Eric Hermann

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

Part One: The Basics

weightlifter_1216621c

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you see where we are going with this?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free weight lifting is the comprehensible input of fitness.

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two: Planning and Feedback

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Second Language Acquisition Quotes

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

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

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

Organisation of quotes:

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

 

1. ACQUISITION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2. GRAMMAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3. COMPELLING INPUT

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

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

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

4. ATTITUDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5. OUTPUT AND CORRECTION

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7. FOREIGN LANGUAGE BENEFITS

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

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

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

 

8. CURRICULUM

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

9. TIME

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

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

 

10. READING

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Those who read more, write better” – Krashen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What results does T.P.R.S. get? Amazing ones…and here’s the proof.

Do T.P.R.S., Movietalk, Look and Discuss, and other comprehensible input methods work?

Yes.  And not only do they work, they work much better than anything else out there.

What began as a friendly Twitter challenge– beat my beginner kids’ output using old-school methods or textbook, and I’ll take you crafty beer-drinking, hashtag #showumine– now has a bunch of T.P.R.S. teachers showing what their kids can do.

The rules are simple: show what your kids can do in writing (or speech) without dictionaries, rehearsal, Internet, notes or advance warning, with limited time and no preparation.  In other words, show what’s wired in, i.e. acquired, and not “learned.”

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.  So, without any further ado, here are results.  This entry, constantly updated, provides links to various teachers’ kids’ written and oral output.

We need more French samples, and all other languages are welcome.  Know something that needs adding?  Lemme know and I’ll add it.

SPANISH  

Eric Herman‘s oral assessment of beginners is here.  Eric notes that “these are unfamiliar tasks and functions, but I challenge non-c.i. teachers to give the same test and get the same results.”

Chris Stolz has Spring semester 2015 beginner writing samples from 7 weeks in8 weeks in, stories from 8 weeks in and 11 weeks in.  This post compares two top students– one taught with legacy methods, one with C.I.

Grant Boulanger has 8th graders doing oral output here.  Here is one of Grant’s beginners– using three verb tenses and other so-called “advanced” grammar– to retell a story.  Grant also showcases his 8th graders (Level 1 Spanish) doing an impromptu story retell here.

Mike Coxon‘s kids are recorded here.

Mike Peto has some writing samples here.

Crsytal Barragan here shows first-day-back-to-school writing samples. Here, the student who was taught with T.P.R.S. writes rings around the student from the legacy-methods class.

Adriana Ramírez’ Level 1 Spanish results are here.

Jim Tripp has some Level 2 examples (with discussion) here.

Darcy Pippins’ AP results are here.  

LATIN

Magister Lance Piantaggini shows what beginner kids can do in Latin.

CHINESE

Terry Waltz‘s site has writing samples plus oral stuff.  Her kids can throw down with charactersCheck it.

Hai Yun Lu has a level 1 Mandarin student storytelling here.

GERMAN

Brigitte Kahn‘s kids do 5-min speedwrites here.

FRENCH

Bess Hayles shows first day back from vacation writing samples here.

A traditionalist and Kim A. (comprehensible input) here have writing samples.  The reader can decide if the Level 2 (traditional) or Level 1 (C.I.) Kim A vs Traditojnalist exemplars.

The Research Supporting the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis and C.I. Instruction

Research shows that

  • languages are acquired only when people get aural or written comprehensible input
  • comprehensible reading in the target language improves acquisition a lot
  • grammar practice and explanations, most metacognition, performance feedback, and output are of minimal or no value
  • drills and any other kind of output practice don’t work
  • there are predictable, unavoidable, error-involving stages and sequences of acquisition of grammar which cannot be changed
  • learners’ speaking the target language does not help learners acquire it, and often slows acquisition
  • comprehensible input methods (including T.P.R.S., narrative paraphrase a.k.a. Movietalk, and free voluntary reading) do more for acquisition than legacy methods
  • despite superficial differences, children and adults learn languages in the same way

Here is the evidence supporting what we know about language acquisition.  Thanks to Eric Herman for digging a lot of this up, and thanks to Karen Lichtman, Bill VanPatten, Ray Hull, Stephen D. Krashen, Wynne Wong, Reed Riggs and Paul Nation for sending papers, comments, etc.

Want a live crash course in research?  See Bill VanPatten’s presentation (in 6 parts) here.  His weekly podcast is archived here (free to listen to/download, etc).  Lance Pantagiani’s condensed Tea With BVP episodes are archived here. Sarah Cottrell’s Musicuentos podcasts are also worth a listen. 

1) Should students be taught and practice specific grammar points?  NO.  Truscott reviews research and says that no meaningful support has been provided for the […] position that grammar should be taught. Krashen annihilates the grammarians’ arguments here. Wong and VanPatten also dismiss the grammar-practice argument here, and VanPatten, Keating & Leeser (2012) conclude that “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.”  See VanPatten & Rothman (2014?) for a full discussion

VanPatten also notes that “what we call grammar rules are what we end up with, and are not how we learn or what the brain actually does” (MIWLA presentation, 2013), and that “classroom rule learning is not the same as acquisition.” Lightbrown writes that “structured input works as well as structured input plus explanation” (in VanPatten, 2004): in other words, explanations don’t aid acquisition (though some students may feel good getting them). 

Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as  VanPatten and Wong (2003) put it, that “learners– again, both in and out of the classroom– have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”

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

VanPatten (2013) also echoes Susan Gross when he notes that “building up in a learner’s brain [are] simultaneously  lexicon and morphology, syntatic features and constraints, pragmatics and discourse, interfaces between components, communicative discourse [and] skill” and that “these happen all at once.  They are almost impossible to isolate and practice one at a time, because they don’t operate one at a time.

In a fascinating study, Batterink & Neville (2013) found evidence that the “longstanding hypothesis is that syntactic processing occurs outside of conscious awareness, relying upon computational mechanisms that are autonomous and automatic” (what Krashen calls the Monitor model) is, in fact, correct.

2) How much vocabulary, grammar and general language skill do students pick up via free voluntary reading (FVR)? LOTS…and loads more than from direct instruction. There are estimates that readers acquire an average of a word every twenty minutes of FVR, that FVR works about twenty times as quickly as classroom instruction, and that 75% of an adult’s vocabulary comes from reading.  See Lehman (2007), summarised here. Additional free voluntary reading research is detailed on Krashen’s site and Japanese researcher Beniko Mason has also done a ton of good FVR research.  There is very good research on the Fijian Book Flood experiment detailed here, which shows, among other things, that some “focus on form”– grammar and writing feedback– is useful for second-language acquisition at later and higher levels, even while comprehensible input does 95% of the work and remains the sine qua non of language acquisition.  In a recent study (abstract here), non-native speakers of Spanish who had a Spanish reading habit had much greater vocabulary than native Spanish speakers who did not read.  Rob Waring makes the “Inescapable Case for Extensive Reading.”

VanPatten writes that “for maximum vocabulary development, learners need to read all along the way, since most vocabulary development in both L1 and L2 is incidental, meaning that vocabulary is learned as a by-product of some other intention (normally reading).” Warwick Ely here examines free voluntary reading, grammar instruction, etc, and comes to the same conclusions that Krashen, VanPatten, Wong, Lightbrown & Spada etc do. Waring (2015) here makes the “inescapable case” for reading.  Mason and Krashen’s look at F.V.R. among Japanese learners of English showed significant positive effects.

Self-selected, comprehensible, interesting reading in the target (or native) language is boosts acquisition for the following reasons:
  • it delivers masses of comprehensible input
  • learners can pause, slow down, go back and seek extra (e.g. online or dictionary) help, which they cannot do nearly as well with a live speaker, and especially not with many native speakers (who often do not adjust vocabulary and speed to non-native-speakers’ needs)
  • readers can (and generally do) select books (input) tailored to their level
  • there is no output pressure, so the affective filter is low
  • for beginners, prosodic features like word differentiation are easier to see than to hear (but others, such as tone and accent, are harder to grasp)
  • the brain’s visual system is acute and, especially for monolinguals, better developed than the hearing processing system.

3) Do people acquire language via comprehensible input? YES. Krashen here summarises the comprehension hypothesis and destroys its rivals. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) state that “comprehensible input remains the foundation of all language acquisition.”  VanPatten and Wong (2003) note that “Acquisition of a linguistic system is input dependent.”  Krashen also takes a look at savants, polyglots and ordinary folk who have learned languages via comprehensible input in this fascinating paper.  In a study of Spanish learners, comprehensible input teaching worked about six times as quickly as traditional instruction.  There is a great short comprehensible input demo by Krashen here, and here (starts at about 12:30) is a longer and more detailed lecture.

Krashen also lists the academic research supporting comprehensible input here.

Ashely Hastings’ “Focal Skills” program (which presents first aural (and video), then written comprehensible input before moving into writing and speaking), was designed for use in Uni classes, and is where what we call “Movietalk” came from.  The research on Focal Skills shows it much more effective than traditional present-and-practice approaches.

Karen Lichtman lists the T.P.R.S.-supportive research here.

4) Should we organise curriculum thematically?  NO.  Among other reasons, it turns out that it’s harder to remember clusters of similar vocab than collections of thematically disparate vocab. As Paul Nation writes, “research on learning related vocabulary, such as lexical sets, … shows that learning related words at the same time [e.g. in thematic/semantic units such as “clothes” or “chores”] makes learning them more difficult. This learning difficulty can be avoided if related words are learned separately, as they are when learning from normal language use.” See Paul Nation on lexical sets and Rob Waring’s paper on vocab learning.

5) Should we “shelter” (limit) vocab?  YES. Evidence from children’s language acquisition suggests that we should, while “upping” prosodic variation (“wacky” or differentiated voices), reading rituals, and responses to student output (the paper is forthcoming). There is some processing research (VanPatten) that suggests that the amount of “mental energy” available for comprehension is limited, and that a minimal amount of new vocab be introduced in structured patterns over a broad overlay of well-known vocab, so that “mental energy” can be devoted to acquiring newer items. VanPatten: “any model of L2 input processing [must] consider in some way the impact of capacity issues in working memory on what learners can do at a given point in time.”  In other words, overload = bad. 

Children also acquire vocabulary more quickly if it is “framed”: delivered in interactive, structured and limited speech-and-response sets (see chapter 10 of the interesting book Nurture Shock for details). It is estimated (Nation, 2006) that in most languages, the top 1000 most-frequently-used words account for about 85% of all oral language use, and the top 2000 for ~95%.  Best practice is probably to teach “along the frequency list” where the most emphasis is on words that are most used (with variations that cater to student needs and interests).

6) Can learners “learn” grammar that teachers “teach?”  NO.  VanPatten (2010) argues in this very comprehensive paper that “some domains [aspects of language acquisition] may be more or less amenable to explicit instruction and practice [e.g.vocabulary], while others are stubborn or resistant to external influences [e.g. grammar].”  VanPatten, echoing Krashen, concludes that there is limited transfer of conscious knowledge “about” language into functional fluency and comprehension, and notes that “[n]ot only does instruction not alter the order of acquisition, neither does practice” (2013).

Ellis (1993) says that “what is learned is controlled by the learner and not the teacher, not the text books, and not the syllabus.” 

7) Should we use L1– the “mother tongue”– in class? YES, (albeit as little as possible), as Krashen notes, because this avoids both ambiguity AND incomprehensibility, neither of which  help acquisition. Here are some ideas about why L1 should be used in the languages classroom (Immersion teachers take note…all the _______ in the world won’t help kids who do not understand it).  Nation (2003) notes “There are numerous ways of conveying the meaning of an unknown word […] However, studies comparing the effectiveness of various methods for learning always come up with the result that an L1 translation is the most effective (Lado, Baldwin and Lobo 1967; Mishima 1967; Laufer and Shmueli 1997).”  
8) Can we change the order of acquisition? NO. Krashen’s books have examples of order of acquisition. More recently, Lightbrown and Spada (2013) reiterate Krashen’s contentions, showing how acquisition order of verb forms (in English-learning children) is fixed. Wong and VanPatten (2003) make the same point.  There is very little we can do to “speed up” acquisition of any “foreign” grammar rule (e.g. English speakers learning the Spanish subjunctive) or vocabulary, other than providing lots of comprehensible input that contains the rule in question.  

VanPatten (2013) notes that instruction “does not alter the order of acquisition,” and Long (1997) says that “[t]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.” We also know that L2 mistakes are partially a function of L1, have partly to do with L1-L2 differences, but mostly to do with learners not being mentally ready to produce the new form (which is a result of a lack of input).  

For example, L1 German learners of L2 French make mistakes with subject-verb inversion…despite German having exactly the same rule as French for s-v inversion.  Arika Okrent documents children’s L1 acquisition errors; note that errors 5-8 are also classic adult L2 acquisition errors (stages).  

Again, Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as  VanPatten and Wong (2003)  put it, that “learners […] have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”

9) Does correcting or properly re-stating learner mistakes–recasting– improve learner performance? NO. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) point out that while teachers like recasting (and do it a lot), and while students can and do immediately generate improved output as a result, “these interactions were not associated with improved performance on […] subsequent test[s].”  My view: if there is a place for recasts in the languages classroom, it is in ensuring that student output– which is also input for other students– is comprehensible and accurate.

10) Is there broad agreement among second-languages-acquisition researchers about what constitutes effective practice? YES. In this paper, Ellis lays out the “ten principles” of second languages teaching.  He notes

  • comprehensible input is the sine qua non of second language acquisition
  • we must provide some “focus on form” (grammar explanations) to support meaning
  • there is no transfer from explicit knowledge of grammar to implicit language competence
  • the use of quite a lot of “formulaic” expressions– a.k.a. “lexical chunks”– is essential esp. for beginners
  • instruction must primarily focus on meaning
  • drills don’t work
  • some output is necessary for acquisition in much later stages as this focuses learner attention on some aspects of form

S.L.A. researcher Patsy Lightbrown here explains the “known facts” about second language acquisition.  Here is a video of S.L.A. research and what works/does not work by Bill VanPatten.

11) Do “learning styles” or “multiple intelligences” exist?  NO.  In this paper, psychologist Daniel Willingham puts the boots to the idea that teachers need to kill themselves providing nineteen different ways to learn the verb “to run.”  While people often have preferences about learning, and while some people definitely have better skills in some areas than others, there is no evidence to suggest that language acquisition is positively affected by anything other than the presence of masses of comprehensible input, and the absence of counterproductive activities (grammar practice, forced output, grammar lectures, etc).  

VanPatten has said that “No research has found a link between learning styles and individual differences on the one hand, and on the other the processes involved in language acquisition.

12) Do students like speaking in a second-language class?  Generally, no.  Krashen first made this point, and Baker and MacIntyre note that “Speaking has been found to be the most anxiety-provoking form of communication,” (references to Maclntyre & Gardner (1991) and McCroskey & Richmond (1987)) and also note that production anxiety in classes is high among non-Immersion students.  

Best practice is probably to let those want to, talk, and to delay any output for others while asking them to signal comprehension or lack thereof (as natural approach, A.I.M., Narrative Paraphrase and T.P.R.S. do).

13)  Does speaking improve acquisition?  NO.  Despite (a few) studies which try to make the case for output, there isn’t a strong one. See Krashen’s response to one such study here, and his examination of Swain’s output hypothesis– and the research testing it– here. In another study, English-speaking students were taught Spanish structures (subjunctive and conditional) via various mixes of input and practice output. In this study, students who

  • got input only did very well
  • got input and did limited output (“practise”) did no better than input-only students
  • did more output (“practise”) than getting input did significantly worse than those who got more input.

Wong and VanPatten (2003) note that “[a]cquisition of a linguistic system is input-dependent, meaning that learners must be engaged in comprehension in order to construct that system […] Production is not comprehension and thus produced language is not input for the learner. That input must come from others.” They also note that “drills are unnecessary and in some cases hinder acquisition,” and Van Patten (2013) remarks that “traditional ‘practice’ may result in language-like behaviour, but not acquisition” and that “practice is not a substitute for input.”  He goes on to ask “if input is so important, what does traditional practice do?” and answers “essentially very little, if anything.  It does not help mental representation.  It is not clear it helps skills.”  

VanPatten also says that when “mechanical drills attempt to get the learner to acquire the thing they are asked to produce, the cart has been put before the horse,” and notes that “research conducted since the early 1990s has shown that traditional approaches to teaching grammar that involve the use of mechanical, meaningful and communicative drills do not foster acquisition in the way that practice [listening/reading] with structured input does.

14) Should we speak s.l.o.w.l.y. in class? YES. Audiologist Ray Hull writes  “[f]or an adolescent, spoken speech at around 135 words per minute is perfect for speech understanding, particularly when the student is learning a new language. So, 130 WPM may be even better. It will seem very slow to you, but the central auditory system of the student will appreciate it.” Adult native-language output is 170-180 words per minute, so slowness is essential (for all teachers, not just those of languages).  Note that there is no way to speed up auditory processing speed.

15) Do learners need many repetitions of vocab items to acquire them? YES.  In this study, scientists concluded that 160 repetitions of an item resulted in new items being “wired in” like older (or L1) items.  However, acquisition rates vary and depends on various factors:  is the word an L1 cognate?  Is it being used comprehensibly?  Is its use meaningful?, etc. 

16) Does feedback about performance in a language (e.g. correction, explicit information, etc) help acquisition?  NO.  Sanz and Morgan-Short (2002) replicated with computer-delivered input what VanPatten & Cadierno (1993) did with spoken and written input.  And, as VanPatten & Wong (2003) put it, they found that “neither explicit information nor explicit feedback seemed to be crucial for a change in performance; practice in decoding structured input alone […] was sufficient.”  In other words, explaining to people how a grammar rule in a language works, and/or pointing out, explaining and recasting (correcting) errors has no effect on acquisition.  VanPatten also writes that “Overt correction does little good in the long run” but “indirect correction may be useful,” but notes that the research on indirect feedback is far from clear. 

17)  Are some people better language learners than others?  NO.  Older research (as Vanpatten, 2013, watch it here, video 5, says) suggested different people had different aptitudes.  New research (VanPatten 2013b, 2014) suggests, echoing Krashen, that on traditional tests of aptitude that measure conscious learninge.g. knowing grammar rules– there are “better” and “worse” students.  

HOWEVER, in terms of processing (understanding) ability, there is no difference among people.  If they get comprehensible input, they acquire at roughly the same rate, in the same way.  A classroom that foregrounds grammar practice and output should produce a more varied mix of outcomes than one which focuses on input.  VanPatten notes that working memory– roughly, how much “stuff” one can keep in their head consciously at a time– varies between individuals, and that those with greater working memory may find language acquisition easier.

18) Do children and adults learn languages in the same way? Mostly, yes.  Children must develop a linguistic system while simultaneously acquiring a language.  For example, kids need to develop basic competencies (which adults take for granted), such as knowing that words can represent reality, that that there are such things as individual words, etc.  Once this “linguistic foundation” has been laid, kids and adults acquire languages in the same way. We know this because kids and adults make similar errors, have similar sequences of acquiring grammar, etc. As VanPatten notes, “adults and children appear to be constrained by the same mechanisms during language acquisition regardless of context, and the fundamental ingredients of language acquisition are at play in both situations: input (communicatively embedded language that learners hear or see, if sign language); Universal Grammar coupled with general learning architecture; and processing mechanisms that mediate between input and the internal architecture. In short, much of what we observe as differences between adults and children are externally imposed differences; not differences in underlying linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects of acquisition. And some of those externally imposed differences are a direct result of myths about language acquisition.”

 19) Do we have data showing how well comprehensible input methods work in comparison with legacy methods?  YES.  (note:  Nov 14 2015– this section is being updated; please comment if you have things to add)
  • C.A.L.A. testing showed T.P.R.S.-taught students outperforming other students despite having less in-class time than other students
  • Joe Dziedzic found that T.P.R.S. outperformed “communicative” teaching, with the biggest gains for T.P.R.S.-taught students being in oral and written output, despite T.P.R.S. students not being forced to speak or write outside of evaluation.
  • Ray & Seely’s Fluency Through T.P.R. Storytelling (7th ed.) has a research appendix.  Summary:  T.P.R.S. never works worse than, sometimes performs as well as, but mostly performs better than traditional methods.
There is no evidence suggesting that the following legacy language practices are effective:
  • grammar teaching and practice
  • forced and/or early output
  • any kind of drill
  • error correction and/or recasts
  • minimal reading; “fragmented” one-dimensional reading (e.g. lists, informational text, etc)
  • sequenced grammar instruction

Got a study, paper, etc that needs adding? Email me or add a comment and I’ll update this.

The New Brunswick E.S.L. Study & the power of comprehensible input

Eric Hermann shared a really cool article on Ben’s about E.S.L. language acquisition in New Brunswick. The study compared classes who basically got to do a load of free voluntary reading (and/or listening) for five years from Grade 3 to Grade 8 with classes who had direct instruction in writing etc. The results are that while after two years the free-reading/listening kids did a well as the others on all measures (comprehension, speaking, writing), but 8th grade the structured lesson kids (well, one batch of them) had pulled ahead.

The study is worth reading– and taking a hard look at the numbers– because it can suggest a number of things which seem to contradict Krashen and others which support his views that language is acquired only via loads of comprehensible input.

a) It seems that, in terms of writing, some guided practice and feedback makes a difference when kids get to beyond-beginner levels. There is a lot of speculation about why this is, but it basically boils down to this: acquisition (via comprehension only) seems to have certain limits. For example, when a student hears the Spanish “me gustan los tacos,” s/he can figure out one way or the other that “me gustan” means “I like.” The problem is that once learners “get” what “gusta” means, they are less inclined to focus in on other stuff. The –n on gustan is used for plurals (liking more than one object). You need to know what gusta means to communicate or understand; you don’t need to know (or use) the -n rule for this, so naturally it is much later acquired.

Kids and second-language learners do this all the time. The way English kids pick up negation like this, as VanPatten and Gross remind us:

“At first negation is simply NO followed by a phrase. Then NO moves inside the phrase and “don’t” is also used in an unanalyzed way. Then the idea of “-n’t” attaching to modals in an unanalyzed way. Finally the whole system of auxiliary verbs and the correct usage of “not” and of contractions.”

So, basically, the “most important stuff”– meaning-based– is acquired first; the later stuff is window dressing. (This is one of the reasons why the third-person -s ending is late acquired in English…it’s there but basically unnecessary). In this study, it is noteworthy that the direct-instruction kids did somewhat better in writing than the acquisition-via-comprehension-only kids. It is possible that this happened because people needed to have their attention consciously focused on some aspects of writing that they would otherwise not naturally pick up on right away. It is also possible that– as a number of researchers have argued, defying Krashen– that the production system and the compehension system in the brain operate in an “at odds” way sometimes, and must be trained differently. While input drives pretty much everything to do with remembering etc, (there is no argument among SLA researchers about this) it is possible that output needs some training.

b) There are some design flaws in the study. E.g. group RG1 was assigned homework; there were therefore different treatments (in terms of time) between the control and the experimental groups when the only difference should have been what was taught. In addition, while the RG1 group was assigned homework, the experimental groups were not allowed to take reading/listening home with them, further amplifying the differences ebwteen them. One of the experimental group teachers also started grammar teaching three days a week in Grade 8. It is possible that the two teachng styles– read on yoru own, or listen to teacher– conflicted.

c) The study could very well support Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis in that it is amazing how well the experimental kids did with no instruction. One of the traditional groups scored basically as well as the experimental groups; one control (RG1) scored somewhat better. The study seems to suggest that free voluntary reading (and/or listening) works about 90% as well as a teacher…but without a teacher). This suggests to me that, in terms of aquiring language, what the teacher does is really very minimal compared to what reading (or listening) do. This research broadly reflects other research on literacy, which notes that the teacher accounts for 10-20% of kids’ achievement in class, while other factors– parental literay, wealth, etc– account for much more.

d) Broadly, what I get out of this– loads of input for beginners; more specific writing feedback as they get older is needed– is what Blaine Ray and Susan Gross have recommended for years.

The moral of the story? Comprehensible input– via stories, reading, listening, etc– works incredibly well. Students may do well with feedback (in writing, for writing) to improve their writing. Teacher effects on writing quality are significant but small. My recomendation? Help your Level 2 and up kids with writing: give feedback (simple feedback) and model the sticking points in stories.

Which words should we teach?

Nathaneil recently corrected my Avancemos word count (thanks!) and this raised the question, which words should we be teaching in a foreign-language classroom?  As I’ve said before, we should be aiming at teaching appr.250 words/year, and over four years 1,000 words.

There are a couple of answers to this question.

a)  According to Stephen Krashen, we should be teaching whatever interests the students.  Input that is comprehensible, compelling (and can be repeated zillions oftimes) is the holy grail of foreign language teaching.

b)  We should be teaching the most-frequently-used words in our target language.

Paul Nation (2006) has compiled a Spanish frequency list.  You can see onlne versions for Spanish, French and other languages here.  Here’s some info that totally shocked me.

1.  85% of all the words spoken in any language are about 1,000 words.  I.e., if you looked at speech– from people, films, radio, etc– in any language, 85% of the words used would be the same 1,000 words.   The other 15% of words are used much less frequently.

2.  In Spanish, the 100 most-used words include verbs in four tenses.  In the top 200 most-used words, there are verbs in FIVE verb tenses plus the subjunctive mood.

3.  In Spanish, the only numbers in the top 100 are one and two, and the only greeting/goodbye is “hello.”  “Goodbye” is at # 315!

4. Top 200 words include no colours, weather expressions, days of the week, food items, months or sports.

Here are some word-frequency rankings from Davies’ A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish (2006). Words are translated to English.  The numbers in brackets indicate the rank of how often the word is used.  The higher the #, the less frequently the word is used.

  • Animals: (780) horse, (4,945) elephant
  • Body: (150) hand, (2,407) ear
  • Clothing: (1,710) suit, (4,427) t-shirt
  • Colors: (250) white, (8225) orange
  • Days: (1,121) Sunday, (3490) Tuesday
  • Family: (166) son, (5,071) niece
  • Food: (787) meat, (7602) carrot
  • Months: (1,244) August, (2,574) September
  • Sports: (2,513) soccer, (28,388) hockey
  • Weather: (989) heat, (5493) breeze

So…what should we teach?  The evidence is pretty clear:  frequently-used vocab.

How weird are textbooks?  Well, you’ll spend a few days (as a beginner) learning hellos and goodbyes.  You’ll almost certainly spend some time on numbers, weather, clothing, family etc units..even though none of these are in the top 200!  Avancemos spends Unit 1 on time, numbers, hellos and goodbyes, and introductions.  OK, ok.  We do need to know these…but, seriously, how boring is it to spend 2-3 days on this.  “Hello” is not interesting.  “Hello, my name is Sharkeisha, and I want to buy 39 pitbulls for my birthday” is interesting, especially when it’s part of a story.  And when it’s part of a story, we focus on the meaning– who is Sharkeisha? will she get her pitbulls? will her party be fun?– and we effortlessly pick up “hello” (once we know what it means) as part of background to a story.

I remember when I was a traditional, “communicative” teacher and I dutifully made games and “activities” to teach these things.  I had to, because they are little-used and boring.  Now, with T.P.R.S., I just throw them randomly into stories as background, and I can focus kids on the things we most use, and keep them interested by using stories with real chaarcters and problems (and humor).