Month: August 2015

Two Kids Talk About Language Classes

Two of my students, Ace and Kavi, are in my English 11 class and I also have Ace in Spanish.  Both are very bright. Kavi takes French and Ace bailed out of French into Spanish. 

One day in June they were both in my room after school, finishing English projects, and they were talking about language class. 

Kavi: So you have Stolz for Spanish. How is it?

Ace: It’s easy. Just listen and read and you pick it up. I got an A both years. 

Kavi: French is hard. I can’t get an A. 

Ace: You’re not a dumbass. 

Me: Yeah, Kavi. You have good work habits. 

Kavi: Three things. They just keep adding rules.  So it keeps on getting harder to remember all the rules. It’s also confusing.  Part of the rules thing.  Also I get bored.  They make you talk about boring crap like buying groceries and they make you do these tests where it is all grammar. 

Now, I’m probably the worst T.P.R.S. teacher in the world. I mean, my dog could probably do TPRS as well as me.  So this is a beacon of hope for, well, all languages teachers: if I can pull of TPRS, anyone can.  I’m the dummest guyy in the roomm and I experienced success with this thanks to Blaine Ray. 

Go forth and try it, people, go forth. 

Why don’t immigrants’ kids properly acquire their parents’ language?

My colleague Rome Lacvrencic, head of the B.C. Association of Teachers of Modern Languages, and I had an interesting Twitter discussion recently. 

Lavrencic, of Polish extraction, heard some Polish at home in Ontario, Canada, English everywhere, and was in late French Immersion. By the end of Grade 12, he says he was “more proficient in L3 than L1.”  He attributes this to being able to speak more French than Polish. 

 This  is a familiar refrain: “I used to be good at ____ but now I don’t speak it much so I’m bad at it.”

This was where I disagreed. I told him that speaking wasn’t the point, but that listening was.  

So I thought I’d take a look at this via numbers and my own experiences. 

My L1 was German.  I heard it at home a lot until Grade One, and much less after Grade Four, when my cousin Sig came to live with us.  Sig spoke Spanish, French and English, so English it was at home. 

Now, when I speak German, I sound like a five-year-old from 1963. I hear my folks speak German but that’s about my only exposure. And I suck at German. When I am around German speakers, I understand a ton but I can say much less than I understand. 

In terms of input, mine dropped to close to zero at age 9. Lavrencic went through a roughly similar process: Polish dropped off but French input massively upped.  My guess is that he (and anyone else in his shoes) would get 5-6 hours daily of French input at school, plus homework (reading) while in Polish (like me in German) would have gotten maybe an hour or two.  

Lavrencic took French in Uni and also teaches it so he’s obviously super-proficient.  

In my view, Lavrencic is bringing up the problem of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this), also known as the correlation vs causation problem. There was speaking and input, then there was acquisition.  The acquisition happened after both the speaking and input. Was it therefore because of the speaking? 

The research says it’s the input. Terry Waltz recently remarked, echoing Krashen, that there are loads of cases of people acquiring languages without speaking them. The deaf who do not get speech training are one. As we all know, when we start acquiring a  language, we go through Krashen’s “silent period” where we understand more and more but our speaking lags.  It is also well-known that babies as young as a few days have begun understanding some aspects of language 8 months prior to even single words emerging. 

Recently on Yahoo this topic came up and master teacher Hai Yun Lu weighed in. She’s Chinese, married an American, and wants her kid to acquire Chinese. Check it:

“I have raised my son to be bilingual. There are many rules and  practices we have implemented at home in order for this to happen. After my son was born, a college professor visited me and shared research she had read. If I wanted to raise a bilingual child, then his second language input needed to be minimal 30% of his total language input (I wish I could find this actual research to share with everyone).

Let’s say, if his waking/alert time is 14 hours a day. 8-9 hours in daycare = English input. He has about 5 hours at home with us. Listening to me speaking Chinese to him, his father speaking English with him and his parents conversing in English. Of course, on the weekends/holidays, he gets more Chinese input. Still, we can barely meet the minimal input amount. Therefore, rules have come into place in our house. Each time we go back to visit China, first and most, we carry a suitcase full children books back for him. (Richard Scary’s collections, Curious Gorge, Clifford…) I only read to him in Chinese, even with an English book [she means, she reads the words to herself silently in English but says them in Chinese].

We rarely turn on TV before he goes to bed. If he’s interested in watching some cartoons, I do whatever I can to get them in Chinese. Therefore, he watches his favorite cartoons in Chinese (e.g Thomas and Friends, Disney films, Curious Gorge, Magic Flute’s Adventure). The majority of his playmates have been Chinese-speaking kids until this spring. He has developed close friendships in JK, where we have finally “extended” our friends circle.

My son is one of the very few kids who can speak Chinese fluently, in comparison to the kids in a similar situation. Many people complain to me that their kids understand their languages, but only speak back in English. I always say “input” proceeds “output”. They need more comprehensible input before they can output. (Here I have left out some psychological factors such as the desire to “fit in”, which typically occurs once when kids start school and they start to refuse to speak their parents’ languages.)

Many of my son’s friends’ parents are very eager to have their children to speak Chinese, and they keep saying to me: “just speak Chinese to my child, I hope we will be able to speak.” It hasn’t worked for any of his friends yet, because what we can say to each other is incomprehensible to his friends, unless I want to turn a playdate into a Chinese lesson time.”

Haiyun Lu

My Marking System for a Language Class Summarised.

“How do we mark kids in C.I. classes?” asks a C.I. newbie on the Yahoo listserv.  Assessment and evaluation are always hot topics.

First, definitions.  Assessment is observing how people are doing, and based on that observation

1. changing what you the teacher do and
2. giving students feedback in order to
3. improve student performance.

Assessment in a comprehensible input classroom means checking whether individual students (or the class) understand both statements and questions, and– if they don’t– clarifying. Weak choral responses?  No response?  Wrong answer?  Go back and clarify. The same goes for individual kids.  If Johnny can’t answer the question “What does ___ mean?”, go back and re-explain.  BOOM! that’s assessment.

Evaluation is assigning a number to student work based on a student’s performance in relation to standards (criteria).  This we do at the end of instruction (ie when a story cycle is done, or at the end of the year).

Second, principles.  If you havn’t been in-serviced about “assessment for learning,” google it, I can’t explain it all here, but let’s make three things SUPER CLEAR.

A.   We only evaluate “final products,” not practice, homework, behaviour, attitude, etc.   The long and the short of this surprisingly controversial statement is that we expect our kids to do X, Y and Z, and the mark we ultimately assign them at the end of Year ____ of Blablabian Language Class should reflect how well they do X, Y and Z, baseed on a set of criteria.  Whether or not Johnny is nice in class, and whether or not Suzy does her homework are irrelevant: what matters is how well they do in relation to criteria.

B.  We only evaluate what has been taught.  No random new vocab, no activities on tests the kids havn’t done, no gotcha! games etc.  You test what you teach, period.

C. We always let ppl re-do work so they can improve their mark. In my class, this means that their mark is always their most recent writing, reading and speaking mark.

Assessment should be fast, simple and minimal, because people learn from interesting comprehensible input and not from testing and feedback, and because teachers need to see their families & have a life ūüĎć.  

Now, here is what I do.


My instruction is very loosely built around story cycles. I will ask a TPRS-style story, and add to that Movietalks, Intro Routine, Story Listening, Picturetalk, reading, etc. When we are “done” with one story and its associated vocab, I evaluate. Evaluation for a story cycle includes the following:

  1. Two listening quizzes. For this, I read a 5-7 sentence story that I make up on the spot aloud. The kids listen, write down the Spanish, and translate into English. This will be 33% of the story cycle mark. To evaluate these, they basically get a mark for getting the gist of each sentence. I don’t “grade spelling” unless the spelling makes their writing incomprehensible.
  2. One reading quiz. I will give the kids something to read, and get them to translate it. Whatever it is, it has to be 98% comprehensible. Usually, I will give kids a version of something we have created in class, or something similar to what we made in class. To evaluate this, I will randomly pick three sentences and see how well they understand. They will get a mark out of three.
  3. One Story Listening grade. I do Story Listening on Fridays. I get the kids to summarise a printed version of the story and hand that in.  They almost always get 2.5/3 or 3/3 on this. This goes into the reading category. If a story cycle takes more than a week, sometimes they get two SL grades added to their reading.
  4. One 5-min picture description write and one story write. This is how I mark writing.
  5. Other stuff: I can also grade comics for a reading mark. If we are reading a novel, I can copy a few sentences from a chapter and get the kids to translate that for a reading mark. You can easily get reading marks from Textivate, and I also use Sr Wooly scores sometimes for reading marks.

So, at the end of a story cycle, I will have two marks for writing, two for listening, and one or two for reading. Each category is worth 33.3% of grade. I print marks out & post them online.

Now, if kids have unexcused absences, or they didn’t do the comic or Q&A for stories, etc., they will get a much lower grade than they expect. If the grade is low, I tell the kid or their parent “Baninder is missing X, Y and Z. If she completes these next story cycle, she will probably get a higher grade.” So the kids know that the posted grade is their grade right now. They also know that they can change their grade by paying attention.

When the next story cycle starts, the gradebook resets.


In my course, the final exam is 100% of the mark. I tell kids and parents that their marks along the way are a rough indicator of how well they are doing.  At the end of the year, we do the following:

1. First class: they have a listening test where I read a longer story (15-20 sentences) aloud.  They have to write down the Spanish and translate. Then, we have a reading test: they get a written text they have never seen, and translate it into English. I randomly pick 5 sentences and grade those for each of reading & listening.

2. Second class: they have three writing tasks.  First, they have 5 min. to describe themselves.  Second, I project a picture, and they have 5 min. to describe the picture. Third, they have to write a story.

3.  For speaking, I do this.

After seven years of C.I., I have found this system clear, simple, low-work and low-stress for the kids. To sum up,

  • students are always marked on their most recent work
  • no oral evaluation for beginners
  • this is real “assessment for learning” where only final products are evaluated with reference to criteria
  • there is no marking of attitude, homework, participation, etc.  If kids screw around, or don’t work, I deal with it– but not by using marks as carrot or stick

What Should The First Day of Language Class Look Like?

The always-on-point Laura Sexton (@SraSpanglish–follow her on Twitter) recently said during a #langchat session that, on a successful first day of school “students can say something when they leave.” 

I disagree.  So, today’s question:  what should a successful Day 1 with beginners look like?

First, kids should feel comfortable.  They need to know they are in the right room, in the right class with the right teacher, who knows their name, and that they are sitting where they should be sitting.  They also need to know what they have to do to be successful in class (and it’s very simple: 1. listen and read with the intent to understand 2. don’t distract yourself or anyone else 3. ask questions when you don’t understand), and to feel expectations without pressure.  And those expectations boil down to one simple thing: tune in. 

Second, kids need to do something meaningful.  I am a firm believer in getting to work right away.  While getting to know the kids matters a lot, I religiously avoid “let’s get to know each other!”-type activities which I think are silly and often feel awkward. Getting to know the kids will happen during the year as you intelligently personalise, and most kids (even if they don’t want to say it) are fairly shy with a new teacher.

Before any kid wants to tell you anything about themselves, they want to know two things:

a) do you care about– and respect– me as a person?

b) are you going to run this class in such a way that I can succeed?

We start with B– meaningful Day 1 language activities (in my case stories; for Ben Slavic various sentence-based activities like “Circling With Balls” or “One Word Images,” etc).  We show A by careful listening to the kids as they suggest details (or volunteer) during stories, and by not forcing them to do anything they don’t want to do (typically, talking aloud and speaking the target language in class top the list).  If kids know we are listening, they will trust us, and slowly open up.

Third, we make kids feel successful.  And no, in response to Laura Sexton, that does not mean they are speaking Blablabian when they exit our class on Day 1.  I flat-out tell my students that “success is understanding; speaking will follow when you’re ready.”   As I’ve noted, most kids’ grammar or “communicative” class experiences boil down to them feeling three things:

  • “it was boring” or “it was stressful”
  • “I didn’t understand”
  • “they made us remember too many words and rules”

If you get through a chunk of story, the kids contribute, and most importantly— the kids understand, you will have done something too many teachers havn’t: build the foundations for real success on Day 1.

If you havn’t read this blog before, or you want a refresher, note that it is not necessary to “practise” speaking or writing to develop those skills.  If people read and listen– and understand– they will, without any effort, after an initial silent period, be able to speak and write.  If you don’t believe me, fine– see what the experts have to say about output.

Briefly, Wong and VanPatten (2003) note that ‚Äú[a]cquisition of a linguistic system is input-dependent, meaning that learners must be engaged in comprehension in order to construct that system [‚Ķ] Production is not comprehension and thus produced language is not input for the learner. That input must come from others.‚ÄĚ They also note that ‚Äúdrills are unnecessary and in some cases hinder acquisition,‚ÄĚ and Van Patten (2013) remarks that ‚Äútraditional ‚Äėpractice‚Äô may result in language-like behaviour, but not acquisition‚ÄĚ and that ‚Äúpractice is not a substitute for input.‚ÄĚ  He goes on to ask ‚Äúif input is so important, what does traditional practice do?‚ÄĚ and answers ‚Äúessentially very little, if anything.  It does not help mental representation.  It is not clear it helps skills.‚ÄĚ

Now, if the students on Day 1 want to talk– i.e. they speak Blablabian without you urging them to— that’s great.  Enjoy!  But don’t expect them to talk.  If you finish Day 1 with the students, and 80% of the class gets 4/5 or better on their exit quiz, and you ask ten of them at random “did you understand everything?”, and they say “yes,” you are doing it right.  

What Is Personalisation? Two Approaches.

What is “personalisation”? ¬†We all agree it matters. ¬†My definition: personalisation is any connection between subject matter and individuals’ interests and characteristics.

A very talented District colleague recently did me the favour of Twarguing with me.  She posted a picture of a bicycle with some Spanish sentences explaining the value of riding a bike, thus: 

For the non-Spanish-speakers, the sentences include “puts a big smile on your face” and “reduces the risks of heart attack,” etc. ¬†These are all about the advantages of riding a bicycle regularly. ¬†I would never use this with kids, cos like O.M.G. it’s boring, LULZ but anyway.

When I saw this, I looked at a few words from the picture Wiktionary’s Spanish frequency lists. ¬†Most of that picture is low-frequency vocabulary (i.e. not in the top 1500 most-used Spanish words). ¬†So,¬†I responded with the following question:

How is low-frequency vocabulary “important”? If your reference is to grammar (e.g. 3rd person verbs), this better taught w/ high-frequency vocab.”


Shauna here is suggesting that students investigate their own interests and use language pertaining thereto.  In other areas, we have suggestions about using project based learning and genius hour in the language classroom (with excellent rebuttals (especially for genius hour proposals) from Sarah E. Cottrell).

We¬†are here getting into a classic traditional-methods-vs-comprehensible-input teachers’ argument: ¬†do we make language class interesting– and personalised– for students by

a) recycling high-frequency vocabulary, or

b) by allowing students to choose their own vocabulary for activities?

A general note: while we all take¬†some interest in what others do/like etc, there are limits. ¬†Walk into a Joshua Tree fire circle, and if you’re not a rock-climber, you’ll be baffled and bored within minutes, because “it’s slammer left-facing hands on 2s to a sidepull and then a mantle over a crappy blue Alien and a slab runout” is basically irrelevant to you. ¬†In¬†any social situation, there is a balancing act between interest in others’ stuff and being bored. ¬†So it is in a classroom.

Textbook personalisation suggestions¬†have a number of basic problems, one of which is keeping kids interested. ¬†Why should Johnny want to listen to/read the vocab about ordering dinner, or recycling, or bargaining for fruit in a French market, over and over? ¬†It’s not that these activities¬†and words¬†are boring per se, but when was the last time you spent three weeks using forty words¬†and one grammar device¬†to discuss the same topic?¬†Never– because that’s¬†boring. So the simple answer– for teachers who do not use stories– is, let the kids pick and choose their vocab. ¬† T.P.R.S. and A.I.M. teachers, as we shall see, don’t have many challenges keeping kids interested.

But if students choose their own vocab for class activities or projects, there are five big problems.

First, there is the problem of usable frequency. ¬†If we want to build functional fluency in any language, our first priority is make sure students acquire the most-used words before the less-used. ¬†Obviously, there will be exceptions: “communicative” teachers typically like to make sure kids know all the words for school things such as pencil, desk etc, while we comprehensible input people like animals etc for our stories. ¬†Now, a student¬†may¬†be into activities that use high-frequency words. ¬†But much more often, the opposite is the case.

If Johnny is into, say, bicycle racing, and Sheila likes wrestling, great.  But how often is Johnny going to hear/read cycling-relatedРand Sheila wrestling-relatedРwords?  The answer:  in most language communities, especially ones to which people in their first five years of language acquisition belong, not very often.  This means they are putting effort into something which has limited communicative value for them and for others in their class.

Second, we have the problem of shared interest.  As I noted above, if Baninder likes Call of Duty and Maricela likes chess, whatРas relative beginnersРare they going to talk about?  Maricela is probably not going to be especially interested in hearing about shooting people, team missions, ammunition etc, and Baninder is not going to want to hear about endgame strategies and Sicilian openings, etc.

In the “real” world (probably online), Baninder can find his own C.o.D. crew in French and Maricela can play chess with French speakers, but in class– where realistically 95% of language acquisition happens for our students– how are we going to get each kid– not to mention the rest of the class– to “buy into” hearing and reading others’ specialist vocab?

(As an English teacher, my first great reading realisation years ago came from my brilliant colleague Louise Hazemi, who in Surrey pioneered the use of literature circles for novel reading. ¬†We¬†used to have a “novel a year” system, where kids were assigned¬†To Kill A Mockingbird in 10th grade,¬†Lord of the Flies in 11th, etc. ¬†The problem? ¬†Most kids hated these books (either because they were “too hard,” or simply because they had been assigned), didn’t read them, cheated on tests and essays, etc. ¬†So, at our school, we asked the kids what books they would like (and asked teachers) and for each grade bought 10 copies of 8 novels. ¬†Now, the kids in each grade pick a novel to read (yes; we still offer Mockingbird and L.o.t.F.) and BOOM!¬†all the kids read at least one novel, and¬†all the kids report enjoying their reading (they still do essays, discussions etc about their chosen novel).

It is much the same with silent reading.  I start each English and Social Justice class with 20 minutes of silent reading.  There are three silent reading rules:

  1. You must read a book (no newspapers or magazines) and not talk, listen to music, or use your phone.
  2. You must not read anything from any class during silent reading.
  3. Your book must not suck.  If it does, get another one.

How does it work? ¬†Brilliantly. ¬†While my less-literate boys grumble at the start of the year, after a week¬†every kid reads and every kid likes reading. ¬†Probably two-thirds of kids read young adult novels, while another third prefer things like biographies, how-to books, various factual genres, self-help, etc. ¬†This is because they¬†choose things that are interesting (and readable) to them and because¬†there is no “accountability piece.” ¬†No “book report” marks, reading logs, etc.¬†¬†As long as they are reading and enjoying their reading, I am happy.

Now at this point I can see Madame Nero (and any other person who shares her view about how to personalise the language class) saying “Exactly! ¬†Let language kids do the same thing! Let them decide!” However, the key here is that¬†nobody is forcing the kids to learn/acquire things which they are not interested in. ¬†Kids like free reading because it’s free:¬†¬†they aren’t forced into something they don’t care about.)

Third, there is the quantity of input problem.  We know that what people acquire is a function of how much comprehensible input they get.  They need to hear the words or structures a lot to first recognise them automatically, and even more to be able to automatically say them.  So if we are going to run our class around student-identified student interests, how do we deliver 30 different sets of vocab often enough that the kidsРeven if they want to, which we are not guaranteedРpick them up?

Say each kid gets to decide 5 words germane to their interests which they want to have incorporated into class activities. ¬†That’s 150 words. ¬†That’s¬†half of a year’s recommended vocab load right there! ¬†As we very well know, it’s simple math: ¬†the greater a variety of vocab we use, the less time we have on each word which means poorer acquisition of each word. As the great Terry Waltz recently noted, if you want the kids to acquire more words, teach fewer words. There is also the challenge of integrating specialist vocabulary into teacher-planned activity.

Fourth, we have¬†the output problem. ¬†In many traditional¬†classes, it is assumed– wrongly– that if kids “learn” vocab (and grammar) and present it in some way, they are picking it up. ¬†This is simply wrong, as the research shows. ¬†And, learners by definition generate error-filled and impoverished (two-dimensional) output. ¬†I do not see the point of making other learners listen to that. ¬†As Terry Waltz has famously said– with Stephen Krashen agreeing– “peer to peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching.”

This is what is¬†supposed to happen in a “communicative classroom (here, two Vietnamese speakers are learning English):

Thanh: Where Michael today? He here?

Vien: Where is Michael today?  He is not here.

Thanh: Ahh, yes, where is Michael today?  He is not here.

Here, Vien– who is also learning English– is supposed to notice Thanh’s error, “remodel it” properly, so Thanh can fix his output. ¬†Now, here is what would¬†actually happen:

Thanh: Where Michael today?  He here?

Vien: Michael home.  He not here.

Thanh: Ah, yes, Michael home.

Even though Vien and Thanh want to learn English, and are working away at it, they will¬†inevitably produce poor output (for a variety of reasons). ¬†So the ideal situation described above generally does not happen with two learners. ¬†If Thanh’s interlocutor was a native (or very competent) English speaker, this communicative activity would probably work.

Fifth, there is the¬†dictionary/Internet problem. ¬† As soon as the kids want to generate their own vocab, we know what they do: ¬†they fire it into Google translate, and we know the results. ¬†So it becomes the teacher’s job to edit word lists, activities, presentations, rehearsed dialogues, etc. ¬†I don’t know about you, but that’s boring and often I am myself scrambling to figure out how to say _____ in Spanish.

So,¬†if our goal is to deliver a ton of compelling and multidimensional high-frequency language, and to repeat that language over and over so students hear it often enough that it gets wired in, the “choose your own topic” idea won’t¬†work. ¬† But the question remains,¬†how do we personalise vocabulary and maintain student interest?¬†

One answer involves using the world’s oldest and most-proven teaching method; ¬†stories. ¬†Everybody likes a story, because we naturally find people and their hopes, problems etc more interesting than things or ideas, and because suspense–¬†what happens to ____?— is another universal hook. ¬†Stories are¬†always¬†more interesting than any other kind of input. ¬†Everyone can relate to basic human questions such as wanting to have ___, being scared of ____, liking/disliking someone, etc.

In T.P.R.S., our use of parallel characters and parallel problems allows us¬†tremendous room for personalisation. ¬†If we’re working on¬†esperaba que ____ le explicara…¬†(“s/he hoped that _____ would explain…”), say, I can have a boy who wants to have the mysteries of talking to girls explained to him (great¬†topic for¬†all teens: boys want info, girls will think it’s hilarious) and a girl who wants to have say Call of Duty explained to her. ¬†(Stereotypes are¬†great to play around with). ¬†This works even better when we know students, and we can throw a kid (and their interests, from say our start-of-year questionnaire) into a story. ¬† If we know Breleigh likes dogs, hates cats and looooves¬†Ashton Kutcher, well,¬†Breleigh eseperaba que Ashton Kutcher le explicara por qu√© no le gustaban los gatos. ¬†Any half-decent storyteller can get the audience to empathise with or at least be interested in a character who is a bit different than they are.

Another answer involves recycling high-frequency vocabulary in a way that ackowledges student interests and preferences.  For a rank beginner, something like owning a specific kind of pet, or liking or disliking any kind of thing or activity is a great start.  In my first story, Los Gatos Azules, a boy wants to own ten blue cats.  So, we personalise by asking the students the same questions we ask our actors:

Here’s an example from my Level 1 class:

Me: Ace, ¬Ņtienes un perro? ¬†Do you have a dog?

Ace: No.

Me: ¬ŅTienes un gato?¬†Do you have a cat?

Ace: No tengo gato.¬†I don’t have a cat.

Me: ¬ŅTe gustan los gatos o los perros? A m√≠¬†(pointing at myself), me gustan MUCHO los gatos.¬†Do you like cats or dogs? ¬†Me, I¬†REALLY like cats.

Ace: Me gustan los gatos. I like cats.

Me: Clase, levanta las manos si te gustan los gatos. (half of class raises hands, so I point at a kid who didn’t). Mandeep, ¬Ņte gustan los gatos?¬†Mandeep, do you like cats?

Mandeep: No.

Me: What did I just ask you?

Mandeep: Do you like cats?

Me: ¬†Mandeep, los gatos–¬†¬ŅSon simp√°ticos, o no son simp√°ticos?¬†Cats– are they nice, or not nice?

Mandeep: No.

Me: ¬†¬ŅLos gatos no son simp√°ticos?¬†Cats aren’t nice?

Mandeep:  No.

Me: Class, what did Mandeep just say?

Class: Cats aren’t nice.

So, here we have some personalisation: the kids are explaining their opinion about cats and dogs.  This is basic stuff.  (Note:  I am not expecting any output other than y/n here (though if the students want to say more, they can).  My only aims are that they understand what is being said and that they can connect the vocab to their selves or interests.

Here is a level 2 example of personalisation. In the story we are doing, a Dad is chewing his kids out for not having done homework and chores. ¬†So we are acquiring¬†what did you do?¬†and¬†I prefered,¬†etc. ¬†In the story, Dad asks his kid “What did you do last night?” and she says “I went to Cabo San Lucas and talked for 9 hours with Dave Franco.” ¬†Dad asks “Did you do your homework?” and she says “No, I didn’t, Dave did it.”

All we have to do in P.Q.A.– personalised questions and answers– is ask kids in class the same questions we ask our actors.

Me: Breleigh, ¬Ņque hiciste anoche? ¬†What did you do last night?

Breleigh: No hice nada porque ten√≠a que estudiar.¬†I didn’t do anything cos I had to study

M: ¬ŅQu√© estudiaste anoche? What did you study last night?

B: Estudié la biología. I studied bio.

M: ¬ŅQu√© quer√≠as hacer anoche: estudiar, o bailar?¬†What did you¬†want to do last night: study, or dance?

B: Quería bailar. I wanted to dance.

M: John, ¬Ņqu√© prefieres hacer t√ļ– bailar, o jugar Call of Duty? ¬†What do you prefer to do: dance, or play C.o.D.?

J: Prefiero jugar C.o.D. porque es m√°s interesante.¬†I prefer to play C.o.D. cos it’s more interesting.

We can get an immense amount of mileage out of a fairly limited range of vocab, as you can see. ¬†If we throw in some weird stuff, we can get a zillion¬†more miles. ¬†For example, I could ask Breleigh if she likes elephants (free cognate) more than cats. ¬†If she says yes, we’re off: do you own an elephant? ¬†what is a good name for an elephant? ¬†etc etc. These details can serve in stories, and they are great for random “review” P.Q.A.

Now, these are simple examples, and I hope you’re seeing the point: ¬†we can personalise without getting into specialist vocab. ¬†Not every kid is into Call of Duty (or chess, or ballet, or gangster rap, or Peruvian food, or French culture), but a teacher who is willing to¬†listen to kids will figure out what people have opinions about and get them to express those.

The teacher’s job in part is to explore student interests, but also to make the language classroom functional (comprehensible and interesting) for¬†everyone, so sometimes you have to say “sorry, Johnny, that’s too complicated” or “nobody else is interested in that, sorry.”

Personalisation: people basically¬†want their interests and selves acknowledged. ¬†If Johnny says “I prefer C.o.D. to ballet” and Suzy “God, I hate cats,”¬†that is good personalisation. ¬†We acknowledge their interests and views, and we give them what they need: an ocean of repetition on limited vocab, varied by context, cognates and sometimes wacky fun stuff.

So, in a nutshell, to personalise properly:

  • avoid having students generate lists of words
  • avoid making students listen to/read low-frequency specialist vocabulary
  • connect students with high-frequency vocab by soliciting their opinions, or info about them
  • use¬†stories¬†and ask students the same questions as you ask actors
  • integrate students– or info about their real (or imagined) selves– into stories

NOTE: Teachers in an immersion environment are going to be able to use more vocab than the rest of us, and there is therefore going to be more finely-tuned personalisation, and at serior Immersion levels there will be way more room for vocab personalisation. ¬†But for most of us…keep it simple is the way to go.

How Do I Do PictureTalk?

picturetalk demo photo

Profe, working diligently to maintain student interest.

Other than¬†MovieTalk, PictureTalk is the single-best “add-on” to any C.I. program, and an amazing strategy for non-c.i. teachers. ¬†It reinforces already-taught vocabulary and grammar, and is also a superb way to introduce new vocab pre-story.

Picturetalk is simple, easy, low-prep and effective.   Here are three ways to do Picturetalk.


a) ¬†Find a picture online which contains the “things”– people and actions– in your most recent story, textbook unit, etc.¬† So, if your story is about a poor Guatemalan kid who wants something to eat, you find a picture of that, or (say) a picture of a homeless person.

b)  If you have never taught the vocab you want to use, write on board (or project it) along with translation.  Make sure the kids know what the words mean.

c) ¬†Project the picture, make statements while pointing and pausing (see pic above),¬†and ask questions about the picture and about the things you’ve said about the picture.¬† You ask questions.¬† Students answer (as a class, or get your superstars to answer). You restate what students say in proper language.

Here is an example with questions:


Teacher: ¬ŅQu√© hay en la foto?¬† What’s in the photo?
Class: a guy, a dog
Teacher: Hay un hombre, y hay un perro. No hay gato el la foto.

T: ¬ŅHay un hombre o una mujer?¬† ¬ŅC√≥mo se llama? ¬†Is there a man or a woman? ¬†What is their name?
C: a man, Dave
T: Hay un hombre.  No hay una mujer. Se llama Dave.

T: ¬ŅQu√© tiene el hombre?¬† What does the man have?
C: a dog,
T: Tiene un perro grande. No tiene gato.

Note here that¬†some of these questions require factual answers, but some can be made up (e.g. the man’s name, what the dog wants to eat, etc).

d) ¬†As well as asking questions about the photo, you should personalise the discussion. ¬†So, we ask the kids¬†do you have a dog? ¬†Are you hungry? ¬†What’s your dog’s name? etc. ¬†This is both interesting¬†and you get first and second person reps.

Another recent trick: use yourself as an example, or use a hand/sock puppet. In my class, we have two sock puppets:¬† Sock, who is obnoxious, and his slave sock Calci.¬† I can wear one and talk to him/her (or have¬† him/her talk to students). So…The man in the picture has a dog, but Sock has Calci, etc.

e) We also want to move into higher-level thinking, so we can ask questions like¬†¬ŅEs bueno vivir en la calle, o no es bueno? ¬†¬ŅPor qu√©?¬†(Is it good to live in the street, or not?¬† Why?)

f)  You can obviously target your most recently-taught structures and vocab, andРlike with MovietalkРyou can also mention anything that has been previously taught (recycling). But don`t beat older vocab to death.  Also note that we can use different verb forms, etc, no problem.

You want to circle your new vocab.  If you make a statement and you get a fast and correct answer, the item does not need more circling.

Now, another brilliant¬†idea that got tweeted out from N.T.P.R.S. 2015 was “double picturetalk.” (Sorry, I have no idea who thought of this). ¬†Here, you put two (or more) photos side by side, so you can do¬†comparison talk.

Photo A                                          Photo B

homeless_man_w_dog40  homeless woman

Here, we have a few other strategies we can use.

  1. We can get kids to look, then make a statement about one picture, then ask them which photo we are describing. ¬†E.g. “There is a woman” and they say “photo B.”
  2. We can ask “what is different between Photo A and Photo B?” ¬†We are also able to get many repetitions: “the man has¬†a dog. The woman does not have¬†a dog,” etc.
  3. We can use plural verbs (they have, we have, etc).
  4. If you pull photos from two cultures (e.g. from you target language culture and from your own), you can do some great cultural comparisons, on everything from dress etc for beginners to justice etc questions for those with more vocab.
  5. If you must teach the alphabet, you can start labeling photos A,B,C,D etc and after 26 the kids will recognise the letters (same goes for numbers– why not randomly call one “Photo 237” and the other “301”?) ¬†By the way, if you want a few tips for teaching boring crap like numbers, weather, etc, see this.

The¬†third neat thing you can do with Picturetalk (which is especially useful if, like me, you are teaching with fully unsheltered grammar even with true beginners) is to¬†review pictures for past-tense practice.¬† This idea comes from Eric Herman’s views on Movietalk. ¬†Ideally, you have say 2-3 pictures which broadly reflect the vocab of the story you are asking.

a)  You project a picture and do Picturetalk as noted above (before or on Day 1 of asking the story).

b) ¬†The next day (Day 2), you tell the class “OK, yesterday we looked at a photo of _____. ¬†Let’s see what we can remember. ¬†Class, what was in the photo? ¬†That’s right, there was a duck. What¬†was the duck’s name?”¬†etc. ¬†After you have made a few past-tense statements,¬† you show the same picture, you check and see what the kids remember, and you ask a few more of the same questions¬†in the past tense.

c) Also on Day 2, you introduce another picture which possibly has the same subject matter and/or subject as the first. PictureTalk that, and review on Day 3.

Here is an example. ¬†Say your story uses chases/chased, wants/wanted to grab, doesn’t/didn’t succeed:


Day 1: ¬†“Class, what is in the photo? ¬†Right, a duck. ¬†Class, is it a duck or a dog? ¬†That’s right, it’s a duck. ¬†Class, what’s the duck’s name? ¬†[suggestions come] ¬†That’s right class, the duck is named Napoleon. ¬†Class, what colour is Napoleon’s head?…” etc

Day 2: ¬†Before you¬†re-project¬†the picture, you say, “OK, class, yesterday we saw a photo. ¬†Let’s review. ¬†Class, what was in the photo? ¬†A duck. ¬†That’s right, there was a duck. ¬†Class, do you remember, what was the duck’s name?…” etc. ¬†Then you put the photo up, talk about it, and introduce a second photo:

duck being chased

Now, talk about this photo. ¬†“Class, is there one duck or two here? ¬†That’s right, there are two ducks. ¬†Class, what is the second duck’s name? ¬†(…) That’s right, class, the second duck’s name is Megan Fox. ¬†Class, is Megan Fox chasing Napoleon? ¬†Yes, she is chasing Napoleon. [circle this] ¬†Class, why is she chasing Napoleon? ¬†What does Napoleon have? ¬†That’s right: Napoleon has Megan Fox’s duck wax…” etc.

Day 3: review details,¬†then put the photo up, then review it a bit more. ¬†“Class, why was¬†Megan Fox chasing Napoleon? That’s right: Napoleon had¬†her duck wax.”

If you are careful not to introduce any new vocab, this is an amazing way to get kids used to two (or more) verb tenses (or whatever). They are going to hear the¬†same question, a day apart, in different verb tenses. ¬†If you check for understanding– and one of the kids’ biggest errors in unsheltered grammar is tense mixing initially– you’ll be building a solid foundation of good input.

Here’s a fourth idea:¬†I was recently in Minneapolis and saw a cool variation on this in Amy and Gisela’s elementary Spanish class. ¬†We could call it PictureStory. ¬†Here is how it works:

a) get 3-6 pics that illustrate your story. ¬†Amy had a book about Sr. Marrero who was always grumpy and didn’t like the weather. Your pics can have everything in them, or just be background. Get the actor(s) you need.

b) Project picture #1 and ask a few questions about it.  Establish that your characters are in the picture.  You could use just background (ie use the picture as a setting) or you can use the picture with characters in it.

c) Your actors can answer direct questions (“are you…, do you want…would you like…” etc) and/or “do” the dialogue.

d) You then switch to your next scene by changing picture and you keep going.

In Amy’s class, the little kids all wanted to act, so most got a turn at different pictures. ¬†(One of them was the man, another his dog…and at one point the man petted his dog! ¬†Very cute).

Remember Purpose

Remember always: language is acquired by processing comprehended communicative input. “Language practice” or “vocab review” or “working on the past tense” are not communicative. “Communicative” means two things:
1. having meaning for speaker/writer & listener/reader
2. having a non-linguistic purpose (eg entertaining, sorting, deciding, ranking)

Anyway.  Picturetalk rocks.  Just remember the usual brain-friendly rules:

  • keep everything 100% comprehensible
  • go s.l.o.w.l.y.
  • don’t overload new vocab
  • personalise
  • accept any output that signals correct understanding; do not force any kind of output

Any more suggestions? ¬†Put ’em in the comments or email.