Bill VanPatten

Why I (Almost) Never Assess Speaking

So this was asked on a forum recently and, as usual, it got me thinking.

This is a question about “El Internado,” but, really, it applies to anything we do in a language class.  We read/ask a story/do a Movietalk or Picturetalk, etc, and then we want to assess speaking, comprehension, etc.

My response to this question is don’t bother assessing speaking.

But first, a qualifier:  if our Board/school/dept. etc says we absolutely MUST assess speaking, well, then, go for it.  We do what we have to do to keep our job.  But if we don’t have to assess speaking, don’t.  Here is why.

  1. The info we gain from this cannot generally guide instruction, which is the point of any assessment (other than at the very end of the course).  The reason for this is very simple: what will we do if what we learn from assessment varies wildly (which it almost certainly will)? If Samba has problems with the pretérito verb tense, Max doesn’t understand questions with pronouns, and Sky can fluidly ask and answer anything, how are we going to design future instruction around that info?  How are we going to “customise”  reading/stories, etc to give 30 different kids the input they need?  Answer:  we can’t.
  2. This takes forever.  If we have 30 kids in our class, and we can assess them in three minutes each (which is tough) we are spending 90 min alone on speech assessment.  That’s a period and a half!  During this time, we have to design something else for them to do…and good luck having 29 kids– whose teacher is “distracted” by sitting in the corner assessing speech– staying on task for 60 minutes.
  3. We already know how well they speak.  If we are doing regular PQA– personalised questions and answers (basically, asking the class members the same questions we are asking the actors)– we know exactly how well each kid can talk.  So why waste time with a formal assessment?  In my Spanish 1 right now, Ronnie can only do y/n answers to questions, while Emma Watson (aka Kauthr) speaks fluid sentences, and so does Riya, while Sadhna mixes up present and past tense in her output (but understands tense differences in questions) etc.
    Indeed, this is where feedback to the teacher is useful. If—in the PQA moment—I see that Sadhna mixes up past and present in answers, I can guide PQA around that right then and there.
  4. In terms of bang-for-buck, we are going to get way more results from more input than from assessing speech.  We acquire language not by practising talking etc, but by processing input, as Bill VanPatten endlessly reminds us.  I used to do regular “speaking tests” and they did nothing and the info was useless.  Now, I never test speaking until the end of the course, and the kids speak better, mostly because the wasted time now goes into input.
  5. A question that comes up here, regarding assessing speech post-Internado, is, what are we testing the kids on?  Are they expected to remember content— names, events, “facts” etc– from the show?  Or are we assessing speech generally?  In my opinion, “content” should be off-limits: we are building language ability, not recall.In terms of language ability, one of the problems with assessing right after specific content (eg some of El Internado) is that, since this input is generally not very targeted, we don’t have much of a guarantee that the kids are getting enough exposure (in a period or two) to “master” or acquire anything new.  This is to say, while an episode may be 90- or even 100% comprehensible, thanks to the teacher’s guidance etc, it almost does not focus on a specific vocab set.  In a classic T.P.R.S. story, the teacher makes sure to restrict (shelter) vocab used in order to maximise the number of times each word/phrase/etc is used.

    This is whether s/he has a plan, or, as in totally “untargeted” story creation à la Ben Slavic, the kids are totally driving the bus.  As a result, the odds of the kids picking up specific “stuff” from the story—in the short term, which is the focus of the question– are greater (and greater still if the asked story is followed by reading, Movietalk and Picturetalk) than if the input is familiar but untargeted.

  6. What about the kid who missed some of (in this case) El Internado? If the speaking assessment focuses on Internado-specific vocab, it would (in my opinion) be unfair to ask Johnny who was there for all three periods and Maninder, who missed two of three periods, to do the same thing with the “language content” of the episodes.
  7.  Kids hate speaking and tests.  Anything I can do to avoid tests, or putting people on the spot– which a one-on-one test does– I do.  This is what Johnny looks like when you tell him, speaking test tomorrow:Image result for kid being interviewed by teacher
    (image:  Youtube)
  8. “Authentic content” eg El Internado has lots of low-frequency vocabulary. Sure, the teacher can keep things comprehensible, but there is inevitably kids’ mental bandwidth going into processing low-freq vocab…which is exactly what kids don’t need in a speaking assessment, where you want high-freq vocabulary that is easy to recall and applicable to lots of topics.

Anyway…this is why I save speaking assessment until the end of the course: I know how well my kids can speak, I can adjust aural input where it matters– right now–, I don’t want assessment to detract from input, and speaking assessment doesn’t really help me or my kids.




Clarifications: A.I.M.’s claims about T.P.R.S. and reality.

The Accelerated Integrative Method— AIM– is a comprehensible-input second-languages method which was developed by Wendy Maxwell in Canada.  I havn’t used AIM (but have posted some comments about it from practitioners here).  AIM is better than any standard text:  they use stories, lots of repeated (and sheltered) vocab, etc, which are practices in line with what we know about what the brain needs to acquire languages.

AIM makes some claims about TPRS here, claims which I don’t think are always accurate.  Mainly I want to clarify TPRS (as I understand it).  I’ll quote AIM’s claims about TPRS and then clarify each in turn.  What is in the text boxes is all AIM’s words.



Students speak primarily in sentences. Students respond primarily with one-word responses.

Reality: in TPRS, students say whatever they are developmentally ready to say.  In a beginner class, students’ initial output will be one-word and yes/no responses to questions.  As input builds mental representation of language, their output grows longer and more complex.  TPRS is built on research, which shows that forcing output beyond what students are developmentally ready for does nothing for acquisition and makes many students uncomfortable.




The teacher uses a variety of strategies when students don’t understand.


Translation is the primary method used when students don’t understand.

Reality: a TPRS practitioner will establish meaning using direct translation, and use translation to clarify, but will also use gestures, props, actors etc to clarify what is happening.  What TPRS does not do: make students guess (or, in edubabble,  “use metacognitive strategies to decode meaning”).  Why?  Because there is no substantiation in research that language acquisition gets easier and/or speeds up when people have to guess at meaning, and because how effective decoding strategies are depends on how much the learner already knows (and on the language being taught– good luck using cognates and “sounding out” when acquiring Mandarin).  While babies and first language learners must guess, they have unlimited time to do so, while a classroom teacher has about 100 hrs/year max.



Offers a full online teacher training and certification program.


Offers webinars online.

Reality: both AIM and TPRS offer live training, and both offer online training, DVDs, etc.




Supported by a variety of research. (See attached)


Based on research of comprehensible input (CI) by Krashen.

Reality: the research into language acquisition supporting what TPRS does has been done by Krashen, Bill VanPatten, Ashley Hastings, Wynne Wong, James Asher, Beniko Mason and many others.  See this for a summary. A.I.M. is built around most of the same ideas.

There is some good data from the Netherlands which suggests that A.I.M. works somewhat better than a traditional “skill-buuilding” approach.  However, most of what is on the research portion of their page does not qualify as good science:  small sample sizes, lack of control groups, etc, mean that AIM claims must be taken with a grain of salt.




Yes/no questions are rarely used. The teacher focuses on total and partial questions with complete sentence answers.



Questioning is done by circling (asking the same question in many ways) that includes yes/no questions, QT and QP as well as PQA (personalized questions and answers). Answers are usually one word.

PQA = teacher talk


  1.  PQA is not teacher talk.  It is teacher-initiated and teacher guided, because the teacher is the one who knows the target language.
  2. Answers are whatever the student is developmentally ready for.  For beginners, this means one-word and/or y/n answers.  Later, output will become more complex and longer.  We know from research that asking people to output beyond what they can do– eg complete sentences for beginners– is not really language use; it is memorised performance.
  3. Not all questioning is circling.  In reality, TPRS practitioners circle some new vocabulary, but prefer to use parallel characters (or students) for vocab repetition rather than focusing on questioning one sentence (though one-sentence focus is appropriate at times).





The students and teacher write very long, detailed stories together, which are generally based on the play being studied. This happens twice as a whole class activity and twice as a partner activity per 50 hours of instruction. The play, vocabulary and language manipulation activities/creative writing are systematically integrated for success, predictability


The student and teacher build a series of short stories (including 3 new words or phrases) called PMS (personalized mini-situation) by having the teacher “ask” the story. This oral activity happens frequently. Written exercises become more of a focus in the 3rd and 4th year.

Reality: TPRS includes writing right from the get-go.  However, writing (and speech) in TPRS are indicators, not causes, of acquisition.  In TPRS, students begin simple re-writes of stories after first co-creating one, and then reading various versions of it.

TPRS uses minimally-targeted (focused or chosen) vocabulary to build stories.  Aside from a few basic verbs, nouns etc, the stories go more or less in the direction that students want them to.

TPRS stories vary in length, generally getting longer as students acquire more L2.  Student written output (at the end of say Level 1) will be 600-1,000 words in one hour.




Believe in a balanced literacy approach.




High emphasis on the importance of reading (every second day) for language development. Students read early on. Students translate all readings out loud in a whole-class setting


  1. I have no idea what a “balanced literacy approach” is.
  2. No, TPRS practitioners don’t necessarily translate all readings out loud, OR in a whole class setting.  Sometimes…but we do partner translation, story illustration (comics), free voluntary reading, etc as well.




The number of structures per lesson varies significantly.


In a typical lesson, the teacher introduces and focuses on three target language structures.


There is no pre-set number of structures in TPRS.  An initial story will use a lot (because you need the “super 7” verbs to start storyasking with beginners).  Later ones will use more, or fewer.




All words and grammatical structures are associated with a gesture. The gestures are standardized. Gestures accelerate comprehension – no need to translate – the gestures allow the teacher to teach words as each represents clearly [sic] the meaning


Gestures are sometimes used in conjunction with new vocabulary, however teacher and/or students can create his/her own gestures. Gestures or a physical response (TPR) from the body (limits to imperative form) and are used mostly with younger students (under Gr. 5) when needed only.


  1. In TPRS, TPR is not limited to third-person imperative.  As a matter of fact, Ray and Seely (2015) advocate using third-person singular (and other) forms when doing TPR.
  2. TPR is suggested for younger learners, but also works well (albeit with limited effectiveness) for older learners.



TPRS has a “Five-day lesson plan which includes only three activities: PMS or mini-story, reading the extension, timed free writing and reading”

Reality: umm…TPRS practitioners also do any of the following activities:

  • Movietalk
  • novel reading
  • translation (in various formats)
  • la persona especial
  • Picturetalk
  • reading/listening to developmentally appropriate cultural texts and/or songs
  • other games, such as Mafia, paper airplane translation, running dictation, etc.




Teachers are encouraged to “flood” the student with vocabulary in the target language.


Teachers are encouraged to limit the amount of vocabulary introduced at one time.

Reality:  This is true.  Why do TPRS practitioners carefully restrict vocabulary?  Because of the “bandwidth” issue, or what Bill VanPatten calls “working memory constraints.”  Basically, the less variety of info the brain has to process, the more in-depth the processing of each item (and the sounds, grammar “rules,” etc with which it is implicitly associated) can be.  If we can recycle a limited vocab set over and over, the vocab will be easy to pick up.  In addition, when we have limited vocab– and so are not constantly guessing at/trying to recall meaning, because the working mind can have about 7 items in its awareness at a time– our brain can devote mental energy to soaking up grammar, pronunciation and other properties.

In TPRS, we “practice” language– by processing input– much like musicians practice pieces they are learning: we go over limited parts of tunes/songs to really nail them, rather than trying to soak up an entire piece in one go.




Provides everything for the teacher in terms of outlining in detail and with scripted teacher talk for teachers to model what they might say during whole-class activities.




The teacher asks many questions using the new vocabulary (5-6 questions) being taught. These questions are created ‘on the spot’. No teacher’s guide is provided since questions depend on student answers and reactions. A PMS (personalized mini-situation) is created by the teacher with the help of students, but all of this depends highly on teacher’s knowledge of the L2.

Reality: this is one of the alleged strengths (and to my mind) weaknesses of AIM.  The AIM curriculum is massively structured, which means that– provided they know the routines– any teacher can, in theory, start AIM with very little planning.  However, the rigid structure– this is what your play will be, these are your questions and answers– will inhibit personalisation possibilities, and also raises the question,  what if the students do not find the story interesting?




All students participate by speaking chorally, gesturing or reading the gestures. There is never silence in an AIM classroom – all students speak 30 minutes of a 30 minute class



One or a few students are responding to commands at once. The teacher does most of the speaking. Students only start producing the L2 when enough comprehensible input has been provided (called the silent period – several hours to several weeks)


  1. Nobody at AIM has ever explained why it is necessary for students to speak.  We know from research that input, not output, drives acquisition, and that forced output is not language, but what VanPatten calls “language-like behavior” which does not develop acquisition.
  2. TPRS– outside of during bursts of TPR– does not use “commands.”
  3. Students produce developmentally-appropriate L2 from Day 1.  Initially, this will be y/n and then then one-word answers, and later sentences.




Syntax and grammar are visualized, produced and embedded kinesthetically in this multi-modal approach

AIM’s three-stage inductive grammar approach ensures a Natural Approach (Krashen) to the understanding of grammar


Teacher uses translation to clarify grammar and structures. They use pop-up grammar and one-second grammar explanations. For example, during the translation of a reading it is used every 20 second or so and always in the L1.

Reality: there is no need to “visualize” syntax or grammar.  Since acquisition of L1 (and L2, L3 etc) follow the same processes, and since nobody “teaches” their own kids grammar, vocab etc, it is not clear why one must “visualize” syntax.  If one understands the input, the brain will build mental representation of grammar.  This is not a problem in AIM, however– there is nothing wrong with grammar visuals– but they are unnecessary.

TPRS uses direct translation in order to waste as little time as possible and to stay in L2 as much as possible.




Specific language manipulation activities to scaffold the ability for language use


Does not contain specific language manipulation activities to scaffold the ability for language use


  1. “Manipulation” of language is not necessary to acquire it.  As Bill VanPatten notes, processing of comprehensible input alone “appears to be sufficient” to develop mental representation of L2.  In other words, reading and listening to what students understand is all they need to acquire the language.
  2. TPRS does scaffold.  This fancy word means “make things progressively  more complex while keeping them comprehensible.”  TPRS practitioners go sentence-at-a-time with narration, use embedded readings, recycle previous vocab, do comprehension checks, etc.




Cooperative learning is emphasized – all written language skills are developed orally in conjunction/discussion/interaction with a partner


Students mostly work individually when it comes to written activities and frequently assigned as homework. Oral work is mostly presented as a whole-class activity

Reality: true.  Why does TPRS avoid “partner” or “communicative pair” activities?

  1. Learners inevitably produce junky output, which becomes junky input for other learners.  If we accquire language through input, the purpose of generating bad output and having that bad output become bad input is, well, something I have not heard explained by AIM.
  2. Learners need only comprehensible input to acquire a language.  If they want to talk, great…but they don’t have to talk, and the lack of forced output means many kids are more comfortable in class.




Carefully sequenced partner/group activities



Various random activities for ‘partner vocabulary practice’



TPRS does not require or suggest that teachers to do “partner vocabulary practice.”  What “vocabulary practice” would be is not mentioned.  I am not sure where AIM got this idea.




Each activity of one type lasts a maximum of ten minutes to ensure the highest level of focus and learning potential



One mini-story/PMS is taught per 50-minute daily class




  1. There is no defined max/min length for any TPRS story.  Blaine Ray has famously told of spending four months on one story.  Sometimes a story doesn’t work, so a TPRS practitioner ends it quickly and moves on to other activities.  Some TPRS practitioners advocate what Mike Peto and Ben Slavic have called “quick takeoffs and landings,” i.e. stories that last 25-40 min.
  2. How long an activity in a TPRS class lasts depends on how interesting the students find it. 
  3. A TPRS class is not just story-asking.  TPRS practitioners also do Movietalk, Picturetalk, reading, persona especial, C.I. games, translation, skits, etc.




Students visualize every single word as the teacher gestures delaying showing the written word.


Students visualize the written word/translated written word very early on…

Reality: there is no requirement/suggestion that students in a TPRS class “visualize” the written word.  A TPRS practitioner will write whatever words are used (with translation) on board.  This is to help “anchor” and clarify the meaning of words, as we know that comprehensible– and not ambiguous– input is what leads to acquisition.


Anyway, that’s what AIM claims and what (my understanding of) TPRS actually is.  Be good to hear from AIM what they think, or if they can clarify.  Also be nice to hear from TPRS practitioners re: what they think.



Should I do Word-For-Word Translation?

A recent Facebook group post asked about whether or not teachers should do word-for-word translation.

Word-for-word is not necessarily the same as direct translation, though it can be.  For example, in German we say mein Nahme ist Chris (“my name is Chris”).  In this case, the two languages use the same word order.

Here are some more examples of what word-for-word translation looks like:

In Spanish, a grammatically good sentence is estudiar no me gusta, which literally means “to study not me pleases” but an English speaker would translate this as “I don’t like studying” or “I don’t like to study.”

In other languages, things get weirder: some languages don’t (always) use pronouns.  When I acquired a bit of Mandarin years ago working for Taiwan-born Visco in the camera store, some of the sentences in Mandarin were something like “go store yesterday” which translates into English as “Yesterday I went to the store.” In other languages, like French, you can’t just say “no” or “not:” you have to wrap the verb with ne…pas.  In some languages in some places you do not always need a verb.  E.g in German, if somebody asks you Bist du  gestern nach Berlin gegangen? (meaning “Did you go to Berlin?”), you can answer with Nein, gestern bin ich nicht nach Berlin (literally “No, yesterday am I not to Berlin”).

I think we should generally not use word-for-word translation.  Why?

  1. WFW unnecessarily confuses the kids.  The point of direct translation is to clarify meaning.  You want to waste as little time as possible and having them think through weird word order is not doing much for meaning.  Terry Waltz calls this “a quick meaning dump,” by which she means the point is to get from L2 to L1 in as simple and easy a way as possible.

2. WFW turns on the Monitor.  In other words, when we do this, students start to focus on language as opposed to meaning.  We know that the implicit (subconscious) system is where language is acquired and stored, so there is little point in getting them to focus on language.  Both Krashen and VanPatten have argued (and shown) that conscious knowledge about language does not translate into acquisition of language.  Monitor use is at best not very helpful so why bother?

3. WFW can cause problems for people whose L1 is not English.  In my classes, we have lots of kids whose first languages are Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Tagalog etc etc.  Some of them are fairly new to English (they speak with accents and their English output has errors).  For example, a classic South Asian L2 English error I hear/read in my English classes all the time is “yesterday he had gone to the store” instead of “yesterday he went to the store.”

What these L2s need, more than anything, is not just grammatically good L3 but also gramamtically coherent English.  We tend to forget that, say, the Ilocarno-speaking Filipino kid who is in our Spanish class is also learning English in our Spanish classes.


Powerhouse Spanish teacher Alina Filipescu writes

I tell students what “ME LLAMO” means word for word, “myself I call,” then I add that in other words it means “my name is.” Since I’ve switched to this instead of just telling students that ME LLAMO means “my name is” like a textbook says it, I’ve seen a lot less errors. I now rarely see students make the mistake “ME LLAMO ES John.” When students do volleyball translations, then I have them do translations that make sense and not word for word. I do it word for word as a class so that I can control where it goes. I also like that students can “feel” what the syntax of the sentence is in the language that I teach. Just like Blaine always says, if there is something better than I will try it and adopt it. This is not written in stone for me, it’s what I do right now because it made sense when I heard/saw somebody else do it.

Filipescu makes three good points here.  First, students should know that you generally cannot translate most things WFW and have it make sense.  We all know what happens when legacy-methods assignments demand output beyond kids’ abilities:  Google transliterate!

She also says that she gets less *me llamo es (“myself I call is”) as a result.  I don’t doubt it…but she raises the interesting question of why and under what conditions?  Was this compared to when she used legacy methods?  Or compared to when she started C.I. and just did general meaning translation? I too get a lot less me llamo es and other such errors, but I think it has more to do with C.I. allowing me to spend way more time meaningfully in the target language than anything else.

Third, Filipescu translates me as “myself” which is correct…here.  However, elsewhere me means “me,” rather than “myself,” more or less like in English, eg me pegó means “she hit me.”  Now if we obsess over WFW (not that Alina does so) we are going to focus the kids on two different meanings “anchored” to one word.  Which I could see being confusing.

Filipescu’s post also raises the interesting question of under what conditions the kids write.  I have found that the more time they have, the more they screw up, because when they have notes, dictionaries, etc, they start thinking, and thinking is what (linguistically speaking) gets you into grammatical trouble.  One of the reasons C.I. uses little vocab and LOADS of repetition (via parallel characters, repeating scenes, embedded readings, etc) is to automatise (via processing, and not via “practise” talking) language use.   The less time they have to write, the less they think, and the more you get to see what the students’ implicit (subconscious) systems have picked up.

Anyway, overall, I would say, point out the weirdness of word order (or whatever aspect of grammar is different) once, then stick to natural, meaningful L1 useage for translation.  Mainly, this is to keep us in the TL as much as possible, and eliminate L1 distractions.

C.O.F.L.T./W.A.F.L.T. 2016 

C.O.F.L.T. and W.A.F.L.T. under the conference leadership of energy ball Tina Hargaden jointly put their annual gig on in Portland.  I got to meet, well, a zillion interesting languages teachers and a few luminaries, and sit in on a load of workshops, oh and enjoy the rain, epic Mexican food and arguments about gluten-free diets. So here’s my notes in zero discernable order.

First, we got a TPR demo from the glowing Karen Rowan.  Total Physical Response– revived and popularised by James Asher in the late 1960s (he did not invent it)– is basically, the teacher says and does an action, and then students do the action while the teacher says it.   T.P.R. has its advantages: it’s easy, fast, memory-sticky and fun. Its disadvantages: it gets old really quickly, it’s basically limited to command forms, and what is “TPR-able” tends to be low-frequency vocab (eg touches, walks, hand, eye etc).

Rowan threw down some good reminders: we aren’t teaching all you teachers here just a method, but mostly a way to meaningfully connect with students and we are always trying to keep everything 100% comprehensible even though we can’t always do that.

Now if caffeine is available, your odds of running into one Dr Stephen Krashen are higher than they would be if you went to, say, a Donald Trump rally (not that Trump would come to Oregon– he would be murdered by people hurling artisanal tofu at him).  And there was Himself, ordering literally 6 coffees for a crew which included one Dr Beniko Mason.

 For himself, Krashen ordered– and I quote– “a gigantic latte with extra espresso.” The good Doctor said hello in einem ausgezeichneten Deutsch and then threw down some Japanese to get Dr M. a cuppa Joe.

Now when you get to meet Dr K. you better have your questions ready.  Here are mine:

Me: So did you have any specific epiphanies on the way to developing the hypothesis that languages are acquired through getting comprehensible input?

Dr K.: Yes, two. One was in 1975 in New York when I was giving a presentation to language teachers.  There was a Japanese student of English there whose spoken English was not very advanced, yet her English writing was excellent.  And then it hit me that there were two systems operating here: the conscious and the implicit, and they either weren’t or were only minimally connected. 

The other was driving down the freeway in Pomona, when I asked myself “in what order should we teach words and grammar rules?” and I realized, it doesn’t matter, because the order of acquisition [of grammar “rules,” as has been confirmedis mostly fixed, and there is very little we can do to change them.

Me: so do you still lift?

Dr K.: OK let’s start that again, you should be saying “so I see you still lift.” 😉

Me: Yes of course [he was wearing a huge baggy jacket and pants!] I can see you still lift.  When you won the press award, what did you weigh and lift?

Dr K.: I weighed 181 and I incline-pressed 285.

Me: Wow; cool you still lift.  May I ask how old you are?

Dr K.:  I’m 75.  But I read like an 80 year old.

Me: Well I’m 47 but I lift like I’m 10.😜

Dr K.: [switches into German] Well, you’re on the uphill.

Me: [in German] Hey I loved that video of you doing C.I. in German.

Dr K.: See how much German you picked up from just five minutes of comprehensible input?



So after that bit of banter, Krashen wandered off under loads of coffees, muttering I’m going to find a piano, and there were more T.P.R. basics with Karen.  Here is one cool idea: dialogue bubbles!  Here are Lynn and Ethan acting a scene from Karen’s demo.  A great way to start with relative beginners.  Lynn’s reads “I want to touch your hand” and Ethan’s reads “with what?” 😉

So then there was an epically varied lunch set out.

In the afternoon, C.I. offerings being as scant on the ground as Donald Trump in Oregon, I went to something I ended up hating: ” _______ In The Second Language Classroom.”  Here was the schedule:

  1.  10 minutes  “everybody say your name and where you teach and what brought you here”
  2. 15 min.  “OK everybody share with your group on thing related to ______ that you did recently”
  3. 15 min. “OK can each table report out to the whole room please”
  4. 15 min. the presenter showing us how to do two things which, basically, you learned when you yourself were in high school
  5. 10 min. feedback and fill out the form.

If you’re gonna present, plz a. have something to present, and b. if it’s a “sharing session” please CALL IT a sharing session, and c. we want to learn things other than each others’ names.

That evening after Mexican with my teaching BFF Sarah-Beth, it was the COFLT/WAFLT social where I got to finally meet Mike Coxon and Karen Rowan.  I had made some offhand online comment about “Karen if ever I meet you, beers are on me” so the cunning Karen had me buying her evening’s worth of drinks (two whole glasses). She likes red wine, can’t remember what kind. Also present was Von Ray who is this mass of warm vibes just like his Dad but not drinking:  the Rays are L.D.S. folk.  Then appeared Martina Bex and her husband.  Bex, who has four kids under 5 (she left them with Oma in Alaska) AND who publishes non-stop, was presenting Sat, but tonight was Date Night and hubby Matt hung around while Bex made precisely one tour of the room before whisking her off to kid-free cocktails YOU GO GIRL.

Then appeared Carol Gaab who at 4’11” you have to look carefully for but OMG what an energy ball, first ppl she is 32 not 52, second she is a grandmother (how do grannies look 32?), third she has the most solid sage advice on anything you can imagine and fourth Gaab has a remarkable quality of fusing public principles, private beliefs and personality, etc, into one package.  You always feel when talking to Carol that you are getting the full meal deal.  Gaab’s point from her #iflt2014 session: it is quite possible– indeed easy– to do higher-level thinking even with beginners. Women are superhuman, basically, is what I realised AGAIN watching the energy-tornado Gaab, Supermom Bex and multi-tasker Rowan.

Friday the Philipines had extra rain so they sent it over.  Now it was time to see Dr Beniko Mason‘s presentation about free voluntary reading (FVR)  and story listening in the 2nd language class.  I’m gonna sum it up quick:

  1. Mason has experimented with having  her Japanese-speaking students do a ton of self-selected reading in English, and write occasional summaries in Japanese (L1).  At the end of this process, she found that despite having not “practised” English writing, their writing was much improved.  She speculates that this is because when they are summarising in Japanese, they are focused on reading (processing) the English and don’t worry about English writing, so they absorb more.  [edit: Mason clarified that it was not the Japanese writing per se that improved acquisition, but rather that it was the English input]. Bill VanPatten has also replaced writing exercises with processing exercises in his Spanish classes.  Students get the individual sentences from a story, and have to read and order them, à la Textivate).

2. She had students who had failed English 1 classes at Japanese universities who spent one semester in her class doing only FVR and listening in English.  These students outperformed the second-year students of English who had passed English !!

3. Mason discussed how she uses folktales translated into English.  She said she is not a huge user of props, actors etc (partly cos Japanese kids are trained to sit and listen) but prefers reading and asking questions, which her students seemed to enjoy.  Here’s  Claire Ensor’s intro to how to do story-listening.  Insofar is it is possible to measure…

4. …FVR seems to double the rate of acquisition of language by direct instruction or other non-C.I. classroom practice.  

5. [edit: Mason also mentioned how corrective feedback did not do anything to improve acquisition of English.]

The vendors’ area was interesting: in one room you had vendors like these side-by-side.  The language teaching world in microcosm: weird new-wavish (and fun, and effective) on the left (that’s Mike Coxon and Von Ray), and tradition on the right.

In the background of C.O.F.L.T. was the debate on targeted vs. untargeted input. Basically, how much control over the story vocab— and not just the details as in classical T.P.R.S.– should the kids have?  Ben Slavic, Tina Hargden and others have been experimenting with 100% student-generated stories and love it.  Others, such as me, were initially somewhat skeptical.  So it was cool to hear Mike Coxon and Von Ray and whoever stopped by their or Carol Gaab’s table to argue the this way and that.  And then Mike said, “this is amazing…we’re arguing like we always do about teaching…but we’re arguing C.I. methods vs other C.I. methods, rather than C.I. versus other approaches.”

One of the things I love about the C.I. world is what Blaine Ray has repeatedly said:  “if we find something that works as well, or better, we add it to T.P.R.S., or we change T.P.R.S.”


L-R: Karen Rowan, some guy, Terry Waltz, Martina Bex and Craig Sheehy

Terry Waltz was passing through so she got railroaded into coming and hanging out.  Of course I have been fanboying away to meet all these people, and there was Terry, ripping along in fluent Mandarin with a crew of Chinese teachers.  After I said hello, we chatted:

Me: OMG so you can speak 13 languages?  OMG

Terry: Well, I can get into trouble in 13, but I can only get out of trouble in about 7 



Terry’s T.P.R.S. With Chinese Characteristics is being translated into written Chinese.  Terry told me that this had proven a bit of work, as somebody either knows killer Mandarin but not T.P.R.S. well enough, or they know killer T.P.R.S. and not Mandarin well enough.  Classic translation problem in any field.  I also thought, translation is a good idea, because there is something authoritative about the heft of a book in your own language, plus you can spend your time going back, re-reading, re-thinking, etc.  T.P.R.S. is work to master; in Chinese, you have additional steps and tricks (e.g. cold character reading) cos the language is not written phonetically and it has zero cognates.  It will be very helpful for Chinese-literate teachers to have these tricks in the language they are teaching.

Terry also made remarks about Chinese teaching culture, to the effect that books still carry a weight of authority about them in a way they don’t in North America.  E.g. you can officially learn via webinars, blog reading, group Skype lessons etc in North America but the Chinese– with their 4,000 year old tradition of literacy– still like books as authorities.

Note the amount of brain power in that pic, minus the random guy.  Karen and Terry are legendary disagree-ers and have generated some amazing discussions about everything from targeting to method labels to the value of output.  Sometimes, when you hear them discussing C.I., you imagine this:

but then when they talk in person it’s more like this:

OMG awieeee OMG

ANYway, the targeting debate came up again, and some of the points raised included

  • if you want to train a newish T.P.R.S. teacher, is it not easiest to start with structured stories so they have one less thing to think about while learning to slow, circle etc?
  • will kids “choose” low-freq vocab if you let them decide whatever they want?
  • how do you support untargeted stories with writing (eg novels)…do you simply write up what each class came up with each time? (cool, but lots of work)
  • Terry brought up some solid points re: Mason’s research, noting that the Japanese students reading English had a massive foundation on which additional English input scaffolded and that it was not necessarily best practice for Level 1 and 2 students in any L2 to just read a ton.

No, I do not have any answers heh heh.

The human buffet continued:  next I got to meet the smart, funny, articulate, determined (oh and gorgeous) Claire Ensor come all the way from Tennessee.  Here’s Claire and Dr. K:

Claire is cool.  She teaches E.S.L. and is going to do her PhD in S.L.A.  She is interested in untargeted input, and how poverty affects S.L.A., and a million other things.  How awesome is that, running a thesis idea past Dr K.?  Claire and a few of us discussed her research project idea:  measuring acquisition gains through comparing story listening with FVR and “standard” TPRS…details to come when the experimental design gets hammered out.

So Friday late aft was Dr K. showing & discussing C.I. case studies and other, more general educational stuff. I’ll be brief:

  1. Mexican immigrant Armando worked at a Moroccan restaurant run by Moroccan Jews in L.A., and acquired enough Hebrew– via listening– that he fooled Israeli embassy staff and other Hebrew native speakers into thinking him a NS.  Krashen notes that he basically only listened, got unsheltered grammar, and got restricted vocab mostly focused around customer service, food, kitchen stuff and “hey what did you do last night?”-type routine conversation.
  2. Hungarian Kato Lomb acquired dozens of languages– starting at age 20– basically by reading books she liked and listening to whatever radio she could get.
  3. U.S.-born children of various immigrants who find interesting reading– in any format– in their parents’ language acquire and retain significantly more language than do other second-generation immigrants.  If you have native speakers in your class, get them to read.
  4. There is basically zero research showing that anything language-related that people do on a computer– other than read or watch understandable stuff they find interesting– helps anyone acquire a language.
  5. Because I stopped caring about Star Trek about the time Picard’s series got canned, I tuned out of the alien languages discussion but apparently Arrival is worth a watch.
  6. Ok modify that, I watched Arrival and I hated how it pretended to be deep bla bla, however, the aliens and their writing were cool.

Saturday morning was Tina Hargaden showing us in French how to use “the Invisibles”:

Basically, this is what you do for The Invisibles:

  1. The kids invent a character– a talking potato, a doll, a human, whatever.
  2. The class artist draws the character while it’s being developed.
  3. The class invents one or two more.
  4. You show the class the drawings and circle a bit.
  5. Then the kids make up a story about them.  You can have kids holding the (in)Visibles and doing the dialogue or teacher can do the dialogue.
  6. There has been argument: should teacher have a plan re: grammar and vocab (a list of “structures”), or should kids run the narrative show?  Dunno…as long as you restrict the vocab, get loads of reps, and keep it comprehensible, it doesn’t really matter.
  7. You provide some kind of reading once the story has been asked.  The challenge with the Invisibles is, if the stories are newly-made every time, you have to write each one up which takes a lot of time but also it’s customised for each class.

Saturday afternoon was Bex-a-rama.  Martina’s Herculean task: show us how to use “authentic documents” in the language classroom.  Nobody– including Bex herself– has been able to convince me its realistically possible– or worthwhile– to use things made by and for native speakers in a language class, but by golly did Martina ever come close.

The gist of it is this: you have to use something that has as few words as possible (songs and short newscasts/articles best), that repeats the words as much as possible, and you have to not focus on all the words, and go for general rather than specific meaning.

I personally don’t buy it, but Martina is super-helpful for teachers who are forced to “use authentic documents” by Adminz or Textz that don’t get S.L.A.  If you must use # authres, Bex’s plan is where you start.

Finally, in the evening I managed to round up most of the cool kids and convince them to let me tag along, and we went for beers and dinner.  Dr Beniko Mason speaks killer German (better than mine anyway) and Krashen can throw down pretty good in prolly six.  He is enjoying Aramaic (what Jesus spoke; still used today) but griped about troubles finding people to acquire from.  So here is the random good stuff from Dr K, Dr M, and a fascinating crew of teachers.

  1. Krashen studied classical piano for a bit when younger (and still plays).  For him a major breakthrough was the fake book.  These are simplified versions of complex music, most often jazz standards and now pop music.  These are the C.I. of music: they make something that’s too complex for beginners comprehensible and playable.  Just as you don’t start acquiring Blablabian by reading legendary Blablabian writer Jðkvar Sqkvðd’s 3,700-page opus “Krœy Hrâ B’nÿä Pö” with its 19 unreliable narrators and allusions to everything from Moby Dick to the Baghavad Gita to Taylor Swift longs, so we don’t start learning music with Rachmaninoff concertos. 
  2.  Mason: she acquired a LOT of her very excellent German in Germany not just from reading etc but from routine interactions.  If every time you go to the store you hear kann ich Ihnen mit etwas helfen? (literally “Can I you with something to help?”), you will first understand and then over a longer time pick up the “rules” behind this odd word order).  This is good C.I.: restricted vocab, unrestricted grammar, and useful repetition.

3. Mason: loves folktales (and simplified versions of Hollywood etc films) because if people know the story in advance, much of the decoding work has been done and the brain can focus on meaning. Mason does not do much T.P.R.S.-style co-creation but is 100% into stories.

4. Krashen: in music as in language, listening is the foundational pre-requisite.  He praised the Suzuki method, where students acquire music from songs, rather than songs/pieces from musical theory, as the C.I. of music.  In the Suzuki method, students first learn a super-simple song (say “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), and then gradually more complex pieces.  Sight reading comes much later, and musical theory last.  Man, I wished I’d learned piano this way: I started with sight reading at 6 years of age and I’ve been trying to un-learn classical habits ever since.  This echoes what Bill VanPatten wrote me when I asked him about language and music: “most of what is in a musician’s head does not get there from conscious learning and practice.”

5. Krashen reminded me of my Uncle Alan, who was sent to Jewish school 50 years ago in Montréal and who can to this day throw down a whole lotta Hebrew songs despite not having spoken it for years…because of music.  The kids were taught Hebrew hymns (?) and these were also discussed so Alan has a stock of Hebrew from which to draw. Music anchors this stuff in memory.  But does it help us acquire language?  Hmmm…I know that I remembered (and still do) a lot of French songs from French Immersion kindergarten.  I also know that I didn’t know what most meant until later, because we did a lot of singing and clapping but most of the lyrics were not explained.

6. I thought about my Muslim kids, who come (linguistically) in two varieties: those who have been forced to simply memorise the Qu’ran, and those who have memorised and learned meaning.  In some places– e.g. rural Somalia– simple Qu’ranic memorisation seems to be the norm and the imams appear to think that, gosh, the meaning of words will simply reveal themselves. These kids can say things in Arabic, and make sounds from written Arabic, but literally have no idea what they are saying.  In other places, the kids memorise bits of the Qu’ran, but also learn its meaning and discuss it.  These kids are the ones who can actually understand (and sometimes speak) Arabic.

Islamic religious instruction could be good C.I. if the Arabic’s meaning were made clear, the Qu’ran were presented in a compelling way, etc. The Qu’ran (which I have only read in English) uses a lot of classical liturgical tricks:  it repeats things a lot, it plays around with variations on sentences e.g. “Allah asks us to keep our houses clean.  Why does Allah ask us to keep clean houses?  Because a clean house…” when it takes up a topic, it restricts the vocabulary, it “circles” its thematic words, etc.

After bringing the Drs K. and M. back to their hotel, I went for locally-sourced, artisanal, organic, vegan, free-range, fair-trade craft beers with this pair of live wires, Elena Overvold and Tina Hargaden.

Elena is like 20 years younger than me which makes for super-cool intergenerational teacher talk.  We had a discussion about feminism applied in the classroom.  A few of the topics that came up:

  • there’s a lot of heterosexism built into many TPRS story scripts e.g. the girl obvs wants a boyfriend, the boy obvs wants a GF, etc, and…
  • …this is also an opportunity to “undo” this…through gender reversal, LBGTQ characters, surprise endings etc (“no, class, the girl didn’t want a boyfriend…she wanted a good book!“)
  • to what extent am I, a male teacher, being sexist when during PQA I say something like “I like Angelina Jolie”?  Elena pointed out that this could be interpreted two ways: I value her as a good-looking woman (and nothing more) or if given context as good-looking and an interesting human being, and…
  • …this point transfers over to the kids.  Say we do PQA (or stories) and we ask a student do you like ____? why? and the student answers because _____ is super hot!    Fair enough…appearance is the first thing that grabs our attention.  But we can– and probably should– also take it a step further by (even humorously) asking questions like is ____ a nice person?  do you like ____ because they are hot, smart, compassionate, or all three? etc.  We have the chance to remind kids that life (even their language-class-invented-personality lives) can be more complex than what popular culture often hands us.

Ok well that was COFLT/WAFLT. Great workshops, a fascinating crew of people, good food and Portland delivered on its rainputation.  I hope C.O.F.L.T. does another such conference and thanks to Ms and Mrs Mason, Krashen, Rowan, Waltz, Bex, Gaab, Hargaden etc for their contributions & workshops & willingness to sit and chat with all comers.

Ok here is a picture of some guy and Stephen Krashen.


Old Myths Debunked

This post comes from Carol Gaab.  She is an author, teacher and San Francisco Giants language coach, as well as a presenter and all-around thinker.  Gaab has one of the most critical minds I have ever run into, and likes to dismantle misconceptions almost as much as she likes to show us interesting and effective ways to teach languages.

So here she is, responding to myths like “we must use authentic documents” and “we must practice speaking,” etc.  A fascinating read, and great if you are having discussions with colleagues who embrace older methods.  Thanks, Carol!

Do You Even Lift? S.L.A. and Free Weights

Part One: The Basics


My Mom– who at age 75 is still ski-touring, mountain biking and hiking, and is doing a three-week non-sag cycle tour in Quebec this summer!– is my stay-healthy role model.  Thanks to her, I’ve always been interested in– but lazy about– general fitness.  I’ve always thought, I hate fitness and training, but I like climbing, hiking and cycling, and acro yoga.  Through years of activity, and recent discussions with athlete Will Gadd, I’ve learned a few things about fitness– for anyone, not just athletes– which we can boil down to three things

  1. Everybody should have basic cardio fitness.  A total of 60 minutes a week of sweat-inducing heavy breathing will do it.  You can do this in fancy running gear, or in a gym, or in your living room, skipping.
  2. We all need functional strength, i.e. the ability to lift and move things.  This can be done in about 50 minutes/week, in a gym or around the house.
  3. If you have basic cardio and strength, you can easily pick up anything else
  4. You may much later want some feedback to improve yourself.

On recommendation of one of my partners, I tried Pilates last year.  It’s a set of exercises that stretch and work various muscles, and also aligns various bits of anatomy.  I did it for a few months.  I found it worked– it sure targeted specific muscles, and I got better at the exercises– but it was boring as hell and I did not see any overall fitness or strength gains.

And then I read this article about fitness. And started lifting free weights: squats, bench-presses, vertical presses, power cleans and deadlifts, five sets of five each, twice a week, after school in our weight room.  I’m not trying to gain in size (that’s bodybuilding) but rather in functional strength.  My total weight room time is about 50 minutes/week.

The results have been remarkable (for me).  All my weights have gone up.  I also feel much more stable while on trails and on the bike, and I can “do” more stuff, like carry a week’s worth of groceries with one arm and a climbing pack in another.  I’m not much of a hiker– hiking is the boring warm-up on the way to the base of the climb– but now on trails, despite me never “training” by walking or running, my legs are waaaay more solid.  Although my weights are up, I am not feeling much bigger. I feel “connected” to myself in a way that vaguely resembles a post-yoga feeling but stronger.

I thought weights would be boring, but oddly I am not bored.  The post-first-set body buzz is killer, and since I am rotating through the various weights and it only takes about twenty-five minutes, and I blast music, so I am not bored.

Bottom line: basic cardio fitness, and then weight training make everyone healthy, and make it much easier for us to acquire other activity skills (climbing, tennis, paddling, etc).

Can you see where we are going with this?  

a. The basic cardio of language acquisition is oral input and reading in any language.

The person who can’t get their heart rate up won’t benefit from any activity-specific training.  But the person who can get the heart and lungs cranking can do/learn other stuff.  Yes, you can lift, or play tennis, if you’re a two-pack-a-day smoker…but you can’t do it very well, and you sure won’t make much progress.

If you get basic spoken (or recorded) comprehensible input, and you read in L2, you are going to be able to acquire a ton more language than if you don’t.

b. The strength training of language acquisition is whole language, not “exercises” and “practise.”

Free weights, as Mark Rippetoe argues, effectively train the whole body, because all bodily systems work– and must be trained– together.  A squat fires basically every muscle from the shoulders down.  A vertical press engages everything from the waist up.  Balance, co-ordination, big muscles, small muscles, tendons and ligaments: all are working together, the way the body is meant to.

In terms of method, Pilates (or exercise machines) are to fitness what the textbook is to language learning.  It breaks movement down into components, you “practise” each one, and your individual “skills” get better…even while the overall functional fitness gains are minimal.

Free weight lifting is the comprehensible input of fitness.

Bill VanPatten (1998) also notes that “[a] reading of the literature on second language acquisition and use suggests that communication is not the result of learning discrete bits of language and then putting them together. 

Language learners need big meaning chunks– meaningful sentences as part of conversation or description, which are in turn part of stories, etc– to acquire the language.  The “stuff” of a language– vocab, grammar, pragmatics, semantics etc– can only be acquired by exposure to “whole” input and can not be developed by “practising” various “skills.”  Sure, students will get some incidental benefits from worksheets or textbook exercises if they are attending to meaning.  Kids often don’t, though.  The worksheets I see kids copying in the morning don’t suggest kids are doing anything other than making the teacher happy.  And Bill VanPatten notes that “building up in a learner’s brain [are] simultaneously  lexicon and morphology, syntatic features and constraints, pragmatics and discourse, interfaces between components, communicative discourse [and] skill” and that “these happen all at once.  They are almost impossible to isolate and practice one at a time, because they don’t operate one at a time” (2013).

You might be the one in twenty people who can assemble textbook fragments into something like language– and you might enjoy practicing and getting marks for your various “skills.”  But you would get more out of good interesting comprehensible input, and most people do get much more from C.I.

So…let’s get into beast mode and get swole!

(Totally random side-note:  Doctor Stephen Krashen was once a champion weightlifter!  He weighed 181 and incline-pressed 285 💪💪)

Part Two: Planning and Feedback

So…what can athlete stories tell us about the language class?  Do planning and feedback work in a language classroom?

Other than a teacher clarifying what was said/written, feedback does nothing…because it comes via conscious awareness, and language is processed and stored in the implicit (subconscious) system.

Planning, i.e. organising sets of vocab and grammar “rules” in a sequence (what textbooks do)  doesn’t work very well, mainly because it is the brain, and not the teacher’s or student’s desire, that controls what gets acquired (see this).

Now, here is an interview with top climber Chris Sharma.  Sharma, who has done routes that only two or three people in the world can do, has never really trained.  To stay in shape, he climbs a lot.  But then he hit a wall trying to climb a route called Dura Dura graded 5.15c (imagine climbing 30 meters along a 45-degree overhanging wall, using only one fingertip per hand, and one foot at a time!).  He tried and tried, and failed and failed.

So, for the first time in his life, Sharma went into a gym and trained.  Circuits.  4x4s.  Hangboard workouts.  Weights.  Structured rest and recover, mesocycles, the works.  And…filmed feedback.  His trainer Paxti videotaped Sharma trying moves and sequences, they watched them, and Sharma was able to adjust body position, timing, foot position etc.

He eventually climbed the route (after Adam Ondra got the first ascent).


The Wayback Machine

I was recently at a conference and thought, OK, I should go see what the Intensive Language teachers do, nd went to a workshop called something like “Get Your Beginners Talking!” Every language conference I’ve ever been to has a workshop like this. 

Here’s a part of a handout:

And here is what the kids would have handed out to them:

This is a classic “communicative” activity: it wants people to use the target language to bridge information gaps as a way to acquire the target language. 

So…what do the research and our classroom experience say about these activities?

1. Speaking “practice” as the exercise suggests does not improve aquisition.  We’ve heard this from VanPatten, Krashen and of course Kirk (2013). 

2.  Feedback– in this case on pronunciation– does not work. There are two main reasons for this:

  • You can’t produce language in real time while self-monitoring to make sure you are using the feedback correctly (Krashen). 
  • Conscious info does not end up in the implicit linguistic system, as VanPatten notes (see this). 

As BVP puts it,

3. This turns the teacher into the language police.  Someone asked the presenter “do they ever speak L1 while doing this?” and they answered “yes, I have to keep an eye on them.”  No fun. I personally find using L2 with other L2s “fake” feeling…and I’m a language geek. 

4.  In terms of personal interest, we have a problem: what if Johnny likes playing with dolls, and doesn’t care that Suzie is really interested in playing Grand Theft Auto?  What if these are low-frequency words?  If these are the case– and they usually are– the amount of vocab that the kids hear that is repeated is going to be minimal. If I hear about 15 different people’s 15 different activities, I am getting less input per item = less acquisition. 

5.  The junky output becoming impoverished input problem among L2s is here unaddressed.  

6. The repetition would be boring. In the presenter’s example, a classic beginner question is do you like to _____? and kids have to answer Yes, I like… or No, I don’t like… This is going to get old really quickly and of course it would be more natural, easier and faster just to use English. 

Anyway…the wayback machine took me to activities that I have never been able to make work. However as they say, your mileage may vary. 

I’ve been able to ditch 95% of output-focused activities, and– thanks to the ease and power of comprehensible input– I have ironically managed to build better speakers by avoiding making kids speak. Go figure. 

What We Don’t Know About S.L.A….

…is as important as what we do. I mean, if Donald Rumsfeld and Noam Chomsky agree…

Here’s my list of S.L.A. “stuff” we don’t know.  Note that
a. just because we don’t know that ____ works does not mean it doesn’t.  All this means is, nobody has investigated it and figured it out (yet).

b. science doesn’t prove anything…it makes predictions and (where possible) explains mechanisms, and if these are accurate, data will repeatedly confirm these predictions.

1. How many repetitions does it take for a student to “acquire” something?  I’ve read one study which got implicit mental representaion after ~160 input reps…but we do not know for sure.  We also don’t know if aural or “read” repetitions work better (although we do know that reading helps language acquisition a lot in the long run, and probably because readers can slow down, re-read, etc).  VanPatten et al got mental representation of Japanese word order in learners of Japanese after exposure to 80 Japanese sentences…but this is far from acquisition in its fullest sense.

Bottom line: students need many, many reps in many, many contexts.

2. In a second-language classroom, what is acquisition?  Blaine Ray’s definition is something like “being able to automatically spit the item out quickly and properly.”  But it’s well-known that the thing the kids “master” on Tuesday seems to go out the window in a week (at least temporarily– TPRS works very well in the long run). Bill VanPatten says acquisition has two components:  having gut-level, automatic recognition of the item or “rule” (and of errors), and being able to use it in real time.  However, in a S.L. class, we can often get a lot of recognition and less production (which is normal)…so it could be “partly acquired” so to speak.  What about various verb tenses etc?  A kid may spit out juego al baloncesto without thinking, but could fumble the past tense version.

Bottom line: mental representation of vocab, grammar “rules” etc improves over time with repeated exposure.  We will likely never produce “perfect” or native-speaker-like acquisition in a second-language class.

3.  What is the order of acquisition of ____ language?  We know bits of it– e.g. when in English the third person -s comes online, or how using negation in sentences is acquired– but we do not have an overall picture.  We do know that it can’t be changed (see VanPatten, Keating & Leeser, 2012).  We also know that while vocab is under the teacher/environment’s control, grammar is not.

Bottom line: students should probably be exposed to a variety of grammar from Day 1 so that when their brains are ready, they can pick up what they need, in the same way that children hear only natural language (albeit “rough-tuned” to their level of understanding) from their parents from Day 1.

4.  Does instruction in metacognition– knowing how to learn/acquire and being self-aware enough to use this knowledge– aid acquisition?    Metacognitive skills include things like

  • being aware when meaning breaks down
  • knowing– and using– strategies to repair meaning (asking for help, repetition, etc)
  • knowing how to figure out cognates
  • predicting and checking for confirmation of meaning of words, what happens in plot, etc
  • visualising

While we know that better learners of all kinds have— and use– metacognitive skills, the role of the effectiveness of teaching these to improve S.L.A. has not been explored (to the best of my knowledge). There are also strict limits on the effectiveness of metacognition in second-language instruction, namely, that nothing is going to help if the meanings of words are not clear.  And I have not seen research showing that metacognitive interventions improve language acquisition.

Krashen’s guru, UVic’s Frank Smith, has noted that the relationship between reading and metacognitive skills (or language skills) may in fact work the opposite way we imagine. Rather than having these skills make us better readers and language acquirers, it is likely that these skills emerge as a result of reading and acquiring language.

Bottom line: Students should be explicitly taught some strategies (eg look for cognates, slow down, pause and reflect, ask questions, etc) to up comprehension.  These won’t hurt and will probably help.

5. Is teaching with sheltered (restricted) or unsheltered (“everything at once”) grammar more effective?  I have not seen research either way.  We do know that competent C.I. practitioners get good results either way but there’s no data (that I know of) on this.

6.  Is massed or distributed practice best in a language classroom?  We know from practicing music and baseball, and from various kinds of studying, that you are best off learning something by practicing it a bit at a time over many times (distributed practice), rather than practicing it a zillion times/for hours once (massed practice).  

In other words, if you need thirty minutes to master that Bach partita’s 39th bar, or that Irish jig, you are best off spending five minutes a day over six days than you are doing thirty minutes at once.  I have not seen research suggesting one or the other is best in the language classroom.

Bottom line: this doesn’t really matter in a C.I. class, where recycling– a.k.a. scaffolding for those who like edubabble– is constant, provided the teacher is organised enough to shelter vocabulary.

Well that’s my list of don’t-knows.  Feel free to comment!


What Is Rule Overgeneralization, and What Can We Do About it?

So you are teaching with your text and in year one the kids “learn” first how to say “I like” in Spanish– me gusta– and then how to conjugate regular present-tense verbs.  And suddenly they are saying *yo gusto no trabajo. Then in Level 2 you “teach” them the past tense, like “she ran” is corrió.  And suddenly they are saying *los lunes corrió a la escuela.  These are a lot like how kids pick up L1:  they acquire Daddy went to the store and then later say Daddy goed yesterday.

This is “rule overgeneralisation:” a new “rule” shows up and suddenly it gets applied everywhere, inappropriately.

Kids pull out of this very quickly, mostly because of the masses of input they get from L1 parents and other adults.  But what can we do about this in the language classroom?

So some random notes:

1. Avoiding conscious learning is the first key.  If you have to consciously learn AND remember AND apply “rules” in real time– ie during oral production– you will naturally default to the most recently-learned rule.  So all that hard work on the present tense seems to go out the window when the passé composé gets introduced.  This is not cos kids are dumb, lazy etc, but it is a brain-structure and bandwidth problem: you have a limited amount of conscious brainpower, and forcing it to “learn” and then remember and apply “grammar rules” (and the brain, as Bill VanPatten reminds us, doesn’t even actually use what we teachers call “grammar rules” in the first place) is too much.  Too many mental balls to juggle. TPRS or AIM-style stories, Movietalk, Picturetalk, novels etc– i.e. interesting comprehensible input– will take care of a bunch of this.

2.  Unsequenced or “unsheltered” grammar is second. Blaine Ray and Susan Gross pioneered using “unsheltered” grammar– using all verb tenses, pronouns, verb #s etc — from Day 1.  If the input is “modeling” L2 in all its diversity, the brain won’t default to conscious or recently-“learned” rules.  Yes, beginners can cope with sentences like El chico quería un mono que bailara (the boy wanted a monkey who might dance) easily.  There you have inperfect, subordinate clause and past subjunctive all in one sentence.

This way, the brain has “everything” coming in at once, and it is getting the “mental spaces” for the different “rules” built, ground up, from Day 1.  The kids won’t substitute trabajaba for trabajó because they have been hearing and reading them– mixed together, naturally– from the beginning.

(There is, btw, another argument for the use of unsheltered grammar: frequency.  A glance at any word frequency list shows us that the 250 most-used words (i.e. what Level 1 of any language class should teach) includes verbs in five tenses and the subjunctive mood.  And it’s not like Mexican moms or French dads delay speaking the subjunctive (or whatever) till their kids are ten years old!)

3. Avoiding “grammar practice” is the third key. The problems any output activity where we “practice” grammar are numerous:

  •  How do we expect people to do what they are trying to learn to do?  Are we not putting the cart before the horse here?
  • If we acquire languages via input, what good does output do?  “Little or nothing” is Steve Krashen and Bill VanPatten’s answer.
  • This will inevitably be accompanied by tons of English or other L1 discussion.  Even the eager beavers will be saying “is it the thingy, the subtunction?  Is that like you put an -a on it?  No wait that’s an -e. OMG this Snapchat. Shut up I don’t like her, OK it’s *ella trabajió.
  • It’s boring. Generating sentences such as “the girl wants her cousin to cook” or “I want my friend to run” is not fun.  I’ve tried everything–everything– and believe me, I can get kids to listen to a fun story that has [whatever grammar] in it, but I cannot get 90% of kids to “practice grammar” or “practice speaking” in any meaningful way.

4. Remember that “errors” do not exist, from the learner’s point of view.  If somebody “screws up” in writing or speech, they quite simply have not acquired what they need to produce the language properly.  They are being asked to do something they quite literally cannot do. There’s an entire Tea With BVP devoted to this question. So, rule overgeneralisation– like any error– has more to do with what teachers want than how “good” students are.

5. We have to remember that acquisition is non-linear.  We can minimise problems such as rule overgeneralisation, but we can’t get rid of them.  Check out this mama bear and her cub going rock climbing.

They test pawholds.  They back down.  They try the sequence differently.  They don’t get there in one fast line.

Teachers are mama bear and students the cubs, if you will. They’ll do the moves…when they are ready.

Finally, we need to up the input.  Students only acquire via input.  Yes, it may seem like they are learning from doing worksheets, or using the subjunctive chart above, or practicing dialogues.  But such “learning” is incidental, and as we see from research, much less effective than lots of good input.  If you keep hearing “j’allais à l’école hier” or “yo gusto hamburguesas,” the students need to hear (and read) more je suis allé and me gustan las hamburguesas.  In the long run, that’s the only thing that is going to work.