First Day of School

Dear Mr and Mrs Smith

So you have parents– or Adminz–going, Johnny ‘s taking Blablabian, and he likes it, and he talks a lot about stories.  But I don’t see worksheets and essays or other homework.  Can you explain your methods?

Sure you can! Here is my take on explaining C.I. to parents.  If you repost please provide a link to this.

Dear Parents or Guardians–

The fruit of your loins is enrolled in my Beginning Blablabian language class.  The language-learning world has changed a lot since you and I were in school, so I thought I’d let you know what we do to help our kids succeed in Blablabian.

In our class, we acquire Blablabian by first making up stories together in Blablabian. I provide the Blablabian, and students the story details. We act out our stories (including dialogue), answer oral questions about our story, and then we read  versions of our story which “recycle” the vocabulary from our story.  We also watch videos and look at pictures which we discuss in Blablabian, and read Blablabian novels written specifically for students.

Our goal is to provide lots of interesting spoken and written Blablabian which students understand, and to re-use these words over and over so students feel comfortable with Blablabian and have lots of chances to pick up the words and grammar.

We know from modern linguistic research that interesting comprehensible input–compelling messages we understand– in the language we are acquiring, allow us to  subconsciously and easily pick up both the vocabulary and the grammar.  It turns out the those grammar worksheets and talking drills which were probably a part of our high-school Blablabian classes do very little to help us pick up language.  Reading and listening do a lot more for both adults and kids.

If your offspring regularly attends and pays attention in class, you can expect your little darling to first understand Blablabian and (a bit later) to start speaking it, beginning with words and phrases and then sentences, the way babies first understand their parents and make simple statemens before getting to complete sentences. If your kid does not speak lots of Blablabian right away, that’s natural and OK: we need lots of input before we can speak, and even in our first language(s), we recognise more words than we can produce.

If you want to help the pride and joy of your adult life to acquire more Blablabian, having them do any of the following will help:

  • watching interesting videos in Blablabian, with English subtitles to keep the Blablabian understandable
  • reading anything that is both interesting and easy to understand in Blablabian.
  • using online platforms such as Dulingo, as long as they are interesting and understandable
  • re-reading anything from class and translating it for you

By the end of the year, I am expecting students to write 600-800 word Blablabian stories (without using notes or dictionaries) in one hour; to understand basic written and spoken Blablabian, and to orally respond in Blablabian to basic questions about themselves, family, stories, etc.  The course outline in their binders explains how students are marked.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Yours truly,

Mr John Talkalot

Department of Ancient, Modern, Futuristic and Non-Existent Languages

Yapperville High School, home of the Yap Cats.  GO YAPCAT PRIDE!

What Should The First Day of Language Class Look Like?

The always-on-point Laura Sexton (@SraSpanglish–follow her on Twitter) recently said during a #langchat session that, on a successful first day of school “students can say something when they leave.” 

I disagree.  So, today’s question:  what should a successful Day 1 with beginners look like?

First, kids should feel comfortable.  They need to know they are in the right room, in the right class with the right teacher, who knows their name, and that they are sitting where they should be sitting.  They also need to know what they have to do to be successful in class (and it’s very simple: 1. listen and read with the intent to understand 2. don’t distract yourself or anyone else 3. ask questions when you don’t understand), and to feel expectations without pressure.  And those expectations boil down to one simple thing: tune in. 

Second, kids need to do something meaningful.  I am a firm believer in getting to work right away.  While getting to know the kids matters a lot, I religiously avoid “let’s get to know each other!”-type activities which I think are silly and often feel awkward. Getting to know the kids will happen during the year as you intelligently personalise, and most kids (even if they don’t want to say it) are fairly shy with a new teacher.

Before any kid wants to tell you anything about themselves, they want to know two things:

a) do you care about– and respect– me as a person?

b) are you going to run this class in such a way that I can succeed?

We start with B– meaningful Day 1 language activities (in my case stories; for Ben Slavic various sentence-based activities like “Circling With Balls” or “One Word Images,” etc).  We show A by careful listening to the kids as they suggest details (or volunteer) during stories, and by not forcing them to do anything they don’t want to do (typically, talking aloud and speaking the target language in class top the list).  If kids know we are listening, they will trust us, and slowly open up.

Third, we make kids feel successful.  And no, in response to Laura Sexton, that does not mean they are speaking Blablabian when they exit our class on Day 1.  I flat-out tell my students that “success is understanding; speaking will follow when you’re ready.”   As I’ve noted, most kids’ grammar or “communicative” class experiences boil down to them feeling three things:

  • “it was boring” or “it was stressful”
  • “I didn’t understand”
  • “they made us remember too many words and rules”

If you get through a chunk of story, the kids contribute, and most importantly— the kids understand, you will have done something too many teachers havn’t: build the foundations for real success on Day 1.

If you havn’t read this blog before, or you want a refresher, note that it is not necessary to “practise” speaking or writing to develop those skills.  If people read and listen– and understand– they will, without any effort, after an initial silent period, be able to speak and write.  If you don’t believe me, fine– see what the experts have to say about output.

Briefly, 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.

Now, if the students on Day 1 want to talk– i.e. they speak Blablabian without you urging them to— that’s great.  Enjoy!  But don’t expect them to talk.  If you finish Day 1 with the students, and 80% of the class gets 4/5 or better on their exit quiz, and you ask ten of them at random “did you understand everything?”, and they say “yes,” you are doing it right.