Getting Rid of a Big Buuuuut

Image result for bottle of wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Note: if you can find ONE State or Provincial language curriculum that includes verb chart filling out, pronoun-placing etc work as an objective, that bottle of wine is on me cos you, uh, “win.” Go on, get your Google on!


  5. “But students need to know all the words for food if they will ever survive in France.”
    Terry Waltz: I’m a certified, professional Mandarin-English translator and I  lived and worked in Taiwan for years. I still don’t know all the words for the food I typically eat there. Neither do the people who live there. And when we don’t know, we just point, and say I’ll have that.

  6. Colleague, Head: “But students must know all the numbers from 1-3,998,231.6, all the location words, all the colours, the alphabet, all the basic body parts, and the words for clothing.

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

  7. Parent/admin: “But when *I* was in school, WE learned Latin by memorising verbs and lists of other words. Bob Patrick’s got this one:

    You: You took Latin in high school?
    — Yeah, and I got 91.358%.
    You: Quid agis hodie?
    — …
    You (s.l.o.w.l.y.): Quid agis hodie?
    — …
    You: Femina haec/homo hic ebrius non est!
    — …
    You (in head): Aaaaand how well did that Latin teaching work out for you?
    You (aloud): It’s normal for any student to forget some language over time. But you had trouble understanding me asking you how are you today? in Latin.
    — …

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

  8. Colleague/Head: “but that input stuff doesn’t work, because students aren’t learning grammar.”

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

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

  9. Colleagues/Headz/Adminz: “But [C.I. instruction, using stories and other interesting materials] is too teacher-centered.”
    Bill VanPaten
    : The [C.I.]  classroom is NOT teacher-centered. It is teacher-led.
    C/H/A: “But [C.I. classes are] too much about fun, and not enough about real communication.”
    BVP: Entertainment is a valid form of communication.
    C/H/A: “But [C.I. classes are] too much about stories and characters, and not enough about exchanging information.”
    BVP: [C.I.] is communicative, since it has an expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning.
    C/H/A: “But teachers who use TPRS [and other comprehensible input strategies] do not teach enough explicit grammar.”
    BVP: What’s on page 32 in the textbook will not be the language that winds up in a student’s head.
    C/H/A: “But in a C.I. class, there is very little interaction with input, because students are listening to stories and questions, not engaging in conversations.”
    BVP: Interaction with input simply means indicating comprehension. Students can do this in many ways.

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

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

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

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

Gianfranco Conti’s Claim and the Evidence

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

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

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

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

Being the data-slave that I am, I asked for evidence. Here is Conti’s support for his position. My comments follow each work he cites.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(How) Should I Use Questions to Assess Reading?

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

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

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

Q: Should I use questions to assess reading?

A: Probably not. Here’s why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Rule of Three: Simpler Evaluation

Teachers are uhhhh obsessive, especially about marking. We write and rewrite assessment instruments, when we could be hitting a bachata class, ripping up the Grand Wall after work, or kicking back with our five-year-old.

^ wanna be overloaded like her? ^ 😞😞

We spend too much time thinking about grading. Luckily for us, I’m gonna make the rest of your teaching career waaaaaay simpler by showing you how to make marking simple.

So…imagine if you got marked on partying. They give you a Number for how well you party.

Q: what would the rubric look like?

A: like this…

1 You are on your way to the party.
2 You are standing in the doorway, chatting with the host, eyeing a nice martini.
3 You are shaking it on the dancefloor with thirty others, with your second drink, and the sexiest person at the party is checking you out.

Works? Sure! It’s simple, quick and accurate. Your Party Mark will be 34%, 66% or 100%. Now, say we also wanted to grade outfits. So we add this:

1 Sweats and slides are kinda basic…but hey, you got out of bed!

2 Business casual? You look good and respectable but no eyeballs/mentions for you.

3 Oh yeah! What’s yr Insta, gorgeous? 😁

As we evaluate our partiers, they can get marks from 2/6, going upward in 15% intervals, to 6/6.

Various assessment gurus will tell you something fairly similar regarding attaching Numberz to Performancez: there are only three real levels of skill that one can accurately describe.  These are basically, not yet proficient, functionally proficient, and fully proficient. Breaking things down further is complicated, and therefore makes marking slower (and rubrics harder for students to understand). The more you refine descriptors and levels, the harder it is to distinguish between them.

So here is our Rule of Three for Evaluation:

1. We focus on three levels of skill (not yet, just got it, fully proficient). 2. There is a clear difference between each level.

Now, I’ma show y’all how this works for a language class. Here’s our oral interaction rubric (end of year, zero prep, totally 100% spontaneous & unplanned Q&A with a student, Level 2 and up in any language).

What matters? 1. student comprehension of interlocutor 2. accurate, comprehensible output 3. degree of engagement with interlocutor

3. I understand everything said. My errors have minimal impact on how understandeable I am. I ask and answer questions, and keep conversation going, appropriately.

2. I understand much of what is said with some obvious gaps. My errors occasionally make me impossible to understand. I try to keep conversation going but sometimes have problems adding to/elaborating on what has been said.

1. I don’t understand much of what is said. My errors often make me hard to understand. I have consistent problems keeping the convo going.

This rubric is s 3×3 and generates marks between 3 and 9 out of 9 (ie 33%-100% in 11% intervals). It’s a nice mix of detail, fast, and simple. You basically never want a rubric more complex than 3×3 cos it gets too texty for kids to read.

There you go. Use it if you want it.

Anyway, a few notes to go with this (and with marking writing, or anything else):

A. You can mark via selective sample. Eg, for writing, say your kids pump out 300-word stories (mid Level 1). I’ll bet you dinner and a movie that marking any three sentences will show you their proficiency as accurately as reading the entire thing. Same goes for answering questions about a reading, or listening. Pick a small sample and go.

B. You will generally see marks “clustering.” The kid who understands all the questions/comments in an oral interview will probably also be able to speak well. This is cos most “skills” develop in concert. With our partying rubric, it is likely that Mr Dressed To Kill is also quite sociable, a good and enthusiastic dancer, etc. Yes, there will be the odd kid who understands everything but can’t say much, but this is uncommon.

Now would somebody please make rubrics for spontaneous written output and reading comp also? Create & share.

Let’s be DONE with marking questions and focus on what matters: finding cool input for kids, and making our grading quick & simple, so that we can relax after work & show up energised. Remember, one of C.I.’s greatest innovators at one point said that their method was developed to boost their golf score. The logic? Well-rested, happy teacher = good teacher 😁😁.



Can Anyone Teach a Language?

Today somebody asked about a school in Mexico that teaches Spanish via C.I., as the student very much likes her TPRS (etc) class. There were a bunch of responses and suggestions, and then the following.

OK, two points.

First, I havn’t said– or implied– anything Karen Rowan here says. No, language teachers are *not* replaceable “by any native speaker.” The teacher (native speaker or not) needs skills. A language teacher needs to be able to go slowly, repeat the words a lot, be interesting and restrict the vocab load. These are important skills.

Sure, everyone is entitled to their opinion.  I’m not sure how that is relevant, and my opinion is not what Rowan here says. I generally prefer it when people don’t put words in my mouth. However, in one-on-one situations…

Second, today’s question:
Q: Can anyone teach a language?
A: With basic training, yes!

If you are a native speaker of ____, you need to do the following– in a one-on-one setting; classrooms are different– to teach a language. If you are a student of ____, all you have to do is tell (or get somebody to tell) your teacher to do these.

  1. Base instruction around whatever interests the student. If Johnny gets to China and wants to talk food, have at! When I was in Guatemala, I was interested in politics, food and the lives of migrant workers. Most of the vocab one needs to know– high-frequency– will come up naturally during conversation.
  2.  Limit vocabulary and recycle it. People need to hear the vocab over and over, in slightly varied contexts, to get to the automatic recognition stage of acquisition. Here is an example from a conversation I recall from Xela, Guatemala, in January of 1992:

Teacher: do you like Guatemalan food?
Me: Yes.
T: I like Guatemalan food. I also like Mexican food. I like Salvadorean food a bit. Do you like Mexican food?
M: Yes.  Tacos delicious.
T: Yes, tacos are delicious. In Guatemala, tostadas are like tacos.  They are also delicious.

The day we had this convo, we later went to the market and ordered tostadas. You can see here that the teacher used tacos, delicious, are and I/you like over and over.

My teachers were able to circle– repeat in Q&A form– whatever we both wanted to talk about. When we needed new vocab, they said it, I wrote it down, and we used it.  Daily, my understanding of my host family’s Spanish grew. I never in four weeks saw a vocab list, got grammar homework, or got asked to conjugate verbs.

Most of my teachers were Uni students, but not full-time professional teachers.

3. If I had a student going abroad, I would tell them to get the teacher to tell stories, talk with the student about whatever interests them, go slow,  and circle the vocab. I would also suggest they use any apps (eg LingQ, Duolingo) that don’t bore them, and read whatever they find interesting.

This is really all you need to be an effective  language teacher for one-on-one situationsIf it’s a class, you’ll need a method (TPRS, Movietalk, Picturetalk, Story Listening, reading) plus training in these plus novels etc, plus general knowledge about assessment, classroom management, etc.



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.