Best Practices

Losing With Word Games

It’s January 2022 and Wordle— also in German, French and Spanish— has become the ninth stage of COVID. And to nobody’s surprise, Wordle has gotten some good Twitter press by language teachers who advocate for its use. This happens every few years: a word game shows up, and people love it.

Varied word games’ common threads include the use of fine visual perception, logic and target-language knowledge to find words. Word games include Hangman, Wordle, crossword puzzles, word searches, acrostics and so forth.
So, today’s question: Should I use word games in my language classroom?

My answer: Generally, no. And why not?

Well, first principles: language is acquired only by processing comprehended input in a communicative context. And a communicative context is a situation where meaning is created, negotiated and/or exchanged for a given purpose. Meaning is something non-linguistic: enjoying a story, gathering information, evaluating information, etc.

So, what are the problems with word games?

First, you have know the word you are looking for. For example, in Hangman or Wordle, we might get to this: __ R __ L L. If you have lots of English, you will make some guesses such as troll, droll, trill, drill and so on. If you are a learner of English, you will be blindly throwing letters in there, hoping for a hit, and if you get it, you probably won’t know the word’s meaning.

Second, you are not processing meaning with these games. You can find words in a word search, Hangman game or Wordle simply by using logic, visual recognition and guesswork. When Wordle tells you that your __ R _ L L guess, DRILL, is correct, yaaay! you won, and you don’t have to know what “drill” means.

Third, Wordle, Hangman and acrostics are hard in additional languages. I can solve any English Wordle in three lines. Spanish, French and German Wordles completely kick my ass…and I have way more of those languages than do most learners in high school or college.

Textbook publishers sell the wordgame parts of their books & workbooks by arguing that eg “trying to remember French words will help kids acquire them.” Now, there is research from conscious learning domains which says something like, if you practice recalling something, you will remember it better (this is why eg flashcards work). But this is not true for language acquisition. The language version of this is, the more often you process a word in a communicative context (ie hear/read it), the more likely you are to remember it.

Acrostics are especially stupid. If you can see the word, you circle it. Again, you can do this without attending to meaning. I’m reminded of Sudoku. When I saw my first Sudoku, I first figured out what to do (basically if X is here, then Y cannot be, rinse and repeat), which was interesting. Actually doing a Sudoku involves almost zero brain: follow the procedure and you get there. Basically, if a computer can generate it, it’s boring to do.

If you want to play games in the TL, here are two suggestions which involve zero prep, are fun, and involve processing meaning.

1. Grab the pen. After you read/create a story, or do anything, get the kids in pairs, put a pen between members of each pair, and say either a true or a false TL statement about your reading, story etc aloud. If they agree, they have to grab the pen. They get a point for grabbing the pen first, but they lose a point if they grab the pen when the statement is false. This game seems ridiculous but kids love it.

2. Who Am I Describing? Divide the class into 2-6 teams. Make a TL statement about anyone in the class, or any character in the story, or somebody famous, etc. EG: this girl rides a motorcyle or this boy really likes ballet. The first person who puts up their hand sand says you are describing ____ gets a point for their team. You can make this simple– I have played this on Day One after our first story– or complex, by eg lying about people.

What Is Learning Chinese With Terry Waltz Like?

I took a three hr/day, five-day Mandarin workshop via Zoom with Terry Waltz. The tl;dr: CI works; Terry is a badass; I learned some stuff.

She has a setup where there is a picture in the middle of the screen, question words on top, and new/current vocab (Chinese word written with Roman letters and translation) on the sides and bottom. When she talks, she points the cursor at the word, and it gets highlighted = easy to follow.

Class was daily the following:

A. Some focused talk around a topic, eg Day 1: who is cool/not cool. Day 4: days and numbers.

B. A story with an ocean of repetitions (circling questions)

C. Terry re-telling the story whilst pointing and clicking on words.

D. On the 4th day, some reading.

It’s three weeks later and I still have Chinese ricocheting around my head, which I cannot say about the language I took two years earlier at a conference which focused on “non-targeted” input, where there was so much vocab and so little repetition that I only remember how to say “I like beer.”

So…what did I learn? In no particular order:

1. Some shi— er, stuff— is too boring to ever make even a 5-min lesson around. Numbers, days, dates, weather.

2. Anything in a story is easy to remember. Anything randomly talked about, not so much.

3. Chinese is easy the way Terry taught it: with very focused C.I. and a lot of repetition. I’m gonna make a claim here: there is no way to effectively teach a language such as Chinese without narrowly-focused C.I. The language is a joke in terms of “grammar rules”: no genders, tenses, cases, articles etc. The barrier is, no cognates, and a weird writing system.

4. The “cold character” reading method works. They write an English word eg a name, then you read the Chinese character for it, then they put in another English word. Eg “Chris 他爬進去 Squamish” = Chris climbs in Squamish. You read that middle bit enough and presto! you’ve acquired it. You need a LOT of reading to remember them so the readers feature an ocean of repetition.

5. Zoom blows.

6. Any suggestions from teacher or other students about “how I remembered the meaning of ____ was by thinking ____” does not work (for me). Like in math, metacognition works best (or only?) when you do it your way.

7. Only two things worked to acquire the language: comprehended input, and clarification of meaning. Eg when I heard wo shi ku (“I am cool”) I thought shi meant “am” or “is”. But no— Chinese (like Russian) doesn’t have “to be”— Terry clarified and said it means something like “equals.”

8. Gestures work. Terry had gestures for the four tones of Chinese, as well as for meaning. If the gesture looks like the word, awesome.

9. There is a lot of stuff that you do not need to have explained to you that you can acquire easily just from input. Eg the “rules” for bu (no, not) and der (roughly, the ‘s in English or German): the way Terry said them, all I knew was what they meant. They got used in different ways (ie where they were in sentences, IIRC), but I didn’t worry about it: I realised that I would eventually “get” them.

The tones was another thing: Terry started off exaggerating them. On Day 4 a Chinese guy was in the lesson and when he talked— normally— I could hear the tones. No need to “practice”— just give us a good simple story.

In Spanish: I literally never teach the kids the alphabet, rules about ____, why Spanish has the ¡!, ¿? and accents bla bla bla…and yet the kids acquire them.

10. You can get a lot of mileage out of simple word games. Eg Terry’s characters visited McRonalds, Burger Duke, Taco Buzzer, etc.

Anyway, these are the same lessons I learned in my first two weeks of C.I. back in Jan 2012, but hey, good to learn them from the student’s point of view. And if you wanna acquire Chinese…Terry Waltz is your go-to 😁😁.

What If I’m Stuck With the Text?

You went to IFLT or NTPRS, or you got a Terry Waltz or Wade Blevins workshop, whereby seemingly magically in 90 minutes you became able to understand and tell a simple story in Chinese or German or Cherokee.  You ran into Stephen Krashen at the Starbucks at the conference and bought him one of his trademark gigantic lattes. You’re all hopped up on BVP.  And your Blaine Ray workshop included a set of Look, I Can Talk! and man, is September ever looking fun!

And then it’s mid-August and the email comes from your Head, who says at the first defartment meeting, we will be discussing the grammar and vocabulary target piece across grade levels and classrooms, to ensure that all students in all classes have the same learning opportunities for standards-aligned assessment bla bla bla and suddenly you know exactly how Cinderella felt at 12:01 AM.  Because what the Head is saying is, we are all going to follow the textbook and have students write the same exam.  They might have gussied this up into fancier language, by saying “integrated performance assessment” instead of “unit,” “structures” instead of “vocabulary,” and “proficiency” instead of “marks” or whatever.  To you, however, it’s all lipstick on a pig.

Yes, this totally sucks, because as researcher Michael Long reminds us, the idea that what we teach is what they learn, and when we teach it is when they learn it is not just simplistic, it is wrong.  Language acquisition cannot be scheduled by teacher or text or testing requirements.  BUT…you are still stuck with District/Adminz/Headz who want everybody on the same team and so you are stuck with the text.  Preterite tense mastered by November!  Clothing unit assessment in January!  Numbers mastered on the 13th day!

Anyway, here in no real order are a few ideas about Dealing With The Text.  There are a few basic things that have to happen (other than you keeping your job): educating colleagues, actually effectively teaching a language, keeping the ignorami off your back, and getting kids through the test.

1. Colleagues have to be educated about what actually happens during S.L.A. and what actually works.  Bill VanPatten said these exact words to Eric Herman in 2016.  So, how?  Well…

a. Results.  Nothing, ever, will trump 5-min timed writes and story writes.  If you show at a dept meeting with crusher results, especially from “weaker” students, and/or from students who do not use notes or dictionaries during writing, the resident dinosaurs are going to have a very hard time arguing against C.I.  The C.I. kids will write more, and more fluently, and more interestingly.  Blaine Ray says as much.  Kids who get good C.I. in whatever form (targeted, untargeted, OWIs, stories, Movietalk, Picturetalk, reading) will in the long run outperform grammar kids.  Your colleagues who actually care about kids (as opposed to their own comfort, or keeping their workload low) will notice.

b. Bridge building.  The apparent weirdness (to a grammarian and/or textbook teacher) of comprehsnion-based instruction can be off-putting.  So show them good C.I. that they can do with the text, what I have called the “six bridges.” In my dept., most of my colleagues don’t do or “believe” in C.I.  But my department head likes Movietalk, Picturetalk and novel and story reading.  Some C.I. beats none.

Personal note: you can lead a horse to water, but… It is important to try to show people that (and, later, how) C.I. works, but a best-case scenario is that many listen, a few try, and fewer than that stick with C.I.  In my experience (and I have learned this the hard way), the most important thing is keeping doors open. If you have results, are nice, are open to talk…people will at least listen.

c. Assessment straight-talk.  Sarah Cottrell makes this point: if every teacher has to do the same test at end of year or whatever, the process of deciding on the test (format, material etc) should be obvious.  The only things I can say here are that a. the ACTFL guidelines are your friend.  The ACTFL guidelines do not say that grammar testing, verb tables etc are valid (or useful) assessment of students’ abilities.  b. whatever testing is done, it should primarily involve processing of meaningful whole language and spontaneous production of language.  Reading or listening to meaningful things, like stories and situationally-clear dialogues, and writing meaningful things (ditto) are useful.  Fill in the blanks, verb tables, etc, is not.  And whatever students are tested on should have been taught:   no “authentic resource decoding.” c. State/provincial standards are your friends.  No State or Provincial standard includes “fill in the blanks” as a communicative objective.

If the department/District/whatever decides on (say) a list of nouns and verbs or verb tenses or whatever, best practice will be to not assess these on a schedule.  There is not too much harm being done by asking that, say, all French 2s will know the passé composé, but this should be an end-of-year goal, rather than “by Unit 3 in November, students will ______.” We know acquisition is piecemeal and, as Bill VanPatten says, “unaffected by instructional intervention,” so it is important to provide a lot of varied input of vocab, grammar, “rules” etc over a looong time so kids can maximise their chances of picking it up.

2. For the textbook itself, rearrange order, ditch low-frequency vocabulary, and build simple routines to master boring stuff.  OK, here is how

a. Every text I have ever seen thinks weather, numbers, hellos, goodbyes, colours, location words etc matter.  If you must “cover” these, try this, and let your Dept Head/Amin know, I am doing this, but not in “unit” form, and here is how.  For example, the Spanish Textbook Avancemos Uno puts all of this into the Leccion preliminar…just spread it out throughout the year. This is something even a textbook teacher can get behind: less vocab? Yes please!

b. For low-frequency vocab (especially in programs organised around thematic/topical “units”), ditch the non-essential stuff.  Again, in Avancemos Uno Unidad 1 Leccion 1, some things are not worth spending time on (eg. descansar, andar en patineta (to rest, to skateboard) which are low-frequency vocabulary (not in top-1000 most-used words).  We are always better off spending more time on less vocab than less time on more vocab (and, as Susan Gross, said, shelter vocabulary, not grammar).

c. The daily opening routine is amazing prep for the kids in languages like Spanish where verb tenses are an issue.  One verbform per day = they will have solid understanding by end of year.

Super basic and super-effective

The more I do C.I., the more I am convinced that the basics– use as little vocabulary as possible, and recycle the crap out of it– are the most important. Here are some suggestions about doing more with less. Remember what Blaine Ray says: you will get back out what you put in. I do all the following.

I’m adding a disclaimer: not all of these recommendations are 100% organic free-range communicative. Rather, they are designed to optimise input for students. When I ask “did you do your homework?” and a kid answers with “yeah,” this is an authentic and 100% appropriate communicative event…for the kid and I. For the rest of the class, not so much. It would be better if the kids heard “I did my homework” or “No, I partied with my boyfriend” instead. More language, and more whole language. So…

1. All output should be in complete sentences. Yes, from Day 1.
If we are story-asking, we can
1. write the response on the board
2. use an actor who can answer
3. model the response. This we do with teacher as parallel character.

If we are doing PQA, Movietalk, Picturetalk etc, we ask either/or questions and we model both possible answers, and ideally we ask kids who can answer in complete sentences. For example, I’m showing a film where a cat hunts a mouse.

Clase, el gato caza el ratón. What does that mean?
— The cat hunts the mouse.
Correcto, clase: the cat hunts the mouse. Johnny, el gato caza. ¿Caza el ratón, o caza al Sr Stolz?
–Caza el ratón.

This takes a bit of practice, but it is effective: the class hears complete output, and the student has to process two whole sentences in order to answer. The trick here is to keep a really tight lid on the vocab (yes, you must target).

2. Have students– ideally, your fastest processors–“describe the situation.”

This is where a kid describes what is happening so far in the story. They can describe either what is happening to the main character, or if they are a character, what is happening to themselves. This is a good way for another rep, and lets the egg-heads shine.

I pick my fast processors to do this. It seems like the kids listen more to an actor/class member doing a retell than they do to me 😂😂

This is a Blaine Ray idea and I love it.

3. For non-personal questions, model both possible answers in complete sentences in the question. Eg:

Ayer, ¿llovió mucho, o hizo sol? (yesterday, did it rain, or was it sunny?)
— Ayer, hizo sol. (It was sunny)

This provides good input for everyone, and when the kid answers, we get quality output again which again is good input for others.

4. For personal questions, ask the question, and model an answer using yourself first. Example:

¿Dónde comiste ayer, John? (Where did you eat yesterday, John?) This sets us up. Then we say
Yo comí en DcMonalds. ¿Comiste en DcMonalds? (I ate in DcMonalds. Did you eat in DcMonalds?) Here, John has an answer. He can say Sí comí en DcMonalds, or No, no comí en DcMonalds.

5. Ask me! This is another Blaine Ray idea. When doing PQA or talking to a character in a story, ask the actor/any student a question. Have them answer….then have them ask you back, then you answer. “Teacher-as-parallel-character” (another Blaine Ray idea) demands this. We do much as in #4, above, but the actor has to ask us also, thus:

Ayer, ¿tenías una cita con Miley Cyrus o con Selena Gómez?
— Tenía una cita con Selena. ¿Y tú?
Tenía una cita con Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

6. Teacher as parallel character. If you are using a TPRS-style story, you are in the story too. If you are doing something more free-range (eg Draw and Discuss), whatever happens to the main character also happens to you. For example, here is a DrAnDi from yesterday:

The Person Without Extremities

For this, the basic story is “___ did not have any ____. He went to the Extremities Store and bought arms, legs, a face and a name. Now his name is Pasta Doodles.”

When I am discussing this, I put myself in the story too (I could just draw a stick figure): class, yesterday I lost my nose. So I went to the extremities store…

7. Puppets. I took an old sock, glued some googly eyes on, and presto! I have another character who is in every story and who speaks in a weird voice. Yet another set of reps. Sock can do silly stuff with really small props eg a toy car. Easy, and you can practice your ventriloquism. Hint: a puppet’s mouth must open and close for each syllable it says.

UPDATE May 6, 2022. Here is an update from Blaine Ray, whose “describe the situation” (see above) is very helpful.

Blaine: I’ve been working with describe the situation [DTS]. I think there are five keys.

A) Manageable chunk. Some teachers make the chunk too big. It has to be limited. We want our students to be able to DTS easily.

B) Perspective. Students need to DTS from perspective. Usually they speak from the perspective of the main character. Have several students be the main character. The best students speak first. They are always talking in their own words. We encourage them to give their opinions when they talk. Hearing this over and over is like magic for students learning a language.

C) Compare. Add a short parallel story about you. Colton had a horse that falls a lot. He bought him at a horse convention. The horse falls too much. I bought a cat. He falls a little bit. I bought the cat at Petsmart. ” Now the DTS is having the student be the character (Colton). You say, “You are Colton. Compare your situation with my situation.”

D) Have several students DTS each time. If you want, you can verify the DTS. You say, “yes, you are Colton. You bought a horse at a horse convention. It wasn’t a good horse. He falls a lot. He falls too much. I bought a cat. My cat isn’t a good cat because he falls too much.” This lets the students compare the teacher’s language to the students’ language.

This process is amazingly powerful. It also has the added benefit of requiring almost no teacher preparation. The class is spent having the students talk. It is wonderful.

These are very simple, but hugely boost the quality of language in the classroom or on your Zoom meeting :-).

(How) Should I Use Questions to Assess Reading?

Yesterday I found a kid in my English class copying this from her neighbour.  It is post reading assessment– in Q&A form– for the novel Les yeux de Carmen. TPT is full of things like this, as are teachers guides,, workbooks, etc.

The idea here is, read, then show your understanding of the novel by answering various questions about it. It “works” as a way to get learners to re-read, and as what Adminz like to call “the accountability piece,” ie, “the reason to do it is cos it’s for marks.”

Before I get into today’s post, I should note, I (and every teacher I know) uses some kind of post-reading activity.

Q: Should I use questions to assess reading?

A: Probably not. Here’s why.

  1. How do we mark it? What if the answer is right, but the French is poor? Or the reverse? Half a mark each? Do we want complete sentences? What qualifies as acceptable and not for writing purposes? What if there is more than one answer? What’s the rubric we use for marking?
  2. It can (and, basically, should) be copied. This is the kind of thing that a teacher would send home to get kids to re-read the novel. Fine, but…it’s boring, and it takes a long time. It doesn’t use much brain power. If I were a student, I would copy this off my neighbour. If you don’t get caught, you save a bunch of time, and the teacher has no way of noticing.
  3. It would totally suck to mark this. Do you actually want to read 30– or 60!— of these?!? I dunno about you folks, but I have a life. We have to mark, obviously, but these, ugh, I’d fall asleep.
  4. It’s a lot of work for few returns. I asked the kid who’d lent her answers to her friend how long it took (btw, there is one more page I didn’t copy), and she said “about 45 min.” This is a lot of time where very little input is happening.  The activity should either be shorter, or should involve reading another story. As Beniko Mason, Stephen Krashen and Jeff McQuillan (aka The Backseat Linguist) show us, input is more efficient than input plus activities (ie, instead of questions about a story, read another story).  As the great Latinist James Hosler once remarked, “for me, assessment is just another excuse to deliver input.”

So…how should we assess reading? Here are a bunch of ideas, none of them mine, that work.

A. Read the text, and make it into a comic. Easy, fun, useful for your classroom library and requires a bit of creativity.

B. Do some smash doodles. This is basically a comic, but minus any writing. As usual, Martina Bex has killer ideas.

C. Do a discourse scramble activity. For these, take 5-10 sentences from the text, and print them out of order (eg a sentence from the end of the text near the beginning, etc). Students have to sort them into correct order, then translate into L1. This is fairly easy– and even easier if a student has done the reading, heh heh–, as well as not requiring output while requiring re-reading.

Another variant on a discourse scramble is, have students copy the sentences down into order and then illustrate them.

For C, they get one mark per correct translation (or accurate pic), and one mark for each sentence in its proper place. Discourse scramble answers can be copied, so I get kids to do them in class.  They are also due day-of, because if kids take them home others will copy.

D. If you have kids with written output issues, you can always just interview them informally: stop at their desk or have them come to you and ask them some questions (L1, or simple L2) about the text.

Alrighty! Go forth and assess reading mercifully :-).

Oral Assessment Made Easy

If you must assess oral proficiency– which should not be done before the end of Level 2, in my humble opinion– here is the world’s simplest hack. No more interviews, “speaking tasks” and hassles where you sit with one kid and the other 28 are off-ta– err, I mean, doing their Kahoots or whatever.

In a C.I. class, because any feedback other than “pay more attention & ask for help” doesn’t do anything for acquisition, and because testing wastes time by not delivering input, we want to put as little time and effort into Assigning Numberz as possible. We also never want to assign role-plays or “pretend you’re customer and sales associate”-type scenarios, which test memorisation rather than spontaneous communication. Same goes for anything recorded.

Teaching Reading Skills: How to Implement Readers Theater

^^ This is what we don’t want ^^

This is very simple. Starting in the last 1/4 or so of level 2 Spanish, I randomly check on how kids communicate in class.  Do they ask and answer questions?  Do they use complete sentences? Can they initiate and sustain conversation? To what (if any) extent do their speaking errors interfere with communication?

Every two weeks, I give each kid a score out of three. At the end of the year, I average these and that’s their oral mark. If the kids disagree, they can come in for a formal oral interview. (If they choose this, it is totally unstructured and unplanned ie they cannot prepare and memorise Qs & As. I will ask them to tell me a story including dialogue, and we will basically ask each other questions.) I have to be conscious: some days kids are sick, exhausted etc, so the score has to reflect their overall (ie best possible) proficiency.

This is the first year I have done this and not a single kid complained about their mark.

Here’s the marking rubric. Go ahead and steal it but please acknowledge authorship.  Note that the rubric will generate a mark between four and twelve.

Oral proficiency is evaluated in the last ¼ of Spanish 11. I will note how you communicate in class. If you disagree with your oral mark, please come in for a one-on-one interview. I am available Fridays after 2:30.

When using Spanish, for a score of ___, I

3 (mastery) 
— ask and answer questions in complete sentences.
— initiate and sustain conversations.
— demonstrate understanding of what is being said to me

— have minor errors that do not interfere with meaning

2 (basic proficiency)
— occasionally ask and answer questions in complete sentences
— sometimes initiate and sustain conversations
— generally demonstrate understanding of what is being said to me
— have errors that noticeably interfere with meaning

1 (not yet proficient) 

— use mostly one-word statements
— don’t sustain or initiate conversations
— often don’t clearly understand what is being said to me

— have errors that consistently block meaning

Against Rules: Rothman vs the Grammarians

It is a lovely Sunday, work is over, but sadly my climbing partner Tiff has decided to chase boys instead of vert, and so here I am reading SLA papers, in this case Jason Rothman’s “Aspect Selection in Adult L2 Spanish and the Competing Systems Hypothesis: When pedagogical and linguistic rules conflict” (2008).

Rothman in this paper hypothesises that conscious learning of grammar “rules”– in this case, the distinction between the preterite and imperfect tenses in Spanish, for L2 learners of Spanish– will interfere with native-like acquisition of those “rules.”

There is a standard explanation of the preterite and imperfect that we Spanish teachers give: the preterite is a snapshot of the past, and the imperfect a movie.  Finished past action vs habitual or ongoing past action, etc. Now this is not wrong, but it is far from complete. Which of the following (from Rothman, 2008), for example, is correct?

(11) Siempre que  fuimos a la universidad, estudiamos en la bliblioteca.
(12) Siempre que íbamos a la universidad, estudiábamos en la biblioteca.

Both are, obviously, but the meanings do not follow the ongoing-vs-completed template of instruction. Both mean more-or-less “when we went to the Uni, we ended up studying in the library.” Both are generalisations, but 11 connotes an accidental (unforseen) generalisation, whereas 12 is a foreseen generalisation.

Rothman took three groups of people who knew Spanish: native speakers, those who had studied, and those who had acquired Spanish “naturalistically,” i.e. on their own, largely through TV, radio and interactions with native speakers. All did the same two tasks.

They sorted the students to account for Spanish knowledge etc etc, so they got three groups who were functionally similar (ie all could read Spanish about equally well).

Task One was, read “Goldilocks” in Spanish, and choose the correct of two forms of the verb (preterite or imperfect). Task Two: read a paragraph with blanks, and generate the right form of the verb (again, the choice was between preterite and imperfect).

Now, this was a “Monitor” task. The students dealt with writing, and had time to employ the conscious mind, rules, declarative memory etc. Rothman hypothesised that, because conscious learning and rules couldn’t capture the subtleties of the p-vs-i distinctions, students who had acquired via these rules would underperform others.

The results?

1. Native speakers all overwhelmingly made the same and correct choices.

2. The “taught” students of Spanish made a wider variety of errors, and many more of them, than did the native speakers.

3. The “naturalistic acquirers” of Spanish made significantly fewer errors than did the “taught” students, and their error patterns were more native-like than those of the “taught” students.

Rothman’s hypothesis was therefore confirmed: acquisition of the aspectual (tense) system of Spanish was significantly slowed by conscious learning and speeded up by exposure to input. As he puts it, “pedagogical rules of oversimplification can result in L2 performance variation, perhaps indefinitely.

Rothman points out that if teachers wanted to meaningfully and beneficially “explain” the p-vs-i distinction, they have to do it in significantly more complex ways than they– we– now do. There is, in other words, way more going on than the “photo vs movie” metaphor.

And the old problem of mental bandwidth here arises: because, as Bill VanPatten notes, we have limited “room” in our heads for explicit information, the more explanations we get, the less “sticky” they will be in our memory. In addition to this, some of these explanations about why we would use one verb tenses or the other– are not particularly student-friendly. Do you want to explain about adverbial quantifiers, semantic distinctions, and accidental vs foreseen generalisations? Could kids understand these? Would they care?  

There are obviously also about 1,000,000 more “rules” in Spanish– or any other language– and so we would rapidly hit a wall if we had to teach using rules.  No time, little student interest, and no way to keep all those rules in your head (or access them in real time tasks, such as speaking or listening).

Luckily, there is a way out. One major implication for teachers, which Rothman notes, is that “the only compulsory variable is sufficient access to quality input.” This is exactly what Stephen Krashen predicted forty years ago: providing input beats anything else, and there is very limited benefit to learning grammar “rules.” Krashen’s dry comment that the relative clause is less than compelling also merits note: nobody other than classroom teachers really cares about grammar.

People who have to teach to stupid, grammar-focused tests take heart:  loads of C.I. is way more fun than studying the stupid textbook, and it works much better!

The moral of the story: input gets the job done just fine. Stories ahoy– carry on!




What’s A Cognate?

I was reading aloud to my class the other day and read el chico no era muy inteligente. A few minutes later, a kid asked in English “was he dumb?”

I told him, I said “el chico no era muy inteligente, and the kid said “ya, but is that smart or dumb?”

This is when it occurred to me that he had heard een-tell-ee-hen-tay (the way it sounds in Spanish), but his brain was not doing what my brain would have done (and I had assumed his would): heard the sound, imagined it written out, and then looked for a similarity.

Anyway, what I got from this was two things:

  1. We cannot assume that spoken cognates will be comprehended.  They are probably more likely to be comprehended, but you have no guarantees.
  2. Cognates– in languages where they are easy to see (eg English and French; English and German, and not English and, say, Chinese)– are going to be best used in written form, were the visual system has a better chance of picking up on them than does the auditory.

    However, this may not be true in eg Japanese, where a word like “McDonalds” sounds like “Ma-ku-don-ad”– recogniseable– but has to be written out in an alphabet that will pose challenges for newer learners.

Anyway, lesson of the day: yes, cognates are your friends…but you still have to choose them carefully, and not bring them everywhere.



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.

Do We Need To Do “Post-Reading Activities”?

Everybody agrees that input is the central component of language acquisition.  Even a skill-builder such as DeKeyser, and grammarian colleagues, admit that without hearing and reading the language, much less acquisition happens.

One big question, however, remains endlessly discussed: what should language teachers get students to “do” with input? Broadly, the options as I understand them are thus:

  1. Language-class students just…get input.
  2. They get input, and then “do activities” with the input.

#2 is the approach most used by most C.I. teachers. In classical TPRS, students do re-tells. In Slavic and Hargaden’s “untargeted” input, there are “one word at a time” story activities, “read and discuss,” etc post-story. VanPatten’s “task oriented” teaching gets students to “do” things with input (sort, rank, find out, order, etc).

With reading C.I. novels, when kids have read the novel/story, there are questions, word-searches, personal responses, sentence-re-ordering, etc. Indeed, so devoted are even C.I. teachers to “activities” that almost every novel published in the C.I. tradition has a teacher’s guide to go with it, and Teachers Pay Teachers is full of novel guides, post-reading activities and so forth. The same, by the way, is true of Movietalk: there are regularly questions posted on FB or Yahoo, from C.I. teachers, asking does anybody have Movietalk activities to go with ____? 

Anyway, obviously what we are always most concerned with in a language class is acquisition. We decide to do/not do _____ based on how well it develops students’ grasp of the target language, and this brings up today’s question:

Do “activities” with reading (or listening to stories) boost acquisition?

The answer, it turns out, is probably not. A paper by Beniko Mason and Stephen Krashen, one of many that reach similar conclusions, took a simple and elegant look at this question. In another paper, the Backseat Linguist compares the effects of reading (CI only) with direct instruction (activities plus reading plus teacher talking).

First, Mason & Krashen.  Beniko Mason, who teaches English to Japanese college kids, compared two functionally identical classes’ responses to (1) listening to her tell (and illustrate) a story, and (2) listening to the same story and then doing a variety of activities (including reading) about the story. Both groups were pre-tested for grasp of vocabulary, treated, and post-tested (immediate post-treatment, and delayed post-test).

What did Mason find?

Two things emerge from this paper, one obvious and one striking.  First, the obvious: the students who did the post-reading activities gained more vocabulary. This is what we would predict: the more times we hear/read something, the more it will get into our heads and stick around. In both immediate and delayed post-tests, the “activity” group retained more new vocabulary.

Sounds like we should be doing post-listening/reading activities, right?  Wrong.

The second finding of Mason’s is remarkable: the input-only group acquired much more vocabulary per unit of time than did the input-plus-activities group. As Mason and Krashen write,

[o]n the delayed post-test, the story-only efficiency was .25 (3.8 words gained/15 minutes), and efficiency for the story-plus-study group was .16 (gain of 11.4 words/70 minutes).

In other words, the most efficient use of time for delivering C.I. is…delivering C.I. alone, and not doing anything else. (This is a conclusion which has also been oft-reached by reading researchers.  Broadly speaking, just reading for pleasure beats reading-plus-activities in just about every measurable way. Much of the research is summarised by Krashen here).   There is also another good study on Korean EFL learners here.

Next, the Backseat Linguist aka Jeff McQuillan. TBS in his post looks at a number of studies of the effects of reading on vocab acquisition.  Note that most studies define acquisition as the ability to recognise the meaning of a word. What TBS shows us is how many words per hour students learn via different methods of instruction.

Free Voluntary Reading: students acquire about 9.5 words per hour.
Direct instruction: students pick up about 3.5 words/hour.

FVR is just that: reading without any follow-up “activities” or “accountability.” “Direct instruction” includes bits of reading, speaking practice, note-taking, answering questions about readings, etc.

Bottom line: aural and written comprehensible input alone do the acquisitional work.  Why is this?  Why don’t “supplementary activities” boost acquisition?

The answer probably has to do with how the brain evolved to pick language up: in the moment, on the fly, informally, and over time. Our hominid ancestors didn’t worksheet their kids, or have writing, and probably did no instruction in speech. We know that kids don’t get targeted input: other than “rough tuning” their speech to their kids’ levels (ie clarifying where necessary, and not using words such as “epistemology” around their three-year olds), parents just, well, talk to (and around) their kids, and their kids pick up loads. Parents don’t repeat words deliberately, do comprehension checks, regularly ask kids conversation-topic specific questions, etc.

So…what are the implications for a language classroom?

  1. We should spend our time on input, and not on anything else. We know talking and writing “practice” do very little for acquisition.  It is now also clear that activities such as retelling to a partner, answering questions, etc, are overall a less-then-optimal use of time
  2. Thought experiment:

    OPTION A: over two months, Johnny can spend, say, eight hours reading four novels, and then two hours doing “activities.” If, as Mason found, he gains .16 words per minute, he will acquire 96 words over 10 hours of reading plus activities.

    OPTION B: Johnny can spend ten hours reading five novels, with no “activities.” Mason’s data suggest that he will pick up a bunch more language: .25 words per minute x 10 hours = 150 words.

    If we teach Johnny for five years, and we commit each year to a free voluntary reading program sans “activities,” Johnny– from reading alone– will have picked up 275 words more than if he had spent his class time reading and doing “activities.”  If we pace a five-year proficiency-oriented language program at 300 words per year (which will enable students to acquire the 1500 most-used words, giving them 85% of the most-used vocabulary in any language), this reading alone will add almost a year’s worth of gains to his language ability.If we are doing storyasking (classical TPRS), or OWI creation (and then story), or Movietalk, or Picturetalk, we should not be doing any post-input activities. These C.I. strategies deliver C.I. and as such are useful in and of themselves.

  3. We should spend our resources on materials that deliver input, and not in resources that create busywork for students or teachers. As we have seen with C.I. curricula, “pure C.I.” is not only the best, but the cheapest option.

    For example, with reading, say we want to use novels.  We can get a novel from Blaine Ray or Carol Gaab for $5 in quantities of 30 or more.  So, a class set = $150.  The teacher’s guides are typically $35-40. Five sets of novels (no teacher’s guides) = $750.  Four sets of novels plus teacher’s guides = $600 + $140-160 = $740-$760. If we buy the five sets of novels instead of four sets plus teacher’s guides, and ditch the “activities,” our students have more choice in reading for close the same cost. If they like the books (ie find them compelling and comprehensible), simply reading them will be the best use of both class time and money.

    Or, we could do even better: we could negotiate a bulk price (Carol and Blaine are very reasonable) and get 15 copies each of TEN novels.  Here we would have much more choice, which is always good for readers, especially reluctant ones.

    If we combine smart novel investment with building an FVR library out of kids’ comics, we are well on our way to maximising our C.I. game.

  4. We might also find that teacher wellness and language ability will increase with an input-only program. It has been said that a legendary C.I. innovator developed their method partly to boost acquisition, and partly to boost their golf score. Underlying this is a solid truth. The happier and better-rested a teacher is, the easier it will be for them to teach well. Much the same is true for students: as much work as possible should be done in class, so students can relax, work, pursue their own interests, do sports etc outside of class.

    Instead of “prepping activitites” for tomorrow, marking Q&As or whatever, checking homework, and supervising students during post-input “activity time,”, a teacher can simply deliver C.I. and let the kids read.  And, as Bryce Hedstrom and Beniko Mason note, free reading also builds teacher competence in the target language. While the kids read their novels (or last year’s class stories), we read ours, and everyone gets better!


If you have real trouble getting kids to listen/you have kids that cannot listen/read, or you are in an awful school where if it’s not for marks, I’m not doing it is the norm, you might have to do post-C.I. “activities.” And there is nothing wrong with that. We do the best we can with what– and who– we have, and where we are. You also might need “activities” to maintain your in-class sanity.

I was recently discussing the most recent version of Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk! books with Mike Coxon and Craig Sheehy, and Victoria, BC school district language co-ordinator Denise Wehner. All of us like Blaine’s book, but all of us questioned some of the post-story and post-reading activities that are in it (eg crosswords, word searches).  And then Craig said but sometimes a teacher just needs kids to be quiet and focused on something other than the teacher’s voice.  And we all looked at each other and nodded.


Deliver as much aural and/or written comprehensible input as you can. When you have delivered some, deliver more. If you do T.P.R.S., ask another story.  If you do Mason’s Story Listening, give students a written version of what you have just told, then tell another story. If you are doing “untargeted input” a la Slavic and Hargaden, make another OWI and put it into another story. If your thing is reading, get kids to do more reading with as few “accountability” activities as possible.