Month: June 2015

What does good language teaching look like? The Ten Principles for ALL language teachers

Today’s question is “What does good language teaching– regardless of method– look like?”

Here are criteria.  Comments welcome!

1) The class delivers a LOT of aural and written comprehensible input, supported where necessary with translation, images, acting, gestures and whatever makes the input comprehensible.  Input is:

  • always comprehensible
  • quality, and not generated by (error-making) learners
  • compelling (this will vary with class, age, culture etc)
  • delivered via progress along frequency lists (more-frequently used vocab is taught before less frequently used)
  • not impoverished: it does not overfocus on one grammatical/vocabulary rule or grouping, and it does not leave out any elements of the language’s grammar
  • repeated frequently without being boring

2) Both input and class are personalised.  The teacher will make an ongoing effort to get students to understand and respond to vocabulary in ways which reflect students’ interests, identities (real and/or imagined) and views.

3)  Grammar— the rules and conventions of language as traditionally understood by teachers and texts–

  • is briefly mentioned only to clarify meaning
  • does not form the goal, organisational system or focus of instruction
  • is not practiced through drills, worksheets, songs, etc, because research shows these ineffective

4)  Instruction primarily focuses on immersing learners in comprehending compelling meaning in the target language.  This means that portfolio-work-revision, correction, grammar concept explanations and mind-mapping, feedback, focus on teacher-or-text-driven ideas about “cultural relevance,” etc are avoided.

5)  Output has the following characteristics:

  • it is always unrehearsed and unforced
  • it has no goal other than immediately authentic conversation (no role plays, etc; scripted activities such as A.I.M. or T.P.R.S.-style stories provide input for other learners)
  • the learner, and not the teacher, chooses the level of output they are comfortable with, from yes/no answers to essays

6) The classroom is safe and welcoming.  The classroom should not make anyone feel uncomfortable or self-conscious.  The minimum behaviour standards are that students

  • listen and read with the intent to understand, and avoid focus on distractions
  • do not distract anyone in class
  • signal comprehension or a lack thereof

7)  Instruction recognises the unchangeability of (and tremendous variation between students’ progress along) internal linguistic syllabi.  Instruction therefore delivers an always-rich, non-impoverished diet of comprehensible language, so that

  • neural architecture constantly builds
  • learners consistently have exposure to whatever they need
  • learners can acquire new items or rules when they are ready, because “everything is present in the mix” (Susan Gross).

8)  Instruction and assessment avoid

  • explicit goals
  • “I can” or any other kind of language-narrowing statements
  • textbook-style, discrete-item sequencing, presentation and assessment of grammar and vocabulary

9) Evaluation only involves meaningful, multi-dimensional language tasks (reading, writing, listening and speaking) which are in-context authentic and holistic.  Evaluation therefore avoids legacy practices such as grammar-item tests, vocabulary quizzes, “show me you can do this real-world dialogue”-style talking activities, etc.

10) Level-to-level attrition rates, marks variability and failure rates are all low, and special-needs students succeeed int he class.  In other words, people who start taking the language keep on taking it, the difference between higher and lower marks is minimal, and scores are high.

(11)  The teacher  modifies practice if something better comes along, or current practice does not work for students.

OK.  Ça va?  ¿Sirve?  Geht’s?  If these statements describe us, our classes and our students, we are doing everything right.

How does Bill VanPatten describe how we acquire language?

Linguistics is a rabbit-hole second only to Hegelian philosophy in terms of depth and complexity.  You can move down there and spend the rest of your life looking at cross-clause meaning transfers, lexical ambiguities and other odd denizens who like the Cheshire Cat are easy to visualise and often impossible to grasp.

Fortunately, amateur geeks like Eric Herman and I, and a few pros like Bill VanPatten and Mr Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen, are here to make sense of the research so that the rest of us can look at thirty kids and pull off meaningful, acquisition-building activities.

Today, a brief run-through answering the question what actually happens in language acquisition?

Well, to put it simply, we start with linguistic data (words spoken or written).  This just means language with an intent to communicate meaning.  If it is comprehensible, or partly comprehensible, the language gets “scanned” by the aspect of the brain that we could loosely call “the input processor.”  This input “must come from others,” as VanPatten says.

This processor does a bunch of stuff.  It first looks for meaning, and it does that by looking at what Bill VanPatten informally labels “big words” such as nouns and verbs, and then adverbs and adjectives.  While the input processor is Mainly looking for meaning, it is also looking at a bunch of other data.  How do the words in question relate in terms of meaning to other words?  How do they sound?  Where do they go in the sentence?  How do they change when said/written in a sentence?  What are tone and speaker’s intent?  (there are other data the processor looks for too).  It’s important to note that the only thing the input processor can process is language.  It cannot process images, any kind of explicit rules, or incomprehensible input.

This point is absolutely crucial. A teacher can explain, say, verb conjugation or pronouns or whatever up the yin-yang, but this information cannot become part of acquired competence.  As VanPatten argues, echoing Krashen, any kind of conscious awareness of grammar etc rules is only useful if the learner

  1. knows the rule.
  2. knows how to use the rule
  3. has time to recall, apply and use the rule.

The processor kicks sorted data (or, more accurately, information derived from sorted data) upstairs to Chomsky’s “language acquisition device,” which runs “software” called “universal grammar.”  The U.G. does a bunch of stuff to the sorted data, with which it starts building what VanPatten calls “mental representation of language.”  All this big fancy-schmancy term means is, unconsciously getting it, and having an unconscious “language blueprint” or “language software.”  Mental representation is like using the Force: when you have it, things just flow.  Do, or do not– there is no try.  And by “getting it,” we basically mean two things:

a) understanding the language

b) knowing what is grammatically OK and what is not.

You, the reader, have a very well-developed mental representation of English.  You just know–but probably can’t explain why— that you can enjoy running, but that you cannot enjoy to run, and that you can untie your laces, but you cannot unsleep.  You also know that “does John live here?” is OK but “lives John here?” or “lives here John?” is not.

As mental representation develops, output potential emerges.  The more meaningful input we get, the more we process language, build mental representation, and thereby start being able to “spit out” first words, then phrases, and finally progressively more complex sentences.  There is in fact an order of appearance of rules in organic, unforced output (what people can do without any teacher or written prompting).  This is briefly detailed in VanPatten’s 2003 book From Input to Output.

So, recap: comprehensible language comes in, is parsed (sorted) by processor, goes to universal grammar, which only via linguistic input builds a progressively more complex “mental representation” of language, which as it develops will permit first understanding and then output of gradually increasing complexity.

Here is how VanPatten describes it in an email:

“I use the metaphor of a grocery checkout. The cash register computer is the mind/brain.  The bar codes on the product is the input. And the red light scanner is the input processor.

[Note: in this case, the cash register develops a “mental representation” of your grocery bills– scanner codes plus $$ amounts– from the moment it begins scanning]

The scanner can only read bar codes. It cannot read pictures, labels, rings on a can, signs, and so on.  And the computer can only receive what the red scanner delivers to it as data. It cannot read the bar codes but instead the processed information processed by the scanner. 

Language acquisition is the same.  Only input is useful for the input processor, not knowledge about language or practice. And the mind/brain needs the processed input data in order to build a linguistic system. All components in both systems are dedicated to specific activities and act on only certain kinds of info.”

Take a minute and re-read that.  Good.  Now, read it again.

It is also important to note a few other things that VanPatten (and Krashen) have said:

First, there are “working memory” bandwidth limits which come into play during input.  Not everyone can “hold in their head” the same amount of info, and too much info renders the input processor useless.

Second, there is an “order of attention,” so to speak, of what the input processor pays attention to.  At the beginning stages of acquisition, it processes “big words”– nouns, verbs etc– and only once these “make sense” can the brain sort through things like verb endings, articles, gender etc.  Basically, the brain is going to pay attention to the most important aspects of input first.

We know this because, for example, when we teach a relative beginner, say, habla (speaks) in Spanish, the learner will probably be able to tell you quite quickly what habla means (or close to it), but be unable to explain that the -a ending means “he” or “she.”  This does not mean that the brain is not registering that -a, or anything else, but rather that its main focus is on first “big meaning” and only later on inflections etc.

Finally, teachers need to ensure that learners process L2-unique grammar properly.  VanPatten’s work on processing instruction– getting people to not screw up interpretation– looks at things like this sentence in Spanish:  A la mujer vio el hombre  (“the man saw the woman”).  In English, this literally translates as “to the woman saw the man,” and English speakers tend to interpret it as “the woman saw the man.”  Some “focus on form,” as Long calls it, is necessary to make sure that learners don’t develop “bad processing” habits.

The one thing VanPatten’s metaphor does not do is explain how much repetition the brain needs to acquire something.  In the case of the cash register, all it needs is one bit of data from the scanner and its “mental representation” of the pile of groceries– an itemised bill– grows.  In language, however, the U.G. works by hypthesis testing.  Data comes in, partial rules are formed, and the system waits for confirmation or denial of rule.  So the U.G. needs LOADS of data.

Consider this.  Habla means “s/he speaks” in Spanish.  Now, here are a bunch of possible ways to use habla:

1. Juan habla con sus amigos.

2. ¿Habla o quiere hablar con sus amigos Juan? 

3. ¿No habla Juan?  Juan no habla.

4. Cuando se pone enjojado, ¿habla o grita Juan?

5. ¿Quién habla con Martina—Juan o Antonio?

Every time habla is said here, a slightly different set of meanings, grammar rules, positions in sentence, intonations, etc etc, are in play.  It is not enough for the brain to simply know what habla means.  It has to see/hear habla associated with other words and sounds, doing different jobs in different places, etc.  Indeed, a word is not a thing, but a cluster of relational properties which changes in contexts.

Consider this.   ¿Habla con sus amigos Juan?  This means “does Juan talk with his friends?” and literally “talks with his friends Juan?”  The U.G. will build a number of hypotheses here, which will look (to us from the outside– what the brain actually does looks….different) like “where does the subject in a question go?  Hypothesis: the end” and “why does sus have an -s?  Hypothesis: -s is for plural adjectives.”  The next time data comes in, the U.G. will test its hypotheses and if they are confirmed, that bit of neural wiring gets reinforced.

This– among other reasons– is why output, grammar instruction and drills simply do not develop linguistic competence, or mental representation. There are too many rules which are too complex and subtle for the conscious mind, and acquisition can only happen through meaningful, varied input over time.  Grammar instruction– like grapefruits, music and pictures– cannot be processed by the input processor, output is not hypothesis formation (though it may generate input on which the processor and U.G. can operate), and drills of any kind at best offer dull, impoverished input.

The upshot?  VanPatten’s metaphor flat out tells us

  • there will be no meaningful language development without oceans of comprehensible input
  • anything other than comprehensible input– grammar rules and practice, output, ambiguity– does not help develop mental representation
  • if there is a place in the classroom for grammar talk, is is this: we should discuss grammar ONLY insofar as such discussions support accurate meaning. Anything other than, say, “-aste or -iste mean you did ___ in the past” are useless.

What results does T.P.R.S. get? Amazing ones…and here’s the proof.

Do T.P.R.S., Movietalk, Look and Discuss, and other comprehensible input methods work?

Yes.  And not only do they work, they work much better than anything else out there.

What began as a friendly Twitter challenge– beat my beginner kids’ output using old-school methods or textbook, and I’ll take you crafty beer-drinking, hashtag #showumine– now has a bunch of T.P.R.S. teachers showing what their kids can do.

The rules are simple: show what your kids can do in writing (or speech) without dictionaries, rehearsal, Internet, notes or advance warning, with limited time and no preparation.  In other words, show what’s wired in, i.e. acquired, and not “learned.”

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.  So, without any further ado, here are results.  This entry, constantly updated, provides links to various teachers’ kids’ written and oral output.

We need more French samples, and all other languages are welcome.  Know something that needs adding?  Lemme know and I’ll add it.


Eric Herman‘s oral assessment of beginners is here.  Eric notes that “these are unfamiliar tasks and functions, but I challenge non-c.i. teachers to give the same test and get the same results.”

Chris Stolz has Spring semester 2015 beginner writing samples from 7 weeks in8 weeks in, stories from 8 weeks in and 11 weeks in.  This post compares two top students– one taught with legacy methods, one with C.I.

Grant Boulanger has 8th graders doing oral output here.  Here is one of Grant’s beginners– using three verb tenses and other so-called “advanced” grammar– to retell a story.  Grant also showcases his 8th graders (Level 1 Spanish) doing an impromptu story retell here.

Mike Coxon‘s kids are recorded here.

Mike Peto has some writing samples here.

Crsytal Barragan here shows first-day-back-to-school writing samples. Here, the student who was taught with T.P.R.S. writes rings around the student from the legacy-methods class.

Adriana Ramírez’ Level 1 Spanish results are here.

Jim Tripp has some Level 2 examples (with discussion) here.

Darcy Pippins’ AP results are here.  


Magister Lance Piantaggini shows what beginner kids can do in Latin.


Terry Waltz‘s site has writing samples plus oral stuff.  Her kids can throw down with charactersCheck it.

Hai Yun Lu has a level 1 Mandarin student storytelling here.


Brigitte Kahn‘s kids do 5-min speedwrites here.


Bess Hayles shows first day back from vacation writing samples here.

A traditionalist and Kim A. (comprehensible input) here have writing samples.  The reader can decide if the Level 2 (traditional) or Level 1 (C.I.) Kim A vs Traditojnalist exemplars.

What is “circling” and how do I do it?

Learners need a LOT of meaningful repetition to acquire something, so years ago Susan Gross developed the “circling” technique to allow teachers to make huuuuuuge numbers of repetitions on vocab.  Here’s how you do it, and no, you don’t have to use T.P.R.S. to benefit.  You are also going to circle sentences you find in reading, and things you say in Movietalk.

1.  Start with a sentence– Rochelle quiere jugar fútbol (R. wants to play soccer) & make sure kids understand it.

2. Ask a yes question– ¿clase, Rochelle quiere jugar fútbol?–and class answers sí.  Restate sentence.

3.  Ask a no question–clase, ¿Rochelle quiere jugar basquetbol ?– and class answers no. Restate sentence.

4. Ask an either/or question– clase, ¿quiere Rochelle jugar basquetbol o fútbol?– and class answers fútbol.  Restate sentence.

5.  Ask an “adding detail” question where kids have input– clase, ¿dónde quiere jugar fútbol Rochelle?— and when they suggest something interesting, add that to the sentence, e.g. Sí, clase, ¡Rochelle quiere jugar basquetbol en Barcelona!

6.  Now, circle the new detail, always restating the sentence s.l.o.w.l.y. Clase, ¿quiere Rochelle jugar fútbol en Barcelona? ¿Quiere jugar fútbol en Los Angeles? etc

If you want to add details, “with whom?” and “where?” questions are best, as these add details without adding new vocab.  In T.P.R.S., we want to recycle a small amount of vocab so people really acquire it, rather than swamping students in an ocean of partly-acquired words.

The most important thing I have learned about circling is, don’t overdo it.  If you have a story with, say, 3 parallel characters, you are going to re-use each sentence for each character, so please for the kids’ sake do not beat the sentences to death. If your structure is quería tener (wanted to have) you can ask a yes question about one character, a no question about another, etc. If you are doing Ben Slavic-style “pre-teaching” where you circle and play around with vocab before asking a story, always start with two sentences (more variety).

Goddess Laurie Clarq also weighed in– read her ideas here— and another suggestion (dunno where this came from) is to circle subject, verb then object (or to mix the order up).

E.g. your sentence is Maninder tiene tres novos guapos (M. has three handsome boyfriends).

So, first you circle Maninder.  Clase, ¿tiene tres novios guapos Maninder? ¿Tiene tres novios guapos Anna? ¿Tiene tres novios Anna o Maninder?  Always repeat the sentence.

You next circle the verb.  Clase, ¿,quiere o tiene tres novios guapos Maninder? Clase, ¿quiere tres novios guapos? Etc

Finally, you circle the subject.  Clase, ¿Maninder tiene tres novios guapos? ¿Tiene tres perros? ¿Tiene tres gatos o tres novios?

The circling keys to success are

  • go s.l.o.w.l.y
  • keep it 100% comprehensible
  • go slow enough to be understood, and fast enough to not be boring
  • use parallel characters (or sentences) so you don’t beat your questions to death
  • DO NOT CIRCLE EVERYTHING!  You only need to (mainly) circle new-ish stuff.

My best-ever job interview

When I applied for work at Pudendum High School, I brought a recorder with me for my successful Spanish job interview.  I didn’t know I was going to be successful, so I thought, well, if I blow it, I can see how I screwed up.  Pudendum High is a prestigious school, so I dressed bespoke and brushed my teeth extra-hard that morning.  Here is a transcript of the interview between me, Modern Languages Department Head Ick Sprekke and Principal MeBol Reha.

MR: So what would say your philosophy of teaching is?

Me: Set reasonable rules, figure out what the kids know and don’t, and start there. Also, get to know them, and teach them in brain-friendly ways.  I try to keep it interesting.

IS: What is the best thing you’ve ever done in a language classroom?

Me: Abandoned the textbook and the computer and started telling stories.

(IS excuses himself to clean up after nose-spraying coffee all over MR)

MR: Ok, well, until Ikk gets back (wipes coffee off pants), can you explain how you can possibly teach without a textbook?

Me: Well I just see what they know.  So, I’ll say clase, a los chicos no les gustaba lavarse con jabón and if they don’t know that that means “the guys did not like using soap when washing,” we have to start there.

MR: We have scope and sequence, and detailed unit plans here.  How do you plan on covering this material if you use stories?

Me: Well, what is the material?  Let’s say we have beginner Spanish or French, what would you want them to do in their first unit or lesson?

(IS returns with coffee stains somewhat less visible on his pants.  Mebol Reha brings him up to speed)

IS: We would expect our students to know all thirty ways of saying hello and goodbye in Spanish or French, the letters of the alphabet, numbers from one to three billion, and a repertoire of metacognitive skills which aid language learning.

ME: I think those are irrrelevant objectives.  Also, they are boring.  I have no idea how I would get kids to pay attention to those.  I wou–

(IS sprays more coffee out his nose and onto his shirt and excuses himself)

MR: You uhh certainly have uhh unorthodox opinions which I uhhh, well (checks his phone, I see him texting his either wife or mistress “Honey I will be there soon this interview is over this guy is an idiot”)…

(IS returns)

BOTH, in chorus: How do you plan on integrating technology into your language classroom?  We have Google Hangouts tied into our Kazoo accounts, cross-referenced to Freshgrade, with e-portfolios built on WebMD, and 37 Twitter accounts.  We expect our students to self-reflect on their learning, in the target language, three times daily.

Me:  When I see research showing that using a screen works better than human-to-human communication (or reading), or that self-reflection aids language acquisition, I’ll think about that question.

BOTH: Are you actually applying for this job?

Me: Yes, but I’m not into getting it if it means I have to do things that we know either don’t work, or work poorly.

IS: Look I would like to spray coffee out my nose but there is nowhere else to spray it.

MR: OK so how do you plan on covering the 30 greetings and the–

Me:  I wouldn’t bother.  I mean, hello and goodbye, that’s all you really need, numbers are low-frequency–

IS: What do you mean, “low frequency?”

Me: Words not used very much.  There are books and lots of research out the–

IS:  We have a curriculum.


Me: Well this is awkward.  Don’t you by law have a set of questions you have to ask any interviewee, you know, to keep the process appearing fair or whatever?

BOTH: Unf– err, we mean, yes.

IS: Describe your strategies for encouraging oral production from beginners.

Me:  I don’t have any.  Why should beginners talk?  They don’t need to talk to pick up a language.  If they want to, great, but they don’t have to.

IS: Do you normally smoke crack before a job int– err, I mean, what?!?  Our objectives here at Pudendum include oral production from Day 1 as a way for students to practice.  You can’t learn unless you practice.

Me: (sighs quietly through nose) Well actually, research shows that–

IS:  How do you address learning styles and multiple intelligences in the classroom?

Me:  I address them the same way I do God.  When research shows they exist–and matter– I’ll acknowledge them.  After all, even Martin Gardiner, the guy who came up with the idea, says that they are speculative.

MR: OK, moving right along because I want to go home and eat fried chicken with some herbs strategically scattered on top of it to make it look even tastier, and then Instagram it cos I am so up-to-date, anyone can cherry pick their research, so we’ll just ignore all that, how about culture?  How do you teach kids about French or Spanish culture?

Me:  Uhh, I–

IS: Look, let’s cut the B.S.  You don’t want to make people speak, you don’t use a textbook, you tell stories, you don’t teach essential things like the thirty greetings or numbers to 3,000,000,000, you don’t see the value in metacognition, you believe that multiple intelligences don’t exist, you probably don’t use the grammar workbook, am I right?

Me:  You are.  It’s a waste of time.

IS: So why should we hire you?  Your beliefs and practices have absolutely nothing to do with the way we teach languages here at Pudendum.

Me:  I get results.  My kids can write 700-1,000 word stories in under an hour, without notes or dictionaries.  They can speak fluently by end of second year.  They can read novels independently.  They can all write 100-150 words describing a picture or a topic in five minutes.

MR: Ikk, you now have to clean coffee off my floor, the school isn’t paying for that, now am I the one smoking crack here?  Did you say your kids can write up to 1,000 words in an hour?!?

Me: Yes.  But most only 600-700.

IS:  Damn, this is gonna cost me, coffee stains don’t come out easy, you say yoru kdis read novels?

Me: What else would they read?

MR:  Well thank you for your time, successful candidates will be contacted, bla bla.


***** that evening*****


My phone rang.

MR: Hello sir, I’d like to offer you the job.

Me (am I smoking crack or is he?):  Indeed.  Why?  Round peg, square hole, you know…

MR:  Well, Ikk and I talked, and we had this massive epiphany, and we realised a few things.

Me:  …?

MR: Well we realised that teachers really do need basically 100% autonomy so we are changing our policies.  We also learned that best practices are in fact more or less what you are trying to do, so we revised our curriculum so that just 100 required high-frequency verbs per year need be taught.

Me: …?

MR: I also personally realised that I don’t know a damned thing about language acquisition, which surprises me, because I am the Principal, and I am supposed to know everything and I go to a LOT of professional development and they say, drill and test, drill and test, and you know all the words…but oddly it seems as if not everything I am told is correct.  Which is odd, because here in the United States, the authorities generally tell the truth.

Me: Well…

MR: I’ll call you tomorrow and you can tell me then.  Meanwhile, I am watching a Youtube video of this guy Steve Crashing, you know him?  Some language guy?


April 1, 2016