Comprehensible Input

Frequency List Lessons #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







To plan, or not to plan?

How do we know what a student can really do with an additional language, in, say, writing?  Suppose we wanted to be deadly boring for our students.  Hmmm, how about, we make them write about their daily routine, that should put both students and teacher nicely to sleep.

If we are a traditional teacher, we want to know what they have learned: what they can consciously do with language.  We could give them a writing prompt–describe your daily routine– time to plan/look at vocab/check out Google translate/”reflect on our learning”/plan out our metacognitive strategies/whatever, then give them a bunch of time to write, and then mark it.

If we are C.I. teachers, we want to see what students have acquired— what they can do without any planning, immediately. So we give them the same topic, zero prep time, a bit of time to write, then mark.

A teacher recently shared two writing samples from Spanish 1.  One sample is from a CI-taught kid in his class, the other from a kid taught by his grammarian colleague.

EXAMPLE A.  This is from the textbook/grammar teacher’s top student

  • the teacher spent three weeks doing a “unit” on reflexive verbs
  • the teacher’s students had just finished their “reflexive verb unit”
  • they had time to “prepare” their writing
  • they had 20 min. to write
  • about 120 words
  • quality: excellent, with minor errors

GT refl par.

EXAMPLE B. from one of the C.I. teacher’s middle-of-the-road students

  • the C.I. teacher spent about one week doing a story involving this vocab
  • the story using this vocabulary was asked one month prior to this being written
  • zero planning time
  • 10 min. writing time
  • 104 words
  • Quality: excellent, with very minor errors

CI reflexive write
What I noticed:

  • The CI student’s output is twice the speed of the traditionally-taught kid
  • the CI kid does as well as the grammar kid with no planning time and half the writing time
  • The CI kid has “been away” from the vocab for three weeks and uses it as well as the kid who just finished a “unit” on it
  • The CI kid spent one week with this vocab while the grammar kid spent three weeks

Anyway…faster writing with zero prep time and less instructional time: C.I. is looking a lot better than the text.

Comprehensible Input Terms and Inventors

Here is a list of terms and practices, and their inventors, used by teachers who use comprehensible input to teach.  I hope I got it all…if there are mistakes or omissions  please leave a comment.


Affective Filter—mentioned in Krashen (1981).  Probably originally from psychology.

Circling— process named by Susan Gross (from observing Blaine Ray)

CCR (Cold Character Reading)—Terry Waltz

Comprehended Input—Terry Waltz

Comprehensible Input—Stephen Krashen

Circling with Balls (aka Card Talk)—Ben Slavic

Class Jobs—Ben Slavic

Comprehended Input—Terry Waltz

CI (Comprehensible Input)—Stephen Krashen

Embedded Reading—Laurie Clarq and Michelle Whaley

FVR (free voluntary reading)— Stephen Krashen, or ???

i +1 – Stephen Krashen

Invisibles—Ben Slavic

Legacy Methods—Terry Waltz

Movietalk—originally Narrative Paraphrase—Ashley Hastings.  Brought to C.I. by Michele Whaley?

Novel—the first C.I. novels (vocab-restricted and designed for learners) were Casi Se Muere and Pobre Ana by Blaine Ray

OWI (one word images)—Ben Slavic

PI (processing instruction)—Bill VanPatten

Págame (“pay me”)—Blaine Ray

Parallel characters—Blaine Ray

Persona Especial—Jody Noble or Bryce Hedstrom?

Picturetalk—referred to on Ben Slavic’s blog as “Look and Discuss”—Chris Stolz (I recall first using the term, but it could be someone else’s– the practice was not my invention)

“Shelter vocabulary, not grammar”—Susan Gross

Storyasking– Jason Fritze

Super Seven verbs—Terry Waltz

Sweet Sixteen verbs—Mike Peto?

“Teach to the eyes”—Susan Gross

Tonal Semantic Gestures—Terry Waltz

Tonally Orthographic Pinyin—Terry Waltz

TPR ® — James Asher

TPR Storytelling ® — Blaine Ray

Unpredictable repetition—Terry Waltz

A Simple Subjunctive Trick

Here’s a super-simple trick for using the allegedly “advanced” subjunctive from Day 1 in Spanish class.

When you are creating a story– or an Invisible, or an OWI– you ask the kids for suggestions.  All we do is, we restate suggestions in the subjunctive, which is appropriate.

So, if this is “classical” TPRS, and our character has to go somewhere, we ask ¿adónde va la sirena? We solicit three suggestions and as each one comes up, we say es posible que la sirena vaya a Nueva York, then también es posible que vaya a la casa de Barack Obama, and finally es posible que vaya a San Diego.

We do our five-second pop-up by saying we say “vaya” instead of “va” because it’s not certain (yet) where the mermaid goes.

We can also do this with tener, querer, ser, etc: es posible que tenga un perro, es probable que quiera tener menos tarea,  and es posible que el hombre sea malo, etc.

If we are doing a Slavic-style OWI, we must first figure out how many characters there are.  We get suggestions, and we restate them, saying es posible que haya tres chicos or es posible que la chica tenga tres perros.

For teachers who are using fully unsheltered grammar — ie past tenses from Day 1– you can also use the past subjunctive, eg fue posible que la chica hiciera su tarea or ¿fue probable que el profesor no diera mucha tarea?

We aren’t “teaching” the subjunctive to students who are expected to “master” it as a “unit.” We are just using it appropriately and meaningfully where it is necessary.  If we do this all year, the kids will develop a basic feel for it, which is really all they  need.

Eventually, after enough input, the kids will start using the subjunctive.  While they don’t, don’t worry: you can communicate just fine in Spanish without using it, and you don’t have to have a conscious explicit understanding of it to get the point. We know from research that a thing like mood is less important in the hierarchy of acquisition than is meaning, so learners will pay attention to word roots– eg. that hable  has to do with “talk”– before they tune into “oh, that e must mean incertitude or desire.”

Bill VanPatten recently called the Spanish subjunctive “peripheral,” meaning that while native speakers use it, it is not necessary for functional communication.  So…let’s use it and not worry about it.



Input – Output = Acquisition (2)

Do we need to “practice talking” to learn to talk?  Nope.  Here’s a few more stories about acquiring language without producing it.  Those kids in your class who don’t talk much, or who don’t like talking…they’ll be fine. Here is another post about acquiring without talking.

First, from Judith DuBois on C.I.Fight Club:

I talked to a man raised in a family where his parents and older brother spoke Italian to each other and French to him, thinking they were helping him, since school was in French. When he tried to speak Italian they made fun of him for his “French” accent, so very early he stopped speaking Italian, but could understand it when people around him spoke it. He went to Italy a couple times as a child, and relied on his mother to tell people what he wanted. He thought that he could not speak Italian because he hadn’t spoken it as a child. But when he went to Italy as an adult with his French wife and there was no one who spoke French to be his interpreter, he discovered that he could actually speak Italian fluently. He says he has a slight accent and makes a few mistakes with genders, but has no trouble communicating.

Second, from Stephen Krashen, who in an excellent paper lists a fascinating bunch of case histories of people who acquired language largely via input:


A reporter from the Los Angeles Times asked me to meet Armando, a 29-year-old
immigrant from Mexico who had lived in the United States for 12 years. Armando, who
attended school in Mexico up to grade nine, worked in an Israeli restaurant in Los
Angeles nearly the entire time he has lived in the United States. While Armando speaks
English quite well, he says he speaks Hebrew better.

According to the article in the Times (Silverstein, 1999), Armando picked up Hebrew
“by observing and listening to co-workers and friends,” through interaction and
conversation, occasionally asking for the meanings of unknown words. According to the
“patriarch” of the family-owned restaurant, Armando “speaks Hebrew like an Israeli” (p.

Armando’s experience

I interviewed Armando, in English, at the restaurant where he worked. Armando told me
that it was two or three years until he was comfortable in conversation even though he
heard Hebrew all day on the job. He said that he never forced or pushed himself with
Hebrew, that his approach was relaxed. He also informed me that he had a very friendly
relationship with the other restaurant staff, with the owners, and enjoyed chatting with
Hebrew-speaking customers. Armando’s good relationship with speakers of Hebrew was
confirmed by Times reporter, who noted that Armando formed “close friendships” with
the family that owns the restaurant, his Israeli-born co-workers, and many customers.
When Armando was seriously injured in a car accident in Arizona, several members of
the family visited him in the hospital, there were calls “nearly every day,” and prayers
were said for him at nearby synagogues.

Armando told me that he had never learned to read Hebrew, never studied Hebrew
grammar, had no idea of what the rules of Hebrew grammar were, and certainly did not
think about grammar when speaking. He said that he received about five corrections a
day, but none of these were aimed at grammar; it was all vocabulary.

An informal evaluation

I conducted an informal evaluation of Armando’s Hebrew competence. I tape-recorded a
brief conversation, somewhat contrived, but the best that could be done under the
circumstances. (It would be have much better to obtain some completely unmonitored
speech, recorded when Armando was not aware it was being recorded; [but] this, of course, would hardly be ethical.) At my request, Armando chatted with a native speaker, an Israeli friend of his, about what he did the day before (it was the Sabbath). The
conversation lasted about five minutes.

I played the recording was played the next day for four adult native speakers of
Hebrew: two employees of the Israeli consulate and two employees of the Israeli tourist
office in Los Angeles. I did not indicate who the speaker was but only asked them to
listen and evaluate Armando’s Hebrew. The judges listened to about two minutes of
Armando talking about his activities on Saturday. The listening was done in a corridor in
an office building (because of tight security in the consulate), and the recording was not
of high quality. The judges were not told anything about Armando until after they made
their judgment.

Here are the results: One judge felt that the speaker was a native speaker of Hebrew,
had no accent, and made no grammatical errors. Armando’s language, however, was
judged to be “unsophisticated.” The second judge felt that Armando was a long time
resident of Israel and could have been born there. He thought that Armando might speak
Hebrew as a second language and speaks another language at home. Armando’s Hebrew
was “not quite standard” but was acceptable. This judge guessed that Armando was
Moroccan, which is quite interesting, because the owners of the restaurant are from
Morocco. The third judge decided that Armando was not a native speaker of Hebrew, but
felt that he was very good: “He can clearly say anything he wants to say,” but shows
“some hesitancy.” This judge guessed that Armando had lived in Israel “perhaps one or
two years” and has had lots of interaction with Israelis. The fourth judge thought that
Armando was Ethiopian. She felt that he was not a native speaker of Hebrew but is
clearly very good, clearly fluent. He is, she felt, obviously “comfortable” in Hebrew and
speaks like someone who has lived in Israel for a few years. He uses slang but uses it

The range is thus from “very good but nonnative” to native.

The case is quite consistent with the Comprehension Hypothesis and shows that
“acquisition” alone can lead to impressive levels of competence in a second language.
An additional interesting aspect of this case, in my opinion, is the support it provides
for the notion of club membership, the idea that we “talk like the people we perceive
ourselves to be.” (Smith, 1988, p. 4; see also Beebe, 1985). Armando, it can be
hypothesized, made the extraordinary progress he did because he had comprehensible
input; but his progress was greatly aided because he joined the club of speakers who used the language. (Note that the “club” in this case was a circle of friends, not a national or ethnic group; Armando has not converted to Judaism.)  

Of course, Hebrew was not comprehensible for him right away. His great
accomplishment was due to patience, being willing to acquire slowly and gradually with
a long silent period (or period of reduced output). With a “natural approach” or TPRS
language class Armando would have had comprehensible input right away and would
moved through the beginning stages more quickly, and real conversational Hebrew would have been comprehensible earlier. I predict that a traditional class focusing on grammar would not have had this effect.

Armando’s case also shows us that one can do quite well in second language
acquisition without living in the country in which the language is spoken and without
formal instruction. The crucial variables appear to be comprehensible input and having a good relationship with speakers of the language.

From my experience:

This summer, my parents got new neighbours, an Irish couple.   I was one morning sitting at my parents’ on the porch, practising mandolin, and the very blonde Irish wife waved at me from the fence, and in the thickest of Kerry accents, said that’s a lovely chune yer playin’ there, would that be The House of Hamill?

I told her it was, and she told me, she was a flute player who regularly attended Irish sessions.  We spoke for about twenty minutes.  When I finally got around to asking her name, she said Agnieska (I think that is how it is spelled), and I said, well that doesn’t sound very Irish.  She said, it’s not, I’m Polish.

Agnieska had moved at age 17 from Poland.  She had studied German and Russian in school, but had no knowledge of English.  She moved to Ireland in 2001, to stay with a cousin who understood some English but didn’t speak any.  She lived in Dublin in a building with mostly Polish people, so she heard no English at home and in her social life.

Agnieska got a job in a pub doing dishes and cleanup in evenings.  Agnieska’s cousin  worked for the pub owner.  The pub owner liked her work ethic so got her a cleaning job in a friend’s store.  She would work evenings, first cleaning up around the end of the store’s day for a couple of hours, then walk over to the pub and work there.

The pub had Irish music sessions a few nights a week, so Agnieska heard a lot of Irish music.  She had played a bit of piano in elementary school, but had never played Irish music.  One day when cleaning up she found a cheap tin whistle under the table.  When no musician claimed it, the pub owner gave it to her, and she took it home and started experimenting with it. Over the next two years, Agnieska worked at the pub, cleaned the store, and fiddled with her tin whistle.

Agnieska told me that initially she had been shown a few basic things to do in the store and pub, and had been given a few basic instructions, like “first, sweep, then vacuum” and so on. Many of her interactions were minor variations on routine: in the pub, customers would say where’s the bog? or where’s the bathroom?, or what have you got to eat? or what’s there to eat?  In her first years working, she mostly listened to co-workers and customers.  She asked her cousin what the English meant (and was told in Polish).

Agnieska said that after about two years, she felt good enough with spoken English that she went to adult school to get English-language high-school equivalency. This is when she began reading in English (a lot of what she called “trash,” as well as newspapers).  She ended up in University, where she met her Irish husband.  They moved to Kerry, where they had two kids, and then on to Canada.

She also told me that she had managed to figure out some basic scales on the whistle within a few weeks of picking it up– it’s an easy instrument– but had not done much with it other than playing radio hits and random things.  However, one evening when the pub was slow, she was bringing the musicians some pints, and got to talking to a whistler.  When she mentioned that she too owned a whistle, he offered her one of his, and said give us a chune.  She said I didn’t give it a single thought, I just played and– to her surprise– banged out a jig.  She bought a used flute later, liking the sound more, and started sitting in on sessions.

Agnieska basically learned the English language and Irish music by listening.  With English, there was high repetition and comprehensibility, and (relatively) little variation in what she heard (and to which she had to respond).  With music, she heard the tunes over and over– tunes are typically played from three to six times in a row– on a variety of instruments, in two octaves.  Repetition in slightly varied contexts in both cases, and in both cases mostly input.

Anyway…you can pick up a ton without “practice.”

























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. 

The Way Forward? Ben Slavic, envelope-pusher.

Ben Slavic, the “retired” French teacher, has been crusading around the U.S. with energy ball Tina Hargaden, showing people how to use what he calls “untargeted input” to teach languages.  Slavic’s passionate announcements and fascinating ideas have earned him a lot of respect, and also anger from some people in the C.I. universe, but, whatever, haters gonna hate and there is no progress without friction.  Whatever you think of One Word Images, untargeted stories, the Invisibles, etc., you have to hand it to Ben: he is doing the most important work of all:  he is making us radically question our practice.

On a recent Facebook post, Slavic discussed the C.I. practices which he`s dropped, and why.  This is fascinating reading.  Slavic is in italics and my comments in boring normal.

I have dropped the following things – weights around my ankles for more than 15 years:

1. Targeted language – pre-chosen structures and words that I want the students to “acquire” (more like consciously learn) in my lesson.

Slavic’s thinking here is, students will learn best when they choose the agenda (vocab, verbs etc).  Slavic’s work is actually not “untargeted”– it’s like he says in his book, the targets emerge while stories are built.


2. Massed reps of targets Students can smell agendae, which are off-putting, and massed reps (what Slavic calls heavy circling) slow down stories.

4. Reading up*  This means, you don’t make kids read to acquire language– you allow them to choose reading which they decide is at their developmental level.

5. PQA – it didn’t take long for the kids to see that I was asking them personalized questions merely in order to try to teach them a structure, not to have a true conversation with them.

Ben has a point, but this is to a certain extent a straw-man  argument: Personalised Questions and Answers should always follow what students are interested in.  Good, organic PQA emerges when students have more control over stories.

6. Establishing meaning- this is not necessary if we are teaching slowly enough and the content is interesting.

Here, I could not agree less. It seems like, no matter how clear I make it, I always have a kid ask me “how do you say there is in Spanish?” after four months of C.I.!  I have learned, you can never be too clear when teaching a language, and there is no research supporting the idea that guessing/deducing meaning supports acquisition.

7. Having kids supply cute answers – this puts stress on them, favors the louder, bolder, and more socially gifted students (linked to privilege), thus dividing the classroom among the haves and the have nots.  

Absolutely.  Bang on.

8. Gesturing as a group – because we forget to do it half the time. Now I just do light gesturing. (I think of light gesturing as a kind of embedded form of TPR that we just do with our hands, while seated, during a story but is not a separate activity like TPR.)

I’ve never done this.  I gesture as a teacher– I have gestures for many nouns, verbs, verb tenses and we, you, I etc.

9. Lengthy undisciplined stories that last more than 25 minutes. Once the kids know that in class they won’t get to know what happens in that class period they tune it all out and by springtime they are all the way tuned out on stories. Short 25-35 min. stories that actually have an ending are necessary. The students need for the story to end that class period.

Do they?  I have had stories go on for up to three periods.  This depends on how good you are at asking stories– it’s not everyone’s forte, and it’s work– and what your class is like.

10. Class reading of novels – that is a school thing and leads to rule by the few. I suggest that we never do a single class novel in Level 1 anymore. So what do we read as a class? Just our own class-created stories. They are more interesting and comprehensible to the kids. And what about novels, magazines, and books? Free choice for SSR is what works best for me. I find that when I do it that way some kids in Level 2 choose Level 3/4 books and some choose Level 1 books, as per their own processing speed. It’s all a big plan to reduce stress in the classroom and fight hard for the most important thing in a school classroom – equity and no-stress learning and no-stress teaching. 

Do you generate enough reading from asking stories that you have enough reading in level 1?  If so, great.  If not…you are going to want some SSR choices.  I use Berto y sus Buenas Ideas, my own Berto y sus Buenos Amigos, and two Brandon Brown books by Carol Gaab. If I keep novel reading to about 10 min/day, kids stay pretty tuned in.


11. Using celebrities as characters in stories. I don’t know or care who they are, and many of my kid don’t either. Who is Justin Bieber drinking Cheerwine on the beach with? I simply don’t care. It’s about a section of the class – the kids who know the celebrities – running the class again. Why not we make our own characters up? It’s much more fun!

Whatever works for you and yours.  The key for me is to really dig at all the kids and get the quiet ones to also suggest ideas, to use Invisibles (class-created, drawn), to use kids as parallel characters, etc.

12. Feeling as if I had to do a story even when I wasn’t having the best day. I always felt pressure to do stories even when I didn’t want to.

BOOM!  Exactly.  Good PQA, Movietalk, Picturetalk, novels, word games….there is loads of stuff one can do that delivers compelling C.I.

13. Trying to finish a story that was too long. Long stories only stay long bc of the few kids of privilege who turn the class into THEIR class bc they have the social skills, learned them at home where the other kids didn’t because of poverty. 

What’s “too long?” As long as kids are listening and understanding, all is good.

15. Dominance of the classroom by the few because of the targeting of lists (high frequency lists, thematic unit word lists, semantic set lists, lists of words taken from chapters in novels for backwards planning, TPR lists). 

I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve never done any of this, other than to direct student suggestions toward higher-frequency language.  If they want Selena Gomez doing whatever, wherever, with whoever, fine…but if the kids want her vacuuming the beach, nope: aspiradora is low-frequency, so I’d steer them toward limpiar.

16. Being cute. I can’t be cute anymore. There is nothing in the research on CI that indicates that cuteness is a requisite ingredient of good foreign language teaching. An example is cuing of any kind, like the “Ohhhh!” thing. Or the “Oh no oh no oh me oh my!” thing. […] When we cue them, it is like controlling them. That’s not what I want to do. I want to let interesting input drive the class. Each student will respond in their own way, how they would in a free and open conversation.

Sure…but cued responses– when minimally used– add to the theatre atmosphere of TPRS, and are another way to check comprehension.

*Reading up is where the teachers hand the kids books that they can’t read. When it is in the form of a class novel, it is especially onerous to the students who come from less privileged backgrounds. Now I just do SSR/FVR to start class for ten minutes. They read what they want from a pile of books on a table. The feeling for over the half of the kids when we do class novels is like standing under a cherry tree and being told to jump up to get the cherries. Some can’t jump as high as others. This reduces equity and inclusion in the classroom and divides the class. It is the teacher’s job to pull the branch down so that all the kids can easily do the classroom assignments and thus make it effortless for them, because that is what the research says how we acquire languages – when it is literally effortless. So I say we need to implement more “reading down” in our classes.

Bang on.  As Marco Benavides shows, if we don’t have 98% comprehension, we don’t have much acquisition going on.  The key, as legendary Spanish teacher Joe Neilson explained, is to use “simpler” novels with higher-level students, and to use a broadly shared meaning base that erveryone gets to generate grammatically more complex discussion.  A sentence in my book Berto y sus Buenos Amigos where Paquita says estoy haciendo un video (“I am making a video”) is easy to understand.  The slower processors get it.  Now, we ask the faster processors questions like ¿te gusta hacer videos?  ¿prefieres hacer videos o tocar música?  ¿es divertido hacer videos, es difícil, o los dos?  ¿por qué? 

It should also be noted that much of what Ben is advocating was part of Blaine Ray’s “classic” TPRS.  He wanted a lot of student input into stories (and targeted that vocab/grammar, etc), has specifically said that TPRS does not always need to be cute, etc.  The idea of “planned” stories came when Ray was asked by Susan Gross to explain his methods (which he did with his Fluency book.  Faced with the inevitable question of where do I get stories? from teachers, Ray published the Look, I Can Talk series (and similar texts soon followed from Carol Gaab, etc).  This was inevitable, but any attempt to systematise what appears to be a freewheeling method inevitably loses some of the method’s magic, when Slavic ha clearly rediscovered.

Anyway, thanks to Ben for getting us thinking about our practice!

How Do I Explain Comprehensible Input?

Kids, parents and colleagues often ask us why do we do stories in Blablabian class, and read so much Blablabian? or why don’t we practise speaking Blablabian more? or why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s class?

These are good questions.  Now, since most kids and parents, and an unfortunately  staggering number of teachers, administrators, heads, and methods instructors in Uni don’t, won’t or can’t read S.L.A. research, we have to be able to get people to think about why we teach languages basically by using comprehensible stories and reading that recycle vocabulary a lot.  Our best explanation will be, because it works, and we show the kids, colleagues, parents or admins what kids can understand and do.  We can also point them to the user-friendly Tea With BVP radio show/podcast. We can also do the best thing of all time: ask our students, do you feel like you are understanding lots of Blablabian, and is it easy?

But sometimes you want to make a point quickly, or get people thinking, so, today’s question: how do I explain comprehensible input teaching?  Some of these are my ideas, and others come from Robert Harrell and Terry Waltz.

Q: Why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s Blablabian class?

A: Ask the questioner, so knowing grammar rules is important to be able to speak a language?  When they say yes, say OK, let’s do a simple experiment.  First, ask them to tell you three things they did last night.  They’ll say something like first I went home and ate Pizza pops, and then I did homework that totally sucked, and after dinner I played Minecraft on my Xbox.Then, say OK, now tell me three things you did last night, but do not use the letter “n.”  This will open the door to a conversation that can show them why having to consciously think about language while using it will basically cripple our ability to talk.


Q: Why don’t we/your students/my children in your classes practise talking?

Ask the person what language that you don’t know would you like to learn?  They might say Urdu, or Dari, or French.  Then say to them OK, let’s start speaking Urdu.

At this point, they will say yes but I don’t know how to say anything. Then you say something like well, how would you like to learn to say something, and they will say something like by listening to it or by reading or watching it and you say exactly!  You can now talk about how input, and lots of it, must– and does– precede any kind of output.

Q: Don’t people need grammar rules explained to them to be able to speak?

A:  Ask whether or not the sentence “I enjoy to run” sounds right.  When they say, no, ask why not?  Most people will say uhhhhh, while the grammar freaks will say well the verb to enjoy must be followed by a noun or a gerund bla bla bla.  Right…and now you ask them when you were a kid, who explained that rule to you?  What, wait, nobody?  Well then how did you pick it up?

This is where you can talk about what polyglot Kato Lomb (21 languages) said:  we learn grammar from language, not language from grammar.


Q: Don’t people need to memorise a lot of vocabulary to learn a language?  Why don’t you get your students to study vocab lists?

A:  Ask them, could you explain how to turn a cellphone off? Obviously:  simply find the button, and press the button long enough.  Now, ask them, can you tell me how to draw a cube?  Here, I have pen and paper, explain away.

Image result for cube

When they try to tell you what to do to make this cube, you will probably end up with something very different from this nice neat cube.
The point? Some activities that we do are simple enough to first explain and then simply do, like turning a phone on or off.  In school, things low on Bloom’s taxonomy, like memorising some dates for a history class, or doing long division, can easily be broken down into steps, practiced, and mastered.  Basiclaly, if a computer can or could do it, we can learn it by breaking it down into steps.

Other activities, however, are so complex that breaking them down into steps or chunks is either impossible or not worth the effort.  You could theoretically “explain” how  to draw a cube, but it would be way easier to just show somebody a cube and have them go at experimenting with copying it.  Similarly, you could ask students to memorise twenty Blablabian words (or some grammar “rules”) for a test.  But it would be much simpler to get them to listen to some sentences containing the words, explain what the sentences mean, and then ask them some questions about the sentences (ie circle them) in order to recycle the words.

Q: I learned Blablabian from textbooks, memorising word lists, and studying grammar.  I can still speak it.  Why should we do anything differently?  (This question  btw is one that I have never heard from a parent, but rather from some older languages teachers.)

A: First, we ask Mr Old Grammar Student a couple of questions in Blablabian, speaking at the speed of at which native speakers of Blablabian.  One of two things will happen: 1. MOGS will not understand the question, or 2. MOGS will get it and give us a fluent answer.

If MOGS doesn’t understand, the point is moot.

If MOGS gives us a fluent answer, we then ask, have you done anything to acquire Blablabian other than study the text etc? The answer is always one or more of the following: yes, I lived in Blablabia for three years, or I married a Blablabian who did not speak English, or I watch Blablabian-language news, or I really enjoy watching the Blablabian soap opera ROTFL BFF OMG LULZ on Netflix. 

At this point, one can politely bring up Lance Piantaggini’s point that how we actually acquired Blablabian might differ from how we think we acquired it.  The way I put it is this: can you tell me how much of your Blablabian came from Blablabian experiences, and how much came from the text?  Even if people don’t know, we point out that, at best, a student of Blablabian in a five-year high-school Blablabian program got 500 hours of Blablabian (and, if the teacher was using a textbook, probably a lot less). If they lived in Blablabia, they got that much exposure to Blablabian in six weeks!

At this point, only a hardened grizzled grammarian fighting the noble battle of the textbook will stick to their guns, and say something like well grammar preparation made it possible for me to go out and experience real-life in Blablabia successfully.  At this point we might say, and what percent of your students will eventually end up in a Blablabian immersion environment? but frankly I would rather at this point go and grab a couple of beers.


Ok folks, there it is, a few simple ways to get people thinking about why C.I. works.

What Is My Daily Intro Routine?

I open every class with an intro routine.  I add one or two words per day, and by the end of the course, the kids have picked up about 90 expressions from just intro alone.  Here’s how I do it

  1.  I ask, class, what is the day? and class, what is the date? Then, I answer in the affirmative and ask a few questions:  class, is it Tuesday or Wednesday?  That’s right, it’s Wednesday.  Class, is it the 28th or the 29th?  That’s right:  it’s not the 28th– it’s the 29th.This will teach kids days and numbers 1-31 with zero effort.  Time: 1 minute

  2.  I ask class, what is the weather like today? That’s right, class: it’s snowing.  Class, was it snowing yesterday? That’s right:  yesterday, it wasn’t snowing: it was sunny! If the weather where you are never changes, talk about weather elsewhere.  Time:  1 minute.

  3.  Next up is The Missing Kid: I ask, class, where is [a kid not in class]?  Sometimes kids know (Johnny’s at the doctor, or Manjeet is in a soccer tourney).  Then, I ask some y/n and either/or questions about that kid. Sometimes, we have no idea, so here we speculate:  Class, is it possible that Baljit is playing soccer with Leonel Messi in Barcelona?  For people with the subjunctive tense in their target language, this is a goldmine.  Time: 5 minutes

  4. Finally, we do what did you do last night?  First, I model it myself:  I tell the kids about my evening, thus: Class, last night I drove my  purple Ferrari home, and then I had a date with Angeline Jolie.  That’s right, class:  Ang is single so we had a date.  Our date was fun and romantic.  We went to McDonalds!  Ang was very happy.

    I ask, Suzie, what did you do last night/yesterday?   Yes, I do this with Day 2 beginners.  I use the following “past tense PQA” chart.  Initially, the kids just read off it.  On Day 2, the question was what did you do last night? and they could only pick I went to…. and I played…

So I would ask a kid what did you do last night? and they would (in the first few days) read something like last night, I played GTA 5 or yesterday, I went to Wal Mart.  I would ask questions about their answers, re-state in 3rd person, and then do compare and contrast questions.  Here is a sample dialogue from today (we have had about 27 classes):

T:  Manpreet, what did you do last night?

S: last night, I went to Wal-Mart.

T:  class, did Manpreet go to Wal-Mart or to Safeway last night?

C: Wal-Mart.

T: Manpreet, did you go to 7-11 last night?

S: I went to Wal-Mart.

Here we are getting 1st, 2nd and 3rd person reps on the basic past tense.  I “allow” one new word per day, so after 8 days the kids at least recognise the basics (ie what is on the chart).  Yes, you can do this with total beginners and it’s a not-bad idea…because the longer people hear  _____, the more chances they have of picking it up.  After they recognise everything on the chart, I add a new word or two on the board per day.

Time: 5 minutes.

5. Finally, we do soap operas, which grew organically out of  me blatantly lying about my evening activities.  Kids, were like, well if Sr can date Angelina Jolie, *I* can kiss Dave Franco.  For soap opera details, read this.  Soap operas have two parts:  creating the story, and (once enough has been created to fill a page) printing it out and reading it.

Anywaythe aims with the intro routine are to

  • keep all language 100% comprehensible
  • introduce a variety of grammar and vocab incrementally
  • tailor language to student interests
  • recycle things daily
  • avoid themes or topics
  • unshelter grammar



Dictionary bad; story good

How’s these for fun? Would you prefer these to, say, movies or novels?


Here’s a question recently asked on a Facebook group for C.I. teachers:

My answer to this:  the $$ would be better spent on a set of novels.  

But first, a caveat: if you have Adminz or Headz of Defartmentz who run your job, and insist on dictionaries– it’s just common sense, you know, we need dictionaries to learn new words— well, you do what you must to keep your job.  But for those of us with choice, I maintain dictionaries are a terrible use of money and a waste of time on the classroom.  Here’s why:

Note that we can do two things with dictionaries: decoding language we don’t know, or generating language we cannot yet produce.

  1. Kids can’t really use dictionaries.  When Johnny looks up the Spanish sentence “I can eat fish,” he writes yo lata pez (I tin can living fish).  Hell, even among adults, language boners abound.
    Better: ask the teacher.  If you, the teacher, doesn’t know the word, well, you get to up your mad skillz yo, and you get to model to kids that it’s OK to say when I don’t know something, I admit it and I figure it out with the best possible help I know.

    Also, the teacher can head off mis-translations at the pass, and can work on ensuring that the word gets used properly after it’s been properly introduced, and ensure that it gets used as much as possible.

  2. Dictionaries even when necessary– e.g. during reading–are slow.  Let’s face it: you have to thumb through a big book, and look at words in tiny print, and find the one word you want among a hundred others on the same page.  This apparently trivial feeling is for a 14 year old kid–in their 2nd or 3rd language– tough and slow going. Then there are the obscure (to kids) notes, like vt and prep. And we are talking Spanish here…I have no idea how dictionaries work in say Chinese but they can’t be simple.

    : in the back of C.I. novels (e.g. the Gaab et al. ones, or the Ray et al ones) there are alphabetical vocab lists of only the words in the book.  Faster and much easier to use than a dictionary.

  3. If we need dictionaries, we probably aren’t doing optimal C.I.  We know that to build language acquisition, input– aural or written– needs to be comprehensible.  If you need a dictionary for reading activities, the reading by definition isn’t that comprehensible.  And we know that if people are going to read on their own, reading has to be 98% comprehensible and generally not an “authentic resource.”

    use student-friendly texts that recycle high-frequency vocabulary.

  4. It is sometimes argued, well we want kids to be able to find and use vocabulary personally relevant to them (ie we need to personalise) and therefore they need dictionaries.  Wrong, and here is why.

     any chance where the teacher and/or other kids learn– and acknowledge– something about a student is good personalisation.

  5. Dictionaries do not properly model language use.  If  you want to pick up a word (or grammar “rule”), you need it to be comprehensible, and in context.  Dictionaries don’t show you sentences, dialogue, etc.  In Spanish, for example, the word for living fish is pez and the word for fish that is caught/being cooked and eaten is pescado.  You can’t tell from the dictionary which you use where.

    : do what Blaine Ray does and teach one sentence at a time (using parallel characters for more reps), writing it on board if need be.

  6. Even as decoding tools, dictionaries have limits.  In Spanish, the classic one is this:  Melinda sees Yo le traje un regalo (I brought him/her a present).  So she goes looking for traje. But traje isn’t in the dictionary, while the infinitive– traer— is.  It is assumed that the reader knows the “rules” of getting from a conjugated form to the infinitive (or v.v.), and/or how to use the verb conjugation tables.  99% of kids in my experience can’t do this, and while sure they could learn it with years of tedious, boring practice, life (and class) is too short.
  7. “But the kids can use on their cellphones!” says somebody.  Well here is what happens when Monsieur Tabernac gets his students to look up the very important French verb for “to dine on gourmet food whilst picnicking in Fontainebleu and looking as good as a Manet painting”:
    a. Maninder hears bla bla bla bla phone bla bla bla
    b. He turns his phone on and finds 37 texts, 15 Snapchats, a worrisome tweet he’s been tagged in, plus a missed call– with voice message, quelle horreur, why do parents use these stupid things instead of texts?– from Mom, but no wait, here’s a cute text from Rajnit, hey u wanna chll @ lunch? atr which point his brain totally shuts down.
    c. ten minutes later, Monsieur Tabernac asks Maninder eeeuuhh, comment est-ce qu’on le dit en français?
    d. Maninder looks at Mr Tabernac, and thinks, wut?


In terms of bang for buck, I would say, get some novels.  They are $5 typically when you buy 30.  Dictionaries are at least $10.  So for the price of 30 dictionaries you could get two sets of novels, which will be waaaaaay more fun, and plus kids will pick up grammar, idioms etc from novels, as they present multidimensional, “whole” language.

In my class, I have one dictionary and I use it maybe once a week.  More often, I ask Hispanic ppl on Facebook etc how they use words.  Oddly enough, the Hispanics often disagree with the dictionary.  Hmmm…