How Badly Did I Fail Teaching Languages? (1)

I have been reflecting on my teaching and I thought I would share my many screw-ups, and offer some better alternatives (which might be useful for teachers who use textbook programs and are getting frustrated).  So here we go– today’s question–

Q: How– and how badly– did I screw up teaching languages?

A: Pretty badly– and here is how 

 1. I used grammar worksheets and explicit grammar practice to “teach grammar.” The programs I used– first ¡Díme! and then Juntos— had a lot of these.  Fill in the blanks with the correct verbform, pronoun, or word, etc. The research about this is clear: a grammar item is acquired when the learner has heard loads of comprehensible input containing the item/rule in question, AND when their brain is “ready” to pick it up.   If a learner hasn’t acquired it, they aren’t ready for it.  If they have, there’s little point in practicing. Truscott writes that “no meaningful support has been provided for the […] position that grammar should be taught” (and practiced) and VanPatten says that “tenses are not acquired as “units” and the brain doesn’t store grammar as a textbook-stated rule.”

“Conscious awareness” of grammar rules (as Krashen points out) only helps us if ALL of the following conditions are met:

1.  we know the rule

2. we know how to apply the rule

3.  we have time to consciously reflect on and apply the rule

So, if students have worksheets or whatever where they are “practising the passé composé” or whatever, they’ll do well.  They’ll beaver away, slowly, filling in the blanks.  Of course, in real life, they won’t have time to go “hmm, is that a DR AND MRS VANDERTRAMP verb?  Oh, it is, so, let’s see, how do we conjugate that?” Or, as Yogi Berra said, “you can’t think and hit at the same time.” Worksheets cannot help those who havn’t acquired a grammar rule; they are unnecessary for those who have. And they’re boring.

Doing it betterI would have kids read a ton of stuff which has the grammar item, etc, they are learning.  If I had worksheets, a better way to use them would be to give the kids the worksheets with the blanks filled in and have them translate:  this is quality (if boring) input.


2.  I used to do projects in the target language.   One typical one:  the ____ report.  Research ___, write up what you learned about ____ on a poster and add some pictures and lines connecting different elements.  Oh, and do it in Spanish.  Then read it aloud to the class.  Variations: use the Interwebz and add things that talk, move, have colours, etc.  The only problems were…

  • the kids had to look up a ton of vocab (read: Google translate)
  • almost none of this vocab got repeated for the rest of the year (read: little acquisition)
  • most of the writing had to be “edited” (read: totally re-written) by me before the final product was assembled.
  • most of the audience focused on pictures and missed most of the target language during the presentation because the presenters are the only ones who know the vocab, and the audience wanted to understand, and pictures were easier to understand.
  • if done in poster form, nobody except me, the teacher, ever read the Spanish, and a week after it was done, not even the kids who wrote the poster typically what it meant because all they did was copy it down
  • most of the Spanish on these was low-frequency vocab.  How often is somebody going to need to say “principal exports of ___ are petroleum and fried dog” or “The Cathedral of was built in ____”?

Now, kids did pick up a bit of vocab– and culture knowledge– but at the cost of good input.

Doing it better: I now do culture, etc, projects in English.  I can  get higher-order thinking, more learning-via-sharing, and less energy wasted on poor target language use.  Plus, the kids can easily understand each others’ work.


3.  I “used games” to “make grammar and learning fun.  From class soccer leagues to Hangman to cross-4, games got the kids focused and they found them fun.  Too bad, however, that

  • most of their output was flawed and/or English, and that therefore
  • they got little accurate input, and
  • the language they were exposed to was fragmented (ie generally not sentences which were part of bigger meaningful “whole” passages or conversations
  • they got low-frequency vocab.  E.g. the class soccer/hockey/baseball game.  Lots of fun, shouting, etc…but words like “scores” and “goal” and “foul” are not much-used.


4.  I didn’t know what I was doing with assessment.

a) I screwed up listening assessment.  In every languages program I have ever seen, the listening test at the end of each unit has something like, it  plays a native speaker saying something, or a conversation.  Then, there are multiple-guess questions  Why was this a problem for my kids?

  • the kids had to “hold” quite a lot of vocab in their heads while listening to (say) 60 seconds of language.  This is very hard to do.
  • The pattern was clear:  if the speaker(s) said it, the kids picked that as the answer.  If the statement was more complex– eg John was not tired– and the question was How did John feel? a) tired b) awake c) energetic, the kids would pick a, because thinking about “not” and the meaning of the word tired is cognitive overload for a lot of them.

Doing it better:  Give them WAY more time, restrict vocab to only what they know, and provide aural input much more slowly.  I would also now suggest using aural input as listen, copy and translate.

b) I screwed up writing assessment.  Yes, I had a marking rubric (thanks, Julia Macrae), which worked fine for paragraphs.  However, what do you do with single-sentence questions?  For example, a question would be ¿Te gustan los perros? (Do you like dogs?).  If a kid wrote me gusta los perros, or yo gusto las gatos (both of which demonstrate understanding of meaning, but which have basic grammar errors), how do you mark it?  Half a mark off for the mistake?  1/4?  How do you do holistic assessment for a sentence?  Impossible.

Doing it better: Now, I make them write only paragraphs and stories and assess holistically.  I check for understanding when I am asking stories, or while we are reading.


5.  I used to expect oral output from Day 1.  I used to do a lot of “communicative pair” or “information gap” activities.  The problems here were many:

  • the kids would always make output mistakes– e.g. they would have a list of things or activities, and they would have to ask their partner about them.  So, dogs.  A kid would say  ¿Te gusta el perros?  and get the answer No yo gusto perros— which was meaningful, but very low-quality input for their partners.  If this is where their language modeling came from, I realised eventually that there would be huge problems.  They would not acquire articles, verb endings etc properly.
  • I felt like a cop, cruising around the class to ensure Spanish compliance.  As one person I talked to said, “speaking ____ with other people who are also learning it feels fake.”  Kids simply felt funny using the language.
  • the logical thing to do is to get the info as easily and quickly as possible, i.e. L1, whose use was a constant problem.
  • the activities in books were dull:  ask your partner if s/he a) went to the beach b) played soccer, c) had a BBQ last summer.  I dunno about you but I and the kids don’t find that compelling.

Doing it better:   I don’t do any forced oral activities and end-of-course assessment with beginners.  I do one totally random three-minute oral interview with 2nd and up level kids at the end of level 2.  The kids do have to chorally answer story questions, and I will ask superstars personalised questions in the PQA (personalised questions and answers) process (basically, asking the superstars the questions I ask the actors).  This has allowed me to deliver much more– and better– input, partly because I am not spending 6-8 blocks/year assessing output, and because the output they do– acting in stories, and superstar PQA– is super high quality (and so is good input) for other learners.

Now, when I have kids who are reluctant to talk, I ask them yes/no or one-word PQA questions.  If we are doing a story and I say a la chica, le gustaban los gatos, I’ll first circle that, and then I’ll ask the actress ¿te gustan los gatos?  and a few other questions involving gustan and los gatos, los perros, los dinosaurios, etc.  Then, I ask my superstar or a native speaker ¿te gustan los gatos?  and they can answer with a complete sentence.  Then, I go to the slower processors (or shyer kids) and ask the same question.  They can say sí/no and that’s fine, or they can say a complete sentence.  The point now is to deliver input, not to force output, and to use output to signal understanding.

I also no longer do communicative pair activities.  Kids now pick up Q&A (first and second person) forms (and everything else) through PQA and stories.


6.  I used to do kid-created target-language movie projects.   Typically, I said “make a short film of ___,” ___ being either some thematic vocab (e.g. the food or shopping unit) or this plus some specific grammar requirements (e.g. use the imparfait).  Now, these are fun.  My daughters also did them, and when they did, I’ve never at my house seen five teenagers spend so much intense time rehearsing, giggling, planning, etc.  However…

  • the target language output was bad.  They’re learners.
  • most of the time spent making a film was in English.
  • most of the energy, mental and otherwise, spent in making the film was fixed on visuals, acting, bloopers, editing, etc
  • when they watched each others’ films in class, mostly they could not hear or understand the Spanish…because most of the Spanish had been special-occasion looked-up just for the film, and because the sound was bad
  • because the kids KNEW that the story must be primarily visually told, and they would film/edit for visual comprehension, viewers didn’t really need to pay attention to target language.
  • even the understood good target language was often not repeated much throughout the year (low frequency).

In retrospect, movie projects did get the kids talking, and they were fun.  But they didn’t deliver the sine qua non of good languages teaching: delivering compelling comprehensible input.

Doing it better:  Thanks to Adriana Ramírez, I now do this.  Provide the kids a script of 100% comprehensible vocab– including dialogue, with errors edited out– and have them film it.  They will have a blast filming (picking costumes, editing, hanging out with their buddies, adding music etc).  When you show it in class, they will be intrigued to see their friends acting, and they will not even notice that they are hearing and understanding the target language.

7. I used to give grammar tests.  Read the sentence and fill in the blanks with the right ____.  Conjugate the verb.  Show me where the pronoun goes. The research is clear:  grammar instruction works wonders if you want your students to become manipulators of grammar.  However, the part of the brain that stores “metalinguistic awareness” stuff like grammar rules is at best tangentially connected to the subconscious part that actually processes language.  The researchers all say the same thing: the brain does not acquire grammar by practicing grammar, and what we teachers call “grammar rules” is not how the brain “does” grammar.  So, making kids study for tests that ask them to consciously manipulate words and apply grammar rules took away from real, deep processing that happens when they hear or read stories or other meaningful language.


Doing it better: assess whole-language use (read, listening to and writing real meaningful stuff) and just, well, don’t give grammar tests.  If you really want to ensure that the kids learn to conjugate, use pronouns, etc, make them do a lot of reading.

8. I used to do the portfolio.  Kids take evidence of what they do– writing, reports, videos or oral presentations, tests and quizzzes, etc, and stick them in a folder called a “portfolio.”  Modern versions include online collections (e.g. you video your restaurant unit dialogue and put it on Youtube).  The rationale for portfolios is a) kids can “reflect on their learning, document  areas of growth and areas that need work” or some such edubabble, and b) kids can go and revise stuff and c) they can see what they did and learn from their mistakes.

First, (b) I agree with– you learned more, go fix it, good.  But, second, we run into a problem with A and C, because, basically, most adolescents simply cannot reflect on something as (1) complex and (2) innate as grammar etc.  Most of them can’t do it in English with essays/paragraphs etc, so how can we expect them to do it in a second language?  As an English teacher who teaches lit and composition to English speakers in English, I know that kids cannot meaningfully self-edit.  They also mostly cannot peer edit.  Yes, you can give them checklists…and they will look for– and sometimes even find– things on the checklists…and miss everything else.  And this is in English, their first language.  I used to provide Spanish grammatical feedback, the kids would dutifully re-copy their paragraphs and “improve them” and then they would make exactly the same mistakes on tests.

You can talk about ____ till you are blue in the face, but most kids just can’t do it.  They also don’t care– I mean, what student in their right mind would care how many of the 19 irregular passé composé verbs they don’t know or whatever?  That’s boring.  Also, I would give kids their writing back, correct the hell out of it, and they would look for how much red ink was on it, and what Number they got on it.  This is because they quite correctly understood that Numberz are what Matterz to Teacherz and Parentz.

Portfolios however look cool– especially if the student is a girl; girls in my experience are more into neatness and colouring and nice pictures than boys– and Thingz That Look Cool (extra Pointz if its online!  E-learningz!  Cross-platform sharingz!) get attention, Adminz and Headz love them, etc etc.  The only problem is, they don’t provide the acquisitional effects we expect.  The only thing a portfolio can do is show growth.  Kids will have 4-sentence paragraphs at start and 20 at end of a class.  Great, a teacher’s markbook should reflect that, throw the quiz in the kid’s binder, why waste time on packages and prettiness and empty self-analyses?


So…how has eliminating the screw-ups helped my kids?

My epiphany came thanks to Michelle Metcalfe’s demo workshop, and my results now blow the old results out of the water.  I have abandoned grammar practice and testing, communicative gap activities, oral output and most oral assessment, games, movie and culture projects in Spanish, and portfolios.

My Level 1 kids now write 600-1,00 word stories, in good Spanish, in multiple verb tenses, in an hour at the end of the course.  They understand everything they hear.  They feel great when they head somewhere Spanish-speaking.  I have no management issues. I have every kid who attends and pays attention passing.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary.  Mainly I am happy that I can experience more success with second languages and I hope I can inspire others to get there also (though not necessarily by doing what I do).  And I mean honestly people, I am neither smart nor talented so if I can do OK with T.P.R.S., anyone can do well.



  1. You pretty much described to a T the first half of this first year of teaching for me until I discovered TCI/TPRS. I remember giving those fill-in-the-blank grammar worksheets oh so well. The kids could, with enough time, write in the correct conjugation, but they had no idea what the sentence *meant* and the sad part was that they didn’t have to in order to do the work.

    “extra Pointz if its online! E-learning!”

    Ha ha, that gave me a good laugh.

  2. Great self-reflection, Chris. The part I am uncomfortable with is the project in L1. I agree with your reasoning for why projects in L2 are a waste of time. I am not sure that I understand that they are worth the time in English. Maybe the key is to understand what you mean by “more learning-via-sharing.” Thanks

  3. Since you are getting so much mileage out of stories, I am curious as to why you are doing culture projects? Do you feel it is worth the class time? Thanks.

      1. That makes sense now. I suppose they tell you exactly what culture to cover.

        I recently objected to a comment that someone had no problem assigning projects in English. My objection comes from our state document which clearly indicates that culture is to be done in the target language. The obvious implication is that culture has to wait until their is sufficient language to support it. And since we are not mandated to swallow particular culture capsules at prescribed times and places, I would rather it come up according to interest and ability to receive it.

        One of my students from last year was complaining about his new class where they do culture projects. He preferred last year because we used the language instead of culture . I objected that we did culture last year. He said, “We did?” “Yes, learned some Spanish proverbs.” “But that was different. We were learning the language.” The problem, as you pointed out, is that kids are forced to produce bad language and enshrine it in artistic and/or technological settings. It really changes our perspective when we realize that it is our jobs as teachers to provide the L2 for the students to comprehend, instead of asking them to produce incomprehensible output.

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