Bad Ideas

Don’t Do This

One C.I.-using American colleague recently shared this section from a Spanish test which their defartment head gave their Spanish class, viz

idiot task

How dumb is this?  Let us count the ways:

  1. Unclear instructions.  Are we supposed to rearrange the words in the sentences, or the sentences themselves, or both?
  2. Some of these have more than one possible answer (way to rearrange words).  Eg c. could be vivir juntos no es fácil or no vivir juntos es fácil.
  3. What does this have to do with actual Spanish that people actually speak or write?  Nothing.
  4. I have never seen a language curriculum that says students will be able to take scrambled words and turn them into sentences.
  5. I’m not sure what they are assessing here.  It’s not comprehension of actual Spanish, since nobody speaks or writes like that.  It’s not output, since students aren’t generating language.

 

This reminds me of those high-school math problems that felt like this:  Suzie is twice as old as Baninder.  When Baninder is twice as old as John, John will be three times as old as Suzie.  How old will Suzie’s dog be on Thursday when Baninder is four? 😉

This is basically a gotcha! question for the grammar geeks.  Yes, you could figure it out, but why bother?

 

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Ben comes out swinging: homework, and some generalisations 

Well, Ben Slavic never pulls his punches (which is what I love about him) as you can see below.  Ben does implicitly raise a question, however: is it worth tarring all one’s colleagues with the same brush?  See Ben’s post, and my comments.

Well, my dear Mr Slavic, I would respectfully suggest that there is waaaaay more to the homework question than this.  So, Ben, what about these points?

What about teachers who have to give homework? Required in some places.  Are all these teachers mean, afraid, in need of approval, boring, or incompetent?  Generalise much?  It is a much better idea to look at a specific practice than something like “homework” which is so vague it could mean almost anything.

What about good homework? Things that I send home with kids– making simplified cartoons from asked stories, or Textivate sequences, or translations of short passages from L2 into L1– all deliver good C.I., are easy, and do not take much time.  I tell my kids, budget 15 min/week for Spanish homework.  Hey Ben, do you think my homework mean, or coming from fear, boring or pointless?

What about finishing up class work? My policy– in all classes except English, where there is simply not enough time to read novels in class– is, if you don’t get it done in class, it’s homework.  Would you recommend something else, Ben?

Your kids “don’t do it anyway.” Why?  Was the homework pointless, too much, too hard, infantile, or what?  Does what works (or not) with your kids apply to me and mine? 90% of my kids will do my homework if it’s not unreasonable.

Homework “seems insulting.” I’ve never heard or felt this from kids.  I have heard, it’s too much/hard/boring though. The reality in schools, with languages, is that most students  do not get enough exposure to the language (comprehensibly) in class, even with great teachers, to get anywhere near mastery in 2-4 years.  A bit of enjoyable and not too difficult reading or listening outside of  class is going to do what all comprehensible input does: boost acquisition.  How we mark hwk etc will vary across contexts, but the “insulting” tag seems, well, pointless and unclear.

Homework “is a national sickness.”  It would be much more accurate to say, stupid homework is a national sickness.  And by stupid homework, I mean more or less what Alfie Kohn means: things that do any of “building work habits,” or which unnecessarily repeat what was done in class, or which don’t work (in our world, grammar stuff etc), or which cut into family/leisure or personal interest or sports time, etc.

I don’t make decisions for my kids based on other people’s dumb ideas…I make them based on what’s going to help my kids pick up Spanish.

Anyway, my dear sh*t-disturbing Ben, you havn’t offended me.  But then, I don’t speak for everyone.

 

Does iPad “talking practice” boost oral fluency? A look at Schenker & Kraemer (2017).


In a 2017 paper, Schenker and Kraemer argue that iPad use helps develop oral fluency. Specifically, they found that iPad app users after “speaking practice” were able to say more in German, and were more fluent– rapid and seamless– in saying it than were controls who had not “practiced” speaking. 
So, prima facie, the authors can claim that focused speaking practice helps develop fluency. 

Q: Does this claim hold up?

A: Not according to their evidence. 

Let’s start with the method. Kraemer and Schenker took English L1 students of second-year German, divided them into two groups, and gave one batch iPads. The iPad group had to use Adobe Voice to record three tasks per week, which had to be posted to a group blog. In addition, each iPad user had to respond verbally to some other students’ posted responses to the tasks. 

The tasks included things such as “describe your room” and “recommend a movie to a friend.”

The control group did nothing outside class other than their usual homework, and the iPad group had their other homework (which the authors do not detail, but describe as work involving “vocabulary and grammar knowledge”) slightly reduced in quantity. 

In terms of results, the iPad group during oral testing on average said more, and was more fluent (using language “seamlessly”) than the control.  The authors thereby claim that “practice speaking” boosted oral competence. 

However, there are a number of atudy design flaws which render the authors’ conclusions problematic.

First, the study compares apples and oranges. The speaking group practised, well, speaking, while the controls did not. The speaking group had more time with German (class, plus speaking, plus doing whatever they did to prepare their recordings, plus listening and responding to others’ posted task responses) than did the controls (class, plus “vocabulary and grammar” hwk). The speaking group had more time doing speaking as well as more total German time than the controls. 

This is akin to studying physical fitness by comparing people who work out with those who are couch potatoes, or by comparing people who do two hours a week of working out with those who do four. 

Second, the study does not compare speaking development-focused methods. One group “practiced speaking,” while the other did “vocabulary and grammar” homework.
 This is like comparing strength gains between a group of people who only run two hours a week with another group that runs two hours a week and lifts weights. Yes, both will get fitter, and both will be able to lift more weights  and run a bit faster (overall fitness provides some strength gains, and vice-versa).  

However, what should have been compared here are different ways of developing oral fluency. (We should note that fluency first requires broad comprehension, because you cannot respond to what you don’t understand). 

We could develop oral fluency by 

• listening to various kinds of target-language input (stories, conversations, news etc). 

• watching target-language, L1-subtitled film. 

• reading (it boosts vocabulary). 

Schenker and Kraemer’s “practice speaking” will help (at least in the short term). One could also in theory mix all of these, as a typical class does.

Schenker and Kraemer, however, compare one approach to developing speaking with an approach that does nothing at all to address speaking. 

A more persuasive study design would have had three groups: a control, and two different “speaking development” groups. The “speaking development” groups could have included those doing Schenker & Kraemer’s “practice talking” with, say, people listening to speech, or reading, or watching subtitled film (or a mix).  One group would spend 60 min per week recording German (and listening to 50-75 second German recordings made by their peers). The other would spend 60 min per week, say, listening to German. At the end, control, speakers and listeners would be tested and compared. 

Third, the study does not control for the role of aural (or other) input. The iPad group for one had to come up with their ideas. Since no relatively novice learner by definition comes up with much on their own, they must have gotten language somewhere (Kraemer and Schenker do not discuss what the students did pre-recording their German). My guess is, the speakers used dictionaries, Google translate, reading, grammar charts, things they heard on Youtube, anything they remembered/wrote down from class, possibly Duolingo etc, to “figure out” what to say and how to say it. If you were recording work, being marked on it, and having it responded to by strangers, you would surely make it sound as good as you could…and that (in a language class) could only mean getting extra input.  So did the speaking group get better at speaking because they “practiced speaking,” because they (probably) got help pre-recording, or both? 

Which leads us to the next problem, namely, that the iPad group got aural input which the control group did not. Recall that the iPad group not only had to post their recordings, they also had to listen and respond to these recordings. So, again, did the iPad group get better because they talked, or because they also listened to others’ recordings of German?

Finally, there was no delayed post-test to see if the results “stuck.”  Even if the design had shown the effectiveness of speaking “practice” (which in my view it did not), no delayed post test = no real results. 

The upshot is this: the iPad group got more input, spent more time listening, spent more total time with German, and spent more time preparing, than did the controls. This looks (to me) like a problematic study design. Ideally, both groups would have had the same input, the same amount of listening, etc, with the only difference being that the iPad group recorded their tasks. 

Anyway, the skill-builders’ quest continues for the Holy Grail of evidence that talking, in and of itself, helps us learn to talk. 

The implications for classroom teachers are (in my view) that this is waaaay too much work for too few results. The teacher has to set the tasks (and the blog, iPad apps, etc) up, then check to make sure students are doing the work, and then test them. Sounds like a lot of work! 

Better practice– if one feels one must assign homework– would be to have students listen to a story, or watch a video in the T.L., and answer some basic questions about that. This way people are focused on processing input, which the research clearly says drives acquisition. 

On a personal note, I’m too lazy to plan and assess this sort of thing. My homework is whatever we don’t get done in class, and always involves reading. 

Should I Mark Behavior? The Great JGR Debate, and a Silver Lining for Behaviour Rubrics.

Some years ago, a teacher built a rubric for her C.I. classes, which Ben Slavic named JGR and which was discussed on his blog and then elsewhere.  Here is a version I have played around with: INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric.  I initially opposed the use of JGR, then used it, then ditched it, and now I use it (but not for marks). Note: this is a modified version of the original JGR; and I don’t know for how long she used her rubric, or if she still does, or what the original looked like.

JGR was developed because– like all of us, especially me– the creator had some challenges managing her C.I. classes in her initial year with T.P.R.S., which can in (especially my) rookie hands turn into a “woo-hoo no more textbook!” clown show.  JGR basically “marks” classroom behaviour.  JGR specifies that students make eye contact, add story details, ask for help, not blurt, not use cell-phones etc.  Jen used it (and if memory serves Ben also recommended its use) by making part of her class mark a function of behaviour as marked by JGR.  So the kids might get, say, 20% of their mark each for reading, writing, listening, speaking and 20% for their in-class behaviour.  Part of the thinking here was that some behaviours lead to acquisition, while others do not and also wreck the classroom environment, and so “acquisition-rewarding” behaviour should be rewarded.

JGR– for many people, including me– “works.”  Which is why– especially when linked with allegedly “acquisition-promoting” behaviours– lots of people are interested in it.

JGR is a kind of “carrot-and-stick” marking tool:  if the kids engaged in the behaviours JGR specified, their marks went up, partly because (a) they got marks for those behaviours, and partly because (b) the behaviours should– in theory– help them acquire more language.

This can of worms was shaken around a bit on Ben’s blog, and recently, thanks to the always-remarkable Terry Waltz, there have been FB and Yahoo discussions about it.  So, today’s question:

Should we assess in-class behaviour for final marks purposes?

My answer: no, never.  Why?

1. Behaviours typically asked for in JGR– or other such rubrics– are not part of any     curricula of which I am aware.  Every language curriculum says something like, students of the Blablabian language will read, write, speak and understand spoken Blablabian, and maybe say something about Blablabian culture.  Nowhere does any  curriculum say “students should suggest details for stories” or “students will lookthe teacher in the eye.”

If it’s going to get a mark, it has to be part of course outcomes.  Any assessment guru (Wormelli, Harlen, etc) will tell you the same thing: we do not mark attitude, behaviour, homework, etc, as these are not part of final outcomes.

To put it another way, how do we judge the New England Patriots football team?  By how well, often and/or enthusiastically they practice and look Bill Belichick in the eye, or by how many games they win?  How should Tom Brady be paid: by how often he shows up for practice, and how nice he is to Belichick, or by how many yards he successfully throws?  That’s right.

We could– and I often do– end up in situations where a “bad” kid does well, or a “good” kid does poorly.  I have had bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teacher’s pet-type kids who were not especially good at Spanish, and I have had giant pains-in-the-butt who were quite good.

My best-ever student in TPRS, Hamid Hamid, never added story details, never looked up, and always faced away from the board.  Yet he CRUSHED on assessments and got 100% in Spanish 2.  Two years later, his younger brother, Fahim (also a great student) told me that Hamid Hamid was both shy and deaf in his left ear, so always “pointed” his right ear at the board (and so appeared to be looking away).  This kid’s mark would have been lowered by assessing his “in-class behaviour,” which– given his epic Spanish skills– would have been absurd.

2. As Terry Waltz points out, neurodivergent kids can– and do– acquire language without engaging in many behaviours typically required by participation and behaviour rubrics. She also points out that forcing neurodivergent kids into the “normal” mold is at best less than productive. If you are autistic, anxious, suffering from PTSD (as my stepdaughter does) or facing any other neuro challenges, “engagement” rubrics can make your life miserable while not appreciably meaningfully measuring what you can do with the language.

3. The only thing required for language acquisition is reception of comprehensible input.  While the focus of behaviour rubrics is designed to get kids to tune in, it does not follow that many behaviours which do make for a good class– e.g. people adding good details to stories, looking at each other– are necessary to acquire language.

All of us have been there: you have a plan, you did your story warmup or whatever, but the kids aren’t into it.  You bust out a Movietalk but they aren’t into that either.  Dead class. Now, in a C.I. class, we don’t have recourse to worksheets or whatever, and we still have to teach the language. I have a bail-out move here: direct translation, and I always have a novel on the go, so I can read aloud, and Q&A the novel.  If I’m being particularly non-compelling, I’ll throw an exit quiz at them.

The point: if the kids are getting C.I., they are acquiring.  If they are miserable/tired/bored with stories, fine.  They are gonna get C.I. one way or another.

4. Any kind of behaviour rubric plays the awful “rewards” game.  Ask yourself this question:  why do I teach? The answer– other than because I have to make a living— is probably something like, because it’s interesting, I have some measure of control over my work, and I love kids and my subject.  Some will add that teaching, properly done, opens doors for kids.  Teachers do not teach because they want to be evaluated, or because they want to use the latest gizmo, or because they want public praise, etc.  They are, in other words, intrinsically motivated.  They want to work because the work is good and worthy in itself.

When we institute rewards for behaviours, as Alfie Kohn has spent a career arguing, we destroy intrinsic motivation.  We turn something interesting into payment for marks.  The point stops being paying attention to the story– or adding to it cos you actually care about it– and becomes something rote.

5. Using behaviour rubrics can dampen professional self-examination. If my practice is such that I have to use marks as a stick to keep kids in line (the policing metaphor is not an accident), there are two possibilities: tough kids, and/or I am doing a bad job.  The question why are they not tuned in? might be answerable with any of the following:

— I am not being sufficiently comprehensible

— I am ignoring the top or the bottom end of the class– too fast/slow or simple/complex

— my activities are not interesting, varied or meaningful enough

— the kids see no purpose

— accountability: they don’t see tuning in as something that results in real gains

— I lack basic skills (smart circling, control of vocab, etc etc)

— my story sucks 😉

I had better be able to look in the mirror, consider and then deal with these possibilities, rather than merely acting like a cop and demanding obedience.

Now, behaviour does matter.  You cannot run a T.P.R.S. class without rules etc.  My basic rules:

  • no phones or other distractions (including side-talk, blurting etc)
  • no insults of anyone other than oneself or of rich entitled people
  • listen, watch and read with the intent to understand; ask when you don’t
  • do not create or engage in distractions

The tools that we have for dealing with distracting behaviour include

  • warning the offender, standing by their desk, calling Mom and Dad, etc
  • pointing, with a smile, to classroom rules every time there is a problem
  • sending them to admin if necessary
  • taking their phone until 3:15 (most kids would rather die)
  • detention, where we discuss behaviour
  • assigning read & translate (quiet seatwork)
  • taking the kids outside for a walk, or doing some other kind of physical brain-break
  • changing activities
  • doing a quiz
  • talking to kids one on one and asking what do I need to do to get you focused?

 

The upshot?  We should not, and need not, mark “behaviour” or “participation.”

 

Addendum:  is there ever a use for classroom behaviour rubrics?

Yes.  I get my kids to self-evaluate using JGR every 2-3 weeks.  My version generates a mark out of 20.

Nineteen out of twenty kids will very honestly self-evaluate their behaviour, provided they understand exactly what is expected.  One kid in twenty will heap false praise on him/herself.  For the false praisers (“I never blurt in class!”), I sit them down and explain what I think, then we agree on a more realistic mark.

I save these JGR “marks” and once in a blue moon, when a helicopter parent or an Admin wants to know, how is Baninder doing in Spanish, I can point to both the spreadsheet with Numberz and JGR.  This frames the inevitable discussion about marks in terms any parent can understand.  Any parent, from any culture, understands that if Johnny screws around and/or does not pay attention in class, his mark will drop.

JGR– in my experience– accurately “predicts” the marks of about 80% of kids.  When I can show a kid (or a parent or admin), look, here are Johnny’s marks AND Johnny’s own description of how he behaves in class, we can have an honest discussion about marks, Spanish, etc.  Win-win.

Tech Done Wrong…and Right.

“Techmology,” as Ali G. says, “is everywhere,” and we feel forced to use it.  E-learning! i-Tech! Online portfoli-oli-olios! Quizkamodo!  Boogle!  Anyway, the litmus test for tech in the language classroom is the same as it is for anything else:  does it deliver compelling, vocab-restricted comprehensible input?

Today, a look at two ways to play with tech.

Here is a recent #langchat tweet from a new-waveish language teacher:
What’s the problem here?

1.  As Alfie Kohn has noted, using rewards to encourage ____ behaviour turns teaching & learning into a payment & reward system: kids buy a pizza by doing ____.  But we really want to get kids to acquire languages because the process itself is interesting.  If we have to pizza-bribe kids, we are doing something wrong.

2.  The kids get a pizza party…during class time? Is this a good way to deliver the target language to kids? What about the kids who don’t write une carte?  Do they not get to be part of the pizza party?  Do they sit there and do worksheets or CPAs or whatever while their peers gleefully yap in English, chat and cram junk food into their mouths?  What if kids are good at French, but can’t be bothered to write “une carte”?  What if they are working, or lack digital access?

3.  Output, as the research shows, does not improve acquisition…unless it provokes a TON of target-language response which meets all the following criteria:

  • it’s comprehensible
  • it’s quality and not student-made (ie impoverished)
  • it actually gets read/listened to

So if the teacher responds, and if the student reads/listens to the response…it might help.

4. Workload.  Kids don’t benefit from creating output.  The teacher also has to spend time wading through bad voicemails, tweets and what have you.  Do you want to spend another 30 minutes/day looking at well-intentioned– though bad– “homework” that doesn’t do much good?

5. What do kids do when they compete?  They try to win.  So the kid who really wants pizza is going to do the simplest easiest thing in French every day just so s/he can get the pizza.

 

Now, while the “tweet/talk for pizza” idea is a non-starter, there are much better uses for tech out here…here is one, from powerhouse Spanish teacher Meredith McDonald White.

The Señora uses every tech platform I’ve ever heard of, among them Snapchat (a free smartphone app).  You get it, make a user profile, and add people à la Facebook. Once people “follow” you, you can exchange images and short video with text added, and you can do hilarious things with images (eg face swap, add extra eyeballs, etc).

Her idea is simple and awesome:

  1. She sends her followers (students) a sentence from a story or from PQA.
  2. The kids create or find an image for which the sentence becomes a caption.
  3. They send her the captioned image.
  4. She uses these by projecting them and then doing Picturetalk about them.

You can also do the same thing with a meme generator program (loads free online):  write sentence on the board, kids copy, and they email you their captioned pics.

Here is a crude example:

  1. Teacher sends out/writes on board a line from a story, e.g. La chica tiene un gran problema (the girl has a big problem).
  2. Kids use sentence as a caption & send back to teacher, e.g.

meme

3.  This serves for Picturetalk:  Is there a girl/boy?  Does she have a problem?  What problem?  What is her hair like?  Is she happy?  Why is she unhappy?  Where is she?  What is her name? etc…there are a hundred questions you can ask about this.

Not all the kids will chat/email back, and not all images will work, but over a few months they should all come up with some cool stuff.  You can get them illustrating stories (4-6 images) using memes…

This is excellent practice (for outside class). Why?  Because the kids are

  • getting quality comprehensible input
  • personalising the input without having to make or process junky language
  • building a community of their own ideas/images
  • generating kid-interesting stuff which becomes an in-class platform for generating more comprehensible input

And– equally as importantly– the teacher can read these things in like 3 seconds each, and they are fun to read.  #eduwin, or what?

Here’s a few examples done by Meredith and her kids.


 

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.

Bad science meets questionable usefulness: Lyster (2004a) on prompting feedback

McGill University professor Roy Lyster gave the British Columbia Language Coordinators’ Association annual conference talk in 2015 about best practices in the French Immersion classroom. He specifically mentioned that form-focused instruction and feedback were essential for acquisition of second languages.  Well, THAT got me wondering so I went and did what a sane guy does of a fine Sunday: I went climbing and then I read his paper.

Lyster has done a very good job in terms of his research, controls, etc etc.  Unlike Orlut and Bowles (2008), Lyster did very good science.  But, as we shall see, there are a lot of problems with his conclusions.  Let’s have a look.

To sum it up, Lyster — following Ellis, DeKeyser et al– argues that there needs to be some “focus on form”– explanations about language (as well as activities that make learners process that language)– in a language classroom in addition to meaningful language itself, because without some “focus on form,” acquisition of some items fossilises or goes wrong.

Lyster noted that English-speaking kids in French immersion were not picking up French noun gender very well.  There are a bunch of reasons for this.  Noun gender is of almost zero communicative significance and so acquirers’ brains pay it little attention, and Immersion students are typically exposed to native-speaker generated/targeted materials which do not foreground grammatical features.  Noun gender acquisition is a classic study question because French has it and English does not. Lyster’s question was, “can form focused instruction (FFI) centered on noun gender improve noun gender acquisition?”  FFI involved a bunch of instruction about noun gender (how to figure out what it is basically based on noun endings, which are in French fairly regular), plus various practice decoding activities.  Lyster set up four groups:

  1. a control group which got regular content teaching.
  2. another group that got (1) plus “focus on forms” (FFI; explanations) only
  3. a second group got (1) plus FFI plus recasts (errors being “properly resaid” by teacher)
  4. a third group got (1) plus FFI (explanations) plus prompts (e.g. the teacher asking un maison ou une maison? after hearing students make noun gender errors); these prompts were designed to get students to reflect on and then output the targeted form

The reasoning for prompts is to “force” the learner to bring “less used” (and improperly or not-yet acquired) stuff into the mental processing loop.  Note that this is a technique for advanced learners– those who have a ton of language skill already built up– and would, as Bill VanPatten has noted, overload any kind of beginner learner.

The results, basically, were that the FFI + prompt group did way better than the others on both immediate and 2-month delayed post-test.  Postests included both choosing the proper form, and producing the proper form.

So, prima facie, Lyster can make the following argument:

“The present study thus contributes to theoretical arguments underpinning FFI by demonstrating its effectiveness when implemented in the context of subject-matter instruction within an iterative process comprising three inter-related pedagogical components:

  1. Learners are led to notice frequent co-occurrences of appropriate gender attribution with selected noun endings, contrived to appear salient by means of typographical enhancement
  2. Learners’ metalinguistic awareness of orthographic and phonological rules governing gender attribution is activated through inductive rule-discovery tasks and metalinguistic explanation
  3. Learners engage in complementary processes of analysis and synthesis (Klein, 1986; Skehan, 1998) through opportunities for practice in associating gender attribution with noun endings.”

Lyster claims that his results contribute to the “theoretical arguments underpinning FFI.”  He is right.  And here is the crux:  the problem with work like this is simple: while he can make theoretical puppets dance on experimental strings, what Lyster does in this paper will never work in a classroom.  Here are the problems:

First. the bandwidth problem, which is that for every acquisitional problem a teacher focuses on “solving,” another problem will receive less attention, because the amount of time/energy we have is limited, and so tradeoffs have to be made.  In this case, Lyster decided that a worthy problem was noun gender acquisition.  So, materials were made for that, time was spent practising that, and teachers focused recasts or prompts on that.  The students got 8-10 hours of FFI.

The question: what did they “de-emphasise” in order to focus on noun gender?  But Lyster does not address this.  Was Lyster’s testing instrument designed to catch changes in other errors that students made?  No– they looked specifically at noun gender. It is possible, indeed, it is almost certain, that the FFI resulted in other grammar or vocab content being downplayed.  Lyster’s testing instrument, in other words, was not holistic: he looked only at one specific aspect of language.

An analogy may be useful here.  A triathlete needs to excel in three sports– swimming, cycling and running– to win.  She may work on the bike until she is a drug-free version of Lance Armstrong. But if she ignores– or undertrains– the swimsuit and the runners, she’ll never podium.  An economist would say there is an opportunity cost: if you invest your money in stocks, you cannot buy the Ferrari, and vice versa.

Second is what Krashen called the constraint on interest problem.  By focusing instruction (or vocab) around a grammar device, we have much less room as teacher to deliver either an interesting variety of traditional “present, practice, produce” lessons or T.P.R.S. or A.I.M.-style stories.   Imagine deciding that since the kids have not acquired the French être avec le passé composé, you must build every activity  around that.  How quickly will the kids get bored?  Je suis allé aux toilettes.  Est-ce que tu est allé à l’ecole? etc. In T.P.R.S. (and in A.I.M.), stuff like this is in every story, but as background, because it’s boring.   It’s like saying, “paint but you only have red and blue.”

Third is the rule choice problem.  Since, as noted above, we can’t deal with every not-yet-acquired rule, we have to choose some items and rules over others. Which will they be? How will we decide?  What if teachers came up with a list of a hundred common errors that 6th grade French immersion kids made.  Which errors should they focus on?  How should materials be built– and paid for– to deal with these?  What if Profeseur Stolz couldn’t give a rat’s ass about French noun gender, but Profeseur Lyster foams at the mouth on hearing “une garçon”?

Fourth, Lyster’s study does not take into account individual learning needs.  OK, all of the subjects in the 4th group got better with noun genders (temporarily, and with prompting) .  But was this the most pressing issue for each person?  What if Max hasn’t acquired the passé composé?  What if Samba is OK with noun gender but terrible with pronouns?  When you use a grammar hammer, everything looks like the same nail.  Noun gender is not very important.  It’s like stripping a car: no brakes and the whole thing crashes; but no hood ornament only looks bad.  Noun gender is the hood ornament of French: looks good but hardly essential.

The problem with a study like Lyster’s– or a legacy-methods program that tries to systematically do what Lyster did– is that it reduces the multidimensionality of both the classroom language and activities and the teacher’s feedback, with the effect of impoverishing input.  If Max needs passé composé and Samba pronom input, and the experiment focuses activities, learning strategy instruction and teacher feedback on noun gender, the experiment’s focus inevitably cuts down on input they need as it plays up noun gender stuff.  As Susan Gross has argued, a comprehensible input classroom is going to solve that problem: by presenting “unsheltered” language– language with no verb tenses, pronouns or other grammatical features edited out– everything learners need is always in the mix.

Fifth, and most seriously, Lyster’s results do not– could not– pass Krashen’s “litmus test” for whether instructional interventions produce legitimate acquisition.  Krashen has said that if you really want to prove that your experimental treatment trying to get language learners to acquire __________ has worked, your results must meet the following criteria:

  • they must be statistically significant not just right after treatment, but three months later
  • they must occur unprompted (what Krashen calls not involving the Monitor)

The three-month delayed post-test is there to show that the intervention was “sticky.”   If it’s been acquired, it will be around for a long time; if it’s consciously learned, it will slowly disappear.  You can check the reasonableness of this by looking at your own experiences– or those of your students– and asking how well does language teaching stick in my or my kids’ heads? (Teachers who use T.P.R.S. know how sticky the results are: we do not need to review.  Legacy-methods teachers have to do review units.)  So what are Lyster’s study’s two most serious problems?

First, Lyster did a two month delayed post-test, so we don’t really know how “sticky” the FFI results were.

Second, Lyster’s assessment of results is largely Monitor-dependent. That is, he tested the students’ acquisition of noun gender when they had time to think about it, and under conditions where the experimenters (or test questions) often explicitly asked whether or not the noun in question was masculine or feminine. Given that the experimental kids had had explicit treatment, explanations etc about what they were learning– noun gender– it is not surprising that they were able to summon conscious knowledge to answer questions when it came assessment time.

At one point in his study, Lyster’s investigators found out that the students being tested had figured out what the investigators were after– noun genders– and had developed a word that sounded like a mix of “un” and “une” specifically to try to “get it right” on the tests. This is not acquisition, but rather conscious learning. 

Indeed, Lyster notes that “it might be argued therefore that […] prompting affects online oral production skills only minimally, serving instead to increase students’ metaliguistic awareness and their ability to draw upon declarative, rule-based representations on tasks where they have sufficient time to monitor their performance ” (425).

Now, why does this matter? Why do Krashen and VanPatten insist that tests of true acquisition be Monitor-free? Simple: because any real-world language use happens in real time, without time to think and self-Monitor.  What VanPatten calls “mental representation of language”– an instinctive, unthinking and proper grasp of the language– kicks in without the speaker being aware.  Real acquisition– knowing a language– as opposed to learning, a.k.a. knowing about a language (being able to consciously manipulate vocab and grammar on tests, and for various kinds of performance)– is what we want students to have.

The marvellous Terry Waltz has called kids who are full of grammar rules, menmonics, games, vocab lists etc “sloshers”: all that stuff has been “put in there” by well-meaning teachers, and the kids have probably “practiced” it through games, role-plays or communicative pair activities, but it hasn’t been presented in meaning-focused, memorable chunks– stories– so it sloshes around.

We also want to avoid teaching with rules, lists, etc, because– as Krashen and Vanpatten note– there is only so much room in the conscious mind to “hold and focus on” rules, and because the brain cannot  build mental representation– wired-in competence– of language without oceans of input.  If we teach with rules and prompts, and when we assess we examine rules and prompts, we are teaching conscious (read: limited) mind stuff.  We’re teaching to the grammar test.

So…to sum up Lyster’s experiment, he

  • took a bunch of time away from meaningful (and linguistically multidimensional) activities & input, and, in so doing,
  • focused on a low-importance grammar rule, and his results
  • do not show that the learners still had it three months post-treatment,
  • do not show that learners could recognise or produce the form without conscious reminders, and
  • did not measure the opportunity cost of the intervention (the question of what the students lost out on while working on noun gender)

Does this matter?  YES.  Lyster, to the best of my knowledge, is giving bad advice when he recommends “focus on form” interventions.  If you teach Immersion (or just regular language class), doing grammar practice and noticing-style activities is probably a waste of time.   Or, to put it another way, we know that input does a ton of good work, but Lyster has not shown that conscious grammar interventions build cost-free, wired-in, long-term unprompted skill.

My questions to Lyster are these:  on what functionally useful evidence do you base your claim that focus on form is essential for SLA, and how would you suggest dealing with rule choice, bandwidth, opportunity cost and individualisation problems, etc?

A Dictionary of Language Acquisition and Teaching Terms

For everyone who gets overwhelmed with jargon. Special thanks to Sam Johnson for the inspiration.


Accent: what every speaker of every language has.  The better ones *obviously* belong to people who are wealthier, whiter, more educated, with nicer clothes, etc.

Accountability: what teachers who provide boring or stupid activities need to make sure students do their work

Acquisition the process of getting to the point where you can speak/write a language without consciously thinking. The opposite of “learning;” what most textbooks don’t get students involved in.

Analytic teaching (Long): language presented “whole” and in context; focus on meaning with grammar focus second. a.k.a. “focus on form.”

Ashley Hastings: professor who developed the “narrative paraphrase” comprehensible-input technique of language teaching, which is now better known as Movietalk.

Authentic documents: things made by and for native speakers.  That they very often have

  • low-frequency vocabulary
  • complex idiom
  • and are therefore neither comprehensible nor useful in a languages classroom

has not stopped the A.C.T.F.L., most State education departments, every Canadian Ministry, etc, from advocating their use.

Autotelic: interesting for its own sake, and not merely suffered through for some future payoff.  The only way to design a language class that will ever reach a majority of students, who will not be quaffing espresso on on the Champs Elysee or dining on tapas in Barcelona, and who therefore have little “real world payoff” incentive to care about their language class experience.

Avancemos: the world’s most ironically-named textbook.

Ben Slavic: French teacher, book author, blogger & passionate advocate for language pedagogy’s reform.  Creator or at least namer of “the Invisibles” and advocate for “untargeted input.”

Blaine Ray American Spanish teacher who developed T.P.R.S. after experiencing failure and frustration with communicative and grammar teaching, and then reading Asher and Krashen.  Properly understood as the Einstein of language pedagogy.

Carol Gaab: Spanish teacher, TPRS teacher trainer, writer, force of nature, novel & textbook author and publisher, San Francisco Giants language coach, grandmother, butt-kicker. Has the highest force-to-height ratio in the comprehensible input Universe.

C.E.F.R.: the Common European Framework for Reference in language proficiency.  A scale that ranks one’s language skill from one to six, thus:

A1: You suck but hey, you’re trying to order coffee

A2:  don’t get any ideas now, even though you can tell somebody you’re from ‘Murrica.

B1: you are approaching un-‘Murricanhood by actually being able to say three things in French

B2: Ok, fine, you are making progress, but not enough to flirt with sexy French people

C1: We’ll let you in on a work visa

C2: Fine.  you’re here.  Now, let’s discuss Sartre.

 

Circling: technique developed by Blaine Ray (named by Susan Gross) where a teacher asks repetitive but varied questions using a target structure in order to repeat a vocab item many times.

Cloze exercise: 1. where people listen to something, and read along to a written version of that speaking, and fill in occasional blanks with what they hear.  2. a clever way for teachers to force students to listen to boring things

Cold Character Reading a technique developed by Terry Waltz to teach reading of ideographic (non-phonetically written) languages.

Communicative-experiential approach: 1. a language teaching method  which asks students to use language to bridge authentic communication gaps to obtain essential information as a way of acquiring the language. 2.  A progression from the audiolingual method. 3.   “The dogma of salvation-and-bliss through chatter” (Erik Gunnemark, who spoke 45 languages).

Communicative pair activity: 1. Learning activity where an information gap is bridged via target-language use, theoretically as a way of acquiring the target language. 2.  The blind leading the blind.  3.  Putting the cart before the horse, as speech is the result of acquisition, not its cause.

Comprehended input: (Terry Waltz) messages that the teacher has checked to make sure people understand.

Comprehensible input: messages in the target language (in reading or writing) that people understand.  Now considered the sine qua non of language acquisition by all researchers.

Comprehensible input hypothesis: the hypothesis that language (vocabulary, pragmatics, semantics, grammar etc) is acquired when learners receive comprehensible input– messages they understand– in the target language.  Research thus far has confirmed the hypothesis’ predictions, and assigned (at best) very minor roles to the role of grammar practice and learning, and output, in developing acquisition.

Culture: 1. anything speakers of another language collectively do which differs from the students’ customs.  2. Clothing, music, food and dress which make excellent colourful textbook pages, fun videos or Instagram accounts. 3. What teachers hope will spice up those ever-so-nutritious but oddly bland grammar exercises.  4. The future goal and real reason one learns a language: so that one faraway day, one can go and enjoy the culture that goes with the language being studied.  E.g. “Johnny, I know learning French verbs is…not your preference….but just imagine how amazing life will be in seven years, when you can go to France and sip wine on the Camps Elysees!”

Dialect: a language without an army

¡Díme!: the stupidest language text ever written.  In order to teach well, do the following:

a) see what ¡Díme! does
b) do the opposite

Drill: as bad an idea in the language classroom as in the Alaskan wilderness, and even less productive.

Edubabble: a scaffolded, self-reflected authentic C.E.F.R. and Common Core peer assessment collaboration which leverages coding genius hour codesign into project-based inquiry proficiency assessment tracked through Google hangouts and Edmodo accounts in order to start the conversation piece and moving forward to provide real-time feedback sociolinguistic competence metacognitive online anus accountability.

Embedded reading: a series of texts, the first of which is short and simple and contains the target vocabulary and structures being acquired.  The next two or three texts contain the same vocabulary, but add increasingly more dialogue, detail, etc. Invented (basically by accident) by Laurie Clarq and Michelle Whaley, embedded (a.k.a. “scaffolded”) reading provides low-stress buildup to reading complex texts, and lots of vocab repetition.

Feedback: something which teachers love giving, and students’ brains find impossible to use to acquire language.

Food cart/truck: when the crepe/taco/samosa truck comes to your school, and students get to “use the target language in culturally authentic communicative ways.”  A.K.A. kids text and chat in L1 for an hour and say/hear ten words in the target language.  Easy on students, and teacher, and a brilliant way to tick boxes while getting nothing done.

Free voluntary reading (FVR): allowing students to read what they want, with no assessment or “accountability” measures. A significant booster of language acquisition (in L1 and L2), and terrifier of control-freak teachers.

Frequency: how often a word is used in speech or writing.  High-frequency vocabulary items are more often used than low-frequency items, and form the basis of communication.  Good languages teaching begins with the highest-frequency words.

Frequency list: rankings of words from most to less used.  The most-used word in Romance and Germanic languages is the definite article: der, el, le, il, the, etc.

Generative grammar: Chomsky’s explanation of how language works.  In response to B.F. Skinner’s behaviourist theory (we learn language because we want stuff; we get “rewarded” for “saying things properly”), generative grammar accounts for the fact that a language’s speaker can generate an infinite number of sentences with the language’s limited vocabulary, and that speakers are able to “figure out” grammar rules without having them explained (or even modeled).

Grammar 1. a set of rules describing how a language’s components interact 2. a tool useful for boring students and reinforcing teacher ego 3. In most of the world salient only in the learning of computer languages, but in too many places fed directly to students of living languages 4. A thing whose mastery– like speech– is the result, not the cause, of language acquisition 5. “Analyzing language is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” — after E.B. White, via Dennis Doyle

Grammarian: someone who believes that explaining the parts will lead to speaking the whole

Green Bible: Ray and Seely’s “how to do T.P.R.S.” book Teaching Fluency Through T.P.R. Storytelling. Written at the suggestion of Susan Gross, who urged Ray to clarify his method and provide a reference for T.P.R.S. practitioners.

James Asher: American psychologist and the rediscoverer of T.P.R.— total physical response– where teachers speak and gesture, and students gesture, as a way of helping recall.

L1: a speaker’s first (native) language.  What they grew up hearing.

L2, L3 etca language learned in some kind instructional or immersion setting.

Language: a dialect with an army

Learning 1. Consciously manipulating language (vocab and grammar) to try to acquire it 2. What one can do with language when one has time to consciously think of vocab, rules, etc.

Lecture: the process whereby the notes of the teacher become the notes of the students without passing through the mind of either (Mencken).  See also “stiff meeting.”

Legacy method: (Waltz & Krashen) any older way of teaching language which does not align with modern research.  Legacy methods include drill, grammar translation, audiolingual etc, as well as individual aspects of practice which slow or do not aid acquisition, such as forcing students to talk, grammar worksheets, multiple-guess listening activities, and what Long calls “synthetic” teaching (present, practice & produce) etc.

Mental representation: (VanPatten) a set of brain patterns developed when comprehensible input is processed by Noam Chomsky’s “language acquisition device,” patterns which allow for first comprehension and then production of language, and a “gut level” awareness of what works or doesn’t in that language.

Monitor: 1. the “voice in the head” which is consciously aware of grammar rules, word meanings, etc.  2. What grammar teaching reaches 3. What a competent speaker of a language does not use except under very specific, reflective and/or time-available conditions.

Myth: 1. a belief, ungrounded in science or history, with alleged explanatory power whose job is to legitimise something.  In language teaching, prominent myths include speaking leading to acquisition, grammar practice being necessary, grammar rules being brain-friendly, themes and topics being effective means for vocabulary organisation, etc. 2. a story which despite factual challenges holds power.  S.L.A. researcher Bill VanPatten writes that “[s]ome of the myths perpetuated in language departments include that

  • explicitly teaching grammar and vocabulary is necessary or even beneficial,
  • correction of learner output is necessary
  • practice makes perfect,
  • learners acquire rules and paradigms
  • learning vocabulary and grammar is a prerequisite to learning to communicate
  • first-language transfer is the source of all learning problems,
  • adults learn languages differently from children, among many, many others.”

Natural method: comprehensible input language teaching method (and book of the same name) developed by Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell in early 1990s.  Influenced Blaine Ray’s T.P.R.S.

Noam Chomsky: 1. The man who invented modern linguistics, largely on the basis of his theory of generative grammar, which explains how the brain’s “language acquisition device” processes linguistic input, infers language-specific rules therefrom, and can use a limited number of rules and vocabulary items to generate an infinite number of sentences.  2. A relentless, fact-focused and principled critic of U.S. power 3. One of the only scientists to have an experimental animal– Nim Chimpsky– named after him.

Noun: a thing in uhh language

Output: any meaningful production of the target language.  The result, not the cause, of acquisition. The Holy Grail of language teaching.

Parallel character: having another character in an asked story whose experiences are roughly similar to the main character’s. Basically an excuse to recycle vocabulary.

Peer-to-peer communication: 1. getting learners to use the language with each other to share ideas and information 2. “The McDonalds of language teaching” (Waltz, Krashen)

Pop-up (a.k.a. “grammar commercial”– Adriana Ramírez): a brief, non-boring in-context explanation of the meaning of a grammar item (e.g. “Class, in Spanish, the  or  end on that word means he or she did it in the past”)

Poverty of stimulus argument: Chomsky’s point that despite not seeing certain kinds of word combinations, language acquirers do in fact “figure out” the rules for using these words, and do not make certain kinds of errors.  One of the main supports in the Universal Grammar theory.

Practice: what helps basketball players and rock climbers, and what in a language classroom only works if it involves processing input.

Results: what matters in language teaching.  The best results will be characterised by fluent, quick, unedited and voluminous output generated by unstressed students who do not have access to books, dictionaries, etc when writing or speaking.

Rule:  something books and teachers love to explain but by which students oddly enough are unable thereby to learn.

P.Q.A.: (personalised questions and answers): using targeted vocabulary to generate student-teacher microconversations in ways that connect vocabulary to students’ experiences.  In T.P.R.S., PQA basically involves the teacher asking students the questions asked of the actors, and “running with” answers– true or invented– which interest the student.

Scaffolding: edubabble for “start with something students know, then guide them from there through something they don’t.”

Sheltered grammar: not using all grammatical devices or rules from the target language during teaching or in the reading.  A characteristic of legacy method teaching.  Most textbooks “shelter” grammar by introducing first one verb tense, then another, etc.  Sheltering grammar comes from the mistaken idea that languages are organised into skill sets that can be acquired one at a time.

Sir Ken Robinson: University type, whose never having taught in an actual primary or secondary classroom (or having developed a useful method of any kind) uniquely qualifies him to discuss teaching in primary and secondary classrooms.

Slosher (Waltz): a student who has been exposed to enough grammar and vocab lists that isolated fragments of language slosh around uselessly in his/her head.

Sociocultural communicative competence: 1. edubabble for “discretion is the better part of valor,” a.k.a. knowing what to say and not say in a different culture and language. 2. The lack of which is the source of Borat’s humour. 3. arguably the least important thing a teacher of languages should focus on.

Speedwrite (a.k.a. “Timed write”).  1.  a writing assignment done with a time limit and no access to notes, dictionaries etc.  The aim is to show what students have unconsciously and automatically acquired, as opposed to learned, by not giving them enough time to plan or reflect on writing. 2. Where students who have had loads of good comprehensible input shine, and grammar/”communicatively”-taught kids freak out.

Standardised test: 1. a way of fairly and impartially assessing how well ALL animals, including fish, giraffes, snakes and Samoyed dogs– and not just monkeys– can climb trees.  2. A way for educational testing companies to get approximately $500,000,000 per year from U.S. taxpayers. 3. A very effective way of ensuring that only what can be measured with numbers is taught.

Stiff meeting: a monthly, Admin-organised chance to catch up on email, own the crap out of Level 49 in Candy Crush Saga, or do some marking.  Verbal irony, people– nobody actually ever does any of these things in meetings.

Stephen D. Krashen U.C.L.A. researcher who developed (and found much of the evidence for) the comprehensible input hypothesis.  Also an expert on the effects of free voluntary reading, a relentless critic of standardised testing in the U.S., major caffeine addict and a former champion weightlifter.

Story: 1. the world’s oldest teaching method 2. a narrated set of events where one or more characters faces a significant challenge and/or conflict which s/he must overcome and/or resolve. 3. the easiest and most enjoyable way to present vocabulary in a new language

Storyasking: the process of story narration and acting, where the teacher supplies the language, and the students the acting and story details.  Also called narrative co-creation. Invented by Blaine Ray.

Strong interface position: the view (DeKeyser) that explicit grammar teaching (e.g. explanations) aids acquisition.

Synthetic teaching: (Long) the “present, practice and produce” model of language teaching, a.k.a. “focus on forms.”  Exemplified by the ¡Díme! Spanish texts.  A discredited legacy method.

Teacher: a lazy, expensive, liberal and Unionized waste of space which would in an ideal world be replaced with a combination of iPads, multiple-guess tests, Bible sermons, worksheets and Khan Academy videos.

Terry Waltz: 1. Mandarin teacher, PhD, presenter, speaker of 13 languages, TPRS in Chinese “how-to” book author, and professional translator 2. The funniest person in the comprehensible input universe 3. someone whose statements will be at least three of the following:  empirically true, funny, thoughtful, applicable

Textbook: 1. An excellent source of corporate profits 2. A great way to physically raise a computer monitor or prop up a desk 3. A poor source of both compelling comprehensible input and brain-friendly activities.  4. “This is not something to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown away with great force.” –Geoff Jordan, after Dorothy Parker.

Thinking: 1. deliberate mental activity which does not help anyone learn a language. 2. What textbook publishers do only when designing textbook marketing.

T.P.R.S. “Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling”– Blaine Ray’s comprehensible input language teaching method which emphasises collaborative narratives, input, and reading fiction over grammar practice, output and reading informational text. Known by green-with-envy detractors as Twitching Purple Reptile Stories.

Universal grammar: what Chomsky describes as built-in “software” that allows the brain to receive linguistic input and “build” a mental representation– automatic functional knowledge– of language.  Evidence for the U.G.’s existence is the formation of mental representation in a predictable set of patterns across ;languages.

Unsheltered grammar: using all the grammatical rules, devices, etc that belong to a language when teaching it and in the readings provided to students.  Many comprehensible input methods teachers use unsheltered grammar either immediately or soon after beginning instruction.

Vocabulary list: what textbooks insist that students memorise, and which brain research says they can’t.

Verb: another thing, err, uhhh, from the language

Weak interface position: the view (Krashen, VanPatten) that grammar explanations beyond clarifying meaning do not aid acquisition.  No evidence has been offered to support this position.

Weighing the pig: short for “weighing the pig won’t make it fatter,” i.e. testing students does nothing to develop their language abilities.  This fact has had very little

Worksheet:

1. Grammar or vocab learning tool that doesn’t help people who don’t understand, and which is unnecessary for those who do

2. What textbook publishers fill low-cost, high-margin student workbooks with

3. What friends don’t let friends hand out

4. The Novocaine of the language teaching profession.

5. A superb way of bringing 19th century ideas into the 21st century classroom.

How Badly Did I Fail Teaching Languages? (1)

I have been reflecting on my teaching and I thought I would share my many screw-ups, and offer some better alternatives (which might be useful for teachers who use textbook programs and are getting frustrated).  So here we go– today’s question–

Q: How– and how badly– did I screw up teaching languages?

A: Pretty badly– and here is how 

 1. I used grammar worksheets and explicit grammar practice to “teach grammar.” The programs I used– first ¡Díme! and then Juntos— had a lot of these.  Fill in the blanks with the correct verbform, pronoun, or word, etc. The research about this is clear: a grammar item is acquired when the learner has heard loads of comprehensible input containing the item/rule in question, AND when their brain is “ready” to pick it up.   If a learner hasn’t acquired it, they aren’t ready for it.  If they have, there’s little point in practicing. Truscott writes that “no meaningful support has been provided for the […] position that grammar should be taught” (and practiced) and VanPatten says that “tenses are not acquired as “units” and the brain doesn’t store grammar as a textbook-stated rule.”

“Conscious awareness” of grammar rules (as Krashen points out) only helps us if ALL of the following conditions are met:

1.  we know the rule

2. we know how to apply the rule

3.  we have time to consciously reflect on and apply the rule

So, if students have worksheets or whatever where they are “practising the passé composé” or whatever, they’ll do well.  They’ll beaver away, slowly, filling in the blanks.  Of course, in real life, they won’t have time to go “hmm, is that a DR AND MRS VANDERTRAMP verb?  Oh, it is, so, let’s see, how do we conjugate that?” Or, as Yogi Berra said, “you can’t think and hit at the same time.” Worksheets cannot help those who havn’t acquired a grammar rule; they are unnecessary for those who have. And they’re boring.

Doing it betterI would have kids read a ton of stuff which has the grammar item, etc, they are learning.  If I had worksheets, a better way to use them would be to give the kids the worksheets with the blanks filled in and have them translate:  this is quality (if boring) input.

 

2.  I used to do projects in the target language.   One typical one:  the ____ report.  Research ___, write up what you learned about ____ on a poster and add some pictures and lines connecting different elements.  Oh, and do it in Spanish.  Then read it aloud to the class.  Variations: use the Interwebz and add things that talk, move, have colours, etc.  The only problems were…

  • the kids had to look up a ton of vocab (read: Google translate)
  • almost none of this vocab got repeated for the rest of the year (read: little acquisition)
  • most of the writing had to be “edited” (read: totally re-written) by me before the final product was assembled.
  • most of the audience focused on pictures and missed most of the target language during the presentation because the presenters are the only ones who know the vocab, and the audience wanted to understand, and pictures were easier to understand.
  • if done in poster form, nobody except me, the teacher, ever read the Spanish, and a week after it was done, not even the kids who wrote the poster typically what it meant because all they did was copy it down
  • most of the Spanish on these was low-frequency vocab.  How often is somebody going to need to say “principal exports of ___ are petroleum and fried dog” or “The Cathedral of was built in ____”?

Now, kids did pick up a bit of vocab– and culture knowledge– but at the cost of good input.

Doing it better: I now do culture, etc, projects in English.  I can  get higher-order thinking, more learning-via-sharing, and less energy wasted on poor target language use.  Plus, the kids can easily understand each others’ work.

 

3.  I “used games” to “make grammar and learning fun.  From class soccer leagues to Hangman to cross-4, games got the kids focused and they found them fun.  Too bad, however, that

  • most of their output was flawed and/or English, and that therefore
  • they got little accurate input, and
  • the language they were exposed to was fragmented (ie generally not sentences which were part of bigger meaningful “whole” passages or conversations
  • they got low-frequency vocab.  E.g. the class soccer/hockey/baseball game.  Lots of fun, shouting, etc…but words like “scores” and “goal” and “foul” are not much-used.

 

4.  I didn’t know what I was doing with assessment.

a) I screwed up listening assessment.  In every languages program I have ever seen, the listening test at the end of each unit has something like, it  plays a native speaker saying something, or a conversation.  Then, there are multiple-guess questions  Why was this a problem for my kids?

  • the kids had to “hold” quite a lot of vocab in their heads while listening to (say) 60 seconds of language.  This is very hard to do.
  • The pattern was clear:  if the speaker(s) said it, the kids picked that as the answer.  If the statement was more complex– eg John was not tired– and the question was How did John feel? a) tired b) awake c) energetic, the kids would pick a, because thinking about “not” and the meaning of the word tired is cognitive overload for a lot of them.

Doing it better:  Give them WAY more time, restrict vocab to only what they know, and provide aural input much more slowly.  I would also now suggest using aural input as listen, copy and translate.

b) I screwed up writing assessment.  Yes, I had a marking rubric (thanks, Julia Macrae), which worked fine for paragraphs.  However, what do you do with single-sentence questions?  For example, a question would be ¿Te gustan los perros? (Do you like dogs?).  If a kid wrote me gusta los perros, or yo gusto las gatos (both of which demonstrate understanding of meaning, but which have basic grammar errors), how do you mark it?  Half a mark off for the mistake?  1/4?  How do you do holistic assessment for a sentence?  Impossible.

Doing it better: Now, I make them write only paragraphs and stories and assess holistically.  I check for understanding when I am asking stories, or while we are reading.

 

5.  I used to expect oral output from Day 1.  I used to do a lot of “communicative pair” or “information gap” activities.  The problems here were many:

  • the kids would always make output mistakes– e.g. they would have a list of things or activities, and they would have to ask their partner about them.  So, dogs.  A kid would say  ¿Te gusta el perros?  and get the answer No yo gusto perros— which was meaningful, but very low-quality input for their partners.  If this is where their language modeling came from, I realised eventually that there would be huge problems.  They would not acquire articles, verb endings etc properly.
  • I felt like a cop, cruising around the class to ensure Spanish compliance.  As one person I talked to said, “speaking ____ with other people who are also learning it feels fake.”  Kids simply felt funny using the language.
  • the logical thing to do is to get the info as easily and quickly as possible, i.e. L1, whose use was a constant problem.
  • the activities in books were dull:  ask your partner if s/he a) went to the beach b) played soccer, c) had a BBQ last summer.  I dunno about you but I and the kids don’t find that compelling.

Doing it better:   I don’t do any forced oral activities and end-of-course assessment with beginners.  I do one totally random three-minute oral interview with 2nd and up level kids at the end of level 2.  The kids do have to chorally answer story questions, and I will ask superstars personalised questions in the PQA (personalised questions and answers) process (basically, asking the superstars the questions I ask the actors).  This has allowed me to deliver much more– and better– input, partly because I am not spending 6-8 blocks/year assessing output, and because the output they do– acting in stories, and superstar PQA– is super high quality (and so is good input) for other learners.

Now, when I have kids who are reluctant to talk, I ask them yes/no or one-word PQA questions.  If we are doing a story and I say a la chica, le gustaban los gatos, I’ll first circle that, and then I’ll ask the actress ¿te gustan los gatos?  and a few other questions involving gustan and los gatos, los perros, los dinosaurios, etc.  Then, I ask my superstar or a native speaker ¿te gustan los gatos?  and they can answer with a complete sentence.  Then, I go to the slower processors (or shyer kids) and ask the same question.  They can say sí/no and that’s fine, or they can say a complete sentence.  The point now is to deliver input, not to force output, and to use output to signal understanding.

I also no longer do communicative pair activities.  Kids now pick up Q&A (first and second person) forms (and everything else) through PQA and stories.

 

6.  I used to do kid-created target-language movie projects.   Typically, I said “make a short film of ___,” ___ being either some thematic vocab (e.g. the food or shopping unit) or this plus some specific grammar requirements (e.g. use the imparfait).  Now, these are fun.  My daughters also did them, and when they did, I’ve never at my house seen five teenagers spend so much intense time rehearsing, giggling, planning, etc.  However…

  • the target language output was bad.  They’re learners.
  • most of the time spent making a film was in English.
  • most of the energy, mental and otherwise, spent in making the film was fixed on visuals, acting, bloopers, editing, etc
  • when they watched each others’ films in class, mostly they could not hear or understand the Spanish…because most of the Spanish had been special-occasion looked-up just for the film, and because the sound was bad
  • because the kids KNEW that the story must be primarily visually told, and they would film/edit for visual comprehension, viewers didn’t really need to pay attention to target language.
  • even the understood good target language was often not repeated much throughout the year (low frequency).

In retrospect, movie projects did get the kids talking, and they were fun.  But they didn’t deliver the sine qua non of good languages teaching: delivering compelling comprehensible input.

Doing it better:  Thanks to Adriana Ramírez, I now do this.  Provide the kids a script of 100% comprehensible vocab– including dialogue, with errors edited out– and have them film it.  They will have a blast filming (picking costumes, editing, hanging out with their buddies, adding music etc).  When you show it in class, they will be intrigued to see their friends acting, and they will not even notice that they are hearing and understanding the target language.

7. I used to give grammar tests.  Read the sentence and fill in the blanks with the right ____.  Conjugate the verb.  Show me where the pronoun goes. The research is clear:  grammar instruction works wonders if you want your students to become manipulators of grammar.  However, the part of the brain that stores “metalinguistic awareness” stuff like grammar rules is at best tangentially connected to the subconscious part that actually processes language.  The researchers all say the same thing: the brain does not acquire grammar by practicing grammar, and what we teachers call “grammar rules” is not how the brain “does” grammar.  So, making kids study for tests that ask them to consciously manipulate words and apply grammar rules took away from real, deep processing that happens when they hear or read stories or other meaningful language.

 

Doing it better: assess whole-language use (read, listening to and writing real meaningful stuff) and just, well, don’t give grammar tests.  If you really want to ensure that the kids learn to conjugate, use pronouns, etc, make them do a lot of reading.

8. I used to do the portfolio.  Kids take evidence of what they do– writing, reports, videos or oral presentations, tests and quizzzes, etc, and stick them in a folder called a “portfolio.”  Modern versions include online collections (e.g. you video your restaurant unit dialogue and put it on Youtube).  The rationale for portfolios is a) kids can “reflect on their learning, document  areas of growth and areas that need work” or some such edubabble, and b) kids can go and revise stuff and c) they can see what they did and learn from their mistakes.

First, (b) I agree with– you learned more, go fix it, good.  But, second, we run into a problem with A and C, because, basically, most adolescents simply cannot reflect on something as (1) complex and (2) innate as grammar etc.  Most of them can’t do it in English with essays/paragraphs etc, so how can we expect them to do it in a second language?  As an English teacher who teaches lit and composition to English speakers in English, I know that kids cannot meaningfully self-edit.  They also mostly cannot peer edit.  Yes, you can give them checklists…and they will look for– and sometimes even find– things on the checklists…and miss everything else.  And this is in English, their first language.  I used to provide Spanish grammatical feedback, the kids would dutifully re-copy their paragraphs and “improve them” and then they would make exactly the same mistakes on tests.

You can talk about ____ till you are blue in the face, but most kids just can’t do it.  They also don’t care– I mean, what student in their right mind would care how many of the 19 irregular passé composé verbs they don’t know or whatever?  That’s boring.  Also, I would give kids their writing back, correct the hell out of it, and they would look for how much red ink was on it, and what Number they got on it.  This is because they quite correctly understood that Numberz are what Matterz to Teacherz and Parentz.

Portfolios however look cool– especially if the student is a girl; girls in my experience are more into neatness and colouring and nice pictures than boys– and Thingz That Look Cool (extra Pointz if its online!  E-learningz!  Cross-platform sharingz!) get attention, Adminz and Headz love them, etc etc.  The only problem is, they don’t provide the acquisitional effects we expect.  The only thing a portfolio can do is show growth.  Kids will have 4-sentence paragraphs at start and 20 at end of a class.  Great, a teacher’s markbook should reflect that, throw the quiz in the kid’s binder, why waste time on packages and prettiness and empty self-analyses?

 

So…how has eliminating the screw-ups helped my kids?

My epiphany came thanks to Michelle Metcalfe’s demo workshop, and my results now blow the old results out of the water.  I have abandoned grammar practice and testing, communicative gap activities, oral output and most oral assessment, games, movie and culture projects in Spanish, and portfolios.

My Level 1 kids now write 600-1,00 word stories, in good Spanish, in multiple verb tenses, in an hour at the end of the course.  They understand everything they hear.  They feel great when they head somewhere Spanish-speaking.  I have no management issues. I have every kid who attends and pays attention passing.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary.  Mainly I am happy that I can experience more success with second languages and I hope I can inspire others to get there also (though not necessarily by doing what I do).  And I mean honestly people, I am neither smart nor talented so if I can do OK with T.P.R.S., anyone can do well.