Month: November 2015

Are “risk-taking” and “grit” important in a language classroom?

So the other day on Twitter I saw a tweet with the #actfl2015 hashtag that said 

“Discomfort must be your friend if you’re learning a language. S[tudent]s aren’t used to this mindset – it takes time. Struggle is normal.”

I responded by saying that I’d never seen any research indicating that risk-taking, or getting out of one’s “comfort zone” were essential to language acquisition.  I asked for some evidence supporting this claim and got none. 

So, today’s question: do “struggle” or “discomfort” have a place in the second-language classroom?

My answer:  no.  

Alfie Kohn has written about “grit” and notes that when educators (or more often bureaucrats) talk of “grit” they often mean “suck it up, Princess.”  If work is boring, developmentally inappropriate, or meaningless, or if there is too much of it, people are not going to want to do it.  A teacher has two options:  make work more interesting, do-able, kid-friendly, etc, or, as Kohn puts it, to “make sure kids will resist temptation, override their unconstructive impulses, put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do — and keep at it for as long as it takes.”

The danger– other than boring and alienating kids– is that the “grit” argument is basically an excuse for us teachers not to reflect on and change practice.  I should know; I did this for years, telling kids and parents “well Johnny needs to study his verbs more” and other such nonsense.  It never occurred to unthinking me that maybe my methods and I sucked, and that I was telling Johnny to (vainly) try to do the work that I should have, and that Johnny literally couldn’t “learn” his verbs the way I thought he could.

(My former neighbour, a football star turned Socials teacher, did exactly this before retirement to Florida and endless rounds of golf and Coronas: he handed out stupid worksheets, assigned chapter on Monday test on Friday, and routinely told parents “Suzy needs to study more,” not realising (or caring) that the kids needed reading help, questioning, a variety of activities, etc.  I sucked as much as he did; now, I suck slightly less.)

Now, back to struggle.  To the best of my knowledge, there is no research suggesting that language acquisition is “struggle” where “discomfort is your friend.” Stephen Krashen in this well-known clip models a few minutes of language teaching, and notes that language acquisition– if we can understand the message, and are paying attention– is involuntary and effortless.  Indeed, the evidence we have from comprehensible input classrooms is that language acquisition is not much of a struggle at all, and good language instruction allows the students who traditionally don’t do so well– boys, poorer people, the less-literate, many minorities of colour– to do much better than they do in traditional, thematic, grammar and/or output-focused classrooms.

My revelation: last year, of my four top beginners (who could speak fluently and who wrote 850-word, excellent stories at course’s end), two– who I had next semester in English– were absolutely average students in both my and every other class.

So what does this writer mean?  Well, here some thoughts from experienced C.I. teachers about “grit” and “struggle” and “discomfort.”

Reed Riggs wrote: “I think i+1 means it’s a level of challenge much like going on a nice hike or playing a fun game. I don’t know if we want to call it “effortless”, but I like to distinguish between “challenge” and “struggle”. Challenge is where we experience a sense of “flow”, feeling engaged and having fun making new connections. Struggle is being pushed to where it’s not fun anymore, and we continue feeling unsuccessful. I think it’s easy to lose track of how hard we’re pushing learners when the language is already easy for us as teachers, and we don’t have a system for checking, moment to moment, if students need more support.”

Riggs’ last statement is key here: how easy it is for us to forget where the kids are at.  This is why when I train teachers in T.P.R.S., I insist on starting with a German demo.

Terry Waltz researches S.L.A., teaches Mandarin (and has now acquired thirteen languages).  She asks “is there proof that keeping students at the very razor edge of, say, the speed they can deal with benefits acquisition? Actual acquisition? I’m not talking about proficiency or performance. Acquisition.” 

She then said I think language learning should definitely be a very rigorous process. Lots of grit. No pain, no gain. Fortunately, I don’t facilitate language learning, I help people acquire languages.”  

Gerry Wass– who can rock a multi-level classroom like nobody’s business– writes  “our students come to us at very different points on the Mindset spectrum, from fixed (where they avoid taking risks) to open (where their curiosity and belief in their ability to learn is intact). We could also say that they come with a high affective filter if they come with a strong closed mindset. I think that great CI teachers can change the mindsets of their students, but every other class they have may just be reinforcing it. More kid-friendly terms are the Learner Path and the Judger Path, and my students and I have both benefited enormously from building community around this idea. It has allowed me to relax and grow as a teacher because I know they will not be judging my struggles as harshly. I don’t know that master teachers ever have to worry about this, but there are a lot of us who still struggle deeply to balance the vast C.I. skill set so that it truly becomes effortless acquisition.”

In terms of “struggle” and “discomfort,” the writer may be referring to the fact that, once in the messy non-class “real world” of native speakers in France or China or wherever, people are going to struggle and be uncomfortable.  (I’m pretty good at Spanish; I occasionally felt overwhelmed last year in El Salvador.)  If you reflect on your own experiences functioning in a new language, what is the single least-pleasant thing?  I’ll bet you it’s not understanding.  Once you know what somebody is saying– even if you speak very little Mandarin or Swahili– you can use the dictionary, point, use gestures, etc, to get basic stuff done.  But that sinking feeling of “I don’t get it“– if you have that, it feels bad, and nothing is going to get done.

On a recent episode of “Tea With BVP,”  VanPatten said of language classrooms that “we’re not preparing people for specific scenarios in the way we train a doctor to do stitches.  We’re preparing people to cope.”  What VanPatten means here is that we cannot train people for specific situations.  It doesn’t take much variability– a new word, something misunderstood, a situation for which we havn’t “practiced”– to throw us off our game in a new language.

Does this mean students need to feel confused or stressed or uncomfortable in class?  No.  Our job is to get people as ready as they can for the “real world” and that means loading them with as much language as deeply as possible.  And that means loads of comprehensible input, and that is something that need not be a struggle at all.  Both Krashen and Vanpatten have described language acquisition– through comprehensible input– as “effortless.”

Should we train people for the “struggle” and “discomfort” of the real world?  Sure.  I teach the kids basic conversation-repair skills (ask for repetition, rephrase, point and wait, circumlocute, etc).  And I tell them “it feels weird the first time you got to Mexico.” But beyond that, their prep is in hearing loads of comprehensible Spanish…and that need not be uncomfortable or a struggle.

Final zinger:  Terry Waltz read the tweet, and wrote “Yes, language learning is a struggle, and it is difficult.  Fortunately, I don’t ask students to learn a language– I ask them to acquire it.”

So anyway. The writer is wrong when they say “discomfort must be your friend,” at least for picking up a language.  For a teacher, switching methods (e.g. to C.I. from legacy methods) is a bit of a struggle (and can be uncomfortable).  It’s like those medieval pilgrimages, where people ditched everything except the clothes on their back when they started.  We have to ditch the textbook, workbooks, dumb DVDs, etc, and that can be scary.   But language acquisition?  Not so much.

Project-based Learning in the Second Language Classroom

Project-based learning is a staple in my Social Justice, English and Philosophy classes.  When I heard that it has been tried in the language classroom, I was curious.  I read a detailed lesson plan for a Spanish unit and thought about it.

So here are some observations on this unit, whose objective is to get students– who have decided on (or come up with) a new invention “to convince a Spanish-speaking audience that they need this new invention.”  These are low-mid and late novice students.

We know from research and from successful (i.e. significant and positive results-based) teaching for language acquisition that best practices include:

  • a focus on high-frequency vocabulary (yes, this varies somewhat by context)
  • keeping input comprehensible and vocab limited
  • little focus on output
  • a lot of input (listening and reading)
  • avoidance of L1 as much as possible (outside of keeping L2 meaning clear)
  • providing quality input (ie, not what beginners inevitably produce)
  • reading and listening to “whole” language (stories, dialogues, reports etc  etc, not lists or discontinuous text) etc.

So how does P.B.L. stack up against input-based language-teaching  practice?

What I first noticed is the heavy emphasis on early output and what we would loosely call “communicative pair activities” (CPAs).  There is a lot of “learn to say ____” and “get someone to respond by _____,” in everything from choosing inventions to forming groups.  I also noticed a lot of group work (decide, choose, evaluate, predict the meaning of ___, etc).  The aim— using the target language– is laudable. The problems here are that

a. you can expect lots of English use during these activities, inevitably.  Why would someone use L2 if L1 is easier.  We’ll expect a lot of English also because for most of these activities the students themselves have to find the vocabulary they want to use.  Since they don’t have that vocabulary, they will use L1.

b. the Spanish output— because it comes from beginners– will be limited, error-filled and impoverished.

Second, the kids go through a list of cognates, predicting meaning, then doing various activities to check the meaning.  This seems useful,  since kids certainly do need to be taught reading skills (e.g. to look for and make educated guesses about cognates).  But this takes a lot of time, and will be accompanied with a lot of English (“what do you think vender means?  –I think…”). The issues: group work means English use, and CPAs mean junky Spanish.  If language is acquired through input, I don’t see how poor input and English are helping the kids.

The implicit claim here is, predicting and then checking meaning is a helpful learning strategy.  This is true– for explicit (conscious) learning.  For language, not so much. What we need to acquire language is comprehended input.  That’s what we give our learners, and what parents give their kids. Yes, kids will do some guessing about vocab when acquiring their L1s, but this is OK for them, because they have 100s of hours.  We have a couple of hundred.

Here is one of the activities:

Third, an issue here is the use of word lists.  Language is not acquired through memorising, practising or predicting/checking the meaning of words on lists.  The brain is pre-wired to process whole language:  meaningful sentences which are part of bigger communicative acts (stories, conversations, etc). You can memorise via lists…but it’s not fun (read: many kids won’t do it), and it’s not efficient.

Another problem with lists: the “grammar” that “ties together” words is absent. Lists provide impoverished input.

Fourth, we have the problem of the use of low-frequency vocabulary.  Here are some examples from the unit.Sexton pic #1 low freq These are necessary words for marketing.  However, according to the Wiktionary Spanish frequency list, none of these words are in the 2000 most-used Spanish words.  Why teach this to novice or mid students?  If you want to get your kids ready for Mexico or Spain (or the A.P. exam), you– they– are much better off  reading a ton of writing which full of high frequency vocabulary, i.e. the stuff they are going to actually hear a lot in Spain and Mexico.

Fifth, we have the interest and learning problem.  If the class is going to share these projects– i.e. the kids present their projects to other kids– how are the various groups going to learn each others’ vocab?  Viewers of reports, presentations, posters etc will get short-term and non-repated exposure to the vocabulary.  And why should they necessarily care about others’ work?  If the point of P.B.L. is for students to engage in what interests them, why should they sit and listen to what others have done? If I like sewing, and Suzie likes motorcycles, why on Earth would we want to listen to each other?   This problem is solved– to the extent that it can be– in a TPRS, narrative paraphrase, A.I.M., Story Listening or other storytelling classroom, where stories and characters (which are almost universally interesting) are the focus.

Sixth, we don’t have any evidence (of which I am aware) that PBL works from a proficiency-oriented basis. That is, PBL advocates have not shown us what kids can do (without notes, dictionaries etc) after lessons.

Blaine Ray has said that the litmus test of successful language teaching is the unannounced, timed write, where students get, say, ten minutes to describe a picture, event, person etc without any advance notice, preparation, use of notes, etc. This evaluates acquisition— what people have “wired into” their heads. Lots of C.I. teachers share results. I do. Adriana Ramírez does. Online groups regularly do. Meredith White does.

PBL advocates– as far as I know– havn’t shown us proficiency-based, zero-prep results. The PBL kids however do do quite well when they have lots of access to notes, when they have time to prep, memorise presentations, etc.

So…from what I have seen, P.B.L. is not going to fit in with comprehensible input-based instruction.  Caveats:

  • I havn’t used it, and so I don’t have any data to support my gut feeling that P.B.L.’s effectiveness is limited.
  • Maybe you could do PBL with shared vocabulary, ie the whole class decides on a problem, and gets some strict guidelines about what can/cannot be used.
  • Bill VanPatten has commented that “PBL is not an appropriate teaching strategy for most language learners,” because “they don’t yet have enough language in their heads.”
  • You could easily make PBL work in L1.

Amy & Gisela’s great Elementary Spanish Classes

Minneapolis part 2: I got to see Amy Roe and Gisela Schramm-Nagel’s elementary Spanish classes.  These are two master teachers and I sure learned a ton.  Maybe others can too.

They teach at a ritzy private school (literally every car in the senior students’ parking lot is a $100,000 S.U.V.) and have short (30 min) classes with about 10 kids/class.  First, Amy:

  1. The kids come in and she says hola, ¿cómo estás? etc etc and they can all answer
  2. Today they are learning weather.  She projects a picture of a tall grumpy bald man and his dog.
  3. There are a few Spanish words on the screen (está lloviendo, hace frio etc)
  4. She gets a kid to be Mr Grumpy (Señor Marrero) and every time she says his name he has to go “bah!”
  5. Another kid wants to be the dog, so she kneels down beside Señor Marrero (who starts petting her!  ha!)
  6. She says a sentence or two, and then asks the kids a question or two.  The sentences are things like “it’s cold and Señor Marrero is not happy (BAH! yells the actor).” She asks simple Spanish questions like “does Señor Marrero like the cold?  Dos his dog like the cold?”
  7. The class is input-focused and the kids are all following along.  Everybody wants their turn acting and all are quite good at it and at hamming it up.  I saw every kid answering every question.
  8. At one point she said something like “do you like the cold?” to the dog.  The dog said yes.  Then she asked me, and I answered slowly, and then I asked a few of the kids “do you like ____” and they said yes/no.
  9. She also put pictures of weather on the screen, and asked questions about that.
  10. This class went by really quickly.  As soon as a kid fidgeted, she switched actors or activity.
  11. At the end the kids lined up and she has a routine (using Spanish) where she says “who is the first?  who is last?”

She was able to be in Spanish most of the time, the kids were engaged (and understanding), and went s.l.o.w.l.y., she pointed and paused, etc.  It was high input, fun and comprehensibility.

I next got to observe Gisela.  she has Grade 1s so they cannot yet read (though they know their letters).  I have never seen a C.I. class where kids could not read so I was excited.

Gisela’s main trick is to have a ton of routines in Spanish.  The kids follow the routines, so basically they are doing T.P.R.: they hear a command in Spanish and do an action. So they come in, and she says (in Spanish) “sit down please” and “watch me.”  (By the way literally every word was in Spanish for the whole class)

  1. She spent a minute or two on the weather (she had pictures on the screen).
  2. She then got the kids to sit on the floor on a big circular rug with emoji faces and Spanish the matched the emojis.  So the smiley face had a estoy feliz beside it.  She asked them how they were doing and they all answered in Spanish.  She later told me she had never “taught” them these but they had basically picked them up by osmosis.
  3. She then did this suuuper-cool activity to do with jobs and parents.  She held up a picture of a doctor. She asked “who’s Mom or Dad is a doctor?” and little Johnny put up his hand.  Johnny got the doctor pic.  Then she said “who has a businessman/woman in their family?” and another kid put up their hand.  Then, she said “Ok, who needs____” and held up realia.  So the doctor needed a stethoscope, the fireman needed a hat, etc.  The kids “collected” realia.
  4. Eventually each kid had a picture and at least one item belonging to that picture.  Then she asked questions like “who has ____?” and “who is a ____?”
  5. There was also a ton of “filler” Spanish going on, like “con permiso” and “ven aca” etc.
  6. For leaving, they all had to line up and she had a bunch of questions and commands for them:  who is first?  where is the door? etc.
  7. At one point she was asking ages and one kid didn’t know how to say “seven” so she said “figure it out” and he did by scanning the room and finding the #s 1-10 chart.
  8. Another thing she did: her room is labeled with all the masculine things (e.g. el escritorio) were red and the feminine things (e.g. la puerta) were red.  But Gisela doesn’t “teach” gender.  It just shows up in the input.

This class like Amy’s had lots of engagement, variety, movement, etc.  Gisela was able to be in Spanish basically the entire time.  The kids were clearly understanding everything and she managed without any written input (although some of them clearly had figured out the basics of reading and sounding out letters in Spanish).

Both classrooms had some Spanish (e.g. #s etc) on walls but the rooms were not Spanish-overloaded.

The two ladies are in the process of giving their elementary Spanish program a makeover and are in their 4th year of 100% comprehensible input.  When I asked how it was working, they said that the middle-school teachers (who had just received their first batch of C.I.-taught kids) were delighted because these kids had two things:  solid command of the basics, and a good “feel” for the language.  The ladies are not focused on output (although the kids are able to say a fair bit) and deliver loads of interesting input.

We talked about “what should an elementary curriculum look like?” and the suggestions only I could think of were:

  • it should start with the “super 7” verbs:  to be, located, have, want, like, go, need
  • it should use unsheltered grammar
  • whatever kids found interesting would be good subject matter (even if that meant lower-frequency vocab)

But I didn’t have much to say– the ladies are the experts and know their stuff.  I also wondered about speed.  Both are speaking at what sounds like adult speed.  They said they knew they should be slower, but said it felt “boring” to slow down.  But we all agreed that it was amazing how much the kids had picked up (especially the grade 1s, who had almost no written support for their Spanish).

I was reminded of a recent Ben Slavic post, where he describes observing the brilliant Mandarin Chinese teacher Linda Li.  He saw her 2nd year kids spitting out perfect Mandarin sentences.  When asking her how they got so good, she said “I am convinced that the reason these kids can speak and write like this is because of all the input over the past year in level 1 and now up to this point in level 2. I NEVER make level 1 kids speak or write. It’s all input at level 1.”

This is well worth thinking about: you do not need output to develop fluency.  Li showed it, so did Amy and Gisela.  The aim of language teaching is to build mental representation:  gut feel for what sounds good, and understanding.  Everything– everything— flows from that.

Anyway, Thanks to Amy and Gisela for a very interesting chance to watch elementary c.i.

Melanie Bruyer’s Great German Class

No Pro-D is ever better than watching a butt-kickingly good teacher live in front of kids in their classroom.  And the Pro-D I got last week in Minneapolis was very good indeed.  There I met Melanie Bruyers and her first-year, 8th-grader German class thanks to Grant Boulanger.  I was also psyched cos I got to walk around the school and see a few other Spanish classrooms.  So here are cool activities.

Here’s what I saw her do:

The classroom has almost no German signs etc in it but it has a whack of Spanish pronouns on the back wall.

When the kids came in, Melanie circled the day and date and asked briefly about the weather.

Then it was TPR time!  Melanie showed a video– hilariously bad– of a German singer dancing and pointing saying things like “Was magst du?  Ich mage laufen!” (What do you like?  I like running!) and the kids were supposed to watch, dance, sing and point the way he did.  And they actually did, and seemed to like it.

Then it was time to do Bryce Hedstrom’s “La Persona Especial.”  Melanie put me in the visitor’s big chair at the front, and on the overhead projected a set of questions (in the formal) like “Wie heissen Sie?” and “Wass haben Sie gern?”  The class read and said these in unison, and I answered, s.l.o.w.l.y., in German.  Then it was time for a student, and a boy came up.  Melanie then projected the same questions (in the familiar), the students chorally read them, and the boy answered, mostly in single words.

After this, it was story time, and Melanie asked a very short, two-scene story about a boy who was somewhere in the Star Wars universe but could not hear ____ music, so he had to go elsewhere and listen to it there.  This was funny and the kids were into it.  Melanie asked a few questions, circled some of the sentences a bit, and then this period was done.

Melanie’s class is as good as language teaching gets.  Some notes:

  • she is input-focused and wants output only to signal comprehension, which is perfect for beginners
  • the kids shush each other during activities, because they like German
  • at the end of class, when she did “1-10 fingers to show comprehension,” most of them were at 8-10
  • the class incorporated personalisation, interesting stories, music and movement.
  • she is using unsheltered grammar

As the class left, a Spanish teacher came in, and I asked him what he was doing with his kids.  “We’re doing a unit on pronouns,” he said, pointing to the back wall.  I asked him what his end-of-year goal with his Spanish beginners was, and he said “well I want them to be able to use regular present-tense verbs, numbers and so on, you know, basic stuff.”

Then we went for lunch and we wen to Caribou Coffee.

“I’ll have a double espresso,” I said to the barista.

“What’s that?” she asked.

I have now heard it all, I thought.

In the afternoon, I saw Melanie with her Germans 3s.  This was a “boring” class to watch cos the kids were mostly reading but notable was how they were on-task, only one kid took her phone out, and after Melanie did pre-reading of new vocab with them, they were able to read (and write a bit) independently.

One cool thing she did was, she made a list of categories on the board (in this case, city vs small town, and interesting and boring) and the kids had to come up and write words in the categories.  So they wrote e.g. “viele Leute” and “Lärm” in the city section.  This then turned into a bit of PQA before the kids got into their reading.

Melanie would not normally do this kind of reading with the kids– the topic was “Landeier in der Grosstadt” (“country bumpkins in the big city”)– but she is teaching them a Uni-prep class so they have a boring standardised curriculum that they must “cover” some of.

Anyway.  Thanks Melanie for letting me see solid, engaging comprehensible input teaching!