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.


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


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).


The Wayback Machine

I was recently at a conference and thought, OK, I should go see what the Intensive Language teachers do, nd went to a workshop called something like “Get Your Beginners Talking!” Every language conference I’ve ever been to has a workshop like this. 

Here’s a part of a handout:

And here is what the kids would have handed out to them:

This is a classic “communicative” activity: it wants people to use the target language to bridge information gaps as a way to acquire the target language. 

So…what do the research and our classroom experience say about these activities?

1. Speaking “practice” as the exercise suggests does not improve aquisition.  We’ve heard this from VanPatten, Krashen and of course Kirk (2013). 

2.  Feedback– in this case on pronunciation– does not work. There are two main reasons for this:

  • You can’t produce language in real time while self-monitoring to make sure you are using the feedback correctly (Krashen). 
  • Conscious info does not end up in the implicit linguistic system, as VanPatten notes (see this). 

As BVP puts it,

3. This turns the teacher into the language police.  Someone asked the presenter “do they ever speak L1 while doing this?” and they answered “yes, I have to keep an eye on them.”  No fun. I personally find using L2 with other L2s “fake” feeling…and I’m a language geek. 

4.  In terms of personal interest, we have a problem: what if Johnny likes playing with dolls, and doesn’t care that Suzie is really interested in playing Grand Theft Auto?  What if these are low-frequency words?  If these are the case– and they usually are– the amount of vocab that the kids hear that is repeated is going to be minimal. If I hear about 15 different people’s 15 different activities, I am getting less input per item = less acquisition. 

5.  The junky output becoming impoverished input problem among L2s is here unaddressed.  

6. The repetition would be boring. In the presenter’s example, a classic beginner question is do you like to _____? and kids have to answer Yes, I like… or No, I don’t like… This is going to get old really quickly and of course it would be more natural, easier and faster just to use English. 

Anyway…the wayback machine took me to activities that I have never been able to make work. However as they say, your mileage may vary. 

I’ve been able to ditch 95% of output-focused activities, and– thanks to the ease and power of comprehensible input– I have ironically managed to build better speakers by avoiding making kids speak. Go figure. 

How Do I Assess and Evaluate Speaking?

A teacher asked on the Facebook group “How do you assess speaking?”  Responses were basically, “try using one of various apps” (i.e. Google Classrooms, KaBlaBla, etc).  Lots of people want to use tech to do it.

Contrarian here:  save yourself time, and don’t bother…you can accurately, quickly and easily assess speaking with zero tech.

But let’s revisit the basics before we go on:

  • speaking does not improve language acquisition.  The act of talking is not like practicing music or baseball.  The real driver of speech is aural (and written) input.
  • Teachers need a life.  I for one refuse to spend an hour per class listening to students’ prepared recordings of prepared questions.  The kids have better things to do, and so do we.
  • The only speech we should assess if we want to see what the kids have acquired is spontaneous and in-the-moment.  If you want people to learn a language, then by all means let them plan, rehearse, etc…but don’t confuse this with acquisition, where we see what is “wired in” and gut-level, below– and beyond– the conscious mind.  Most of the ed apps I’ve seen are similar:  teacher records their voice asking question or saying prompts; kid listens, decodes and responds and records their answer for teacher to mark.  This kind of “planned” or “reflected-on” communication doesn’t really assess what they have acquired.
  • Feedback doesn’t work.  You can explain, correct, suggest, etc till the cows come home and it won’t make a difference in how well the kids speak.  Only input can really change that.

So how do I assess speaking?

First, every time a kid opens their mouth and uses the target language in class– to answer a question, to add to a story, etc– you are getting perfect feedback about how well they speak.

So with my 2s…Aashir can say– and understand– a word at a time max.  Simrowdy can answer any question and talk at length about anything.  Sadjad extemporaneously comes up with good entire sentences when adding to a story.  Janelle is like Simrowdy.  Daniel will– and does– say anything but has some verb etc issues.  Kevin never talks, but when he does, it’s perfect.  I could go on.

Second, the point– to me– of assessing speaking (as with anything else) in class is to see what the kids do not understand and where they need more input.  This is why we track barometer kids and choral responses.

Third, I don’t play “gotcha.”  I test what I teach.  I use vocab they know, and when using objects, pictures or people, I make sure the kids have the vocab to describe them.

Fourth, I don’t assess speaking for Level One students.  It makes them anxious, and it is time taken away from input.  I assess– i.e. attach a number to– kids once, at the end of Level Two.  I do only what you would do speaking in real life:

  • ask them questions and have them answer
  • have them ask me questions (and I answer).
  • describe something– a photo, an object, another kid in the class

No presentations, storytelling, memorisation, etc.

Here’s my rubric:

For a mark of 3:

  • I can in detail discuss myself, my social and family circle and my activities and interests, and i can describe things.
  • I make minor mistakes that do not affect meaning, and I can speak fluidly.
  • I understand all questions and I come up with my own.
  • I can fix conversational problems or I don’t have any conversational problems.

For a mark of 2

  • I can discuss myself, my social and family circle and my activities and interests, and I can describe things.  There are some gaps in what I can say, and sometimes I provide little detail.
  • I make enough mistakes that meaning occasionallyu breaks down, and I can speak but not quickly nd fluently
  • I understand most questions and I come up with some of my own.
  • I sometimes fix conversational problems.

For a mark of 1:

  • I can  discuss myself, my social and family circle and my activities and interests, and i can describe things, but I can’t do so with much or any relevant detail.
  • My mistakes affect meaning, and I generally don’t use sentences.
  • I don’t understand all questions and I have trouble coming up with my own.
  • I either don’t know when there are conversational problems, or I don’t bother fixing them.

“Conversational problems” means not understanding, and “fixing them” means asking for a repeat, etc (i.e. not just bobble-heading along).

This rubric will generate numbers from four to twelve out of twelve.    I’ll generally show them a pic on the iPad at some point, and have them describe that, or have them describe a kid in class.  it takes about 4 minutes per kid to do this.

If the kid bombs, they can come back in after school and re-do it.

Anyway, there’s my thoughts.

C.O.F.L.T. Conference Reflections

The energy-loaded Tina Hargaden, vice-president of the C.O.F.L.T. in Portland, organised a conference and I got to do the T.P.R.S. part of it– a one-day workshop with German storyasking demo, reading, Movietalk, Picturetalk, method explanation, Q&A, etc.

To say I had a busy weekend would be an understatement:  work Fri, drive 7 hours to Portland (through Seattle traffic, its own special Hell, thank you NPR for making it bearable), have a beer and talk shop with Tina, sleep like a baby at the Kennedy School Hotel (a high school converted to hotel– awesome– “fall asleep in class” is their tag), do presentation, drive back to Canada, time change, it’s now 1 AM, sleep three hours, get on plane to Cuba…where thank God they have mojitos  and overhung limestone rock routes.

Anyway, we had the most people of any workshop at the conference (almost 30) and Tina told me that we were the only room where people were regularly laughing.  There were a bunch of Chinese student teachers doing their degrees in Portland, a few TPRSers who were in for a tune-up, and a whack of curious rookies.

So I got my evaluations back.  You can see the COFLT 2016 Stolz TPRS feedback forms if you want to see how awesome I am 😉 and how much Oregonians appreciate their gluten-free, salad-based, vegan or organic meat, locally-sourced artisanally-cooked dishes, etc 😄.  But mostly what is interesting in the comments are the themes that recur.

1.  A lot of people said they really appreciated the German demo aspect of the presentation (an idea I got from Blaine Ray).  People wrote along the lines of “it was great to experience what it is like to be a student.”  I remain convinced that the only way to make any language-instruction method convincing is to teach people part of a language they don’t know.  It is so easy for us to forget how tough it is– even with good C.I.– to pick up a new language.

2.  Recognising that, and because we had some native Mandarin speakers at the workshop, I asked participant Yuan to teach us some Mandarin (Blaine Ray also does this).  She parallel-circled two sentences:  Chris climbs mountains and Tina drinks beer

This put me into the students’ seat and it was enlightening.  I noticed two things:

a) I needed a LOT of reps to remember the Mandarin, and I was glad Yuan went s.l.o.w.l.y.

b) Mandarin does not seem very difficult.  No articles, verb conjugation, etc, though word order seems crucial.

3.  Most people wanted more time with T.P.R.S. (or even me as presenter).  There seems to be a need (in OR and WA) for more C.I.-themed language workshops.  Luckily, Tina Hargaden and C.O.F.L.T. on it and there will be a conference Oct 13-15 which will feature Steve Krashen, Karen Rowan, etc.

4. I talked to another presenter who had a workshop called something like “using authentic docs to design authentic tasks for authentic assessment.” He did some explaining and I wondered two things:

a. What do you actually do with the info from an “end of unit” assessment?  If Max and Sky do well, and Rorie and Arabella terribly, now what? How does that info shape your next “unit”?  I guess if you want a number, awesome, but numbers help neither teachers nor students. 

b. How much energy is a teacher productively using when they design #authres-based activities for assessment? I mean, most #authres don’t use high-freq vocab and are often more of a guessing game for students.  

As I talked to this guy, it struck me that you would get a lot better assessment with exit quizzes for reading & translating, and with comprehension checks along the way– especially with what Ben Slavic has called “barometer kids”– so that, in the moment, you can provide more input for what the kids are misunderstanding. 

5. Laughter matters. Laughing bonds people, lightens any mood, is a brain break, comes from when unexpected ideas are conjoined, etc. So I am glad that we got to laugh at our workshop (yet another practice that Blaine Ray is all about with his dancing monkeys and girls without noses). 

6. There were some experienced C.I. teachers there and I was super-stoked (sorry I can’t remember names). These folks asked good questions, and they often said “well Chris does ____ but I do _____ instead.”  Which teaches us that while there is a basic C.I. recipe– use a story, limit and recycle vocab, have people read the story, add images and short films for more vocab recycling– there are many cooks with a panoply of flavours.  Also,  the experienced people generated great lunchtime discussions over craft organic artisanal salads and quinoa vegan quiche 😉. 

So, thanks COFLT and Tina for a great opportunity for all those language teachers. Their Oct confernce will rock– stay tuned.