Month: November 2014

What are the pros and the cons of A.I.M.?

I was recently chatting with a couple of Vancouver teachers who used to use the Accelerated Integrative Method (A.I.M.) of language teaching.  A.I.M., developed by Wendy Maxwell, is both a method and a program.  It begins  with “total immersion”: the teacher speaks only the target language in class, and uses gestures to support meaning.  Students are expected to speak from Day 1, and to also use the gestures.  There is reading, some grammar instruction (not a ton), and the whole thing is built around a set of stories, which are read, listened to, acted, watched, acted with puppets, etc, as well as responded to.  Oral output is rehearsing a play, which is performed at the end of the year/semester.  They have some reading materials.  The curriculum is super-structured:  you need to “do” all the stories in order to perform the play and they have very detailed lesson plans (and procedures) starting day 1.

Now, I have not used A.I.M.– I found out about it at the same time as T.P.R.S. and the latter intuitively appealed to me more– but I get asked a lot about what I think.  So since I can’t speak for A.I.M., I’ll let Catherine and Natasha explain what they did and didn’t like about it:


  • used AIM for about 2 years for French
  • liked the intense “immersion” it offered– lots of French spoken in class and the T.P.R. (total physical response– words accompanied with gesture) aspect
  • initially appreciated the rigorous structure: it was “easy to start” and there was no need to copy/borrow/adapt “materials” and “resources” from others.

Natasha abandoned A.I.M. and here is why:

  • the TPR was only superficially and initially useful and eventually became a pain in the butt.  Students also generally refused to do it.
  • TPR created problems with ambiguity, and fossilised.  For example, if a gesture accompanied “walks,” Natasha found that they would keep using “walks”in the wrong place with the gesture (e.g. “we walks”).
  • the oral assessment– can the kids recite their lines in the play?– in her view was silly as it wasn’t even close to real language use.  She also noted that the performers didn’t always know what they were saying.
  • she found it very difficult to keep the kids focused on the stories, because they are the same in all their iterations.  E.g. they would listen to it, read it, watch it, act it out, act it out with puppets, etc.  There was, according to Natasha, no variation.  No parallel characters, student-centered improv a la t.p.r.s., etc.

Catherine also used A.I.M. for two years and repeated most of Natasha’s comments (both positive and negative), with a few of her own.  On the upside:

  • if the whole languages department in a school is using A.I.M., the transitions between grades– i.e. “what should they know when they start grade ___?”– is very easy, as the curriculum is majorly locked in.
  • the theatre pieces in which each year or semester culminates are pretty cool to look at (and, if your school has the resources for costumes etc, can be a lot of fun to put on)

On the downside:

  • because the curriculum is so rigid, it inevitably leaves some students out.  If students have not acquired ___, the curriculum marches ahead anyway.
  • there is very little room for improvisation in stories
  • teachers with a creative bent will be severely limited, because the whole A.I.M. package is “unified” and one has to “do” or “cover” everything for the final goal– theatre pieces– to work.  This means that teachers’ ideas will have very limited room for exploration.
  • much of the introductory stuff is boring.  E.g. the class sits in a circle and the teacher says “this is a pen,” and “this is a desk,” etc.

(One of the interesting things for me was oral assessment:  A.I.M. uses “real” language– i.e. student-generated output– right from the get-go, but assesses something other than “real language” in the theatre piece, while T.P.R.S. uses “fake” language– acted-out stories with simple dialogue– but assesses “real” language– teacher interviewing the kids one-on-one.)

T.P.R.S. answers a few of these criticisms:

  1. T.P.R. is only (and optionally) used for awhile, and generally with true beginners
  2. The method is infinitely flexible.  We have Blaine’s “holy trinity” of story asking, PQA and reading…and we now also have Ben Slavic’s PictureTalk, Ashley Hastings’ MovieTalk, dictation…and even when we are using a “text” such as Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk, or Adriana Ramírez’ Teaching Spanish Through Comprehensible Input Storytelling, we– and the KIDS– can change story details, locations, etc etc.
  3. The comprehension checks in T.P.R.S.– if regularly done– will provide super-clear feedback about whether or not students have acquired (on understanding level) whatever they are being taught.  If a teacher gets a weak choral response, or slow/poor responses from the actor(s), we go back, add a character, etc.
  4. There is no “end goal” in T.P.R.S.  If we are in the target language, and the kids understand, and we don’t overload them with vocab, they are acquiring.  Blaine Ray has famously remarked that he spent four months doing ONE story with his grade 9s.  We are not working toward an exam, a play, a portfolio.  All we want to do is tell the kids interesting fun stories with vocab we can repeat zillions of times.
  5. If a story is boring, we add a parallel character, or bail out and start another one, or throw something random in.  While we do want to stick to our structures, we can basically do whatever we want with them.
  6. If there’s ambiguity we just translate.

Another colleague, Katy-Ann, has this to say about A.I.M.:

“I loved using the AIM program!!  It was a lot of work at the beginning to learn all the gestures, but I found that it worked so well. I could speak French for the entire time with my 8’s, and the majority of the kids loved the way the program worked. At the end of the year the students were capable of telling a story (based on the play that we read) in their own words, with a partner. The activity was completely unrehearsed, and as the students alternated back and forth telling the story, they had to listen for details and continue on where their partner left off. Most groups talked bath and forth in this way for a good 10 minutes. They were also capable of writing a massive story. I loved hearing them create more complex sentences and I could help them with the words they were stuck on without actually telling them the word. I could gesture and it would jog their memory. I found that this gave the students confidence. They were actually recalling things and not just repeating words back to me. At the end of the year the feedback from the students was overwhelmingly positive and the parents were very supportive of the method as well.

I’m a fairly animated teacher, so I felt comfortable making a bit of a fool of myself with the gestures, songs and games. My colleague and I collaborated a lot during the process and reworked the songs into raps to make them a little cooler. This style really suited my personality and I loved that I could actually stick to my French only rule in the classroom.  I haven’t used TPRS in the classroom and unfortunately I’m not teaching French this year, so I can’t really compare the methods. If I was teaching French (and I had some pull at my new school) I would totally beg to do the AIM program again with the jr French classes. I’m not sure how the older kids would react to it.

Anyways, I hope that this helps. I think that the program is AMAZING. The kit that my school purchased is called Salut, mon ami. I only got through one kit in the year, because we added in a couple things, but I would recommend two per grade – or if you are just starting, then one.  Of course there are some holes in the program, but the main thing that I noticed is that the kids were speaking in full sentences every day, they were successful and engaged. I could really go on and on about it because I’m a believer. I would totally take the seminar if you can. I did the three day course and by the end I knew it was for me.”

Anyway there you have it, some A.I.M. ideas.  Anyone with experience with A.I.M. please leave some comments.

Comprehensible input 1; verb charts 0

Years ago using the legacy method of “communicative” teaching, I’d administer the ¡Juntos! tests. For awhile, I thought, “those kids should have memorised the verb endings for these tests,” so I would take down my huge verb chart during tests. They sucked.

Then, I tried leaving the verb charts up during tests. They sucked.

Now, I don’t have verb charts. My verb teaching is along the lines of “class, the -n on an action word means you guys, or they.” Now, they don’t suck.

American teacher Anne Matava, who teaches German via T.P.R.S., once decided to drop some trad grammar on her fourth-year German students, who had been taught entirely via T.P.R.S. and had never seen a worksheet, etc.

When she showed them charts for conjugating verbs, they said “cool, thanks for the filing system.”

Multiple verb tenses & different versions of stories– how?

I got a couple of questions from Andrew:
I was wondering if you ever have the kids turn around and read the class story in the past tense (or, not in whatever tense you read it during reading option A.)  Also, can you give me an example of what you do when you say they read a couple different versions of the story?
— Andrew
A)  Multiple verb tenses.  This year, I am using Adriana Ramirez’ book as a guide.  It is all present-tense until the 9th story, so, no I havn’t gone into multiple tenses yet.  Mainly this is because Adriana’s book does not have multiple-tense versions of extended readings (before the 9th story).
So far, this is working, but I would rather do it in all tenses simultaneously.  In the long run, this will work better– the kids will acquire whatever they need when they are ready– but in practice it’s a bit harder.  You need readings in all tenses and you have to be careful with stories– more pop-ups– and in my experience you end up with fewer reps on more tenses…so the acquisition is slower on everything, and there is tense confusion for the kids.
B) For “different versions of the story,” we are talking about the same structures and most of the same vocab used in different contexts with different characters.  E.g. In the version I ask, a boy wants to have a girlfriend, wants to impress a girl he meets with money/cars/etc, but she prefers pink dogs, so he gives her pinks dogs.  This is asked, acted, and orally reviewed, etc.
For the reading, the story has a girl who wants to have a boyfriend, who wants to impress a guy she meets with her enormous pickup truck, but he prefers small scooters, and so she gives him a small scooter.  Adriana’s book is organised more or less like that: the written story– the one the kids read– recycles the vocab from the asked (performed) story.

So You Think You Know Grammar?

I have always urged readers to join Ben Slavic’s blog ($5/month well-spent).  Ben’s books are also well worth a read, esp T.P.R.S. In A Year (without which I probably could not have started T.P.R.S.). Today I am gonna share part of a post from Ben’s six years ago.  Latin master Robert Harrell– who has won every award you can name, and who has used  T.P.R.S. to triple his school’s Latin enrollment, plus producing kids who speak fluent Latin and who crush the A.P. Latin exam without doing six years of grammar worksheets — has a response to the grammarians.  If a grammarian blathers on about how one must know grammar rules, show them this.  For Harrell’s commentary and the full entry, see Ben’s blog.

Let me suggest the following “experiment”: I have a ten-question quiz. Without preparation, give it to any “non-language” (i.e. not teaching English or a foreign language) person at the school, including administrators and evaluators, and see if they pass it.  

Remember that these are experienced speakers of English with advanced degrees that have included many English classes, so the proctor is not allowed to explain any of the terms used, give examples or otherwise provide hints.

Please give the correct form for each of the following verbs:
1. to drink – 3rd person neuter singular present perfect active
2. to go – 2nd person plural future perfect active
3. to hang – 1st person singular future perfect passive
4. to speak to – 3rd person plural pluperfect passive
5. to equivocate with the idiom “to go” – 3rd person feminine singular future continuous active
6. to hang – 3rd person neuter singular pluperfect passive
7. to hear – 2nd person singular pluperfect passive
8. to lay – 3rd person masculine singular future perfect progressive active
9. to lie (= be in a horizontal position) – 3rd person feminine singular present perfect active
10. to be – 1st person singular pluperfect active subjunctive
Bonus: Use the verb in #10 in a conditional sentence.

For those who don’t want to think this through, here are the answers:
1. It has drunk
2. You will have gone
3. I will have been hanged
4. They had been spoken to.
5. She is going to be equivocating
6. It had been hung
7. You had been heard
8. He will have been laying
9. She has lain
10. I had been

Do we understand?

What does a lover of French think of “communicative” teaching?

I always use the word communicative in quotes cos most of what I see that is labeled “communicative” language teaching is basically grammar and theme-based stuff with a few ask-and-answer activities, as opposed to jump in and find info you actually care about from people who actually want to speak the language.

Anyway, my colleague Leanda (full classic TPRS) and I have been chatting with a student teacher who is doing her French-teacher practicum with another colleague.  This colleague is a grammarian and “communicative” teacher who has seen c.i.– and says she likes it, but won’t try it– and the student teacher wants to “do” TPRS.  Her mentrix won’t let her.  But she has been watching classes and reading and seen some demos.  She saw one of my German T.P.R.S. demos and was intrigued.  So anyway we have chatted about her own experiences in high school learning French (and her experiences student teaching in her mentrix’ classroom) and here are a few things she said:

On being asked to “practise speaking french with her classmates”:  She said that it always feels “fake” to speak ____ with a non-native speaker.  She said that when her teacher asked her to practise in French, she would just speak in English with classmates.  Take note, people…if a kid who loves French doesn’t like speaking it, how do the other 90% of your students feel?

One where she got good comprehensible input: she read as much as she could, and she enjoyed listening to the teacher’s French.

On where she really “got it” with French: when she went and lived near Vimy Ridge in France for nine months.  She mentioned how she lived above a store.  The girl who worked in the store was young and spoke good slangy gutter French but knew that Nicole didn’t know much French slang.  So the girl said “I’ll speak YOUR language” and she would massively simplify– and standardise– her French for when our ST came in.  This was often two-word phrases.  This was a massive help– it made French comprehensible.

On grammar teaching: She said that– for her– grammar was easy to learn via rules.

On how well grammar teaching is working for her own French students (8th graders/level 1): 

The kids have difficulty focusing in class.  Their comprehension is low, and their output terrible (low amounts, bad grammar, terrible pronunciation).  The text provides very little reading, and the homework book a ton of grammar practise.  Today she saw my kids’ 4th “relaxed writes” (retell the most recent story, modified) and was amazed to see kids writing 400 word stories– with generally very good grammar– after only 8 weeks of TPRS.  My kids are also beginners.  T.P.R.S., hands-down, blows traditional teaching away.  Her biggest frustration?  The kids are not enjoying French.  And here, dear readers, is your daily “take-away,” as they say:  just because you like something does not mean other people do, nor that your enthusiasm for it will make others start to like it.

On her University methods professor:  Her methods prof– a French Ph.D.– was tedious, annoying, and, in my view, wrong.  The prof stressed immediate correction of students, grammar work, and lots of output.  The prof was also a total French nazi in class, and would have freak-outs if English was spoken.  What were you supposed to do if the very technical, specialised vocabulary of teaching was something the student teachers– almost none of whom were native speakers– didn’t know?  “Struggle,” she said.

Anyway, there you have it: this is how a lover of the French language, an innovator even as a student teacher, and someone who is going to be a very strong languages teacher, sees her own past.

How easy is rule-bound language learning?

Here’s a German sentence:

Gestern hat der Hund eine Feder in seinem Garten gefunden.” (Yesterday has the dog a feather in his garden found)

Here are the rules governing German sentence creation:

1) German nouns have 1 of 3 genders and there is no way to know from the noun what gender it is. Hund is masculine and Feder is feminine
2) German articles match nouns in gender, number and one of four cases. Many German articles are the same– e.g. den means “the” in the masculine accusative singular as well as the plural feminine dative.
3) the masculine singlular nominative article is der
4) the feminine accusative singular indefinite article is eine
5) German word order for declarative sentences is generally SVO but changes depending on emphasis.
6) the simple past tense indicates a short-term action begun and ended during a specific time in the past; in German this tense is formed with the verb sein (to be) or haben (to have) and a past participle which begins with ge- and whose forms are often irregular; the simple past form of finden (to find) takes haben. (German past tense formation is like French’s passé composé.
7) the simple past tense verb is “divided” with an auxiliary verb first, and then dependent items– clauses, objects etc– next, with the past participle coming at the end.
8) dependent intra-verb items broadly follow the order: time, manner, place
9) German nouns and names are capitalised.
10) If a German sentence begins with a time, manner or place marker (e.g. “Yesterday”), the word-order changes from SVO to time marker, auxiliary verb, subject, other dependent items and clauses, then past participle.
11) In (10), the object can go right after the noun, or right before the past participle of the verb.
12) the third-peson singular ending of haben is -t

Ok. Now. Go ask your grammarian colleagues:

A) could anyone learn a language starting with these rules?

B) could anyone other than a linguist catalogue all these rules?

C) do all German speakers learn these rules as babies?

D) Can any German speaker explain these rules?

There you go. The grammarians among you should now be quiet.

How well is Adriana Ramírez’ book working so far?

This year I decided to go in for a more classical, purely story-based T.P.R.S. than what I began with– what Ben Slavic described as “the freewheelin’ c.i.” I am using my colleague Adriana Ramírez’ Teaching Spanish Through Comprehesible Input Storytelling text. This is a set of 16 stories. You get a vocab list, a basic story, an extended reading, story comprehension questions and personalised questions. The thing was loosely designed to “piggyback” on Avancemos, the Spanish text our District adopted, but it stands alone too.

Today’s question: how well is Adriana’s book working?

1) Great.

2) I am almost done my 4th story– “Cambio de Pelo”– and these are my results:

a) for speedwrites (“write as many words as you can in 5 min”) I am alternating topics. For even-numbered stories, the speedwrite assignment is “describe yourself.” For the odd-numbered stories, the assignment is “describe a picture on the overhead” (Picture will have something to do with just-asked story).

Word count averages for speedwrites as follows:

— story 1 25 words + 45-word bonus = 70% average

— story 2 43 words + 40-word bonus = 83% average

— story 3 50 words + 35-word bonus = 85% average

In terms of grammar, every kid– except those who miss 2-3 classes– is getting at least 2/3 and over 1/2 are getting 3/3. Out of 30 kids, only 3 have “bombed” in terms of grammar and in each case their subsequent mark went way up. I.e. a kid who misses a bunch of classes, does the test, then bombs, will do much better later on (on the test after next story) because the stories recycle all the grammar and vocab.

Word count averages for “relaxed writes” (“rewrite the story, or modify it, or make up your own, and include 2 main characters and at least 2 dialogues”)

— story 1 ~80 words (they totally sucked– average grammar mark 1/3)

— story 2 ~130 words (much better– average grammar mark 2/3)

— story 3 ~ 180 words (better again– class evenly split between 2/3 and 3/3 for grammar mark)

Oral output:

The system for “teaching” kids to talk in T.P.R.S.– a.k.a. P.Q.A. (personalised questions and answers) is super-simple: you basically ask members of the class the questions you ask your actors. So, in the first story, you ask your actor “what is your name?” and s/he says “My name is ____.” Because s/he doesn’t know any Spanish, you write it on the board and they can just read off board. You then ask them “is your name

?” and they say “No, my name is _____.” You then ask your parallel character(s) the same question(s). Then– after the audience has heard it a bunch of times from actors– you ask the members of the class, starting with the keeners, the same question. Initially, the keeners will be able to spit it our right away in sentence form, while other kids will just say “John.”

After 5 weeks x 5 classes/week = 25 classes, 4/5 of the kids can now unhesitatingly and fluently answer these questions:

— what is your name? how old are you? where do you live? are you a [boy, girl, cat…]? Are you [tall, short, crazy…]?

— do you like _____? [about 15 verbs and 15 nouns to choose from]

— what’s the weather, day, date?

— what are you like? (i.e. describe yourself)

— do you prefer ___ or ___?

— do you have ____?

The other 1/5 of class (the slower-acquirers) ALL understand the questions, and all can say something— even if it’s just one word– that makes sense. E.g. “What’s the weather like?” — “Cold.”

3) Why is it working, and what would I change?

First, it’s working cos it restricts (shelters) vocab, and because the extended reading closely mirrors the story asked. Second, it restricts vocab overall. I have done a rough count and it comes out to the kids get about 3 new words/day on average. Third, the comp questions force re-reading, and fourth, I am liking Adriana’s comic idea.

Update on the comic: for the comic, after we have done the extended reading (teacher guided, and ping-pong), the kids have to create a 12-panel comic that illustrates the story. It has to look awesome– clip art, etc fine– with colour, each panel must have at least one sentence, and the comic must include all dialogue. This time, I also added a translation option: copy the story– by hand– then translate underneath in different colour, then leave a blank line (to keep it neat) and indent all dialogue. I am gonna see how the translation works, but the comic rationale is, it’s deep reading: kids have to re-read, select, and illustrate (read: concise focus). Adriana says it works best for the laggard boys and I have to agree.

My changes: First, My kids are 90% Indian, so English is often their 2nd language, and almost none of them hear English at home. Our kids read, and are literate, but lack some of the linguistic mental infrastructure that Adriana’s (rich, white and Asian, educated) kids do. So, they need MUCH more reading practice than Adriana’s, so I make them read BOTH the basic script– the story I ask, by photocopying it and handing it out– AND the extended one in Adriana’s book. Second, I am varying the speedwrites (5 mins) as noted above. Third, my kids don’t always get the comprehension questions, so I have to go through them. E.g. on the last story, one question was ¿Dónde vive el chico? (Where does the boy live?) and the kids all answered with “Vivo en Colombia” (I live in Colombia). Fourth, the retells don’t work. I am getting junky output from the kids so I am putting the kaibosh on retells for awhile until I figure out a better way to do this.

Anyway, overall, the program is working well and I am both recommending it and gonna stick with it. If ppl want to try it, email Adriana (ramirez_a (attt) surreyschools (dottt) ca or hit her up on twitter: @veganadri

What are the problems with the Commmuni-Quête workbooks?

I recently got a look at Oxford University Press Canada’s cleverly-titled Communi-quête French program, more specifically, at the cahier (homework practice book). In my view, Communi-Quête– at least as far as the research into language acquisition goes– is very poorly designed. Today we’ll take a look at some items from the student workbook for Communi-Quête, which neatly illustrate how a workbook should not be designed. Did you all figure out the brilliant pun in the title?

Btw this post refers to the level 2 book, called “En route vers la Francophonie.” The idea, basically: students will learn about the varieties of French– and attendant cultural stuff, like foods, etc– in the Francophonie, i.e. Switzerland, Mali, Québec, France etc– grammar being stuff like using the passé composé, food vocab etc.

Ok here we go. Item:


Conjugate the verb (i.e. add the right endings to the verb). My questions (the answers I suggest are in italics):

A) how interesting is this? not very
B) do people do this in real life? Do they get sentences and then conjugate verbs? no, no
C) can you do this without thinking of the meaning of the sentence? yes



For this assignment, you have a list of French slang terms and then their Québecois equivalents. Your job: read the paragraph, underline the Québecois slang items, then rewrite the thing using French slang, paying particular attention to a couple of grammatical features.

My questions:

A) how frequently are these expressions used? (not very often) Patate, for example, is not in the top 1000 most-used French words. Why would a teacher present second-year kids with vocab that is low-frequency? (I wouldn’t)

B) what is the point of teaching kids the difference between French and Québecker slang? Will consciously knowing this help them understand or speak common French? (none, no)

C) does this activity teach any background– why are there different expressions? Are the connotations different? (no, dunno, maybe)

D) why is there no explanation of what the expressions mean? If your idea is to teach the less-common Quebecker terms, what will the kids learn if they don’t know the meaning of the French expressions? (dunno, no)

E) Could you do this without understanding it? (Yes– you could literally rewrite it with a coupe of minor errors just by copying terms)



Again, conjugate the verb. Questions:

A) can a student do this without looking at the meaning of the sentence? (yes)

B) is this interesting either to read or do? (probably not)

C) why would a student bother reading the sentences? (dunno) If I had this as homework, I’d only fill the blanks in– ideally by copying someone else in the halls before class– because this is boring and not worth my time.

D) Does this teach us anything meaningful about Senegal or Tunisia? (no)





A) Is this interesting? (no…I mean, let’s be honest, people: who gives a flying fark when the train leaves?)

B) is this anything other than grammar– conjugating verbs– in disguise? (barely)

Some more general questions for Oxford University Press Canada:

— If we know that the primary driver of language acquisition is comprehsible input, why do these workbook activities feature almost entirely written output? Where are the masses of reading that would make this easier on the students?

— If we know that specifically practicing grammar– e.g. conjugating verbs– has limited and short-term effects, why is this activity front and center in this workbook?

I asked the French teachers what they do with these cahiers. I pointed out that most of these activities were boring, useless etc etc, and they said that teachers only selectively use these, or they odify the activities. If this is the case, the question becomes, “why use them at all?” Cahiers are expensive–$2 a pop, or $60/class– and why spend $$ if we don’t use much of them? For $120, I could order a class set of French novels, which I could use with four classes, and which would deliver more language, and comprehensible input.

Now, my Mother has always said, “if you criticise, construct,” so here are some suggestions for Oxford University Press Canada for next time they design a French curriculum:

A) include a TON of reading. You could write a bunch of short stories, or a novel, that include all this vocab, have characters with real problems, who have difficulties when traveling a la Francophonie…

B) if you must “teach culture,” do something other than talking about vegetables and markets. If somebody taught foreigners about Canada and the U.S. by discussing Tim Hortons and McDnalds, you would be rightly skeptical.

C) if you must do output, make it student-interest-focused and interesting. I mean, how mind-bogglingly dull is writing sentences about buying train tickets in Mali? VERY! I would imagine that other typical things the course asks kids to do (if the Communi-Quête teachers I have seen are any guide) would include shopping in Mali, etc, as well as buying train tickets. The problem here: fake stuff.

Now, technically, everything in a language class is fake– especially T.P.R.S. stories– so what should we be doing? Well, not “faking reality,” in my view. I would rather have people doing one of two things:

1. Talking about their actual lives.
2. Being “completely fake:” doing something that uses real, rich language but which does not have to adhere to “reality.” If it is fun, easy, and uses real language in real (although not necessarily realistic) ways, I think it’s OK.

If the kids are learning about la francophonie or traveling, we can do things like

A) have a hassle-filled travels story. Jean buys tickets, boards the train, stows his luggage but forgets his wife! Oh no! The conductor does jot know where his wife is. Jean is sad but finds his wife asleep in the luggage car!

I mean, think of any story you’ve ever heard from a traveler: they are ALWAYS about hassles and the unexpected.

B) treating culture inteligently by dealing with it in English. Mali, like every other country, produces amazing music, poetry, art, etc. (One of my favorite musicians, Ali Farka Touré, wrote amazing songs in 10 languages about everything from love to markets to Islam.) BUT the vocab is ultra-low frequency, and the songs are full of metaphor etc. Best practice? Listen, read a translation, enjoy, discuss in English, as opposed to torturing students with dense obscure French they’ll never see again.

If the goal of “teaching culture” is to honour the culture we are learning about, let’s honour it by not simplifying it to tacos in Mexico, tango in Argentina, and markets in Mali.

Texts from Celebrities

So I’m doing “let’s trade hair” (cambio de pelo), one of Adriana Ramirez’ stories, where two guys with ugly hair trade hair.  A parallel character– other than El Chapo the Mexican gangster– will be one of the girls, oh, and me.  Here’s the texts we’ll use during the story, generated by the iPhone Text Generator.  The first is from you-ladies-and-gay-guys-know-who to one of the girls in the class:

cambio de pelo text 2

The second, for comic relief, is Kate Upton texting me.  But, see, I’m not into blondes…

cambio de pelo text 1

What was my best-ever day of teaching languages?

I walked into class with my cup of coffee and all the kids said “¡Hola!” in unison. I then told them to get out their ¡Juntos! workbooks and turn to their homework, pages 89-93. I then asked them to read their answers– from fill-in-the-blanks exercises– aloud, one by one.

“The boy walks to the park,” read Nuvjit.
“We walk to school,” read Stella.
“I walk to the store,” read David.
“They walk to the movies,” read Akhtar.

We read another thirty or so sentences together. What was awesome during this homework review was, first, the kids were all listening intently to each other– because the homework was really interesting, and second, the kids all got every answer right, and third, all the kids had done their homework, again because the homework was super-interesting.

Then one student asked “why does the verb fartear have the irregular present tense first person plural form farteámonos?” The class, intently, listened while I discoursed about accent patterns and the need to preserve syllabificational rhythm across transformational grammatical matrices. I told them “we say farteámonos rather than farteamos because that accented á is a simple grammatical marker that indicates a collective wish and recomendation to do something. So vámonos means “let’s all go!” and “farteámonos” doesn’t just mean “we fart,” but rather “come ON, people, we have some farting to do, so let’s DO it!”

Grammar lecture over– and absorbed into their long-term working memory– we moved, with no distractions, on to conversational practice. I had devised a fiendishly clever way to get them to practice the imperfecto verb tense, which my textbook was forc– err I mean, suggesting, I teach with the theme of childhood memories. So, I had the kids interview each other about their childhood activities. It was awesome! They asked each other questions like “when you were a toddler, did you used to play with dolls?” and “did you used to like sleeping?”

The kids worked at this– speaking no English, switching partners quickly on command, correcting each others’ mistakes, asking for more detail, not glancing at snapchats or texts– for fifteen minutes nonstop. They were so into this activity they complained when I said “we have to move on.”

The rationale for the talking activity, by the way, was communicative. In the communicative language teaching tradition, we use real-world language to bridge information gaps in order to learn the language, because– as is obvious when you look at toddlers– they learn speech by talking.

Next up was our cultural vocabulary quiz. As part of our imperfecto— err, I mean, childhood memories, unit, I had devised ANOTHER fiendishly clever plan. We were going to

A) pretend each of us was from a different Spanish-speaking culture
B) pretend each of us had grown up in _______ attending local festivals
C) write about our memories about attending these festivals.

(At this point in class, Holden, who frankly is always a truculent and reluctant student, and the only such student I have, said “Señor, these are fake memories of things we don’t understand” and I said “Holden, turn that frown upside down, show me some grit, and remember that I am trying to make grammar fun!” which had an immediate and transformative effect on Holden. “Gosh,” he said, “you’re right, I really should be grateful for the chance to learn the names of Chilean and Salvadorean Easter celebrations. Can I have five minutes to go over my vocabulary list?”)

I thought to myself, these kids are so good I should relent, so I gave them five minutes to study their vocabulary lists. This unit had relatively little vocabulary– only about seventy words, some of which were festival names, and others just extremely useful (some of those words were “to hang lanterns” and “to make papier-maché animals” and “to clean the streets of garbage the night after a festival”). Now, while 95% of my students love Spanish, there is always the off-chance that they will not, of their own accord, learn the vocab at home, on their own. So what I do is, I give them a vocab list (all Spanish) and they take it home, look the words up in the dictionary– because a) that’s how we learn words and b) it’s fun– and then memorise these lists. Then, they get a quiz, for marks, and I have found that fear of getting a low mark is an amazing incentive for the kids to memorise their lists of words.  As my favorite administrators like to say, “the accountability piece ensures compliance.”

In this way, I hold the students accountable for their own learning. Also, I do this cool thing: I post the marks on my classroom wall. In this way, the kids see each others’ marks, and know who’s smar– err, I mean, studious– and who’s not. I firmly believe that if a kid sees themselves getting a low mark, they say to themselves “thanks, Profe for reminding me that I am not as sma– err, I really think, studious– as others. Now that I know how much I sucked on my last ______ assignment, I feel good about this clarity. This low number is good feedback! I want to improve!”

After our quiz– where I read vocab items aloud, the kids wrote the Spanish, and then the English– it was time for something even more fun than assessment: a listening activity! I played the DVD of a Spanish youth talking about his memories of attending Day of the Dead celebrations and the kids listened and chose the right answer on their multiple gue– err, I mean, choice– sheets. We marked their choices. All of them got 10/10. Then I asked them to translate the sentences into English, and, oddly, despite their high scores, none of them could explain what the sentences meant, so obviously I told them that, for homework, they should use their verb tables and dictionaries AND NOT GOOGLE TRANSLATE to decode the sentences.

I still had thirty minutes of class time, so I thought, let’s work on our portfolios. The kids silently got their folders, pulled out the many assignments they’d stuffed into them, and looked up on the board, where I had projected the Common European Framework for Reference criteria which describes the criteria for various levels of language learning from 1 (beginner) to 6 (advanced native speaker). I firmly believe that we can and should use these criteria to guide our instruction. For example, one of the criteria for Level 1 is that a learner can “introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has.”

So, I had backwards-designed a unit where the kids learned to say and ask about things such as “what is your name? My name is…” and “where are you from? I am from …” After spending three weeks practicing these expressions, I was confident that my students had both learned these items and had fun doing so. Anyway, I asked the students to get a recent piece of work– a paragraph, a culture report, a written dialogue– from their portfolios and look at my feedback, and reflect on how they could improve their performance.

The room was both totally silent and yet vibrating with energy.

One by one, the kids came up to me with questions. First up was the formerly-reluctant Holden. “Profe,” he said, gesturing at a worksheet that I had graciously given detailed, pink-ink feedback on, “I take it from your feedback that I am having a problem with adjective position. Could you explain that to me?” I then gave Holden an explanation of the rules governing figurative vs literal denotation with Spanish adjectives and, after thanking me, he went off to revise his worksheets.

Next up was Nuvjit, who said “how can I raise my mark?”

I looked at her work and said “review your irregular preterite verbs, memorise transition words for compositions, avoid Anglicisms, and review the rules for use of written accents.” Nuvjit was grateful for this advice. And why wouldn’t she be? She was being given clear feedback with which to improve her learning. She sat down at her desk, pulled out her grammar notes, and, as her lips silently formed Spanish verbs–traje, traje, traje— a grin spread across her face.

I had noticed that, since we started out childhood memories unit, the students had all forgotten their preterite verb endings, and had begun putting the imperfect endings onto all their verbs. As reluctant as I was to believe it, I began to suspec that I had made a mistake in my teaching of the preterite. But it only took me a few minutes to realise where the problem actually lay: with the students. I had lectured on grammar, made– err I mean, asked– them to practise speaking, worksheeted them, made them memorise verb endings, and listen to the CD dialogues. I had, in other words, done everything a good languages teacher should do to teach kids language. So that they had not learned to conjugate the past tense was clearly their choice.

The remedy was clear: more talking, more worksheets, and more explanations.

As I watched them beavering away over their portfolios, I thought, THIS is what learning about a language should be.

When the bell went, the students commented “what? already!?!” and reluctantly packed up their worksheets, workbooks and textbooks. Another day, another grammar rule learned about and practised. Soon my seventh-graders began streaming in for their beginner Spanish class. I love these younger kids– so fresh-faced and energetic and eager.

My favorite, a kid named Suzy, said “Profe, can we do some worksheets today, please?” and when I said “yes, of course,” the class burst into applause.

And then my wife was shaking me awake. “Chris,” she said, “it’s 7:15, sorry to interrupt your dream. You had hugest grin of all time on your face. Must have been great.”