At a workshop, somebody asked me how C.I. language teaching deals with boring stuff. Some things are essential, but boring.
- hellos and goodbyes
- days, dates & months
- the alphabet
- parts of speech (eg articles, accents etc)
- location words
- por and para in Spanish, or etre/avoir passe-composé verbs in French
- Connectors, like “she said” and “then” and “afterward”
- verbs such as “there is/are,” “to go,” etc
- Capitals and countries (Spanish teachers I’m looking at you 😉)
- reflexive verbs
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.
As Bill VanPatten says, “you don’t want a textbook with kids. That’s not what they need. And you don’t want to teach them traditional vocabulary. You don’t want to sit around and teach colors: that’s boring. And you don’t want to sit around and teach numbers: that’s dumb. But they can learn a lot of language through stories.”
Today’s question: How do we teach boring stuff without boring our 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 stories the characters are and/or 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 muchísimo (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.
J) Greetings/goodbyes: use a different one in each story. They’ll have them by June.
K) Parts of speech. Things like articles, reflexive pronouns etc are omnipresent. I just use them and clarify meaning and kids acquire them.
L) Pronunciation. Aside from some very specific “move your mouth like this” demos– eg making the tu sound in French or the sh of Mandarin– there is no need to teach or practice pronunciation if you are providing an ocean of aural input. Kids will pick up something like the accent they hear. And if they don’t, no biggie: even if your kids sound like the proverbial American tourist (“hoe-la! May lamo George! Yo queero una serveza!”) or, worse, like me (ja I am hafink a Cherman accent venn I am speakink Shpanish ja) people will still understand them.
M) Capitals and countries are the Spanish teacher’s way of torturing kids with knowledge that matters only to, well, Spanish teachers and geography nerds. Kids do not need to know these so forget the map-and-labeling projects, and just use one capital and one country per story. They’ll acquire them over time.
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.
N) Reflexive verbs. Just because these all use reflexive pronoun + verb and cos many involve daily routine (bathed, dressed etc), the text says hey let’s have a daily routine unit! But how boring is it to say “I got up. John washed his face. Dave sat down for breakfast”? PRETTY BORING
With reflexives, just use them in every story. If it was hot, why, se duchó la chica. If we are talking about what we did yesterday, pués me cepillé los dientes pero no con pasta de dientes…con vino 🤣🤣. Morning routine stuff is fun in most stories as a delayer/problem maker. Why was Johnny late? DUH because he washed his face with olive oil DUH. There are fun vids to Movietalk. Eg Mr Bean getting up late.
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.