Month: May 2014

Why do T.P.R.S. teachers minimize explicit grammar instruction?

I was coaching TPRS to a couple of French teachers at a local high school yesterday and they were telling me about their department-mandated French exam, which includes 1/3 specific grammar questions (e.g. “which is the right form of conjugating avoir in the 3rd person pluperfect” bla bla).  What a load of B.S. but ANYWAY one of them asked me, post me-asking-a-story, why do TPRS teachers minimize grammar instruction?

Well, first, we do teach grammar.  We do our pop-ups– “grammar commercials”– and we explain whatever the kids want to know.

More importantly, however, we mimize grammar teaching because it has very little real return.  If you want to geek out and read How Languages Are Learned (Lightbrown & Spada), or look at Ortega and Lourde (2000) you can wade through the details.

Basically, it’s like this:  There are an unknown– but enormous– number of rules for grammar in any language.  Some are simple (e.g. in English you cannot say I enjoy to run, because– for whatever reason– enjoy does not take an infinitive, but rather a noun, gerund etc).  Some are complex (e.g. I am a handsome employed professional sounds OK; I am an employed handsome professional does not), and not even me, ueber-language-geek, can explain why.  But there are so many that if we spent specific time teaching–as in, demonstrating, modeling, explaining, practicing etc– them, we could spend all our time on them.

We know from forty years of research– and there is no disagreement in the scholarly literature about this– that compelling comrehensible input drives acquisition more than anything else.   While almost everyone wants some explanation of why “___ has to happen with ___”–and the research supports some explicit grammar instruction– the question remains, how much grammar teaching is enough?

I’ll give you a simple example:  In German, articles change depending on whether they are masculine, feminine or neuter, singular or plural…and…whether they are with a noun that’s the subject, direct object, indirect object or possessive of the sentence.  You say “Ein Mann hat eine Frau” (a man has a wife), but “Die Frau hat einen Mann.”   That ein changes to einen because Mann in the second sentence is the direct singular masculine object.


So how do you learn inflection?  You have two options:

a) You do what my high-school teacher, Frau Hedda Thatcher, made us do: memorise a massive table of the endings.  “Vat iss se datif plural off Hund?”  she would ask. “Vat is se plural nominatif masculine form of the woman auf Deutsch?” 

b) You do what kids do, which is get input– in students’ case, with restricted vocab– and you let your brain figure it out.  If you hear “Der Hund ist gross”  (the dog is big) and then “Der Mann hat den Hund,” (the man has the dog) your brain is getting a bit of a pattern– der becomes den with the word Hund after the verb “has.”  You don’t know inflection– you can’t explain it, and you will probably make mistakes using der in sentences– but it’s a start.

You will eventually hear something like “Der Mann geht mit dem Hund” (The man walks with the dog) and your brain (unconsciously) will note that “with mit, the word der becomes dem.”

Now, once…whatever.  A couple of hundred times?  Your brain will– for reasons you won’t be able to articulate or even be aware of– pick the rule up.  German kids do it, and so do visitors who study German and hear lots of comprehensible input.  Krashen managed it and his German is pretty good.  Blaine Ray asks a German story where he says “Das Hotel war in Vancouver,” and then “Das Maedchen war in dem Hotel.”  Here, Blaine changes das to dem.

Now here’s what’s interesting.  In order to figure the rule out, your brain also has to figure out noun gender.  But– and here is the kicker– there is no way to tell what gender a German noun is.  There are a few rules– e.g.-ung nouns are feminine– but mostly it’s totally ambiguous.  So how does the brain do it?

Well, basically, it cross-correlates a zillion data points.  If X in position Y has -en added, then gender likely Z.  If X in position Y has -em added, gender likely A.  Store hypothesis; apply next time data gets input to test validity; if confirmed, rule is more likely true, etc.  The research makes this very clear: language learners, in learning a new language, make many rule-generalisation (and other) mistakes which are not influenced by their native language.  The brain, in other words, has its own built-in sorting and predicting “software” which kicks in. (Yes, learners do also make native-tongue-influenced mistakes, but surprisingly few).  You can read Bill VanPatten’s simplified description of language acquisition here.

It’s a lot like solving Sudoku.  Anyone who does Sudoku knows that every puzzle has an “anchor point:” once you start writing down possibilities in each square, you will find one totally clear, one-option-only blank square, and once you have this, you can start cross-solving.

You solve Sudoku by going through the puzzle and, for each blank square, you write in (in pencil) all the possibilities for that square.  You will at some point– in even the hardest puzzle– come across an “anchor point,” that is, a blank square where there is only one possible answer.  When you find the anchor point, other possibilities start eliminating themselves.  If there is an 8 here, that means there cannot be a 3 there, etc etc.  This BTW is why Sudoku– like studying grammar– is boring.  There is no real thinking, just a mechanical process of elimination.

With a bit of clarity regarding a few simple vocab items– and they don’t even have to be explained– and a ton of structured input, the brain will sort things out.  It will generate and test rule hypotheses, discard some, acquire others, etc.  It will notice something like “OK, der Hund goes at start of sentence, den Hund after hat.  So der becomes den,  and der goes with Hund.  As loads more data comes in, the brain will check the new input against its hypotheses about what goes where, and confirm or discard.  If the brain then hears Der Mann hat den Kaffee getrunken (the man drank the coffee), it gets a cofirmation about its rule hypothesis, and this gets archived.

Eventually it will calculate the patterns for what goes where, and simply apply them.  Now, because we don’t have 4,500 hours like German kids do to listen to Mutti and Vatti, we have to slow down, simplify our vocab, and be more repetitious.  But we let students’ brains do basically what kid brains do.

The beauty of it is is that, while it takes forever to explain these rules, and to practice them (which is boring), we don’t need to!  (When my classmates finished high-school German– and most of them dropped it after Grade 11, because it was tedious and stupid and not necessary for University admission– they could neither speak nor write extemporaneously.  But man, could they ever decline articles and explain pronoun order.)

The reason TPRS teachers don’t over-explain (or make students consciously practice grammar rules) is that there are so many, and they are sooooo complex, that the practicing would take forever.  Instead, we provide comprehensible input, lots of reps, answers to grammar questions, and we let the brain’s (literally) trillions of wired-to-acquire neural connections do their work.

The research supports this.  While grammar teaching does “work” in the sense that people can learn to consciously remember (and apply, and recognise right/wrong uses of grammar rules), the opportunity cost is super high.  Time spent practicing grammar = time not spent getting comprehensible input.  Yes, you get “returns” on the grammar-teaching investment, but these are tiny compared to the returns on interesting comprehensible input.  To make best use of class time, C.I. is the ticket.

Basically, comprehensible input is two birds for one stone:  you are getting your grammar instruction “smuggled in,” so to speak, while students are focusing on the fun stuff– like what happens to the character who wants three boyfriends but is offered seven (and must choose!), what language the horse speaks, etc.

Bad Language Program Organisation

After I wrote about bad language teaching ideas– the best ways to suck, most of which I have personally tried– I thought I’d write about the best bad ways to run a languages program. So this week’s question– what is a really bad way to organise a languages program?

The answer is simple: do what textbooks, and many U.S. districts already do, which is, make lists of vocabulary and grammar concepts by grade. Here’s an example. Greg S. just won Ben Slavic’s “Teacher of the Month” award. Awesome and congrats, Greg! Greg wrote a pretty good entry on Ben’s and I am gonna share two parts of it here. Greg writes:

“[I had] a phone interview I had last week with a district WL supervisor for a middle school French position. The woman told me that students are expected to leave the middle school’s language programs able to conjugate verbs in at least passé composé, present, and near future. Then she asked if I feel confident in making that happen.”

Holy crap, that is an AMAZINGLY BAD way to organise a languages curriculum. How is this stupid? Let me count the ways…

a) We know there is an order of acquisition for everything grammatical, and we also know that you cannot force people to acquire things before they are ready. We also know that what this District wants is counter to the natural order of acquisition: research indicates that there are a bunch of imparfait verbs which are acquired before– and used more frequently than– many present tense verbs. In French (and Spanish) the top 200 most-used verbs include verbs in nine tenses. Indeed, there are past-tense subjunctive expressions used more frequently than some present-tense verbs.

So when this genius District says “kids must know x, y and z when they leave the 8th grade” or whatever, it’s clear: they want people to do things they may not be ready for, and which are not frequently used.

b) If you want to teach people language that’s actually useful, you should teach them the most-frequently-used vocab. Anyone who wants to see what French words are most used should see this. Why would middle-schoolers need to learn to conjugate verbs in present & passé composé when there are loads of verbs in other tenses that are more frequently used– and used earlier– than passé composé verbs?

c) Greg himself said the best thing of all: “What does the ability to conjugate verbs in the past, present, and future -in and of itself – have to do with anything? Even dressed up in snazzy games and projects, how is that expectation even remotely meaningful? Conjugating verbs in different tenses is just a natural result […] of using the language to communicate about things which actually MATTER. [Conjugating verbs is] not an objective, it’s a side-effect]. Conjugating verbs in different tenses as an objective isn’t worthy of one second of a kid’s time in a school building, which is why most kids wouldn’t give it one second (maybe many seconds in the “school mode” of their brain, but not one in the “this is me” section of their brains).”

d) What if you’re a kid who’s low-income? What if your parents– if you have them– can’t afford a French tutor, or language software? What if, because your parents– if you have parents in the first place– are poor, and working multiple jobs, and don’t read a lot, you didn’t get exposure to loads of written language as a younger person? How are you going to thrive in a classroom where symbol manipulation– tacking endings onto verbs– trumps actual meaningful learning?

d) You’re in Greg’s T.P.R.S. class, and at the end of 8th grade you can tell the following story in French (and this would be a low-end student in the 2nd month of the course; T.P.R.S. kids will do much better by the end of the year):

Il y’avait un garcon qui voulait avoir dix chattes bleues. Il etait en New York et il etait grand, fort et tres inteligent. Il est allé a France, ou il a vu une jeune fille qui avait beaucoup des chattes bleues. Il lui a demande “puis-je avoir tes chattes? Je les aime beaucoup!” La jeune fille lui a dit “Non. Ce sont mes chattes et je les aime aussi.” Le garcon n’etait pas hereux. Il est alle a France, ou il a trouve dix chattes. Il les a dit “vous voulez etre mes chattes?” Les chattes lui ont dit “Oui…nous voulons etre vos chattes.”

Then you go into 9th grade, and your 9th grade grammarian teacher says “OK let’s conjugate vouloir in the present tense” and you have no idea what “present tense” or “conjugate” or “verb” means. But hot DAMN look at that story! 3 verb tenses, pronouns, connecting words, you name it, it’s in there, plus IT’S AN INTERESTING STORY! Well, it’s a LOT MORE INTERESTING than conjugating.

What would you rather that you, your students, or your own kids be able to do? Conjugate vouloir, or tell a cool story?

e) We also know that mastery is not linear. I.e. you teach your kids the present tense in 8th grade. However, as soon as you do your passé composé unit in 9th grade, the kids lose their present tense skills and EVERYTHING becomes “j’ai whatever.” The present tense will kick back in later…at which point the passé composé will vanish for awhile. (there is research that examines this in Lightbrown and Spada, 2013). I noticed this when I taught “communicatively”:  when you introduced the imperfecto everything else got ditched; so much for all that hard work hammering in the pretérito etc.

Now, the natural and smart way to teach is, mix all the tenses and grammar in together from Day 1– like in real life, or like Blaine Ray does. Second-best is, do a few stories in present tense, then once they have the basics start throwing in various past tenses (and all other necessary grammar). If you do it in these ways, the kids will have constant exposure to everything, and, as a result, two things can happen:

(1) they won’t “forget” as much because everything will always be there

(2) they can acquire whatever they are ready for at any time, because the input is comprehensible and rich (“three dimensional”) as Susan Gross points out.

But if you insist on sequencing your grammar, verb tenses, etc in order, your results are gonna be in-and-out acquisition. So Greg’s District is doing it wrong.

So. The moral? If you are a District (or a textbook), and you want to ensure that your languages teaching sucks, just make a list of stuff-to-learn-by-grade, and insist that people learn that stuff, in order.

Having read the research on bad organisation, and having for years poorly organised my own teaching, I can report that a rigidly organised curriculum is definitively a good way to make sure your– or your District’s– language teaching will suck.

The game of Go, computers, and language acquisition

I’ve been playing the ancient game of Go for years now– badly; I am ranked around 6 kyu at my best– and there are some fascinating lessons to be learned from Go play and attempts to program computers to play Go.

Go, like chess, is a strategy game where each player moves in turn, each sees everything the other player sees, each move opens certain possibilities and closes others (it’s deterministic), and there can generally be only one winner (draws happen only very occasionally).  Go is big business and has a long history: the top players earn seven-figure salaries; there are Go-only TV channels in China, Korea and Japan; there is a rich history of game recording and analysis stretching back to the sixteenth century; Go championship matches draw hundreds of millions of viewers; Go was considered one of the essential brain-training tools for samurai, emperors, etc.

Now, in terms of complexity, Go is literally billions of times more complex than chess.  A Go game has 361 possible opening moves; a chess game 20.  In Go, the typical game length is 200-250 moves; in chess it is 40.  There are more potential Go games than there are atoms in the Universe.  Computer games reflect this:  in chess, Deep Blue beat Grand Master Kary Kasparov in 1997; off-the-shelf software now always beats top humans; chess software’s greatest challenger is other chess software.  Go, however, has proven a harder nut for the egg-heads to crack.  If you imagine players ranked from zero (your kid learning to play) to 20 (the best two or three players in the world), Go programs now operate at about a five; chess programs at 25 or so.

In this article, the challenges facing Go programmers are detailed.  And there are a lot of interesting things we languages teachers can learn from research into programming Go and into what makes top players tick.

First , when analysing top players, an interesting pattern emerges.  It turns out that there is a fairly predictable order of acquisition of strategies and a fairly consistent (as a function of time spent playing and analysing) speed of getting better.  Indeed, top players can often tell their lesser opponents’ ranks within ten moves.  But…when good players become great players, they don’t just get more skills…they get entirely different skills.  Move (and response) unpredictability goes way up in a kind of quantum leap.  What look like wild, crazy moves start happening, and these moves end up being the keys to winning.  Go programs don’t do that.  With them, it is a “more of same” and slow-and-steady approach…that doesn’t work.

So it is with languages.  As Chomsky and others have noted, while there are definite orders of acquisition (of sounds, grammar etc) with language, people start being able to do unusual things.  They can generate sentences they havn’t heard, they use grammar rules they havn’t had explained, there are mistakes they could make (but don’t) and they can understand things they have not had explained to them.

A friend of mine did her PhD in linguistics on ambiguous noun classes.  She knew that kids somehow figured out that, for example, the word “school” meant different things in different contexts, and what those meanings were.  E.g. you can say “I like school,” and “my school is close,” and “school is hard.”  In each, “school” has a slightly different meaning.  Kids exposed to nouns that are morphologically identical figure out the differences in meaning, and they do it amazingly quickly, and they do it without help.  The upshot of her experiments with noun acquisition was that the kids could not have figured out (from context) what the different meanings/uses were.  So she concluded, as Chomsky predicted and then showed, that the brain’s “language organ” has powers that cannot be explained by the quality/type/context of input alone.

Second, since people massively beat even the best computers at Go, we know that– somehow– they are making better decisions than the computer.  In other words,  Lee Sedol is somehow calculating– and comparing– quadrillions of decision trees per second in a championship match.  However, we know that the conscious brain processes only 2,000 bits of info per second.  So most of the real processing is not happening consciously.  When these top guys (and they are all guys) are asked “what are you thinking about?” during games, they usually say things like “well I just kinda look” or “that move felt right.”  Indeed, they cannot often explain– especially at the very top level– why they do certain things.  On the way to becoming masters, there is conscious study, reflection, etc– oral analysis of games, moves etc are part of the tradition– but when you’re in the moment, you just…let go and play.

Third, “skill” in Go (as in chess, poker, bridge, etc) comes– I think– as much if not more from observation as it does from play.  Good players spend an immense amount of time replaying old matches from the masters, dating right back to the 16th century.  They also ruthlessly review their own games, and watch other players playing, and now, with computers, can watch other people’s saved games.  (On Go servers, sometimes hundreds of people will tune in to watch the 8-dan players duke it out.)  This is input.  It’s also something like reading: you can “examine” at your own speed, go back, pause, etc.

While with games, playing obviously matters (and is the point), and observation is, as with languages, central.


(a) Most language acquisition cannot happen consciously.  If you want to have maximum acquisition, you are going to have to let the unconscious do its work.  Indeed, you are going to have to get focus on rules etc out of the way as fast as possible.  Minimising grammar explanations, maximising interest, and making people happy and comfortable will get people “immersed” in the story.  Indeed, if you focus on the conscious brain, you are majorly limiting yourself and your students: 2,000 bits per second of processing, or billions?

(b)  If we provide quality input, we will eventually get “quantum leaps” in skills.  Kids will pick up and say things that you havn’t consciously “taught” them.  Today in Spanish we were playing with a story where Farakh doesn’t serve his chair-stacking detention with Mr Stolz, because, on his way to Mr Stolz’s class, he meets a talking cat, and he sooo wants a talking cat, and when he asks the cat “do you want to be my cat?” and the cat answers “no,  I don’t want to be your cat, you have to stack chairs!” he goes home and eats 3 pizzas in disappointment.  One kid, Wasim, blurted out Sólo Farakh quiere hablar con una gata. (“Only Farakh wants to talk to a cat”).  Perfect, unexpected, unprompted Spanish.  I have never used that sentence before.  These guys– level 2s with only a month or so left– are now starting to blurt things out.

The bottom line seems to be, while practice (via input) is necessary, most of what is happening in the brain– in Go as well as in learning a language– is beyond/below the conscious.

Grammar Acquisition, Simplified

OK here’s a cool short example of of how we pick up grammar.

1) The word “bung” in the Blablabian language means “I make love.”

2) The word “bungbung” in Blablabian means “I made love.”

3) The word “nom” means “I eat”

4)  How do we say “I ate” in Blablabian?  That’s right, class– “nomnom.”

What’s the rule for past-tense first-person formation in Blablabian?  That’s right– say the present-tense first-person word twice in a row.

Kids do this with whatever language they are learning because (a) their brains get 1000s of hours of input (literally– kids get 4,000-4,500 hours of input before even single words emerge) which is supported with pointing, gestures, repetition, physically being picked up and moved, etc etc. and (b) what Chomsky calls “the language organ” neural networks know (it’s genetically wired-in) to induce the rules from the data.

Comprehensible input language teaching relies on one simple trick: instead of focusing the conscious mind on the rule, we focus the conscious mind on the meaning.  And if we give people enough repetitions of quality input where they (a) understand, (b) are paying attention and (c) feel comfortable, they will pick the rule up.  Indeed, they can’t help but pick the rule up.  The unconscious “language organ” will figure the rule out and eventually start applying it, initially to decode input and then later in speech and writing.

We also throw in explanations of the rule– pop-ups, or what my colleague Adriana Ramirez calls “grammar commercials”– because some people like those (and a few may even need them).  Some researchers now think (in contradiction to Stephen Krashen’s contentions) that there is a bit of “leakage” from the conscious mind to the unconscious, so explicit instruction will in some cases be helpful (especially with writing, and with older learners).

But, basically, 95% of all good language teaching work is nothing more than delivering repeatable, interesting comprehensible input in a safe, fun environment.

Best practices: some non-Krashenian insights from the research

Thnaks to research-lover Eric Herman, I’ve been reading Lightbrown and Spada’s How Languages Are Learned (4th ed.) from Oxford University Press.  This indispensable reading summarises a load of research on everything to do with second-language acquisition.  Two phrases jumped out at me: “Comprehension of meaningful language is the foundation of language acquisition” and “Considerable research and experience challenge the hypothesis that comprehensible input is enough.”

Krashen pretty much nailed 80% of language learning: we learn via comprehensible input in safe and enjoyable settings.  If that C.I. can be made compelling and repeatable enough, we learn more, or faster, or both.  HOWEVER…there is more to learning a language than understanding it.  So…here are some Lightbrown and Spada-mentioned insights from research.

a) people need a minimum of 16 meaningful exposures to a vocab item to remember it.  TPRS will serve us well here.

b) fossilised errors— recurring grammatically wrong patterns of speech or interpretation– will continue unless there are deliberate teacher interventions.  C.I. is not enough, at least not in a classroom setting.  With first language acquisition, or immersion, the sheer volume of input will correct most– but not all– errors.

The classic example is use of the Spanish phrase me gustan los tacos (“I like tacos”).  Learners will often figure out that “gusta–” means “like”, but will fail to acquire the -n that you need for plurals.  Why specific feedback is necessary is open for debate, but it is necessary.  TPRS pop-ups useful here.

The question of why this is necessary is up in the air.  Some think the quantity of input in a classroom is low; others see this problem as stemming from various interlanguage processes.

c) Specific training in output– specifically in writing– is necessary.  While the effects of writing training (drawing attention to specific parts of grammar or vocab or punctuation, etc, or asking for error correction, and other strategies) are not huge in comparison to the effect of quality C.I., they are significant. For example, in the New Brunswick E.S.L. study, the focused instruction kids did outperform the C.I. kids in writing.  However, what was astonishing was, the C.I. kids did 90% as well as the focused-instruction kids with no teacher guidance or feedback.  There is speculation on why this is, and it has something to do with the idea that understanding and output, while related, are not exactly the same brain system.  So…if you wanted to do only ONE THING for second-language acquisition and writing output, it should be comprehensible input.  If you want kids to be noticeably better, give them some specific meaningful instruction in, and feedback on, writing…but only in upper levels.  Until a massive amount of language has been heard and read, feedback has limited effects at best.

d) Some specific training in recognising “weird” (i.e. non-native) grammatical forms is necessary for acquisition.  For example, English and Spanish pronoun orders are different:  in English we say “I ate it,” while in Spanish it’s “Yo lo comi” (“I it ate”).  Research suggests that unless we provide a LOT of focused C.I. that (a) uses this structure and (b) draws attention to it, we will get delayed, incorrect or no acquisition of the rule.  TPRS again will serve us well here– do those comprehension checks!

e)  There is zero evidence to suggest that “smarter” people are “better” at picking up languages.  Smarter– i.e. academically proficient symbol-manipulators, rule-followers, etc (you all know who I am talking about here!) are better at learning about languages…but in terms of acquisition, there is little difference between “types” of students.

f) Readers must know 90-95% of the vocab in the text to be able to read independently.  This argues for MUCH more use of “easy” readers in a 2nd language classroom and much less “hard” and non-teacher-supported reading.

g)  The best thing a teacher can do for S.L.A. is to allow kids to experience authentic success.  This means kids should (a) understand everything, which feels good, (b) find it interesting (ay,..there’s the rub) and (c) feel safe and comfortable in class.  The links between motivation and acquisition, despite “common sense” thinking, are unclear.

h) Free voluntary reading matters…but FVR with teacher interaction etc is much more effective.

i) For oral error correction, friendly comprehensible recasts (restatements) work best.  Grammar explanations do little or nothing most of the time.  However, recasts don’t do much, and there is disagreement about why they do sometimes work.

j) Sociocultural competence matters…but not that much.  Yes, people need to be taught target-language stuff having to do with how that culture works.  E.g. in Spanish, people need to learn when/where to use the usted (“You sir/madame”) form.  Knowing this helps…but it’s far less important than people getting loads of C.I.

The upshot?  Krashen, 30 years ago, got it 85% right.  The other 15% is examined in Lightbrown & Spada.  Go read it.

Professional Autonomy in the B.C. Language Classroom

I got another good question from Kristin A. recently:

Q: “What sort of freedom do we have in terms of choosing the program that we will teach in our districts/in our classrooms? It seems to me that I read in the IRP that we technically are supposed to be using a government approved (or perhaps district approved) program.”

A: In British Columbia, teachers have professional autonomy regarding how they deliver the curriculum.

The curriculum is determined by the Province’s Ministry of Education. Districts and school departments are free to decide which resources– texts, videos, etc– they use to deliver that curriculum. Districts have a list of learning resources from which teachers and schools choose their materials. Many Districts colaborate on assessment/approval of resources. E.g. E.R.A.C. looks at novels etc for English and Humanaties classes.

Regarding modern languages in B.C., a teacher has total control over what s/he does in her/his classroom. Your job– as an autonomous professional, and clearly defined in the School Act– is to deliver the Provincial curriculum. You decide instructional strategies, assessment and evaluation, materials, student activities, etc. You do not have to follow District or departmental policies regarding curriculum, assessment, materials, etc. (If you are a B.C. teacher and your department head, admin etc is telling you how to run your class, please contact your local Union office for advice.)

Here is some language from the B.C Core French I.R.P.

“Evaluation, reporting, and student placement with respect to these outcomes depend on the professional judgment of teachers, guided by provincial policy.”

Read that? Professional judgement of teachers, and not of administrators, department Headz, textbook companies, etc.

Here’s more:

“Teachers are free to adapt the suggested instructional strategies or substitute others that will enable their students to achieve the prescribed learning outcomes.”

Again, teachers decide how languages should be taught. If you don’t like communicative teaching– or TPRS– but your department or department head does, that’s fine. You decide what happens in your class.

If your Department decides that, say, Tests A, B, and C are going to be delivered on, say, Nov 1, Feb 1 and May 1, you do not have to admnister these tests. If your department has a policy that ________ verbs and ____ nouns are taught in Level ___ French/Spanish/Punjabi/Chinese etc, that’s nice– you do not have to teach ___ and ___ at the time, to that grade.

If your Language department says “well we always teach the present tense in first year and we do the imparfait in 4th year,” you can either say “I do that” or “I don’t do that.”

B.C. comprehensible-input teachers are in a good position regarding languages teaching. We know that many administrators don’t know the research behind language acquisition. Even some department heads have no idea what the current research is (or, worse, know the research and know about C.I. but can’t be bothered to update their legacy-method practice). We know most textbooks teach boring stuff–and present it in the wrong way, out of the natural order of acquisition. So, fortunately, we can say “well, we know that grammar drills, output, low-frequency vocab, metacognition, portfolios, meaning ambiguity etc don’t work” and we can’t be forced to do unproductive work in the language classroom.

People who want to improve their practice are free: we need not be tied to others, or outmoded, ways of doing things.

The New Brunswick E.S.L. Study & the power of comprehensible input

Eric Hermann shared a really cool article on Ben’s about E.S.L. language acquisition in New Brunswick. The study compared classes who basically got to do a load of free voluntary reading (and/or listening) for five years from Grade 3 to Grade 8 with classes who had direct instruction in writing etc. The results are that while after two years the free-reading/listening kids did a well as the others on all measures (comprehension, speaking, writing), but 8th grade the structured lesson kids (well, one batch of them) had pulled ahead.

The study is worth reading– and taking a hard look at the numbers– because it can suggest a number of things which seem to contradict Krashen and others which support his views that language is acquired only via loads of comprehensible input.

a) It seems that, in terms of writing, some guided practice and feedback makes a difference when kids get to beyond-beginner levels. There is a lot of speculation about why this is, but it basically boils down to this: acquisition (via comprehension only) seems to have certain limits. For example, when a student hears the Spanish “me gustan los tacos,” s/he can figure out one way or the other that “me gustan” means “I like.” The problem is that once learners “get” what “gusta” means, they are less inclined to focus in on other stuff. The –n on gustan is used for plurals (liking more than one object). You need to know what gusta means to communicate or understand; you don’t need to know (or use) the -n rule for this, so naturally it is much later acquired.

Kids and second-language learners do this all the time. The way English kids pick up negation like this, as VanPatten and Gross remind us:

“At first negation is simply NO followed by a phrase. Then NO moves inside the phrase and “don’t” is also used in an unanalyzed way. Then the idea of “-n’t” attaching to modals in an unanalyzed way. Finally the whole system of auxiliary verbs and the correct usage of “not” and of contractions.”

So, basically, the “most important stuff”– meaning-based– is acquired first; the later stuff is window dressing. (This is one of the reasons why the third-person -s ending is late acquired in English…it’s there but basically unnecessary). In this study, it is noteworthy that the direct-instruction kids did somewhat better in writing than the acquisition-via-comprehension-only kids. It is possible that this happened because people needed to have their attention consciously focused on some aspects of writing that they would otherwise not naturally pick up on right away. It is also possible that– as a number of researchers have argued, defying Krashen– that the production system and the compehension system in the brain operate in an “at odds” way sometimes, and must be trained differently. While input drives pretty much everything to do with remembering etc, (there is no argument among SLA researchers about this) it is possible that output needs some training.

b) There are some design flaws in the study. E.g. group RG1 was assigned homework; there were therefore different treatments (in terms of time) between the control and the experimental groups when the only difference should have been what was taught. In addition, while the RG1 group was assigned homework, the experimental groups were not allowed to take reading/listening home with them, further amplifying the differences ebwteen them. One of the experimental group teachers also started grammar teaching three days a week in Grade 8. It is possible that the two teachng styles– read on yoru own, or listen to teacher– conflicted.

c) The study could very well support Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis in that it is amazing how well the experimental kids did with no instruction. One of the traditional groups scored basically as well as the experimental groups; one control (RG1) scored somewhat better. The study seems to suggest that free voluntary reading (and/or listening) works about 90% as well as a teacher…but without a teacher). This suggests to me that, in terms of aquiring language, what the teacher does is really very minimal compared to what reading (or listening) do. This research broadly reflects other research on literacy, which notes that the teacher accounts for 10-20% of kids’ achievement in class, while other factors– parental literay, wealth, etc– account for much more.

d) Broadly, what I get out of this– loads of input for beginners; more specific writing feedback as they get older is needed– is what Blaine Ray and Susan Gross have recommended for years.

The moral of the story? Comprehensible input– via stories, reading, listening, etc– works incredibly well. Students may do well with feedback (in writing, for writing) to improve their writing. Teacher effects on writing quality are significant but small. My recomendation? Help your Level 2 and up kids with writing: give feedback (simple feedback) and model the sticking points in stories.