Month: January 2015

Adriana’s great movie project idea

My colleague Adriana had a great idea for a movie project.

As I noted here, movie projects are generally a terrible idea in the languages class. As Teri W. has famously said, “peer to peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching.” So, how do we make good movies? Adriana cracked this one:

A) Adriana gets the kids into groups of 3 and they make films of the stories. They have written versions of the stories (which include some dialogue) and they write out more dialogue (which she edits).

B) The kids film the stories. This can be done nowadays with any smartphone. Hell, you can even edit on a smartphone.

C) the fun here is the costumes, the non-verbal stuff (gestures, faces, sets etc), the music and the editing. The language is dead simple– the kids don’t have to do much in terms of “thinking” about output.

D) they use one kid as the narrator, and between one and three kids as characters in the film. They can also “subtitle” the film with dialogue.

E) the final product has title, credits, etc, a narrator’s voiceover, dialogue, acting bla bla, and perfect Spanish that the kids find hilarious. Adriana shows them during her last 2 blocks where she has the kids watching the films– they’re mesmerised and getting awesome comprehensible input– and she pulls a kid at a time out of class and does her oral assessment.

F) You can recycle these for next time you use the stories.

Anyway, thanks Adriana (@veganadri on Twitter) for a great idea that I am gonna try to do in June.

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Progress report: Ramírez Book at 16 weeks

I’ve been using my colleague Adriana Ramírez’ Learning Spanish With Comprehensible Input Theough Stroytelling. We are now 16 weeks into the semester and finals will be in 2 days. We just finished asking and reading the 8th story– a story which I asked in present tense but whose reading is in full mixed past tenses (totally unsheltered grammar).

Here are the stats from most recent exam:

A) speedwrite: wordcount down slightly to around 75 and grammar down slightly to around 2.2/3.

B) relaxed write– retell most recent story, with variation– wordcount average around 450 and grammar around 2.5

DISCUSSION

First, I was anticipating a total mess with the verbs, as all stories till now have been in present. However, this was not nearly as bad as I had expected. The slower processors had problems oscillating between tenses, but 2/3 of kids did fine. The dialogues in the stories were fine too– most dialogue is in present tense anyway so no big changes.

This year because of the strike, our semester was two weeks shorter. I went reasonably quickly but I think with two more weeks I could have gotten through at least one more story (and more reading) = more exposure to past tenses and other grammar stuff.

Second, wordcount and grammar for the speedwrite (they had 5 mins to describe a picture of a girl waking up to an alarm clock) went down. This is because a picture is somewhat more ambiguous than a story and I felt like for a lot of kids the new vocab (past tense verbs) was freshest in their minds and so they just kind of threw it in there. I am not super-worried about this, as with time– and a lot of pop-ups– things will clarify.

Third, wordcount stopped going up for relaxed writes. This was I think mostly to do with processing with new grammar (past tense). There were a lot of crossed-out verbs etc on the faster processors’ papers– their conscious minds were kicking in– while with the slower ones there were more mistakes.

The book has worked pretty well. The stories are generally good (though I can’t make some of them work e.g. the Hawaian Genie…which ironically Adriana tells me is her kids’ favorite– go figure) and the vocab is nicely organised to recycle. Adriana tells me the next step is to publish a second edition with past tense (and other verb tense) versions but that’s a ways off.

Overall the book is pretty good. Unlike the Blaine Ray books, this one seems better organised (Look, I Can Talk have great ideas but I have not been able to make them work for me). Gaab’s Cuéntame series is also good but to me the exercsises seem overkill (However, this is what a lot of beginning TPRS teachers need– structure).

Honestly the only thing I think Adriana’s book needs is slightly more variety (and dialogue) in readings. To me, the basic story and the extended reading are too similar…but this is also the book’s strength: it recycles vocab. I would have included more dialogue (in written-out form) but Adriana ran into limits like space, and printing costs. These are minor quibbles– it’s a great program and she is working on her Level 2 book. If ppl wanna order it, you can contact Adriana via Twitter, where she is @veganadri, or get it off Amazon.

Next semester I have a Spanish 1 and 2 split and so I am going to do Adriana’s stories but in full mix (totally unsheltered grammar) from Day 1. I am doing this because

A) I want to see what works best: full unsheltered grammar, or sheltered grammar

B) my 2nd years have already had past tense (and subjunctive) exposure

C) If I have a focused curriculum that restricts vocab and I do lots of pop-ups, and we do a lot of reading, and I make a real effort to do a TON of PQA and actor questions, I think my last year’s problem– verb tense muddles– should be lesser.

This is te great pleasure of T.P.R.S.: I can never step twice into the same story.

What does T.P.R.S. Goddess Laurie Clarq say about circling?

Laurie Clarq– the inventor of embedded readings— is one of the nicest, smartest teachers I have ever met.  Not only is she a T.P.R.S. goddess, she also beat cancer, is a brilliant presenter, a solid writer, and just an all-around wonderful person.  She’s been doing comprehensible input for a loooong time now and recently on Ben’s  she submitted some comments re: how to circle.

Circling is where the teacher says a sentence– e.g.  Mike saw the girl— and then asks yes/no, either/or, true/false and more-detail questions about it, all the time repeating the target structure.  This is how we get repetitions of target structures and also how we add detail.  Circling was invented by Susan Gross.

So today, here are some comments shamelessly stolen from Ben’s blog 😉 where Laurie gives some ideas about circling.  You’ll have to join Ben’s ($5/month– a good deal) for the full-meal-deal.

Laurie writes:   “Confusion about circling is often at the heart of why people feel successful [in this work], or don’t. When we first learn to “circle” we learn that we can stay on one question/statement and get over a dozen ways to ask questions on that one question/statement. When we practice, we practice using that statement all of those different ways. It helps us to get familiar with all of the different options for asking questions/making statements and recycling one simple structure.

That is ‘CIRCLING PRACTICE’ and I’m afraid that as trainers, we don’t make that clear. Teachers leave thinking that storyasking in the classroom looks like circling one statement twelve ways and then moving on to the next statement [and circling that in the same] twelve ways and the next and the next and so on.  Then, when they do that in the classroom, students’ eyes glaze over and the teachers feel as if they aren’t doing it right.

So what is the “right” way?  Whatever works with your students [and whatever keeps the story moving and the interest high].  Granted, we can have twelve ways to recycle a statement/question. But as you already figured out, using all of them in a row over and over doesn’t work.

Think of it like sanding wood.  If you only sand in one place, in the same direction, you end up with a groove…exactly the opposite of what you want! Sanding needs to take place repeatedly, but over various places, and sometimes, depending on your goal in circles. Then you step back, look at how it’s going, find a place that needs a little more work and start over there…..sanding and smoothing and blending until you have the effect that you want. You may even change the types of sandpaper that you want to a finer grit as you get closer and closer to your goal.

You can use the “circling training” process when you, and/or your students, are new to the process. It helps them, and/or you, get used to the thought process. Now that you all are used to that, here are some strategies that you can use to make circling seem fresh.

GO SLOWLY, especially at first, but once they have the circling idea, these will work beautifully.

Here’s a sentence to work with: Ethan saw the wallet.

Strategy #1: Remind students that they are to ‘see the story in their head/visualize.’ Number one important skill for students!!!!! This allows you to ask students to occasionally close their eyes and visualize as you ask the questions.

Strategy # 2: Ask these questions as if they ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS ON EARTH. Your tone of voice can completely change circling!! [anyone who has ever seen West Vancouver’s own T.P.R.S. goddess Michelle Metcalfe in action will get this].  How?

a. Add pauses. Class………………..did Ethan………….or Jay-Z see the wallet? Right…….Jay-Z did not ……see the wallet. Ethan……saw the wallet.

b.  Adopt a “thinking pose”. Before, during or after a question stop and pose….as if the question deserves your entire body’s attention to figure out. You can be natural or overly dramatic..either works!

c. Pause and point. Or, have a student point. Or have a student hold up the phrase on a card as you use it.

d. React facially to the students’ response. Raise your eyebrows, shake your head, look confused or relieved, nod knowingly. When students answer a question, they need to know that you are LISTENING, not just waiting for a sound.

e. Add short, natural phrases that are comprehensible to your circling: It’s obvious, Yes, I had no idea, It’s the truth, Who knew? Do this slowly and put a phrase on the board if necessary, but this is very fun. “No?!! Seriously? Ethan saw the wallet? Who knew?”

Strategy # 3. Ask the individual opinions of several students. “In your opinion Marcos, who saw the wallet first? Really? Interesting, class, Marcos said that Ethan saw the wallet first. Ale, in your opinion, who saw the wallet first? Oh…class Ale also said that Ethan saw the wallet first. Who said that Ethan saw the wallet first? Marcos and Ale both said that Ethan saw the wallet first (give Marcos and Ale a high five). Who said FIRST that Ethan saw the wallet first? Yes! Marcos. Why did Ale and Marcos say that Ethan found the wallet first? Because it’s the truth!! Ethan found the wallet first!!”

Strategy #4Add at least one extra piece of information to the statements other than the Subject+Verb+Complement. This gives you more to circle. Instead of “Ethan saw the wallet. ” Consider: “Ethan the elephant saw the wallet.” Or “Ethan saw the wallet first.” This is of particular use if you have a variety of “processors” in your room. The faster processors love hearing/knowing/remember the extra information. This also makes visualization easier…more details. Be careful not to add too much.

I add this: when adding extra information, the easiest things to add are always place and person, because these do not require any new vocab, and allow a ton of interest and loads more reps.  For example, if we have “Ethan saw the wallet” and we add “in McDonalds,” we need no new vocab, and we have a ton more room for asking questions.  “Did Ethan see the wallet in McDonalds or in Burger King?  Did John or Ethan see the wallet in McDonalds?” etc.

Strategy #5: Get that information from the students. Fish, Fish, Fish. Keep adding details so that they can visualize, so that you can reuse the structure, so that it stays interesting. IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW FAR YOU GET IN THE STORY IF YOU ARE USING A STRUCTURE. Was Ethan a big elephant or a gigantic elephant? (get the opinion of three or four students…then have the class vote.) “According to the popular vote, Ethan, a gigantic elephant saw the wallet first!! Yes!! So, Ethan, a gigantic elephant saw the wallet first…..wait….what kind of wallet did Ethan see? ”[

[Blaine Ray: “My goal is to never finish a story.”]

Strategy #6: Say two statements then circle, rather than circling after every sentence. So say your statement is “Ethan the elephant saw the wallet first.” Add a second statement before “circling” “Ethan the elephant saw the wallet first. The wallet was in the garbage.” This gives you more information to “circle” and will keep them more alert to the questions that you are asking. “Did Ethan the elephant or Morgan the snake see the wallet first? Ah yes, Morgan didn’t see the wallet first, Ethan saw the wallet first. Where did he see the wallet? He saw the wallet in the garbage?? Really?? Did he see the wallet in the toilet? No? He didn’t see it in the toilet ? Ok so he didn’t see it in the toilet, he saw it in the garbage.

Strategy #7: Go back in the story. You’ve established that Ethan the elephant saw the wallet first. You’ve established that he saw the wallet in the garbage. You’ve found out that it was inside of a Mountain Dew cup on top of one half of a sandwich. Ok class….let’s go back a minute and remember how this started. Who saw the wallet first? Did Ethan or Morgan see the wallet first? Ask 2 or 3 questions and get back to where you left off. Don’t beat it to death, but go back for a short time.

Strategy #8: Go back in the story and add a detail. Who saw the wallet first? Where was the wallet? What did Ethan do when he saw the wallet? (did he yell when he saw the wallet? did he pick up the wallet when he saw the wallet? did he eat the 1/2 sandwich when he saw the wallet? Did he pick up the wallet before he ate the sandwich or after he ate the sandwich?)

Strategy #9: Incorporate a gesture. Create (or, better, class-create) a gesture for saw. EVERY time you say “saw” in your narration/circling, the students show you the gesture. Use this judiciously. It can get old. Another option is to put two “gesturers” in the front of the class to gesture for the class every time you use the phrase.

[I note: gestures are good with any verb, noun etc.  After awhile, you can drop them when you know the kids have them.  E.g. when your slowest processor knows “there is” (a crucial yet oddly hard term) you can stop gesturing it]

Strategy #10/11: Interview the actors (if you are using actors….or…ADD actors…Class…oooo…let’s really SEE this scene…then you have to go back and review the story with the actors) Ethan, did you see the sandwich first? Yes. Class, did Ethan say that he saw the sandwich first? Yes class, Ethan says that he saw the sandwich first. Marcos, did you see the sandwich first? Yes. Class, did Marcos say that he found the sandwich first? Yes, Marcos also says that he saw the sandwich first. Hmmm Did Ethan or Marcos really see the sandwich first? What is your opinion?

DO NOT TRY ALL OF THESE STRATEGIES AT ONCE. My guess is that you are already, naturally incorporating some of them. Make note of that first. Improve on what you are already naturally doing!! Then pick one and integrate it until you are comfortable…then add another.

The more advanced your students are, the more of these strategies you will eventually want to incorporate. These are some of the “skills” that bring “practice circling” to the level of “natural circling”!!”

What grades should kids get? Notes on evaluation for the mathematically-challenged.

Here is a part of a post from Ben’s.  A teacher– let’s call him Mr John Speaking– who uses T.P.R.S. in their language class writes:

“I was told by a Defartment Chair a few weeks ago that my grades were too high across the board (all 90s/100s) and that I needed more of a range for each assessment. Two weeks later I had not fixed this “problem” and this same Defartment Chair pulled me out of class and proceeded to tell me, referencing gradebook printouts for all my classes, that these high grades “tell me there is not enough rigor in your class, or that you’re not really grading these assessments.” After this accusation, this Defartment Chair told me I was “brought on board [for a maternity leave replacement] in the hopes of being able to keep me, but that based on what he’d seen the past few weeks, I’m honestly not tenure track material.”

Obviously, Mr John Speaking’s Defartment Chair is an idiot, but, as idiots do, he does us a favour:  he brings up things worth thinking about.

There are two issues here:

a) Should– or do— student scores follow any predictable distribution?  I.e., should there be– or are there–a set percentage of kids in a class who get As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs?

b) How do you know when scores are “too low” or “too high”?

Today’s question: what grades should students get?

First, a simple, math idiot’s detour into grading systems and stats.  The math idiot is me.  Hate stats?  Bad at math? Read on!  If I can get it, anyone can get it!

It is important to note that there are basically two kinds of grading systems. We have criterion-referenced grading and curved (norm-referenced) grading.

First, we have criterion-referenced grading.  This is, we have a standard– to get an A, a student does X.  To get a B, a student does Y, etc.  For example, we want to see what our Samoyed Dogs’ fetching skills are and assign them fetching marks. Here is our Stick Fetching Rubric:

A:  the dog runs directly and quickly to the thrown stick, picks it up, brings it back to its owner, and drops it at owner’s feet.

B: the dog dawdles on its way to the stick, plays with it, dawdles on the way back, and doesn’t drop it until asked.

C: the dog takes seemingly forever to find the stick, bring it back, and refuses to drop it.

So we take our pack of five Samoyed Dogs, and we test them on their retrieval skills.  Max, who is a total idiot, can’t find the stick forever, then visits everyone else in the park, then poos, then brings the stick an hour later but won’t drop it because, hell, wrestling with owner is more fun.  Samba dutifully retrieves and drops.  Rorie is a total diva and prances around the park before bringing the stick back.  Arabella is like her mother, Rorie, but won’t drop the stick.  Sky, who is so old he can remember when dinosaurs walked the Earth, goes straight there, gets the stick, and slowly trudges back.  So we have one A, one B, one C, one C- (Max– we mercy passed him) and one A- (Sky, cos he’s good and focused, but slow).

Here are our Samoyeds:

Samoyeds

Now note–

1. Under this scheme, we could theoretically get five As (if all the Dogs were like Samba), or five Fs (if everybody was as dumb and lovable as Max).  We could actually get pretty much any set of grades at all.

2.  The Samoyed is a notoriously hard-to-train Dog.  These results are from untrained Samoyeds.  But suppose we trained them?  We used food, praise, hand signals etc etc to get them to fetch better and we did lots of practice.  Now, Sky is faster, Rorie and Arabella don’t prance around the park, and even silly Max can find the stick and bring it.  In other words, all the scores went up, and because there is an upper limit– what Samba does– and nobody is as bad as Max was at fetching, the scores are now clustered closer together.

The new scores, post-training, are:

Sky and Samba: A

Rorie, Max and Arabella: B

Variation, in other words, has been reduced.

3.  Suppose we wanted– for whatever reason– to lower their scores.  So, we play fetch, but we coat the sticks in a nasty mix of chocolate and chili powder, so that whenever the Dogs get near them, they get itchy noses, and very sick if they eat them.  The Dogs stop wanting to fetch our sticks.  Some of them will dutifully do it (e.g. Samba), but they aren’t idiots, and so most of them will decide to forget or ignore their training.

4.  Also note who we don’t have in our Dog Pool:  Labrador Retrievers (the genius of the fetching world), and three-legged Samoyeds.  There’s no Labs because they are three orders of magnitude better than Samoyeds at fetch, and we don’t have three-legged Samoyeds because, well, they can’t run.

In other words, we could reasonably get any mix of scores, and we could improve the scores, or we could– theoretically– lower them.  Also, we don’t have any Einstein-level retrievers or, uhh, “challenged” retreivers– there are no “outliers.”

Now, let’s look at “bell curve” (a.k.a. norm-referenced) grading.  In this case, we decide– in advance— how many of each score we want to assign.  We don’t want any random number of As or Fs or whatever– we want one A, one F, etc.  We want the scores to fit into a bell curve, which looks like this:

bell curve

We are saying “we want a certain # of As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs.”  Now, we have a problem.  In our above stick fetching example, we got an A, an A-, a B, a C and a C-.  We have no Ds or Fs, because all of the Dogs could perform.  None of them were totally useless.  (After doing some training, we would get two As (Samba, Sky) and three Bs (Rorie, Max and Arabella).  But if we have decided to bell curve, or norm reference, our scores, we must “force” them to fit this distribution.

So Samba gets an A, Sky gets a B, Rorie gets a C, Arabella gets a D, and Max fails.

Now, why would anyone do this?  The answer is simple: norm referencing is only a way to sort students into ranks where the only thing that matters is where each person ranks in regard to others.  We are not interested in being able to say “in reference to criteria ____, Max ranks at C.”  All we want to do here is to say where everyone is on the marks ladder compared to everyone else.

Universities, law schools, etc sometimes do this, because they have to sort students into ranks for admissions purposes, get into the next level qualifiers, etc etc.  For example, law firm Homo Hic Ebrius Est goes to U.B.C. and has 100 students from which to hire their summer slav– err, articling students.  If they can see bell-curved scores, they can immediately decide to not interview the bottom ___ % of the group, etc.  Which U.B.C. engineers get into second year Engineering?  Why, the top 40% of first-year Engineering students, of course!

Now I am pretty sure you can see the problem with norm referencing:  when we norm reference (bell curve), we don’t necessarily say anything about what students actually know/can do.  In the engineering example, every student could theoretically fail…but the people with the highest marks (say between 40 and 45 per cent) would still be the top ones and get moved on.  In the law example, probably 95% of the students are doing very well, yet a lot of them won’t be considered for hire. Often, bell-curves generate absurd results.  For example, with the law students, you could have an overall mark of 75% (which is pretty good) but be ranked at the bottom of the class.

So where does the idea for norm referencing (“bell curving”) sudent scores come from?  Simple: the idea that scores should  disitribute along bell-curve line comes from a set of wrong assumptions about learning and about “nature.”  In Nature, lots of numbers are distributed along bell-curve lines.  For example, take the height of, say, adult men living in Vancouver.  There will be a massive cluster who within two inches of 5’11” (from 5’9″ to 6’1″).  There will be a smaller # who are 5’6″ to 5’8″ (and also who are 6’1.5″ to 6’3″).  There will be an even smaller number who are shorter than 5’6″ and taller than 6’3″.  Get it?  If you graphed their heights, you’d get a bell curve like this:

bc2

If you graphed adult women, you’d also get a bell curve, but it would be “lower” as women (as dating websites tell us) are generally shorter than men.

Now– pay attention, this is where we gotta really focus– there are THREE THINGS WE HAVE TO REMEMBER ABOUT BELL CURVES

a)  Bell curve distributions only happen when we have an absolutely massive set of numbers.  If you looked at five men, they might all be the same height, short, tall, mixed, whatever (i.e. you could get any curveat all). But when you up your sampling to a thousand, a bell curve emerges.

b) Bell curve distributions only happen when the sample is completely random.  In other words, if you sampled only elderly Chinese-born Chinese men (who are generally shorter than their Caucasian counterparts), the curve would look flatter and the left end would be higher.  If you didn’t include elderly Chinese men, the curve would look “pointier” and the left end would be smaller. A bell curve emerges when we include all adult men in Vancouver.  If you “edit out” anyone, or any group, from the sample, the distribution skews.

c)  Bell curves raise one student’s mark at the expense of another’s.  When we trained our Samoyed Dogs, then marked them on the Stick Fetching Rubric, we got three As and two Bs.  When we convert this into a curve, however, what happens is, each point on the curve can only have one Dog on it.  Or, to put it another way, each Dog has a different mark, no matter how well they actually do.  So, our three As and two Bs become an A, a B, a C, a D and an F.  If Rorie gets a B, that automatically (for math-geek reasons) means that Max will get a different mark, even if they are actually equally skilled.

As you can see in (c), bell curves are absolutely the wrong thing to do with student marks.

And now we can address the issues that Mr John Speaking’s Defartment Head brings up.  Mr Defartment Head seems to think that there are too many high marks, and not enough variation within the marks.

First, there is no way one class– even of 35 kids– has enough members to form an adequate sample size for a bell-curve distribution.  If Mr Defartment Head thinks, “by golly, if that damned Mr John Speaking were teaching rigorously, we’d have only a few As, a few Ds, and far more Bs and Cs,” he’s got it dead wrong: there aren’t enough kids to make that distribution  possible.  Now, it could happen, but it certainly doesn’t have to happen.

Second, Mr John Speaking does not have a statistically random selection of kids in his class.  First, he probably doesn’t have any kids with special challenges (e.g. severe autism, super-low I.Q., deaf, etc etc).  BOOM!– there goes the left side of the bell curve and up go the scores.  He probably also doesn’t have Baby Einstein or Baby Curie in his class– those kids are in the gifted program, or they’ve dropped out and started hi-techs in Silicon Valley.  BOOM!– there goes the right side of your curve.  He’ll still have a distribution, and it could be vaguely bell-like, but it sure won’t be a classic bell curve.

Or he could have something totally different.  Let’s say in 4th block there are zero shop classes, and zero Advanced Placement calculus classes.  All of the kids who take A.P. calculus and shop– and who also take Spanish– therefore get put in Mr Speaking’s 4th block Spanish class.  So we now have fifteen totally non-academic kids, and fifteen college-bound egg-heads.  Mr Speaking, if he used poor methods, could get a double peaked curve:  a bunch of scores clustering in the C range, and another punch in the A, with fewer Bs and Ds.

Third, instruction can– and does– make a massive difference in scores. Remember what happened when we trained our Samoyeds to give them mad fetching skillz, yo? Every Dog got better. If Mr Speaking gave the kids a text, said “here, learn it yourself,” then put his feet up and did Sudoku on his phone or read the newspaper for a year (I have a T.O.C. who comes in and literally does this), his kids would basically suck at the language (our curve just sank down).  On the other hand, if he used excellent methods, his kids’ scores would rise (curve goes up).  Or, he is awesome, but gets sick, and misses half the year, and his substitute is useless, so his kids’ scores come out average.  Or, he sucks, gets sick, and for half the year his kids have Blaine Ray teaching them Spanish, so, again, his kids’ scores are average:  Blaine giveth, and Speaking taketh away.

“Fine,” says the learned Defartment Chair, “Mr John Speaking is a great teacher, and obviously his students’ scores are high as a result of his great teaching, but there should still be a greater range of scores in his class.”

To this, we say a few  things

a)  How do we know what the “right” variability of scores is?  The answer:  there is no way of knowing without doing various kinds of statistical comparisons.  This is because it’s possible that Mr Speaking has a bunch of geniuses in his class.  Or, wait, maybe they just love him (or Spanish) and so all work their butts off.  No, no, maybe they are all exactly the same in IQ?  No, that’s not it.  Perhaps the weak ones get extra tutoring to make up for their weakness. Unless you are prepared to do– and have the data for– something called regression squares analysis, you are not even going to have the faintest idea about what the scores “should” be.

b)  score variability has been reduced with effective teaching.  There are zillions of real-world examples of where appropriate, specific instruction reduces the variation in performance. Any kid speaks their native language quite well.  Sure, some kids have more vocab than others, but no two Bengali (or English-speaking) ten year olds are significantly different in their basic speaking skills.  95% of drivers are never going to have an accident worse than a minor parking-lot fender-bender.  U.S. studies show that an overwhelming majority of long-gun firearm owners store and handle guns properly (the rate is a bit lower for handgun owners). Teach them right, and– if they are paying attention– they will learn.

Think about this.  The top possible score is 100%, and good teaching by definition raises marks.  This means that all marks should rise, and because there is a top end, there will be less variation.

Most importantly,  good teaching works for all students. In the case of a comprehensible input class, all of the teaching is working through what Chomsky called the “universal grammar” mechanism.  It is also restricted in vocab, less (or not) restricted in grammar, and the teacher keeps everything comprehensible and focuses on input.  This is how everyone learns languages– by getting comprehensible input– so it ought to work well (tho not to exactly the same extent) on all learners.

Because there is an upper end of scores (100%), because we have no outliers, and because good teaching by definition reaches everyone, we will have reduced variation in scores in a comprehensible input class.

So, Mr Speaking’s response to his Defartment Head should be “low variation in scores is an indication of the quality of my work. If my work were done poorly, I would have greater variation, as well as lower marks.” High marks plus low variation = good teaching. How could it be otherwise?

In a grammar class, or a “communicative” class, you would expect much more variation in scores.  This is because the teaching– which focuses on grammar and or output, and downplays input– does not follow language acquisition brain rules.  How does this translate into greater score variation?

a) Some kids won’t get enough input– or the input won’t be comprehensible enough– and so they will pick up less.  Now you have more lower scores.

b) Some kids will be OK with that.  Some kids won’t, and they’ll do extra work to catch up.  Result: variation in acquisition.  Now, there will be a few high scores and more low ones.

c) Some kids will hate speaking and so will do poorly on the speaking assessments, which will increse variation.

d) Many kids don’t learn well from grammar teaching, so in a grammar-focused class, you’d expect one or two As, and a lot of lower marks.

e) if the teacher is into things like “self-reflection on one’s language skills and areas for growth” or such edubabble and the kids are supposed to go back and rework/redo assignments, things could go either way.  If, for example, they re-do a dialogue from the start of the course at the end, they might– if the vocab has been recycled all year– do better.  If, however, it’s the check your grammar stuff, you’d again expect variation: only a very few kids can do that, even if their language skills have grown during the year.

And, of course, there is the “grammar bandwidth” problem: any effort to focus on a specific aspect of grammar means that other areas suffer, because our conscious minds have limited capacity. A District colleague told me that, for Level 5 (grade 12) French, the kids self-edit portfolio work. They have an editing checklist– subject-verb agreement, adjective agreement, etc– and they are supposed to go and revise their work.

The problems with this, of course, are two: in their mad hunt for s-v errors, the kids will miss out on other stuff, and we know that little to no conscious learning makes it into long-term memory.

Some real-life examples of how good instruction narrows variation  in scores:

At Half-Baked School, in the Scurvy School District (names have been changed to protect the guilty), TPRS teacher Alicia Rodriguez has Beginning Spanish.  So does her Defartment Chair, Michelle Double-Barreled.  When, at the end of the semester, they have to decide on awards– who is the best Beginning Spanish student?– Alicia has 16 kids getting an A, another 12 getting a B, and two betting a C+.  None fail.  Michelle Double-Barreled has one kid getting an A, a bunch of Bs and Cs, a couple of Ds, and a few failures.

What this means is, 16 of Alicia’s kids can

a) write 100 excellent words in Spanish in 5 min, on topics ranging from “describe yourself” to “describe [a picture].”

b) Write a 600-1000 word story in 45 min.

Both will have totally comprehensible, minor-errors-only Spanish.

Michelle Double-Barrelled, on the other hand, has one A.  Her “A” kid can

a) do grammar stuff

b) write a 100-word paragraph on one of the topics from the text (e.g. shopping, eating in restaurant, sports s/he plays, family).

This will be not-bad Spanish.

Now, who’s doing a better job?  Alicia has more kids doing more and better work.  Michelle has a classic bell-curve distribution.  According to Mr John Speaking’s Defartment Chair, Mrs Double-Barreled has a “normal” range of scores.  Yet Alicia is clearly getting her kids to kick major butt. Hmm…

The point is, with appropriate and effective instruction– good Dog training, or good Spanish teaching– we are going to get a cluster of generally higher scores.  Poor or no teaching might produce something like a bell curve.

So…what does T.P.R.S. and other comprehensible input teaching do for student outcomes?

In my class, T.P.R.S. did the following

a) all scores rose.

b) the difference between top and bottom scores (variation) decreased.

c) I.E.P. kids all passed.

d)  First-year kids in second-year classes did about 85% as well as second year kids, despite having missed a year of class.

e) In terms of what the kids could actually do, it was light-years ahead of the communicative grammar grind.  Kids at end of 2nd year were telling and writing 400-600 word stories in 3-5 verb tenses, in fluent and comprehensible (though not perfect) Spanish.  Oral output was greater in quality and quantity too.

f) Nobody failed.

My colleague Leanda Monro (3rd year French via T.P.R.S.) explains what T.P.R.S. did in her classes:

“[I saw a ] huge change in overall motivation. I attribute this to a variety of well-grounded theories including “emotion precedes cognition” (John Dewey), Krashen’s affective filter, and the possible power of the 9th type of intelligence, drama and creativity. (Fels, Gardener).   There is a  general feeling of excitement, curiosity, eagerness to speak French, incorporation of new vocabulary, spontaneous speech.

All but one student has an A or a B. The one student in the C range has significant learning challenges , and despite excellent attendance in all courses is failing both math and English. No one is failing.

[There was] far less variation. Overall, far greater success for all students. My contribution to the “Your scores are too high” comment is this: As educators we need to pose an important question:  Are we trying to identify talent, or are we trying to nurture and foster talent?  T.P.R.S. works to nurture and foster.”

And here are Steve Bruno’s comments on the effect of T.P.R.S. on his kids’ scores:

“I now get more  As and Bs [than before]. A few C+s and very few Cs. Let’s put it this way, in the past I’ve had to send between 20 and 25 interims/I reports (total 7 classes); this year, so far, I’ve sent just THREE! Of these, two had poor attendance; the other one is an L.A.C. student who is taking a language for the first time (Gr. 9).

Marks are also closer together.  Anyone who has been teaching C.I. will understand why this is the case:  Students feel more confident, less stressed and simply love T.P.R.S. They don’t like doing drills, or memorizing grammar rules, etc.

Here’s anther example [of how comprehensible input has changed student behaviour].  Last year, I had a few students who on the day of an announced test (usually, with one week of warning) would suddenly become ill, and, or skip. Some of my L.A.C. students would have to write the test in a separate room. Others would show all sorts of anxiety as I handed out the tests. Many of these students would end up either failing the test or doing very poorly.

This year, I have the same students in my class, and the day of an unannounced test, they don’t have to go to another room, nobody complains and they just get down to it and, yes, they do quite well, thank you very much!

OK, people…you want to report on how things are going with T.P.R.S.? Post some comments, or email.

Why is sustained play important for the language classroom?

T.P.R.S. is a kind of creative, collaborative game, really.  Teachers supply the language and story idea; kids supply details and together a story is built.  Sometimes people make fun of us– oh yes, T.P.R.S., talking sharks and flying purple elephants— because, well, a) they’re either stupid or misinformed, or b) they think that the learning world should be– or is– divided into these categories called “serious” and “silly,” and guess where language teaching belongs?  Bottom line: lotsa folks don’t like fun, especially elaborate fun.

Anyway, let’s not hate on the haters, as kids these days say, but rather let’s look at some fascinating research about what Po Bronson and Ashely Merryman call “sustained play” in their great book NurtureShock.  Today’s question:  what does “sustained play” look like, does it help learners, and can we apply it to the T.P.R.S. classroom?

What do kids do when they play?  What did you do when you were a kid?  My friends and I built forts, and dams and rivers when the snow melted, pretended we were cops and robbers, Star Trek characters, bla bla, wrestled, built weird stuff out of Lego, played tag, invented complicated variations on tag, devised wargames… The games were co-ed and the main differences between the guys and the girls was in the toys.  We guys wanted G.I. Joes, Transformers, etc, while the girls liked dolls a bit more…but, interestingly, most of our imaginative play was fully co-ed.  The girls wanted to explore alien planets and have wargame teams as much as the guys did.

What all of this had in common was that, for hours that invariably ended when our Moms called us in for dinner, was that we were in a state of what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow.”  We were unselfconsciously immersed in creative activities that we controlled, activities whose “purpose” was nothing other than having fun.  Now, it turns out that play– which all kids (and loads of adults) all over the world do– has legit developmental purposes.  Kids learn spatio-motor skills, empathy (via role-playing), sharing, etc etc.  There’s a good article about play here. But it turns out that play has other developmental benefits– self-restraint and developing “deep focus”– which can help us in the languages classroom.

In NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman discuss the “Tools of the Mind pre-school and kindergarten curriculum, created by Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong, one of whose central aspects is sustained play.  If the kids are learning about firemen, they make a “play plan” where they write down (as well as they can) what they want to do  and who they want to be for “fireman play” (“I am going to be the guy who needs to be rescued from the second storey of a burning house”). Playplan devised, they go to one of five “stations” in the class– firestation, firetruck, burning house, tree with kitty stuck in it, etc– and they play for 45 min.  If they get “off task,” the teacher asks “is that in your play plan?”

The program does other things too: it asks the kids to “self-talk” (create internal monologues about decisions), play “Simon Says” (listen, WAIT AND THINK, and, only then, act), and do “buddy reading,” where one kid gets a flipbook with pictures, and creates and narrates to his/her partner a story based on those pictures, and the other kid asks questions about the story.

The aim of all this?  To develop internal self-awareness, to develop abstract thought, to develop “executive self-control,” and to develop the capacity to focus.  As the data show,  Tools for the Mind works.  Why?  Because the kids set a purpose– one over which they have lots of control and which is both fun and meaningful– and then they are immersed in a state of “flow” in focused, sustained play, which makes their brains get used to long-term focus on something (playing at a role, listening to others, telling  a story, etc).  Crucially, it also teaches them to reflect and wait before talking and acting.

There is a fascinating aside in this chapter: in a 1975 Russian study, Z. V. Manuilenko asked five year olds to stand still, which they did for an average of two minutes. When the same kids to pretend they were on-duty palace guards, they were able to stand still for eleven minutes. Doesn’t work for younger kids and works less-well for older kids, but still…

Bodrova and Leong note that many of the demonstrated benefits of play are not reducible to isolated, time-specific, snapshot-style measurement. Indeed, they argue that the assumption that “the measurement of isolated skills over discrete intervals of time will accurately reflect the mechanisms of development” is wrong. Like language acquisition, play is complex and long-term. Their article is well worth a read.

So how does this apply to the comprehensible input classroom? 

We want ourselves and the kids to get into a state of “flow”– or close to it– defined by Wikipedia roughly as

  1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. a distortion of temporal experience, [where] one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

a) When we are using a story, we are “playing” in the sense that we are creating something over which we have control.  The byproduct: kids are learning– or having reinforced their capacity– to focus on– and through– imaginative elaboration.  The kids have to remember details, listen, and contribute.

b) We are asking the kids to engage in intrinsically rewarding– autotelic– activity.  They are not “doing stuff” to learn Language ____.  They don’t “do stuff” for the payment reward of marks.   A good story is interesting in its own right.  I have never in fifteen years of teaching met a kid who didn’t like a story.  Hell, I can– and do– read short stories and even novels aloud to Grade 12 students…and they love it!

In education, what you really want is for kids to not know/realise they are learning. What they do should– insofar as possible– be inherently interesting. As a side-product, they learn facts or skills or whatever.

c) We try to ditch self-consciousness as much as possible.  We don’t force the kids to talk if they can’t or don’t want to (other than easy, choral answers– yes, no, one-word).  We make them feel “safe.”  We do P.Q.A. with our superstars, and our actors are kids who want to act.  This allows us to “smuggle” grammar and vocab into the kids’ minds.

d)  When stories rock, we lose track of time.

e) as far as possible, we try to “blend” action and awareness (of at least language) by keeping things comprehensible and interesting– will the boy find his lost cat?  Will Mother Nature punish the chica mala who is littering Starbucks cups in the Amazon?

The side-effect of T.P.R.S.– one which will benefit kids everywhere, as do the Tools of the Mind practices– is going to be an ability to focus.  Rather than providing a “variety” of “activities” which “address core competencies” and “attributes” and other edubabble, we provide one, deep, long creative and interesting activity: a story.  We’re doing via language what Vipassana does via meditation for the brain.

In a world where kids are on-screen– with texts to answer, “likes” to click on, links to follow and shiny chattery games to play– for four hours a daydeep sustained focus is a crucial skill.  Whatever you do in life, you need to be able to tune in to your activity, tune out distractions, and “soak it up.” And if creative play develops that…awesome!