Oral Assessment Made Easy

If you must assess oral proficiency– which should not be done before the end of Level 2, in my humble opinion– here is the world’s simplest hack. No more interviews, “speaking tasks” and hassles where you sit with one kid and the other 28 are off-ta– err, I mean, doing their Kahoots or whatever.

In a C.I. class, because any feedback other than “pay more attention & ask for help” doesn’t do anything for acquisition, and because testing wastes time by not delivering input, we want to put as little time and effort into Assigning Numberz as possible. We also never want to assign role-plays or “pretend you’re customer and sales associate”-type scenarios, which test memorisation rather than spontaneous communication.

Image result for kids reading from scripts

This is what we do not want.

This is very simple. Starting in the last 1/4 or so of level 2 Spanish, I randomly check on how kids communicate in class.  Do they ask and answer questions?  Do they use complete sentences? Can they initiate and sustain conversation? To what if any extent do their speaking errors interfere with communication?

Every two weeks, I give each kid a score out of three. At the end of the year, I average these and that’s their oral mark. If the kids disagree, they can come in for a formal oral interview. (If they choose this, it is totally unstructured and unplanned ie they cannot prepare and memorise Qs & As. I will ask them to tell me a story including dialogue, and we will basically ask each other questions.) I have to be conscious: some days kids are sick, exhausted etc, so the score has to reflect their overall (ie best possible) proficiency.

This is the first year I have done this and not a single kid complained about their mark.

Here’s the marking rubric. Go ahead and steal it but please acknowledge authorship.  Note that the rubric will generate a mark between four and twelve.

Oral proficiency is evaluated in the last ¼ of Spanish 11. I will note how you communicate in class. If you disagree with your oral mark, please come in for a one-on-one interview. I am available Fridays after 2:30.

When using Spanish, for a score of ___, I
3 (mastery) 
— ask and answer questions in complete sentences.
— initiate and sustain conversations.
— demonstrate understanding of what is being said to me

— have minor errors that do not interfere with meaning

2 (basic proficiency)
— occasionally ask and answer questions in complete sentences
— sometimes initiate and sustain conversations
— generally demonstrate understanding of what is being said to me
— have errors that noticeably interfere with meaning

1 (not yet proficient) 

— use mostly one-word statements
— don’t sustain or initiate conversations
— often don’t clearly understand what is being said to me

— have errors that consistently block meaning

Communicative Pair Activities

Today somebody posted this:

This is a standard problem with this activity,  recommended by textbooks, ACTFL and methods teachers etc, and known as the “Communicative Pair Activity,” or CPA, wherein students interact in the target language to express and get information about themselves and each other.  These activities are also known as “information gap activities.”

Today’s question: are CPAs worth bothering with?

Answer: not really, but sometimes you have to.

There a bunch of reasons why CPAs are not worth doing.  Here they are, in no particular order.

1) The fake & boring  factor. Using a second language to ask questions a. to which one probably already knows the answer, and b. which would be much more easily asked and answered in L1, feels fake and contrived. And the level of questions in a typical language class– do you like skateboarding? do you prefer red dresses or pink ones? — is waaay below the cognitive level of most students. Kids want to feed, not starve, their heads. As an adult, I haaaate those stupid “find somebody who…” mixers at social or profesisonal functions.

Jody Noble, as usual, nails it:

2) The policing factor. Because CPAs feel fake, kids find them silly, and won’t do them, which turns the teacher into a cop who patrols for English usage.  Ugh. The smarter kids will use the TL only when the teacher swings by, to keep the teacher off their backs.

3) The linguistic junk food factor. Kids– even the ones who actually want to do CPAs– are learners.  And learners, despite their best intentions, make mistakes.  And Partner A’s mistakes become poor input for Partner B. And vice-versa. Since we learn by processing linguistic input, there is no point in providing poor input to our students. I used to see stuff like the following all the time when I was a skill-builder:

¿Te gusta ver la tele?
— Sí, te gusta ver la tele.  ¿Te gusta ver la tele?
Sí, te gusta.

Is there meaning being exchanged?  Yes.  Is the language quality?  No.

Terry Waltz succinctly sums this up: “communicative pair activities are the McDonalds of language teaching.”  And Bill VanPatten writes that “to the extent that output activities ask learners to produce what they are trying to acquire, they put the cart before the horse.”

4) The inefficiency factor. When we include off-task time (a lot), poor input (frequent), and a lot of time setting up, policing and then debriefing CPAs, there is not actually a whole lot of communication going on per unit of classroom time.

I rough-calculated this.  Years ago, when I used the ¡Juntos! program, there would be a CPA such as ask your partner and have them ask you if they like the following sports, and kids would have to ask eight questions: do you like basketball? Do you like hockey? etc.

For a 10-question Q&A, I would give kids 5 minutes. In 5 minutes– if they were actually focused on the activity– they would hear do you like ___? and I like ____ sixteen times.

How many repetitions of I like…do you like…? can I get using a basic C.I. technique such as asking an actor questions and having them ask me (a parallel character in the story) questions? I timed myself asking a student these, and in thirty seconds I got 8 repetitions of do you like…? I like… In one minute, I would get 16 repetitions, and in five minutes, I would get eighty.  Now, obviously, I’m not spending five minutes asking the actor the same question, but the point stands: focused, teacher-provided input is massively more efficient than communicative pair work.

I can also ensure the output is accurate, and that the class is listening (and getting TL input, and not English).  The teacher, especially in a TPRS or other story classroom, can get students to focus by ensuring that the exchange is memorable: instead of asking tedious obvious questions such as do you like hamburgers?, the teacher can ask the actor do you like fighting dragons or knights? or do you like dancing with Ryan Gosling or with Post Malone? Finally, the teacher can ensure that the language used is actually understood– comprehended, as Terry Waltz puts it.

As one person recently posted on the Facebook group CI FIGHT CLUB, “CPAs as a student always made me feel like language class was insulting my intelligence.”

Finally, remember this:  people do not need to speak a language in order to learn to speak it. You do not need to “make kids talk” to teach them to talk.  If they hear enough comprehensible input, and it’s repeated enough, they will first understand, and then later, be able to speak.

So go ahead: model dialogue, interrogate your actors (or your students during PQA, or persona especial), talk about yourself, whatever…pretty much anything is going to provide more, better and more interesting input than communicative pair activities.


There are occasionally reasons to do CPAs. As Mike Peto reminds us, if you have ten minutes to spare, reading is a much better use of time than a CPA, but but but…

a. you may have to do CPAs (ie your Defartment Headz might be in a position to dictate what you do in your class, and your job might ride on giving Headz what they want).

b. your Adminz might believe talking is how people acquire languagezzz. If you are getting observed, a CPA or two– after which you call on your two biggest egg-heads to eg. “model successful completion of learning objective”– will satisfy people with boxes to tick.












Motorcycle Riding in Guatemala 🏍🏍🏍

This post is not about language teaching.

Tina, her brother Bobby and I decided to spend two weeks in Guatemala over Christmas, touring on motorcycles. We rented from Simoon online. First we spent three days at the beach in Monterrico.

We picked up the bikes in Antigua. They are RTM 250s. The small-dick-big-belly-big-motor crowd is giggling 1000 cc or GTFO. I was a bit sceptical too, having spent most of my riding time on a 750. We didn’t have dedicated bags, so backpacks and bungees it was for gear.

From Antigua it was about 20 minutes to the Carretera Panamericana on first cobbles and then a smooth two-laner.

Town and village riding basically comes down to: look around, go slow, use your well-adjusted mirrors, and go when you have to.

From the junction, we headed north toward Chichicastenango. The highway was fine: smooth, and most Guatemalan traffic isn’t going much past 80. The carretera runs smack through the middle of Chimaltenango (although a new bypass will open soon) at which point we learned the First Rule of Riding in Guatemala: whatever goes, goes. Cut lanes? Ride in the ditch? Ride to the left of oncoming traffic? All good.

And yes, you can do all of this around— and with– Guatemalan cops, providing you follow the Second Rule of Riding in Guatemala: don’t be an idiot. If it’s reasonable and doesn’t look dangerous, go ahead.

We rode past, through and around at least 3 km of stalled traffic and then were home free. Shortly past Chimaltenango, we had our first and only “accident.” As I pulled off the road, the bike moving at about 1 kmh with feet off the pegs, a fraction too much brake tipped the bike. Bob, a few hundred meters behind, pulled over and did the same.

Unscratched, we righted the bikes, having learned The Third Rule of Riding in Guatemala: road-edges are dangerous. Because of low budgets, corruption, bad design or whatever, most Guatemalan roads go straight from driving lane to dirt— no shoulder— often with a good bit of dirt or gravel on the edge of the pavement.

On one straight stretch, I got the bike up to 100 and that was as fast as I would go in two weeks. My cynicism about the 250s evaporated. I had thought, maybe I should spend three times as much and rent a BMW, but the decision to get 250s was right: much cheaper insurance and rentals, and no real way to let a GS do what it’s meant to do on these roads.

We spent the evening in Los Encuentros, as Tina was tired and darkness encroached. At dinner, in a comedor off the highway to Chichi, we watched a parade of lightless cars and bikes, animals and pedestrians stroll along the 15. Here, we correctly deduced The Fourth Rule of Riding in Guatemala: Do Not Ride At Night. Yes, yes, I know: you have 300,000 accident-free miles and ten bikes under your belt. But in Guatemala you are dealing with the following at night:

◦ animals, sometimes in herds

◦ people, often drunk, generally unreflective

◦ pets

◦ cyclists, generally like pedestrians

◦ vehicles with no lights

◦ epic and unmarked potholes

◦ literally any object

topes, aka speedbumps, often unmarked

The next morning we slurped awful Nescafé along with fantastic churrascos con frijól in the just-above-freezing sun. When we went to start the bikes, two wheezed and then died. Luckily Guatamala is full of hills and we were on top of one, so roll starts got the janky beasts going.

The 15 toward Chichicastenango has been recently repaved and was our introduction to proper Guatemalan riding: moderate traffic, crazy curves, steep ups and downs, and magnificent pine forests and milpas (cornfields). I rode visor up, as 40 is about as fast as you can go.

In Chichi we paid $2 per bike for safe parking and in the market Tina and I got our lucky toucan masks for the bikes.

From Chichi it was 20 minutes to Santa Cruz del Quiché, which is Chichi minus the tourists.

The next day we split: I north and Tina and Bobby to Lake Atitlán. I was aiming for Nebaj, high in the Cuchumatán range. Maps said it was 90 km and would take 2:17. Ya right, I thought, even I on this 250 can do better than that.

The road north from Chichi was poor: potholes and gravel bars, but the scenery was stunning. There were 10 km of gravel, and then, as the loooong descent to Sacapulas began, the road became a silky brand-new blacktop. Other than the unmarked topes in the tiny hamlets, this was perfect pavement.

From semitropical Sacapulas the road went basically straight up to Nebaj with more stunning scenery. Some of the hairpins were so tight and steep I took them in two. A bigger moto would have done nothing for speed here, but probably would have cut down the amount of shifting.

Nebaj was as it was twenty-five years ago, only in three stories and with cellphones: smoky, orange in the afternoon light, and calm. I rode to Chacmul for lunch. It was market day, and a fair number of unacompanied men were drunk. Many of them stumbled off to motorcycles and headed homeward, wearing the Guatemalan motorcycle helmet: a hoodie.

Nebaj in the morning.

The next day’s ride went back to Sacapulas, and then through fast, undulating pine and corn with even more amazing views to Chiantla and then basically vertically up through a boulders-and-pine desert to Todos Santos, nestled among hanging forests, woodsmoke and cloud high in the Cuchumatán mountains.

Views west from the cumbre between Chiantla and Todos Santos.

The RTM 250 with views into Todos Santos.

Todos Santos is high in the mountains.  Locals wear colourful traditional clothing, supplemented with cell phones and T-shirts with American rappers on them. Twnety-fiveyears ago, all the buildings were one storey.  Now, it has grown upward and is wealthier, and there is less woodsmoke, but the same chill vibe (with the obligatory drunk sleeping it off on the street) remains.

After Todos Santos it was off to Xela on the good Panamericana. In Xela I marveled at how much the city has grown and how much wealthier it is.

From Xela it was up over the cumbre, the highest point on the Panamericana– more stunning views– toward Lake Atitlán. I avoided Los Encuetros, ditching the CA1 just before Caserio de la Miseta and had another stunning paved ride down to the Lake to San Antonio Palopó, where a wild New Year’s eve ensued.

Panorama from the cumbre.

Lake Atitlán by morning and evening.

From San Antonio we took back roads and a bit of CA1 to Antigua. The back roads followed the high country and had more incredible views.

Overall, a magnificent tour. I’d do Guatemala on bike again, but four weeks would beat two.



If you are new to Guatemala and/or poor-country riding, you might want to rent first in Xela or Antigua, as Guatemala City can be uhhh challenging.

You can do Guatemala on a 250 easy. Don’t get a 125. Other than on the Panamericana for 1-2 km at a time, you’ll never go faster than 80 kmh. Renting a dirtbike makes riding way less fun on highways but opens up a load of off-road options.

I would buy World Nomads insurance (and check with your home country insurance provider too). Really do your insurance and rental research: who pays for/deals with an accident, breakdowns or medical costs? (Note: things like dead batteries or flats will be your responsibility no matter what.) If there is a serious accident involving a Guatemalan, prepare for epic legal hassles including jail.

If you are in an accident where a Guatemalan is involved, you are better off working things out on the spot.

If you’re one bike two riders, get at minimum a 750 and make sure it has paniers/boxes.

TOOLS: Guatemalan mechanics are smart, skilled and infinitely adaptable. Any taller mecánico can lend you the basics and/or help. Every town has a mecánico. If you like tools, bring an adjustable wrench, a couple of hex keys, some electrical tape and a set of pliers. Your odds of getting something fixed are in direct proportion to how popular your bike is: Italikas, RTMs and low-power Jap bikes are no prob; your Ducatti or BMW, well, hopefully you bought the Deluxe International Helicopter Assistance Membership.


In bigger towns and cities, bikes should be wheel-locked and secured somewhere locked (your hotel/hostal or secured parking) overnight.

In smaller towns, wheel-lock and put a lock on the front wheel overnight.

When in doubt, ask: locals know security and secure parking is cheap.

In Guatemala City, do not ride at night, and ask which places are safe to walk. Leave the $$$$ , passports and iPhone XX in the hotel on party nights. Always carry a photocopy of your passport and driver’s license, & store pics of these in the cloud.

If you stop in Gringotenango for a few hours to cruise the market or hot springs, pay for secure parking ($1-2) unless your gear is locked and secured. Bring/buy a light cable lock for helmet & gloves.

Do not ride at night. It is not worth the risks, time savings, etc.


The minimum is a riding jacket and gloves, and sunglasses. I wore hiking runners and jeans. If you are attached to your helmet, bring it, otherwise check with your rental agency re: sizing. You don’t need raingear. If it rains (from April-Oct late aft/eves), stop riding. Get up early, ride, then relax. Riding pants & boots are lovely, but not much fun to wear while walking around in towns along the way.

Radios and/or dedicated GPS are not a bad idea but check first: some bikes don’t have plugs so make sure you charge/have batteries. An arm- or crossbar-mount GPS/phone holder and earplugs is nice but not essential.

The mountains are cool. Bring a sweater, some comfy socks, jeans and light longjohns/tights. Lots of hot springs so yes bathing suit.


I pre-loaded Google maps daily onto my phone from hotel Wifi. You can activate terrain and traffic features with the layers function. Be prepared to have Google Maps and/or your GPS lead you astray 😉 cos road conditions change.

If your map says 90 km 3.5 hrs, trust it: roads are good but windy and you have to drive right through towns. Take it slow and enjoy! Stop for a coffee! You are not in Guatemala to pound out miles. If you want a big motor and like going fast, go to Arizona.

If you bring an unlocked phone, TiGo stores sell Guatemalan SIM cards and weekly plans dirt cheap.


Literally every word of Spanish you know improves your Guatemalan experience. Get a phrasebook. Better yet, take a couple of weeks of Spanish classes in Guatemala —living with a family— before you ride.

The “study” of Spanish– ie memorising grammar rules and vocab– is, according to science, better than no exposure but relatively useless. If you want to learn on your own, LingQ is good, as is Spanish film or TV subtitled into whatever language you read. Best is a couple of hours a week of tutoring and reading anything you can understand.

There are also apps that “translate” between languages. Not a bad investment but don’t rely on them (slang, weird pronunciation, weird situations, figurative language, plus you may need WiFi). You can always print this out and have locals read the Spanish if there’s a problem.

Here’s some basics:

por favor, gracias, de nada: pls, thx, yr welcome

Tengo un… pinchazo/problema I have a flat/prob.

  • llanta tyre
  • rueda wheel
  • frenos brakes
  • batería
  • luces lights
  • señales signal lights on bike, road signs
  • silla seat
  • llave key

¿Tiene herramientas (automóviles)? Do you have (automotive) tools?

(no) funciona/sirve it’s (not) working

¿Me puede ayudar? Can you help me?

se cayó it fell down/over

perdi… I lost…

Necesito… ayuda, gasolina, aceite de motor, una habitación, una cerveza I need help, gas, motor oil, a room, a beer

¡Llénela! Fill it!

¿Cómo llego en…? How do I get to …

  • sigue go/follow
  • recto/derecho straight
  • dobla a la derecha/izquierda turn right/left
  • regresar return, go back
  • vuelve come back
  • adelante up front
  • detrás behind, in back
  • al lado (de ___) beside, beside ____

¿Cuán lejos queda _____? How far is ___?

¿Cuántas horas son para _____ ? How many hours to _____?

hay/no hay ... there is/are (not)…

  • asfalta pavement
  • tierra gravel/dirt
  • topes speedbumps
  • mucho tráfico lots of traffic
  • curvas peligrosas dangerous curves
  • piedras rocks
  • túmulos bumps/uneven surfaces
  • desvía detour

hubo un accidente  there was an accident

(no) hay paseo  you can (can’t) go thru there

¿Hay parqueo/estacionamiento (seguro)?  Is there (secure) parking?

¿Me la cuidas?  Can you watch it for me? ¿La puedo dejar aquí un rato?
Can I leave it here for a bit?

¿Hay…? is/are there, do you have (use for transactions)

¿Cuánto es/son? How much is it/are they?

cavál We’re here/this is it.

chapín(a), guatemalteco(a) Guatemalan

te invito aalmorzar/cenar/un trago/una cerveza I’d like to buy you…lunch/dinner/a drink/a beer

no mames, cabrón G.T.F.O. 😉

se chingó it’s fucked 😜

“No parking. Flats done for free.”

No prep? No prob! 😄😄

There are teachers who carefully plan every detail of a lesson, from circling questions to the story plot. Some people even write Movietalk scripts!

I’m more like this:

Image result for disorganised teacher

Since beer, climbing, reading, my other classes (Social Justice and English), friends, ladies, bicycles, Go, writing, family and other fun things take up so much time (and I’m lazy and disorganised), I generally don’t plan much in Spanish beyond thinking uhh we should probably work on quiere impresionar and is there a Youtube video where a dog goes shopping? (yes there is).

Luckily for people like me we have things like Slavic and Hargaden’s OWIs, untargeted stories etc. And thanks to a combination of my laziness and the epic powers of caffeine, we have some zero prep activities. These are easy on the teacher, they let us deliver loads of comprehensible input, and they personalise the class: we link kids to vocab.

Most importantly, these activities build community through tasks. Community– sharing a purpose, and feeling good about oneself and others in the group– is crucial for everyone. Language-class tasks, as Bill VanPatten notes, have two properties:

1. They use but do not focus on the language.

2. They have a meaningful, non-linguistic and communicative purpose (to entertain, to sort, to rank, to persuade, etc).

For Class TeamFunky Venn, Comic Panel and Partner Diagram, we do the following:

  1. We solicit details from students.
  2. We draw– quickly— on the board, overhead or doc camera.
  3. We write key vocab.
  4.  We ask and answer questions, circling style, but don’t beat things to death.
  5. We don’t introduce too much new vocab. 5-10 items for a 30-min session is lots.

The Class Team (or whatever)

For this, all we do is make some ridiculous drawings of various kids and group them into a team. Here, we made two soccer teams: No Lo Sé and La Mezcla. The players had superpowers. Saveena’s was that she could text at the same time as she played. El Chongo has only one leg but luckily has wings.

Q&A here would be things like who has five legs? That’s right, Jasraj has five legs. Whose superpower is being invisible?  No, not Chongo: Hamza Dos is invisible! We would also personalise this by asking students these questions: Ravneet, do you have five legs, or three, or two? Sukhman, are you invisible? etc.

The Funky Venn

One day we were talking about dogs (I talk about dogs constantly), and I asked the class what do dogs like to do? and they said dogs eat, sleep and play, and then El Chongo said sounds like me! 😜

So I made a Venn diagram comparing El Chongo with dogs. Here it is:

Both sleep, run, play and eat.  But El Chongo uses the bathroom while dogs use the ground, and dogs don’t comb their hair, while El Chongo (Mexican Spanish for “man bun”) does, etc.

My student Manjot (who goes by Muffin Princess in Spanish class) said I’m like cats, so we drew a Venn for her.

The Partner Diagram

My beginner student Khushi, taking a cue from her Spanish teacher, said yo tengo seis novios (“I have six boyfriends”). So of course we had to draw and discuss them.  For this, we first drew Khushi, taking some liberties (she is hideous, has three eyes, and two noses). Then we added five boyfriends and one girlfriend. Then we invented weird characteristics for each (Hairie has no mouth; Alberto has short legs, etc).

The Q&A here involves tiene, body parts, and the relationships between them.  So Adam is scared of Khushi (even though they are dating) and Atam is scared of Alberto.

The Personal Story (with picture)

This was inspired by Beniko Mason’s Story Listening method, which is “pure C.I.”– no “activities” after input. Basically, you tell a short story about yourself (or somebody famous), and you use 1-3 drawings to illustrate

Here, we have vocab on the left and my Grade 8 math teacher, Mr McKay, on the left.  I started by describing 13 year-old me, and school, and math class.  Then I drew Mr McKay. Then I told how he both looooooved coffee and cigars and was blissfully unaware of the existence of dental hygiene.  As a result, we didn’t ask him questions– he could kill bacteria from ten feet away with that dragon’s breath– so as a result I got a C minus.

Here, we just tell a one-scene story and we do Q&A about both the story and the pictures.

(By the way the art was inspired by Stephen Krashen’s famous C.I. demo.)

Comic Panel

Here, we draw a one-panel comic and include basic dialogue. Khushi said I’m getting 90% or more in Spanish and we argued a bit and I drew this. Note that my art is so staggeringly bad that I had to label Khushi and me.

Again we will do Q&A here.  We can also recycle by erasing dialogue and adding other words.

When I finished with these, I took these photos.  They will be added to the class soap opera (pasted into an MS-Word document) and printed.

Una Encuesta (a survey)

This is an old idea from textbooks. We take any subject– here, how kids feel about classes– and survey them. So I said raise your hand if you find Spanish interesting and then raise your hand if you find Spanish boring 😜.

I then talked about what were overall favorite/least favorite subjects etc. I was also able to ask a lot of comparison questions such as which class is more boring, Math or Spanish? and what is the most/least boring/interesting class?

This emerged organically out of me asking Justin ¿cómo son las matemáticas: interesantes o aburridas? during opening routine. You could make this waaaaay more interesting: who’s the most/least _____ celebrity? You could survey class members and (treading with emotional care), find out what 4-6 kids like, whether they like ____ etc.

The basic system is, value judgements go across the top (eg good idea or bad idea, fun or boring, useful or pointless). Things being evaluated go down the side (eg swimming with shoes on, doing hwk in the bathtub, etc).

Picturetalk Plus Survey is another fun thing. Today Abdullah drew this:

So we Picturetalked talked this dragon. Then, we did a survey: if you had your own dragon, what would you do with it? Here is what the 1s came up with.

ANYWAY…I hope you can use and enjoy these zero-prep activities.  Got any more ideas? Email me or leave a comment.

Some Weirdness Tricks

Surrealism 101: All the Surrealist Art you need to see today

You want to make the story/character more interesting. The best way is to use Slavic and Hargaden’s “Invisibles,” which gives students a way to drive the C.I. bus.  What kids think is funny, interesting, etc is always funnier than what we teachers think is funny or interesting.

BUT…if your class story needs a boost, you can try these 😄. Take something normalish, and do any of the following. The key to surrealism is to take one or two weird things and add them into something otherwise prosaic, and deliver it enthusiastically but also deadpan straight-face.  As Spike Jonze says, “when you replace a C-sharp with a gunshot, it has to be a C-sharp gunshot or it sounds awful.”

1. Character has an unusual number of normal possessions (eg 39 cats).

2. Character has a part-possession (eg Ravneet has half a boyfriend; Dave has 1.5 cars). Even more fun if you draw them.

3. Character does a normal activity in a weird place (eg Suhail cooks in the shower; Mr Stolz marks Spanish stories whilst scuba diving).

4. People or objects have unusual colours or textures etc (eg the boy had a hard pillow; the girl has a green girlfriend but wants a blue one; the French fries were delicious because they were sweet).

5. Unusual place names are always fun. I mean, who wouldn’t want to buy a pizza in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania?

6. Normal places do unusual things (eg a school teaches flirting, a shooting range only allows waterguns, a wedding chapel only marries penguins).

7. Normal things have unusual functions (eg Mr Stolz swims with a mandolin, Mandeep cooks with an iPhone).

8. Try a surrealism generator from this list.

9. Use a stock story– fairy tale, movie, fable– and modernise it. Eg Cinderella, but the protagonist is a boy and he wins a ticket to a show through Instagram, where the rapper sees him and falls in love with him.

10. Use a stock story but change the ending. Eg in “The Three Little Pigs,” the pig who builds the brick house dies of exhaustion and the wolf comes and eats him, while his brothers vacation in the Bahamas.

11. Repurpose well-known brands, stores etc. Eg the man owns a Pringles car and a Ferrari bicycle.

12. Transfer human qualities to animals (eg the Blaine Ray story where a horse in school  studies Math, History and Horse. These are often student favorites.

13. Retell a stock story/film etc using animals, toys etc.

14. Celebrities have superpowers and/or weaknesses (eg Chance the Rapper is scared of cats; Lil Pump can eat thirty pounds of spinach). Even better: find something real and socially cool but not obvious that a celebrity does (eg Barack Obama likes craft beer).

15. Your student/the character/you the teacher beats a world record (actually look them up). The world record is factual; the in-class achievement is not. Eg Mr Stolz deadlifted 1200 lb (word record is 1020 lb or so); Mandeep skied from the Moon to Earth (world record is from top of Everest).

Variation: the world record is ridiculous.  Eg John has lost the most toy cars; Mr Smith has forgotten to mark the most assignments; Suzie has slept in the longest.

16. Ironic inversion: flip ONE element of a world around (there was a cat who had three pet boys and a snake who had a pet Spanish teacher). For a brilliant take on this, read Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow or his Heavy Water short stories).

17. Things take the wrong amount of time, quantity, effort, etc (eg the boy drove from Alaska to Hawaii; the girl became a doctor in 97 years; the monkey easily ate 497 bananas).

18. Language (an idea from Blaine Ray and Karen Rowan): John speaks English, Miguel speaks Spanish, but their dog speaks Dog.  This is a problem, because John does not speak Dog.

19. Brand name changes. Your characters don’t play Fortnite and Call of Duty…they play Nortfite and Call of Shooting, and they buy it at Mal-Wart, to which they drive in a Fard Mastong. Great for some decommodification!

20. Name changes #2: switch first and last names. My student Gaurav wanted to name a female character Nicholas Cage. I said, Nicholas Cage is a man, so Gaurav said, fine: Cage Nicholas 🤣🤣. So we now have Cage Nicholas, Rapper the Chance, Pump Lil and so on.

21. Ethnicity jokes that kids are OK with (ie not racist etc). Eg in my class, lots of kids speak Punjabi. So we sometimes do stories where a Punjabi kid (one who looks Punjabi, has a Punjabi name, etc) eg does not speak Punjabi, while eg a white kid is fluent in it but speaks no English. Kids have very funny observations about their (and others’) cultures. Indeed, I am often reminded of Korean-American comedienne Margaret Cho’s references to her Korean mother, and Canadian Russell Peters’ hilarious riffing on his Indian father (see this– the whole thing is good but the parenting bit at 39:15 is brilliant).

You have to tread carefully here but it is a lot of fun: most of us have heard or experienced ethnic “humour” as racism. Doing it for surreal purposes can make for great stories. Above all, if any remotely privileged teacher (eg me: white, able-bodied, cis, het etc Canadian male) is going to play around with this, we must first ask anybody of a different ethnicity, language etc if it’s OK. And we never want to make any religious, ethnic etc references which show or hint at oppressive power structures unless we are visibly critical of those power structures.

22. Similar to 21, reverse-stereotype humor can be lots of fun. Eg: the male sacaplatas who just wants a sugar-mama, the “wigga” (white kid who thinks he/she’s a rapper from the ‘hood), the straight white guy who loves to dance, the football player who loves ballet, etc. Humour is a great way to let all of us see how absurd most stereotypes and roles are.

23. Blaine Ray has experimented with “teacher-as-character” and I love this. I make myself 70% real– eg when school ends, I ride my bike home, climb, mark etc– and 30% surreal. For example, my girlfriend comes from L.A. to Surrey for dinner in her Farreri in 28 minutes because there is good Indian food here (true). The mix of truth and total fabrication is where the fun really is.


But They Can’t Conjugate Verbs!

Image result for angry spanish teacher

(I looked for an image for upset Spanish teacher and this was all I got)

Here is a comment from the SPANISH TEACHERS IN THE US page on Facebook. Here, Dan brings up a classic argument between a more traditional language teacher and a C.I. practitioner

Here is a response to a discussion about whether or not C.I. delivers better results than does the textbook:

My first question to Dan’s interlocutor– the teacher who has inherited some C.I.-taught kids who can’t conjugate saber— is, what do you mean by “conjugate?”

If we mean, can we tell the kid “conjugate the verb saber in the present indicative yo a.k.a. first person form” and can they do it?, the answer might well be no. This is because consciously knowing

  1. what an infinitive is
  2. what conjugating is
  3. what first person is
  4. the rule

is what we would call conscious knowledge– Bill VanPatten calls it “explicit knowledge” and Krashen “Monitor awareness.” Neither of these have anything to do with the subconscious linguistic system where language is acquired, processed and stored. We can successfully use a variety of grammar “rules”– such as saying “I am” instead of “I are,“, or “I enjoy running” instead of “I enjoy to run“– without knowing (or even having been taught the rule).

As Bob Patrick says, conjugate the verb to run in the pluperfect passive third person progressive. Can you do this? Really?  You mean you can’t say the race had been being run on demand?

Knowing the “rules,” and how and when and where to apply them, does not guarantee successful production of language.

As Jason Rothman (2008) write, “Variation in language use is simply a fact of all output, native and non-native. As a result, any given linguistic performance does not always accurately represent underlying competence.”

My second question to Dan’s interlocutor is, can textbook-taught kids produce this– or any other verbform– on demand better than C.I. taught kids? Maybe. It’s possible that Johnny’s Spanish teacher has hammered away at verb tables bla bla bla and Johnny, that eager beaver, has spent countless hours studying, and can now say “right, —er verb, first person, irregular, lemme see, uh, sé.”

The real question, however, is do they do it without being asked to do it, ie in real-time, unrehearsed communication? If my experience of 12 years with the text is a guide, no, absolutely not, and the same goes true for writing. Kids taught with textbooks and a focus on grammar rules memorise dialogues, and they do not produce very much (nevermind very much good) written language spontaneously.  Here is an example of just how grammatically accurate kids taught with C.I. can be.

My third question to Dan’s interlocutor is, what cost does an obsession with perfect grammatical output carry? If Johnny’s Spanish teacher gets the kids to obsess over verb tables, that means they won’t be either “practising” other grammar, or– worse– getting input. There will also be a cost to students’ enjoyment of Spanish: reading/watching good stories is way more fun than doing tedious grammar stuff, correcting one’s writing, etc.  And this means that students who end up in grammar and textbook programs drop out more, as Grant Boulanger has thoroughly documented. It also means that, in the long run, students will not do as well in a textbook/grammar program as they will in a C.I. program (see Part Two of Boulanger’s work here).

My fourth question to Dan’s interlocutor is, if you put a C.I.-taught kid on the spot and get them to meaningfully communicate, can they do it well? My answer: generally– if the task is developmentally appropriate— yes, they can. We have to be realistic about what we can get done in a language class.  Babies get 4,000-5,000 hours of input before they start saying single words; at age 6 (after ~14,000 hrs of input), kids are still making errors with irregular past-tense verbs in English. They are, however, communicating just fine.

My fifth question to Dan’s interlocutor: when C.I.-taught kids use sabo instead of sé, how much of a problem is that? My answer: a Mexican or a Spaniard who hears a kid say “yo no sabo donde está el baño” is going to know exactly what the kid is trying to say. This is like a Chinese kid asking you “where bathroom?” Mandarin doesn’t have “to be” the way English does, and the Chinese kid obviously hasn’t “studied hard enough,” as a grammarian would say, but we get that the Chinese kid means “where is the bathroom?” When a Mexican asks, “did he went to the bathroom?,” we understand just fine and we don’t freak out that, OMG, he didn’t learn the rule for bla bla bla past tense.

My sixth question is this: on what State or ACTFL standard does “can conjugate isolated verb forms in _____ case” appear? Being able to do this in and of itself is not a communicative objective.

Finally, I’d point one thing out to Dan’s interlocutor: When Johnny gets to Spain or Bolivia, he is going to hear more– and better– Spanish in 6 days than he will in class in one year.  Input will ramp up so much that Johnny’s errors will inevitably get corrected by the epic amounts of Spanish he is hearing.




Against Rules: Rothman vs the Grammarians

It is a lovely Sunday, work is over, but sadly my climbing partner Tiff has decided to chase boys instead of vert, and so here I am reading SLA papers, in this case Jason Rothman’s “Aspect Selection in Adult L2 Spanish and the Competing Systems Hypothesis: When pedagogical and linguistic rules conflict” (2008).

Rothman in this paper hypothesises that conscious learning of grammar “rules”– in this case, the distinction between the preterite and imperfect tenses in Spanish, for L2 learners of Spanish– will interfere with native-like acquisition of those “rules.”

There is a standard explanation of the preterite and imperfect that we Spanish teachers give: the preterite is a snapshot of the past, and the imperfect a movie.  Finished past action vs habitual or ongoing past action, etc. Now this is not wrong, but it is far from complete. Which of the following (from Rothman, 2008), for example, is correct?

(11) Siempre que  fuimos a la universidad, estudiamos en la bliblioteca.
(12) Siempre que íbamos a la universidad, estudiábamos en la biblioteca.

Both are, obviously, but the meanings do not follow the ongoing-vs-completed template of instruction. Both mean more-or-less “when we went to the Uni, we ended up studying in the library.” Both are generalisations, but 11 connotes an accidental (unforseen) generalisation, whereas 12 is a foreseen generalisation.

Rothman took three groups of people who knew Spanish: native speakers, those who had studied, and those who had acquired Spanish “naturalistically,” i.e. on their own, largely through TV, radio and interactions with native speakers. All did the same two tasks.

They sorted the students to account for Spanish knowledge etc etc, so they got three groups who were functionally similar (ie all could read Spanish about equally well).

Task One was, read “Goldilocks” in Spanish, and choose the correct of two forms of the verb (preterite or imperfect). Task Two: read a paragraph with blanks, and generate the right form of the verb (again, the choice was between preterite and imperfect).

Now, this was a “Monitor” task. The students dealt with writing, and had time to employ the conscious mind, rules, declarative memory etc. Rothman hypothesised that, because conscious learning and rules couldn’t capture the subtleties of the p-vs-i distinctions, students who had acquired via these rules would underperform others.

The results?

1. Native speakers all overwhelmingly made the same and correct choices.

2. The “taught” students of Spanish made a wider variety of errors, and many more of them, than did the native speakers.

3. The “naturalistic acquirers” of Spanish made significantly fewer errors than did the “taught” students, and their error patterns were more native-like than those of the “taught” students.

Rothman’s hypothesis was therefore confirmed: acquisition of the aspectual (tense) system of Spanish was significantly slowed by conscious learning and speeded up by exposure to input. As he puts it, “pedagogical rules of oversimplification can result in L2 performance variation, perhaps indefinitely.

Rothman points out that if teachers wanted to meaningfully and beneficially “explain” the p-vs-i distinction, they have to do it in significantly more complex ways than they– we– now do. There is, in other words, way more going on than the “photo vs movie” metaphor.

And the old problem of mental bandwidth here arises: because, as Bill VanPatten notes, we have limited “room” in our heads for explicit information, the more explanations we get, the less “sticky” they will be in our memory. In addition to this, some of these explanations about why we would use one verb tenses or the other– are not particularly student-friendly. Do you want to explain about adverbial quantifiers, semantic distinctions, and accidental vs foreseen generalisations? Could kids understand these? Would they care?  

There are obviously also about 1,000,000 more “rules” in Spanish– or any other language– and so we would rapidly hit a wall if we had to teach using rules.  No time, little student interest, and no way to keep all those rules in your head (or access them in real time tasks, such as speaking or listening).

Luckily, there is a way out. One major implication for teachers, which Rothman notes, is that “the only compulsory variable is sufficient access to quality input.” This is exactly what Stephen Krashen predicted forty years ago: providing input beats anything else, and there is very limited benefit to learning grammar “rules.” Krashen’s dry comment that the relative clause is less than compelling also merits note: nobody other than classroom teachers really cares about grammar.

People who have to teach to stupid, grammar-focused tests take heart:  loads of C.I. is way more fun than studying the stupid textbook, and it works much better!

The moral of the story: input gets the job done just fine. Stories ahoy– carry on!




What’s A Cognate?

I was reading aloud to my class the other day and read el chico no era muy inteligente. A few minutes later, a kid asked in English “was he dumb?”

I told him, I said “el chico no era muy inteligente, and the kid said “ya, but is that smart or dumb?”

This is when it occurred to me that he had heard een-tell-ee-hen-tay (the way it sounds in Spanish), but his brain was not doing what my brain would have done (and I had assumed his would): heard the sound, imagined it written out, and then looked for a similarity.

Anyway, what I got from this was two things:

  1. We cannot assume that spoken cognates will be comprehended.  They are probably more likely to be comprehended, but you have no guarantees.
  2. Cognates– in languages where they are easy to see (eg English and French; English and German, and not English and, say, Chinese)– are going to be best used in written form, were the visual system has a better chance of picking up on them than does the auditory.

    However, this may not be true in eg Japanese, where a word like “McDonalds” sounds like “Ma-ku-don-ad”– recogniseable– but has to be written out in an alphabet that will pose challenges for newer learners.

Anyway, lesson of the day: yes, cognates are your friends…but you still have to choose them carefully, and not bring them everywhere.



C.I.-taught Students Evaluated by A.C.T.F.L. Writing Standards

How well do C.I.-taught students do in terms of ACTFL writing standards? Well…pretty darned well, I’d say.

Inspired by a Facebook post, I thought I would measure some of my Spanish 1 students’ writing on the ACTFL scale.

Here is their criteria for Novice High

Writers at the Novice High sublevel are able to meet limited basic practical writing needs using lists, short messages, postcards, and simple notes. They are able to express themselves within the context in which the language was learned, relying mainly on practiced material. Their writing is focused on common elements of daily life. Novice High writers are able to recombine learned vocabulary and structures to create simple sentences on very familiar topics, but are not able to sustain sentence-level writing all the time. Due to inadequate vocabulary and/or grammar, writing at this level may only partially communicate the intentions of the writer. Novice High writing is often comprehensible to natives used to the writing of non-natives, but gaps in comprehension may occur.

Here are some writing samples.  This is Bani’s work, after about 60 hours of C.I. (I do mostly TPRS, along with Movietalk, Picturetalk and some Slavic-style Invisible “untargeted” stories.)


Let’s see…Bani uses a load of sentences (actually, she uses only sentences). She fully communicates her intentions. There are no gaps in comprehension, The writing is far beyond the “lists, short messages, postcards, and simple notes” that ACTFL says Novice High writers can produce.  So, where is Bani?

Considering her use of various verb tenses, clarity etc, I would say somewhere between Intermediate Mid and Intermediate Advanced. What do you think?

Next, we have Marcus. This kid has an IEP, and has missed about two weeks (~13 hrs) of class.  He has some behaviour challenges, some of which involve staying focused in class.  Here is his most recent story:



 This is obviously not even close in quantity or quality to Bani’s. He uses English, has some problems with basic verbs, is occasionally incomprehensible, and the story does not really flow.

So, where does this fit on the ACTFL scale? Well, here is their Novice Mid descriptor set:

Writers at the Novice Mid sublevel can reproduce from memory a modest number of words and phrases in context. They can supply limited information on simple forms and documents, and other basic biographical information, such as names, numbers, and nationality. Novice Mid writers exhibit a high degree of accuracy when writing on well-practiced, familiar topics using limited formulaic language. With less familiar topics, there is a marked decrease in accuracy. Errors in spelling or in the representation of symbols may be frequent. There is little evidence of functional writing skills. At this level, the writing may be difficult to understand even by those accustomed to non-native writers.

Marcus fits most of this.  However, he does use sentences, sometimes properly. So– at about 50 hrs of C.I., plus behaviour and learning challenges– he’s at Novice Mid.

The lessons?

  1. C.I. works very well indeed, even for students who are not especially motivated or focused, or who have attendance issues. One of many key C.I. plusses: the vocabulary is constantly recycled in comprehensible but new ways.
  2. C.I. does get the “grammar teaching” done, despite traditionalist “those TPRS kids don’t know grammar” complaints. As we have all experienced, the stereotypically successful  language-class kids– wealthier, whiter  and fairly L1-literate females– will pick up and memorise whatever grammar rules etc we throw at them. The rest, not so much. Bani can’t tell you what a verb is, or conjugate one in a chart, or explain the difference between preterite and imperfect verb tenses…but she can use them correctly and meaningfully. Grammar: my kids havn’t been taught it…but they got it.
  3. C.I. is going to reach kids who would be dead in the water with a textbook. I have had loads of kids like Marcus over the years.  Most of them failed with the text.  Worse, most were disengaged.  Now, I’m not much of a teacher…so if *I* can get Markus this far, anyone can do well!
  4. Anyone who has issues with department members who complain that eg “when I get your TPRS kids in Spanish 2, they can’t write out all the numbers from 555 to 579,” or “they can’t conjugate the verb traer in the pluperfect ablative subjunctive causal declension” can just point at ACTFL guidelines to show where their students are. Verb charts, memorised grammar rules, etc, are not part of ACTFL’s proficiency scales: the ability to write in contextually clear and meaningful ways is.
  5. ACTFL broadly suggests that in a regular (ie non-Immersion) classroom, students will need about two years to get to Novice High, another two for Intermediate High, and two more to Advanced. These writing samples suggest that we can go waaaaay faster than ACTFL thinks.

One last thing:  these kids do well not because Mr Stolz is a brilliant teacher, but because C.I. methods allow us to stay in the target language much more than the textbook does.







How to teach “to have” and “to be.”

Kids’ souls, err I mean cell phones, fit perfectly into the Intro Routine and are an awesome way to teach “to have” and “to be located in” (tener and estar).

  1. If you cruelly collect cell phones, you walk around with the phone basket as class starts and you have these simple conversations. You’re going to have to model them the first time or two. I hold my phone out and use it to clariify if kids have trouble answering.

Do you have your phone? — Yes, I have my phone/no, I don’t have my phone.

How much battery do you have? — I have lots of/little battery. In Spanish, ¿cuánta pila tienes? –Tengo mucha/poca pila.

Do you have a Galaxy 96/iPhone 24? –No, I have a Galaxy 6/iPhone 7.

Where is your phone? — my phone is at home/in my locker/in my pack — I don’t have my phone

(in Spanish, ¿dónde está tu teléfono? — está en… or no tengo mi teléfono)

I also like to react with mock horror: What?!? You don’t have your phone?!? (in Spanish, get your pronouns on: ¿qué? ¿No lo tienes?

The “cell phone hotel”:

2. If your kids put phones in a “cell phone parking lot” (especially good if spots are numbered/named) you stand beside the “lot,” point and pause, and ask the questions above, plus ones such as these:

Where is John’s phone– in 4 or 17? Whose phone is in 6? Does Mandeep have her phone, or is it in the phone hotel?

In my class, any kid who gets 100% can have their phone. Major jealousy from slackers! So to model plurals, I’ll point at a kid who has their phone and ask/say things such as

Do Bani and I have our phones? Do Bani and Jagveer have their phones? Where are out phones?

Anyway. Simple, easy and of some interest to kids. Note: don’t overkill: kids will hear this every day, so no need to beat it to death. Just make sure they understand.