Month: February 2014

A great simple Blaine Ray novel trick

 Say you’re reading Blaine Ray’s Pobre Ana/Puavre Anne (or any other good novel) and you want to personalise vocab.  You want kids to understand the story, and you want them to be interested.  They probably don’t care about the language and grammar, but they’ll certainly care about characters, each other, and their own opinions.  So let’s turn from simple read-and-understand to personalisation.

If you get to dialogue, you can have the kids “use” the written dialogue for answers.  So for example on P17 one character asks another “¿Que estudias en la escuela?” (What do you study in school?) and another answers “Estudio el inglés, las ciencias,” etc.  (I study English, science).

All you do– after you’re sure the kids understand the vocab– is get them to say the words they need from the character’s answer.

So YOU ask the kid “What do you study in school?” and the kid answers (reading from text) “I study” and s/he can add whatever is specific to their schedule.  E.g.

Teacher: “¿ Qué estudias en la escuela?” (the question written in text)

Student (reads from text) “Estudio el inglés.”  (answer from text, or changed)

If the student does not study English, s/he can answer with something else…and if that’s a new word, put on board and circle.

You can also ask a y/no question: “Do you study ____?” and the kid can answer “yes/no, I study, don’t study…” 

This way you get accurate quality output plus it’s personalised.  You can of course go on and circle this if it’s interesting (Do you study English or geography?  Is English interesting or boring?  Who is your teacher?  Is your teacher Mr Smith or Ms Jones?  Is Mr Smith funny or serious?).  Quality personalised output– which becomes input for other kids– is always wonderful…but it has to be quality.  Junk output is bad modelling which is not helping very much with acquisition.

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How long is the “silent period”?

Babies need 4,000-5,000 hours of langage input before words and basic sentences start coming out– the so-called “silent period.”  There’s loads of evidwence suggesting babies and toddlers understand vocab and even complex grammar, but they aren’t ready for output.

Krashen and Terrell also suggest that in a language classroom we should expect a “silent period” where students are initially not talking.  During this “silent period” students should be learning– getting interesting comprehensible input– and signalling their understanding (yes/no, one-word answers, etc) but not speaking target language.

Today’s question, from a French teacher in Boston, MA, is “how long should the silent period be?”

My answer:  it depends.  Why?

a) Not all students acquire language at the same rate.  Some of our “superstars” seem ready to chat after five minutes of hearing Spanish for the first time.  Other don’t like opening their mouths even after five months!  If we want to keep “the affective filter” low (ie happy, unstressed kids) we should let them talk when they want to.  I do expect eyes on me, choral responses, and yes/no from individual kids, but not “output” with any beginners who can’t or don’t want to do it.

With stories, I just write dialogue on board so kids feel less pressure.

b) The “silent period” seems counterintuitive (especially for language teachers…may of us think that the process and the goal (speech) should be the same) but makes sense.  Language doesn’t need to be practiced in the way that, say, basketball layups or piano scales need to be.  Comprehensible input alone will build a mental foundation for output.

There’s also interesting research about the neuroprocessing of intention and action.  As Benjamin Libet found (and as has been repeated zillions of times), intention and action happen (neurologically) at about the same time.  In other words, we don’t “decide” on what to do/say and then say it.  Rather, our subconscious brain both decides what to do/say AND goes ahead and does it at the same time– our consciousness just “feels” like intention came before action. 

This finding– there’s an interesting chapter in Daniel Dennet’s Consciousness Explained  about this– would suggest that real language acquisition happens “below” the surface of consciousness.  If this is the case, it would seem that we need to “smuggle” language past the conscious mind (or at least get the conscious mind to not interfere with the unconscious).  

This, in my view, is what happens during the silent period.  By not arousing social anxiety or self-consciousness, and by keeping people focused on the (hopefully interesting) message (ideally a story) we are telling, we “sneak” the foundational basics into the unconscious.  Vocab, grammar rules, accent, intonation, etc, these are going in there directly, and form a kind of “platform” on which the rest will eventually assemble itself.

Practically speaking, all I can say here is, “let them talk when they want to.” 

In my first-year Spanish class, we have no oral “exam.”  Kids usually start speaking after 25-30 hours of class time (so let’s say 20-25 hours of comprehensible input).  Initially, I get words, or three-word sentences like “Jasmin is ugly!” (from her best friend Rasna), to which Jasmin replies “Rasna is crazy!”  By the end of Level 1, the mid-range kids can say things like yesterday I went to the store.  I bought three apples.  They were good without any prompting.  

Second-year kids (and my colleague Leanda’s level three French kids) do have an oral exam, which is totally unstructured.  We just talk.  I’ve never had a TPRS-taught kid get less than 7/9 on the oral, an most get 80-100%.

Teachers sometimes seem horrified when we tell them “no oral exam topics.”  Many teachers I know do what I used to do: tell the kids “OK here’s 3 scenarios, be prepared to talk about them.”  The scenarios being, for example, you are shopping for food in France, or visiting a Spanish doctor with a pain in your leg, or talking to an uncle about what you did last summer.  I don’t do this anymore, because what you get are scripts.  The kids memorise a set of questions and answers, and you get something like recitation.  When a kid asks a question s/he isn’t prepared for, the whole thing goes out the window, even if you’ve taught them conversation rescue strategies (tho’ these do help).

Rather, we just talk.  How are you?  Who’s your best friend?  What’s your family like?  What were you like as a baby? 

My biggest surprise last year was with my student Hamid.  I’d had his holder brother Ahmed, and I have his kid brother Fahim, and the whole bunch are smart and pretty funny.  Hamid HATED talking, didn’t make eye contact, didn’t offer funny suggestions, etc etc, during the year. (according to discussion I had on Ben Slavic’s blog, Hamid was, in terms of Jen Schongalla’s interactional rubric on which a lot of Ben’s people “grade” their kids’ “participation,” failing)  He spent a LOT of time drawing (kid’s a great artist).  At the end of the year, Hamid blew away everyone in the class (except for superstar Angela) in both oral and written output.  It was astonishing. 

This, to me mirrored a story Blaine Ray told me.  Blaine took a crew of kids to Yucatan one year, and at the Merida airport kids, Blaine and various parent volunteers got into 5 vans and headed for their hotel.  Somehow one of the vans got lost and Blaine was worried, because the parent driving the van spoke no Spanish, and that van had Blaine’s worst-performing kids in it.  When, two hours later, the van finally showed up at the hotel (with Blaine worried sick) the parent driving it said “Glad I had these boys.  When we got lost they asked for directions, and we were hungry so we stopped and ate, and they talked to the server.  They’re pretty good.”

The moral?  Give ’em tons of input– keep them focused– and you should end up with people who, when they are ready, can speak.

 

 

Why do we speak s-l-o-w-l-y in the target language?

The first “law” of TPRS is, keep all input comprehensible. Part of this skill is going s-l-o-w-l-y in class. How slowly? You’d be surprised. If you feel like you are explaining to a slow two-year-old, you still might be going too quickly.

The right speed? My estimate is about 110 words per minute.

Get a stopwatch and say the following sentence aloud. Time yourself:

“I am going to school tomorrow with my friends John and Mary.”

This should take you ten seconds to say. If so, the speed is around 110 wpm. Yes, it’s slow. But that is the speed of comprehensible input.

Don’t believe me? Check this: in a fascinating article I just ran across at Ben’s, sent in by Latin master Robert Harrell, audiologist Ray Hull explains the speed of language.

The basic facts:

— Average 5-to-7 year olds process their native language at about 120 words per minute.

— Average high school students process native language at 140-145 wpm

— Average adults speak at 170 wpm.

Fred Rogers (“Mister Rogers”) trained himself to speak at a rate of 124 words per minute – and kept children spellbound.  It’s instructive to watch just five minutes of “Mr Rogers”…that is almost as slow as we should sound in a second-language classroom.

Dr. Hull says, “Anybody who works with children will save a great deal of time if they will simply speak at a rate children can comprehend,” [then] gives an example from school: “So when an algebra teacher is speaking at 160 or 180 words per minute and is introducing a new math concept … that is a problem.”

Article here: http://dyslexia.wordpress.com/2008/08/28/help-students-hear-your-words-speak-slower-says-audiology-professor/

Alcohol and language acquisition

When I was a student in Quebec, and when travelling in Latin America, I always felt a little more normal in French and Spanish after a couple of beers or micheladas.  This is something I’ve heard from a zillion people all over the world: a bit of booze makes conversation flow in 2nd, 3rd etc languages. Years later, I’d have homemade gin in India, rakshi (rice whiskey) in Nepal, and chang (fermented barley) in Tibet and notice the same thing.

Why?

I think there’s three causes of what feels like “easy communication” with a bit of booze

a) Affective filter lowered.  You are in a pub, or sitting around a fire, or at a party, stress is off, music is probably playing, you’re with a fellow traveler or two…you feel good.  Krashen (and a host of others) all say the same thing: in any learning domain, the more happy and relaxed you are, the easier it is to acquire skills or info.

b) Conscious mind less prominent.  Booze is a depressant.  It lowers inhibitions and kills off conscious awareness (until you pass out if you have too much).  Booze is a pathway to the unconscious.  It’s not an accident that dance and fol musics– in all cultures– tend to be accompanied by alcohol, and religious rituals (Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Maya etc) were much the same.  As we “turn off” self-consciousness and over-thinking, we’re in a sense more open to input, and we’re also more likely to just “say what feels right.”

c) we probably overestimate what we can do/learn using booze Alcohol absolutely doesn’t enhance physical skills, it decreases memory, and it seriously impedes our ability to self-regulate and be self-aware.  We probably don’t speak much more clearly when mildly intoxicated than when sober, and while we will be “open to input” as Krashen says, our likelihood of forgetting what we’ve heard is probably higher.

From my own experiences with music (I play Irish trad and bluegrass on octave mandolin and mandolin), I can say that a few beers feels good…a certain looseness comes over me…but too much booze and the fingers and brain stop working.  Memory seems unaffected– I am now at the point where I am playing tunes I have never read the sheetmusic for, and whose names I often don’t know, as per Irish session traition– but then I have not done anything like a controlled study.  Music is much like language in my experience, the main difference being that practice is necesary in music to train muscles (in languages pratice is not important– only listening and reading really matter).  Indeed one wonders how much of music practice is just self-reinforcement of listening. 

The moral?  Booze won’t hurt– and might be fun– if you’re traveling, or sitting around with your ____-language group after class in the pub, knocking back a couple of glasses of wine.  But it won’t help long-term and I certainly woudn’t recommend it as part of any acquisition/teaching strategy.

Do kids get “over-used” to one accent?

I was at a workshop yesterday and somebody asked “in TPRS, if it’s all teacher-talk, don’t the kids get too used to that teacher’s specific accent, and won’t that make life tougher for them in the real world?”

My answer:

The question focuses on the “teacher-centeredness” of a TPRS class.  There are several responses to this.  What matters most– that kids understand a TON of the TL, or that they have heard a bunch of accents? 

a)  From my own experiences in Spanish-speaking countries, I’ve noticed that it’s not accent that creates communication problems for non-native speakers as much as slang and speed. 

I feel like I can quite clearly “hear” (and then “see” written in my mind) when a Mexican says “No manches tanto, wey.”  (Loose polite translation– don’t be an idiot, or that’s a bad idea)  Yes, he sounds a little bit different than a Guatemalan, and a fair bit different than an Argentinian, but I can get a mental picture of the sound.  It’s the slang that gets you– what is “manches” and what is “wey”?  I have found the same thing with Argies, Colombians, etc.  I can “see” the words in my head but the meaning eludes me.

When we are talking standard Spanish– say, ordering food, or getting directions– there are minor differences in sound with different accents, but what really gets you is the speed at which native speakers talk.  When I hear Argies, or Mexican kids (especially from big cities) speak, I hear bla bla bla bla vamos bla bla bla que? bla bla bla.

For me, the most important thing is, the more vocab I have acquired (even if only for recognition), the more pieces of language I can “assemble” into something coherent when confronted with either slang or a fast speaker. 

Think of it this way:  Which of the following is easier for you to understand?

1) John bla bla goes bla bla Berlin.

2) John bla bla bla bla bla Berlin.

The more specific bits we know, the easier it is to “guess around the edges” and decode from context when faced with native-speaker slang and speed.   

b)  If you are using a textbook program, you are using both your own voice and that of the program CDs, videos, etc, to use the TL.  The problem here is that most teachers of foreign languages top out at around B2 on the D.E.L.F. scale, are not native speakers, and must anyway slow down and simplify their speech for kids.  Most textbook TL is very standardised.  You won’t find strong regional accents, slang, etc in those (one of the reasons kids often ask “can you teach us how to swear?”, a job I leave to the amazing film Y tu Mama Tambien).  

So, regardless of whether or not you use TPRS, and whether you use textbook audio/video, the kids are still getting simplified, standardised speech.

c)  Krashen– and others– argue that “comprehensible input” drives acquisition more than anything else.  If you do want to expose kids to “authentic language” (language by and for native speakers) in order to get used to the accent…you run the risk of them hearing bla bla bla bla vamos bla bla bla.  So what are they acquiring? Unless you explain what the bla bla means– and you can repeat it enough, while kids are paying attention– the kids are not getting what they need to acquire language.  

I got an email recently from a Mom whose 4th-grade daughter is failing French Immersion.  The teacher speaks too quickly.  When asked to slow down, he replied “the students must learn to understand authentic French.”  Yup…but the way they learn tto udnerstand is going to be via comprehensible input, not via adult-level, native-speaker French.  The teacher refused to change his speed of speech, so the Mom pulled the kid, put her in a regular school (with a couple of blocks a week of French) and the kid is happy now because the language is pitched at what she needs and can do.

When I present to schools, E.S.L. schools, District in-services, etc etc, my two main points are a) go slow, and b) keep it comprehensible 

Questions?  chris(dott)stolz(att)gmail(dott)com

Does Metacognition Aid Language Acquisition?

Metacognition– thinking about thinking; being aware of what you know (or don’t), or of what you need to know– is a big word these days. There’s a fair amount of good research that indicates that, for some subjects/activities, metacognition plays an important role in learning.

For example, when reading a story or novel, good readers are aware of what they know, or don’t. A good reader doesn’t just mindlessly let words slip through their brain, but is imagining, predicting, questioning etc, and is self-aware of what is happening. If the good reader doesn’t know something, or has forgotten something, or is unclear, s/he goes back, re-reads, asks questions of other readers (or looks online) etc. The same is broadly true in something like math, or chem. Poor learners say “I don’t get it.” Good learners say “I don’t get how to go from __ to __,” or “I don’t get [a specific thing].”

In board games such as chess or the Asian game Go, good players “replay” matches to see where their issues are. I play Go, and regularly review the games I play online. I now know from two years of review that I have problems with mid-board attacks, calculating risks in corners, and heading off cuts. (I am SUCH a geek). It’s made me marginally better.

Question: does “reflecting on one’s knowledge of language” help one acquire the language, in the way that reflecting on reading, game-play, or math helps us there?

I’m thinking about this because I’m going to a conference soon where there will be a workshop on “Portfolio Assessment in Second Languages.” The people presenting this have their students collect “evidence of learning”– written docs, recordings of interviews, etc– in portfolios, and, at the end of the course they go through these portfolios with the students. They ask the students questions (in TL) about what they have learned/need to know and they comment on everything from grammar and pronunciation to writing.

My view: I think this is generally an ineffective practice. Why?

a) We acquire language unconsciously. While knowing what we don’t know is a kind of “map” for the future, it does not, on its own, help us acquire language. My being aware that I can’t say the French word for, say, “to sit down” is not going to help me acquire that verb unless I get the chance to hear/read it meaningfully a number of times.

b) Feedback regarding pronunciation, grammar, etc, is basically useless. This is because feedback goes into the conscious mind , while language is stored in the unconscious mind. Any language teacher knows this: you teach l’imparfait till your face turns blue and the kids still don’t use it properly. They will still write “Hier, j’allais a l’ecole.”

My colleague Leanda started TPRS this year with her French 10s. I’ve seen and heard what they can do. I was, to put it mildly, amazed by how good the kids’ output was– accent, grammar, fluency, variety of vocab, etc– but what REALLY blew me away was the fact that her kids hadn’t practiced any speaking or been given any speaking or writing feedback!

c) Curriculum makes metacognition irrelevant. If kids are taught “thematic” units, as they are in my district in French and Spanish, it doesn’t matter what they know (or don’t) or how aware they are. The teacher still has to teach units 1-6 (or whatever) with their attendant vocab, grammar, etc, the next year. If a kid knows s/he doesn’t know aller or whatever (and most kids won’t know anything about their own learning even close to that specifically), great…but if aller doesn’t come up a lot during the next year, that act of self-reflection won’t help the kid acquire it.

I’ve asked the communicative French teachers about this, and they say “well we recycle the vocab: the curriculum is spiral.” The problem here is that, typically, the vocab “chunks” or themes are separated by months and years from each other. For example, under the old Passages text we used to use, kids saw food and the partitive article in a unit in Level 2 and then again in Level 4. I taught level 3 for a year and while you’d see the odd partitive expression, the food vocab was absent. (Level 3 at that time had clothing, media, sports, etc but no food unit.) In the meantime they lose a lot of what they’ve gotten.

A good “communicative” teacher will get around this by consciously re-incoporating whatever has “just been taught” into the next unit and so on. The problem is that these text series have very specific grammar foci, so the “older stuff” gets backgrounded and the worksheets, videos etc foreground the new stuff. It’s doable but one must consciously focus on maintaining usage of ALL stuff.

TPRS gets around this because, while stories have 2-3 structures and focus (or even themes– the crazy trip to the restaurant, shopping with Celebrity ____, etc), we can always re-use everything we’ve ever used as background detail. I’ll use había (there was/were) in the first story ever…and it gets reused ALL THE TIME. I’ll do a story about clothes and shopping (wears, pays, costs would be typical structures) and then every story from then on, we’ll stop and say what the characters are wearing, or not, or want to be wearing, etc.

d) Metacognition in one’s first language is incredibly difficult…how can it be any easier in one’s second? I teach English lit/comp…and believe me, getting the kids to reflect on their writing is next to impossible. In our school, for example, the kids from Punjabi and Hindi families mis-use the present pluperfect in English– e.g. instead of writing “Yesterday I went to the store,” (correct) they’ll write “Yesterday I had gone to the store” (incorrect). When you point this out to them, they say “oh yeah sounds wrong” and then they go right back to doing it. This is an interlanguage thing– there’s something in South Asian languages that mimics the “had” in English or whatever– and it’s pretty clear that the kids aren’t consciously doing it. You can explain English grammar till you’re blue in the face and the kids won’t get it. I don’t know how we expect people to “reflect on their learning” in a second language when reflecting on their first language is so difficult.

Long story short: portfolios, self assessment and self-reflection have no place in a secondary school second-languages classroom. If you want your kids to learn…give ’em zillions of reps of comprehensible input that’s interesting enough for them to focus on. Kids– and most adults– cannot turn conscious feedback into acquisition, and, evennif they can, it’s much more efficient to give ’em reps of comprehensible input. The only place I see for self-reflection is in stuff that kids actually can be aware of– work habits, how much effort they make outside class to read/hear target language, how “tuned in” they are in class, etc.

Now THAT’S Acquisition!

I was at Simon Fraser University last week, introducing this year’s second-languages student teachers to T.P.R.S.  Before the class, I had a chance to talk to the methods teacher, J.D..  She had recently taken a crew of French 12 (level 5) kids to Quebec for a two-week immersion trip and related the following incident:

“So we went out walking with our Quebecois(e) hosts and hostesses and it was winter and icy.  The kids had been with their host families for about a week, speaking no English and hearing tons of French. One of our girls slipped and banged her hand on the ice and loudly cursed “vas te chier!” and all the Quebeckers laughed.” 

Now this is a structure that has been acquired by this student.  How do we know it’s acquisition?

a) it emerges spontaneously

b) there’s no pre-thinking, eyes-up-and-left, or pausing

c) it fits perfectly into context

d) it’s perfectly authentic, real language (in this case a Quebecois idiom) 

This is what we really want in a second-language learner: language instileld so deeply that there’s no thinking, pausing etc involved in its production.  Now obviously we won’t teach our kids to swear, but good comprehensible input teaching will get our kids to the point where they can answer questions quickly and confidently, and spontaneously say what needs to be said.

Comments or questions?  Email chris (dot) stolz @ gmail (dott) com

Is Output Useful in the 2nd Language Classroom?

I’ve been arguing with Sarah Cottrell, Kari R. and others about the role of output in a FL classroom.  TPRS is primarily an input-based methodology:  students learn via hearing (and reading) comprehensible input.  So…should students in a TPRS class talk?  And, if so, when?

You can read Krashen’s views here.

My first answer is, talking is not useful– at all– when we start with beginners.  Most people don’t like talking at first, because they quite logically feel self-conscious because they know their accent is “wrong” or “off,” and because they know that they sound like a two-year-old.  There’s lots of research that suggests that talking in TL tops the list of “things I don’t like” in FL classrooms.

If Krashen is right about the affective filter– that people need to be happy and comfy (he says “open to input”) to learn a FL– then talking (for beginners) is totally the wrong strategy.

Output (from most learners) is often flawed, which means, bad input.  Ask any Spanish teacher what happens when you first teach “gustar” (“to be pleasing” or “to like”).  When you ask “te gusta ver la tele?”  the kids answer with “Si, te gusta ver la tele.” (Do you like watching TV? Yes, you like watching TV).  This is a classic beginner mistake.  Now, we understand (and so does the kid doing the listening)…but what they need to hear– “Si, me gusta…”– they don’t.  Why would we encourage poor modeling?

Bill VanPatten (2003) argues that language acquisition happens only when a learner is processing input. “Output,” he writes, “is not a substitute for input, which must come from other speakers.”

We might say, “poor modeling, fine, the kids will pick it up eventually.”  Sure…but that’s a waste of time; why dither?  If we can provide quality input via stories and reading, acquisition is much faster.

Another problem with output exercises– the “communication gap” activities that communicative teachers use, where kids are supposed to use (and thereby acquire) the TL to acquire information they want– is that they’re boring, and they can be bypassed via L1 use.

If you are teaching “to like,” and you tell the kids “OK, look at the list of things in your book on P. ___, and ask your partner what they like,” a lot of them will just point and say “do you like ___?” in English rather than saying “Aimes-tu les chats?”  Even if they do use TL, they’ll only do it once or twice, cos, let’s face it, this is a boring activity.  Which slows the acquisition even more.  Why would you use the target language if you don’t have to?  And everyone knows it feels fake using a non-native language with other learners.Plus, this turns the teacher into a police officer dutifully patrolling the class for TL, hounding the bad English away.  Fair enough…but don’t we have better things to do?

So if early output = bad modeling and slow acquisition, is there ever a place for output?  And we are talking output other than yes/no and one-word answers, or scripted story dialogue.  I think there is…but under some conditions.

a) Output must be perfect.  If a kid says it in class, and there’s any errors at all, it has to be immediately re-cast by teacher into perfection, and then circled.

b) Output must only come when students want to do it.  It must emerge organically.  Forced output is not language– it is drama, recitation, what VanPatten calls “language-like behaviour,” but it’s not language.  Language is what you say and understand without having to think.

With beginners, this is fairly easy: we allow only super-simple perfect output from the willing initially.  With my last batch of beginners, the first sentence they learned was Rochelle juega futbol con David Beckham en Los Angeles.  I circled that (and a parallel sentence: Breleigh baila en Cork con Seamus Ennis.).

I then wrote “juego = I play” on board and asked Rochelle “Juegas futbol con David Beckham?” and she was able to answer by reading off board– I pointed to “juego” and then “futbol con David Beckham.”  I then did a pop-up: “what do the “a” and “o” on “jueg-” mean?”  Note that I could do this because it was obvious from the first minute that Rochelle was an outgoing kid who was eager to talk (as were her friends Jasmin and Rasna, and a boy named Fahim…but they were the only ones).  Breleigh however wanted nothing to do with talking– she was OK answering questions chorally and in English– but she did not want to say anything in Spanish.  Fair enough.  After a few weeks, she started to want to answer in Spanish.

So I set it up so that the only thing they could say was meaningful to them, and perfect– they simply had to read off the board.  If they wanted vocab specific to them, I wrote it on board w/ translation.

Sarah Cotrell said to me on Twitter “My students don’t want to have language; they want to use language.”  Great…but how does quality input come from learners?  Your 4th year kids probably won’t make errors with “te gusta?” which they learned in first year…but they’ll inevitably make interlanguage etc errors with the subjunctive or whatever they have recently started seeing.

I would do some or all of the following with upper-level kids

a) limited discussion (with teacher recasts) about texts or images

b) assignments where students have to interact with native speakers and document the results (e.g. go find a Spanish speaker, and interview them, and record questions and answers with your phone or camera).

c) encourage kids to go and do stuff with the language outside of class.

Some teachers say “don’t kids in TPRS classes get bored just listening?” and I respond with “not if what they are listening to [and reading] is interesting.”  We personalise stories, we do simple Q&A about kid interests, we weave kids into stories, and we do readings about teen characters with real problems that kids care about, and we use our sense of humour above all.  We use stories because they are the most universal and oldest and most compelling form of packaging communication, period.  We always want to find out what happens in a story!

Merrill Swain often comes up here.  Swain essentially says two things: that output is important in acquisition because it “provokes” comprehensible input, and that output can make speakers aware of errors and problems, and in their desire to “fix” these problems they will acquire some language.  There are a few problems with Swain’s ideas.

Say I am in France and I am hungry, and I walk into a boulangerie.  If I stammer and point to a loaf of breadand say “Je veux acheter un…un…un…”, the boulangeur is probably going to say “baguette.”  A classic communication-gap scenario.  And I used metaliguistic strategies:  I pointed, I said “uhh” (or “eu”) over and over, etc.

Great.  I provoked output from him that became comprehensible input for me.  But there’s two problems.

a)  how am I going to remember “une baguette”?  Evidence suggests that I am going to need to hear (or read) it 20-50 times to get it hammered into my long-term memory, and more to be able to spit it out without thinking.  How are communication gaps going to do that?  This might work in an immersion environment– if the situation comes up every day, I’ll eventually pick up baguette— but we don’t have that kind of time in class.

b)  when I get input from the baker, I am getting perfect native-speaker French.   This is not what happens in a classroom, even one full of motivated, experienced and attentive students.   No matter how good the activities etc, students are still getting impoverished, error-filled input from other learners.

Swain isn’t wrong…but her theory, properly speaking, addresses learning conditions, not actual acquisition.  If I want to acquire “baguette,” I need to hear it and read it over and over– and be focused on it– otherwise my encounter with Monsieur Boulangeur will be a one-off that will find me scratching my head next time I want bread.

The second part of Swain’s theory– that output will increase the speaker’s self-awareness of problems in their grammar, vocab and pronunciation, etc, and that this will lead to acquisition– is also problematic.

Let’s say I am in India and I want some water in a restaurant.  I ask my server kanna he? and get a puzzled response.  He nods and brings me the menu.   But I don’t want a menu– I want water.  I must have screwed up.  But how did I screw up?  Did I get the word for “water” wrong?  Is my pronunciation off?  Did the guy not hear me?  Does he not speak Hindi?  (Perhaps he is a Malayalam or Bengali speaker).  As it turns out, I have the word for “water” wrong– it’s not kanna but rather panni.

First, it’s not clear what the problem is.  I know there’s a problem…but what is it?  As an adult language learner, with developed metacognitive skills, I can figure it out: wrong word.  Could a 15 year old?  A tourist with little interest in Hindi?  What if the problem is more complex, like I get a verb tense wrong, or I forget to add a crucial postposition.  Concrete nouns are easy to figure out– point and ask with raised eyebrows– how about complex grammar?

Second, even if I figure out that I got the word wrong– and I managed to ‘rescue’ the conversation by pointing to a water fountain or bottle– I will probably, as in the  boulangeur example above, probably get one mention of the word panni and that’s it.  This might work in an immersion environment, but in a classroom this is not a viable strategy.

This, to me, is the essence of the problem of language teaching: how do we provide  comprehensible input that is compelling enough that it can be repetitive enough that students can acquire it?  Of everything I’ve seen and tried– natural approach, T.P.R.S., Grammar Grind, communicative-experiential, audiolingual, “eclectic”– T.P.R.S. is the best solution to the problem, outside of an immersion environment, because it allows us to provide masses of comprehensible input that is personalised and interesting (via the personal and/or weird details, and because we use stories).