Beginners

How to teach “to have” and “to be.”

Kids’ souls, err I mean cell phones, fit perfectly into the Intro Routine and are an awesome way to teach “to have” and “to be located in” (tener and estar).

  1. If you cruelly collect cell phones, you walk around with the phone basket as class starts and you have these simple conversations. You’re going to have to model them the first time or two. I hold my phone out and use it to clariify if kids have trouble answering.

Do you have your phone? — Yes, I have my phone/no, I don’t have my phone.

How much battery do you have? — I have lots of/little battery. In Spanish, ¿cuánta pila tienes? –Tengo mucha/poca pila.

Do you have a Galaxy 96/iPhone 24? –No, I have a Galaxy 6/iPhone 7.

Where is your phone? — my phone is at home/in my locker/in my pack — I don’t have my phone

(in Spanish, ¿dónde está tu teléfono? — está en… or no tengo mi teléfono)

I also like to react with mock horror: What?!? You don’t have your phone?!? (in Spanish, get your pronouns on: ¿qué? ¿No lo tienes?

The “cell phone hotel”:

2. If your kids put phones in a “cell phone parking lot” (especially good if spots are numbered/named) you stand beside the “lot,” point and pause, and ask the questions above, plus ones such as these:

Where is John’s phone– in 4 or 17? Whose phone is in 6? Does Mandeep have her phone, or is it in the phone hotel?

In my class, any kid who gets 100% can have their phone. Major jealousy from slackers! So to model plurals, I’ll point at a kid who has their phone and ask/say things such as

Do Bani and I have our phones? Do Bani and Jagveer have their phones? Where are out phones?

Anyway. Simple, easy and of some interest to kids. Note: don’t overkill: kids will hear this every day, so no need to beat it to death. Just make sure they understand.

How Do I Teach Family Vocabulary?

A nice normal family ❤️❤️

One of the first questions I was asked in any conversation in India was kya aapake bache hain? (“do you have children?”) and, pre-stepfatherhood, I quickly learned to say mujhe koee bache nahin hai. This happens anywhere.

Now, although family vocabulary is relatively low-frequency, it is still a reauired part of most curricula, and it’s useful for travelers. So, today’s question: how do I teach family vocabulary?

As with any vocabulary “topic,” family words are best taught contextually— in stories— a word at a time. In C.I., we will simply give each character a relative, and then ask them questions about that relative (and add a different relative per story). However, if you must teach this vocabulary in a “unit” by Nov 27th because your Headz and Adminz think Languagez can be learned on strict Timelinez, this is how you do it.

What we’re going to do is build a famly tree on the board/OH/document camera. We will include some kids from class, plus the famous people they choose, and we are going to make it as wacky as possible.

So we ask for a volunteer— say, Jameel— and we ask him who’s your brother? Jameel can use his actual brother, or another kid in class, or someone famous, eg Kobe Bryant. Then, we ask about, say his Dad. Jameel or another student can answer the question who is Jameel’s father?

We will keep going, and then we might get this:

Now, note the labeling. The arrows’ directionality indicates the relationship. In Spanish, we can’t say “Jameel’s brother.” We have to say “the brother of Jameel,” so the arrow points and is labeled the way it is.

Once we have eight or ten people in our family tree, we are going to Q&A the crap out of it. For beginners, the questions will be things like

• who is _______’s sister?

• how old is _____’s aunt?

• is ____ Jameel’s brother or boyfriend?

• how many wives does Señor Stolz have?

For more advanced students (those acquiring lower-frequency grammar), questions (thanks Carol Gaab) will include things like

• who would you like your brother to be?

• if Barack had another kid, how many aunts would Michelle have?

The idea is to generate something student focused, and to provide input (via questions) about people’s relationships, ages, pets, possessions and really anything else you can fit into your picture.

If we want to talk about age, we will have something like this:

This is also a great bail-out activity for dead stories or a time-filler. Kids always remember these: “Sr Stolz, Manmeet was Trey Songz’s girlfriend not his sister!” etc.

Basically, we are inventing and and then Picturetalking a family tree. REMEMBER THIS ABOVE ALL ELSE: this is not an “output activity.” Kids supply details, but 95% of talk is the teacher asking y/n or e/o questions and making statements. We do this to deliver comprehensible input.

VARIATIONS

1. If we/class don’t like wacky, we can do this á la Bryce Hedstrom’s persona especial and just ask a kid straight-up factual questions about their family. This often works because there’s always someone interesting in any family, and because, well, we are always curious about others. Doing this– if your kids are cool with it, and nice about it– will also build classroom community.

2. The “famous family” is a great hook. For this, we just draw a family tree of the Simpsons, Griffins, Star Wars characters etc. Kids will find this quite compelling and will argue details.

3. If we are doing a novel– especially a simple one like my own Berto y sus Buenos Amigos or the more advanced El Nuevo Houdini— we just make a family tree based on the novel.

Anyway. Easy and fun– enjoy!

Some Notes on Level 1 Results (Fall 2017)

Meaningful discussion of language teaching is kind of like language learning itself: you need a thing to discuss. Language acquisition starts with stuff: language to be processed.  Language teaching discussion starts with student results.  This semester I have two English 9s, Social Justice 12 and intro Spanish, so I have too little time to “curate” results regularly.  Feb 2017 I have both more 1s and time so I will publish more results then.

Bott…ehhhmm, as they say in Ireland, here are two interesting recent story writes.  30 min, no notes or dictionaries, paper-and-pen only.  These students have had about 50 hrs of input.  Instruction is almost pure C.I.: no metacognition, grammar practice, talking practice, writing practice, K/W/A activities, peer group work, bla bla.  Just a lot of input.

This is the fourth story they have written.  Word target was 400.  Most kids are below average this year.  This is possibly because I am doing mostly Slavic-style “untargeted” input, where we have much less repetition of specific vocabulary targets in the short term.

First, here is Angela’s story.  Ang is Filipina and still has a bit of an accent.  She has been in Canada for two years, and reads a lot.  She is also a Duolingo user.  She tells me she is putting in about four hours/week.  Check it:

img_0111

There is a bunch of stuff I havn’t used in there.  She is generally getting it right in terms of meaning but there are still grammatical holes.  I’m including this because, yes, Duolingo– which frankly bores the crap out of me– does deliver decent C.I.  Krashen noted in a paper that Duolingo works about as well as traditional college Spanish instruction, if the user can manage to stay interested, which most do not.  Angela says she likes the new story feature on Duolingo.

Next, we have Nisha.  She is Punjabi, and has had zero previous Spanish. Lotsa words, a good story, but some obvious issues (eg noun gender).  What is tough for the Punjabi kids (in writing) is that adjective and noun endings in Spanish– -a indicates feminine– indicate masculine in Punjabi (e.g. bacha = boy, bachi = girl, bache = kids) so we get confusion. Also in Punjabi (as nearly as I can tell) there is a lot less verb conjugation (or maybe I just can’t hear it when I ask them about it). Nisha is not a Duolingo user.  Her only Spanish is at school.

But anyway, props to Nisha for doing so well after only 50 hours.

 

Frequency List Lessons #3

So…in Spanish, the “super 7 verbs” are to have, to want, to go, to like, to exist, to be, to be located.  This Terry Waltz-compiled list is the most-used verbs.  Mike Peto added nine more to make the “sweet 16.”  These are worth heavily focusing on in Year 1 of any language. They are the acquisitional platform on which subsequent Spanish is built, and they allow us to get about 90% of necessary work done in Spanish (with circumlocution etc).

It’s a central tenet in C.I. teaching that we want to focus on high-frequency words.  Then, on C.I. Fight Club, the topic of how frequently used numbers are came up, and Terry had this to say:

This is why the “Super 7” is a list of concepts, not specific words. For me, thinking about getting students able to express or work with concepts is more important than specific vocabulary. They need some way of quantifying (at first maybe just “many” and “few”, later more specific). That’s really important, but it’s made up in turn of a whole lot of options. Individual number words don’t “score” highly on standard frequency lists of words, but if you looked at the concepts those words stood for, I bet the “quantity” concept would be right up there.

So I went and looked at how frequently numbers and quantity-connnoting words appear in the 1000 most frequently used Spanish words. (The only numbers in the 100 most-used Spanish words are 1 and 2).

#37  mas    more
#40  
todo   all
#72  todos all (plural)
#96  tan (used for as…as)
#153 mismo (same)
#204 tres (three)
#205 menos (less)
#240 cada (each)
#296 casi (almost)
#311 primera (first)
#327 cuanto (how much)
#392 ningun (none, not any)
#425 cinco (five)
#428 cuando (when)
#430 algunos (certain)
#434 unos/unas (some)
#435 muchos (many)
#437 segundo (second)
#456 cuatro (four)

The next numberish word is diez (ten) at #708.

So it would seem that Terry is right: there are a whopping five numbers in the most-used 708 words, but there are 14 words which have to do with quantity.  In other words, having a feel for quantity is more important than knowing lots of specific numbers.

 

 

 

 

 

Frequency Lessons #2: What Really Matters?

Thought experiment, and neat discussion item for Defartment Meetingz, or Headz or Adminz who don’t understand why Textbookz are the devil in disguise. 

First, read the following lists.  These are English equivalents of Spanish words from Wiktionary.com’s frequency list. If you are using this with colleagues, don’t at first tell them where you got the words. 

List A: welcome, together, window, comes, red

List B: went, that he be, world, shit, that she had gone out

First, you could think about what these lists have in common, how they differ, etc. 

Second, anwer this question: which words will be the most useful for students in the real world?

The obvious answer is List A. After all, we always “welcome” people, kids need to know words for classroom stuff like “windows,” we set the tone for classes by working peacefully “together,” and common sense suggests that “comes” and colours such as “red” are super-important. 

The List B words are, obviously, either less immediately useful or “advanced” (ie textbook level 4 or 5) grammar. 

Now here’s the surprise for us and our colleagues: the List B words are all in the 200 most-used Spanish words, while none of the List A words are in the 1000 most-used Spanish words.

What I got from this was, first, that what is obvious isn’t necessarily true, and second that a sequenced plan of instruction (eg from “simple” to “complex” grammar) would majorly short-change students for their real-world Spanish experiences. 

The textbook, or the doddering grammarian (or even the smiley new school grammarian with their apps, feedback gadgetry, evidence of learning portfolios, self-reflections bla bla bla) will see language acquisition as a set of skills that we master one rule set or vocab set at a time, starting with simplest and going to “more complex.” However, what people need to actually function in México or Spain is, well, high-frequency vocabulary, as much of it as possible. Why is this? Two simple reasons. 

First, high-freq vocab is what one hears most. Knowing it means getting the functional basics and feeling good because you can understand lots. If you easily understand lots of the target language, you can function even if– as is always the case– you can’t speak as much as you understand. When I’m in Mexico and I can’t say blablabla, I can gesture, point, use other words etc. Never yet had a problem with getting my point across, but I’m always wishing I understood more. 

Second, high-freq vocab builds the “acquistional platform.” When our students are finally in a Spanish or Mandarin environment, knowing high-freq vocab reduces the processing load for new input. If students already know a high-frequency sentence such as I wanted that he had been nicer (in Spanish quería que estuviera/fuera más amable), it will be much easier to figure out what I wanted that she had been more engaging means, because we only have to really focus on the word engaging

This is the acquisition platform: when we have the basics (high-freq words and grammar) wired in, it gets steadily easier to pick up new words. 

Anyway…be curious to see what ppl and their colleagues think of this. OH WAIT I FORGOT THE DEVIL 😈. Textbooks. Well the basic prob with texts here is that they don’t even close to introduce words along frequency lines, as I have noted elsewhere

C.O.F.L.T. Conference Reflections

The energy-loaded Tina Hargaden, vice-president of the C.O.F.L.T. in Portland, organised a conference and I got to do the T.P.R.S. part of it– a one-day workshop with German storyasking demo, reading, Movietalk, Picturetalk, method explanation, Q&A, etc.

To say I had a busy weekend would be an understatement:  work Fri, drive 7 hours to Portland (through Seattle traffic, its own special Hell, thank you NPR for making it bearable), have a beer and talk shop with Tina, sleep like a baby at the Kennedy School Hotel (a high school converted to hotel– awesome– “fall asleep in class” is their tag), do presentation, drive back to Canada, time change, it’s now 1 AM, sleep three hours, get on plane to Cuba…where thank God they have mojitos  and overhung limestone rock routes.

Anyway, we had the most people of any workshop at the conference (almost 30) and Tina told me that we were the only room where people were regularly laughing.  There were a bunch of Chinese student teachers doing their degrees in Portland, a few TPRSers who were in for a tune-up, and a whack of curious rookies.

So I got my evaluations back.  You can see the COFLT 2016 Stolz TPRS feedback forms if you want to see how awesome I am 😉 and how much Oregonians appreciate their gluten-free, salad-based, vegan or organic meat, locally-sourced artisanally-cooked dishes, etc 😄.  But mostly what is interesting in the comments are the themes that recur.

1.  A lot of people said they really appreciated the German demo aspect of the presentation (an idea I got from Blaine Ray).  People wrote along the lines of “it was great to experience what it is like to be a student.”  I remain convinced that the only way to make any language-instruction method convincing is to teach people part of a language they don’t know.  It is so easy for us to forget how tough it is– even with good C.I.– to pick up a new language.

2.  Recognising that, and because we had some native Mandarin speakers at the workshop, I asked participant Yuan to teach us some Mandarin (Blaine Ray also does this).  She parallel-circled two sentences:  Chris climbs mountains and Tina drinks beer

  
This put me into the students’ seat and it was enlightening.  I noticed two things:

a) I needed a LOT of reps to remember the Mandarin, and I was glad Yuan went s.l.o.w.l.y.

b) Mandarin does not seem very difficult.  No articles, verb conjugation, etc, though word order seems crucial.

3.  Most people wanted more time with T.P.R.S. (or even me as presenter).  There seems to be a need (in OR and WA) for more C.I.-themed language workshops.  Luckily, Tina Hargaden and C.O.F.L.T. on it and there will be a conference Oct 13-15 which will feature Steve Krashen, Karen Rowan, etc.

4. I talked to another presenter who had a workshop called something like “using authentic docs to design authentic tasks for authentic assessment.” He did some explaining and I wondered two things:

a. What do you actually do with the info from an “end of unit” assessment?  If Max and Sky do well, and Rorie and Arabella terribly, now what? How does that info shape your next “unit”?  I guess if you want a number, awesome, but numbers help neither teachers nor students. 

b. How much energy is a teacher productively using when they design #authres-based activities for assessment? I mean, most #authres don’t use high-freq vocab and are often more of a guessing game for students.  

As I talked to this guy, it struck me that you would get a lot better assessment with exit quizzes for reading & translating, and with comprehension checks along the way– especially with what Ben Slavic has called “barometer kids”– so that, in the moment, you can provide more input for what the kids are misunderstanding. 

5. Laughter matters. Laughing bonds people, lightens any mood, is a brain break, comes from when unexpected ideas are conjoined, etc. So I am glad that we got to laugh at our workshop (yet another practice that Blaine Ray is all about with his dancing monkeys and girls without noses). 

6. There were some experienced C.I. teachers there and I was super-stoked (sorry I can’t remember names). These folks asked good questions, and they often said “well Chris does ____ but I do _____ instead.”  Which teaches us that while there is a basic C.I. recipe– use a story, limit and recycle vocab, have people read the story, add images and short films for more vocab recycling– there are many cooks with a panoply of flavours.  Also,  the experienced people generated great lunchtime discussions over craft organic artisanal salads and quinoa vegan quiche 😉. 

So, thanks COFLT and Tina for a great opportunity for all those language teachers. Their Oct confernce will rock– stay tuned. 

My Marking System for a Language Class Summarised.

“How do we mark kids in C.I. classes?” asks a C.I. newbie on the Yahoo listserv.  Assessment and evaluation are always hot topics.

First, definitions.  Assessment is observing how people are doing, and based on that observation

1. changing what you the teacher do and
2. giving students feedback in order to
3. improve student performance.

Assessment in a comprehensible input classroom means checking whether individual students (or the class) understand both statements and questions, and– if they don’t– clarifying. Weak choral responses?  No response?  Wrong answer?  Go back and clarify. The same goes for individual kids.  If Johnny can’t answer the question “What does ___ mean?”, go back and re-explain.  BOOM! that’s assessment.

Evaluation is assigning a number to student work based on a student’s performance in relation to standards (criteria).  This we do at the end of instruction (ie when a story cycle is done, or at the end of the year).

Second, principles.  If you havn’t been in-serviced about “assessment for learning,” google it, I can’t explain it all here, but let’s make three things SUPER CLEAR.

A.   We only evaluate “final products,” not practice, homework, behaviour, attitude, etc.   The long and the short of this surprisingly controversial statement is that we expect our kids to do X, Y and Z, and the mark we ultimately assign them at the end of Year ____ of Blablabian Language Class should reflect how well they do X, Y and Z, baseed on a set of criteria.  Whether or not Johnny is nice in class, and whether or not Suzy does her homework are irrelevant: what matters is how well they do in relation to criteria.

B.  We only evaluate what has been taught.  No random new vocab, no activities on tests the kids havn’t done, no gotcha! games etc.  You test what you teach, period.

C. We always let ppl re-do work so they can improve their mark. In my class, this means that their mark is always their most recent writing, reading and speaking mark.

Assessment should be fast, simple and minimal, because people learn from interesting comprehensible input and not from testing and feedback, and because teachers need to see their families & have a life 👍.  

Now, here is what I do.

DURING THE COURSE

My instruction is very loosely built around story cycles. I will ask a TPRS-style story, and add to that Movietalks, Intro Routine, Story Listening, Picturetalk, reading, etc. When we are “done” with one story and its associated vocab, I evaluate. Evaluation for a story cycle includes the following:

  1. Two listening quizzes. For this, I read a 5-7 sentence story that I make up on the spot aloud. The kids listen, write down the Spanish, and translate into English. This will be 33% of the story cycle mark. To evaluate these, they basically get a mark for getting the gist of each sentence. I don’t “grade spelling” unless the spelling makes their writing incomprehensible.
  2. One reading quiz. I will give the kids something to read, and get them to translate it. Whatever it is, it has to be 98% comprehensible. Usually, I will give kids a version of something we have created in class, or something similar to what we made in class. To evaluate this, I will randomly pick three sentences and see how well they understand. They will get a mark out of three.
  3. One Story Listening grade. I do Story Listening on Fridays. I get the kids to summarise a printed version of the story and hand that in.  They almost always get 2.5/3 or 3/3 on this. This goes into the reading category. If a story cycle takes more than a week, sometimes they get two SL grades added to their reading.
  4. One 5-min picture description write and one story write. This is how I mark writing.
  5. Other stuff: I can also grade comics for a reading mark. If we are reading a novel, I can copy a few sentences from a chapter and get the kids to translate that for a reading mark. You can easily get reading marks from Textivate, and I also use Sr Wooly scores sometimes for reading marks.

So, at the end of a story cycle, I will have two marks for writing, two for listening, and one or two for reading. Each category is worth 33.3% of grade. I print marks out & post them online.

Now, if kids have unexcused absences, or they didn’t do the comic or Q&A for stories, etc., they will get a much lower grade than they expect. If the grade is low, I tell the kid or their parent “Baninder is missing X, Y and Z. If she completes these next story cycle, she will probably get a higher grade.” So the kids know that the posted grade is their grade right now. They also know that they can change their grade by paying attention.

When the next story cycle starts, the gradebook resets.

AT THE END OF THE YEAR

In my course, the final exam is 100% of the mark. I tell kids and parents that their marks along the way are a rough indicator of how well they are doing.  At the end of the year, we do the following:

1. First class: they have a listening test where I read a longer story (15-20 sentences) aloud.  They have to write down the Spanish and translate. Then, we have a reading test: they get a written text they have never seen, and translate it into English. I randomly pick 5 sentences and grade those for each of reading & listening.

2. Second class: they have three writing tasks.  First, they have 5 min. to describe themselves.  Second, I project a picture, and they have 5 min. to describe the picture. Third, they have to write a story.

3.  For speaking, I do this.

After seven years of C.I., I have found this system clear, simple, low-work and low-stress for the kids. To sum up,

  • students are always marked on their most recent work
  • no oral evaluation for beginners
  • this is real “assessment for learning” where only final products are evaluated with reference to criteria
  • there is no marking of attitude, homework, participation, etc.  If kids screw around, or don’t work, I deal with it– but not by using marks as carrot or stick

How Do I Start the Year with C.I.?

Craig West asked me, “how do you start your year?”  Good question.  So here is what I do on Day 1.

A) Kids come in, I take attendance, they sit where they want, I make a seating plan. If it turns out they can’t work together, I will move them later.

B) I hand out the COURSE OUTLINE , the INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric (a modified version of Ben Slavic and Jen Schongalla’s jGR) and kids fill out paperwork.

C) I basically tell them two things. First, general expectations (no swearing, sexist or homophobic etc language, don’t make a mess, yadda yadda).  Then, I ask them “if you took another language, and it didn’t work for you, or you didn’t like it, I want to know why” and they tell the class.  Usually they say things like “[language] was boring, hard to understand, bla bla.”

Then, I tell them, “Ok, here we learn through stories and it’s really easy. All you have to do to learn a language is listen to words you understand in it, or read it.” I also tell them, the amount of fun in class depends on how much energy they bring to it (suggestions), I show them the rules poster, and I tell them how to do responses.

Then, I hand out my vocab sheet for my first story–Los Gatos Azules— where the words are written in Spanish.  They write down the English. Then I start asking the story. I write a few of the first sentences on the board.  Había un chico.  Vivía en ________. Se llamaba ________.  I get the kids to suggest funny names etc.  I ask for a volunteer to act, or appoint a native speaker if I have one, and I ask him questions from the PQA chart.  On Day 1, I probably won’t get much further than quieres, eres and tienes– questions.

This (below) is my PQA chart.


So if I narrate Había un chico, I ask my actor ¿eres un chico? and he answers soy un chico by reading off PQA chart.  (If I have a native speaker, I’ll use him/her.) I’ll also ask ¿tienes un perro/gato? and he answers Sí, tengo un gato and/or no tengo un perro, and I’ll ask ¿cómo te llamas? –me llamo _____ and ¿vives en _____? — sí/no, no vivo en. I make sure I do a LOT of comprehension checks with both actor and class. A comp check involves asking either one person or the class “what did I just say?” or “what did I just ask?” and checking if they understand.

I’ll also start with another kid as my first parallel character.  Usually a girl (so we can start in on feminine nouns etc) and my parallel character stays in her seat but I will give her a prop to help be a visual anchor.  So, with Los Gatos Azules, the main character (boy) has a dog (I give him a stuffed dog) but wants 10 blue cats.  The parallel character– a girl, seated– has a cat (and prop) but wants 27 purple dogs.

I have realia– for this story stuffed animals– which are good “meaning anchors.” Anything you say which is comprehensible– and which has any other kind of meaning support, such as realia, props, gestures– will help kids acquire language.  Below, gato and perro are vocab from the story; ratón is an obvious easy cognate that provides easy contrast for circling a pair of sentences.  I could even vary the story…el chico quería tener diez gatos azules…but…el gato quería un ratón blanco

I will stop my story 10 min before the end, and then I’ll do an exit quiz. This sets tone– yes, T.P.R.S. is fun BUT you still have to tune in– and also an exit quiz is easy. The kids “get” Spanish on their first day and that feels good.

For homework for day two, I’ll have the kids make simple desk signs. On one side goes their name (can be fake), a picture/drawing of something they like to do, and another of something they own (or a pet).  On the back goes ¿puedo ir al baño? and ¿puedo ir a tomar agua? and ¿puedo ir a mi armario? This is a Ben Slavic idea.  You can always pick one kid’s sign, write a sentence about it on the board (or write a sentence about another kid’s sign also) and presto!, instant mini-c.i. activity.  Plus, the signs help me learn the kids’ names and get to know them better.

There are a zillion other activities you can do on start-up day/week (Ben Slavic has a whole book called Stepping Stones to Stories where he describes his start-up system). Some teachers have to “norm” their classes, i.e. teach them how to behave.  But I have found that, for me, the best thing is to go straight into stories.  It seems that kids learn best when vocab is “packaged” into stories, and when they have to read embedded versions of stories.  I have basically learned that said in September, forgot by December, so if it gets said, it has to be read if I want the kids to remember it.  I do enjoy scene-spinning and improv though…

On Day 2, I start by circling weather and date (good to put boring stuff in background). I review the story, and we continue on– I’ll be able to introduce vas, te gusta(n) and queria— and this day I start personalised questins and answers.  For me, P.Q.A. is basically asking the class members the same question as the actors.

So, if this was Day 2 PQA, I would do the following before reviewing and then continuing the story.  I would first say “OK, yesterday we started a story, and today, I want to get to know you guys, so I’ll ask you some of the questions I asked [actor and parallel character]. Answer with whatever you are comfortable with: sí/no, a word, or a sentence.” Then I’ll point to the PQA chart, make sure they know what the questions mean– and how to answer them– and off we go.

I pick a random kid and ask ¿eres un chico? and he has to answer , or soy un chico.  I’ll repeat the same with a girl, then I’ll do ¿tienes un gato/perro? This is where personalisation starts.  Little by little, you start to learn about your kids.  Who has a dog? Who likes/hates cats?  I also tell them, if you want, totally lie, as long as it’s not inappropriate (e.g. if you said it to your Mom, would she laugh or perma-ground you?) so some kids will want to say tengo un dinosaurio and that can become part of class culture.  It is also fun to ask a boy ¿eres una chica? etc.

Then, we go back to our story. I’ll review details from Day 1, then ask for more details, introduce the problem, etc. This year, I started changing things a wee bit– I now ask characters in my stories present tense questions about other characters– e.g. Donald Trump, ¿es un chico Barack Obama?–  which gets me present-tense reps.

So there you go– starting the year with t.p.r.s.

How should I teach boring stuff, like numbers, weather and pronouns?


This animal is bored. Make sure your kids aren’t like this animal.

At a workshop, somebody asked me how C.I. language teaching deals with boring stuff.  Some things are essential, but boring.

  • hellos and goodbyes
  • weather
  • time
  • numbers
  • days, dates & months
  • the alphabet
  • pronouns
  • parts of speech (eg articles, accents etc)
  • pronunciation
  • colours
  • location words
  • por and para in Spanish, or etre/avoir passe-composé verbs in French
  • Connectors, like “she said” and “then” and “afterward”
  • verbs such as “there is/are,” “to go,” etc
  • Capitals and countries (Spanish teachers I’m looking at you 😉)
  • reflexive verbs
  • any grammar “rule” such as adjective agreement, bu placement, German verb position

YAWN.  Some textbooks– e.g. Avancemos— do entire units on this stuff.  DOUBLE YAWN.  I used to make games to teach this stuff TRIPLE YAWN I AM FALLING ASLEEP.  Boring stuff is like a nice salsa: a bit makes everything better; an entire jar at once will turn you off Mexican food forever.

As Bill VanPatten says, “you don’t want a textbook with kids. That’s not what they need. And you don’t want to teach them traditional vocabulary. You don’t want to sit around and teach colors: that’s boring. And you don’t want to sit around and teach numbers: that’s dumb. But they can learn a lot of language through stories.”

Today’s question: How do we teach boring stuff without boring our students?

a) Days of the week, months, numbers 1-31.  Every day, you write the date on the board in TL.  Under the date, write how to say the date in TL.  E.g. hoy es lunes, el 4 (cuatro) de mayo.

At the start of class, circle the date for a bit.  Clase.  ¿Es el lunes?  Si, es el lunes.  ¿Es el martes? No, no es el martes; es el lunes. ¿Es el lunes o el martes?  Es el lunes.  Clase. ¿Es el cuatro o el cinco de mayo?  Si, clase, es el cuatro.

If you don’t know what “circling” is, it’s easy.  Make a statement, then ask about it.  Ask a question with a yes answer, then with a no answer, then an either/or answer.  For every question, restate the positive.  Don’t keep the same question order for circling.

This should, over 5 months, help the kids acquire #s 1-30 and days of the week.  You literally need 30 seconds per class.  After awhile, the kids will start saying them.

b) Colours and #s greater than 30.  Throw one colour– and one number the kids don’t know– into every story you do.  The boy doesn’t want a cat; he wants a blue cat.  No, no; he wants 54 blue cats.  You can do the same for hellos and goodbyes— throw one or two into every story.

c) Weather.  I start the year with one weather expression on board for the weather that day and circle that.  If the weather is different the next day, I write that on board and circle it for a minute.  30-40 seconds of weather circling every day = weather done by end of year.  This eventually extends into PQA.  Once the kids know a few expressions, you can then feel class energy and start circling something like “When it’s raining, Suzie dances in the street!”  You can also add weather as background in stories– “when Suzie went dancing, it was raining” (bonus: imparfait/imperfecto input!).

If the weather where you are never changes, ask “what’s the weather like in ____?” and circle that for a bit.

d) Also works for location words: in stories the characters are and/or move somewhere.  So when you say “there was a boy in Spuzzum, B.C.” and then you ask “where in Spuzzum was the boy?” (and kids make suggestions) you can add something like “the boy was in the purple Ferrari behind his Spanish teacher’s house.”

e) Time is easy to deal with.  I just randomly once/class point to the clock and say “Clase, son las diez y veinte” or whatever, then translate.  I circle that.  Clase, ¿son las diez y veinte or son las diez y quince?  Si, clase, son las diez y veinte.  If I said “son las nueve y diez, what would that mean?”  I also throw time into each story once– great chance to toss in the imperfecto/imparfait— and briefly circle.

f) For connecting words— like asks, answers, then, after, before, etc– just translate.  The kids will see these so often during the year that they will pick them up.  Every story has “she said” and “then he answered,” etc, in it.

g) for boring and high-frequency verbs, throw them into every story, use them over and over, but don’t circle them obsessively. Verbs like to like, have, be, want, go, come and need are going to be in every story, basically.  The first time you use one, circle it by adding interesting student-suggested detail.  (“Class, was there a boy or a blue turtle?  That’s right, there was a boy….”). After that, use the verbs (in various person and tense forms) but don’t circle them, and do comprehension checks.

Students will see/hear the “boring” verbs a zillion times during the year. They will get the reps, so keep things interesting. 

Blaine Ray does this in his Look, I Can Talk books and it’s simply brilliant: the boring stuff is simple easy background.  If you get rid of the idea that students must learn all “things in a category” at the same time (which they don’t, and can’t, and it’s boring and silly, and even if they do learn it, they forget), you’re set.

H) The alphabet.  Oh God what is more boring? Nothing.  Also note that the only place the alphabet is regularly used is the classroom. It is low frequency and therefore not important. WASTE NO TIME ON “ALPHABET ACTIVITIES,” PEOPLE 😏. Label your parallel characters with letters (chica jota = “Girl J”) and just write and point during quizzes (e.g. label your exit quiz questions n,o,p,q,r, point and say). Also note that if you do alphabet (or number) “games” or songs with your kids, they are probably learning the song a whole lot better than the numbers and letters.

I) Pronouns.  Put them into the background of stories.  You are narrating el chico quería a la chica.  La quería muchísimo (the boy liked the girl.  He liked her a lot).  You say “la means her” and then you check to make sure they understand the sentence.  Then, you use that (and other pronouns) for the rest of the year.  Because they are of low communicative value, pronouns are late-acquired, so don’t stress if your kids don’t start using them right away.  Whatever you do, do not make a “unit” around pronouns, and do not expect to teach your kids a song or rap about pronouns and expect them to pick them up.

J) Greetings/goodbyes: use a different one in each story. They’ll have them by June.

K) Parts of speech. Things like articles, reflexive pronouns etc are omnipresent. I just use them and clarify meaning and kids acquire them. N

L) Pronunciation. Aside from some very specific “move your mouth like this” demos– eg making the tu sound in French or the sh of Mandarin– there is no need to teach or practice pronunciation if you are providing an ocean of aural input. Kids will pick up something like the accent they hear. And if they don’t, no biggie: even if your kids sound like the proverbial American tourist (“hoe-la! May lamo George! Yo queero una serveza!”) or, worse, like me (ja I am hafink a Cherman accent venn I am speakink Shpanish ja) people will still understand them.

M) Capitals and countries are the Spanish teacher’s way of torturing kids with knowledge that matters only to, well, Spanish teachers and geography nerds. Kids do not need to know these so forget the map-and-labeling projects, and just use one capital and one country per story. They’ll acquire them over time.

If you’re teaching with a text, just locate all the boring stuff for the year and spread a nice thin layer throughout your year rather than forcing your students to swallow the whole Boring Jar in one tedious go.  The greetings unit (eg Avancemos 1 Ch1)?   Use one new greeting and goodbye per story.

N) Reflexive verbs. Just because these all use reflexive pronoun + verb and cos many involve daily routine (bathed, dressed etc), the text says hey let’s have a daily routine unit! But how boring is it to say “I got up. John washed his face. Dave sat down for breakfast”? PRETTY BORING

With reflexives, just use them in every story. If it was hot, why, se duchó la chica. If we are talking about what we did yesterday, pués me cepillé los dientes pero no con pasta de dientes…con vino 🤣🤣. Morning routine stuff is fun in most stories as a delayer/problem maker. Why was Johnny late? DUH because he washed his face with olive oil DUH. There are fun vids to Movietalk. Eg Mr Bean getting up late.

O) ANY GRAMMAR RULE. Question: I want my kids to practice adjective agreement. Does anybody know a good song for this? The answer to this question is, no, cos it’s boring and it doesn’t work. Any “grammar rule” is acquired over time via input. And relax: if the kids write “me gusta chicos guapo,” they are perfectly comprehensible 😁😁.

One final note on circling: do not beat boring stuff to death (i.e. don’t let boring stuff take over your story).  Do NOT spend 3 minutes per class on the weather, or circle the time in a story for 5 minutes.  A few reps each day over the year adds up to the same thing as 60-100 reps in one story.  If they know that hace buen tiempo means “it’s nice weather outside,” it doesn’t matter if you repeat it eighty times in one day, or eighty times in one year.  However, if you do it eighty times in one story, some kids will tune out…and your boring stuff will, sadly, have become boring.

There is also research regarding memory which states that “distributed” practice beats “massed” practice for retention. If we need, say, 100 repetitions of hearing something to remember it, we have (broadly speaking) two options: repeat it 100 times in one class (massed practice), or repeat it four times per class for twenty-five classes (distributed practice).  It turns out that for learning sports skills and music, distributed practice wins hands-down.  However, I havn’t seen S.L.A.-specific research on this topic, so caveat magister.