Month: September 2014

Building A Better Language Learner

What mental habits breed success?

In a fascinating article, psychologist Steven Stosny examines the creation of mental habits that work, and boy oh boy have we ever got some insights for the languages classroom.

To sum it up briefly, as Hebb put it nearly fifty years ago, “neurons that fire together wire together.” When the brain undergoes sustained, repetitive (but not boring) focus on ____, the connections– the actual physical links between neurons, the synapses– physically grow thicker, and more able to do a “mental move” quicker, with less energy, and more automatically…more easily.

This has been studied in everyone from athletes to readers to doctors. As a rock climber, for me most moves are now “wired in,” and when confronted with a crux, I often find myself doing the sequences– left foot up, smear right, throw right, reset right foot, etc– automatically. As I get older, I get less physically strong, but mentally way more on top of things.

One of the reasons Michael Phelps, before he retired to a life of marriage to supermodels and eating whatever he damned well feels like, was the winningest swimmer and Olympian of all time was that he practiced literally everything over and over. Phelps– in addition to weightlifting, aerobic workouts, feedback from coaches on technique, etc– practiced everything. What if his goggles filled with water, as they did in Beijing? He’d practiced swimming without. What if he was off-stroke at a turnaround? He’d practiced turnarounds thousands of times. What about the insane stress pre-comp? Easy: he had a ritual: a set breakfast, a specific set of music on his MP3 player, a specific set of exercises to warm up, a specific set of clothes to wear. He got rid of as much variation as possible to focus his mental and physical energy on swimming fast and dealing with problems automatically.

Stosny also refers to the psychological literature dealing with “mental bandwidth,” that is, how much processing we can do at a given time. It turns out that mental bandwidth is not unlimited, and that when we are under stress, we “use up” more of that bandwidth. Stosny therefore suggests that the best way to deal with stress (or new situations/information) is to have as many of the needed skills– calming oneself; knowing the language; knowing the climbing moves– as possible automatised. If I am climbing, and I’m thirty feet above crappy gear on hard moves, I am much better off if I don’t have to think about the moves, but can just do them, and focus on placing gear, or getting to a rest, or managing the fear, etc.

In his article, Stosny talks about his work as a psychologist who dealt with clients who were abusive towards their wives, but not self-unaware. Stosny initially functioned on the epiphany-leads-to-change model, where he’d guide the client to a moment of realisation– hitting my wife is toxic or I am this way cos of what my Dad did to my Mom– and then hopefully that moment of new awareness would lead to change. What Stosny discovered was that, for various reasons, these epiphanies rarely led to any kind of change. His clients went back to being abusive, or drinking, or whatever.

What Stosny finally did find worked was, basically, a focus on new habits. He had to have his patients visualising new, better behaviour– I will take ten deep breaths if my wife gets under my skin— and practising this behaviour. Thinking about the past, feeling regrets, etc, were not what helped. What needed to be done was single-minded focus on the right outcome, and practising that outcome. Actually, “outcome” is the wrong word– the right word is something like “right action in the moment.” When Stosny had a client who habitually beat his wife, the wrong thing to do with a freak-out coming on was to visualise a happy marriage. The right thing to do was to focus on specific, immediate steps and behaviours. I will breathe. I will walk away. I will punch a pillow, not my wife. In other words, if you want to score a goal, think about the kick, not the crowd yelling your name; a journey of a hundred miles starts with one step.

For the language classroom, we can learn a ton from Phelps and Stosny to start building a better language learner:

a) We should eliminate distractions. If students are focused on quality comprehensible input, that’s all we need. Get rid of phones, side chatter, zillions of posters and verb charts on the wall, grammar explanations, etc. If we focus on the meaning of the language, it will be acquired.

b) We should eliminate goals and focus on process. There’s all this modern edu-babble about portfolios, goal-setting, self-monitoring, peer feedback, self-evaluation, bla bla bla. Wrong! If we focus on the process— listening to, and reading, quality comprehensible input– the goals (speaking and writing and understanding a language) will come. Phelps doesn’t train by thinking about winning– he trains to move fast, turn efficiently, deal with stress, etc. If he does all that well, he wins. In the language classroom, process equals product.

c) We should do only what is necessary. We are going to get way more bang for our pedagogical buck by teaching limited, high-frequency, useful vocab (in interesting ways) than we are by dithering with huge word lists of things that are seldom used, or used only in super-specific contexts. Indeed, it has been suggested that you can do 90% of the work in any language with just seven verbs: goes, wants, has, is, likes, feels, needs.

d) We should practice till it’s perfect. Phelps does thousands of turnarounds, laps, etc; Stosny makes his clients practice various techniques hundreds of times; I’ve spent thousands of hours on rock faces doing moves. Do it enough, properly, and it will get “wired in.” It’s stressful being in a foreign country trying to buy train tickets or dinner or whatever. If we get things wired in, we “free up” mental bandwidth for managing emotions, thinking, danger, new situations, etc.  If it’s automatic, everything else gets easier.

In Delhi, or Mumbasa, or Kinshasa, what you want is to be able to say I’d like to please buy a _____ without thinking, and know enough numbers and whatever to understand the answer. What you don’t need to do is be able to say “gosh, that was an -er verb, conjugated in the imparfait, so I should say ____ .”  If we automatise the basics, we “free up” brainpower for listening, managing stress, remembering, etc.

Less, done better, is more.

Evaluation is Over-rated

Yesterday the B.C.A.T.M.L. conference brochure came, as did the C.A.S.L.T. newsletter, and the usual fare was offered:  lots of  “how to use iPads” workshops, lots of “how to get the kids to speak” workshops, and, of course, lots of workshops (and webinars) on D.E.L.F.

The Diplome D’etudes des langues francaises (OK; I probably missed some French finery in there) is the Common European Framework for Reference bla bla which is basically, the E.U., before they began bailing out corrupt banks and kow-towing to Vladimir Putin, set up criteria for languages proficiency.  This is a set of 6 categories– from A1 (beginner), A2, B1, B2, C1 and native speaker mastery is C2.  The idea here was that for business, government employment, work etc purposes, a company or government could assess candidates/students etc to see where they fit onto the scale in terms of proficiency in Language ____ when making employment or palcement decisions.  That’s all good, and C.E.F.R. has come to Canada and the U.S. and the exam– the D.E.L.F., and the D.E.L.E. (Spanish)– that assesses people has been adopted in lots of places and now the big push is “learn to assess in terms of the DELE/DELF exam.”

What this means in practice is basically re-doing what texts do (poorly): “planning out” language teaching by going from allegedly “simple” stuff– hellos, goodbyes, the present tense– to supposedly “complex” stuff such as the imparfait, discussing hopes and dreams, etc.  The usual problems remain, though: what teachers see as “advanced” (e.g. the subjunctive) is actually used quite early on by native speakers; other supposedly “important” vocab (e.g. clothing) is not very frequently used, etc.

Outside of providing Numberz at the end of Semesterz, I think this C.E.F.R.-based organisation of curriculum is more or less a waste of time.  Here is why.

First, in my view, there should basically be zero evaluation (giving a student a number) until literally the last day of the course.  Why?

Well…what if you taught ___ and Johnny isn’t ready to acquire it?  What if Johnny acquires it after you tested him on it, and now he knows it, but that first test mark drags him down?  Johnny gets 70% on his passé composé or whatever test.  What good does a number do him?  Evidence suggests that feedback improves learning much more than assigning numbers.  However, this does not apply to languages, where, as Lightbrown and Spada (2013) put it, “comprehensible input remains the foundation of second language acquisition” and the research clearly shows very few gains resulting from conscious feedback to learners.

A test is also a waste of time.  That’s an hour or whatever where kids could be getting comprehensible input, which is what drives language acquisition.

Second, during-the-year tests do not provide useful feedback for the teacher.

Your kids averaged, say, 70% on the passé composé test they just took.  What does this tell you?  Or, more specifically, how does this info help you plan your next unit of teaching?  What if Arabella got 90% but Sky only got 70% and Max got 50%.  Can you “tailor” your instruction to them?  What if you have 30 kids, and they are all in different places?  What if Samba got 30%? How are you going to teach both Samba and Arabella?  What if Samba isn’t ready for the passé composé and Arabella is bored and wants to move on?

Answer:  with “communicative” or grammar grind or audiolingual teaching, you aren’t going to help them, and nobody else is either.  What you have is kids with a wide range of either abilities, or willingness to listen in class, or both, and you do not have time to teach or plan individually, no matter what your Adminz or Defartment Headz say.  It’s simply not going to happen.  You have thirty kids in your class– you simply do not have time to provide Samba with ____ and Max with ___.

Third, what does Johnny see when he gets his test back?  I’ll tell you what Johnny sees:  a number, and a bunch of red.  And this helps him acquire French how?

Now, at he end of the year, at an upper level (say Gr12), giving the D.E.L.F. or D.E.L.E. exam is great; most people eventually want to/must by law get a Number.  However, one fact– no matter what test we have at the end of the year is– remains: the more interesting comprehensible input students get, the better they will do (unless the exam is of the fill-in-the-blanks-with-the-right-verb-form kind of idiocy).

So what should T.P.R.S. teachers do “along the way”– assessment– to productively guide their instruction?  Remember, people learn by getting quality, attention-worthy comprehensible input (and some people like a bit of grammar explained).

a) check choral responses:  if they are weak or non-existent, your kids either misunderstood the question, or don’t know the vocab, or both.  Go back, explain, try again.  If they are actively listening– not on phones or chatting, following with their eyes, etc– their failure to understand is your fault, not theirs.

b) Monitor retells.  Beginners should be able to re-tell a story (in skeletal form) without too many mistakes.  If they can’t do that (after, say, 20 classes, from memory), you are going too fast and not getting enough repetitions.

c)  Monitor correct use of recent structures.  If you taught “wants to own,” and circled the crap out of it, and they are writing “wants I own” or “I want I own,” there wasn’t enough repetition.

One answer, I would say, is read your speedwrites post-story, find the most-made mistake, and throw that into your next story.  If they don’t know “wants to own,” have a parallel character in the next story who wants to own a dinosaur.

d)  Most importantly, provide rich and diverse input at all times.  As Susan Gross and Stephen Krashen have noted, providing “all the grammar, all the time”– i.e. not delivering simplified, one-dimensional input in order to beat a grammar item into kids’ heads– is the best strategy, provided all input is interesting and comprehensible.  If Samba didn’t get the passé composé on her test last week, if she keeps hearing/reading it, she’ll eventually get it.  If Arabella got 90% on her passé composé test and you’re worried she’s gonna get bored, making the next story interesting will keep her tuned in, while Samba both finds the next story interesting and gets more exposure to the passé composé.

The bottom line for the comprehensible input teacher is, make sure they are listening/reading, make sure they understand– as Ben Slavic says, we ask more y/n questions than we ever thought possible–, deliver lots of interesting, quality comprehensible input,  and if they aren’t understanding, go back and clarify.

This process– assessing as you go– will deliver results.  Self-monitoring, grammar lectures, conjugation exercises:  these are for teacher egos, not kid acquisition.  Deliver good C.I., and the D.E.L.F. scores will come.

Should– and do– student teachers try T.P.R.S.?

Last year I did workshops at Simon Fraser University for Janet Dunkin’s French methods class.  Dunkin, a longtime French teacher in North Vancouver, is on a two-year secondment to S.F.U. where she teaches student teachers how to “be a French teacher.”  She has an academic colleague, Timothy Cart, who co-teaches.  Congrats to Janet Dunkin for inviting CI/TPRS practitioners in to meet her student teachers. Next up– presenting the method to U.B.C. And U.Vic. languages teacher candidates.

A few of the STs are at myb school and I got a chance to talk to them and their cohort so today’s question is should– and do–student teachers try TPRS, and, when they do, how does it work out?

First, there is significant resistance to TPRS/CI in many schools.  As noted earlier, teachers are generally a conservative bunch who operate in conservative environments and who learn from people steeped in tradition.  Many languages teachers don’t want to/don’t know how to change practices.  This makes it difficult for innovators– especially younger ones– to try something their mentor/mentrix isn’t familiar or comfortable with.

Second, there is a power differential in a student-teacher situation.  The student teacher has to do a “good job,” and that usually means doing what the mentor/mentrix wants.  The all-important letter of reference and final evaluation will too often be dependent not on authentic language acquisition but on whether or not the student-teacher did what his/her “boss” wanted done.

Third, student teachers often don’t know the method thoroughly.  Anyone who’s tried TPRS knows, as Adriana Ramírez said, that there is a three-year time needed to go from start to something like mastery.  So a student teacher often cannot get the results the method delivers right away, which makes them– and the method– superficially “look bad.”  In my experience, bad TPRS trumps good grammar grind/communicative teaching hands-down, but the results are long term…kids will not immediately spit out awesome French/Spanish/whatever.  In the grammar grind class, or even the communicative, you  appear to get immediate results— “Look, the kids are talking!  Look, the kids are doing worksheets, or revising their paragraphs!”– which is pleasing to anyone who doesn’t really get how language acquisition works.

Fourth, student teachers do not know the research.  I can argue with anyone because I’m a geek.  People like Eric Herman, Ben Slavic (and me, to a lesser extent) read studies etc, plus we practice the method daily, so we can say things like “Lightbrown and Spada, 2013, argue for very limited grammar instruction, and show that grammar instruction has very limited results.”  So…unfamiliarity with research and method makes justifying “weird” practices like TPRS much harder.

Fifth, the lack of initial output in a TPRS/CI class is disconcerting.  If the goal of language acquisition is speaking and writing– the “markers” of acquisition– then the choral responses, masses of input and lack of one-on-one speech seems weird to traditional teachers.  We know, as Wong puts it, that “a flood of input must precede even a trickle of output,” but to the uninitiated, it looks…weird.   Most languages teachers put the cart before the horse: speaking and writing are the result of acquisition, not the cause .

Sixth, Universities do not generally choose innovators to instruct student teachers.   I have looked in detail at the languages methods programs offered by the Univeristy of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria.  S.F.U. offers a basic intro to comprehensible input.  We’re working on UBC and UVIC.My best guess is that what happens with helping teachers, co-ordinators, etc, is that they get out of the classroom– they get bored or ambitious or whatever– and when in an advisory role they stop experimenting.  These people too must please the powers that be.  So it is almost everywhere: you gotta lick the hand that feeds you.   (This is not, however, universally true.  For example, Christine Carrioux– languages helping teacher for the Delta School District– is a major innovator who has urged her staff to see TPRS/CI demos and workshops; S.F.U.’s Janet Dunkin is very open to new methods.)

So, the odds are not good that a student teacher will find a TPRS/CI-friendly classroom environment.  However, this is a blessing in disguise.  If you are a student teacher, your practicum can “teach” you by negative example.  If you must do the grammar grind/communicative thing whilst learning your trade, because your mentor/mentrix “has always done it this way,” you get to reflect.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this work?
  • What does “it works” mean?
  • Do the kids like it?
  • How much time getting quality input in the target language do the kids get?  Can you stay in the target language 90% of the time, as the A.C.T.F.L. says you should?
  • Are they improving?  What is “improving?”
  • Do they want to take the language again next year?
  • How well has communicative/grammar grind teaching worked for them in the past?    

The answers to these will guide student teachers when they finally get their own classroom.  Sometimes you need to see what works– TPRS/CI stories and reading– and what doesn’t to make your instructional decisions.  If you are a student teacher who wants to try CI/TPRS, I would suggest you try…but the bottom line is, you need a solid ref from your mentor/mentrix so we can get you into the system.  You may have to suck it up and play the game.  Once you’re in, and you have no conservative/non-innovative people to please, you’re good to go, and you can then explain why you have chosen method ___ over method ____.