Communicative teaching

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

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

Q: Does this claim hold up?

A: Not according to their evidence. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could develop oral fluency by 

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

• watching target-language, L1-subtitled film. 

• reading (it boosts vocabulary). 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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!

Useful Vocab is Useless

What should language teachers teach? And how should teachers prepare students for “hard” tests like say the French or Spanish A.P. exam?

  • Some say “task-based” stuff, where you learn vocab, necessary grammar and verbs etc to get a specific job done.  This seems pretty obvious: if I’m going to France, I am going to need to order food, so we had better do a unit on food, restaurants, ordering, money etc.
  • Some (including me) suggest teaching starting with the most-used words in a language (which by definition includes unsheltered grammar from the beginning).
  • A few dinosaurs suggest grammar rules.

I’ll be controversial here and say that “real world” prep and teaching “useful” vocabulary etc is not what we should be doing.  If we want to prepare students for the “real” world and teach them “useful” vocab etc, we should avoid “preparation” and “usefulness.”  I agree with Nicole Naditz’ idea…but for very different reasons.  Why?

First, as Bill VanPatten noted in one of the earlier episodes of his podcast, we don’t prepare people for specific “real-world” situations.  Rather, we teach them to cope.  Since we can’t anticipate what will happen after/outside class, and even if we could there’s way too much necessary vocab to be learned to deal with possible situations, and since single unknown words can throw us off our carefully-practiced restaurant (or whatever) interactions, what we should be doing is giving people as much understanding and as many tools as possible to get language work done.

Here is a standard student response to a typical “communicative” task: practice using restaurant and food vocabulary in a “realistic” situation.  Of course, the kids wrote a script.   They are learning the vocab, and naturally have not yet acquired it, and so they write it down to try to remember (“quick can we do our oral test before we forget?” they say).           The usual problems with “communicative” tasks apply here: junky output becomes junky input for other learners, it’s what Bill VanPatten calls “language-like behaviour,” as opposed to language, most of the time “preparing” it was probably spent giggling in English about the humour of two gangsters arguing over pizza, etc.

The biggest problem, though, is its usefulness.   When the kids “perform” this for their teacher, one misremembered line will throw the whole thing off.   And if either of them ever gets to France, what happens if the server doesn’t say commander? What if s/he says qu’est-ce que vous voulez?  This– in context– won’t matter that much.  It’s pretty obvious that the server is asking what you want.

The real question here is, was this activity acquisition-building?  Since it’s output-focused, full of junky language, rehearsed etc, the answer is no. The best tools, in language as in carpentry, are those that are simple and versatile.  In terms of bang-for-buck this is super low-value.  If we spent two periods creating, rehearsing and then “performing” these dialogues, that’s 120 minutes where the kids could have been reading/listening to input.  If you were dead set on teaching them food vocab, you could have done Movietalk or Picturetalk about restaurants, or done a story.  But the acquisitive value of output is very limited.

This is where high-frequency vocab comes in.  Starting with what Terry Waltz has called the “super seven” verbs– to have, be, be located, want, need, go, like and want– and using high-frequency vocab, we give learners the “flexible basics” for “real world” situations. You might not know the French for “I would like to buy a train ticket for Lyons,” but if you can use high-frequency vocab at the ticket booth– “I want to go to Lyons”– you’ll be fine.  (train, ticket and to buy are relatively low-frequency words).

Terry Waltz made a similar argument recently.  She asked us to imagine buying copper wire and pliers (low-frequency vocabulary) in a foreign country.  Now, what is more important?  Knowing how to say “do you have?” or knowing the words for “copper wire” and “pliers”?  If you can say “do you have…?” (a very high-frequency expression), it is relatively easy to point, gesture, use a dictionary etc to learn the words for “copper wire” and “pliers.”

Second, most “real world” (i.e. situation-specific) vocab is almost always available in context.  You think you need to know forty Spanish words for food?  No you don’t– when in Colombia or Spain, look at the menu!  Can’t say “towel” in Hindi? If you know mujhee jaruurat hai (“I want to buy…”), you can point at a towel, and the kaparwallah will beam, tell you what the word is and also maybe offer you chai.  Don’t know how to say “buy” and “ticket” and “first class” in French? Go to the train station and if you can say j’aimerais aller à Lyons, you’ll be fine.  You’ll learn…and in all of these cases, because the words are associated with movement, other speakers, images, sights, sounds etc, there’s a good chance you’ll remember their meanings and eventually just spit them out.

Third, we have the problem of, basically, who cares about future “payoffs”?  Most of our students won’t end up in China or Mexico or wherever.  Should we assume that sufficient motivation for them is the possibility that one day they will be chatting up French or Chinese people?  That– like grammar teaching– will work for one student in twenty.

What is going to movitate the other 19? We know from psychology that the three main motivators to do well (in anything) are autonomy, mastery and group belonging.  The highest-paying job in the world blows if you’re robotically following orders.  The living definition of stress is lack of mastery (or at least being good at something) while being obliged to do it, and people will go to incredible lengths to be a part of (and defend) a community.  I suspect that this is why online games such as Call of Duty are so massively popular:  you can re-do levels until you get them, you can do “ops” in groups, and you have a fair amount of control over who you are (avatar building) and what you do.

What about the A.P. exam?   Teacher David W. on the FB group recently asked this:

“at what point/level (if any) do you or other TPRS teachers stop striving for 100% comprehensibility? I’m tied to the Advanced Placement Spanish Exam as an end goal, and it draws heavily on authentic print and audio sources. It’s more or less impossible for non-heritage speakers to have 100% comprehension of these by their fifth year taking Spanish classes. So at some point it seems like they have to start getting used to doing their best despite not getting everything (which they’ll also face when interacting with non-teacher native speakers). Would love to hear any thoughts on this.”

Great question.  Here’s what I think (thanks Terry Waltz for many discussions on this):

  1. Language comes in two kinds:  what we understand, and what we don’t.  The more we understand, the easier it is to figure out the rest.  Look at these two Blablabian sentences:John florfly Miami 24 Nov.
    John florfly squits Miami 24 Nov.

    The first, well, it probably means “John goes to/is in/went to/was in Miami on the 24 Nov.”  The second…well…there are waaaaaay more possibilities.  So, how do we make the second sentence easiest for the Blablabian 101 student to figure out?  Well, we have two options:

    a. we can get them to “practise” various “metacognitive strategies” or whatever edubabble currently stands in for “guess.”
    b. we can teach them as many words as possible.

    Now, if the students know that florfly means “went to,” they will have an easier time guessing at what squits means.

    Bill VanPatten has talked about this problem and has noted that “constraints on working memory” have a significant effect on processing.  Basically, having “too much stuff in the head” at once slows processing.  So, the more high-frequency vocab students have “wired in” to the point where they automatically process it, the more “mental bandwidth” they have for dealing with unknown stuff.

    It’s like organising your cycling or climbing gear, or books, or clothes, in a room or in a closet.  All the Googling, planning and ideas won’t help if you don’t have racks or shelves.  C.I. of high-frequency vocab is the shelving system of language:  it makes life easier by providing slots to stash things as they come in.

  2. There is no research (of which I am aware) suggesting that “processing noise” or getting incomprehensible input helps acquisition.  Indeed, one of the reasons why babies need 4,000-5,000 hours of input to generate even single words (while a student in a C.I. class can start generating simple sentences within a few hours of starting C.I.) is that most of what babies hear is incomprehensible.  A little kid literally hears this when Mom talks to him:  bla bla bla candy bla bla bla tomorrow.

    Many people who travel get a lot of incomprehensible input even when they know the language where they are traveling.  When I am in a Mexican market, I would say that 90% of what I overhear– slang, fast Spanish, low-freq vocab– is over my head, and I’m pretty fly (for a white guy) at Spanish.

  3. There is no way to speed up processing speed.  As American audiologist Ray Hull notes, adolescents process L1 at a max of about 140-150 word per minute, while adults typically speak in L1 at about 180 WPM.  In L2, Hull suggests that 125-130 WPM is optimal speed, and that nothing can speed up processing speed.  Asking an adolescent to “practise” understanding adult L2 speech is like telling a short kid to grow– it’s a developmental thing that cannot be changed.


I would suggest that if you have A.P., you have three strategies which are your best friends:

  1. Reading.  Blaine ray and others have noted that by Level 5, students should be reading 1,000 words a night.  If the reading is 95-98% comprehensible, the kids will slowly acquire new words.  This will help on the A.P.
  2. Movies and video.  Watching anything in the TL, with L1 subtitles, will help.  It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s good L1, accurate L2, and it’s compelling.
  3. Online language apps– e.g. Duolingo, or LingQ– are (to me) boring, but a lot of kids like them.  If they are reading/listening and understanding, they are acquiring.

Anyway, there we go:  “useful” vocab is useless, and “real world” language is not really effective processing practise.



Second Language Acquisition Quotes

I’ve been asked a bunch of times for these so here we go: brief quotations about what we know about second language acquisition research.  Many of these, as usual, were compiled by research rounder-upper God Eric Herman, with contributions from Terry Waltz, Stephen Krashen, Beniko Mason, Diane Neubauer, and many others.

These are broadly representative of consensus among S.L.A. researchers.  To see actual research, read this.

Missing something?  Missing or incorrect attribution?  Have something to add?  Put it into the comments or email me.

Organisation of quotes:

1. Acquisition
2. Grammar
3. Compelling Input
4. Attitude
5. Output and Correction
6. Classroom Research
7. Foreign Language Benefits
8. Curriculum
9. Time
10. Reading



“Comprehensible input remains the foundation of all language acquisition.”  — Lightbown and Spada, 2014

Chomsky via Jim Tripp​​:
“Knowledge of physics is conscious knowledge; the physicist can expound and articulate it and convey it to others. In contrast, the other two systems [grammar i.e. mental representation, and common sense] are quite unconscious for the most part and beyond the bounds of introspective report.

Furthermore, knowledge of physics is qualitatively distinct from the other two cognitive structures in the manner of its acquisition and development. Grammar and common sense are acquired by virtually everyone, effortlessly, rapidly, in a uniform manner, merely by living in a community under minimal conditions of interaction, exposure, and care.

There need be no explicit teaching or training, and when the latter does take place, it has only marginal effects on the final state achieved.”

–Noam Chomsky, Reflections on Language (1975)

“Language acquisition is a subconscious process; while it is happening we are not aware that it is happening, and the competence developed this way is stored in the brain subconsciously.” – Krashen

“We acquire language when we understand messages, when we understand what people tell us and when we understand what we read.” – Krashen

All cases of successful first and second language acquisition are characterized by the availability of Comprehensible Input. – Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991, p. 142

“(T)here is a consensus among second language researchers that input is an essential component of second language acquisition.” – VanPatten, 1996, p. 13

“Language is acoustical, not intellectual.” – Berty Segal

“In underdeveloped 
third world countries,
 where bilingualism or
 even multilingualism 
is the norm rather than
 the exception, a second
 (or third) language is 
ACQUIRED without any 
reference to conscious 
learning or to written
 material.” – Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

“[N]ot only does instruction not alter the order of acquisition, neither does practice”– VanPatten, 2013

“SLA history is not 2,000 years old but almost as old as human history and that throughout this long period, people have acquired rather than learned L2s, considering the rather short history of linguistic sciences.”
– Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

“[T]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.” — Long, 1997.

“Even after puberty, the brain is elastic enough to internalize a second (or third) language basically in the same manner it picks up the first. However, since muscles regulating the articulators are somewhat fixed after a certain age, attaining a native-like accent may not be possible for some adults.” – Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

“Learners […] have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.” –VanPatten & Wong, 2003

“The amount of input necessary for L1 acquisition
to take place is expressed in thousands of hours of auditory input. We shouldn’t blame our students for not being able to speak when we provide them with so little comprehensible input.” – Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

“If someone cannot properly perform a rule that he consciously knows, his performance must be based on a non-conscious knowledge system.” – Ellidokuzoglu, IJFLT 2008

“Real language acquisition develops slowly, and speaking skills emerge significantly later than listening skills, even when conditions are perfect. The best methods are therefore those that supply “comprehensible input” in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are “ready,” recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production.” – Krashen, 1982

“Most important, the input hypothesis predicts that the classroom may be an excellent place for second language acquisition, at least up to the “intermediate” level. For beginners, the classroom can be much better than the outside world, since the outside usually provides the beginner with very little comprehensible input, especially for older acquirers (Wagner-Gough and Hatch, 1975). In the classroom, we can provide an hour a day of comprehensible input, which is probably much better than the outside can do for the beginner.”
– Krashen, 1982

“There is no need for deliberate memorization; rather, firm knowledge of grammatical rules (a feel for correctness) and a large vocabulary gradually emerge as language acquirers get more “comprehensible input,” aural or written language that is understood.” – Krashen

“Our goal in foreign language pedagogy is to bring students to the point where they are autonomous acquirers, prepared to continue to improve on their own. . . an “autonomous acquirer” has two characteristics:

● The autonomous acquirer has acquired enough of the second language so that at least some authentic input is comprehensible, enough to ensure progress and the ability to acquire still more language.

● The autonomous acquirer will understand the language acquisition process. The autonomous acquirer will know that progress comes from comprehensible input, not from grammar study and vocabulary lists, and will understand ways of making input more comprehensible (e.g. getting background information, avoiding obviously incomprehensible input).

This is, of course, the goal of all education – not to produce masters but to allow people to begin work in their profession and to continue to grow.” – Krashen, 2004

“In the end, acquisition is too complex to reduce to simple ideas. There are no shortcuts.” — Bill VanPatten



“[T]he brain processes syntactic information implicitly, in the absence of awareness.” (Batterink & Neville, 2013).

“We learn grammar from language, not language from grammar.”– Kato Lamb (from Polyglot: How I Learn Languages P.73 (4th ed.). She attributes the line to the 19th-century publishers Charles Toussaint and Gustav Langenscheidt (the same), whom she paraphrases as having said “Man lernt Grammatik aus der Sprache, nicht Sprache aus der Grammatik.” (thanks Justin Slocum Bailey)

“Research shows that knowledge of grammar rules is very fragile and is rapidly forgotten.” – Krashen, 1993

“Studies have shown a weakening of the impact of learning after three months.” – Krashen, 2002

“Instruction does not appear to influence the order of development. No matter what order grammatical structures are presented and practiced in the classroom, learners will follow their own “built-in” syllabus.” – Ellis, 1984

“As is well-known, studies have shown that we acquire the grammar of a language in a predictable order, and this order cannot be broken.” – Krashen

“it is not at all the case that the more linguistically simple an item is, the earlier it is acquired. Some very “simple” rules may be among the last to be acquired.” – Krashen, 1982

“Teaching complex facts about the second language is not language teaching, but rather is “language appreciation” or linguistics.” – Krashen, 1982

“Consciously learned grammar is only available as a Monitor or an editor, and the constraints on Monitor use are severe: The user has to know the rule (see the complexity argument below), have time to apply the rule, and be thinking about correctness.” – Krashen

“No study has shown that consciously learned rules have an impact on Monitor-free tests over the long term.” – Krashen

“Research on the relationship between formal grammar instruction and performance on measures of writing ability is very consistent: There is no relationship between grammar study and writing.” – Krashen, 1984

“No empirical studies have provided good evidence that form-focused instruction helps learners acquire genuine knowledge of language. Moreover, many studies have found such instruction ineffective.” – John Truscott

“Second language editing actually depends far more on intuitions of well-formedness, coming from the unconscious language system, than on metalinguistic knowledge of points of grammar.” – John Truscott, 1996

“We see performers who have known a (late-acquired) rule for years, but who still fail to consistently “get it right” even after thousand of repetitions . . . On the other hand, we often see performers who have acquired large amounts of a second language with no apparent conscious learning.” – Krashen, 1981

“People who do attempt to think about and utilize conscious rules during conversation run two risks. First, they tend to take too much time when it is their turn to speak, and have a hesitant style that is often difficult to listen to. Other overusers of the Monitor, in trying to avoid this, plan their next utterance while their conversational partner is talking. Their output may be accurate, but they all too often do not pay enough attention to what the other person is saying!” – Krashen, 1982

“No meaningful support has [ever] been provided for the position that grammar should be taught.”– Long (1997)

“Structured input works as well as structured input plus explanation”– Lightbown



“Optimal input focuses the acquirer on the message and not on form. To go a step further, the best input is so interesting and relevant that the acquirer may even ‘forget’ that the message is encoded in a foreign language.”
– Krashen, 1982

“Compelling input appears to eliminate the need for motivation, a conscious desire to improve. When you get compelling input, you acquire whether you are interested in improving or not.” – Krashen

“It is possible that compelling input is not just optimal: It may be the only way we truly acquire language.” –Krashen


“Savignon (1976) is correct when she says ‘Attitude is the single most important factor in second language learning.’ We might even suggest that one characteristic of the ideal second language class is one in which aptitude will not predict differences in student achievement (S. Sapon, personal communication), because efficient acquisition is taking place for all students.” – Krashen, 1981

“Thus, motivational and attitudinal considerations are prior to linguistic considerations. If the affective filter is ‘up’, no matter how beautifully the input is sequenced, no matter how meaningful and communicative the exercise is intended to be, little or no acquisition will take place.” – Krashen, 1981

“Those whose attitudes are not optimal for second language acquisition will not only tend to seek less input, but they will also have a high or strong Affective Filter–even if they understand the message, the input will not reach the part of the brain responsible for language acquisition, or the language acquisition device.” – Krashen, 1982

“Studies have shown that several affective variables are related to success in language acquisition – anxiety (low anxiety is correlated with more success in language acquisition), self-esteem (more self-esteem is related to success in language acquisition), and motivation, with ‘integrative motivation,’ (a desire to belong to a certain group) related to long-term success in language acquisition (until membership is achieved), and ‘instrumental motivation’ (to accomplish a task) related to shorter term success (until the task is done).” – Krashen

“When asked what aspects of foreign language classes are the most anxiety- provoking, students put “talking” at the top of the list (Young, 1990).” – Krashen

“Finally, many classroom exercises, with their emphasis on correctness, often place the student ‘on the defensive’ (Stevick, 1976), entailing a heightened ‘affective filter’ (Dulay and Burt, 1977), which makes them less than ideal for language acquisition.” – Krashen, 1981

“Learning is most successful when it involves only a limited amount of stress, when students are relaxed and confident and enjoying their learning; but the use of correction encourages exactly the opposite condition.” – John Truscott

“the ‘elusive quality
- strong motivation’ (Allen, J.P.B.,1973), combined with the right attitude towards the target language and its culture (Gardner,1972), sustained by appropriate intellectual and physical efforts taken by the learners themselves (Kaplan,1997) . . . can lead to successful acquisition of English as a foreign language.”
– D. Sankary

“Simply hearing a second language with understanding appears to be necessary but is not sufficient for acquisition to take place. The acquirer must not only understand the input but must also, in a sense, be ‘open’ to it.”– Krashen, 1981



Research conducted since the early 1990s has shown that traditional approaches to teaching grammar that involve the use of mechanical, meaningful and communicative drills do not foster acquisition in the way that practice [listening/reading] with structured input does.” — VanPatten (2013)

“Peer-to-peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching.” — Terry Waltz

“Students who learn language explicitly or through “skill building” are virtually unable to naturally produce language and rely on memorized rehearsed phrases in order to produce output. -Dr. Stephen Krashen


“More speaking or writing does not result in more language or literacy development, but more reading does”– Krashen

“[N]ot only does instruction not alter the order of acquisition, neither does practice”– VanPatten, 2013

“Speaking has been found to be the most anxiety-provoking form of communication. (Maclntyre & Gardner, 1991; McCroskey & Richmond, 1987)” from Baker & MacIntyre (2000)

VanPatten (2013): “If input is so important, what does traditional practice do? […] essentially very little, if anything.  It does not help mental representation.  It is not clear it helps skills.

“Adding output and correction, in fact, has been shown to make progress less efficient, not more.” – Krashen

“More output does not result in more language acquisition. For example, students in classes that demand more writing do not acquire more of the language, and students of English as a foreign language who report more speaking outside of class do not do better on the TOEFL examination; those who read more outside of class, however, do better.” – Krashen

“Children are usually allowed to go through a ‘silent period’, during which they build up acquired competence through active listening. Several scholars have suggested that providing such a silent period for all performers in second language acquisition would be beneficial (see for example, Postovsky, 1977).” – Krashen, 1981

“Thus, feedback on errors was not only unhelpful, but also harmful to learners. Those who received comments on content plus correction were significantly inferior to those who received only comments on content.” – Truscott

“Correction was not only unhelpful in these studies but also actually hindered the learning process.” – Truscott

“Oral grammar correction is a bad idea.” – Truscott, IJFLT 2005

“more speaking or writing does not result in more language or literacy development, but more reading does”– Krashen

“Adding output and correction, in fact, has been shown to make progress less efficient, not more.” – Krashen

“More output does not result in more language acquisition. For example, students in classes that demand more writing do not acquire more of the language, and students of English as a foreign language who report more speaking outside of class do not do better on the TOEFL examination; those who read more outside of class, however, do better.” – Krashen

“Children are usually allowed to go through a ‘silent period’, during which they build up acquired competence through active listening. Several scholars have suggested that providing such a silent period for all performers in second language acquisition would be beneficial (see for example, Postovsky, 1977).” – Krashen, 1981

“Thus, feedback on errors was not only unhelpful, but also harmful to learners. Those who received comments on content plus correction were significantly inferior to those who received only comments on content.” – Truscott

“Correction was not only unhelpful in these studies but also actually hindered the learning process.” – Truscott

“Oral grammar correction is a bad idea.” – Truscott, IJFLT 2005


6. CLASSROOM RESEARCH (TPRS, TPR and other C.I. methods)

“The most consistent advantages for TPRS are in developing students’ speaking, writing, vocabulary, and grammar. In all these areas, TPRS has consistently outperformed traditional teaching, and has at least equaled traditional teaching in every study.” – Karen Lichtman & Stephen Krashen

“TPRS should have advantages in retention over time, in comparison to traditional teaching. Compare TPRS students and traditional students on the same measure right before their summer break and right after their summer break.” – Karen Lichtman & Stephen Krashen

“TPR classes had only 20 hours of instruction while controls had 200 hours of instruction . . . All TPR classes, with the exception of grade five, outperformed controls after 100 hours, and the adult class, after only 20 hours, outperformed controls after 200 hours. Similar results were obtained using a reading test.” – Krashen, 1982

“Her experimental group did not speak at all for the first 14 weeks but, instead, had to produce “active responses” that demonstrated comprehension. Also, they were not forced to speak for much of the next seven weeks. The experimental group was shown to be superior to the control group in listening comprehension and equal in speaking, despite the fact that the controls had more ‘practice’ in speaking.” –Krashen, 1982

“In both first and second language development, students who participate in classes that include in-school self-selected reading programs (known as sustained silent reading) typically outperform comparison students, especially when the duration of treatment is longer than an academic year.” – Krashen

“Extremely problematic for output hypotheses was the result that the amount of ‘extracurricular writing’ and ‘extracurricular speaking’ reported were negatively related to TOEFL performance.” – Krashen

“ . . . studies consistently find that older children acquire second languages faster than younger children . . . Older children, it has been argued, have an advantage because of their greater knowledge of the world, which makes input more comprehensible, as well as more advanced levels of literacy, which transfer to the second languages.”
– Witton-Davies



“Children who are considered ‘low achievers, and/or who have a disability,’ seem to benefit the most from foreign language study.” – Wang, Jackson, Mana, Liau, & Evans, 2010

“ . . . increasingly impressive bodies of research that document . . . the great number of cognitive, social, academic, problem-solving and practical benefits that have been observed in children who learn one or more languages in addition to their home language.” – Wang, Jackson, Mana, Liau, & Evans, 2010

“Research Findings: Second Language study:
– benefits academic progress in other subjects
– narrows achievement gaps
– benefits basic skills development
– benefits higher order, abstract and creative thinking
– (early) enriches and enhances cognitive development
– enhances a student’s sense of achievement
– helps students score higher on standardized tests
– promotes cultural awareness and competency
– improves chances of college acceptance, achievement and attainment
– enhances career opportunities
– benefits understanding and security in community and society” – NEA Research. (2007). “The Benefits of Second Language Study.”



“Given that verbs typically account for 20 percent of all words in a language, this may be a good strategy. Also, a focus on function words may be equally rewarding – 60 percent of speech in English is composed of a mere 50 function words.” – Davies

“Why should one do this? Nation (1990) has shown that the 4,000–5,000 most frequent words account for up to 95 percent of a written text and the 1,000 most frequent words account for 85 percent of speech.” – Davies

“We teach language best when we use it for what it was designed for: communication.” – Krashen, 1981

Below are the most-frequently used words per theme and also the extremely low-frequency words typically taught in that theme. The numbers in parentheses are the rank frequencies as calculated in Davies’ A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish (2006). Words are translated to English.

Colors (250) white (8225) orange
Animals (780) horse (4945) elephant
Body (150) hand (2407) ear
Food (787) meat (7602) carrot
Clothing (1710) suit (4427) t-shirt
Family (166) son (5071) niece
Days (1121) Sunday (3490) Tuesday
Months (1244) August (2574) September
Sports (2513) soccer (28388) hockey
Weather (989) heat (5493) breeze

There are more than 300 more frequent words than the numbers 6 through 10, and the numbers 13 through 19 are not in the most frequently used 1,000 Spanish words. In fact, only the numbers one and two are in the most-frequently used 100 words.



“Our research shows that after 630 to 720 hours of instruction, or about midway through the fourth year of study, approximately 14% of students can read at the Intermediate-Mid level or better. Approximately 16% can write and 6% can speak at this level.” – Center for Applied Second Language Studies, 2010

The ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K–12 Learners (Swender & Duncan, 1998) propose elementary programs that meet from 3 to 5 days per week for no less than 30–40 minutes per class; middle school programs that meet daily for no less than 40–50 minutes.



“Without a reading habit children simply do not have a chance.” – Krashen

“The best way to improve your knowledge of a foreign language is to go and live among its speakers. The next best way is read extensively in it.” – Christine Nuttal, 1996

“For maximum vocabulary development, learners need to read all along the way, since most vocabulary development in both L1 and L2 is incidental, meaning that vocabulary is learned as a by-product of some other intention (normally reading).”– VanPatten

“People acquiring a second language have the best chance for success through reading.” – Krashen

“The best way to improve in a foreign language is to do a great deal of comprehensible, interesting reading. The case for self-selected reading for pleasure is overwhelming.” – Mason

“What is probably the best-supported way of improving language competence is rarely mentioned in the professional literature: wide recreational reading, or ‘free voluntary reading.’ ” – Witton-Davies

“Those who read more, write better” – Krashen

“Free voluntary reading may be the most powerful tool we have in language education. In fact, it appears to be too good to be true. It is an effective way of increasing literacy and language development, with a strong impact on reading comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, and writing.” – Krashen

“Incidental learning of words during reading may be the easiest and single most powerful means of promoting large-scale vocabulary growth.” –Nagy & Herdman

“The second language student needs massive amounts of comprehensible, interesting reading material, enough so that he can read for pleasure and/or interest for an hour an evening, if he wants to, for several months.” –Krashen

“Picking up word meanings by reading is 10 times faster than intensive vocabulary instruction.” – Krashen

“Free reading is also an excellent source of knowledge: those who read more, know more.” – Krashen

“There is overwhelming evidence for recreational reading as a means of increasing second-language competence. In fact, it is now perhaps the most thoroughly investigated and best-supported technique we have in the field of second-language pedagogy.” – Krashen

“Many studies confirm that those who read more write better . . . it is reading, not instruction, that helps us develop a good writing style.” – Krashen, IJFLT 2005

“The success of pleasure reading thus depends on the reader’s willingness to find material at his level and reject material that is beyond him.” – Krashen, 1982

“Hirsch and Nation (1992) claim that in order to reach text comprehension, readers and listeners need to be familiar with 85% of the words in a text.” – Thornber

“the source of good writing style, the vocabulary, syntax and discourse structure of the written language, is reading.” – Lee & Hsu

“Students who had a pleasure reading habit easily outperformed those who were not readers on a test of grammar and on a test of reading and writing.” – Ponniah, IJFLT 2008

Baby Steps: B.C.’s Proposed French Curriculum

The B.C. Ministry of Education is busily rewriting curricula, including French. Brief summary: the curriculum has added a few things which research and classroom experience have shown us are part of best practices, retains recommendations which are simply not supported by research, and raises a bunch of good questions. I looked at the French 8-12 curriculum.  Here are my notes in five sections:

  • the good
  • the “oughta-have-been-chucked-but-wasn’t”
  • the bad
  • challenges
  • the inexplicably missing
  • recommendations

If you have not yet familiarised yourself with current research about second language

1.  The Good Stuff with Practical and Empirical Support

  • The curriculum finally recognises that storytelling is probably the single-easiest way to soak up a bunch of vocab and grammar, and so asks that students master basic storytelling.  They are expecting a fifth-year (e.g. French 12 student) to be able to tell/retell a complex story.  (Note: any teacher who uses T.P.R.S. or A.I.M. will see their students master this in their first year of language class.)
  • Students should now acquire fewer verbs, but more verb tenses (and other language features), at the same time, which aligns with research (again, T.P.R.S. and A.I.M. practitioners are miles ahead here).  This is called “using unsheltered grammar.” Ideally, the “non-Englishy” parts of French– e.g. the imparfait and passé-composé, the subjunctive, pronoun orders– should be introduced immediately so that people have a lot of exposure to them and can pick them up when their brains are ready. As VanPatten & Wong (2003) note, “acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”
  • The curriculum also suggests modifying authentic documents for learner needs.  This is the opposite of the standard bad advice (which is “modify the task, not the text”).  It also suggests increasing repetition (and saliency) of vocab to be acquired.  Great work, Ministry– these are proven strategies.
  • Emphasis is placed on meaningful communication, and not drills etc.


2.  Problematic Legacy Method Recommendations

a.  The curriculum supports “[T]he use of authentic documents and tasks to support the development of communication skills.”  Bad idea.  Why? Well, authentic documents– things by and for native speakers– tend to have the following characteristics:

  • they use low-frequency vocabulary and often slang
  • they often use complex language (e.g. metaphors, irony, etc)

If we really want to build proficiency, the last thing we should be using are “authentic documents.”  You want to use high-frequency (i.e. oft-used) vocab, you want it comprehensible, and you want it recycled zillions of times.  Teaching decoding strategies– the classic “answer” to the straw-man question of “how do we get learners deal with authentic documents?”– serves only to establish meaning and does little for acquisition.  But– fair enough– we’re told to modify where necessary.  And we should be modifying authentic French (or any other) texts most of the time.

“Authentic tasks” is another minefield.  This usually means doing “real world” stuff like learning to give/follow directions, order food etc.  The problem with this, as Bill VanPatten and I have noted, is that you cannot “train” people for future language scenarios the way you can train a doctor to, say, give stitches.  One new word or phrase, and that carefully-practiced restaurant dialogue is useless. Better: teach a ton of comprehension so that people understand.  VanPatten has described language pedagogy as the development of “coping skills”: we want learners to be able to manage in the target language and culture, because we cannot train them for every eventuality.

b.  The “notion that acquiring French includes learning about Francophone culture.”  Really? I must learn about baguettes and Proust and poutine to learn French?  Sure, learning about French culture is a great idea, and it’s important.  And maybe two birds, one stone, etc.  But we  are best off doing French in French, and French– or whatever– culture mostly in L1, so that you can avoid making French culture banal and simplistic.  Of course, this is going to be up to teachers to decide how to do.  Can the Ministry provide any evidence that it is necessary to learn about Francophone culture to acquire French?


3.  The “still needs work” side

First, the curriculum says Grade 8s should knowvocabulary to describe elements of cultural communities, their practices, and their traditions.”  Why this is important is problematic.

Most “cultural” vocabulary is low-frequency (and therefore not very useful), and much of it is specifically tied to regions (e.g. nobody in France cares what a bonhomme is) and so not especially portable.  If we want  people to talk about their own culture etc, great…but that’s not super-French.

You have options when it comes to culture, and they are simple: you can develop acquisition, or understanding of culture, but not both meaningfully.  Why?  Because “cultural” vocab is low-frequency (so learning it will take time away from the useful– i.e. high-frequency vocab people actually need to communicate), and because the kind of cultural stuff you can talk about (esp in the first 3-4 years of a language) in the target language is simplistic and banal.

A classic example– which I’ve seen in every language program I’ve seen in North America– is, say, food. My district’s French text, Communi-quête, Level 3 (French 10), has a food unit.  Shopping for and ordering food, etc.  Necessary vocab:  commander (to order), and prendre (roughly, “to have something to eat/drink”).  According to Wikipedia, commander is not in the top 1000 most-used French words (the 1173rd most-used word is commandes) and neither is prendre. So, here French teachers are being asked by this textbook to teach “culture” vocab which is banal, and low-frequency. In other words, boring and useless.  This is the classic “culture problem” of language teaching: if you want to do the “culture” of L2, the only way to make it not trite and stupid is to do it in L1, and if you do it in L2, it will be silly and low-frequency.

Second, students should “[l]ocate and explore a variety of online media in French.” This is generally a waste of time.  Again, most French media will present

  • too much vocabulary
  • too much low frequency vocabulary
  • not nearly enough repeated vocabulary
  • French which is spoken too quickly to understand, etc, for kids to learn much from.  We know that in a second language (as audiologist Ray Hull notes) adolescents process at about 125-130 words per minute.  Adult native-speaker speech is around 170-180 wpm, de fact rendering most aural online media incomprehensible.

We know from research that the most “bang for the buck” in terms of acquiring useful language is lots of repetitions (160-200 times each) of high-frequency vocab (the 1200-1500 most-used words).  Recommending a variety of online media which is not specifically made for students is a bad idea.

Third, we have some edubabble that appears to want kids to use French way above their heads, and to “reflect on their learning,” neither of which are useful.  For example, in Core Competencies, we have this: Students “[c]ollaborate to plan, carry out, and review constructions and activities.  Students work together to accomplish goals, either face to face, or through digital media. Examples include planning a construction, inquiry or performance, solving a problem, conducting an inquiry, and working together on community projects.”

This should happen in French?  Really?  Good luck with that.  If not, great, makes sense.  I can see this maybe happening in an upper-level Immersion classroom.  Outside that?  Let me know how that works.  Let’s see how much French gets spoken by kids planning something in a group.

If my experience is a guide, zero is pretty close. Yesterday during my planning block, for example, a colleague did a French scavenger hunt.  The kids had to make a set of French directions (turn left, go straight, open…, etc) that took you through the school, and at the end of these directions there was some kind of object to be retrieved.  Groups of kids make one “hunt” and then “do” the hunt of another group.  BTW, I used to do exactly the same thing in my Spanish 2 class.  This is to “practice” giving and following directions and command forms of verbs. So, what actually happened? I dunno but when I used to do this with Spanish, this is what happened:

  • the kids spoke entirely in English
  • the Spanish was poor
  • the amount of (bad Spanish) input in a 30 min. activity was probably maybe 6 sentences of Spanish
  • the focus was on sprinting around the halls, checking phones, and hanging out with buddies, not Spanish

Now, this was a good “communicative” activity in the sense that kids were engaged and actually wanted to do it.  But the amount of good input was minimal, and both directions and school places (hall, stairs etc) are low-frequency vocab.  (But the French teachers  are more experienced than me, so they probably figured out a way to do this  activity better than I could.) I’ll bet that this is typical of peer-and-peer activities.  So why is the Ministry recommending these?

It also says students should “[e]xplain/recount and reflect on experiences and accomplishments, tell about their experiences—especially their learning experiences—and reflect, and share what they learned. Examples include presentations of learning, self-assessment, and receiving/offering feedback.” What useful self-assessment of language use a learner can make is beyond me.  I would love to see two things from the Ministry:  evidence that self-assessment makes any kind of difference in the language classroom, and some examples of meaningful self-assessment becoming acquisition (i.e. a “how to” and some data supporting this). The “I” statements here include

  • I give, receive, and act on feedback.
  • I can recount simple experiences and activities and tell something I learned.
  • I can represent my learning, and tell how it connects to my experiences and efforts

Well, the first is a total dud.  We know from research (and experience) that feedback about language does not transfer into the implicit system where language is processed and stored.  You can give feedback– do X, do not do Y, try Z– till the cows come home and the kids will still say “j’ai allée à l’ecole” or whatever (did I make that mistake correctly?).  Feedback other than “tell me more” or “please pay attention and ask for help” is useless, period.  If I’m misreading this, please Ministry clarify what you mean by “feedback.”

One also wonders what kind of feedback a learner of French is supposed to give another learner of French.  A really egg-headed kid might say “tell me more” or “explain; I don’t get it.”  Beyond that?  Curious to see.

“Recount activities and experiences”?  AWESOME!  STORIES! PERSONALISATION! DO IT!

“Representing learning”?  If they mean “describe all the language you learned this year”, total waste of time.  Also boring.  If they mean, do something cool– like tell and illustrate a story or personal anecdote, or use the language you learned to get something useful described or experienced or done– awesome.

Fourth, there are a lot of recommendations for “communicative” activities like this one which look really frikkin’ cool…until you try to wrap your head around

a) the amount of French needed to actually do this which would overwhelm anybody except senior Immersion kids.

b) the problem is that the activity is so cool that anybody would want to rush into it, and how can learners possibly know– and want to stay in— French to get the task done?  I used to do this kind of thing in Spanish…and if the activity was interesting enough, English inevitably got used.

c) the low-frequency vocab.  For example, a totally necessary phrase for this activity would be gilet de sauvetage (lifejacket).  According to Wiktionary’s frequency lists, this phrase is not in the top 10,000 most-used French words.  So…why teach it?

The biggest problem with any kind of “communicative” activity is that– even if kids wanted to use all the necessary vocab— they inevitably produce junky output which in turn becomes junky input for  other learners.  As researcher Terry Waltz has noted, “peer to peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching,” a sentiment echoed by Stephen Krashen.

Bill VanPatten has noted that since U.G. develops mental representation of language only from input, and if anything in the input is “off,” mental representation suffers.  VanPatten has also stated that it is the teacher’s– and not the students’– responsibility to provide input in the language classroom. Ministry, can you please explain why you are recommending peer-to-peer communication when all the research suggests it provides very poor input?

Fifth, students should be able to “Identify examples of regional idiomatic expressions in texts.”  Why?  Idioms are by definition local-use and low-frequency.  So they have limited use.  Why bother?  Also, more generally, who cares if an expression is Quebecois or French or Malian?  How will this help students communicate?  Who in the world– other than a scholar– would care whether or not an expression was from France, Mali or Quebec?

Sixth, there are a lot of sample activities emphasising output and editing.  Output, as Krashen and VanPatten note, does not develop either mental representation of language or fluency (until we are at very advanced levels, and even there its role is dwarfed by input).  There should be much more emphasis on input-focused activities.  Editing is basically impossible for most younger people, especially second language learners.


First, if teachers should teach unsheltered grammar (e.g. all verb tenses at once) and storytelling, what are we going to use for textbooks and reading material?  There is not one published French textbook that foregrounds narratives and/or focuses on stories as both the content and method of teaching language.  Every French textbook program I’ve ever seen is poorly designed from the point of view of research about how people acquire languages.  All textbook programs

  • emphasise peer-to-peer communication, which is at best marginally effective
  • don’t use stories, which is boring
  • foreground grammar (even when pretending to be “communicative”), which is ineffective
  • are full of sequenced grammar instruction, which is contrary to research & useless
  • use too much vocabulary and not nearly enough reading (ditto)
  • come with expensive boring grammar cahiers, which are useless

In Spanish we have Cuéntame but in French?  Rien.  For reading, the Blaine Ray and Carol Gaab novels (most of which are available in French) are great.  What we don’t have: Canadian, French and other Francophonie-representative novels, comics, etc.  I’m a culture skeptic, but if there is one place where you can meaningfully “do” culture, it’s in novels. Ministry, can you please explain how you expect teachers to use stories when all textbooks we currently have totally ignore storytelling?  Are you going to provide some funding for books?

Second, we are going to need a massive overhaul of second-languages methods instruction at the University and District level.  Our new teacher graduates are going to need to learn story-based methods like T.P.R.S. and narrative paraphrase (Movietalk), or maybe A.I.M. for little kids.  Baby steps have been taken in this direction (e.g. I have been seeing S.F.U. student teachers and introducing them to T.P.R.S. for three years now; U.B.C.’s Wendy Carr has backed V.S.B. efforts to teach C.I. to teachers, etc) but we have a ways to go.  (How far?  Well, one S.F.U. languages methods prof is still recommending discredited legacy methods such as sequential grammar instruction, grammar practice, forced output for beginners, error correction, etc!  And we’re in the twenty-first century!)  At the District level, more helping teachers need to be trained in both research basics and research-based comprehensible input methods.  As Bill VanPatten notes, less than 1% of University language education teachers have any knowledge whatsoever of linguistics and second language acquisition research.  I have had lots of conversations with University people who do not know the basics of S.L.A. research. This to be fair is not the Ministry’s job, though– but it is a challenge.

Third, we are going to need to have a substantial conversation about assessment.  If we are going to upgrade methods, we need to ditch most of what our textbook programs want.  Asking kids to talk to one another in the target language, discrete grammar/vocab item testing, and testing by asking kids to listen to native-speaker-speed output are all not really representative of what kids can do.



At a Ministry inservice, the Ministry presenter on the new French curriculum said that they had consulted with languages teachers when writing the new curriculum.  Cool. Then they said four things I found astonishing:

  1. They said they were not, and had never been, a language teacher.
  2. They had not consulted with a single linguist– a second-languages acquisition researcher– for advice in redesigning the curriculum.
  3. They had not asked any students what they wanted, liked, disliked etc.
  4. They had not asked parents what they thought of French education.

The first, whatever, but that is pretty bad P.R. by the Ministry.

The second….really?  Frank Smith is at UVic, and Steve Krashen, Bill VanPatten, Wynne Wong and many others consult.  Why has the Ministry not consulted with any S.L.A. researchers about the new curriculum?

The third, not asking students…well, as Canadian Parents for French noted about Core French, “[t]he lack of satisfaction on the part of the core French students is reflected in high program dropout rates, low enrolments in the optional years, and a general feeling among anglophones that they “can’t learn French” (Netten and Germaine, 2012, P.87).   This is not because teachers don’t work hard or speak decent French, but because we use outdated methods.

You would think the minimum the Ministry would do would be to actually ask kids what they think of a program.  I’m a classroom teacher at a school where the admin and the language department head have decided to not allow students to take Spanish before Grade 10 (and where they must take French in Grade 8).  I get a lot of students who had been taking French (and other languages) either where I work or elsewhere.  I get some of the French “refugees,” and the Punjabi teachers get a bunch in Grade 11. Every year, I ask my beginners, why did you opt into Spanish? and I always get these three responses:

  1. ______ was confusing because they kept adding grammar rules
  2. ______ was boring because it was all memorising, grammar tests, etc.
  3. In _____ class, they made us talk though we couldn’t really talk, and that was stressful/hard.

We also know that while Canadian parents want their kids in French Immersion, there is never enough room.  There are well-documented social-class and prejudice issues at play here, and teacher supply (here’s an easy start to the discussion).  But the elephant in the room is, why do so many kids leave/not enter Core French?  The Ministry might have asked students (or parents) what they thought of Core French, and what they wanted to see…but they didn’t.  Hmm…



a)  Ditch the legacy-methods recommendations to use things like peer-to-peer communication and target-language group projects. For example, peer-to-peer communication is unnecessary, at best marginally effective, fake-feeling and often stressful for students; group work in most languages classrooms will mostly happen in L1.

b)  Get rid of the idea that “culture” should be taught only or primarily in the target language.  This idea is old, wrong and counterproductive.

c) Include brief, research-based pointers about what works and doesn’t to guide teachers.  No need to language-geek out here, just brief pointers with links to research.

d) Advocate for MUCH more free voluntary pleasure reading in the target language.  The evidence is overwhelming: free voluntary reading (in L1 or L2+) does more for language acquisition than anything else.

e) Ask students and parents what they want from a language program.  This could be done electronically, and it would be relatively simple.


Anyway, there’s my thoughts.  The Ministry would like your feedback, which you can provide here, or in the comments.

Comprehensible Bluegrass Input

I’m at bluegrass camp with a hundred pickers and a few grinners. I’ve been studying mandolin with prodigy Tristan Scroggins, who at age 20– with no formal musical training– holds up one-quarter of Jeff Scroggins and Denver Colorado, the outfit his ass-kicking banjo player Dad tours around the world.  What I’m really studying of course is how this kid got to be so freaking good so young, and how people learn bluegrass.

It turns out that young Tristan has gotten to where he is not as you might imagine by obsessively playing chord sets, runs and scales in his room for hours, but by listening.

Scroggins was taken by Dad to festivals starting at age four, where he ripped around underfoot with other kids, soaking up indeterminate thirds and mixolydian scales by osmosis, and when lost his Dad’s distinctive picking was his homing beacon.  At home Dad practised and loads of musicians were always passing through.

Scroggins started banjo at age 12 but didn’t feel good at it, so he switched to mandolin.  In school he’d load his iPod up with tunes, sneak-wire his earbuds in under his long hair, and spend class time listening to music while working on math problems.  Scroggins liked bluegrass, buty also grokked on Broadway show tunes, an influence that still shows up in his soloing and writing.

Like any good American suburban teen, young Tristan wanted and sought adventure, which he found in video games, whose soundtrack for him was more bluegrass.

“So every now and again I’d hear Chris Thile or somebody do something weird.  I’d stop it, put it into the slow-downer, and listen to it at like 30, then 35 etc till I got it.” The slow-downer is software that slows music down (without lowering the pitch) so you can clearly hear what the musician is doing. The numbers refer to beats per minute.  For a rough idea of musical speed, AC/DC’s stomper “Back In Black” is at 96 bpm.   “When I could hear it clearly then I would practice it a bit till I could play it,” he says.  Teachers– sound familiar?

At festivals, Tristan did what we do: sitting around evenings with random circles, chopping along and taking breaks (solos). In bluegrass, unlike Irish music or old-time, mostly you don’t do much. You play along with the guitar player on the off-beat while singing is happening or others solo.  In older country– e.g. Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”– the boom-CHUCK pattern of bass and snare drum is like bluegrass, where mando, banjo and fiddle “chop” by playing where the snare drum’s off-beat would be (there are no drums in bluegrass). The guitar and bass make the “boom” and the mando and fiddle make the “chuck.”

What’s cool here is that most of what happens in bluegrass circles is not playing but listening.  You chop along (or sing and strum if you’re leading the jam) but mostly you listen until you take a break (play a solo).  And it is during this listening that two things happen.

The first is that you hear what other soloists are doing.  Because during soloing everybody else plays simplified and quieter patterns (strum and chop), the solos stand out. You can see what fits, what doesn’t, where errors go, and the literally bazillion other things– e.g. dynamics– going on in music.  You are in a kind of rhythmic trance– Suggestopaedic– where enough of the conscious mind is locked onto simple chording that the other stuff can soak in.  (It is not an accident that whiskey and weed are drugs of choice for many bluegrass musicians.)

Scroggins said that the biggest benefit to jamming circles is not the chance to play but to listen and to see how to fit in.

The second thing going on in circles is input via songs and tunes (music without words), as opposed to instructor talk or practice.  Songs and tunes are to music what stories are to language acquisition: patterned, meaningful mental platforms which are both the means and end of music.  If a song is good and well-played, it will smuggle all of those musical skills into a student’s head without the student having to do much thinking about music itself.

One commentator on the Yahoo Moretprs list made a comment to this effect: “a friend who teaches music said that when people tell him I want to learn guitar, what they *really* mean is, they want to be able to play their favorite songs.  So I teach them the songs and that’s how they learn music.”  So it is in bluegrass (or Irish trad, or old-time, or learning a language). We learn music from tunes, not tunes from music instruction.

Now obviously nobody wants to learn grammar etc for its own sake, and the points of language are self-articulation and communication, but there is a point here. Music acquisition– like language– happens as a byproduct of listening immersion in something interesting and comprehensible.

In an immersion-type environment, a language teacher’s job (as Judy DuBois has noted) is basically to clarify the loads of input they get every day.  This is like Scroggins using the slow-downer software.  Or Scroggins as a teacher, slowing down solos for us to try to copy or elaborate on.

In a regular class environment, the teacher’s job is going to be to deliver stories– the “song” and “tune” of language– while making sure things are comprehensible (by clearing up misconceptions and by going slowly).

I’m also watching people learn tunes here.

To acquire: listen a ton.  No, like really listen:  don’t do anything except listen to the tune.

To learn: video everything, take notes, write music down, and immediately try to play along with the instructor.  One problem: all that playing and recording means that there’s precious little listening– the sine qua non of acquiring tunes– going on in the classes.  I’ve gradually ditched everything except listening.  I’ve found that while I feel slower initially (I sit there while everyone else is playing along), I pick things up fine eventually and I can skip the fiddling with paper and devices.

One of the most irritating new trends in music learning circles is the live-searchable electronic database (e.g. Tunepal for Irish trad). You press record when somebody starts playing the tune, it “listens,” finds the tune online, and gives you sheet music on your device.  The people who have these on their phones will within 30 seconds of hearing a new tune be “playing” along.  Of course, when you do this, you aren’t really listening to the music.  You are participating, sure– it’s amazing how many people at bluegrass fests just want to be in the group, holding an instrument– but what you really need is to have the tune in your head. As old-time mandolin master Thomas Sneed says, “once you can hum or whistle it, you’re ready to make your fingers play it.”  All these devices and notes are busywork rather than the focused listening that the form demands.

I was reminded of Nicole Naditz’s activities for her French class.  Naditz– who is well worth following on Twitter @NicoleNaditz– is an A.C.T.F.L. Teacher of the Year and in terms of practice is mostly in the legacy methods camp (forced early output, etc although she has read Krashen etc and gets that, ideally, one should allow for the silent period, etc).  Naditz says that because of her school’s demands, she must make the kids talk almost immediately (even with true beginners).  So she has communicative pair activities, dialogue assignments and other staples of the “communicative” classroom going on (as do many of our colleagues).  I don’t agree– you can build perfect oral fluency without traditional practice, as the research shows– and my feeling is reinforced here.  Making people do stuff, rather than just having them soak things up, in some ways feels good (for the teacher– “Look!  They are practicing solos/French/whatever!”) and may even feel good to some participants, but isn’t necessary.

Output before listening is the same in language and music: in my view (and according to research) not the best practice.  You need a mental model in your head first.  For a tune, that means being able to first hum its “skeleton” (most basic) version.  In language, that means having what Bill VanPatten calls basic “mental representation” of language, or a kind of gut-level awareness of both what sounds right and meaning.  People who want to play a tune they can’t hum– and fake it by reading sheet music– or teachers who want to make students talk before talk emerges organically, are wasting time.

Last year, my best actor, Mo– whose Spanish handle was “El Chapo Guzman” (the legendary Sinaloense drug lord)– was my main male lead in every story.  He said to me at the end of the year “Mr Stolz, it’s hard for me to speak, because I spent all that time acting and speaking.”  This kid was amazingly fast and fluent, with a killer memory, and he himself noted that speaking is a bad way to learn to speak.  Go figure.

Anyway.  Input, as always, trumps all.  “Practice”– on the fiddle, or with another language– must first be a lot of listening, and only later playing or talking.  And we don’t want to learn “music” or “language”: we want to learn songs and stories.

What does a lover of French think of “communicative” teaching?

I always use the word communicative in quotes cos most of what I see that is labeled “communicative” language teaching is basically grammar and theme-based stuff with a few ask-and-answer activities, as opposed to jump in and find info you actually care about from people who actually want to speak the language.

Anyway, my colleague Leanda (full classic TPRS) and I have been chatting with a student teacher who is doing her French-teacher practicum with another colleague.  This colleague is a grammarian and “communicative” teacher who has seen c.i.– and says she likes it, but won’t try it– and the student teacher wants to “do” TPRS.  Her mentrix won’t let her.  But she has been watching classes and reading and seen some demos.  She saw one of my German T.P.R.S. demos and was intrigued.  So anyway we have chatted about her own experiences in high school learning French (and her experiences student teaching in her mentrix’ classroom) and here are a few things she said:

On being asked to “practise speaking french with her classmates”:  She said that it always feels “fake” to speak ____ with a non-native speaker.  She said that when her teacher asked her to practise in French, she would just speak in English with classmates.  Take note, people…if a kid who loves French doesn’t like speaking it, how do the other 90% of your students feel?

One where she got good comprehensible input: she read as much as she could, and she enjoyed listening to the teacher’s French.

On where she really “got it” with French: when she went and lived near Vimy Ridge in France for nine months.  She mentioned how she lived above a store.  The girl who worked in the store was young and spoke good slangy gutter French but knew that Nicole didn’t know much French slang.  So the girl said “I’ll speak YOUR language” and she would massively simplify– and standardise– her French for when our ST came in.  This was often two-word phrases.  This was a massive help– it made French comprehensible.

On grammar teaching: She said that– for her– grammar was easy to learn via rules.

On how well grammar teaching is working for her own French students (8th graders/level 1): 

The kids have difficulty focusing in class.  Their comprehension is low, and their output terrible (low amounts, bad grammar, terrible pronunciation).  The text provides very little reading, and the homework book a ton of grammar practise.  Today she saw my kids’ 4th “relaxed writes” (retell the most recent story, modified) and was amazed to see kids writing 400 word stories– with generally very good grammar– after only 8 weeks of TPRS.  My kids are also beginners.  T.P.R.S., hands-down, blows traditional teaching away.  Her biggest frustration?  The kids are not enjoying French.  And here, dear readers, is your daily “take-away,” as they say:  just because you like something does not mean other people do, nor that your enthusiasm for it will make others start to like it.

On her University methods professor:  Her methods prof– a French Ph.D.– was tedious, annoying, and, in my view, wrong.  The prof stressed immediate correction of students, grammar work, and lots of output.  The prof was also a total French nazi in class, and would have freak-outs if English was spoken.  What were you supposed to do if the very technical, specialised vocabulary of teaching was something the student teachers– almost none of whom were native speakers– didn’t know?  “Struggle,” she said.

Anyway, there you have it: this is how a lover of the French language, an innovator even as a student teacher, and someone who is going to be a very strong languages teacher, sees her own past.

What are the problems with the Commmuni-Quête workbooks?

I recently got a look at Oxford University Press Canada’s cleverly-titled Communi-quête French program, more specifically, at the cahier (homework practice book). In my view, Communi-Quête– at least as far as the research into language acquisition goes– is very poorly designed. Today we’ll take a look at some items from the student workbook for Communi-Quête, which neatly illustrate how a workbook should not be designed. Did you all figure out the brilliant pun in the title?

Btw this post refers to the level 2 book, called “En route vers la Francophonie.” The idea, basically: students will learn about the varieties of French– and attendant cultural stuff, like foods, etc– in the Francophonie, i.e. Switzerland, Mali, Québec, France etc– grammar being stuff like using the passé composé, food vocab etc.

Ok here we go. Item:


Conjugate the verb (i.e. add the right endings to the verb). My questions (the answers I suggest are in italics):

A) how interesting is this? not very
B) do people do this in real life? Do they get sentences and then conjugate verbs? no, no
C) can you do this without thinking of the meaning of the sentence? yes



For this assignment, you have a list of French slang terms and then their Québecois equivalents. Your job: read the paragraph, underline the Québecois slang items, then rewrite the thing using French slang, paying particular attention to a couple of grammatical features.

My questions:

A) how frequently are these expressions used? (not very often) Patate, for example, is not in the top 1000 most-used French words. Why would a teacher present second-year kids with vocab that is low-frequency? (I wouldn’t)

B) what is the point of teaching kids the difference between French and Québecker slang? Will consciously knowing this help them understand or speak common French? (none, no)

C) does this activity teach any background– why are there different expressions? Are the connotations different? (no, dunno, maybe)

D) why is there no explanation of what the expressions mean? If your idea is to teach the less-common Quebecker terms, what will the kids learn if they don’t know the meaning of the French expressions? (dunno, no)

E) Could you do this without understanding it? (Yes– you could literally rewrite it with a coupe of minor errors just by copying terms)



Again, conjugate the verb. Questions:

A) can a student do this without looking at the meaning of the sentence? (yes)

B) is this interesting either to read or do? (probably not)

C) why would a student bother reading the sentences? (dunno) If I had this as homework, I’d only fill the blanks in– ideally by copying someone else in the halls before class– because this is boring and not worth my time.

D) Does this teach us anything meaningful about Senegal or Tunisia? (no)





A) Is this interesting? (no…I mean, let’s be honest, people: who gives a flying fark when the train leaves?)

B) is this anything other than grammar– conjugating verbs– in disguise? (barely)

Some more general questions for Oxford University Press Canada:

— If we know that the primary driver of language acquisition is comprehsible input, why do these workbook activities feature almost entirely written output? Where are the masses of reading that would make this easier on the students?

— If we know that specifically practicing grammar– e.g. conjugating verbs– has limited and short-term effects, why is this activity front and center in this workbook?

I asked the French teachers what they do with these cahiers. I pointed out that most of these activities were boring, useless etc etc, and they said that teachers only selectively use these, or they odify the activities. If this is the case, the question becomes, “why use them at all?” Cahiers are expensive–$2 a pop, or $60/class– and why spend $$ if we don’t use much of them? For $120, I could order a class set of French novels, which I could use with four classes, and which would deliver more language, and comprehensible input.

Now, my Mother has always said, “if you criticise, construct,” so here are some suggestions for Oxford University Press Canada for next time they design a French curriculum:

A) include a TON of reading. You could write a bunch of short stories, or a novel, that include all this vocab, have characters with real problems, who have difficulties when traveling a la Francophonie…

B) if you must “teach culture,” do something other than talking about vegetables and markets. If somebody taught foreigners about Canada and the U.S. by discussing Tim Hortons and McDnalds, you would be rightly skeptical.

C) if you must do output, make it student-interest-focused and interesting. I mean, how mind-bogglingly dull is writing sentences about buying train tickets in Mali? VERY! I would imagine that other typical things the course asks kids to do (if the Communi-Quête teachers I have seen are any guide) would include shopping in Mali, etc, as well as buying train tickets. The problem here: fake stuff.

Now, technically, everything in a language class is fake– especially T.P.R.S. stories– so what should we be doing? Well, not “faking reality,” in my view. I would rather have people doing one of two things:

1. Talking about their actual lives.
2. Being “completely fake:” doing something that uses real, rich language but which does not have to adhere to “reality.” If it is fun, easy, and uses real language in real (although not necessarily realistic) ways, I think it’s OK.

If the kids are learning about la francophonie or traveling, we can do things like

A) have a hassle-filled travels story. Jean buys tickets, boards the train, stows his luggage but forgets his wife! Oh no! The conductor does jot know where his wife is. Jean is sad but finds his wife asleep in the luggage car!

I mean, think of any story you’ve ever heard from a traveler: they are ALWAYS about hassles and the unexpected.

B) treating culture inteligently by dealing with it in English. Mali, like every other country, produces amazing music, poetry, art, etc. (One of my favorite musicians, Ali Farka Touré, wrote amazing songs in 10 languages about everything from love to markets to Islam.) BUT the vocab is ultra-low frequency, and the songs are full of metaphor etc. Best practice? Listen, read a translation, enjoy, discuss in English, as opposed to torturing students with dense obscure French they’ll never see again.

If the goal of “teaching culture” is to honour the culture we are learning about, let’s honour it by not simplifying it to tacos in Mexico, tango in Argentina, and markets in Mali.

Are these 17 statements about language acquisition true? Answers from the research.

Here’s a list of popular assumptions about language learning and teaching from Lightbrown and Spada (2006).  I found this on leaky grammar, which is well worth checking out.  I’m responding to these statements based on research from Stephen Krashen, Wynne Wong, Bill VanPatten, and of course the stuff in Lightbrown and Spada’s 2013 text, which everyone should read.

1. Languages are learned mainly through imitation  

No.  While obviously there is imitation– especially from children– the research is clear: most language learning comes from receiving aural or written comprehensible input.  At much later levels in the L2 acquisition process, some explicit feedback– especially for writing– will help things along.

2. Parents usually correct young children when they make grammatical errors 

Depends.  Some do, some don’t, some sometimes do.  There’s no evidence to show that this practice works.

3. Highly intelligent people are good language learners 

What does “learning” mean?  Research shows that people who traditionally test high on IQ tests (which have well-documented biases) are pretty good at doing things like remembering and consciously applying grammar rules.   However, many illiterate people– who would massively bomb any IQ test– have acquired many languages.

4. The most important predictor of success in second language acquisition is motivation 

No.  While motivation may keep students “tuned in” to instruction– they will listen/read much more (i.e. receive comprehensible input) if they want to learn– all the motivation in the world will not overcome ineffective methods.  A teacher who is providing incomprehensible input, or boring tasks, will eliminate motivation in all but the eggest-headed of students, or, even if those students stay engaged, will be unable to ‘reach’ them.  Krashen has declared motivation less than important.

Related:  motivation to what?  Most students don’t especially care about Spanish, French, etc.  I sure didn’t…what I did care about was being able to meet and talk to people in Mexico, read Paz in the original, order food, meet Colombian women, etc.

5. The earlier a second language is introduced in school programs, the greater the likelihood of success in learning 

Depends.  Canadian data on French Immersion supports this theory.  However, if a language program doesn’t follow brain rules– it provides incomprehensible input, it’s boring, it scares learners, etc– more instruction is not a good idea.  We also know that adults, under the right conditions (good comprehensible input), can massively out-pace Immersion learners and kids in acquisition.  Some estimates are that 1,000 hours of comprehensible input will build functional fluency.  Immersion and early exposure do one thing MUCH better than later exposure:  get rid of accents.

6. Most of the mistakes that second language learners make are due to interference from their first language 

No; only a very few are.  Many are interlanguage.  As Lightbrown and Spada show (in their 2013 4th edition), many errors made by second-language learners do not reflect their native language.  Indeed, studies show that many interlanguage errors are common across cultures and languages.

7. The best way to learn new vocabulary is through reading. 

Yes, provided the reading is comprehensible and interesting enough that learners will do a lot of it.  Some studies suggest that over 75% of a literate adult’s vocabulary comes from reading.

8. It is essential for learners to be able to pronounce all the individual sounds in the second language. 

Essential for what?  To acquire the language?  No.  There are plenty of cases of learning that happen without speaking.  I learned some Mandarin in 1995.  I couldn’t speak it for the life of me, but after working with my Chinese boss for 6 months, I could understand sentences such as “go to the back and grab the cleaning cloth.”  However, eventually, people will want to “roughly get” pronunciation because  saying “I have a big deck” wrong can make you sound like, uhh, well…

9. Once learners know roughly 1000 words and the basic structure of a language, they can easily participate in conversations with native speakers 

Generally.  BUT: conversational success also depends on

  • whether or not the native speaker can slow down and simplify enough for the L2 learner
  • what they are talking about– a native-speaker engineer talking engineering will be incomprehensible to an L2 learner who doesn’t know anything about engineering
  • what “know” means.  “Knowing’ grammar rules and vocab lists alone won’t work– the L2 learner must have had their 1,000 words presented in meaningful, comprehensible ways, over and over.

10. Teachers should present grammatical rules one at a time, and learners should practice examples of each one before going on to another. 

No. Grammatical rules are acquired at the learner’s own rate; some rule acquisition– e.g. use of negation in English–  follows predictable patterns, while some is piecemeal (i.e. appearing to be acquired, disappearing, reappearing etc).  Presenting rules in sequence will also make for much less compelling input (see the ¡Díme! texts for an example).  Best practice:  present a comprehensible and interesting variety of multidimensional language so that whatever learners are ready to acquire is there all the time, as Susan Gross has said. VanPatten says that verb “[t]enses are not acquired as “units,” and the brain doesn’t store grammar as a textbook-stated rule.”

11. Teachers should teach simple language structures before complex ones. 

No.  The classic example is the third-person -s ending in English.  It appears simple, elementary, etc, yet is often very late acquired.  What is a “simple” structure anyway?  In Spanish, children often acquire such supposedly “complex” grammar as the subjunctive before they properly acquire the present tense.  In French and Spanish, there are supposedly “complex” verb tense items–  from the imperfect and preterite tenses– which are much more frequently used than some present tense verbs.

12. Learners’ errors should be corrected as soon as they are made in order to prevent the formation of bad habits. 

No.  There is no evidence to suggest that this works.  Error correction may actually slow acquisition because, let’s face it, it’s not fun to be shown “you’re wrong,” and, as it has been well-documented that happy secure learners = better learners, the self-consciousness that comes with error correction may impede acquisition.

13. Teachers should use materials that expose students to only those language structures they have already been taught 

This is 95% true…but learners can, and do, use metacognitive strategies to figure out new words or grammar, and/or often do so unconsciously.  While it is important that about 95% of language be 100% comprehensible, some “new stuff” is essential to growth.

14. When learners are allowed to interact freely (for example, in group or pair activities), they copy each others’ mistakes.

No.  They often make the same mistakes, but these are generally not from copying each other, but from interlanguage processes.    While language in a communicative classroom is typically impoverished– learners provide other learners with their by-definition low-level output– this does not generally cause errors.  The communicative classroom– which features lots of student talk– is, however, a bad idea, because students are not giving each other quality input.

15. Students learn what they are taught. 

Mostly, depending on the quality of instruction. In a comprehensible input language classroom– done properly— students will acquire most of the vocab and grammar that is presented, and will pick up a lot of things that are not consciously and deliberately presented.  However, if grammar is taught via the rule-then-practice method, or vocab is taught by list memorising, students will acquire much less than “what they are taught.”  Acquisition = how much repetitive, compelling and comprehensible input students get.  Students will not necessarily acquire what we teach when we teach it, as Long (1997) notes.

16. Teachers should respond to students’ errors by correctly rephrasing what they have said rather than by explicitly pointing out the error. 

This will feel better to the students than explicit correction, but there is no evidence it aids acquisition.  My view:  corrected output errors in a T.P.R.S. class are necessary to some extent because they provide better input for other learners.

and finally,

17. Students can learn both language and academic content (for example, science and history) simultaneously in classes where the subject matter is taught in their second language. 

Yes, absolutely, provided the language is 100% comprehensible.