Month: February 2016

What Is Rule Overgeneralization, and What Can We Do About it?

So you are teaching with your text and in year one the kids “learn” first how to say “I like” in Spanish– me gusta– and then how to conjugate regular present-tense verbs.  And suddenly they are saying *yo gusto no trabajo. Then in Level 2 you “teach” them the past tense, like “she ran” is corrió.  And suddenly they are saying *los lunes corrió a la escuela.  These are a lot like how kids pick up L1:  they acquire Daddy went to the store and then later say Daddy goed yesterday.

This is “rule overgeneralisation:” a new “rule” shows up and suddenly it gets applied everywhere, inappropriately.

Kids pull out of this very quickly, mostly because of the masses of input they get from L1 parents and other adults.  But what can we do about this in the language classroom?

So some random notes:

1. Avoiding conscious learning is the first key.  If you have to consciously learn AND remember AND apply “rules” in real time– ie during oral production– you will naturally default to the most recently-learned rule.  So all that hard work on the present tense seems to go out the window when the passé composé gets introduced.  This is not cos kids are dumb, lazy etc, but it is a brain-structure and bandwidth problem: you have a limited amount of conscious brainpower, and forcing it to “learn” and then remember and apply “grammar rules” (and the brain, as Bill VanPatten reminds us, doesn’t even actually use what we teachers call “grammar rules” in the first place) is too much.  Too many mental balls to juggle. TPRS or AIM-style stories, Movietalk, Picturetalk, novels etc– i.e. interesting comprehensible input– will take care of a bunch of this.

2.  Unsequenced or “unsheltered” grammar is second. Blaine Ray and Susan Gross pioneered using “unsheltered” grammar– using all verb tenses, pronouns, verb #s etc — from Day 1.  If the input is “modeling” L2 in all its diversity, the brain won’t default to conscious or recently-“learned” rules.  Yes, beginners can cope with sentences like El chico quería un mono que bailara (the boy wanted a monkey who might dance) easily.  There you have inperfect, subordinate clause and past subjunctive all in one sentence.

This way, the brain has “everything” coming in at once, and it is getting the “mental spaces” for the different “rules” built, ground up, from Day 1.  The kids won’t substitute trabajaba for trabajó because they have been hearing and reading them– mixed together, naturally– from the beginning.

(There is, btw, another argument for the use of unsheltered grammar: frequency.  A glance at any word frequency list shows us that the 250 most-used words (i.e. what Level 1 of any language class should teach) includes verbs in five tenses and the subjunctive mood.  And it’s not like Mexican moms or French dads delay speaking the subjunctive (or whatever) till their kids are ten years old!)

3. Avoiding “grammar practice” is the third key. The problems any output activity where we “practice” grammar are numerous:

  •  How do we expect people to do what they are trying to learn to do?  Are we not putting the cart before the horse here?
  • If we acquire languages via input, what good does output do?  “Little or nothing” is Steve Krashen and Bill VanPatten’s answer.
  • This will inevitably be accompanied by tons of English or other L1 discussion.  Even the eager beavers will be saying “is it the thingy, the subtunction?  Is that like you put an -a on it?  No wait that’s an -e. OMG this Snapchat. Shut up I don’t like her, OK it’s *ella trabajió.
  • It’s boring. Generating sentences such as “the girl wants her cousin to cook” or “I want my friend to run” is not fun.  I’ve tried everything–everything– and believe me, I can get kids to listen to a fun story that has [whatever grammar] in it, but I cannot get 90% of kids to “practice grammar” or “practice speaking” in any meaningful way.

4. Remember that “errors” do not exist, from the learner’s point of view.  If somebody “screws up” in writing or speech, they quite simply have not acquired what they need to produce the language properly.  They are being asked to do something they quite literally cannot do. There’s an entire Tea With BVP devoted to this question. So, rule overgeneralisation– like any error– has more to do with what teachers want than how “good” students are.

5. We have to remember that acquisition is non-linear.  We can minimise problems such as rule overgeneralisation, but we can’t get rid of them.  Check out this mama bear and her cub going rock climbing.

They test pawholds.  They back down.  They try the sequence differently.  They don’t get there in one fast line.

Teachers are mama bear and students the cubs, if you will. They’ll do the moves…when they are ready.

Finally, we need to up the input.  Students only acquire via input.  Yes, it may seem like they are learning from doing worksheets, or using the subjunctive chart above, or practicing dialogues.  But such “learning” is incidental, and as we see from research, much less effective than lots of good input.  If you keep hearing “j’allais à l’école hier” or “yo gusto hamburguesas,” the students need to hear (and read) more je suis allé and me gustan las hamburguesas.  In the long run, that’s the only thing that is going to work.

 

 

 

Level Two Spanish Results: First Picture Description

Spanish 2 has been running for three weeks.  We have read a couple of easy novels, and have done one story cycle: el restaurante, which included reading, storyasking, Movietalk (Mr Bean videos RULE!) and Picturetalk.

Today’s first writing assessment: describe this photo.

  
Here are four writing samples.  The kids had 5 minutes, no notes or dictionaries.

First, Janelle, the top student. Amazing how she mixes past and present appropriately.

 

Next, we can compare two Level Two students who are not top performers. Hassan went to another school last year, where he had traditional grammar-and-textbook-based teaching.  This is garbled and nonsensical.  Hasan has some learning challenges and struggles in other classes.

Next, Abbas, who like Hassan has some challenges and struggles with school.  This is not awesome…but we understand, and he has built in a bit of a backstory.  Abbas had only TPRS in Level One.

Based on results, C.I. clearly helps the challenged kids more than does a traditional text.

   
Finally, Amneet.  This is not very good writing.  What is interesting here is that Amneet is probably the best speaker in the class.  I have found this kind of thing typical:  while most of the kids can undertsand everything (the scores for reading and listening quizzes are all between 80-100%), production skills vary dramatically from kid to kid and medium to medium.  Writers are not necessarily speakers, and vice-versa.

Amneet arrived late in Spanish 2, has missed a bunch of classes, but did well last year (over 80%) so I am expecting her written output will pick up.

 

How clear should I make it?

I gave an all-day workshop in Victoria last Friday and as usual began with a German demo:  asking a story, PQA, Textivate, Picturetalk, Movietalk, embedded reading.  I’ll briefly mention two things of note:

Here’s a few German words:

hatten = had          eine = a, an          Katze = cat

Can you figure out this sentence?

“John und Candice hatten eine Katze”

Right:  “John and Candice had a cat.”

I had written on the board glücklich = 🙂 .  Glücklich means “happy” and sometimes “lucky” in German.  During storyasking, I had used the word “und” many, many times (but I had not written it on the board, or translated it on the embedded reading), and I had also used the word glücklich a bunch.

Near the end of the demo, a participant asked “what does glücklich mean?”  Another participant then asked “what does und mean?”

I was floored.  What, I thought, could be more obvious than 🙂 = happy?  What could possibly be more obvious than und means “and”?  These were language teachers who wanted to be there, who wanted to acquire some German, and who had the metacognitive skills to know when things weren’t clear and ask for help.  All of them spoke at least two languages, and most had studied more at some point.

Today’s question: How clear and unambiguous should I make my classroom target  language?

Today’s answer: Even clearer.  🙂

 

 

Tea With BVP Episode Guide

Tea With BVP is Bill VanPatten’s weekly radio show.  It’s archived here.  Listen live Thursdays at 3 PM Eastern, or listen to free podcasts.  This is a good non-technical intro to S.L.A. theory and best practices.

Here’s the episode guide:

  1.  The State of language education today
  2. Whatever happened to comprehensible input?
  3. Textbook:  friend or foe?
  4. Should we get rid of grades in language teaching?
  5. Does explicit language teaching do anything?
  6. Live from A.C.T.F.L. 2016 starring Steve Krashen!
  7. There is no such thing as error in language acquisition.
  8. What does output do for acquisition?
  9. Is it our job to motivate students?
  10. Are there “rules” to be learned in languages?
  11. With Alison Mackey:  What is the relationship between S.L.A. research and classroom practice?
  12. Are vocabulary and grammar learned differently?
  13. What should teacher education be about?
  14. There’s no such thing anymore as “methods.”
  15. Are some languages harder to learn than others?
  16. What is the role of feedback in the language classroom?

Talking Without Understanding

I was at Steve and Kim’s last Saturday, and when their kids’ bedtime came, Uncle Stolzie got the chance to read to Jasper, 4, from his new book, while the parents put Calder (20 months) to bed.

So we snuggled up on the couch and I started reading the book.  I’m a pretty good reader:  I can do different voices and accents, and I’m verbally quick.  I would read a paragraph or two, and Jasper would ask questions about the pictures. He liked the reading.  After about twenty minutes, Jasper was sleepyheaded and off to bed.

And then I realised that I had no idea what I’d just read.  I was so focused on the reading, voices, dialogue, going slow, etc, that the story itself eluded me.  I know there was a squirrel and a toad, and that was about it.

So it made me think about language performance.  If we make kids read aloud, how much do they actually understand?  Can you speak a foreign language– in my case, a totally new book– and know what you are saying?  Can you read and speak well, and sound good, and not know what you’re doing?  Does output help us learn things?   When we “get through” a performance, have we experienced something like what a reader or viewer has?

I’ve been playing Irish music for ten years now.  So how do you learn?  Well, primarily you listen.  Irish music is played in sets.   A reel will have an A part (played twice) and a B part (ditto).  The whole thing is played three times, then you jump directly into the next tune, then another, etc.  The music repeats a fair bit, so you have many chances to pick it up.

When I go to sessions or festivals, I see people hear a tune (from teacher or session group), use Tunepal or Shazam to identify it, then look up the sheet music, and then start playing along.  I wonder why.  Until you know the tune– i.e. you can hum or whistle it– there is very little point in playing.  And the only way you can really learn a tune is by listening.  Yes, you have to practice, because making music with mouth and fingers, unlike speech, is not something the brain is prewired to do.

Learning tunes by playing is like learning a language by talking: sure, you’ll pick something up.  But it will be slow, and you’ll be so busy working on sounds and notes that you won’t really process what you’re hearing.

 

The Zen of Language Teaching

Here are your koans.  Think on them.

 

If you want to successfully teach grammar, do not teach grammar.

If you want your students to talk, do not ask them to talk.

If you want your students to write well, do not make them practise writing.

If you want them to acquire more words, teach them fewer words.

If you want to make them fluent, do not try to make them fluent.

If you want your students to acquire a language, do not teach them about the language.

If you want your students to know the meanings of lists of words, do not give them lists of words.

If you want your students to spell properly, do not make them practise spelling.

Just because nothing appears to happening doesn’t mean nothing is happening.

Just because something is happening doesn’t mean anything is happening.

If you want your students to read, do not teach them how or what to read.

If you want your students to prepare for the unknown, make them comfortable with what they know.

A student without a language dictionary is like a fish without a bicycle (sorry Gloria).

A language classroom without lists of words is like a phone book without stories.

“If you want to build a ship, do not gather the men to collect wood, divide up the work, or give orders.  Teach them instead to yearn for the vast and infinite sea.”– Antoine de St. Exupery

As always, the ideas here are are grounded in research, and this one was inspired by Mandarin and S.L.A. guru Terry Waltz.

Two For One!

Anyone who reads this knows I have two main skills: putting my foot in my mouth, and getting a bad idea in my head and (despite all evidence to the contrary) pursuing it.

I used to think, OK, when introducing adjectives & adverbs, best to introduce paired opposites, e.g. guapo<->feo (good-looking <-> ugly).

This year I played around with limiting vocab (even while switching to fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1). How do I cut the word-load down? I wondered.

So I tried the simplest thing: I just introduced one adjective at a time and used no+adj instead.

So where I used to say la chica era muy guapa, pero el chico era feo (the girl was good looking, but the boy was ugly), now I say la chica era guapa, pero el chico no era guapo (the girl was good-looking, but the boy was not) and I add a happy and then distasteful face when presenting it live.

(I do introduce the opposite word a day or two later.)

The effect was that the kids seemed to pick words up more quickly, and I got fewer errors like this: *el chico era no guapo.  I think this was because they got to use their mental bandwidth of fewer items so the input was more focused and their brains got the “rules” more easily.

I dunno what people think. But this was a major revelation for me, and in line with standard T.P.R.S. practice: limit vocab and recycle it as much as possible.

Should I Go to I.F.L.T.?

I.F.L.T. is the brainchild of a bunch of people: Stephen Krashen, Jason Fritze, Karen Rowan, Carol Gaab (and many others directly and indirectly), and is one of the best pro-D opportunities for languages teachers in the world.

Today’s question: should I go to I.F.L.T.?

To answer, I’ll describe my experiences in 2014.

I.F.L.T. has three “threads”: language labs, where real TPRSers teach real kids real lessons, workshops presented by master teachers such as Laurie Clarq and Martina Bex, and language classes where you can learn some Spanish, French, Mandarin or whatever.  2014 also had Ben Slavic’s “war room,” which was peer-to-peer coaching in C.I. techniques. And of course there was chance to talk to a very diverse crew of awesome teachers from all over.  Oh and random stuff like the Turkish Army Smoking Delegation. 

The workshops were uniformly excellent.  I saw Martina Bex, Carol Gaab, Laurie Clarq and a few others whose names I can’t remember.  The many workshops last 75 minutes and are quite technique-specific (e.g. you will Movietalk only in the Movietalk workshop).  An experienced C.I. teacher can get a “tune up” with a technique, and newbies can get specific strategies to try.

One of the best things about the workshops was their applicability to non-C.I. teachers.  The jump into T.P.RS. is a huuuge one and seems forbidding to people who are smarter and saner than I am ;-), and functional baby steps before going whole-hog C.I. are a good way to help people improve their practice.  I met a fair number of teachers who said “I love T.P.R.S., but it scares me,” and for them, the technique-specific workshops were a godsend.

The language labs were even better than the workshops and in my view the conference highlights.  I saw two people: a Mandarin teacher and Joe Dziedzic doing Level 2 Spanish.  I managed to understand what was going on in the Mandarin class, and Dziedzic was impressive not only for his hilarious (unsheltered grammar) story but for his epic tatoos and surealistically  giant water bottle.  While watching the language labs, observers can’t say anything, and when the lesson is over and the kids gone, observers question the teachers.

My favorite Q&A of all time happened after one of these language labs:

Observer:   “This is really impressive.  The kids are really good at ____.  What do you assign for homework?”

Teacher: “I am an extremely lazy teacher, and I have found that both my students and I are much better off with as little homework as possible.  Mainly I try to have them do a bit of reading a few times a week.”

This one line nailed it for me: this teacher got amazing results without making their kids overloaded with work…leaving them to actually enjoy acquiring the language, rather than seeing it as just a college-entrance burden. This echoes an old story about how an early TPRS adopter said they developed the method to improve not just student outcomes but the teacher’s golf game. 

The language classes put teachers in the students’ seats with T.P.R.S.-based lessons.  I attended a Mandarin demo and was pleased to see how quickly I was able to understand a basic story (and read five or six Chinese characters).  This was also a pretty good reminder that teachers really need to s.l.o.w. down to keep things comprehensible.

Ben Slavic’s “war room” was great, and I managed to chat with people from all over, including Diana Noonan (D.P.S. languages co-ordinator, who has managed to get a whole District onto C.I.!), a zillion interesting random teachers, and the Turkish Delegation, a crew of Turkish soldiers who are learning how to use T.P.R.S. for officer language training (English is what they have to learn). I also also got a glimpse of the legendary Krashen, an animal known for both its prodigious coffee consumption and its encyclopaedic grasp of S.L.A. research.😉

I also hit five Irish sessions in Denver, and this year in Chattanooga TN, should be awesome for bluegrass (and Irish).  Bring yer sticks, kids!  Also they have a killer beer scene there plus HISTORY!

Anyway, I.F.L.T. was fun and productive.  If you can’t make it to Tennessee, N.T.P.R.S. (Blaine Ray’s conference) is the week prior in Reno NV, and though I havn’t been, it also looks very good and has many of the same presenters. 

Happy Pro-D!

(and no, I do not get any reimbursement for recommending IFLT or NTPRS)

 

Trump in the Closet

So today we started Level 2 with the usual:  weather, date, what did you do last night? etc.  During a bit of PQA I asked one kid if he had a girlfriend.  When he said no, and I asked why, his friend said “because he has lice” and they both giggled.  And…we were off and running.  What follows is a totally improvised, on the spot, story.  THIS is why I love love love T.P.R.S..  As Mike Coxon said, “when I get off-track, I get the most done.”

  • piojos lice (although we could have started with any living thing)
  • quería besar a wanted to kiss
  • estaba solitario was lonely
  • tenía tantos ____ como ___ had as many ___ as ___
  • estaba tan ___ como ___ was/felt as ____ as ___

Señor Stolz and Animalak had lice.  So did Dhaniyal.  Dhaniyal’s lice were few and blue.  Animalak’s lice were red and small. Dhaniyal had as many lice as Animalak. Señor Stolz’s lice were huge and yellow.

Animalak’s lice were lonely.  They wanted to kiss someone.  There was no-one to kiss!  They were very sad.

Sr Stolz:  Louse, are you happy?

Louse: No, I am not happy.

Sr Stolz:  What do you want?

Louse:  I want to kiss a pretty girl!

Sr Stolz: Are there girls in Animalak’s hair?

Louse: No, there are no girls in Animalak’s hair.

Sr Stolz also had lice.  Sr Stolz lived in the closet with Donald Trump.  Sr Stolz did not like Donald Trump, because Donald Trump was racist and an idiot.  Donald Trump had magnificent hair.  Sr Stolz was as lonely as his lice.

Donald Trump:  I’m an idiot.  Do you want to kiss someone?

Sr Stolz:  Yes, I want to kiss Sofia Vergara.

Donald Trump (to louse): I’m an idiot.  Who do you want to kiss?

Louse: I want to kiss a pretty girl.

There were no pretty girls in Sr Stolz’s closet.  Sofia Vergara also was not in Sr Stolz’s closet.  There were only ugly zombie women in Sr Stolz’s closet.

Sr Stolz and his lice left the closet and went to North Korea.  In North Korea there were as many pretty girls as lice.  The lice were very happy.  Sofia Vergara was in North Korea also.  But she did not want to kiss Sr Stolz.  She wanted to kiss Kim Jong Un.  K.J.U. was happy but Sr Stolz was very sad.  Sr Stolz went back to his closet.  Donald Trump was happy!