Month: October 2015

Baby Steps: B.C.’s Proposed French Curriculum

The B.C. Ministry of Education is busily rewriting curricula, including French. Brief summary: the curriculum has added a few things which research and classroom experience have shown us are part of best practices, retains recommendations which are simply not supported by research, and raises a bunch of good questions. I looked at the French 8-12 curriculum.  Here are my notes in five sections:

  • the good
  • the “oughta-have-been-chucked-but-wasn’t”
  • the bad
  • challenges
  • the inexplicably missing
  • recommendations

If you have not yet familiarised yourself with current research about second language

1.  The Good Stuff with Practical and Empirical Support

  • The curriculum finally recognises that storytelling is probably the single-easiest way to soak up a bunch of vocab and grammar, and so asks that students master basic storytelling.  They are expecting a fifth-year (e.g. French 12 student) to be able to tell/retell a complex story.  (Note: any teacher who uses T.P.R.S. or A.I.M. will see their students master this in their first year of language class.)
  • Students should now acquire fewer verbs, but more verb tenses (and other language features), at the same time, which aligns with research (again, T.P.R.S. and A.I.M. practitioners are miles ahead here).  This is called “using unsheltered grammar.” Ideally, the “non-Englishy” parts of French– e.g. the imparfait and passé-composé, the subjunctive, pronoun orders– should be introduced immediately so that people have a lot of exposure to them and can pick them up when their brains are ready. As VanPatten & Wong (2003) note, “acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”
  • The curriculum also suggests modifying authentic documents for learner needs.  This is the opposite of the standard bad advice (which is “modify the task, not the text”).  It also suggests increasing repetition (and saliency) of vocab to be acquired.  Great work, Ministry– these are proven strategies.
  • Emphasis is placed on meaningful communication, and not drills etc.


2.  Problematic Legacy Method Recommendations

a.  The curriculum supports “[T]he use of authentic documents and tasks to support the development of communication skills.”  Bad idea.  Why? Well, authentic documents– things by and for native speakers– tend to have the following characteristics:

  • they use low-frequency vocabulary and often slang
  • they often use complex language (e.g. metaphors, irony, etc)

If we really want to build proficiency, the last thing we should be using are “authentic documents.”  You want to use high-frequency (i.e. oft-used) vocab, you want it comprehensible, and you want it recycled zillions of times.  Teaching decoding strategies– the classic “answer” to the straw-man question of “how do we get learners deal with authentic documents?”– serves only to establish meaning and does little for acquisition.  But– fair enough– we’re told to modify where necessary.  And we should be modifying authentic French (or any other) texts most of the time.

“Authentic tasks” is another minefield.  This usually means doing “real world” stuff like learning to give/follow directions, order food etc.  The problem with this, as Bill VanPatten and I have noted, is that you cannot “train” people for future language scenarios the way you can train a doctor to, say, give stitches.  One new word or phrase, and that carefully-practiced restaurant dialogue is useless. Better: teach a ton of comprehension so that people understand.  VanPatten has described language pedagogy as the development of “coping skills”: we want learners to be able to manage in the target language and culture, because we cannot train them for every eventuality.

b.  The “notion that acquiring French includes learning about Francophone culture.”  Really? I must learn about baguettes and Proust and poutine to learn French?  Sure, learning about French culture is a great idea, and it’s important.  And maybe two birds, one stone, etc.  But we  are best off doing French in French, and French– or whatever– culture mostly in L1, so that you can avoid making French culture banal and simplistic.  Of course, this is going to be up to teachers to decide how to do.  Can the Ministry provide any evidence that it is necessary to learn about Francophone culture to acquire French?


3.  The “still needs work” side

First, the curriculum says Grade 8s should knowvocabulary to describe elements of cultural communities, their practices, and their traditions.”  Why this is important is problematic.

Most “cultural” vocabulary is low-frequency (and therefore not very useful), and much of it is specifically tied to regions (e.g. nobody in France cares what a bonhomme is) and so not especially portable.  If we want  people to talk about their own culture etc, great…but that’s not super-French.

You have options when it comes to culture, and they are simple: you can develop acquisition, or understanding of culture, but not both meaningfully.  Why?  Because “cultural” vocab is low-frequency (so learning it will take time away from the useful– i.e. high-frequency vocab people actually need to communicate), and because the kind of cultural stuff you can talk about (esp in the first 3-4 years of a language) in the target language is simplistic and banal.

A classic example– which I’ve seen in every language program I’ve seen in North America– is, say, food. My district’s French text, Communi-quête, Level 3 (French 10), has a food unit.  Shopping for and ordering food, etc.  Necessary vocab:  commander (to order), and prendre (roughly, “to have something to eat/drink”).  According to Wikipedia, commander is not in the top 1000 most-used French words (the 1173rd most-used word is commandes) and neither is prendre. So, here French teachers are being asked by this textbook to teach “culture” vocab which is banal, and low-frequency. In other words, boring and useless.  This is the classic “culture problem” of language teaching: if you want to do the “culture” of L2, the only way to make it not trite and stupid is to do it in L1, and if you do it in L2, it will be silly and low-frequency.

Second, students should “[l]ocate and explore a variety of online media in French.” This is generally a waste of time.  Again, most French media will present

  • too much vocabulary
  • too much low frequency vocabulary
  • not nearly enough repeated vocabulary
  • French which is spoken too quickly to understand, etc, for kids to learn much from.  We know that in a second language (as audiologist Ray Hull notes) adolescents process at about 125-130 words per minute.  Adult native-speaker speech is around 170-180 wpm, de fact rendering most aural online media incomprehensible.

We know from research that the most “bang for the buck” in terms of acquiring useful language is lots of repetitions (160-200 times each) of high-frequency vocab (the 1200-1500 most-used words).  Recommending a variety of online media which is not specifically made for students is a bad idea.

Third, we have some edubabble that appears to want kids to use French way above their heads, and to “reflect on their learning,” neither of which are useful.  For example, in Core Competencies, we have this: Students “[c]ollaborate to plan, carry out, and review constructions and activities.  Students work together to accomplish goals, either face to face, or through digital media. Examples include planning a construction, inquiry or performance, solving a problem, conducting an inquiry, and working together on community projects.”

This should happen in French?  Really?  Good luck with that.  If not, great, makes sense.  I can see this maybe happening in an upper-level Immersion classroom.  Outside that?  Let me know how that works.  Let’s see how much French gets spoken by kids planning something in a group.

If my experience is a guide, zero is pretty close. Yesterday during my planning block, for example, a colleague did a French scavenger hunt.  The kids had to make a set of French directions (turn left, go straight, open…, etc) that took you through the school, and at the end of these directions there was some kind of object to be retrieved.  Groups of kids make one “hunt” and then “do” the hunt of another group.  BTW, I used to do exactly the same thing in my Spanish 2 class.  This is to “practice” giving and following directions and command forms of verbs. So, what actually happened? I dunno but when I used to do this with Spanish, this is what happened:

  • the kids spoke entirely in English
  • the Spanish was poor
  • the amount of (bad Spanish) input in a 30 min. activity was probably maybe 6 sentences of Spanish
  • the focus was on sprinting around the halls, checking phones, and hanging out with buddies, not Spanish

Now, this was a good “communicative” activity in the sense that kids were engaged and actually wanted to do it.  But the amount of good input was minimal, and both directions and school places (hall, stairs etc) are low-frequency vocab.  (But the French teachers  are more experienced than me, so they probably figured out a way to do this  activity better than I could.) I’ll bet that this is typical of peer-and-peer activities.  So why is the Ministry recommending these?

It also says students should “[e]xplain/recount and reflect on experiences and accomplishments, tell about their experiences—especially their learning experiences—and reflect, and share what they learned. Examples include presentations of learning, self-assessment, and receiving/offering feedback.” What useful self-assessment of language use a learner can make is beyond me.  I would love to see two things from the Ministry:  evidence that self-assessment makes any kind of difference in the language classroom, and some examples of meaningful self-assessment becoming acquisition (i.e. a “how to” and some data supporting this). The “I” statements here include

  • I give, receive, and act on feedback.
  • I can recount simple experiences and activities and tell something I learned.
  • I can represent my learning, and tell how it connects to my experiences and efforts

Well, the first is a total dud.  We know from research (and experience) that feedback about language does not transfer into the implicit system where language is processed and stored.  You can give feedback– do X, do not do Y, try Z– till the cows come home and the kids will still say “j’ai allée à l’ecole” or whatever (did I make that mistake correctly?).  Feedback other than “tell me more” or “please pay attention and ask for help” is useless, period.  If I’m misreading this, please Ministry clarify what you mean by “feedback.”

One also wonders what kind of feedback a learner of French is supposed to give another learner of French.  A really egg-headed kid might say “tell me more” or “explain; I don’t get it.”  Beyond that?  Curious to see.

“Recount activities and experiences”?  AWESOME!  STORIES! PERSONALISATION! DO IT!

“Representing learning”?  If they mean “describe all the language you learned this year”, total waste of time.  Also boring.  If they mean, do something cool– like tell and illustrate a story or personal anecdote, or use the language you learned to get something useful described or experienced or done– awesome.

Fourth, there are a lot of recommendations for “communicative” activities like this one which look really frikkin’ cool…until you try to wrap your head around

a) the amount of French needed to actually do this which would overwhelm anybody except senior Immersion kids.

b) the problem is that the activity is so cool that anybody would want to rush into it, and how can learners possibly know– and want to stay in— French to get the task done?  I used to do this kind of thing in Spanish…and if the activity was interesting enough, English inevitably got used.

c) the low-frequency vocab.  For example, a totally necessary phrase for this activity would be gilet de sauvetage (lifejacket).  According to Wiktionary’s frequency lists, this phrase is not in the top 10,000 most-used French words.  So…why teach it?

The biggest problem with any kind of “communicative” activity is that– even if kids wanted to use all the necessary vocab— they inevitably produce junky output which in turn becomes junky input for  other learners.  As researcher Terry Waltz has noted, “peer to peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching,” a sentiment echoed by Stephen Krashen.

Bill VanPatten has noted that since U.G. develops mental representation of language only from input, and if anything in the input is “off,” mental representation suffers.  VanPatten has also stated that it is the teacher’s– and not the students’– responsibility to provide input in the language classroom. Ministry, can you please explain why you are recommending peer-to-peer communication when all the research suggests it provides very poor input?

Fifth, students should be able to “Identify examples of regional idiomatic expressions in texts.”  Why?  Idioms are by definition local-use and low-frequency.  So they have limited use.  Why bother?  Also, more generally, who cares if an expression is Quebecois or French or Malian?  How will this help students communicate?  Who in the world– other than a scholar– would care whether or not an expression was from France, Mali or Quebec?

Sixth, there are a lot of sample activities emphasising output and editing.  Output, as Krashen and VanPatten note, does not develop either mental representation of language or fluency (until we are at very advanced levels, and even there its role is dwarfed by input).  There should be much more emphasis on input-focused activities.  Editing is basically impossible for most younger people, especially second language learners.


First, if teachers should teach unsheltered grammar (e.g. all verb tenses at once) and storytelling, what are we going to use for textbooks and reading material?  There is not one published French textbook that foregrounds narratives and/or focuses on stories as both the content and method of teaching language.  Every French textbook program I’ve ever seen is poorly designed from the point of view of research about how people acquire languages.  All textbook programs

  • emphasise peer-to-peer communication, which is at best marginally effective
  • don’t use stories, which is boring
  • foreground grammar (even when pretending to be “communicative”), which is ineffective
  • are full of sequenced grammar instruction, which is contrary to research & useless
  • use too much vocabulary and not nearly enough reading (ditto)
  • come with expensive boring grammar cahiers, which are useless

In Spanish we have Cuéntame but in French?  Rien.  For reading, the Blaine Ray and Carol Gaab novels (most of which are available in French) are great.  What we don’t have: Canadian, French and other Francophonie-representative novels, comics, etc.  I’m a culture skeptic, but if there is one place where you can meaningfully “do” culture, it’s in novels. Ministry, can you please explain how you expect teachers to use stories when all textbooks we currently have totally ignore storytelling?  Are you going to provide some funding for books?

Second, we are going to need a massive overhaul of second-languages methods instruction at the University and District level.  Our new teacher graduates are going to need to learn story-based methods like T.P.R.S. and narrative paraphrase (Movietalk), or maybe A.I.M. for little kids.  Baby steps have been taken in this direction (e.g. I have been seeing S.F.U. student teachers and introducing them to T.P.R.S. for three years now; U.B.C.’s Wendy Carr has backed V.S.B. efforts to teach C.I. to teachers, etc) but we have a ways to go.  (How far?  Well, one S.F.U. languages methods prof is still recommending discredited legacy methods such as sequential grammar instruction, grammar practice, forced output for beginners, error correction, etc!  And we’re in the twenty-first century!)  At the District level, more helping teachers need to be trained in both research basics and research-based comprehensible input methods.  As Bill VanPatten notes, less than 1% of University language education teachers have any knowledge whatsoever of linguistics and second language acquisition research.  I have had lots of conversations with University people who do not know the basics of S.L.A. research. This to be fair is not the Ministry’s job, though– but it is a challenge.

Third, we are going to need to have a substantial conversation about assessment.  If we are going to upgrade methods, we need to ditch most of what our textbook programs want.  Asking kids to talk to one another in the target language, discrete grammar/vocab item testing, and testing by asking kids to listen to native-speaker-speed output are all not really representative of what kids can do.



At a Ministry inservice, the Ministry presenter on the new French curriculum said that they had consulted with languages teachers when writing the new curriculum.  Cool. Then they said four things I found astonishing:

  1. They said they were not, and had never been, a language teacher.
  2. They had not consulted with a single linguist– a second-languages acquisition researcher– for advice in redesigning the curriculum.
  3. They had not asked any students what they wanted, liked, disliked etc.
  4. They had not asked parents what they thought of French education.

The first, whatever, but that is pretty bad P.R. by the Ministry.

The second….really?  Frank Smith is at UVic, and Steve Krashen, Bill VanPatten, Wynne Wong and many others consult.  Why has the Ministry not consulted with any S.L.A. researchers about the new curriculum?

The third, not asking students…well, as Canadian Parents for French noted about Core French, “[t]he lack of satisfaction on the part of the core French students is reflected in high program dropout rates, low enrolments in the optional years, and a general feeling among anglophones that they “can’t learn French” (Netten and Germaine, 2012, P.87).   This is not because teachers don’t work hard or speak decent French, but because we use outdated methods.

You would think the minimum the Ministry would do would be to actually ask kids what they think of a program.  I’m a classroom teacher at a school where the admin and the language department head have decided to not allow students to take Spanish before Grade 10 (and where they must take French in Grade 8).  I get a lot of students who had been taking French (and other languages) either where I work or elsewhere.  I get some of the French “refugees,” and the Punjabi teachers get a bunch in Grade 11. Every year, I ask my beginners, why did you opt into Spanish? and I always get these three responses:

  1. ______ was confusing because they kept adding grammar rules
  2. ______ was boring because it was all memorising, grammar tests, etc.
  3. In _____ class, they made us talk though we couldn’t really talk, and that was stressful/hard.

We also know that while Canadian parents want their kids in French Immersion, there is never enough room.  There are well-documented social-class and prejudice issues at play here, and teacher supply (here’s an easy start to the discussion).  But the elephant in the room is, why do so many kids leave/not enter Core French?  The Ministry might have asked students (or parents) what they thought of Core French, and what they wanted to see…but they didn’t.  Hmm…



a)  Ditch the legacy-methods recommendations to use things like peer-to-peer communication and target-language group projects. For example, peer-to-peer communication is unnecessary, at best marginally effective, fake-feeling and often stressful for students; group work in most languages classrooms will mostly happen in L1.

b)  Get rid of the idea that “culture” should be taught only or primarily in the target language.  This idea is old, wrong and counterproductive.

c) Include brief, research-based pointers about what works and doesn’t to guide teachers.  No need to language-geek out here, just brief pointers with links to research.

d) Advocate for MUCH more free voluntary pleasure reading in the target language.  The evidence is overwhelming: free voluntary reading (in L1 or L2+) does more for language acquisition than anything else.

e) Ask students and parents what they want from a language program.  This could be done electronically, and it would be relatively simple.


Anyway, there’s my thoughts.  The Ministry would like your feedback, which you can provide here, or in the comments.

Spanish Results: Adriana Ramírez’s Level 1 Spanish #showumine

My colleague Adriana Ramírez (@veganadri) has published some beginner results.  Here are three of her kids’ writing samples from early October 2015.  This is semi-sheltered grammar (no past tense yet) from classic TPRS: storyasking and reading, with some MovieTalk. They had 30 mintes to write these.  Also note that these kids

  • do not “practice” writing
  • do not “practice” or “study” grammar
  • are not forced into any kind of “communicative output” or “communicative pair” activities
  • do not use notes or dictionaries when doing writing assessments.

These are very good results.  Check it!

Ramirez 2015 Sept 1 Ramirez 2015 Sept 2

Direct translation: lame, not as boring as you’d think…and effective

This is a bail-out move when stories fall flat, or it’s the day before a test and you don’t have another video to Movietalk, and you are out of readings.  I think the idea originally came from Ben Slavic’s dictation suggestion.  I just thought, why not have them read and write instead of listening and writing?

I have a basic “script” version of each story.  It is the skeleton of what I ask.  Last year, I found that I was unable to keep the stories 100% comprehensible during asking, unless I circled everything sooooo muuuuch that the stories got boring.  (This year, I am better:  using multiple characters = waaaaay more reps).  So, one day when the kids and I were equally grumpy, I went to the photocopy room, made 30 copies of the basic script of the story, and got the kids to translate.  Surprisingly, the kids were quite happy to sit and work quietly.  My guess is that this is because a C.I. class has a lot of listening and talking, and reading & writing is a break from this.

The next day, when we did extended embedded readings, the kids seemed a lot more focused and I realised that the extra repetition– read and translate– had upped comprehension.  So this has become a regular move.

It’s very simple, it gives the teacher a break, it lets the kids slow down with reading, and it’s easy to mark.

a)  Hand out a printed version of the story.  You want 100% comprehensibility.

b) Get the kids to copy the story out in the target language.  They should leave TWO blank lines under each line of the story.

c) Under the T.L. writing– in different-coloured pen– have them translate into L1.

d) Under the L1 translation, leave a blank line.  This is to keep things looking neat.

e)  Keep going, and remember to indent paragraphs and dialogue, etc.

For marking, I’m a big believer in random sampling.    Pick three sentences at random, and see how accurate the translation is.  The kids get a mark out of three.  I am fairly strict with meaning on these, because they have vocab sheets and we have been through asked story and retells, and I am in the room where they can ask for help, etc.  I can mark a class set of these in under five minutes.

I usually give them 40 min with a story.  75% of kids can get it done in class; for the rest, it’s homework.  While this sounds boring, the kids are fine with it, I know I am getting them to really read, and it’s low-tech.  My inner rebel also likes it:  zero tech, no prep, non-“communicative,” super-high levels of comprehensible input, older than old-school, etc.  Above all, it works.