Month: April 2015

What does conversation in a Level 1 & 2 split class look like?

Week 8 of fully unsheltered grammar, Level 1&2 Spanish.  What does PQA (personalised questions and answers) look like? 

I’m posting this to show that– as long as you keep the language 100% comprehensible– you can easily operate with two levels at once.  You can see that the 2s and I are providing input for the 1s and there is no real output pressure.  I check for understanding, I provide a chance for y/n and/or one-word answers, and I let the kids say as much or as little as they want.

Also note what we are doing re: grammar.  The beginners can easily operate in 3 verb tenses.  Traditionally you would see pretérito (passé composé) in level 2 and imperfecto (imparfait) in level 3. Now, a lot of the beginners won’t be able to say everything, but after awhile it will kick in. As Susan Gross points out, if the input has everything we need from Day 1, and it’s comprehensible, kids will pick it up when they have heard it a ton and are ready for it.

The main rule: if it is said or read,nit must be 100% comprehensible.  I also do a lot of gesturing for verbs, nouns and past tense.  Here is what we did for a bit today.

Me: Fahim, ¿qué hiciste anoche?

Fahim (level 2): Fui al gimnasio con Danny.

Me: Class, what did he just say?

Class: I went to the gym with Danny.

Me: ¿Te gustó? ¿Fue divertido?

Fahim: Sí, fue muy divertido. Me gustó mucho.

Me: Clase, ¿adónde fueron Fahim y Danny anoche– al gimnasio, o al cine?

Class: al gimnasio

Me: Sí, clase, los chicos fueron al gimnasio.

Me: Clase, a Fahim y Danny, ¿les gustó o no les gustó el gimnasio?

Class: Les gustó.

Me: Sí, les gustó el gimnasio.  Class, what does that mean?

Class: He likes the gym.

Me: Whoa! Les gustó means “they liked.”  So when I ask ¿les gustó el gimnasio? what am I asking?

Class: Did they like the gym.

Me to Marya (level 1): Marya, ¿fuiste al gimnasio anoche?

Marya: No.

Me: ¿Te gusta ir al gimnasio, o te gusta ir al cine?

Marya: al cine

Me: ¿Tenías mucha tarea anoche?


Me: Class, what did I just ask Marya?

Class: Did you have a lot of homework last night?

Me to Ace (level 2): ¿Qué hiciste anoche tú?

Ace: tenía mucha tarea en inglés, y ví la televisión.

Me: ¿Ves mucha televisión, o ves poca televisión?

Ace: Poca televisión.

Me: ¿Por qué no ves mucha televisión?

Ace: No me gusta mucho la televisión. Es aburrido.

Me: ¿Qué prefieres: ver la televisión o textear con tus amigos?

Ace: Prefiero textear con tus amigos. (“I prefer to text with your friends”– an error)

Me (adding a bunch of emphasis): ¿ prefieres textear con MIS amigos? (I point at Ace then at me)

Ace (laughs): yo prefiero textear con MIS amigos.

Me to class: Class, what did Ace just say?

Class: I prefer texting with my friends.

Me to Manisha (level 1): Manisha, ¿prefieres textear con tus amigas, o hacer la tarea?

Manisha: textear

Me: Hacer la tarea– ¿es interesante o aburrido? 

Manisha: Es aburrido.

Me: Textear con tus amigas: ¿cómo es? ¿Es divertido o es aburrido textear?

Manisha: Divertido.

Whaddaya got, grammarians?

My Twitter challenge from a month ago stands: if you can use grammar and output-focused methods, and get better results than me with true beginners, an evening of beer (or wine) tasting is on me.

(Before we discuss results, let’s discuss what really matters: 🍻…Vancouver now has a bunch of crafty breweries. My favorite is Brassneck, who do not bottle, and who have only two beers (and I.P.A. and a northwest pale ale– this very close to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the gold standard for this style) which are always on tap. The other eight or so rotating taps are brewmaster Conrad Gmoser “unleashed” and you never see the same beers twice.  You may find cherry sours, Belgian Trippels, saisons, pilseners, Gmoser’s legendary 11% espresso stout… But Brassneck is not alone: there are a bunch of other great places too and though we are neither Denver nor Portland there is good beer to be had.  My colleague Leanda read this and said “what about 🍷?” so fair enough a wine-guzz–, er I mean, tasting evening is also ip for grabs)

ANYWAY…so far nobody has stepped up for their free beer evening.  Hello, grammarians.  Whaddaya got? “Communicative” teachers– you out there?  American Adminz who think talking, self-reflection, writing, grammar practice and “essential questions” matter– you feelin’ me?

Now allow me to explain the somewhat sarcastic tone here.  There are a bunch of teachers in the U.S. whose idio– err I mean, Administratorz, sorry, are totally unaware of how language acquisition works. These Adminz watch competent c.i. practitioners and then say stupid things like

  • “I want to see more communicative pair activities”
  • “the students aren’t talking enough”
  • “there is too much teacher talk”
  • “TPRS does not teach grammar”
  • “I do not see essential questions on the board”
  • “I do not see students reflecting on their learning”
  • “While stories I am sure are fun, the kids will also need grammar practice.”

The only thing worse than an admin who knows nothing about language acquisition is an admin who points to bad practices and wants to see more of them.  Uninformed Adminz are often two-year-olds: they want to see some shiny, commonsensical obvious “stuff” being “done” by kids “right now” as “evidence” of ________.  Uninformed Adminz love seeing communicative pair activities– “look! The kids are talking!”– and they looooove things with edubabbble– “look! E-learning! Portfolios! Self-assessment! Rigor!”– and they do not like classrooms with kids who appear to be, well, thinking and absorbing.

So these idi– err I mean, educational leaders, make life hard for c.i. practitioners, and point at bad practices for what c.i. people “should” be doing (and generally do not look at the results of c.i. instruction). Anyway, this is a challenge.  My kids do NONE of the following

  • Self assessment
  • Grammar worksheets
  • Speaking Spanish (unless they want to)
  • Communicative pair activities
  • Internet/dictionary word searches
  • Revision of writing
  • Goal setting
  • Portfolios
  • anything online

Challenge: use all the things I don’t, and get better results than me.

Here’s what my beginner kids are doing at 8 weeks of Spanish.  These are examples of story writes (a.k.a. relaxed writes). They have 40 minutes to write a story which is a variation on the most recent story we asked (and read extended versions of) in class.  They are not allowed to use notes, dictionaries, Internet, etc.  What you see here is from memory.

Manisha missed the first week of class and misses about a day a week cos of stress issues.  The grammar mistakes are absolutely minor. Here is page 1. 

Roshini also did amazingly well: 324 words.  Note the French error! Ha! She mixes up dio and dijo.

Manvir also did well. 282 words. She has a few errors– minor spelling and adj agreement. I’ll post her whole thing.

Here’s Manvir’s 2nd page

and here is her conclusion

Standard disclaimer: I am neither smart, hardworking nor good at languages. If I can get these results, anyone can get these results!

And if you think these are good…you should see what Adriana Ramírez’ kids can do.  Ella es mi profesora diosa. 

Are explicit grammar instruction and feedback effective and worthwhile? A look at bad research & wrong conclusions.

I have been discussing research on grammar teaching and feedback for awhile on Twitter with Steve S. and others.  I maintain that there is essentially no value– in terms of acquisitional gains for students– in explicitly teaching grammar or providing corrective feedback.  Steve sent me a paper– Bowles and Montrul (2008)— which seems to suggest the opposite.  This is a classic problem for languages teachers:  somebody does (very bad) research about Grammar Intervention Technique X, “finds” that it “works,” and then textbook publishers and grammarians use this to torture their poor students.  SO…

Today’s question:  is grammar instruction and feedback both effective and worthwhile?

Bowles and Montrul took English speakers learning Spanish, and wanted to see whether appropriate forms of the personal a in Spanish could best be acquired (for recognition) via regular exposure to Spanish, or via exposure to explicit instruction (“this is the personal a, and ____ is how/where you use it”) plus reading sentences containing (and some not containing) the personal a, some of which were grammatical and other which weren’t, plus feedback: if they screwed up, they were told so, and they got an explanation, and they could do the exercise again as often as they wanted.  They were also told to try to get a score of 90% correct.

When the treatment finished, they were tested, and statistical analyses confirm that, yes, the people who got instructional treatment– instruction, sample sentences, and feedback– did better than the others (and by “did better,” we mean “were able to recognise proper/improper uses of the personal a”).

So, Steve S. appears to be right.  Grammar instruction and feedback are prima facie effective.  BUT…but…but… there are so many problems with this study that, frankly, we might as well throw it out.  Here we go:  Stolzie versus the Professors.

First, Bowles and Montrul made several mistakes with their control group.

1.  Their study compared a treatment group with a non-treatment group, with insufficient differentiation of treatment variables.  This raises the question of cause: whether the treatment group’s gains came from instruction and feedback, or from simple exposure to Spanish.  If the treatment group got exposure to comprehensible language containing the instructional target (the personal a), and instruction and feedback, we do not know whether it was simple exposure to the target, or instruction and feedback about the target that made changes in understanding.

To address a concern like this, study design would have to expose a control group to lots of language containing the target, and the treatment group to that same language, as well as instruction plus feedback, so that the only difference between the groups would be the instruction and feedback.  This would allow us to tell what made the difference.

2.  Their study also failed to account for quantity of language exposed to.  They note that both groups got regular course instruction, but only the treatment group got the treatment (outside of class time).  So…if the treatment group got more Spanish than the controls, how do we know that the outcomes were a result of treatment?  Perhaps the treatment group’s gains came about from just simply getting more Spanish.  This is a confound: a potential and untested alternative explanation.

To address this concern, both groups should have received the same amount of exposure to Spanish– ideally only in class.

Second, Bowles and Montrul severely limited themselves with their treatment.  If you want to determine  the best way to improve language acquisition (even of a simple item), you cannot just take one intervention and compare it to a control, and from that make a general statement such as “grammar interventions work.”.  Their experiment does not look at other possibilities.  How about just simple comprehensible input containing the target in class?  Or, how about VanPatten’s processing instruction?  How about free voluntary reading in Spanish?

Lourdes and Ortega (2000) in their massive study of effectiveness of instructional intervention (that’s jargon for “does teaching people languages actually help them acquire languages?”) noted that basically any exposure to the target language– if it is meaningful– will produce some acquisition.  The question is not “does _____ work?”, but “how well— compared to other approaches– does _____ work?”  A grammarian who likes his worksheets and a “communicative” teacher who loves having her first-years do “dialogues” will both say “but they are learning!” and they are right.  The question, however, is how MUCH are they learning compared to other methods?

From the teacher’s point of view– outside of the control-group flaws noted above– this study does not provide us with anything useful.  All it (in my view wrongly) claims is that some “focus on form” (allegedly) worked better than whatever else the students were doing.  But since we have a lot of instructional options, research that doesn’t compare them is useless.

A better design would have looked at different ways of helping people acquire the personal a (other than just having it present in input, as it was for the control group) and compared their effectiveness.

Third, there was no examination of durability of intervention.  OK, a week after intervention, tests found the intervention group picked up the personal a.  How about a year later– did they still have it?  If there is no look at durability of intervention, why bother?  If I have to decide what to do with my students, and I have zero guarantee that Intervention ____ will last, why do it– especially if, as we will see, it’s boring. Krashen proposed a three-months-delayed post-test as one criterion of validity.  This study does not deliver on that.

Fourth, any classroom teacher can see the massive holes in this kind of thing right off the bat.

(A) it’s boring.  Would YOU want to read and listen to two-dimensional writing for days?  Juan vio a Juana.  Juana le dio un regalo a su mamá.  I cannot imagine any set of students paying attention to this.  If you wanted to diversify instruction– i.e. not present just tedious lists of sentences and grammar info– you would also be severely restricted in what you can actually do in the classroom, as you have to build everything around rule ______.  

(B) the “number of rules” problem rears its head.  Bowles and Montrul targeted the personal a because we don’t have that in English.  Spanish also has a ton of other grammar we don’t have in English.  Off the top of my head, umm,

  • subject position in questions
  • differences in use of past tenses with auxiliary verbs
  • major differences in uses of reflexive verbs…e.g. why does a Spanish speaker say comí una pizza, but me comí tres pizzas?

Any Spanish teacher could go on and come up with zillions more “non-Englishy” rules that need to be learned.  If a teacher wants to design teaching around rule-focused input and feedback, the problem is that they will never be able to address all the rules, because the number of rules is not only functionally infinite, but nobody knows them all.

Fifth, the opportunity cost of grammar reinforcement etc is both high and unaddressed in this study.  Basically, what we have is a bandwidth problem.  We have X amount of time per day/course/year to teach Spanish (or whatever).  Any focus on Rule A means– by definition– we will have less time to devote to Rule B.  Even the doddering grammarian with his verb charts and grammar notes can see the problem– oh no!  If we spend too much time on the personal a, I won’t be able to benefit the kids with my mesmerising object pronoun worksheets!— but it’s worse than that.

In terms of input, focus on a grammar rule/item/etc means losing out on two crucial things:

1. Language that is multidimensional in terms of content.  As noted, if the personal a is your target, you are seriously restricted in what you can say, write, etc (it’s boring) but, beyond being boring, students are losing out on whatever could be said without using the personal a.

2.  Language that is grammatically multidimensional.  If I must teach focused on the personal a, the other “rules” will be less present in the input, and so we’re starving Peter to feed Paul.

My guess is that– even if you did this study without all the flaws I note above and got positive results– you would find a cost elsewhere, as the quantity and variety of language students would be exposed to would have dropped and been simplified.  So they might master the personal a, but they acquire less of grammar rule ____ or vocab _____.

(Krashen and many others have looked at almost exactly this question in terms of acquisition of vocab and writing skills in terms of whether or not free voluntary reading (in L1 or L2) or classroom instruction works best.  You can teach people vocab, or phonics, or word-decoding, or writing rules, or you can let them read (or listen) to interesting stuff.  The research is unanaimous and clear: free voluntary reading beats everything in terms of how fast things are picked up, how interesting learning is, and how “multidimensional” the learning– measured in various ways, from word recognition to improved writing– is.)

What we need is a holistic look at acquisition, which one-item studies of this kind cannot show us.  What did these students not acquire while they were doing their personal a grammar work?  What did the students who got multidimensional input pick up?  Language is much more complex than knowing Rule ____ and looking at an instructional intervention that targets .1% of what needs to be learned– while ignoring the other 99.9%– is silly at best.

If you really want to know whether an instructional intervention, or technique, works, you have to look at all aspects of language use, not just whether or not one rule has been acquired.

SO…do grammar-focused instruction, vocab presentation and corrective feedback work to help people acquire the personal a?

  • maybe (but Bowles and Montrul don’t know why)
  • we have no idea for how long
  • sure…for one item at a time
  • in a boring way
  • in a way that sacrifices essential multidimensional input (of grammar and vocab)

So.  Next?

How do exit quizzes work?

Richmond, B.C. powerhouse teacher Sonya ONeill writes “Exit quizzes…could you post an example?–I’m a bit confused about how to do these well. Do you do translations only? If so, are you starting in Spanish always with all levels? Do you ever use comprehension questions (of the story you just asked) at this time? Are these your main listening assessments?”

OK, today’s question, how can we do exit quizzes?

My system is simple.

  • Based on what we did in class, I read five sentences aloud.  These sentences contain the vocab from the story we are working on, or are sentences directly from that story.  If they are not from the story, they have to be stand-alone meaningful.
  • I tell the kids, “write down what you hear in Spanish, then translate into English.”
  • They write Spanish then translate into English.
  • The kids trade papers and we mark (the Spanish writing doesn’t matter much– it’s comprehension we are after).
  • The kids return the marked papers to each other.
  • I get a show of hands: Put your hand up if you got either 4/5 or 5/5.

If 80% of class got 4 or 5 out of 5, I am happy.  If not, I delivered bad/too little input, or they weren’t listening, and so we need to do more work around those sentences.  Sometimes I collect the marks, sometimes not.

Do I do “comprehension questions”?  By this, Sonya (I think) means, Do I ask the kids comprehension questions based on the story we have read/asked without them looking at/hearing the story at the time of the quiz?  I.e., do they have to remember and then answer?

Never.  Why?  The problems with comprehension questions are as follows

a) especially with beginners, the “mental load” involved in comp questions is super high, because kids have to do three things

  • decode the meaning of the question
  • remember content
  • write answers.

We know output (writing or speaking) does not aid acquisition, so no point with that.  We also know that all we need for acquisition is comprehensible input, so again responses don’t help.  This is a lot of mental work, and Bill VanPatten reminds us that what we might call “mental bandwidth overload” is an inevitable and insurmountable fact.  Basically, the less they have to “do” with a chunk of language, the more processing power they have for each chunk.

b) We also know that comprehension always and massively outpaces production.  Our kids– and we teachers– always  recognise more words in any language than we can produce.  If we ask for output, we may be forcing kids to “do” something they havn’t acquired yet.  

Say I tell my kids five sentences in Spanish, one sentence at a time.  Max (average), Samba (fast processor) and Rorie (insanely fast) all understand the new structures fui and trabajé that were in our story.  But Max hasn’t acquired them (i.e. he can’t say or write them) yet, while Samba and Rorie have.  If we know that acquisition goes at different speeds for different students, does asking for output not penalise Max for something he cannot control?

c) In my view– and I thank James Hosler for this insight– assessment should basically just be another excuse to deliver input to the kids.  I don’t want to play “gotcha” and I want people to succeed, so I’ll focus listening around what they can understand and easily do.

By the way, I think we can totally use questions for exit quizzes, provided we do not ask for output answers.  Just have one sentence be the question and the next the answer.  You say 1. ¿trabajaste anoche? and the kids write it down in Spanish, and then translate it: “did you work last night?”  Your next sentence is 2. “No, no trabajé anoche.  Fui al cine” and the kids write that down, and then they write “No, I didn’t work.  I went to the movies.”  Then you say three more Spanish sentences which they all copy and translate.

Once the quizzes are done and marked, you can also use these for PQA if you have a few minutes at the end of class.  Ask the fast processors some of the questions and have the class listen to what they say.

Results: Beginner Speedwrites Week 8 (Spring 2015)

Today was our fourth story test.  The class had a speedwrite assignment: in five minutes, describe this picture in as many words as possible. Note: we are unsheltered (i.e. we use all necessary grammar and do not restrict ourselves to any one verb tense, mood, etc).  Also we are a split class: beginners, 2s and three native speakers.

This picture works well: we just did the “Cambio de Pelo” story and the kids know words for hair, eyes, colours, dog, cat, guitar.


So here are what the beginners did.

First, Marya.  Note spelling mistake– “guitare”– this kid had French last year and it shows.  Also note tense & person confusion.  I have started doing ¿qué hiciste anoche?  PQA at the start of every class and the beginners are mixing these up.  My theory is that if it’s not also in structured writing (i.e. story form) they mix it up more.

Manvir has some problems with verbs. She is missing hay and es which may have to do with not enough present-tense PQA and/or reading.  Also adjective agreement errors.  The thing is entirely comprehensible, but the errors at times make you go huh?

  Minali’s was interesting. It hit me that the beginners have problems with the definite article!  I had assumed, my God, this goes without saying…but…most of our kids being L1 Punjabi or Hindi (which do not have articles) perhaps I can’t assume that English crossover grammar will kick in.  Again here hay and es and está are missing.  Also note jugar guitar a classic French/English cognate mistake, one that comes from the conscious mind.

Manisha’s is basically perfect but she did not write in 3rd person.

Roshini’s is also perfect basically and very high wordcount.  But she did not write in present– I am wondering if these guys actually can consciously think about verb tenses. Also note classic on-the-way error: Saturn gustaba instead of A Saturn le gustaba.  She hasn’t added the a and le because these are of low importance: the beginner language brain is focusing on gustaba, which has all the essential info. Interesting also how she used plural adjective form azules for pelo.

Wordcounts are lower than last time. This is (I think) because when we do story-related PQA, all of the answers are in first person, so it’s easy to describe yourself.  We simply do a whole lot less talk in 3rd person present.

What did I learn? 

  • Do MUCH more present tense PQA (or ask actors about each other)
  • do pop-ups for everything including articles!
  • put more present-tense commentary in written versions of unsheltered stories, OR do way more Picturetalk  (look and discuss) in present tense.
  • the kids don’t make mistakes unless I don’t provide enough input

What should we have on our walls?

I was recently asked “what’s on your walls?” (that’s Spanish-related).  Here it is: everything on my walls to do with Spanish.

First, colour chart.  100% comprehensible with no English.  (Pink is getting faded😞)

Next, the front of the room. I have class rules and PQA chart and question words– that’s it. On the board is vocab from the story we are starting today: Adriana Ramírez’ El Rolls Royce y el Perro Rosado.  I will write a few sentences from the story– the ones with new structures– plus some dialogue once the kids have copied this vocab (and its English equivalents).  There will be WAY less junk on the board.

Finally, here is the PQA chart from above pic, closeup. This is what we use when we start with beginners.  Some kids– the fast processors who I use as actors– pick this up quickly. Others need way more reps. I just point to it.

Here is desk layout.  I like the idea of deskless (Mike Coxon does this) but I need desks for English and Social Justice.  We have a pretty good acting space at the front. It works well.  This is an English 10 class.  In the far back row in the red is Novneet. He was in my Spanish I  class last semester and majorly crushed it– 750-word 3-tense stories, with superb grammar– but he is not as strong a student in English.  My other superstar beginner, Shayla, is also in this class, and is the same: not an analytic English crusher.  Interesting that academically average kids can majorly excel in a language if taught with comprehensible input.

You will also note other teacher essentials: coffee mugs and a mandolin 😉

Even though I also teach English and Social Justice, and I need wall space for projects, I wouldn’t put any more Spanish stuff on the walls. Why? Because visual clutter is annoying and doesn’t help the kids. Maybe it was Ben Slavic who mentiond “the Ikea room.”

Some teachers ask me, “ok, where is your word wall, or where are your number and location-word posters?”

A) I had a word wall, with eveything from connecting phrases– therefore, after, etc– to location words to labeled pictures of verbs, objects, etc, and guess what? The kids copied stuff off the walls (as I hoped they would), trying to beef up their writing, and misused almost everything on the walls. This was I think because stuff that’s not acquired gets manipulated by the conscious mind and so they say ok, how do I say ____? Ok there it is, I’ll toss that into this sentence…yo tengo fui al cine.  With less on walls, what I get in writing is what they actually know.

B) Numbers, location words, time, date, weather etc are boring so I just throw one into each story and the kids pick it up that way. Voilá less junk on walls. I deal with boring stuff this way.

C) The fewer visual distractions, the more mental energy we have for focusing on and processing the essential stuff in stories.  T.P.R.S. is “narrow and deep”-focused.  We want our kids to master essentials– teach for mastery, not presentation, as Blaine Ray puts it.

Ok there we go. One teacher’s room layout.

How To Teach a Split Class

I have a Spanish 1 and 2 split right now.  Six true beginners, nineteen level 2s, and three native speakers.  I also have three level 2s who have not had Spanish for 18 months (they had Level 1 in grade 10 and now in gr 12 they have level 2). Ten years ago, with communicative and grammar teaching (the ¡Juntos! Program) this would have kicked my ass.  If there is one thing that totally freaks language teachers out, it is getting a range of grades or abilities in one class.

But you know what? My split’s all right…as a matter of fact, it’s a gas!  So, what is it like having a split class using comprehensible input and how did I do it? I also suggest reading Gerry Wass on this topic.

If your Adminz and Headz insist on a grammar- and/or topically-themed curriculum and assessment even for a split class, I would advise you to look for another job. If the idiots in charge think that “the Unit Two test on -ar verbs, indirect object pronouns and house chores vocabulary must be given on Nov 31,” makes sense, you are stuck and so are your kids. Splits don’t work in classes tied to textbooks. (You might also ask Headz and Adminz why thy don’t have, say, Chemisty 1 and A.P. Chemistry splits 😉.)

Teaching a split class involves a mind-shift, even for C.I. teachers. The first thing we have to do is ditch the idea of “content” and “units.” We are going to provide lots of comprehended input, we will recycle vocabulary, and, by creating stories (and using Movietalks and Picturetalks that recycle story vocab), we will keep things interesting for everyone. Second, as Gerry Wass notes, we are going to stop seeing ourselves as the “Spanish 1, 3 and 4 class,” and start being a community where everyone contributes. The more advanced a student is, the more output they generate (and that output is input for the less-advanced), and they act as “dictionaries” for the less-advanced. Everyone contributes to stories! We all read…but we choose our own novels. We all enjoy the stories we make together. Third, we make sure we diferentiate when we assess. Everyone will do the same simple listening quizzes, but we’ll assess output and reading by level.

It is also instructive to note that the limited research we do have about split classes suggests that the advanced students do not fall behind relative to their peers in non-split classes. Yes, you read that correctly. If we are teaching “unsheltered grammar” (ie all verb tenses, pronouns etc at the same time), what happens is, the more-advanced students get repeated input that “contains” all the grammar, and they acquire it well. Plus, since less-advanced students get all grammar from the start, they get more exposure to it and…get better!

So here it is, in more concrete terms.

First, when I started, I put each beginner beside a Level 2.  The 2s I labeled dictionaries and I told the beginners “ask your dictionaries if you don’t understand it/me.”

Second, we use fully unsheltered grammar.  We do not save “advanced” grammar for later, because there is no such thing.  There is, however, vocabulary which is more (or less) frequently used, and we build our stories around more-used vocab. For example, in our fourth story, we have an “advanced” past subjunctive expression: pensaba que si tuviera otro novio, le fuera mejor (“she thought that if she had another boyfriend, things would be/go better for her”).  PQA is in present tense (except for a brief ¿qué hiciste anoche? routine I do start of each class). This is because in a comprehensible-input classroom, the difference between beginners and others is not in complexity of grammar, but in how much vocab they can fluently use.

Third, I initially used the 2s and native speakers as actors and my superstars for PQA.  All I did with the 1s was check to make sure they understood the questions and answers.

Fourth, when I began doing PQA , all I wanted from the 1s was first sí/no and then one-word answers.  (I also did a LOT of comp checks to make sure they weren’t just bobble-heading along.)  That was sufficient output.  They didn’t need to do any talking to learn the vocab. (I can see the traditionalists raising their hands quelle horreur! Il faut parler pour pouvoir aprender!). Eventually, the 1s just stated saying more and more on their own. I told them “say what you can say without thinking about it.”

Fifth, I have differentiated writing assessment. 2s are expected to write a minimum of 100 words in 5 mins (describing themselves or a picture with content related to a recent story), and 800 words in 45 minutes (telling a story). The assessment is always most-recent-effort-is-mark so while most of the 2s have dropped off in output since last year (we are semestered so often the kids have 7 months between language classes) output goes up each story and so do the marks– their end of year goal is 100 in 5 and 800 in 40.  For beginners I do this.

For listening assessment, it is the same for all of them.  I read 5 sentences with vocab from the story aloud, they write the Spanish, then translate.  Initially I just made the beginners translate but after 2 weeks or so they wrote Spanish too.  Some of the beginners tried to write Spanish and made hilarious spelling errors (“ahsay buen teeempo”) but these have vanished as the beginners started reading.

Reading assessment: everyone reads extended, detailed (and embedded if I have the energy) version(s) of the asked story, and turns it into a simple comic.

Oral assessment: none for 1s. For the 2s, they get an unstructured oral interview at the very end of the course. This is because, as VanPatten notes, practicing speaking does not develop speaking ability– only input can do that– and I would therefore waste time (i.e. not deliver comprehensible input) if I had oral assessment during the year.  We also know from Krashen that conscious feedback (“do ____” or “avoid ____”) does not turn into acquisition.

For me, I take my cue from the amazing James Hosler: listening and reading assessment is just an excuse to deliver more comprehensible input.

Sixth, we maintain interest by using comprehensible stories.  Everyone understands everything and contributes details. Both 1s and 2s focus because stories with fun details, characters and situations are interesting for everyone.  I’m not teaching Spanish– I’m teaching stories in Spanish.  The 2s act (though now after 8 weeks I can use some of the 1s as parallel characters) and do most of the extended PQA.  The 1s listen and do y/n or one-word PQA.  Everybody does choral responses.  Every story is different; every version is different; kids are interested because the subject matter is interesting in and of itself in that it involves people, humour and suspense.  Note that I am not assuming that the kids care about Spanish, nor that they want to go to Spain or Honduras and that therefore I am “preparing” them for the real world, and so they should suck up boring instruction for a payoff in five years.  No, I want to make what we are doing right now interesting. 

However, if they do end up in Mexico or Colombia, they will have been exposed to an ocean of high-frequency vocab– and all of the grammar that there is in Spanish– and so they will have a rock-solid foundation for understanding everyday speech and for adding new vocab.

Seventh, reading is important in any class, and luckily with some planning we can do it in a split class. We use four kinds of reading.

1. The stories the class comes up with. A good class job for an advanced student or native speaker is to be the secretary, who, while the story is being asked, writes it onto a tablet or other device. The secretary emails you this, you fix the inevitable errors, print it, distribute, and away you go with reading activities (volleyball/pingpong reading, choral translation, running dictation, paper airplane reading, copy-and-translate, etc). If you save these, next year you can use CTRL+M in MS-WORD and replace this year’s students’ names with next year’s 😄 thereby building your FVR library.

2. Novels. Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab, Andrew Snider and a growing crew of self-published writers have novels and comic books with a growing number of themes, levels etc. These are specifically designed for learners: they carefully restrict the number of unique words, focus on high-frequency vocabulary, often have culture-specific themes, and often feature adolescent or animal protagonists.

La Capibara Con Botas, for example, has a mere 70 unique words, and Carol Gaab’s hilarious Brandon Brown Wants a Dog is about the same. My own Berto y Sus Buenos Amigos has 108 unique words and can be independently read after about 60 hours of input. On the other end of complexity, Vida y Muerte en la Mara Salvatrucha is a gripping, gang-themed novel with 428 unique words.

Generally, as Beniko Mason (2004, 2005) and Elley and Mangubhai (1983) point out, the most efficient use of reading time is just…reading, without followup “activities.” However, if you want them, there are a zillion novel-reading strategies (and most novels come with teacher’s packages that include reading activities).

You want 5-10 copies each of as many novels as possible. Students will choose a novel, and you give them 5-15 minutes per class to read (and do “activities,” if you need them). Since the kids are choosing, you don’t have to worry that The One Class Novel is too hard/easy for any group in class.

3. Other good reading input is the class soap opera, which you build for 4-5 classes (writing on the board, with the Class Secretary writing it down), and then edit and print out for reading. Rinse and repeat!

4. My kids make comics of class stories. I save and laminate these, and they become FVR material.

And how is it working, Stolzie?

It’s working fine, thank you very much! 😄👍 The 2s’ Spanish keeps on improving in both quality and quantity. The 1s, same. I have no management hassles.  We are a functional happy community. Everybody understands and can participate.  What else could I want?

Anyway, I no longer worry about split classes.  I am managing and I am not especially good at this, so anyone who uses C.I. should be able to easily do two levels at once by

  • keeping everything comprehensible
  • using advanced kids to generate quality output which is quality input for the less-advanced
  • not forcing beginners to talk
  • using stories, which are inherently interesting, to build broad “buy in”
  • having appropriately differentiated assessment
  • not sheltering grammar

Got a split and feeling the pinch? Try C.I. And if you have other suggestions for teaching a split, leave a comment.

What Results Am I Getting? Beginner Speedwrites week 7 (Spring 2015)

I have a split class right now– Spanish 1 and 2.  We are doing our third assessment now after our third story.  These are what my beginners did today. They have five minutes to describe themselves.  (The other topic we sometimes do is, describe a picture that is projected on the overhead.) They do this from memory– no notes or dictionaries etc.   The idea is, write as much as you can asquickly as you can, so we see acquisition– what’s “wired in”– as opposed to what the conscious, rule-focused mind can do.

These kids have had 6.5 weeks of unsheltered, comprehensible input stories.  Narration: past tenses.  Dialogue and PQA: present tense.  They knew zero Spanish when they started.  On the sheets, the larger number is wordcount and the smaller (1, 2 or 3) is their grammar mark.

First, Minali’s. There is some verb tense confusion but otherwise solid.

Next, Manvir. She’s got some problems with remembering son and es and I am wondering if this comes from the unsheltered input. She also doesn’t yet have gusta/gustan. High wordcount though!

Here is Marya’s work.   What’s interesting here is that saludables made it into this speedwrite.  She has it in the plural because that is how we see it in the story. So she has acquired meaning but she hasn’t got the grammar rule of adj agreement/placement yet.  Still, this is rock-solid writing.

Next,  Roshini.  Note tense confusion.  But also interesting: she used yo tener fue a London.  It’s wrong but she knows that something like fu- means go (past tense). I think this is rule overgeneralisation.  This kid BTW has missed one entire week of class.

This is Eric’s.  He was put into Spanish 2 weeks after course started, and has a writing output challenge (he has an I.E.P.). Only this week has he been starting to speak whole sentences aloud. I mercy-passed him with a 2/3 for grammar.

Finally, here is Manisha’s. Again, she has not yet acquired gusta/gustan but otherwise this is impeccable beginner writing. She missed the first 6 days of class so this to me is doubly impressive.

Anyway, neat, hey?  These guys are sure doing better than my kids used to do under “communicative” or grammar-focused teaching.  Would be cool to see others’ results and I’ll post more as we progress.

What was my best-ever day as a language learner?


It was, as they say, Proustian. I was on the platform of the La Poubelle metro station in Paris.  It was a perfect, late-afternoon, orange-light tableau: me, Holden (a high-school classmate who I’d happened to run into purely by chance), a beautiful French girl in a black miniskirt, her three-year old girl, and a French man.  I had just bought, yes, a madeleine and as I bit off un petit morceau, the Frenchman said to me Est-ce que le train à Poitiers est sorti?.

Well, I think that’s what he said. You see, I hadn’t actually done a lot of listening to good French during my six years in my beloved Monsieur Tabernac’s French class. I had listened to Monsier Tabernac a lot and I will remain forever grateful for his long, complex and sophisticated lectures on the passé-composé and other interesting topics, and I had listened to a lot of my classmates speaking French– well, let’s face it, mostly English– but French, not so much.

But, no matter that I couldn’t be sure I understood my interlocutor. I just KNEW that Monsieur Tabernac had done his level best to prepare me for France, and so, as I stood with the Frenchman’s question ringing in my ears and chewed on the madeleine, I cast my mind’s eye back to those amazing French classes, searching for the answer to that question. What did I see?

Rows. A blackboard. A screen and an LCD projector. Dusty filing cabinets. Shelves of dictionaries– not dusty; we used the dictionaries daily– in French. Posters of French writers whose works, Monsieur Tabernac would assure us, were absolutely central to our development as both French speakers and solid human beings. An overhead projector.

At the front, comme d’habitude, was Monsier Tabernac asking us to take out our homework. Instead of staring at the amazing curves of Sonya– whom I’d been drooling over since we’d both been in home-ec together in 9th grade– I looked toward the screen, where the homework was projected. “Man,” I thought, “this is gonna frikkin’ rock— grammar homework!”  Like all of Monsieur Tabernac’s assignments, it was really interesting. There were sentences with the verbs removed, and you had to find out what was happening in each sentence by

A) reading the rest of the sentence to get a general overview of its meaning.
B) going to the list of verbs at the bottom and looking up their meanings in the dictionary
C) picking the verb that best fit
C) conjugating the verb

Some of the sentences that day were

Je ______ à Paris.

Tu _____ à Lourdes.

This was really cool. I didn’t know who “je” or “tu” were, or why they, uhh, something to?  in?  at? Paris and Lourdes, but man, what an interesting exercise. The best thing was, Monsieur Tabernac had given us not just two but forty such sentences so the passé-composé fun just kept on coming.

“Hey,” whispered my neighbour Holden, “this is dumb, I didn’t do it, let me see yours.” What! Really? Why would a kid want to copy my homework? This would deprive him of not only the valuable knowledge of the passé composé, but of the exquisite pleasure of filling in the blanks. I have never really understood why so many kids in my high school just copied each others’ French homework. I mean, did they not want to learn French?  How could you possibly learn French without worksheets and daily grammar practice?  Holden grabbed my cahier and furiously scribbled down the answers. Holden managed to finish just before Monsieur Tabernac shuffled up the aisle past us, glancing at our cahiers.

Once we’d finished marking our homework, Monsieur Tabernac said “I have noticed that some of you are having problems with passé composé adjective agreement avec le verbe être so I’ll do you the enormous favour of tapping into my extensive knowledge of French grammar and explaining this again for your benefit,” at which point he delivered a simply mesmerising lecture about how the subjects of sentences where the être verb is used in past-tense auxiliary formation dictate that the past participle agree in both number and gender with their antecedents.  As he delivered this impromptu and very beneficial lecture, an immense farting sound came from Holden’s desk, where he had fallen asleep. “HOLDEN!” yelled Monsieur Tabernac, and, when Holden sat up, blinking, he added “I am trying to give you as much detailed grammatical knowledge as possible about the French language, so that one day you may live the dream that all young men do, and go to Paris, and order a croque-monsieur with espresso, and read philosophy books in a café on the left bank. So turn that frown upside down, find some grit, and pay attention!”

Holden blinked, and said “Sorry, Monsieur, I don’t know why I fell asleep and dreamed about rolling fat blunts of bomb Cali chronic with my fine shorties, but clearly I need to get with the grammar program.”

This made me so happy. It would be ridiculous to imagine that a teenager should prefer thinking about marijuana and girls to learning about the passé composé and the possibility of one day discussing early twentieth-century philosophy with old French men. I was glad Monsieur Tabernac had straightened Holden out.

For our next activity, we were going to learn about pronoun placement. I’d been just DYING to learn this. Monsieur Tabernac began with showing us a short, amazing video called “Est-ce que tu l’a?” which was part of his new, cutting-edge teaching strategy called l’approche communcatif-experientielle. He’d explained this to us by saying “obviously, the most important aspect of knowing another language is a rock-solid grasp of the grammar rules, but we also have reason to believe that one must speak the language in realistic situations, such as finding out interesting and necessary information from others. After all, the more we talk, the more we learn” (which was true: Mr Tabernac talked for hours about French grammar, and he obviously knew it inside-out.  Also, duhh, that’s what babies do:  they learn by talking).

The video had a guy asking a girl interesting questions and she answered. It was also loaded with cool cultural stuff, like shopping for a dinner party in France. In the video, the man first asked the girl “as-tu acheté les baguettes? and she answered with “Oui, je les ai acheté.” How cool was that– in France an essential part of culture is that people eat bread! Who would have known?  I was psyched because although I would probably never say the word baguette in America, I would sure use it in France. Then the girl said “As-tu preparé le repas?” and the guy answered “Oui, je l’ai preparé.” MORE culture stuff– in France people eat dinner together! Americans never do that; we’re so different.

After the video, we got a five-minute grammar lesson on object pronoun placement, and then Monsieur Tabernac told us to ouvrez our livres to page 97. (He was SUCH a nice guy– he told us that he usually didn’t get to P.97 until the 17th of January each year– we were clearly a VERY advanced class as it was January 16th).

During the grammar lecture the massive farting sound came again from Holden’s desk and I elbowed him awake. I didn’t know it then, but the sounds and smells of farts would be forever associated with French grammar in my mind.  On P97 was a list of objects and we had to ask our partners if they had bought the object in question. Then they were supposed to ask us. This was cool: you learned to speak by speaking.  What, other than grammar practice, could be more natural?

“As-tu acheté la salade?” I asked Holden and he said  “is it tossed?” and giggled and I said “il faut parler en français” and he said “dude.” Then it was his turn and he said “Aimes-tu baiser les jeunes filles?” and I immediately applied all of my grammar knowledge and said “Oui, j’aime les baiser.” At this point Holden laughed but I didn’t know why– I obviously knew how to apply the rules and I had generated a perfect French sentence using them.  Then Holden was bored and I had to practice by myself.  And I did.  I mean, seriously, what is more fun: asking your friend French questions about really interesting stuff– like buying bread and salad or a scarf– or talking about weekend party plans in English?  As I looked aorund class, I was amazed to see most of my classmates Snapchatting or speaking English.  A few of them wanted to practice and that was awesome.  I asked “aiment-tu manger le pain?”  And they would answer “oui j’aimons manger le.”  I loved listening to good authentic French from American kids. Why would a kid speak English to another kid if they could speak French?  OK, sure, French was hard, and we didn’t really know what we were saying, and it was boring (for kids other than me) to talk about buying food over and over, but still…people had to get some grit and just knuckle down and do the work.

When this was done, we had some portfolio time. For me, the only thing more important than grammar lectures and homework, and practising speaking new vocab, was portfoli– err, portefeuille time. This was where we got out our portfolios and our writing assignments and reflected on how we could improve our Français.

There was a thing called the C.E.F.R. which stands for “completely explicated French rocks.” This was a system of giving students a Number from A1 (“you suck and must be stereotypically American”) to C2 (“you are ready to drink café au lait and manger des croques-monsieurs à Paris”). So if you got an A1, you would know, OK, you sucked, which would obviously motivate you to get to a C2. (It hit me then– this is why Monsieur Tabernac was such a rigorous teacher:  because a few low marks int he class motivated kids to not get those low marks).  Anyway for each Number there was this list of things you had to be able to do to get the number (French class was like work: you did Activity a, b or c, or made product e, f or g,  and they paid you with a Number).

The “explicated” means “broken down into bits and explained,” basically. So I was working on getting my C.E.F.R.  A2 (“You are now allowed into France, but only on a temporary work visa, and, because you still sound like an American, albeit less so than your countrymen, do not dare to talk to any French philosophers and don’t even think about chatting up a sexy French person”) and for this, as the Council of Europe website says, I had to be able to

  • understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc
  • deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • produce simple connected text on topics, which are familiar, or of personal interest.
  • describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans

So I rifled through my paragraphs, essays and worksheets, and thought, what learning and cognitive strategies can I use to reflect on my performance and thereby improve it? I realised that I had not, ever, reviewed my writing and checked for adjective agreement. I also realised that it had never occurred to me to look at pictures, or words that looked like English words, to help me guess the French meaning, and I also realised, I don’t spend enough time practising.

So I went through and checked all of my writing for adjective agreement problems. Lo and behold, my otherwise-perfect French was riddled with errors, like this: “Je être une grosse garçon” where obviously the problem was, I should have written “gros.” It just went to show what Monsieur Tabernac always told us: if you consciously focus on something, and really summon some grit, you can find and fix the problem.  There was my revised sentence, now perfect: “Je être une gros garçon.”  How useful it was to break out the grammar notes, find a rule, and fix one’s errors.

So for twenty-five minutes I beavered away at my adjective agreement. Almost at level two, I whispered to myself, almost there. One or two of the other kids– but not Holden– were also working really hard, not talking or on their phones. I had to periodically nudge Holden because his sleepy farts disrupted the class.

I was totally happy when Monsieur Tabernac assigned us fifty more sentences using direct object pronouns, dictionary searches, and verb conjugation. And to add to the fun, he said “you’re having a pronoun test on Monday.” Awesome– I love a challenge.

As I was lost in my reverie, the Frenchman on the metro platform said “allo?” and I thought, oh yes, he’d asked me a question, and I went back into my grammar knowledge and thought, ok, DR AND MRS VANDERTRAMP verb, masculine subject, passé composé, OK, I can do this, and opened my mouth, ready to use my French.

But there was nobody there.  Where had the Frenchman gone? I turned around and there was the three-year old girl telling him “Non, Monsieur, le train n’est pas sortí” and there was Holden talking to her gorgeous French maman. “T’es occupé ce soir?” he said, “j’aimerais t’inviter a manger parce que t’es trés belle et j’aimerais te connaître.”

I don’t know what Holden was saying to her, but she smiled at him and touched his shoulder as he took out his phone and started entering a number. I almost felt jealous, but then the train came, and I thought, awesome, soon I will be on the Left Bank, drinking café and eating a croque-monsieur while I discuss Sartre. I mean, what else was French for?

1 April 2015