The Way Forward? Ben Slavic, envelope-pusher.

Ben Slavic, the “retired” French teacher, has been crusading around the U.S. with energy ball Tina Hargaden, showing people how to use what he calls “untargeted input” to teach languages.  Slavic’s passionate announcements and fascinating ideas have earned him a lot of respect, and also anger from some people in the C.I. universe, but, whatever, haters gonna hate and there is no progress without friction.  Whatever you think of One Word Images, untargeted stories, the Invisibles, etc., you have to hand it to Ben: he is doing the most important work of all:  he is making us radically question our practice.

On a recent Facebook post, Slavic discussed the C.I. practices which he`s dropped, and why.  This is fascinating reading.  Slavic is in italics and my comments in boring normal.

I have dropped the following things – weights around my ankles for more than 15 years:

1. Targeted language – pre-chosen structures and words that I want the students to “acquire” (more like consciously learn) in my lesson.

Slavic’s thinking here is, students will learn best when they choose the agenda (vocab, verbs etc).  Slavic’s work is actually not “untargeted”– it’s like he says in his book, the targets emerge while stories are built.

 

2. Massed reps of targets Students can smell agendae, which are off-putting, and massed reps (what Slavic calls heavy circling) slow down stories.

4. Reading up*  This means, you don’t make kids read to acquire language– you allow them to choose reading which they decide is at their developmental level.

5. PQA – it didn’t take long for the kids to see that I was asking them personalized questions merely in order to try to teach them a structure, not to have a true conversation with them.

Ben has a point, but this is to a certain extent a straw-man  argument: Personalised Questions and Answers should always follow what students are interested in.  Good, organic PQA emerges when students have more control over stories.

6. Establishing meaning- this is not necessary if we are teaching slowly enough and the content is interesting.

Here, I could not agree less. It seems like, no matter how clear I make it, I always have a kid ask me “how do you say there is in Spanish?” after four months of C.I.!  I have learned, you can never be too clear when teaching a language, and there is no research supporting the idea that guessing/deducing meaning supports acquisition.

7. Having kids supply cute answers – this puts stress on them, favors the louder, bolder, and more socially gifted students (linked to privilege), thus dividing the classroom among the haves and the have nots.  

Absolutely.  Bang on.

8. Gesturing as a group – because we forget to do it half the time. Now I just do light gesturing. (I think of light gesturing as a kind of embedded form of TPR that we just do with our hands, while seated, during a story but is not a separate activity like TPR.)

I’ve never done this.  I gesture as a teacher– I have gestures for many nouns, verbs, verb tenses and we, you, I etc.

9. Lengthy undisciplined stories that last more than 25 minutes. Once the kids know that in class they won’t get to know what happens in that class period they tune it all out and by springtime they are all the way tuned out on stories. Short 25-35 min. stories that actually have an ending are necessary. The students need for the story to end that class period.

Do they?  I have had stories go on for up to three periods.  This depends on how good you are at asking stories– it’s not everyone’s forte, and it’s work– and what your class is like.

10. Class reading of novels – that is a school thing and leads to rule by the few. I suggest that we never do a single class novel in Level 1 anymore. So what do we read as a class? Just our own class-created stories. They are more interesting and comprehensible to the kids. And what about novels, magazines, and books? Free choice for SSR is what works best for me. I find that when I do it that way some kids in Level 2 choose Level 3/4 books and some choose Level 1 books, as per their own processing speed. It’s all a big plan to reduce stress in the classroom and fight hard for the most important thing in a school classroom – equity and no-stress learning and no-stress teaching. 

Do you generate enough reading from asking stories that you have enough reading in level 1?  If so, great.  If not…you are going to want some SSR choices.  I use Berto y sus Buenas Ideas, my own Berto y sus Buenos Amigos, and two Brandon Brown books by Carol Gaab. If I keep novel reading to about 10 min/day, kids stay pretty tuned in.

 

11. Using celebrities as characters in stories. I don’t know or care who they are, and many of my kid don’t either. Who is Justin Bieber drinking Cheerwine on the beach with? I simply don’t care. It’s about a section of the class – the kids who know the celebrities – running the class again. Why not we make our own characters up? It’s much more fun!

Whatever works for you and yours.  The key for me is to really dig at all the kids and get the quiet ones to also suggest ideas, to use Invisibles (class-created, drawn), to use kids as parallel characters, etc.

12. Feeling as if I had to do a story even when I wasn’t having the best day. I always felt pressure to do stories even when I didn’t want to.

BOOM!  Exactly.  Good PQA, Movietalk, Picturetalk, novels, word games….there is loads of stuff one can do that delivers compelling C.I.

13. Trying to finish a story that was too long. Long stories only stay long bc of the few kids of privilege who turn the class into THEIR class bc they have the social skills, learned them at home where the other kids didn’t because of poverty. 

What’s “too long?” As long as kids are listening and understanding, all is good.

15. Dominance of the classroom by the few because of the targeting of lists (high frequency lists, thematic unit word lists, semantic set lists, lists of words taken from chapters in novels for backwards planning, TPR lists). 

I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve never done any of this, other than to direct student suggestions toward higher-frequency language.  If they want Selena Gomez doing whatever, wherever, with whoever, fine…but if the kids want her vacuuming the beach, nope: aspiradora is low-frequency, so I’d steer them toward limpiar.

16. Being cute. I can’t be cute anymore. There is nothing in the research on CI that indicates that cuteness is a requisite ingredient of good foreign language teaching. An example is cuing of any kind, like the “Ohhhh!” thing. Or the “Oh no oh no oh me oh my!” thing. […] When we cue them, it is like controlling them. That’s not what I want to do. I want to let interesting input drive the class. Each student will respond in their own way, how they would in a free and open conversation.

Sure…but cued responses– when minimally used– add to the theatre atmosphere of TPRS, and are another way to check comprehension.

*Reading up is where the teachers hand the kids books that they can’t read. When it is in the form of a class novel, it is especially onerous to the students who come from less privileged backgrounds. Now I just do SSR/FVR to start class for ten minutes. They read what they want from a pile of books on a table. The feeling for over the half of the kids when we do class novels is like standing under a cherry tree and being told to jump up to get the cherries. Some can’t jump as high as others. This reduces equity and inclusion in the classroom and divides the class. It is the teacher’s job to pull the branch down so that all the kids can easily do the classroom assignments and thus make it effortless for them, because that is what the research says how we acquire languages – when it is literally effortless. So I say we need to implement more “reading down” in our classes.

Bang on.  As Marco Benavides shows, if we don’t have 98% comprehension, we don’t have much acquisition going on.  The key, as legendary Spanish teacher Joe Neilson explained, is to use “simpler” novels with higher-level students, and to use a broadly shared meaning base that erveryone gets to generate grammatically more complex discussion.  A sentence in my book Berto y sus Buenos Amigos where Paquita says estoy haciendo un video (“I am making a video”) is easy to understand.  The slower processors get it.  Now, we ask the faster processors questions like ¿te gusta hacer videos?  ¿prefieres hacer videos o tocar música?  ¿es divertido hacer videos, es difícil, o los dos?  ¿por qué? 

It should also be noted that much of what Ben is advocating was part of Blaine Ray’s “classic” TPRS.  He wanted a lot of student input into stories (and targeted that vocab/grammar, etc), has specifically said that TPRS does not always need to be cute, etc.  The idea of “planned” stories came when Ray was asked by Susan Gross to explain his methods (which he did with his Fluency book.  Faced with the inevitable question of where do I get stories? from teachers, Ray published the Look, I Can Talk series (and similar texts soon followed from Carol Gaab, etc).  This was inevitable, but any attempt to systematise what appears to be a freewheeling method inevitably loses some of the method’s magic, when Slavic ha clearly rediscovered.

Anyway, thanks to Ben for getting us thinking about our practice!

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7 comments

  1. Thank you for being so clear about how Ben has grown in his CI practice. He still calls it CI, right? I’m sorry to hear that he struggled for so long with TPRS/CI practices. Some of us have been able to grow in our practice without feeling the “weight” that he has felt he has had to let go of. Ben had made a considerable contribution to TCI. I’m waiting to hear what TPRS practices he considers to have helped him arrive at where he is today.

    By the way, can’t we voice disagreement in this “community” without being labelled “haters”? I would love to be able to learn from this branch of the CI movement without having my practices disparaged. Like I said. Some of us have continued to develop, expand and grow with TPRS/TCI and experience success like never befor.

    1. Since I can’t figure out how to edit my reply, I will rewrite:
      Thank you for being so clear about how Ben has grown in his CI practice. I’m sorry to hear that he struggled for so long with TPRS/CI practices. Some of us have been able to grow in our practice without feeling the “weight” that he has felt he has had to let go of. Ben had made a considerable contribution to TCI and he obviously has benefited from his roots in TPRS. I hope his work brings more teachers into the TCI community.

      By the way, can’t we voice disagreement in this “community” without being labelled “haters”? I would love to be able to learn from this branch of the CI movement without having my practices disparaged.

      I do not understand your comment (below). I am not a part of the social media generation.

  2. I am a huge Ben fan, too. I was troubled at the not establishing meaning. For once, I could not wrap my mind around how that would work in my classroom. I have to establish meaning to make it CI, right?

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