Month: June 2017

Should I Bother With Icebreakers?

How do you start the school year? asked somebody recently.  After I said, I ask a story, somebody asked what do you do for an icebreaker to get the kids to know each other?  Another teacher wrote that she was shocked how, at the end of the year, a couple of the kids in her class still didn’t know each others’ names, and wanted to create a more caring and supportive environment.  

These are important goals!

At this point I had a flashback to when I was 13 and switched schools and had to grind through the make-new-friends-and-figure-out-social-hierarchy thing.  I knew a few kids from my old school, but most of us didn’t know each other much.

In English class, Mr Maunderson had cunningly devised a game– an icebreaker!–wherein we ended up having to tell each other names and basic personal info.  I was super-shy and wasn’t much into it; my neighbour (and future Christian, then meth dealer, then meth addict, then again Christian), Cory, was much more forthright, muttering this is fucking gay loudly enough that he and Mr Maunderson became enemies on Day 1. Not only did I have to talk to twenty-seven strangers that hour, but I had to deal with girls who had in two brief months gone from being like boys– they would ride bikes, go on expeditions, play Lego with us, etc, but also sometimes wore dresses– to another species entirely, which species had the magic power of making me feel like an idiot as soon as I even thought about opening my mouth, which I very much wanted to do, because, well, they were girls.  And I was thirteen.  Oh my God was I glad when class ended.

When the flashback ended, I realised, I never do ice breakers.  You know, the games or activities that get people to interact, share info, and, you know “get comfortable” with each other.  In a language class, this is usually the “find someone who…” worksheet & char activity, dome in the target language. Yet, oddly enough, my kids all know a ton about each other by the end of the year.

I don’t do icebreakers, and here is why:

1. If they aren’t in the target language we are wasting precious input time. Why spend an hour talking in English when you could be asking a story, or doing Picturetalk?

2. If we want TL output on Day 1 (eg class, everybody ask 3 ppl ¿cómo te llamas?) we are again wasting our time:  output does not develop speaking ability, it makes people uncomfortable, and most language learners inevitably make mistakes when they speak (bad input for other learners). What kids most want in a language class– to understand what is going on– is not something that practicing output develops.

3. There is one more problem with target-language icebreakers for non-beginner classes: they ask for output from kids at the time when kids’ output is the worst: right after they’ve had months or years away from the language.

4. You don’t need icebreakers to personalise a class.  Good personalisation has two qualities: that what happens in class is interesting to (and modifiable by) students, and that students know that teachers know (and acknowledge) them.  With TPRS (both classical and untargeted), students are driving the story, and with PQA (basically, asking students the same questions as the actors in stories) students will eventually know that the teacher knows and cares about them.

How personalisation works: when I’m asking my first story, I might ask the actor do you like dogs? and, after they answer, I would ask a random student the same question. If I’m on the ball, and I can remember, I can bring this up later:  class, does Mandeep like soccer or cricket?  That’s right– Mandeep likes cricket.  As soon as the student knows that I know (and remember) something about them, they get a bit more comfortable in the room.  As the year goes on, both I and the class know more and more about each other.

Right now, in my Spanish 1 class, off the top of my head, I can tell you that Kauthar likes Hector Bellerín, Isha watches 13 Reasons Why (and regards Profe Stolz as a total fashion disaster argh), Dalawar is dating Miley Cyrus, Avlin likes smart boys, Abdullah is an expert in kissing Selena Gomez, Ali hates X-box FIFA, Sundus dances with Chris Brown, Brian both reads and is buddies with Obama, Idris works as an assassin when not playing NBA 17, Zahra is fasting, Kajal has three boyfriends and a giant silver ring, Noor loves K-Pop, Samrina plays clarinet, can’t stand stupid boys or bad music and is dating young Leonardo DiCaprio, Taranjot has a guitar and a pit-bull, Avleen likes sleeping more than anything else, Riya likes smart boys and good books, Ravneet likes cooking but hates science…and I could tell you ten more “facts” per kid.

Note that in my class, I encourage kids to invent a “Spanish self” which can be whatever they want, (provided they are OK with others and their parents hearing about it).  And because PQA is done aloud, and because everybody has to listen, the kids get to know something about each other without straight-off-the-bat face-to-face awkwardness. Psychologists will tell you that if you can remember somebody’s name and one or two specific facts about them, they will like and trust you a fair bit.

5. Icebreakers make people self-conscious.  Nothing– nothing– is as uncomfortable for a teen as forced social contact. Ask your students: most would rather wash dishes for three hours than have to spend face-to-face time with total strangers.  Why do teens text all the time and start relationships by texting?  Because texting takes the edge off of self-consciousness. For kids with anxiety, autism or stress, or for people with limited/newer English, icebreakers are simply awful.

One question I have never seen answered is this: do people actually want to know others (or have others know them) immediately in a new social situation?  I suspect that for a few kids, the answer is yes…and those kids are going to be chatty and putting up their hands right away. The rest?  Mostly what they want is to understand what is going on, and to feel comfortable.  With time, they will “feel out” the social world and discover it on their own terms.

EDIT: teacher Jeff Brown writes this:  on the first day I have the kids take home a questionnaire in English. The last question is: Tell me something interesting about yourself, Then after reading all of them, the following day I introduce everyone in the target language knowing the little bit the students wrote about themselves in English. It’s always a blast. I love it. It’s one of my favorite days. I have had triplets, concert musicians, children of CEOs, etc. The kids love it too and it’s all target language (works for all levels). This is done on the third day to be exact.

I think Jeff’s idea is great:  kids don’t have to talk, it personalises language, and it helps people know each other without having to get in each others’ faces.

Anyway, this is why I don’t do icebreakers.

Frequency List Lessons

There was a recent discussion in which a teacher said, my department head insisted on teaching only the present tense in Level 1, the preterite in Level 2, etc.  This Head’s reasoning was, people must “master” one set of “vocabulary” at a time. Bad idea.

Anyway, let us look at which verbforms in Spanish are actually most frequently used.  Here, from’s Spanish Frequency List, are the most-used verbs in Spanish, then some ideas about what this means for teachers.

The verbform is as given, and the number refers to how close to most-used the verbform is.  The lower the number, the more often used the verb is. Reference point: in Spanish, the most-used word is que (“what” or “that”) whose number is therefore 1.  The second most-used word is de (“of” or “from”) whose number is 2, and the articles la and el (“the”) are the 6th and 7th most-frequently-used words.  OK, verbs:

8.             es
22           está
42           vamos
44           hay
47           estoy
48           tengo
53           ha
55           sé
56           estás
58           puedo
60           quiero
62           soy
63           tiene
68           fue
69           ser
70           hacer
71           son
73           era
74           eres
76           tienes
77           creo
79           he
81           voy
82           puede
83           sabes
91           quieres
100        estaba
102         están
103         va
109         siento
110         tenemos
111         puedes
115         ver
124         decir
128         ir
132         has
136         estar
137        estamos
141        quiere
146        trabajo
148        mira
149        vas
150        sea
154        hecho
156        dijo
157        pasa
162        hablar
169        espera
171        han
173        sabe
177        fuera
181        podemos
182        dije
184        necesito
185        estado
186        podría
187        acuerdo
189        tener
190        dice
192        crees
194        gusta
197        será
198        haciendo
202        había


First, the facts.

A.  The top 202 most-used Spanish words include

  • verbs in seven verb tenses (present, preterite, imperfect, present perfect, present progressive, formal future, informal future e.g. va a hablar)
  • verbs in two subjunctive moods (present and past)
  • reflexive verbs

B. Verbs we think are oft-used such as gustar are less-used than for example fue

C. The traditional textbook order of teaching verb tenses (typically, present ⇒ preterite ⇒ imperfect ⇒ present perfect ⇒ subjunctive) is totally at odds with how frequently verb forms are actually used.

The implications (in no particular order):

  1. Traditional textbook verb sequencing will not help students in real-world use. Most students will not take five years of Spanish– two is more typical– and so traditional sequencing will overplay less-used “categories” (e.g. stem-changing verbs) and underplay what actually gets used (everything, basically).  They will therefore understand less than they should/could.

    We know this:  according to Davies and others, the 1500 most-used words make up 85% of all spoken language (in any language).  A reasonable target for a five-year high-school language program would therefore be, 300 words per year, more or less.  What if students only take two?  Well then, they will get the most benefit from using the 600 most-used words.

  2. Textbook sequencing does not properly “model” grammar “rules.”  It is pretty obvious that everything normally used is “mixed together.”  A four year old will say something like yesterday Daddy took me to a playdate.  I hurt myself playing with Jason. But it was fun.  I like playing with Jason.  He’s nice.  Here, there are three verb tenses and a reflexive verb.In Spanish, English speakers have a whack of verb subtleties to soak up.  For example, the term “I was” could be estaba, estuve, me sentí or fui. If we teach one tense as a time, as the textbook does, we play up the morphology (form) at the expense of contextual “rule” awareness.  E.g. a Colombian will say cuando estaba cansado ayer en la tarde, me tomé un tinto (“when I was tired yesterday afternoon, I grabbed a coffee”).  The Colombian has acquired the “rule” that the preterite tense “interrupts” the “background” that the imperfect tense establishes.In a traditional textbook, however (eg the ¡Juntos! books I used to use), students will spend quite a while on the preterite, and then on the imperfect.  Even if they acquire the specific forms (which they generally don’t, because nobody is on anybody else’s schedule in terms of acquisition), when a new form shows up, two things happen:

    a. they will start using the new form (verb endings) everywhere and apparently forget the older form’s endings.  Kids who knew to say ayer yo fui a la escuela now say ayer yo iba a la escuela intending to mean the same thing.

    b. when (if) they pick up the new form, they will have huge problems “knowing” which form to use where.  Why?  Because there are so many “rules” to remember that the only effective way to pick them up is from contextual input modeling.  Basically, we need to hear an ocean of meaningful Spanish sentences which use both these verb tenses together.  This is true in any language of any grammatical structure.

    An English speaker can do a thought experiment here:  what is the “rule” for using the very high-frequency English words some and any?  Why can’t I ask do you have some advice? or answer no I don’t have some advice for you?  Why can I say do you have some of those washers for my drum? but not do you have some ideas? 

Anyway.  There you go: some data and ideas about word frequency.  Comments as always welcome.


Stuffies, Students & Stories: a simple Monday opener.

My Spanish classes are fully “unsheltered” grammar, which means we use past tense, present, subjunctive, whatever right from Day 1.  We need a lot of varied input for this to work, so stories are asked in present tense but read in past, and Movietalk and Picturetalk are in present.

In addition to my daily intro routine, I have started playing around with student-generated stories.  Each weekend, a student takes Victor the black-and-white monkey home.  They have to take five photos of Victor that tell a story.  They email me them, I project them on Monday, and we ask a past-tense(s) story.

So, this week Zahra had Victor and his wife/girlfriend/partner bla bla Victoria.  Here are the photos she made, and what we did with them in class.  We are working on quiere impresionar (wants to impress), le da (gives him/her) and quiere ser (wants to be).


There was a monkey named Victor and another named Victoria.  Victor was [invent details] and Victoria was [ditto].  They lived in ____.  Victor liked ___ and Victoria liked ____.


Victor saw Victoria.  He liked her.  He wanted to impress her. He gave her a rose.
Victor said you are very beautiful.  I am rich, handsome and nice. Would you like this rose?
Victoria said your rose does not impress me.


Victor kissed Victoria.  Victoria was not impressed.
Victoria said your kisses do not impress me.
Victor said what impresses you?
Victoria said rings impress me.


Victor gave Victoria a ring.
Victor said does my ring impress you?
Victoria said yes your ring impresses me.
Victor said do you want to be my wife?
Victoria said yes I want to be your wife. 


Victor and Victoria had a son.  Their son was a cat.  Their son’s name was ____.

I will narrate, kids suggest details, and I ventriloquise voices for the monkeys.

ANYWAY this is easy.  Just send a character home with a student.  Get the student to take 4-6 photos that tell a story.  Kids can use just the character, or add themselves, or use their friends, etc.  They can digitally manipulate the photos if they want.  Then, they email them to you, you project, and you can either ask a story, or Picturetalk them.

BTW this is not my idea– it comes from The Internet.  This is just an example of how one can do it.

UPDATE: so when the photos came to me, we “picturetalked the story” and then there was a twist.  Kajal asked, if the two monkeys had a baby tiger, did the girl monkey Victoria cheat on Victor? Who is the real Dad?  The vocab introduced here was ¿es posible que _____ engañara a ____ (“is it possible that _____ cheated on ____?”).  Yes, it’s past subjunctive and these are Level 1s but some circling and comp checks and they get it.

So…Kajal is this weekend taking the stuffies home and is going to create a backstory that explains how Victoria had a baby tiger.  This is the cool stuff, when stories take twists the kids come up with.





How Do I Explain Comprehensible Input?

Kids, parents and colleagues often ask us why do we do stories in Blablabian class, and read so much Blablabian? or why don’t we practise speaking Blablabian more? or why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s class?

These are good questions.  Now, since most kids and parents, and an unfortunately  staggering number of teachers, administrators, heads, and methods instructors in Uni don’t, won’t or can’t read S.L.A. research, we have to be able to get people to think about why we teach languages basically by using comprehensible stories and reading that recycle vocabulary a lot.  Our best explanation will be, because it works, and we show the kids, colleagues, parents or admins what kids can understand and do.  We can also point them to the user-friendly Tea With BVP radio show/podcast. We can also do the best thing of all time: ask our students, do you feel like you are understanding lots of Blablabian, and is it easy?

But sometimes you want to make a point quickly, or get people thinking, so, today’s question: how do I explain comprehensible input teaching?  Some of these are my ideas, and others come from Robert Harrell and Terry Waltz.

Q: Why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s Blablabian class?

A: Ask the questioner, so knowing grammar rules is important to be able to speak a language?  When they say yes, say OK, let’s do a simple experiment.  First, ask them to tell you three things they did last night.  They’ll say something like first I went home and ate Pizza pops, and then I did homework that totally sucked, and after dinner I played Minecraft on my Xbox.Then, say OK, now tell me three things you did last night, but do not use the letter “n.”  This will open the door to a conversation that can show them why having to consciously think about language while using it will basically cripple our ability to talk.


Q: Why don’t we/your students/my children in your classes practise talking?

Ask the person what language that you don’t know would you like to learn?  They might say Urdu, or Dari, or French.  Then say to them OK, let’s start speaking Urdu.

At this point, they will say yes but I don’t know how to say anything. Then you say something like well, how would you like to learn to say something, and they will say something like by listening to it or by reading or watching it and you say exactly!  You can now talk about how input, and lots of it, must– and does– precede any kind of output.

Q: Don’t people need grammar rules explained to them to be able to speak?

A:  Ask whether or not the sentence “I enjoy to run” sounds right.  When they say, no, ask why not?  Most people will say uhhhhh, while the grammar freaks will say well the verb to enjoy must be followed by a noun or a gerund bla bla bla.  Right…and now you ask them when you were a kid, who explained that rule to you?  What, wait, nobody?  Well then how did you pick it up?

This is where you can talk about what polyglot Kato Lomb (21 languages) said:  we learn grammar from language, not language from grammar.


Q: Don’t people need to memorise a lot of vocabulary to learn a language?  Why don’t you get your students to study vocab lists?

A:  Ask them, could you explain how to turn a cellphone off? Obviously:  simply find the button, and press the button long enough.  Now, ask them, can you tell me how to draw a cube?  Here, I have pen and paper, explain away.

Image result for cube

When they try to tell you what to do to make this cube, you will probably end up with something very different from this nice neat cube.
The point? Some activities that we do are simple enough to first explain and then simply do, like turning a phone on or off.  In school, things low on Bloom’s taxonomy, like memorising some dates for a history class, or doing long division, can easily be broken down into steps, practiced, and mastered.  Basiclaly, if a computer can or could do it, we can learn it by breaking it down into steps.

Other activities, however, are so complex that breaking them down into steps or chunks is either impossible or not worth the effort.  You could theoretically “explain” how  to draw a cube, but it would be way easier to just show somebody a cube and have them go at experimenting with copying it.  Similarly, you could ask students to memorise twenty Blablabian words (or some grammar “rules”) for a test.  But it would be much simpler to get them to listen to some sentences containing the words, explain what the sentences mean, and then ask them some questions about the sentences (ie circle them) in order to recycle the words.

Q: I learned Blablabian from textbooks, memorising word lists, and studying grammar.  I can still speak it.  Why should we do anything differently?  (This question  btw is one that I have never heard from a parent, but rather from some older languages teachers.)

A: First, we ask Mr Old Grammar Student a couple of questions in Blablabian, speaking at the speed of at which native speakers of Blablabian.  One of two things will happen: 1. MOGS will not understand the question, or 2. MOGS will get it and give us a fluent answer.

If MOGS doesn’t understand, the point is moot.

If MOGS gives us a fluent answer, we then ask, have you done anything to acquire Blablabian other than study the text etc? The answer is always one or more of the following: yes, I lived in Blablabia for three years, or I married a Blablabian who did not speak English, or I watch Blablabian-language news, or I really enjoy watching the Blablabian soap opera ROTFL BFF OMG LULZ on Netflix. 

At this point, one can politely bring up Lance Piantaggini’s point that how we actually acquired Blablabian might differ from how we think we acquired it.  The way I put it is this: can you tell me how much of your Blablabian came from Blablabian experiences, and how much came from the text?  Even if people don’t know, we point out that, at best, a student of Blablabian in a five-year high-school Blablabian program got 500 hours of Blablabian (and, if the teacher was using a textbook, probably a lot less). If they lived in Blablabia, they got that much exposure to Blablabian in six weeks!

At this point, only a hardened grizzled grammarian fighting the noble battle of the textbook will stick to their guns, and say something like well grammar preparation made it possible for me to go out and experience real-life in Blablabia successfully.  At this point we might say, and what percent of your students will eventually end up in a Blablabian immersion environment? but frankly I would rather at this point go and grab a couple of beers.


Ok folks, there it is, a few simple ways to get people thinking about why C.I. works.