Comprehensible Input

But They Can’t Conjugate Verbs!

Image result for angry spanish teacher

(I looked for an image for upset Spanish teacher and this was all I got)

Here is a comment from the SPANISH TEACHERS IN THE US page on Facebook. Here, Dan brings up a classic argument between a more traditional language teacher and a C.I. practitioner

Here is a response to a discussion about whether or not C.I. delivers better results than does the textbook:

My first question to Dan’s interlocutor– the teacher who has inherited some C.I.-taught kids who can’t conjugate saber— is, what do you mean by “conjugate?”

If we mean, can we tell the kid “conjugate the verb saber in the present indicative yo a.k.a. first person form” and can they do it?, the answer might well be no. This is because consciously knowing

  1. what an infinitive is
  2. what conjugating is
  3. what first person is
  4. the rule

is what we would call conscious knowledge– Bill VanPatten calls it “explicit knowledge” and Krashen “Monitor awareness.” Neither of these have anything to do with the subconscious linguistic system where language is acquired, processed and stored. We can successfully use a variety of grammar “rules”– such as saying “I am” instead of “I are,“, or “I enjoy running” instead of “I enjoy to run“– without knowing (or even having been taught the rule).

As Bob Patrick says, conjugate the verb to run in the pluperfect passive third person progressive. Can you do this? Really?  You mean you can’t say the race had been being run on demand?

Knowing the “rules,” and how and when and where to apply them, does not guarantee successful production of language.

As Jason Rothman (2008) write, “Variation in language use is simply a fact of all output, native and non-native. As a result, any given linguistic performance does not always accurately represent underlying competence.”

My second question to Dan’s interlocutor is, can textbook-taught kids produce this– or any other verbform– on demand better than C.I. taught kids? Maybe. It’s possible that Johnny’s Spanish teacher has hammered away at verb tables bla bla bla and Johnny, that eager beaver, has spent countless hours studying, and can now say “right, —er verb, first person, irregular, lemme see, uh, sé.”

The real question, however, is do they do it without being asked to do it, ie in real-time, unrehearsed communication? If my experience of 12 years with the text is a guide, no, absolutely not, and the same goes true for writing. Kids taught with textbooks and a focus on grammar rules memorise dialogues, and they do not produce very much (nevermind very much good) written language spontaneously.  Here is an example of just how grammatically accurate kids taught with C.I. can be.

My third question to Dan’s interlocutor is, what cost does an obsession with perfect grammatical output carry? If Johnny’s Spanish teacher gets the kids to obsess over verb tables, that means they won’t be either “practising” other grammar, or– worse– getting input. There will also be a cost to students’ enjoyment of Spanish: reading/watching good stories is way more fun than doing tedious grammar stuff, correcting one’s writing, etc.  And this means that students who end up in grammar and textbook programs drop out more, as Grant Boulanger has thoroughly documented. It also means that, in the long run, students will not do as well in a textbook/grammar program as they will in a C.I. program (see Part Two of Boulanger’s work here).

My fourth question to Dan’s interlocutor is, if you put a C.I.-taught kid on the spot and get them to meaningfully communicate, can they do it well? My answer: generally– if the task is developmentally appropriate— yes, they can. We have to be realistic about what we can get done in a language class.  Babies get 4,000-5,000 hours of input before they start saying single words; at age 6 (after ~14,000 hrs of input), kids are still making errors with irregular past-tense verbs in English. They are, however, communicating just fine.

My fifth question to Dan’s interlocutor: when C.I.-taught kids use sabo instead of sé, how much of a problem is that? My answer: a Mexican or a Spaniard who hears a kid say “yo no sabo donde está el baño” is going to know exactly what the kid is trying to say. This is like a Chinese kid asking you “where bathroom?” Mandarin doesn’t have “to be” the way English does, and the Chinese kid obviously hasn’t “studied hard enough,” as a grammarian would say, but we get it. When a Mexican asks, “did he went to the bathroom?,” we understand just fine.

Finally, I’d point one thing out to Dan’s interlocutor: When Johnny gets to Spain or Bolivia, he is going to hear more– and better– Spanish in 6 days than he will in class in one year.  Input will ramp up so much that Johnny’s errors will inevitably get corrected by the epic amounts of Spanish he is hearing.




Against Rules: Rothman vs the Grammarians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




What’s A Cognate?

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

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

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

Anyway, what I got from this was two things:

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

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

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



C.I.-taught Students Evaluated by A.C.T.F.L. Writing Standards

How well do C.I.-taught students do in terms of ACTFL writing standards? Well…pretty darned well, I’d say.

Inspired by a Facebook post, I thought I would measure some of my Spanish 1 students’ writing on the ACTFL scale.

Here is their criteria for Novice High

Writers at the Novice High sublevel are able to meet limited basic practical writing needs using lists, short messages, postcards, and simple notes. They are able to express themselves within the context in which the language was learned, relying mainly on practiced material. Their writing is focused on common elements of daily life. Novice High writers are able to recombine learned vocabulary and structures to create simple sentences on very familiar topics, but are not able to sustain sentence-level writing all the time. Due to inadequate vocabulary and/or grammar, writing at this level may only partially communicate the intentions of the writer. Novice High writing is often comprehensible to natives used to the writing of non-natives, but gaps in comprehension may occur.

Here are some writing samples.  This is Bani’s work, after about 60 hours of C.I. (I do mostly TPRS, along with Movietalk, Picturetalk and some Slavic-style Invisible “untargeted” stories.)


Let’s see…Bani uses a load of sentences (actually, she uses only sentences). She fully communicates her intentions. There are no gaps in comprehension, The writing is far beyond the “lists, short messages, postcards, and simple notes” that ACTFL says Novice High writers can produce.  So, where is Bani?

Considering her use of various verb tenses, clarity etc, I would say somewhere between Intermediate Mid and Intermediate Advanced. What do you think?

Next, we have Marcus. This kid has an IEP, and has missed about two weeks (~13 hrs) of class.  He has some behaviour challenges, some of which involve staying focused in class.  Here is his most recent story:



 This is obviously not even close in quantity or quality to Bani’s. He uses English, has some problems with basic verbs, is occasionally incomprehensible, and the story does not really flow.

So, where does this fit on the ACTFL scale? Well, here is their Novice Mid descriptor set:

Writers at the Novice Mid sublevel can reproduce from memory a modest number of words and phrases in context. They can supply limited information on simple forms and documents, and other basic biographical information, such as names, numbers, and nationality. Novice Mid writers exhibit a high degree of accuracy when writing on well-practiced, familiar topics using limited formulaic language. With less familiar topics, there is a marked decrease in accuracy. Errors in spelling or in the representation of symbols may be frequent. There is little evidence of functional writing skills. At this level, the writing may be difficult to understand even by those accustomed to non-native writers.

Marcus fits most of this.  However, he does use sentences, sometimes properly. So– at about 50 hrs of C.I., plus behaviour and learning challenges– he’s at Novice Mid.

The lessons?

  1. C.I. works very well indeed, even for students who are not especially motivated or focused, or who have attendance issues. One of many key C.I. plusses: the vocabulary is constantly recycled in comprehensible but new ways.
  2. C.I. does get the “grammar teaching” done, despite traditionalist “those TPRS kids don’t know grammar” complaints. As we have all experienced, the stereotypically successful  language-class kids– wealthier, whiter  and fairly L1-literate females– will pick up and memorise whatever grammar rules etc we throw at them. The rest, not so much. Bani can’t tell you what a verb is, or conjugate one in a chart, or explain the difference between preterite and imperfect verb tenses…but she can use them correctly and meaningfully. Grammar: my kids havn’t been taught it…but they got it.
  3. C.I. is going to reach kids who would be dead in the water with a textbook. I have had loads of kids like Marcus over the years.  Most of them failed with the text.  Worse, most were disengaged.  Now, I’m not much of a teacher…so if *I* can get Markus this far, anyone can do well!
  4. Anyone who has issues with department members who complain that eg “when I get your TPRS kids in Spanish 2, they can’t write out all the numbers from 555 to 579,” or “they can’t conjugate the verb traer in the pluperfect ablative subjunctive causal declension” can just point at ACTFL guidelines to show where their students are. Verb charts, memorised grammar rules, etc, are not part of ACTFL’s proficiency scales: the ability to write in contextually clear and meaningful ways is.
  5. ACTFL broadly suggests that in a regular (ie non-Immersion) classroom, students will need about two years to get to Novice High, another two for Intermediate High, and two more to Advanced. These writing samples suggest that we can go waaaaay faster than ACTFL thinks.

One last thing:  these kids do well not because Mr Stolz is a brilliant teacher, but because C.I. methods allow us to stay in the target language much more than the textbook does.







How to teach “to have” and “to be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “cell phone hotel”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did Mason find?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So…what are the implications for a language classroom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

How To Teach Clothing (etc) Vocabulary

Must you teach clothing, colours and verbs like “it looks good on” and “wears”? If so, read on.  If not, don’t bother: according to Wiktionary, there are very few clothing and colour words in the top 1000 most-used words in most languages.

The easiest way to teach clothing etc vocabulary is the very old-fashioned Who Is It? game, which is very easy.

  1. Find and project an image/get the class artist to draw a guy and a girl wearing the relevant clothing. Label these and let the kids look at these. As always, we must make sure input is comprehensible. No point in guessing!
  2. I would have a colour poster somewhere in the room. Here is a picture of mine:

3. Divide the class into 2-5 groups. Get a scorekeeper.

4. Tell them I am going to describe someone in the room. When you figure out who it is, hand up (no blurting) and if you can say “You are describing _____” and you egt it right, your team gets a point. 

5. Describe anybody at random: Class, this guy is wearing pink track pants, a pair of blue glasses, and a purse.  Who am I describing?

6. First kid to put their hand up and say you are describing ____ correctly, their team gets a point.

7. You can include any clothing words you have taught, physical description words e.g. this girl is medium height and has blond hair and possessions (especially class in-jokes e.g. this girl owns three Ferraris and is wearing a green dress).

8. Include yourself occasionally to throw them off heh heh 😉

9. You can also use negative statements e.g. this girl is not wearing a dress.  She does not have long hair etc.

Another great option: describe two kids at the same time. This will get kids thinking and comparing, and your input kicks into plurals:  Class, these guys are wearing sneakers and red shorts.  Class, these girls are wearing tights and white T-shirts.  Best of all, describe both a guy and a girl: class, these two/three/ they are wearing jeans and black T-shirts.

10. If you’re in a school where ppl wear uniforms, project 2-4 pictures on the board of kids the same age as your students. You can describe either a student or a young person in the picture. Students have to think, is Profe/a talking about one of us, or the picture(s)?

11. Another option if you are in a uniform school is to simply project 2-4 (interesting!) pictures of people wearing the clothes you want to describe, and then Picturetalk them.

12. The best idea of all in uniform schools: get some students to take photos of themselves wearing whatever you want to talk about.  They send you those, you project them, and you picturetalk them. They will be very interested in talking about and seeing themselves and their friends. You can also include a baby or high-school photo of yourself (giggles)…and poof! past-tense practice: I used to wear…when it rained, I would wear…I looked good in…., but I didn’t look good in…

Here is someone you know, aged 9. dressed in Hallowe’en finery:

If I were going to describe this person, I would say things such as is this a boy or a girl? Is she wearing pants or a skirt?  That’s right, she is wearing a skirt. Class, is she wearing sneakers or heels? That’s right: she is not wearing heels. [to a girl in class] Mandeep, I don’t wear heels. Do you wear heels? [to class] Class, is the girl beautiful or hideous? That’s right, class: she is very beautiful.  Class, is she wearing a blouse? etc.

Anyway, there you go: now you have a zero-prep, fun and easy way to teach clothing (and to review anything else).

The Curriculum That Actually Works For Everyone

Longtime C.I. badass Mike Peto recently weighed in on a good question. Peto, who led his entire department from textbook servitude to effective C.I. (all their kids who write A.P. and I.B. exams pass), addressed this:

We are getting rid of the textbook.  What should we teach? What are people’s favorite stories and themes?

This is a good question.  Standard language teaching is organised around cunningly-disguised grammar units: we learn the present tense verbs with school vocabulary, the conditional a year later with shopping, etc.

My answer: agree as a department to use 250 high-frequency words per year.  Peto’s is better:  focus on “the Super Seven verbs” (Terry Waltz’s list of highest-frequency verbs), along with nine more that add up to what Peto calls “the Sweet Sixteen verbs.”


Here is Peto’s explanation of how and why his language department organised their language program the way they did.

Short answer: 16 verbs & a commitment to fill every class with compelling CI.

Long answer: As a department chair trying to design a common experience for students in different classes, with a half dozen different teachers on staff, I could have insisted that every teacher follow the same collection of story scripts, movie talks, and novels. That is, “all Spanish 1 students will read X novel and discuss Z movie talk. All Spanish 2 students will acquire this list of target structures so that they will be “ready” for Spanish 3.”

The problem Peto correctly notes here is that we are not guaranteed acquisition of “rule”/word ______ on any teacher’s schedule. Just because you taught it doesn’t mean they got it.

 On the other hand, the Sweet 16 verbs represent a different path towards creating a common experience between classes. We do not simply repeat sixteen words for four years, but we do agree that structures with these verbs are the ones that are recycled and given priority at every step in the journey. The Sweet 16 gives a department the flexibility to allow their teachers and students to pursue different interests in class, to use different language, but guarantees that there will be a common communicative foundation throughout the entire program. For example, the Sweet 16 verbs allow one teacher to develop an independent reading program for her students in which students are all reading different books (and thus developing their own idiosyncratic vocabularies), while another teacher develops his CI skills guiding his students through an authentic telenovela, while another teacher spends a good part of her classes discussing student illustrations and spinning stories from them.

This is how it’s done: you make enough horizontal links– the sweet 16– to ensure that kids in different classes can end up a year later with the same teacher and be able to function.  And you leave it open enough that what kids (and teachers) find interesting can be explored.

We collect everything: novels, Martina Bex units, TPRS textbooks by Carol Gaab as well as the ones by Blaine Ray, our own stories, huge collections of movie talks, telenovelas. We invest in PD like some departments buy workbooks; we brought Ben Slavic to our department to show everyone how to make One Word Images and next summer they are all going to Boston to refresh their skills on classic TPRS techniques. When someone starts using a new item (book, movie, whatever) then that person has the right to claim it for a particular level. Teachers can opt in to use it in their classroom, but nobody is obliged to use any particular item. Therefore, I claimed El Internado for level 1 and Gran Hotel for level 3. Any Spanish 1 teacher could use El Internado. Someone else claimed Fiesta Fatal as a level 1 book… I then included it in my FVR library while my colleague taught it as a whole class novel. A colleague claimed La Vampirata as a Spanish 2 whole class novel, so I did not include that in my FVR library (which is potentially read by Spanish 1 students).

We recognized that in any classroom there will be many different interests, and that when students and teachers are following their own interests then the input is likely to be more compelling. More compelling leads to faster acquisition. That is the funny thing about those studies which try to count how many times a student needs to hear a word to fully acquire it… teachers know that swears might be fully acquired the very first time they are understood, whereas an abstract transition word that the student never uses in their own L1 could be uttered comprehensibly 500 times and not be fully acquired. 

There is another major advantage to running a department this way. When any of my teachers get students at the beginning of the year, we do not have a list of target structures in our minds that we assume our students have acquired. We do not get angry if our level 3 kids do not understand X phrase; instead we are trained to start the conversation assuming nothing and paying close attention to their eyes.

Or, as Blaine Ray so perfectly puts it, “figure out what they don’t know, and start there.

At all levels, as we think about how to phrase our language so that it will be comprehensible, we all return to the Sweet 16 verbs and posters. It is a common experience in all classes, even though I spend a week talking about whales and my colleague spends weeks talking about football (what would you expect from a football coach!).

This illustrates exactly what high-frequency vocabulary does: it provides the flexible foundation onto which people can “stack” whatever vocabulary interests them. The football coach can play around with “el rodilla de Tom Brady se vuelve mejor” while in another class, students can create an OWI who “se vuelve loco por no haber comido.”

Terry Waltz has also famously made this point. She says, imagine you are learning Mandarin Chinese and you are going shopping, and you want to buy a wrench and some apples. If you had to pick one phrase which mattered most, what would it be?  That’s right: want to buy.  This works everywhere.  And ultra-low frequency words (hammer, apples, most clothing words, etc etc) you can figure out on the spot, or gesture, or look up, etc. Waltz elsewhere makes a similar point in response to a teacher who asks shoudl they not know food vocabulary? Waltz, who is translator-fluent in Mandarin (we are talking 10,000 characters plus real-time translation) says, despite having lived for years in Taiwan, that she doesn’t know most of the food words.  Is this a problem?  No, she says, most of the time when I (and Taiwanese) who don’t know the name of something we want to eat just say “I’ll have that” and point. Brilliant. The same is true in, say, Mexico: every region has basic staples– frijoles, tortillas, cerveza– but the local dishes are ultra-low frequency so you just ask about it when you are there. There is no point in teaching Spanish students chapulines, tlayudas, de lechon, etc.

This is also necessary because students move into our district at every level, and we cannot just leave them behind because they did not start with us. We need to provide a comprehensible experience at all levels, even if students missed the first 3 years of our CI  CI program because they were learning thematic vocab in another district.

This is brilliant:  C.I. accommodates everyone, while the textbook does not. The kid from Greg the Grammarian’s class will show up in Peto’s room and go, OMG wut? and probably spend quite a while simply listening.  However, whether or not he has spent four years or four weeks in Grammar Grinder Greg’s class, he will be able to catch up in Peto’s class.

Peto leaves out only one thing: when kids leave his school for Grammarian Greg’s class, high-frequency words will serve more of them much better than anything else.  A teacher (or department) who obsesses about themes and topics is rolling the dice on whether their alumni will end up in a class that uses the same vocabulary. Those who teach high-frequency vocabulary are preparing students for anything.



How Should I Teach School Vocabulary?


Stuck where some genius has decided that low-frequency vocabulary such as “pen” and “taking notes” is important? Have you been ordered to ensure that students have “proficiency” in listing things they Absolutely Need For School?

Stress no more: the easy story script for this is here.  This was developed with the help of Nicole Kunkel and Donna Yakubowski, and taken for a spin with French 2s in 2015.  Yes, we used prsent, passe compose and imparfait when we asked it.  Feel free to steal this.  I’ll type it in English.  If we have Spanish, French etc teachers, maybe you guys could write it up in those languages and post it in the comments. Students must be familiar with the Super 7 verbs.

This is an outline: the fun is in the details and what you end up with hopefully won’t look exactly like this.


— a backpack with some random weird non-school stuff in it
— a student actor to be a student
— another actor to be the teacher


— got annoyed/was annoyed
— had forgotten (yes, this is the pluperfect tense)
— “Have you forgotten/did you forget _____?” — “Yes, I have forgotten/forgot ___.”
— arrived late
— some words for school materials and/or classes


SCRIPT (blanks, and words in italics are variables– let the class develop these)

There was a boy named Mandeep.  He was _____,had _____, was from ____, wanted _____ (develop character).

One day, Mandeep arrived at school late. He went to his _____ class.  When he arrived, the teacher Mr Smith was/got annoyed.

T: Mandeep!  You are late to ____ class. I am annoyed!
S: Sorry for being late.
T: Mandeep!  Why are you late?
S: Sorry sir, I was ______. (develop)

T: Mandeep! Do you have your (school item)?
[actor looks in his backpack and pulls out a (ridiculous non-school item)]
S: Sorry, I don’t have my ______.

Mandeep had forgotten his _____!
T: Did you forget/have you forgotten your _____?
S: Sorry sir, I forgot/have forgotten my _____. (you could develop this)

[We repeat this a few times.  We can also add other teachers, classes and rooms.  We can also use ourselves as the/one teacher, but it is super-fun to have a student imitate us.]

The next day, Mandeep arrived on time in class.  But there was a problem: Mr Smith was not in class.  He was late! [actor sits behind teacher’s desk]  Mr Smith arrived late.

S: Mr Smith, you are late!
T: Yes I am late. Sorry.
S: Where were you?
T: I was in ______ (develop)

S: Mr Smith, do you have a (school item)?
T: No, I have forgotten/forgot ____

Mandeep was/got annoyed, because Mr Smith had forgotten his ______.


For this, we have a student write up what happened in class, and we can add a twist ending, eg student sends teacher to office to see principal, principal forgets things, etc.


How Should I Teach Avoir vs Etre Verbs?

I just wrote a post about how to teach por and para, which is a classic old-school Spanish teachers’ conundrum.  And then in the staff room I heard two of my French-teaching colleagues talk about “Dr and Mrs Vandertramp” verbs.

French is like German: you have to use either avoir/haben or être/sein plus the main part of the meaning verb when you want to say like I went or she bought.  I think one is called the fast farticiple and the other is called, what is going on or the meaning verb.

I taught French like 18 years ago and kids always got these mixed up.  So like the genius I thought I was I did some research and learned about Dr and Mrs Vandertramp, a mnemonic for remembering which verbs use être and which use avoir to make the past tense. I taught that to the kids (along with the house diagram below).

Image result for avoir vs etre passe compose verbs

Th kids memorised it , and they did well on their verb quiz (my cunning motivational tool to get them to study), and when they actually had to write a paragraph or whatever on their test, they all totally blew it.  J’ai alle.  Je suis achtee, etc. 

Mais non! I thought, tabernac, what did I fail to do? Years later I would realise, thanks to Mr Blaine Ray and Dr Stephen Krashen and finally professor Bill VanPatten, that we learn grammar from language, not language from grammar, as Lomb Kato said.  Or, as VanPatten puts it, “things like person-number endings on verbs must be learnt from the input like anything else; they can’t be taught and practiced in order to build a mental representation of them.”

So, if rule-teaching doesn’t work, an grammar drills etc don’t work, and if even fun mnemonics and pictures don’t work, how DO we get kids to acquire the “rule” for avoir and être use in the past?

(While we’re at it, we might as well solve another classic French (and Spanish, and German) teachers’ problem at the same time:  how to we teach the difference between the imperfecto/imparfait  and the passé-composé/pretérito?)


First, we start using these–yes, in the past tense– from Day 1 of French 1.  Yes, our total beginners can handle more than one verb tense at a time.  If kids hear this a lot, and understand it, they will eventually pick it up. You can start asking/creating a story on Day 1 of French 1 with the following sentences:

il y’avait un garcon 
il est allé
il a besoin de…

Yes, you have three verb tenses here.  Kids can understand.  In your next story, you use an avoir verb, like elle a cherché right along side your être verbAnd you keep doing this–using language naturally, albeit with carefully limited vocabulary– from levels one to infinity.

If you are a French teacher who has been saddled your whole career with a textbook, and you are wondering what?!? teach three verb tenses from Day 1?!? Impossible!, trust me.  Our brains pick up all grammar at once, so to speak.  And if even I, a terrible C.I. teacher at best, can do it, anybody can do it.

Second, we do not ask kids to memorise mnemonics or rules.  This is because even if they do something as pointless and boring as memorisng Dr And Mrs Vandertramp, this grammatical knowledge is useless in real-time writing and speaking.  It takes too long to remember and apply the rules consciously.  And, as Bill VanPatten reminds us, conscious knowledge cannot become implicit competence.

Third, when we translate, we translate meaning and not grammatical geekery.  So in French, we translate il est allé  as “he went,” and we do not add “and this is the direct vocative object transitive verb tense bla bla.” For il a besoin de…, we do not say “French requires the use of a bla bla bla…”  We just say “it means he needs” and if little Johnny ever gets curious, we can say, “well it more specifically means he has need of“.

Fourth, we don’t worry about it.  When Maninder goes to Paris and asks est-ce que le train a sortí instead of est-ce que le train est sortí, the Frenchman with whom he is talking will understand him perfectly and say pas encore.  The Frenchman will think, allors c’est un americain but whatever. meaning has been communicated.  We have waaay bigger fish to fry in our French classes than obsessions about verbs.


Anyway.  The bigger point?  “Un-Englishy” grammar should be used from Day 1, comprehensibly, naturally and frequently.  If the kids hear and read it enough, they will pick it up.