Feed Your Head!

What’s A Cognate?

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

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

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

Anyway, what I got from this was two things:

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did Mason find?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So…what are the implications for a language classroom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAVEATS

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

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

THE BOTTOM LINE

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

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. 

How clear should I make it?

I gave an all-day workshop in Victoria last Friday and as usual began with a German demo:  asking a story, PQA, Textivate, Picturetalk, Movietalk, embedded reading.  I’ll briefly mention two things of note:

Here’s a few German words:

hatten = had          eine = a, an          Katze = cat

Can you figure out this sentence?

“John und Candice hatten eine Katze”

Right:  “John and Candice had a cat.”

I had written on the board glücklich = 🙂 .  Glücklich means “happy” and sometimes “lucky” in German.  During storyasking, I had used the word “und” many, many times (but I had not written it on the board, or translated it on the embedded reading), and I had also used the word glücklich a bunch.

Near the end of the demo, a participant asked “what does glücklich mean?”  Another participant then asked “what does und mean?”

I was floored.  What, I thought, could be more obvious than 🙂 = happy?  What could possibly be more obvious than und means “and”?  These were language teachers who wanted to be there, who wanted to acquire some German, and who had the metacognitive skills to know when things weren’t clear and ask for help.  All of them spoke at least two languages, and most had studied more at some point.

Today’s question: How clear and unambiguous should I make my classroom target  language?

Today’s answer: Even clearer.  🙂

 

 

The Zen of Language Teaching

Here are your koans.  

If you want to successfully teach grammar, do not teach grammar.

If you want your students to talk, do not ask them to talk.

If you want your students to write well, do not make them practise writing.

If you want them to acquire more words, teach them fewer words.

If you want to make them fluent, do not try to make them fluent.

If you want your students to acquire a language, do not teach them about the language.

If you want your students to know the meanings of lists of words, do not give them lists of words.

If you want your students to spell properly, do not make them practise spelling.

Just because nothing appears to happening doesn’t mean nothing is actually happening.

Just because something is happening doesn’t mean anything is happening.

Don’t just say something– sit there!  

If you want your students to read, do not teach them how or what to read.

If you want your students to prepare for the unknown, make them comfortable with what they know.

A student without a language dictionary is like a fish without a bicycle (sorry, Gloria).

A language classroom with lists of words is like a phone book with stories.

In order to see exactly how much influence you have over the specific language your students acquire, lie in the grass and stare at the clouds. 

“If you want to build a ship, do not gather the men to collect wood, divide up the work, or give orders.  Teach them instead to yearn for the vast and infinite sea.”– Antoine de St. Exupery

As always, the ideas here are are grounded in research, and this one was inspired by Mandarin and S.L.A. guru Terry Waltz.

The game of Go, computers, and language acquisition

I’ve been playing the ancient game of Go for years now– badly; I am ranked around 6 kyu at my best– and there are some fascinating lessons to be learned from Go play and attempts to program computers to play Go.

Go, like chess, is a strategy game where each player moves in turn, each sees everything the other player sees, each move opens certain possibilities and closes others (it’s deterministic), and there can generally be only one winner (draws happen only very occasionally).  Go is big business and has a long history: the top players earn seven-figure salaries; there are Go-only TV channels in China, Korea and Japan; there is a rich history of game recording and analysis stretching back to the sixteenth century; Go championship matches draw hundreds of millions of viewers; Go was considered one of the essential brain-training tools for samurai, emperors, etc.

Now, in terms of complexity, Go is literally billions of times more complex than chess.  A Go game has 361 possible opening moves; a chess game 20.  In Go, the typical game length is 200-250 moves; in chess it is 40.  There are more potential Go games than there are atoms in the Universe.  Computer games reflect this:  in chess, Deep Blue beat Grand Master Kary Kasparov in 1997; off-the-shelf software now always beats top humans; chess software’s greatest challenger is other chess software.  Go, however, has proven a harder nut for the egg-heads to crack.  If you imagine players ranked from zero (your kid learning to play) to 20 (the best two or three players in the world), Go programs now operate at about a five; chess programs at 25 or so.

In this article, the challenges facing Go programmers are detailed.  And there are a lot of interesting things we languages teachers can learn from research into programming Go and into what makes top players tick.

First , when analysing top players, an interesting pattern emerges.  It turns out that there is a fairly predictable order of acquisition of strategies and a fairly consistent (as a function of time spent playing and analysing) speed of getting better.  Indeed, top players can often tell their lesser opponents’ ranks within ten moves.  But…when good players become great players, they don’t just get more skills…they get entirely different skills.  Move (and response) unpredictability goes way up in a kind of quantum leap.  What look like wild, crazy moves start happening, and these moves end up being the keys to winning.  Go programs don’t do that.  With them, it is a “more of same” and slow-and-steady approach…that doesn’t work.

So it is with languages.  As Chomsky and others have noted, while there are definite orders of acquisition (of sounds, grammar etc) with language, people start being able to do unusual things.  They can generate sentences they havn’t heard, they use grammar rules they havn’t had explained, there are mistakes they could make (but don’t) and they can understand things they have not had explained to them.

A friend of mine did her PhD in linguistics on ambiguous noun classes.  She knew that kids somehow figured out that, for example, the word “school” meant different things in different contexts, and what those meanings were.  E.g. you can say “I like school,” and “my school is close,” and “school is hard.”  In each, “school” has a slightly different meaning.  Kids exposed to nouns that are morphologically identical figure out the differences in meaning, and they do it amazingly quickly, and they do it without help.  The upshot of her experiments with noun acquisition was that the kids could not have figured out (from context) what the different meanings/uses were.  So she concluded, as Chomsky predicted and then showed, that the brain’s “language organ” has powers that cannot be explained by the quality/type/context of input alone.

Second, since people massively beat even the best computers at Go, we know that– somehow– they are making better decisions than the computer.  In other words,  Lee Sedol is somehow calculating– and comparing– quadrillions of decision trees per second in a championship match.  However, we know that the conscious brain processes only 2,000 bits of info per second.  So most of the real processing is not happening consciously.  When these top guys (and they are all guys) are asked “what are you thinking about?” during games, they usually say things like “well I just kinda look” or “that move felt right.”  Indeed, they cannot often explain– especially at the very top level– why they do certain things.  On the way to becoming masters, there is conscious study, reflection, etc– oral analysis of games, moves etc are part of the tradition– but when you’re in the moment, you just…let go and play.

Third, “skill” in Go (as in chess, poker, bridge, etc) comes– I think– as much if not more from observation as it does from play.  Good players spend an immense amount of time replaying old matches from the masters, dating right back to the 16th century.  They also ruthlessly review their own games, and watch other players playing, and now, with computers, can watch other people’s saved games.  (On Go servers, sometimes hundreds of people will tune in to watch the 8-dan players duke it out.)  This is input.  It’s also something like reading: you can “examine” at your own speed, go back, pause, etc.

While with games, playing obviously matters (and is the point), and observation is, as with languages, central.

Conclusions?

(a) Most language acquisition cannot happen consciously.  If you want to have maximum acquisition, you are going to have to let the unconscious do its work.  Indeed, you are going to have to get focus on rules etc out of the way as fast as possible.  Minimising grammar explanations, maximising interest, and making people happy and comfortable will get people “immersed” in the story.  Indeed, if you focus on the conscious brain, you are majorly limiting yourself and your students: 2,000 bits per second of processing, or billions?

(b)  If we provide quality input, we will eventually get “quantum leaps” in skills.  Kids will pick up and say things that you havn’t consciously “taught” them.  Today in Spanish we were playing with a story where Farakh doesn’t serve his chair-stacking detention with Mr Stolz, because, on his way to Mr Stolz’s class, he meets a talking cat, and he sooo wants a talking cat, and when he asks the cat “do you want to be my cat?” and the cat answers “no,  I don’t want to be your cat, you have to stack chairs!” he goes home and eats 3 pizzas in disappointment.  One kid, Wasim, blurted out Sólo Farakh quiere hablar con una gata. (“Only Farakh wants to talk to a cat”).  Perfect, unexpected, unprompted Spanish.  I have never used that sentence before.  These guys– level 2s with only a month or so left– are now starting to blurt things out.

The bottom line seems to be, while practice (via input) is necessary, most of what is happening in the brain– in Go as well as in learning a language– is beyond/below the conscious.