Month: April 2014

Why aren’t there more T.P.R.S. teachers?

I’ve been getting emails and tweets from people all over and one of the questions that often comes up is, why are there not more language teachers using T.P.R.S. or other comprehensible input methodologies?

Let’s get a few things out of the way first.  The evidence is in: all you need for second-language acquisition is lots of meaningful, repetitive, interesting comprehensible input– aurally and through reading.  The research is very clear: we do not need to ask for output, do grammar drills, provide grammar feedback, explicitly teach grammar (in any other sense than brief explanations, like “amos goes with “we” in Spanish), ask students to self-reflect on their linguistic skills, etc, to enable students to acquire a language.  In a future series of posts, I am going to summon research that puts the boots to these outmoded practices.  These practices are at best a waste of time and at worst a barrier to acquisition.

But for now, the question remains: how come more teachers don’t use C.I. generally, or T.P.R.S. specifically? 

So here’s a list.  What do you all think?

Adriana Ramirez told me before I started C.I. that I’d need 3 years to make it properly work. I am near the end of year 2 and I couldn’t agree more.  This is a major learning curve…but even done by a beginner, it’s more fun and more effective than anything else.  Now, I am far from the smartest guy in the room, but even I can learn how to teach via comprehensible input.  If I can do it, how come more people don’t?

OK; here we go:

a) Most language teachers are in the 4-5% of people who can learn via direct, grammar-based instruction, and can’t imagine another way.  They thrived in– or survived– the grammar grind, or the “communicative approach,” in high school.  99% of the time, they went to Europe or Japan or wherever after high school, where the amount of input in the language they’d learned was so high that they became fluent, or close to it.  For many of them– many of whom are my District colleagues– high-school is just the “groundwork” for the real world.  Nevermind that most kids won’t ever end up in ____ to “really” learn the language.

These folks basically see it this way: grammar grind/communicative was “real world” preparation; immersion (or Uni) finished off their language skills; this is good enough (or ideal).  We also teach the way we learn– unless we make a strong effort to step out of our mental box– so…

b) Lots of teachers are operating in non C.I.-friendly schools.  If you are the lone wolf– or even if there’s two or three of you– and you have a department, department head or administrator who does not understand, or (more commonly) “believe in,” C.I., it’s tough to kick against the pricks.  This happens in lots of places.  C.I. teachers get badmouthed behind their backs, or openly at department meetings, and since most teachers– especially female teachers, who are socialised to “play nice”– don’t want to ruffle feathers (“come on, team!”-style thinking)– it’s hard for a lot of us to do our own thing.

Thankfully, the Internet keeps us connected.  Yahoo’s moretprs and Ben Slavic’s blog offer community outside school.

This is not to say that life is hostile for all C.I. practitioners– in my department, we agree to disagree, and we get along great– but it’s still harder to innovate if you’re the only one.

c) C.I. doesn’t fit into standard curriculae.  As noted in earlier posts, you cannot change the order of acquisition of grammar .  The only thing you can change is the speed, and the only way you can do that is to provide loads of interesting comprehensible input.  Texts– with their boring “units” and their utterly un-natural ordering of grammar items– are the antithesis of how language is actually acquired.  If a C.I. teacher is forced to “follow” a textbook, C.I. goes out the window.  Anyone who has ever seen the TPRS addendum for the Avancemos textbook knows how stupid, though well-meaning, that addendum, is.

d) Many teachers find it too much work to change over. People who are young are overwhelmed, then they have kids; many of us old farts (and I am one of them) lose their edge.  “I worked for years, my system works, I’m not changing” is what one person flat-out said to me not long ago when I asked them about whether they’d want to try C.I.  I get it.  It’s hard.  The question, I suppose, is philosophical: why, really, are you here?  I like Nietzsche’s way of assessing the “rightness” of a choice (what he calls “the eternal recurrence:” you are doing something right if you could do it an infinite number of times and it would still be interesting. This is what I love about T.P.R.S.: I can never step twice into the same story.

However, when I look back at the work I did pre-TPRS, I am amazed at two things:

1) How MUCH stuff I made, found, put together, modified, etc.

2) How bad my results were

I made a few hundred bingo (and other) games, I made conversation cards, I designed culture projects, I made conversation systems…and at the end of the year the kids still couldn’t say “I like running.”

With T.P.R.S., all I really need are a story outline with my structures (and the props etc), a reading that uses these structures, and a novel.  Indeed, after 20 classes, my kids are reading Berto y sus Buenas Ideas, and their output at the end of the year is MILES ahead of where they used to be (and there are zero management issues).  So…it’s not more work….it’s different work.


e) Most teachers are cautious and conservative by nature (unless they are young, single and on a Pro-D day which ends with alcohol– Ok, I am being facetious here, but you get the point).   We are passing on tradition, we have old-school language teaching hammered into our heads….

f) Institutional and experiential memory is long. I read somewhere that educational research takes from 8-50 years to filter down into shared practice. We still have senior English teachers in my district who give spelling tests fer Gawd’s sake!  (research says this is totally useless).  If you learned via Activity ____ in high school, then you end up back in a high school, doing Activity ____ is an easy default.  95% of teacher learning does not happen during methods class, as all of us except for University education-program designers know. We learn most of our skills in real time, in a real job.  This means you are going to get support, advice, materials etc from established people, and, in languages, that means grammarians and “communicative”-approach people.


g) Standard grammar or communicative teaching works as a “weeder” of students who do not learn via grammar instruction or communicative tasks, which reinforces what most people think– that most people cannot learn languages cos they don’t “work hard enough.” I recently read a great article about Alcoholics Anonymous which pointed out that A.A.’s success rate is abysmal– max 10% of AA attendees stay off the sauce (or whatever) for any length of time– yet its rep is solid because the 90% people for whom it fails don’t go talking about it; the 10% who make it, join, mentor others, speak publicly, etc, and so the “success” rate appears high and the failures are blamed for their failure by those who have succeeded.  According to A.A. boosters, if A.A. works, it’s because of the method; when it fails, it’s the fault of those who failed.  This is like saying “we made a drug that cures ___ 10% of the time, and the other 90% it’s the fault of the patient that the cure did not take.”

If we use Method X, and it works poorly for many students, we could come up with many explanations.  Bad method?  Students who don’t have skills or motivation?  Who knows for sure…but given that anyone and everyone, even the severely mentally challenged, can learn a language, and that most people in the world learn two or more languages without formal teaching, it’s a long shot to say that failure to learn is the kids’ fault.

What we do know is that in Canada, as Netten and Germain (2012) argue in a paper (see bibliography for details), “Core French” (what most kids get: 5-6 hours/week of french from Gr5-Gr11 or so) doesn’t work very well.  Lots of kids drop out, many don’t like it, and those who do finish have poor skills.  The ones who do best tend to be white (and, increasingly, East Asian), wealthier and with more educated parents (the same is broadly true of French Immersion kids).  These are the kids who go on exchange trips to Quebec, whose parents buy them Dora and Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, etc.  Hmmm…anybody see the problem here?

Looking around at various B.C. school districts, what I have heard, over and over, is that generally 75% of kids drop out of languages by grade 12.  If a 1500-kid schools has 8 blocks of French (250 kids) in grade 8 (level 1 for you Yanks), by the time they get to grade 12 often there will only be one or maybe two blocks left (25-50 kids).  Partly this is cos taking a second language is only necessary to the grade 11 level (in B.C. and a few other provinces) for Uni admission purposes.  But you have to wonder.  What if math was taught this way?  What if more than 75% of math students dropped math by grade 12?  There would be an uproar.  National crisis!  We’re losing our edge, bla bla bla.

My guess is that traditional grammar or communicative teaching “weeds out” the kids who don’t naturally learn in those ways, and so the ones who do finish are held up as examples of the “success” of these older methods, which reinforces bias against change:  “Johnny got an A in French 12; that means other kids should also be able to.”

At ____ last year (names have been changed to protect the guilty, heh heh), the TPRS teacher and the dept head (a grammarian and I.B. teacher) each had Intro Spanish. At the end of the year when they had to decide who the “top kids in Spanish” in each section were for award purposes, the TPRS teacher had literally 15 kids per block at an A/A+ level, while the dept head had one.  The TPRS teacher said “it was C.I. that did it” while the department head said something like “a lot of these students [in my class] don’t put in the work or don’t have the skills.” (Same kinds of kids in both groups).  I’ve seen the TPRS results– they’re stellar.  The department head refuses to try C.I., bad-mouths the department’s two C.I. teachers (who by any standard get amazing results), and still maintains that it is student work habits that drive acquisition, not the teaching method.  

Yet, for her, the failure of many kids is a benefit to her: she ends up with the egg-head kids who slave away over grammar when they get to the International Bachelaurate year of language study, and she doesn’t have to change her teaching style, and the kids still do “well enough.”  She would get annihilated in a non-egg-head school.

h) Following a book is easier. In BC, there was a provincial committee 10 years ago that looked at Spanish resources. They allowed Dime (the dumbest book ever made), Avancemos, Paso a Paso, etc, because anybody can go in with those texts, and just follow the instructions. Juntos– which is as good as it gets for the communicative approach– was rejected cos in order to use it, you had to be pretty creative, have reasonable Spanish, be into all kinds of manipulatives and out-of-seat activities, etc.  

In other words, the Ministry of Education and the Board consortium which collectively reviewed Spanish materials wanted a teacher-proof program where anyone could “teach” Spanish.  I get this, sort of– I know loads of people (I am one) who wasn’t Uni-trained in language teaching and had to learn to teach it on the fly– but it’s pretty frikkin’ bad long-term policy.  We like to say “students will rise to our expectations.”  Sure we can expect the same of teachers.  This btw is one of the reasons why A.I.M. is popular: it is so rigidly organised and laid out that you can literally walk in on day 1 and follow the book for an entire year.

i) There’s no real pressure to “succeed” in languages teaching.   One of the ironies of the idiotic, standards-driven U.S. testing mania is that there has been real pressure to figure out what works.  Blaine Ray, T.P.R.S.’s inventor, was fired from his first  and second jobs because his principals wanted better results and higher enrolment.  Ray’s quest for a better method– which began with TPR and then moved into narratives after he read Asher and then Krashen– produced what appears right now to be the best second-languages method.  Canadians have less testing, less accountability– all in my view good things– and, above all, much less inequality than the U.S., which leads to better outcomes for poorer students.  But the price for our ease is a lack of innovation, especially in languages pedagogy.  And too often we can just say “well, those kids didn’t learn French (or whatever) because, well, they weren’t working hard enough.”  People who really need to learn a second language have to take it in Uni, and usually go away to where it’s spoken to pick it up.


C.E.F.R. and T.P.R.S.

Workshop participant Kristin A. asks “How does T.P.R.S. fit with the current IRP and/or with the Common European Framework for Reference?”

The C.E.F.R. is basically a system of assessing where people are in terms of their linguistic skills.  The system ranks learners from Level A1 (beginner) through A2, B1, B2, C1 and finaly C2 (advanced native speaker).  There are a set of assumptions built into the C.E.F.R. about what constitutes language skill– people must know when/where to use certain kinds of language; people must know how to manage language use (i.e. deal with miscommunication and cultural barriers, etc), etc etc– and there are detailed descriptors of what each skill level means.  In the Wiki entry linked to above, the way C.E.F.R. maps onto various Canadian and U.S. assessment systems is detailed. 

The real question for us comprehensible input teachers, however, is “should the C.E.F.R. affect our practice?”  I would say, no.  The three reasons why we should ignore the C.E.F.R. when teaching languages are a) understanding trumps everything else when we are thinking about what will actually help people manage in a foreign country; b) metalinguistic stuff— knowing what one knows; awareness of social convention, being able to describe one’s language skills, etc– has little or no effect on acquisition; c) there is no point in putting energy into anything other than formative assessment in a language classroom.

(a) The main thing we have to remember is, 99% of what matters in a foreign language classroom is how much the students learn to understand.  The more language you understand, the easier everything else (having to do with the culture(s) of where your target language is spoken) becomes.  While the C.E.F.R. stresses “communicative competencies” and goes into detail about “languages skills,” this is stuff that really matters very little in the overall picture…because these are simple and minor compared to what really matters– understanding.

If you are traveling  or working in the European country of Blablabia, some of the essential skills you need as a non-native speaker of Blablabian are recognising when you don’t understand (and asking for help), clarifying when other don’t understand you, knowing when to say/not say certain things depending on social context, etc etc.  Blablabians, as is well known, do not like it when, in mixed groups of adults and children, adults directly address children and refer to them as “you.”  Blablabian children in the presence of adults are referred to by name, or by she or he.  One does not look at a Blablabian child named JonJon at a party and say “you must put your coat on, for we are leaving soon.”  One says “JonJon must put his coat on.”

Now, here’s the question.  You are preparing your students to go and live, study and/or work in Blablabia.  What will make them best off when they get there?  Should you (a) teach lessons on Blablabian etiquette, or should you (b) teach loads of Blablabian so that, when your students get there, they understand?

I vote for (b)– language.  Etiquette and social skills can be briefly and easily explained in English; Blablabians will understand and forgive if you screw up one of their social conventions; the more Blablabian you understand, the quicker you will figure out what to say/do (or not) with/in Blablabians.

(b) I am still waiting for evidence that metalinguistic self-awareness helps acquisition.  In other words, does getting people to reflect on what they know in/about a language help them acquire it?  Merrill Swain thinks so, but, as I have argued elsewhere, linguistic self-awareness is of limited use for anything other than making a roadmap of where to go– and that only on the level of vocab.  If I know I can’t say “pogue mahoney” in Blablabian, great, this awareness may get me out looking for way to learn it.  But I still need to hear it and understand it a bunch of times to acquire it.

(c)  Suppose– in an ideal world– that you  got the kids to do “linguistic self-inventory” and “socio-cultural inventories” where they reflect on what they know in Blablabian, and about Blablabian.  Suppose– this being an ideal world– that the kids are self-aware right down to grammatical fine points.  (in the real world, they will never be this self-aware)  Johnny writes “I am still not sure how to to conjugate the verb blerfle in the future perfect subjunctive,” while Mandeep writes “I am not sure if I should use the formal pronoun if I meet a Blablabian dog that is large and threatening, or if I should just assume human supremacy and address it in the informal form.”  OK great.  Now you, the wise and self-reflective teacher, know what Mandeep and Johnny need.  Question: how is this information going to turn into meaningful classroom decisions and activities? 

Are you going to make some future perfect subjunctive drills for Johnny only?  If so, you’re probably wasting your time, cos, as noted by every researcher, you cannot “rush” or force specific grammar item acquisition. If not, you’re gonna bore the class that has alrready acquired the FPJ, and puzzle those who aren’t yet ready for it.  You going to make a lesson built around formal vs informal vocatives in Blablabian?  What about kids who don’t care?  What if Johnny and Mandeep are the only ones who have these specific issues?

This is the problem with the endless self-reflection that students are asked to do.  Even if they could do it–and they can’t, generally– the info you get from it is going to be impossible to turn into meaningful teaching decisions.  Too many moving parts.

Now suppose you do your assessment at the end of a unit and you’re figuring out where the kids are in C.E.F.R. terms.  Johnny is A2, Mandeep B1, etc.  Is this info going to provide you with meaningful useful feedback?  If you wanna slow things down to help laggard Johnny, Mandeep will be bored.  Cater to Mandeep and Johnny gets frustrated.  What if both blow it on their unit test?  Are you gonna go back and re-teach?  Do you have that kind of time?  How interesting is doing another “unit” on direct object pronouns, or whatever? 

This is where T.P.R.S. shines.  Our assessment is organic, simple and ongoing.  Weak choral response = they don’t understand = go back/add detail.  Low exit quiz marks– less than 80% of class getting less than 80%? = go back.  We don’t bore kids by going back.  We add another character so we can use the structures again but maintain some novelty.  Because we use all grammar all the time– but we limit vocab– we give the kids ongoing exposure to everything, so that when their brains are ready, they pick up the grammar.  I don’t care that Johnny doesn’t pick up pronouns till 4th year…he’ll get them eventually.

The bottom line is this: if you want to get people ready to function in another culture and language, give them as much language as you can.  They will figure out what they need to learn when they get there; they will learn via comprehensible input and not via self-assessment or grammar lessons; they are better off elsewhere if they know a ton of vocab, so that they can use that knowledge to figure out subtler things like cultural codes, etc.

If you have to assess using C.E.F.R., it’s easy:  ignore it.  Teach your kids tons of language, follow the frequency lists, have them do loads of reading, make it enjoyable and comprehensible, so that when the C.E.F.R. test comes, they’ll know loads of language.

Does Explicit Grammar Teaching “work”?

On Ben’s the other day there was a question from someone who asked does explicit grammar teaching “work?”  Now you all are probably not the geek that I am– for me a lovely Sunday is either rock climbing or reading about language acquisition– so here’s a summary of some recent reading.

This question also dovetails nicely with my daughter reflecting on her French experience in high-school.  She finished French 12 at a prestigious Vancouver mini-school– egg-heads only, s’il vous plait— with 93% and the top French student award.  And she couldn’t speak or write extemporaneously.  My younger daughter, who had been in immersion from grade 5 to 7, and who was a year ahead in classroom French, dropped French at the end of Gr11 in order to do it online, because, as she said “the only difference between a French class in September and in May is what is on the worksheets.”  Her French 11 class was a running joke among the kids: if you were away sick for a day, the answer to the question “what did we do in French yesterday?” was ALWAYS “worksheets.”  (She also got 95% in French 11) You know there is a problem when the the top kids can’t write or speak and when they would rather get through French online than in a class.  Common denominator:  these keen, bright students spent four years in French doing, in their words, “grammar worksheets and stupid projects.”  The exception was their Grade Nine French teacher, Polly Dobie, whose unorthodox methods and self-restraint surrounding the Grammar Grind produced, in my oldest’s words, the ability to “feel what sounds right cos she spoke it a lot in class.”

OK so back to the research.  The questions “does explicitly teaching grammar work?” and “which method of explicit grammar instruction– inductive or deductive– works better?” have been looked at.  The results are thus

Grammar instruction is effective…but only if you want to teach people to consciously manipulate linguistic items.  If so, you are better off teaching them explicitly how to do it. Research also shows that, generally, explicit (deductive– learn rule then apply) works better than inductive (see examples then figure out rule from that). Research also shows that these gains last.  Woo-hoo!  Let’s teach grammar!

OK.  But before we go any further, and TPRSers give up the ghost, let’s look at what “works” means.  Most grammar research studies basically look at teaching people specific rules about a tiny microset of vocab and grammar.  For “works,” they mean that when asked to “do stuff” with this microset, like say sentences, choose options to put in the blank, decide if something is right or wrong, etc.  Almost always, they do statistically significantly better than a control group (who get no “treatment”).

I have read one study (I cannot find re– Eric?  help!) where researchers taught English speakers how to use the Spanish “gustar” (“to be pleasing”) and they found that, yes, teaching them rules and having them practice and then testing them “worked better” than either not teaching them anything (other than what the Spanish reading/listening passages meant) or asking them to figure the rules out from just hearing input.  Basically, every grammar study ever done– even new-wave ones like VanPatten et al‘s processing instruction ones– will show the same thing.  Work on Item ___, and people get better at item ___.

So far so good for the grammarians.  BUT…and it’s a big but…and as Peter Croft says, “nobody likes having a big but”:

The catch? They only looked at one, very specific, very simple, very structured thing to do: use “gustar.” Now if we are teaching people for any length of time outside of a 5-hour Uni study, and we are going to include lots of systematic grammar stuff, we run into a bunch of problems:

A) boredom. Anyone old enough to remember the ¡Díme! Spanish texts knows what I mean: grammar drills blow.  They also don’t work (as VanPatten (2013) notes).

B) the “number of rules” problem. There are a theoretically infinite # of rules in a language (no known language other than computer ones or Esperanto have all the rules mapped out). So if you wanted to practice all the rules it would take forever.

C) the opportunity-cost problem. If all– or some– of your energy goes into grammar drills, you are losing out on other stuff which has demonstrably proven positive effects on acquisition (basically, C.I.).  A typical study only looks at gains re: one rule/item.  A better design would compare acquisition of ____ (via grammar instruction and practice) with acquisition of other stuff at the same time (via comprehensible input) and of course including a control group.

Did increases in ______ acquisition result in lesser gains elsewhere?  If we hammer away at teaching, say, gustar to English speakers, and we thereby lose out on teaching (and therefore acquiring, say, conocer), we are robbing Peter to pay Paul.

D) the question of causes of gains. In a typical study, people get both grammar instruction AND comprehensible input. The instruction is about grammar manipulation but they also know what all the words mean.  So…do they get better at ______ because of grammar instruction and practice? Or is the grammar instruction icing on the C.I. cake? This is a consistent problem with studies that look at grammar instruction’s efficacy. The fallacy here is post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”). In other words, a classic correlation vs causation problem.

(The interesting question raised here is whether or not you could ever really assess the effect of grammar instruction on authentic language without the inevitable boost that comprehensible input gives…since all language is meaningful, and it is absurd to teach people to manipulate language that is not meaningful, how do you separate the effects of C.I. from those of grammar instruction?)

The question, as always, is not “does X work?”, but “how well does X work in comparison with Y?”   To put it another way, “even if X works well, is X worth doing?”  Blaine Ray puts it another way: “it’s not what you get, but what you could get, that matters.”

There is also a REALLY good paper on Susan Gross’ site about grammar acquisition.  This paper shows that it doesn’t really matter what order you teach grammar, because people will not acquire _____ until they are ready for it. This being the case, explicit grammar instruction– other than TPRS-style “pop-ups”– is a waste of time.

Grammar instruction also fails because people– by definition– have either acquired, or not acquired, the grammar rule in question.  If they have, instruction is redundant.  If they havn’t, it’s because they aren’t ready to acquire it, and so, by definition, they will be unable to acquire– i.e. produce– it (although they will be able to understand it).  Grammar instruction is like the worksheets that communicative or grammar teachers love:  if you get the material, you don’t need them; if you don’t get the material, they won’t help you.

Krashen has said of grammar instruction that “I’m not opposed and it doesn’t hurt […]  But it has extremely limited effectiveness compared to comprehensible input and there are severe contraints on how interesting it can be.”

VanPatten has noted that there are so many processes going on during language acquisition– from many kinds of decoding and processing, to output issues, to context and pragmatics questions– that it is functionally impossible to isolate any one aspect of acquisition (grammar…and anything else).

Essentially, it comes down to this: while explicit grammar instruction can teach people to do really small, specific things better, it fails at the real job of language teaching: to enable people to understand and then use real spoken and written language in all its subtle complexity, in real time.  If you want to do that, the research is clear: provide loads of compelling, comprehensible input in oral and written form.

In what order should we teach grammar or vocab?

I have a Mexican tenant who studied 8 years of English and who is now doing his business internship in Vancouver. He can say things like “If I had known about the party I would have gone,” but he regularly says “My friend like running.” Now, for language teachers, this seems odd: the simple rule “add -s to verbs in singular 3rd person” seems a lot easier than “use past imperfect tense (and its conjugation rules) before a conditional past tense (with other conjugation rules) statement.” You’d think that he’d acquire the simple rule before the complex one.

This raises the interesting question in what order should we teach grammar and vocab?

The answer, it seems, is…in no particular order. How can this be? Well, as Susan Gross argues in this paper, this has to do with the “natural order of acquisition” of language items (specifically grammar). Basically, what happens is, kids are exposed to natural language from day one (yes, it is somewhat modified into “babytalk” form, a.k.a. caretaker speech, to make it more comprehensible), which includes all grammatical features e.g. simple present tense, past subjunctive, adjective agreement (or whatever rules there are in whatever language kids are hearing). Yet kids pick up elements of that grammar in a very specific order.

In English, we can broadly say things like

— 3rd-person -s endings are acquired late

— kids overuse new gramamr rules (e.g. when they figure out that -ed is added to make past tense, they say “I goed there.”)

— kids pick up meaning first, then variations on meaning later. E.g. kids will say “giraffe walk” and later “the giraffe walk” and then “the giraffe walks.”

— kids go through a predictable set of “mistakes”– in a set order–when learning negation. E.g. they will say “I not goed there” before they learn to say “I didn’t go there.”

So the thing seems to be, kids make the same “mistakes” in the same order despite quality input. The conclusion that Krashen, Terrell and others have drawn is that, basically, the order of acquisition (of gramamr rules) is fixed. Vocab varies– kids will pick up whatever they hear depending on who talks, where, etc etc– but grammar acquisition is fairly predictable.

The question that then arises is, is there an order in which second-language teachers should present grammar?

I don’t think so. Why?

a) any learners in a group will vary on where they are along the acquisition order. If Juan has acquired the -s rule, Josefina maybe hasn’t. If the teacher is focused on teaching Pepa, Juan is bored, and vice versa. (in truth, both will be bored if the lesson is “about” a grammar point).

b) you cannot get people to acquire things they are not ready for. You can practice till you are blue in the face, but until the brain is ready, adjective agreement– or whatever– will not be picked up. Sure, some kids might dutifully memorise and practice…and they’ll forget a week after the test, which is why your French 11s STILL cannot add those –s to their plural adjectives even though they got As on all their tests.

It follows from (a) and (b) that what you should provide is interesting comprehensible input (which can be repeated) which contains all vocab/grammar necessary to make that input comprehensible, natural etc. If people understand, they are picking the language up slowly, and when their brains are ready, they will acquire ____ grammatical feature. Krashen somewhere calls this “comprehensible input of maximum richness.”

This brings us back to the textbook problem. Grammar is organised (in textbooks) from simplest to more complex…according to linguists and teachers. However, this organisation rarely, if ever, follows anything like the natural order. And even if it did, we would run into the problem of boring some students, and asking others to do things their brains aren’t ready for.

There are other problems with texts (and their lists of rules) also. The number of grammar rules in any language is basically infinite (why can I say I like to run but not I enjoy to run?) so how could you ever “teach” them? Also, grammar is boring, bla bla bla.

Anyway, if it’s interesting, repeatable and 100% comprehensible, your students are learning. So stop worrying about pronoun position and start thinking about why Johnny’s blue girlfriend wants to be yellow!

Some random T.P.R.S. thoughts

Today on Twitter a #langchat contributor said “my kids like culture but not grammar.  How do I get them interested?

Dude…by teaching something interesting, as Blaine Ray said.  Or, as Stephen Krashen writes, the relative clause [or any other kind of grammar] is not very compelling.

The great Canadian teacher-trainer Faye Brownlie said once, “Okay, so you went through the superlative and the comparative in class today. Great. Whoop-de-doo.  Did you bring anyone else with you?” That pretty much nails it.  You, Mister or Misses Teacher, know– and have shown that you know– the _____.  Why should anyone else care?  Cos they’re in school, there’s a test, and they have to?  BAD reasoning.  How about, “because the girl who was hungry and was looking for food finally decided to go to _____ where there was the world’s biggest ____ ready to eat!”  Stories are just inherently interesting.

Story plus parallel story example.  I get asked sometimes “how do I do a parallel story?” and I have found it confusing so this is what I did today.

I asked this story from Bryan Kandel.  Structures: knew/did not know (sabía), put on (se puso), the most ____ in the world/more ___ than (el más ___/ más ___ que), truth, lie 

There was a boy named John  He the handsomest man in the world  and the dumbest man in the world..  There was a  girl named Suzie.  She was the most beautiful and brunette and smartest girl in the world.  Suzie saw John and liked him.  John did not like Suzie.

“I hate brunettes and like blonde women” and Suzie was sad.

Suzie put on a blonde wig and John liked her.  It was a lie.  They were together 30 years.  John did not know the truth.  One day the wig fell off.  John said “you told me a lie!” and Suzie said “yes I told you a lie” and John killed Suzie with a wine bottle.  Then John saw Kim Kardashian and liked her.  Kim Kardashian was the most beautiful woman in the world now.  But oh no!  She was friends with Suzie!  She did not like John so she killed John with a wine bottle.

As I asked this (and we developed zillions of extra details) I wrote each verb on the board in Spanish in order that we used it.  At the end, I was able to ask t/f questions and answer with a word questions, pointing to the verbs.

The next day, we did Bryan’s extended reading.

The day after, I improvised a story about a kid in the class:  Hamid was artistic and smart and liked to draw.  He lived with nuns in a gas station.  He was the most artistic guy in the world.  He had 21 girlfriends.  He was more artistic than Picasso.  One day Kim Kardashian saw him and liked him.  She put on 27 t-shirts and a bikini.  She told him a lie.  She said “I know how to draw ” and showed Hamid a drawing.  But Hamid was smart and knew it was a lie.  He knew the truth.  He said “I know the truth.  You told me a lie” and Kim Kardashian got mad.  They hit each other with wine bottles and Kim Kardashian ran away.

Today I reviewed both asked stories.  So this is my first attempt at parallel characters.  Basically, same structures and plot, but diff characters, locations and slightly different problems.  Blaine does these simultaneously– first girl, 2nd girl, etc– but I can’t keep track so I’ll do them one by one but vary the story more.  The writing-on-board is crucial:  kids can see the verbs, and I can keep track of story, and I can re-ask, point etc.

How should I teach boring stuff, like numbers, weather and pronouns?

At a workshop, somebody asked me how T.P.R.S. deals with boring stuff.  Some things are essential, but boring.

  • Hellos and goodbyes
  • weather
  • time
  • numbers
  • days, dates & months
  • the alphabet
  • pronouns
  • colours
  • location words
  • Connectors, like “she said” and “then” and “afterward”
  • verbs such as “there is/are,” “to go,” etc

YAWN.  Some textbooks– e.g. Avancemos– do entire units on this stuff.  DOUBLE YAWN.  I used to make games to teach this stuff TRIPLE YAWN I AM FALLING ASLEEP!  Boring stuff is like a nice salsa: a bit makes everything better; an entire jar at once will turn you off Mexican food forever.

Today’s question: How do we teach boring stuff without boring students?

a) Days of the week, months, numbers 1-31.  Every day, you write the date on the board in TL.  Under the date, write how to say the date in TL.  E.g. hoy es lunes, el 4 (cuatro) de mayo.

At the start of class, circle the date for a bit.  Clase.  ¿Es el lunes?  Si, es el lunes.  ¿Es el martes? No, no es el martes; es el lunes. ¿Es el lunes o el martes?  Es el lunes.  Clase. ¿Es el cuatro o el cinco de mayo?  Si, clase, es el cuatro.

If you don’t know what “circling” is, it’s easy.  Make a statement, then ask about it.  Ask a question with a yes answer, then with a no answer, then an either/or answer.  For every question, restate the positive.  Don’t keep the same question order for circling.

This should, over 5 months, help the kids acquire #s 1-30 and days of the week.  You literally need 30 seconds per class.  After awhile, the kids will start saying them.

b) Colours and #s greater than 30.  Throw one colour– and one number the kids don’t know– into every story you do.  The boy doesn’t want a cat; he wants a blue cat.  No, no; he wants 54 blue cats.  You can do the same for hellos and goodbyes— throw one or two into every story.

c) Weather.  I start the year with one weather expression on board for the weather that day and circle that.  If the weather is different the next day, I write that on board and circle it for a minute.  30-40 seconds of weather circling every day = weather done by end of year.  This eventually extends into PQA.  Once the kids know a few expressions, you can then feel class energy and start circling something like “When it’s raining, Suzie dances in the street!”  You can also add weather as background in stories– “when Suzie went dancing, it was raining” (bonus: imparfait/imperfecto input!).

If the weather where you are never changes, ask “what’s the weather like in ____?” and circle that for a bit.

d) Also works for location words: in most TPRS stories the characters move somewhere.  So when you say “there was a boy in Spuzzum, B.C.” and then you ask “where in Spuzzum was the boy?” (and kids make suggestions) you can add something like “the boy was in the purple Ferrari behind his Spanish teacher’s house.”

e) Time is easy to deal with.  I just randomly once/class point to the clock and say “Clase, son las diez y veinte” or whatever, then translate.  I circle that.  Clase, ¿son las diez y veinte or son las diez y quince?  Si, clase, son las diez y veinte.  If I said “son las nueve y diez, what would that mean?”  I also throw time into each story once– great chance to toss in the imperfecto/imparfait— and briefly circle.

f) For connecting words— like asks, answers, then, after, before, etc– just translate.  The kids will see these so often during the year that they will pick them up.  Every story has “she said” and “then he answered,” etc, in it.

g) for boring and high-frequency verbs, throw them into every story, use them over and over, but don’t circle them obsessively. Verbs like to like, have, be, want, go, come and need are going to be in every story, basically.  The first time you use one, circle it by adding interesting student-suggested detail.  (“Class, was there a boy or a blue turtle?  That’s right, there was a boy….”). After that, use the verbs (in various person and tense forms) but don’t circle them, and do comprehension checks.

Students will see/hear the “boring” verbs a zillion times during the year. They will get the reps, so keep things interesting. 

Blaine Ray does this in his Look, I Can Talk books and it’s simply brilliant: the boring stuff is simple easy background.  If you get rid of the idea that students must learn all “things in a category” at the same time (which they don’t, and can’t, and it’s boring and silly, and even if they do learn it, they forget), you’re set.

H) The alphabet.  Oh God what is more boring? Nothing.  Also note that the only place the alphabet is regularly used is the classroom. It is low frequency and therefore not important. WASTE NO TIME ON “ALPHABET ACTIVITIES,” PEOPLE 😏. Label your parallel characters with letters (chica jota = “Girl J”) and just write and point during quizzes (e.g. label your exit quiz questions n,o,p,q,r, point and say). Also note that if you do alphabet (or number) “games” or songs with your kids, they are probably learning the song a whole lot better than the numbers and letters.

i) Pronouns.  Put them into the background of stories.  You are narrating el chico quería a la chica.  La quería muchíisimo (the boy liked the girl.  He liked her a lot).  You say “la means her” and then you check to make sure they understand the sentence.  Then, you use that (and other pronouns) for the rest of the year.  Because they are of low communicative value, pronouns are late-acquired, so don’t stress if your kids don’t start using them right away.  Whatever you do, do not make a “unit” around pronouns, and do not expect to teach your kids a song or rap about pronouns and expect them to pick them up.

If you’re teaching with a text, just locate all the boring stuff for the year and spread a nice thin layer throughout your year rather than forcing your students to swallow the whole Boring Jar in one tedious go.  The greetings unit (eg Avancemos 1 Ch1)?   Use one new greeting and goodbye per story.

One final note on circling: do not beat boring stuff to death (i.e. don’t let boring stuff take over your story).  Do NOT spend 3 minutes per class on the weather, or circle the time in a story for 5 minutes.  A few reps each day over the year adds up to the same thing as 60-100 reps in one story.  If they know that hace buen tiempo means “it’s nice weather outside,” it doesn’t matter if you repeat it eighty times in one day, or eighty times in one year.  However, if you do it eighty times in one story, some kids will tune out…and your boring stuff will, sadly, have become boring.

There is also research regarding memory which states that “distributed” practice beats “massed” practice for retention. If we need, say, 100 repetitions of hearing something to remember it, we have (broadly speaking) two options: repeat it 100 times in one class (massed practice), or repeat it four times per class for twenty-five classes (distributed practice).  It turns out that for learning sports skills and music, distributed practice wins hands-down.  However, I havn’t seen S.L.A.-specific research on this topic, so caveat magister.


Which words should we teach?

Nathaneil recently corrected my Avancemos word count (thanks!) and this raised the question, which words should we be teaching in a foreign-language classroom?  As I’ve said before, we should be aiming at teaching appr.250 words/year, and over four years 1,000 words.

There are a couple of answers to this question.

a)  According to Stephen Krashen, we should be teaching whatever interests the students.  Input that is comprehensible, compelling (and can be repeated zillions oftimes) is the holy grail of foreign language teaching.

b)  We should be teaching the most-frequently-used words in our target language.

Paul Nation (2006) has compiled a Spanish frequency list.  You can see onlne versions for Spanish, French and other languages here.  Here’s some info that totally shocked me.

1.  85% of all the words spoken in any language are about 1,000 words.  I.e., if you looked at speech– from people, films, radio, etc– in any language, 85% of the words used would be the same 1,000 words.   The other 15% of words are used much less frequently.

2.  In Spanish, the 100 most-used words include verbs in four tenses.  In the top 200 most-used words, there are verbs in FIVE verb tenses plus the subjunctive mood.

3.  In Spanish, the only numbers in the top 100 are one and two, and the only greeting/goodbye is “hello.”  “Goodbye” is at # 315!

4. Top 200 words include no colours, weather expressions, days of the week, food items, months or sports.

Here are some word-frequency rankings from Davies’ A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish (2006). Words are translated to English.  The numbers in brackets indicate the rank of how often the word is used.  The higher the #, the less frequently the word is used.

  • Animals: (780) horse, (4,945) elephant
  • Body: (150) hand, (2,407) ear
  • Clothing: (1,710) suit, (4,427) t-shirt
  • Colors: (250) white, (8225) orange
  • Days: (1,121) Sunday, (3490) Tuesday
  • Family: (166) son, (5,071) niece
  • Food: (787) meat, (7602) carrot
  • Months: (1,244) August, (2,574) September
  • Sports: (2,513) soccer, (28,388) hockey
  • Weather: (989) heat, (5493) breeze

So…what should we teach?  The evidence is pretty clear:  frequently-used vocab.

How weird are textbooks?  Well, you’ll spend a few days (as a beginner) learning hellos and goodbyes.  You’ll almost certainly spend some time on numbers, weather, clothing, family etc units..even though none of these are in the top 200!  Avancemos spends Unit 1 on time, numbers, hellos and goodbyes, and introductions.  OK, ok.  We do need to know these…but, seriously, how boring is it to spend 2-3 days on this.  “Hello” is not interesting.  “Hello, my name is Sharkeisha, and I want to buy 39 pitbulls for my birthday” is interesting, especially when it’s part of a story.  And when it’s part of a story, we focus on the meaning– who is Sharkeisha? will she get her pitbulls? will her party be fun?– and we effortlessly pick up “hello” (once we know what it means) as part of background to a story.

I remember when I was a traditional, “communicative” teacher and I dutifully made games and “activities” to teach these things.  I had to, because they are little-used and boring.  Now, with T.P.R.S., I just throw them randomly into stories as background, and I can focus kids on the things we most use, and keep them interested by using stories with real chaarcters and problems (and humor).

Why do T.P.R.S. teachers limit vocabulary?

The other day I saw a French resource from Madame Fifi publications.  Resource #61 from “French Chat Boosters” called “Je me brosse les dents.”  This is a vocab package all about reflexive verbs and daily routines (I get up, I wash, I sit down for breakfast, etc).  My guess is there’s about 450 words and expressions on this sheet.  The teacher using it told me that these are add-ons the kids can use to make more detail about their daily routine writing, conversations, etc.  All the verbs etc are given in present tense first person.

T.P.R.S. teachers look at stuff like this and say “no way, José!” because in TPRS we shelter (limit) vocab but not grammar.  Today’s question:  why do T.P.R.S. teachers limit vocabulary?

First, we know that the more we hear (or read) something we understand, the more likely we are to first remember what it means and then to say it.  It follows from this that if we really want to learn a vocab item– and since we have limited time in a classroom to deliver the target language– we want to provide fewer vocab items with more repetitions.  The more stuff, the less time per thing; the fewer things, the more time (per thing).

Second, we know that the brain processes about 400,000,000,000 of info per second, but we are only consciously aware of about 2,000 of those.  In other words, most mental processing is subconscious.  If this is the case, we need to address most teaching to the subconscious.  But since we can only access the subconscious via the conscious– vocab must initially pass through the “gateway” of the conscious mind (on the board, written, translated, etc)– we have to limit what goes in.  Too much “input” will overwhelm the conscious processing part of the brain, and mean that less “stuff” will get into the long-term, subconscious memory and processing.

Third, there is the frequency problem.  85% of all vocab– in any language– is 1,000 words.  Basic fluency in any language is about 700 words.  We are much better off just teaching the basics– and getting kids fluent– than we are “presenting” them with loads and loads of vocab.  My Avancemos text, for example– which “covers” Level 1 and 2 Spanish– has about 1,800 words in it.  Avancemos II (Level 3 and 4) has another about 2,000.  Why bother?  Who cares if Johnny doesn’t learn the words for “he washes his face” and “vacuum cleaner”?  Johnny sure won’t when he gets to Argentina.

Those who object that “well kids will see a lot more vocab than they will acquire, so we must “cover” more vocab” are half right.  But it’s a six-of-one vs half-a-dozen-of-the-other problem.  Sure, you could get people to recognise more vocab…but then they will have less to say because they have spent less time on the vocab they do have.  And would they recognise more vocab?  Maybe…but the less time spent on each item, the less likely people are to remember it.

Fourth, there is the interest problem.  Most traditional, communicative teaching has “themes” in “units.”  Food, shopping, daily routine, sports etc, each with its attendant grammar rules.  The problem is boredom.  How do you make discussion of one subject, in one verb tense/mood etc, interesting for 3 weeks at a time?  When was the last time you spent 10 hours discussing, say, sports, using only the passé composée and direct object pronouns?  It appears that this would become boring…and it does…so texts and teachers introduce a ton of vocab to make it more interesting.  If we have 30 sports to discuss, that’s better than 5.  But the problem is, what do you do with all this vocab?  The answer, sadly, is often just more of the same.

T.P.R.S. gets around the interest problem by doing everything together and by limiting thematic vocab.  Sure, we can ask a “food themed” story– I do– but I’ll only introduce say five high-frequency items and maybe one verb (pedir, to order/ask for).  Plus, the story will have funny (I hope) details– mine has the protagonists being served fried spiders etc by Ryan Gosling– and suspense.  Will Rochelle and Chelsea find food?  Will server Channing Tatum get their order right?  Plus, when I am done, I can always throw some food vocab into every subsequent story, the way I can throw whatever I want– as long as its comprehensible– into every story.  Next story I do, my characters will stop in at Ihop and order some fries on their way to ___ .

Which of the following is more interesting?

(a) giving kids a list of vocab, having them ask each other “do you ____?”, having them watch a video where people say/do the vocab, giving worksheets, etc, now discuss ____ and then write about ____ .  Oh and there’s a “vocab quiz to make you study and learn vocab” and a unit test at the end.  If this is a typical communicative unit, it iwll have 60 new words.

(b) asking a story where Snoop Dogg and 2-Chainz go out to eat tacos and their server is Justin Bieber, but he keeps screwing up the order because your student, Susie (who is in love with Justin Bieber) keeps distracting Justin.  The extended/embedded readings use the same vocab…but this time it’s Johnny dining at A&W and Lady Gaga is the countergirl who serves burned dinosaur burgers…BTW this story can be asked using say 8 new words and 25 the kids already know.

Which is more interesting for the kids to listen to, and act in?  Which is more likely to be remembered and acquired?  Which is lower stress?

We limit vocab– but not grammar– to make sure people really acquire the essentials.  After four years of good T.P.R.S., kids should have 1,000 or so words acquired…and be ready for France, Mexico, China, Germany, etc.

Do learners who like output do better than their shyer counterparts?

I was at the British Columbia Language Co-ordinators’ Association annual conference on Friday, and attended a second-languages-methods session presided over by Meike Wernicke and Sandra Zappa of U.B.C.

One of the teachers, John, said that “in my experience, the kids who speak more in class do much better on everything  from speaking to listening to writing.”  He then argued for the importance of having lots of output from L2 learners.  I of course had some questions for him.

First, the simple fact that talkers = better L2 students in and of itself doesn’t prove anything.  This is simple correlation and mistakes correlation for causation.  The new moon rises in early evening, when the sun has gone down.  Does that mean the sun’s descent causes the moon to rise?  The term for this fallacy is post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).

Second, if there is a strong correlation, as John seems to think, we must look for a third factor (or more factors) that account for this.  Here are my ideas.

a) Krashen– and lots of other people– have researched the “affective filter” (i.e. whether L2 learners are happy, comfortable, secure etc in their learning environment).  The research from linguistics, sports, math and pretty much everywhere is clear: people who are happy, comfortable and secure (they have a “lowered affective filter”) acquire/learn much more _______ than people who are insecure, scared, uncomfortable etc.  The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that as stress increases (beyond a basic level of “necessary” stress), learning decreases.  There’s a good basic summary here.

In the Army, for recuits, drills with fake ammo, movement only, noise etc occur before people are put into live-ammo drills or combat.  You show them the skills, then, once they are wired in, you can expose them to stress.

In rock climbing, we put people on topropes– zero chance of falls of more than a foot– before we send them up to lead-climb routes (potential for death).  You learn movement, rope handling, gear placement etc, and THEN you do the scary stuff.

In music, we learn music with a teacher, at home, with sheet music or recordings…and much later we play for friends, then parties, then recitals or whatever.

In the US and Canada, one of the non-legal causes for anti-bullying and anti-homophobia initiatives is that schoolchildren under stress from classmates, insensitive teachers, etc, simply do not learn as well as their happier, more secure peers.

Krashen’s expression is that in order to acquire L2, people first need compelling comprehensible input, and that, in addition, they must be “somehow open to input.”

What might be happening in Jesse’s experience is that these “extrovert” kids have their affective filters lowered in class, and so they are “soaking up” more language than their shyer counterparts.  That they are  willing to talk more than others indicates to me that they are happy, secure, etc,  and this positive state will allow them to “receive” more language. 

In other words, they talk because they have acquired (because they are “open to input”), rather than acquiring because they have talked.


b) These outgoing, happy kids are also by definition more engaged with their peers and teacher, and so, in addition to being “open to input,” they will simple get more input, hence greater acquisition.  They will interact more, hear more, and probably be more engaged with homework that involves the target language.

So…do they acquire because they talk, or do they acquire because of other factors?

I must say that I also find the outgoing kids often do better than their shyer conterparts, but I don’t attribute their skill to talking.  Every year I have awesome kids who HATE talking in class.  Getting Hamid, my top second-year student, to talk in class is like pulling teeth.  But he writes beautifully, and in one-on-one conversation, or during stories, he shines.

I could be totally wrong so feel free to argue.  chris(dot)stolz(att)gmail(dot)com