Old Myths Debunked

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

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

A Dictionary of Language Acquisition and Teaching Terms

For everyone who gets overwhelmed with jargon. Special thanks to Sam Johnson for the inspiration.

Accent: what every speaker of every language has.  The better ones obviously belong to people who are wealthier, whiter, more educated, with nicer clothes, etc.

Accountability: what teachers who provide boring or stupid activities need to make sure students do their work

Acquisition the process of getting to the point where you can speak/write a language without consciously thinking. The opposite of “learning;” what most textbooks don’t get students involved in.

Analytic teaching (Long): language presented “whole” and in context; focus on meaning with grammar focus second. a.k.a. “focus on form.”

Ashley Hastings: professor who developed the “narrative paraphrase” comprehensible-input technique of language teaching, which is now better known as Movietalk.

Authentic documents: things made by and for native speakers.  That they very often have

  • low-frequency vocabulary
  • complex idiom
  • and are therefore neither comprehensible nor useful in a languages classroom

has not stopped the A.C.T.F.L., most State education departments, every Canadian Ministry, etc, from advocating their use.

Autotelic: interesting for its own sake, and not merely suffered through for some future payoff.  The only way to design a language class that will ever reach a majority of students, who will not be quaffing espresso on on the Champs Elysee or dining on tapas in Barcelona, and who therefore have little “real world payoff” incentive to care about their language class experience.

Avancemos: the world’s most ironically-named textbook.

Ben Slavic: French teacher, TPRS teacher trainer, TPRS “how-to” book author, blogger & passionate advocate for language pedagogy’s reform

Blaine Ray American Spanish teacher who developed T.P.R.S. after experiencing failure and frustration with communicative and grammar teaching, and then reading Asher and Krashen.  Properly understood as the Einstein of language pedagogy.

Carol Gaab: Spanish teacher, TPRS teacher trainer, writer, force of nature, novel & textbook author and publisher, San Francisco Giants language coach, grandmother, butt-kicker. Has the highest force-to-height ratio in the comprehensible input Universe.

C.E.F.R.: the Common European Framework for Reference in language proficiency.  A scale that ranks one’s language skill from one to six, thus:

A1: You suck but hey, you’re trying to order coffee

A2:  don’t get any ideas now, even though you can tell somebody you’re from Murrica.

B1: you are approaching un-Murricanhood by actually being able to say three things in Blablabian

B2: Ok, fine, you are making progress, but not enough to flirt with sexy French people

C1: We’ll let you in on a work visa

C2: Fine.  you’re here.  Now, let’s discuss Sartre.


Circling: technique developed by Susan Gross where a teacher asks repetitive but varied questions using a target structure in order to repeat a vocab item many times.

Cloze exercise: 1. where people listen to something, and read along to a written version of that speaking, and fill in occasional blanks with what they hear.  2. a clever way for teachers to force students to listen to boring things

Communicative-experiential approach: 1. a language teaching method (Waltz, Krashen) which asks students to use language to bridge authentic communication gaps to obtain essential information as a way of acquiring the language. 2.  A progression from the audiolingual method. 3.   “The dogma of salvation-and-bliss through chatter” (Erik Gunnemark, who spoke 45 languages).

Communicative pair activity: 1. Learning activity where an information gap is bridged via target-language use, theoretically as a way of acquiring the target language. 2.  The blind leading the blind.  3.  Putting the cart before the horse, as speech is the result of acquisition, not its cause.

Comprehensible input: messages in the target language (in reading or writing) that people understand.  Now considered the sine qua non of language acquisition by all researchers.

Comprehensible input hypothesis: the hypothesis that language (vocabulary, pragmatics, semantics, grammar etc) is acquired when learners receive comprehensible input– messages they understand– in the target language.  Research thus far has confirmed the hypothesis’ predictions, and assigned (at best) very minor roles to the role of grammar practice and learning, and output, in developing acquisition.

Culture: 1. anything speakers of another language collectively do which differs from the students’ customs.  2. Clothing, music, food and dress which make excellent colourful textbook pages, fun videos or Instagram accounts. 3. What teachers hope will spice up those ever-so-nutritious but oddly bland grammar exercises.  4. The future goal and real reason one learns a language: so that one faraway day, one can go and enjoy the culture that goes with the language being studied.  E.g. “Johnny, I know learning French verbs is…not your preference….but just imagine how amazing life will be in seven years, when you can go to France!”

Dialect: a language without an army

¡Díme!: the stupidest language text ever written.  In order to teach well, do the following:

a) see what ¡Díme! does

b) do the opposite

Drill: as bad an idea in the language classroom as in the Alaskan wilderness, and even less productive.

Edubabble: a scaffolded, self-reflected authentic C.E.F.R. and Common Core peer assessment collaboration which leverages coding genius hour codesign into project-based inquiry proficiency assessment tracked through Google hangouts and Edmodo accounts in order to provide a real-time feedback sociolinguistic competence metacognitive online anus accountability piece.

Embedded reading: a series of texts, the first of which is short and simple and contains the target vocabulary and structures being acquired.  The next two or three texts contain the same vocabulary, but add increasingly more dialogue, detail, etc. Invented (basically by accident) by Laurie Clarq and Michelle Whaley, embedded (a.k.a. “scaffolded”) reading provides low-stress buildup to reading complex texts, and lots of vocab repetition.

Feedback: something which teachers love giving, and students’ brains find impossible to use to acquire language.

Food cart/truck: when the crepe/taco/samosa truck comes to your school, and students get to “use the target language in culturally authentic communicative ways.”  A.K.A. kids text and chat in L1 for an hour and say/hear ten words in the target language.  Easy on students, and teacher, and a brilliant way to tick boxes while getting nothing done.

Free voluntary reading (FVR): allowing students to read what they want, with no assessment or “accountability” measures. A significant booster of language acquisition (in L1 and L2), and terrifier of control-freak teachers.

Frequency: how often a word is used in speech or writing.  High-frequency vocabulary items are more often used than low-frequency items, and form the basis of communication.  Good languages teaching begins with the highest-frequency words.

Frequency list: rankings of words from most to less used.  The most-used word in Romance and Germanic languages is the definite article: der, el, le, il, the, etc.

Generative grammar: Chomsky’s explanation of how language works.  Designed in response to B.F. Skinner’s behaviourist theory (we learn language because we want stuff; we get “rewarded” for “saying things properly”), generative grammar accounts for the fact that a language’s speaker can generate an infinite number of sentences with the language’s vocabulary, and that speakers are able to “figure out” grammar rules without having them explained (or even modeled).

Grammar 1. a set of rules describing how a language’s components interact 2. a tool useful for boring students and reinforcing teacher ego 3. In most of the world salient only in the learning of computer languages, but in too many places fed directly to students of living languages 4. A thing whose mastery– like speech– is the result, not the cause, of language acquisition 5. “Analyzing language is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” — after E.B. White, via Dennis Doyle

Grammarian: someone who believes that explaining the parts will lead to speaking the whole

Green Bible: Ray and Seely’s “how to do T.P.R.S.” book Teaching Fluency Through T.P.R. Storytelling. Written at the suggestion of Susan Gross, who urged Ray to clarify his method and provide a reference for T.P.R.S. practitioners.

James Asher: American psychologist and the rediscoverer of T.P.R.— total physical response– where teachers speak and gesture, and students gesture, as a way of helping recall.

L1: a speaker’s first (native) language.  What they grew up hearing.

L2. L3 etca language learned in some kind instructional or immersion setting.

Language: a dialect with an army

Learning 1. Consciously manipulating language (vocab and grammar) to try to acquire it 2. What one can do with language when one has time to consciously think of vocab, rules, etc.

Lecture: the process whereby the notes of the teacher become the notes of the students without passing through the mind of either (Mencken).  See also “stiff meeting.”

Legacy method: (Waltz & Krashen) any older way of teaching language which does not align with modern research.  Legacy methods include drill, grammar translation, audiolingual etc, as well as individual aspects of practice which slow or do not aid acquisition, such as forcing students to talk, grammar worksheets, multiple-guess listening activities, and what Long calls “synthetic” teaching (present, practice & produce) etc.

Mental representation: (VanPatten) a set of brain patterns developed when comprehensible input is processed by Noam Chomsky’s “language acquisition device,” patterns which allow for first comprehension and then production of language, and a “gut level” awareness of what works or doesn’t in that language.

Monitor: 1. the “voice in the head” which is consciously aware of grammar rules, word meanings, etc.  2. What grammar teaching reaches 3. What a competent speaker of a language does not use except under very specific, reflective and/or time-available conditions.

Myth: 1. a belief, ungrounded in science or history, with alleged explanatory power whose job is to legitimise something.  In language teaching, prominent myths include speaking leading to acquisition, grammar practice being necessary, grammar rules being brain-friendly, themes and topics being effective means for vocabulary organisation, etc. 2. a story which despite factual challenges holds power.  S.L.A. researcher Bill VanPatten writes that “[s]ome of the myths perpetuated in language departments include that

  • explicitly teaching grammar and vocabulary is necessary or even beneficial,
  • correction of learner output is necessary
  • practice makes perfect,
  • learners acquire rules and paradigms
  • learning vocabulary and grammar is a prerequisite to learning to communicate
  • first-language transfer is the source of all learning problems,
  • adults learn languages differently from children, among many, many others.”

Natural method: comprehensible input language teaching method (and book of the same name) developed by Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell in early 1990s.  Influenced Blaine Ray’s T.P.R.S.

Noam Chomsky: 1. The man who invented modern linguistics, largely on the basis of his theory of generative grammar, which explains how the brain’s “language acquisition device” processes linguistic input, infers language-specific rules therefrom, and can use a limited number of rules and vocabulary items to generate an infinite number of sentences.  2. A relentless, fact-focused and principled critic of U.S. power 3. One of the only scientists to have an experimental animal– Nim Chimpsky– named after him.

Noun: a thing in uhh language

Output: any meaningful production of the target language.  The result, not the cause, of acquisition. The Holy Grail of language teaching.

Parallel character: having another character in an asked story whose experiences are roughly similar to the main character’s. Basically an excuse to recycle vocabulary.

Peer-to-peer communication: 1. getting learners to use the language with each other to share ideas and information 2. “The McDonalds of language teaching” (Waltz, Krashen)

Pop-up (a.k.a. “grammar commercial”– Adriana Ramírez): a brief, non-boring in-context explanation of the meaning of a grammar item (e.g. “Class, in Spanish, the  or  end on that word means he or she did it in the past”)

Poverty of stimulus argument: Chomsky’s point that despite not seeing certain kinds of word combinations, language acquirers do in fact “figure out” the rules for using these words, and do not make certain kinds of errors.  One of the main supports in the Universal Grammar theory.

Practice: what helps basketball players and rock climbers, and what in a language classroom only works if it involves processing input.

Results: what matters in language teaching.  The best results will be characterised by fluent, quick, unedited and voluminous output generated by unstressed students who do not have access to books, dictionaries, etc when writing or speaking.

Rule:  something books and teachers love to explain but which students oddly enough are unable thereby to learn.

P.Q.A.: (personalised questions and answers): using targeted vocabulary to generate student-teacher microconversations in ways that connect vocabulary to students’ experiences.  In T.P.R.S., PQA basically involves the teacher asking students the questions asked of the actors, and “running with” answers– true or invented– which interest the student.

Scaffolding: edubabble for “start with something students know, then guide them from there through something they don’t.”

Sheltered grammar: not using all grammatical devices or rules from the target language during teaching or in the reading.  A characteristic of legacy method teaching.  Most textbooks “shelter” grammar by introducing first one verb tense, then another, etc.  Sheltering grammar comes from the mistaken idea that languages are organised into skill sets that can be acquired one at a time.

Sir Ken Robinson: University type, whose never having taught in an actual primary or secondary classroom (or having developed a useful method of any kind) uniquely qualifies him to discuss teaching in primary and secondary classrooms.

Slosher (Waltz): a student who has been exposed to enough grammar and vocab lists that isolated fragments of language slosh around uselessly in his/her head.

Sociocultural communicative competence: 1. edubabble for “discretion is the better part of valor,” a.k.a. knowing what to say and not say in a different culture and language. 2. The lack of which is the source of Borat’s humour. 3. arguably the least important thing a teacher of languages should focus on.

Speedwrite (a.k.a. “Timed write”).  1.  a writing assignment done with a time limit and no access to notes, dictionaries etc.  The aim is to show what students have unconsciously and automatically acquired, as opposed to learned, by not giving them enough time to plan or reflect on writing. 2. Where students who have had loads of good comprehensible input shine, and grammar/”communicatively”-taught kids freak out.

Standardised test: 1. a way of fairly and impartially assessing how well ALL animals, including fish, giraffes, snakes and Samoyed dogs– and not just monkeys– can climb trees.  2. A way for educational testing companies to get approximately $500,000,000 per year from U.S. taxpayers. 3. A very effective way of ensuring that only what can be measured with numbers is taught.

Stiff meeting: a monthly, Admin-organised chance to catch up on email, own the crap out of Level 49 in Candy Crush Saga, or do some marking.  Verbal irony, people– nobody actually ever does any of these things in meetings.

Stephen D. Krashen U.C.L.A. researcher who developed (and found much of the evidence for) the comprehensible input hypothesis.  Also an expert on the effects of free voluntary reading, a relentless critic of standardised testing in the U.S., major caffeine addict and a former champion weightlifter.

Story: 1. the world’s oldest teaching method 2. a narrated set of events where one or more characters faces a significant challenge and/or conflict which s/he must overcome and/or resolve. 3. the easiest and most enjoyable way to present vocabulary in a new language

Storyasking: the process of story narration and acting, where the teacher supplies the language, and the students the acting and story details.  Also called narrative co-creation. Invented by Blaine Ray.

Strong interface position: the view (DeKeyser) that explicit grammar teaching (e.g. explanations) aids acquisition.

Synthetic teaching: (Long) the “present, practice and produce” model of language teaching, a.k.a. “focus on forms.”  Exemplified by the ¡Díme! Spanish texts.  A discredited legacy method.

Teacher: a lazy, expensive, liberal and Unionized waste of space which would in an ideal world be replaced with a combination of iPads, multiple-guess tests, Bible sermons, worksheets and Khan Academy videos.

Terry Waltz: 1. Mandarin teacher, PhD, presenter, speaker of 13 languages, TPRS in Chinese “how-to” book author, and professional translator 2. The funniest person in the comprehensible input universe 3. someone whose statements will be at least three of the following:  empirically true, funny, thoughtful, applicable

Textbook: 1. An excellent source of corporate profits 2. A great way to physically raise a computer monitor or prop up a desk 3. A poor source of both compelling comprehensible input and brain-friendly activities.  4. “This is not something to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown away with great force.” –Geoff Jordan, after Dorothy Parker.

Thinking: 1. deliberate mental activity which does not help anyone learn a language. 2. What textbook publishers do only when designing textbook marketing.

T.P.R.S. “Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling”– Blaine Ray’s comprehensible input language teaching method which emphasises collaborative narratives, input, and reading fiction over grammar practice, output and reading informational text. Known by green-with-envy detractors as Twitching Purple Reptile Stories.

Universal grammar: what Chomsky describes as built-in “software” that allows the brain to receive linguistic input and “build” a mental representation– automatic functional knowledge– of language.  Evidence for the U.G.’s existence is the formation of mental representation in a predictable set of patterns across ;languages.

Unsheltered grammar: using all the grammatical rules, devices, etc that belong to a language when teaching it and in the readings provided to students.  Many comprehensible input methods teachers use unsheltered grammar either immediately or soon after beginning instruction.

Vocabulary list: what textbooks insist that students memorise, and which brain research says they can’t.

Verb: another thing, err, uhhh, from the language

Weak interface position: the view (Krashen, VanPatten) that grammar explanations beyond clarifying meaning do not aid acquisition.  No evidence has been offered to support this position.

Weighing the pig: short for “weighing the pig won’t make it fatter,” i.e. testing students does nothing to develop their language abilities.  This fact has had very little


1. Grammar or vocab learning tool that doesn’t help people who don’t understand, and which is unnecessary for those who do

2. What textbook publishers fill low-cost, high-margin student workbooks with

3. What friends don’t let friends hand out

4. The Novocaine of the language teaching profession.

5. A superb way of bringing 19th century ideas into the 21st century classroom.