Meaning First!

When I think back to high-school math, what I remember is, algebra was kind of neat, but pointless to me…until grade 11 physics, at which point algebra stopped being idiotic questions about how old Johnny’s younger brother will be in five years when he is twice as old as Suzy, and started being about how fast– and in what direction– the car is going after a collision. In other words, physics with Gary Laidlaw was meaningful. Despite being a math moron, I was able to get a B in Gr11 physics and to get a 4 on the A.P. physics exam in Gr12. This came back to me three days ago when I totally blew it with my Spanish beginners.

Backstory: this year I am doing TPRS totally differently: it will be 100% story-based and my “rough guide” will be Adriana Ramírez’ Teaching Spanish Through Comprehensible Input text. I’ll keep people posted with regular stats about how the kids (true beginners) are doing.

So I started asking “Los Gatos Azules” on Day 1 and 4 periods later I’d asked it. (Before starting, I gave the kids a vocab list of all the Spanish words and we translated into English.). I gave them a quiz on Day 5. The quiz was, I gave them the vocab sheet with only Spanish on it, and they had to write out the English. There were words like “talks” and “goes to” and “cats.” 33 words total.

The results were abysmal. Class average of 37%. This despite zillions of reps of all the structures. Interestingly, my native speaker kids– and the ones with one Hispanic parent– also did relatively poorly. Also, my actor– a kid we nicknamed “El Chapo” after the legendary Mexican gangster– who is amazingly quick on his feet and picks Spanish up super-fast, bombed.

So, the next day, I gave them another test. In this one, I used many of the same words, but I said them aloud in sentences. I got the kids to write down the Spanish (at which they sucked, expectedly, having done basically zero reading) and the sentence meanings in English. The results were WAY better: class average of 75%. The marks were basically, did they understand the meaning?

So…what did I learn?

A) People– especially beginners-remember in context. If they learn through stories, they’ll best remember through stories. Teaching one way and remembering in another doesn’t work.

B) Language is learned in chunks. A sentence such as el chico quiere tener 10 gatos azules (“the boy wants to have 10 blue cats”) is easier to remember than “the boy” and “cats” and “blue,” etc.

C) Meaning must come first. If it’s not meaning-based– i.e. people are dealing with what feel like random chunks of stuff– it’s much harder to remember. If it’s part of a story, or anchored with a picture or video or actor, everything hangs together. We MUST teach with meaning first or we’re wasting our time.

D) Beginners know a LOT less than we think they do The second test results should have been around 95%. When I asked questions about the story today, I was surprised to note that I got weak responses when I asked “What does el chico no quiere tener un perro mean?” As Ben Slavic puts it, we must ask zillions of comprehension questions to make sure students actually understand. I’m also going for a traditional TPRS no-no: asking individuals what “____” means because I’m not always sure meaning is clear. I think kids sometimes “chant along” with their peers, so I’ll ask more one-on-one questions.

E) Another thing I’ll do from now on is the exit quiz. I’ll read 5 sentences aloud and have the kids write down the meanings. In abfew weeks, they’ll start also writing down the Spanish. Slightly more regular assessment will help me in that if many kids get # ____, wrong, I can go back and circle that more next day.


  1. Sorry – I was google-searching “Gary Laidlaw” and “physics”, hoping to find a teacher from S.M.U. in Victoria, and came across your blog. I was wondering if that’s the same Gary, and if you have any idea where he might be nowadays?

    Thanks for your time (and I can completely relate with being a math moron, but finding that Gary’s physics classes made sense!).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s