired a better “feel” for the meaning of the language, and better production, than did those who received merely input. He showed subjects pictures with accompanying sentences in the synthetic language. DeKeyser used a production test and a grammaticality judgment test to assess learning.

This study has a number of problems.  These include:
1. n = 6
2. He doesn’t provide his data. Am I missing something? I have a PDF of the article and I don’t see his data.
3. DeKeyser doesn’t explain what he means when he says that the subjects who receive explicit grammar instruction “learned categorical rules.” Does this means they were able to consciously formulate them? Does this mean they could apply them?
4. No delayed post-test was conducted.
5. DeKeyser does not say whether or not the subjects were told the meaning of the sentences. If they were not, this experiment is looking at pattern recognition (general cognitive processing) and not language acquisition. This leads us to…
6. …the probability that the grammar-rule instruction included references to meaning, and therefore made the input more comprehensible. Eg, a student sees a picture of a man on a horse, and the sentence “flerb guf dibble.” They are then told that the word order is subject object verb. This means the sentence probably reads “man horse rides/is on.” This person has a leg up on the person who just sees the picture and the sentences and has to guess its meaning.

For these reasons. DeKeyser’s study does not support Conti’s claim.

DeKeyser, R. 1995. ‘Learning second language grammar rules: an experiment with a miniature linguistic system’. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 17/3: 379-410. This synthetic-language (Implexan) study is the only one which appears to support Conti’s hypothesis that explicit grammar teaching is more effective than delivering comprehensible input when building proficiency in production and comprehension. In this study, which is basically a much bigger version of his 1994 study (and in this one, subjects were told sentence meanings in English), DeKeyser found that the explicit and implicit learning groups were able to recognise the same amount of vocab by the end of the study. However, the explicit-instruction group significantly outperformed the other group in production accuracy. So far, so good, but…
1. There was no delayed post-test.
2. The use of artificial languages– done to simplify testing– is problematic. One must note that nobody has ever gotten DeKeyser’s results with a real language.


DeKeyser, R. 1998. ‘Beyond focus on form: cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar’ in C. Doughty & J. Williams (eds.). Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This is not an empirical study. It therefore does not support Conti’s claim.

Erlam, R. (2003). ‘The effects of deductive and inductive instruction on the acquisition of direct object pronouns in French as a second language’. The Modern Language Journal 87/2:242-260.  This study– by the author’s acknowledgement– shows that people who get explicit “grammar” instruction do well on tests where explicit (declarative) knowledge of “grammar” can be accessed. The post-treatment measures of speaking and writing, by Erlam’s admission, did not prevent students from “thinking about” answers. In other words, Erlam tested for conscious learning and not implicit acquisition. This does not therefore appear to address Conti’s claim.

Fotos, S. & R. Ellis. 1991. ‘Communicating about grammar: a task-based approach’. TESOL Quarterly 25/4: 605-628. This study, in the authors’ words, measured and “encouraged communication about grammar.” The authors tried to see if conscious-grammar problem-solving helped students learn grammar rules (learn = consciously understand and explain). This study does not focus on acquisition, and therefore does not appear to support Conti’s claim.

Gass, S. & L. Selinker. 2008. Second Language Acquisition: an Introductory Course (Third Edition). New York: Routledge/Taylor. This is not a book of empiricial studies, and therefore does not support Conti’s claim.

Genesee, F. 1987. Learning through Two Languages. New York: Newbury House.  This book does not contain empirical data, and so does not support Conti’s claim.

Hulstijn, J. 1995. ‘Not all grammar rules are equal: giving grammar instruction its proper place in foreign language teaching’ in R. Schmidt (ed.). There may be a mis-citation in the list Conti provides. I could only find a 1994 collection from R. Schmidt (ed.), and this volume does not contain any empirical studies.  If this is the text Conti recommends, it does not appear to support his contention.

Attention and Awareness in Foreign Language Learning (Technical Report Nº 9). Honolulu, Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i, Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center, 359-386. This paper– if I have found the right one– outlines theories about consciousness and the “noticing hypothesis” in SLA, but does not provide empirical data.  It therefore does not appear to support Conti’s claim.

Johnson, K. 1996. Language Teaching and Skill Learning. Oxford: Blackwell.  This is a teaching handbook.

Klapper, J. & J. Rees. 2003. ‘Reviewing the case for explicit grammar instruction in the university foreign language learning context’. Language Teaching Research 7/3: 285-314.  This study compared English L1 students of L2 German. It compared two groups: those taught a basically “hardcore grammar” German class (focus on forms), and those taught a much less grammar-focused “society and culture” class (focus on form). 

There are a number of problems with this study:
1. As the researchers themselves note, their study “might be thought to favour explicit over implicit language knowledge and it is certainly possible that slightly different results might have been obtained with fluency measures.” No kidding! The assessment tool was a gap-fill grammar test, on which the hardcore grammar students (FoFs)  predictably beat the others.
2. There was no control group which received “pure” C.I.

This study, because it assesses conscious grammar knowledge and not spontaneous comprehension and/or production, does not support Conti’s claim.

Ming, C. S. & N. Maarof. 2010. ‘The effect of C‐R activities on personal pronoun acquisition’. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 2/2: 5045-5050.  For the purposes of examining acquisition, this study is flawed. It does not use either a control group or delayed post test. It assesses conscious learning rather than acquisition. It therefore does not support Conti’s claim.

Nation, P. 2007. ‘The four strands’. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching 1/1: 1-12. This does not provide any data and therefore does not support Conti’s claim.

Norris, J. M. & L. Ortega. 2000. ‘Effectiveness of L2 instruction: a research synthesis and quantitative meta‐analysis’. Language Learning 50/3: 417-528. Ah yes, the bad boy. This study looked at….every other study about language instruction, and concluded that, yes, grammar teaching is necessary. The devil, as always, is in the details: Ortega and Norris do not distinguish between research focused on acquisition (unrehearsed, spontaneous language use) and learning (where explicit awareness, rule-learning etc come into play).

Skehan, P. 2003. ‘Task-based instruction’. Language Teaching 36/ 1:1-14. This article discusses task-based teaching. It does not provide any empirical evidence for Conti’s claim.

Spada, N. & P. M. Lightbown. 2008. ‘Form-focused instruction: isolated or integrated?’ TESOL Quarterly 42: 181‐207. This discusses various types of instruction but does not provide data. It therefore does not support Conti’s claim.

Spada, N. & Y. Tomita. 2010. ‘Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature: a meta‐analysis’. Language Learning 60/2: 1‐46. In this study, the authors summarise research into instructional practices and conclude that, yes, explicit grammar instruction “works.”  However…in my view, this meta-analysis is deeply flawed, for the following reasons.

1. Only 4 sample studies have a 2nd delayed post-test, of which the average length after treatment was 5 weeks. No delayed P.T. = we have no idea if the gains are durable. 

2. As Eric Herman points out, “just because language use is “free” or “spontaneous” does not rule out people using explicit knowledge (especially if the treatment primed them to do so), and especially in an untimed written mode, which was counted as a “free” response!” The authors themselves write “Thus, one cannot be certain that the oral production tasks used in the primary studies for this meta-analysis are indeed measures of implicit knowledge” (p. 287).”

3. One “effective” study of VanPatten’s processing instruction, (Benati, 2005) was characterized as “explicit.” However, in P.I., as VanPatten has pointed out, students are not “being taught rules.” 

4. The single-biggest problem here, however, is the authors’ description of language acquisition as “learning rules.” This is not what happens with language. There are, strictly speaking, no “rules” to be learned.

One can summarise Spada and Tomita by saying they provide evidence that under some conditions, explicit grammar instruction appears to help production under conditions where conscious language use can occur. This meta-analysis thus appears to contradict Conti’s claims.

Swain, M. 1985. ‘Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development’, in S. Gass & C. Madden (eds.).  Swain does not provide any data here. In addition, she notes that the main “job” of output in language acquisition is to generate more– and more focused– input for the learner. This article therefore does not support Conti’s claim.

Input in Second Language Acquisition. Rowley MA: Newbury House, 235-253. This essay does not describe any specific evidence about language acquisition, but rather focuses on possible roles for input and output.

Swan, M. (1994). Design criteria for pedagogic language rules’, in M. Bygate, A. Tonkyn and E. Williams (Eds.), Grammar and the Language Teacher. London: Prentice Hall, pp. 45‐55. The full article is available at  This article does not contain any empirical evidence.

Van Patten, B. & S. Oikkenon. 1996. ‘Explanation versus structured input in processing instruction’. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 18/4: 495-510.
This is a repeat of the classic VanPatten & Cadierno (1993) study on the effects of processing instruction. They wanted to see whether exposure to language, direct instruction, or processing activities resulted in better development of ability to process “non-Englishy” language (Spanish, with its pronoun orders).  Their conclusion: “[r]esults showed that the beneficial effects of instruction were due to the structured input activities and not to the explicit information (explanation) provided to learners.” In other words, this refutes Conti’s claim: it’s the processing of input, not instruction, that develops mental representation of language.

Willis, D. & J. Willis. 2007. Doing Task-Based Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press. This book does not contain any empirical studies.  It therefore does not support Conti’s claim.

Conclusion: Gianfranco Conti has claimed that explicit instruction generates more language acquisition (fast, accurate and spontaneous comprehension and production of language) than does the provision of comprehensible input. He provided 23 references that allegedly supported his claim. Only one–marginally– does so. The rest either contradict his claim, are irrelevant, or otherwise do not support it. As of this reading, Gianfranco Conti’s claims await substantiation.

(How) Should I Use Questions to Assess Reading?

Yesterday I found a kid in my English class copying this from her neighbour.  It is post reading assessment– in Q&A form– for the novel Les yeux de Carmen. TPT is full of things like this, as are teachers guides,, workbooks, etc.

The idea here is, read, then show your understanding of the novel by answering various questions about it. It “works” as a way to get learners to re-read, and as what Adminz like to call “the accountability piece,” ie, “the reason to do it is cos it’s for marks.”

Before I get into today’s post, I should note, I (and every teacher I know) uses some kind of post-reading activity.

Q: Should I use questions to assess reading?

A: Probably not. Here’s why.

  1. How do we mark it? What if the answer is right, but the French is poor? Or the reverse? Half a mark each? Do we want complete sentences? What qualifies as acceptable and not for writing purposes? What if there is more than one answer? What’s the rubric we use for marking?
  2. It can (and, basically, should) be copied. This is the kind of thing that a teacher would send home to get kids to re-read the novel. Fine, but…it’s boring, and it takes a long time. It doesn’t use much brain power. If I were a student, I would copy this off my neighbour. If you don’t get caught, you save a bunch of time, and the teacher has no way of noticing.
  3. It would totally suck to mark this. Do you actually want to read 30– or 60!— of these?!? I dunno about you folks, but I have a life. We have to mark, obviously, but these, ugh, I’d fall asleep.
  4. It’s a lot of work for few returns. I asked the kid who’d lent her answers to her friend how long it took (btw, there is one more page I didn’t copy), and she said “about 45 min.” This is a lot of time where very little input is happening.  The activity should either be shorter, or should involve reading another story. As Beniko Mason, Stephen Krashen and Jeff McQuillan (aka The Backseat Linguist) show us, input is more efficient than input plus activities (ie, instead of questions about a story, read another story).  As the great Latinist James Hosler once remarked, “for me, assessment is just another excuse to deliver input.”

So…how should we assess reading? Here are a bunch of ideas, none of them mine, that work.

A. Read the text, and make it into a comic. Easy, fun, useful for your classroom library and requires a bit of creativity.

B. Do some smash doodles. This is basically a comic, but minus any writing. As usual, Martina Bex has killer ideas.

C. Do a discourse scramble activity. For these, take 5-10 sentences from the text, and print them out of order (eg a sentence from the end of the text near the beginning, etc). Students have to sort them into correct order, then translate into L1. This is fairly easy– and even easier if a student has done the reading, heh heh–, as well as not requiring output while requiring re-reading.

Another variant on a discourse scramble is, have students copy the sentences down into order and then illustrate them.

For C, they get one mark per correct translation (or accurate pic), and one mark for each sentence in its proper place. Discourse scramble answers can be copied, so I get kids to do them in class.  They are also due day-of, because if kids take them home others will copy.

D. If you have kids with written output issues, you can always just interview them informally: stop at their desk or have them come to you and ask them some questions (L1, or simple L2) about the text.

Alrighty! Go forth and assess reading mercifully :-).