Fun

Tech Done Wrong…and Right.

“Techmology,” as Ali G. says, “is everywhere,” and we feel forced to use it.  E-learning! i-Tech! Online portfoli-oli-olios! Quizkamodo!  Boogle!  Anyway, the litmus test for tech in the language classroom is the same as it is for anything else:  does it deliver compelling, vocab-restricted comprehensible input?

Today, a look at two ways to play with tech.

Here is a recent #langchat tweet from a new-waveish language teacher:
What’s the problem here?

1.  As Alfie Kohn has noted, using rewards to encourage ____ behaviour turns teaching & learning into a payment & reward system: kids buy a pizza by doing ____.  But we really want to get kids to acquire languages because the process itself is interesting.  If we have to pizza-bribe kids, we are doing something wrong.

2.  The kids get a pizza party…during class time? Is this a good way to deliver the target language to kids? What about the kids who don’t write une carte?  Do they not get to be part of the pizza party?  Do they sit there and do worksheets or CPAs or whatever while their peers gleefully yap in English, chat and cram junk food into their mouths?  What if kids are good at French, but can’t be bothered to write “une carte”?  What if they are working, or lack digital access?

3.  Output, as the research shows, does not improve acquisition…unless it provokes a TON of target-language response which meets all the following criteria:

  • it’s comprehensible
  • it’s quality and not student-made (ie impoverished)
  • it actually gets read/listened to

So if the teacher responds, and if the student reads/listens to the response…it might help.

4. Workload.  Kids don’t benefit from creating output.  The teacher also has to spend time wading through bad voicemails, tweets and what have you.  Do you want to spend another 30 minutes/day looking at well-intentioned– though bad– “homework” that doesn’t do much good?

5. What do kids do when they compete?  They try to win.  So the kid who really wants pizza is going to do the simplest easiest thing in French every day just so s/he can get the pizza.

 

Now, while the “tweet/talk for pizza” idea is a non-starter, there are much better uses for tech out here…here is one, from powerhouse Spanish teacher Meredith McDonald White.

The Señora uses every tech platform I’ve ever heard of, among them Snapchat (a free smartphone app).  You get it, make a user profile, and add people à la Facebook. Once people “follow” you, you can exchange images and short video with text added, and you can do hilarious things with images (eg face swap, add extra eyeballs, etc).

Her idea is simple and awesome:

  1. She sends her followers (students) a sentence from a story or from PQA.
  2. The kids create or find an image for which the sentence becomes a caption.
  3. They send her the captioned image.
  4. She uses these by projecting them and then doing Picturetalk about them.

You can also do the same thing with a meme generator program (loads free online):  write sentence on the board, kids copy, and they email you their captioned pics.

Here is a crude example:

  1. Teacher sends out/writes on board a line from a story, e.g. La chica tiene un gran problema (the girl has a big problem).
  2. Kids use sentence as a caption & send back to teacher, e.g.

meme

3.  This serves for Picturetalk:  Is there a girl/boy?  Does she have a problem?  What problem?  What is her hair like?  Is she happy?  Why is she unhappy?  Where is she?  What is her name? etc…there are a hundred questions you can ask about this.

Not all the kids will chat/email back, and not all images will work, but over a few months they should all come up with some cool stuff.  You can get them illustrating stories (4-6 images) using memes…

This is excellent practice (for outside class). Why?  Because the kids are

  • getting quality comprehensible input
  • personalising the input without having to make or process junky language
  • building a community of their own ideas/images
  • generating kid-interesting stuff which becomes an in-class platform for generating more comprehensible input

And– equally as importantly– the teacher can read these things in like 3 seconds each, and they are fun to read.  #eduwin, or what?

Here’s a few examples done by Meredith and her kids.


 

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Paper Airplane Translation

This awesome, simple, zero-prep activity came to me via Martina Bex, from Jason Fritze originally, and was recommended by Victoria B.C. teacher Martha McKay. It was fun, physical and a great way to get through another reading of the story.

(Edits are at the bottom of this page)

If you have tried it, or changed anything, I would love to hear  about it. This is a post-story activity.  I.e., you have already asked a story, and your students have read the story (or a similar version of it), and they understand it. This is not for introducing new vocab. The story should be say 25-30 sentences so the kids have to actually read more than they write.

You have to use a story for this, as the whole thing depends on reading, predicting meaning, confirming meaning etc (order is essential).

  1. Divide students into teams of two.  They make a “portmanteau name” for their group.  E.g. if their names are Simrowdy and El Chapo, they become SimChapo or El Sim.
  2. Put half the teams on one side of the room, and half on the other.  There should be a no-go zone in the middle.
  3. Each group needs one printed copy of the story, one sheet of paper, and one pen or     pencil.
  4. Each team picks one sentence from anywhere in the story.
  5. Each team translates that sentence into English, writes it onto the sheet of paper, and then writes their portmanteau name.
  6. Each team then makes their sheet into a simple paper airplane, and throws it across the no-go zone to the other side.
  7. Each team picks up one airplane, unfolds it, and reads the sentence written there.
  8. They figure out what it means.  Then, they have to find it in the target language in the story.
  9. Each team then picks another sentence that comes  within 1-3 sentences after the one they have just read, translates into English, writes it down, signs their group name, and throws across the no-go zone.
  10. If an airplane doesn’t make it across the no-go zone, the throwers have to retrieve it by picking it up…but they cannot use their hands, heh heh, and then they throw it again.
  11. If the sentence they read is at the end of the story, they can make their next sentence the beginning.

The objective is to read and translate as much as possible.

I assessed (reading category) very simply.  I collected the airplanes after about 25 min.  There were 13 teams = 13 airplanes.  I got the kids to unfold the airplanes, we laid them out in a row, and I told each team to count the number of sentences they had written, and come and  tell me.  The differences between the speedy kids and the slower ones was not very great. E.g. Manta had 11 and Anbas had 9.  I probably won’t assess next time.

I don’t think you actually need to mark this if the kids are engaged (but I tell them I am going to because a few need the er-hem “focusing power” of the grade).  The kids liked it.  I figure this takes 20-30 min.

Some variation/additional ideas from other teachers: 

  • write directions on board in target language
  • put one person (start with teacher) in the middle of the room, all kids throw their airplane at the person, they they scramble to pick up a plane not theirs (Alina Filipescu’s idea)
  • make them do one simple line drawing to go with each sentence (e.g. a stick man holding a stick dog– quick & easy)

 

What I would do differently next time.

  1. I would make each pair of kids throw to the same set of kids.  E.g. Marya and Minali will be exchanging airplanes only with Hassan and Jaskarn. This will keep people more focused.
  2. If the plane lands in the no-go zone, it has to be retrieved without using hands or feet.  heh heh
  3. Make sure that the same sentence is not written twice on each airplane.
  4. I would use TL vocab:  make, throw, pick up, write, airplane.

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.

Two Kids Talk About Language Classes

Two of my students, Ace and Kavi, are in my English 11 class and I also have Ace in Spanish.  Both are very bright. Kavi takes French and Ace bailed out of French into Spanish. 

One day in June they were both in my room after school, finishing English projects, and they were talking about language class. 

Kavi: So you have Stolz for Spanish. How is it?

Ace: It’s easy. Just listen and read and you pick it up. I got an A both years. 

Kavi: French is hard. I can’t get an A. 

Ace: You’re not a dumbass. 

Me: Yeah, Kavi. You have good work habits. 

Kavi: Three things. They just keep adding rules.  So it keeps on getting harder to remember all the rules. It’s also confusing.  Part of the rules thing.  Also I get bored.  They make you talk about boring crap like buying groceries and they make you do these tests where it is all grammar. 

Now, I’m probably the worst T.P.R.S. teacher in the world. I mean, my dog could probably do TPRS as well as me.  So this is a beacon of hope for, well, all languages teachers: if I can pull of TPRS, anyone can.  I’m the dummest guyy in the roomm and I experienced success with this thanks to Blaine Ray. 

Go forth and try it, people, go forth. 

A Dictionary of Language Acquisition and Teaching Terms

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Slavic: French teacher, book author, blogger & passionate advocate for language pedagogy’s reform.  Creator or at least namer of “the Invisibles” and advocate for “untargeted input.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C1: We’ll let you in on a work visa

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

 

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

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

Cold Character Reading a technique developed by Terry Waltz to teach reading of ideographic (non-phonetically written) languages.

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

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

Comprehended input: (Terry Waltz) messages that the teacher has checked to make sure people understand.

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

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

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

Dialect: a language without an army

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

a) see what ¡Díme! does
b) do the opposite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language: a dialect with an army

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noun: a thing in uhh language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worksheet:

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

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

3. What friends don’t let friends hand out

4. The Novocaine of the language teaching profession.

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

What was my best-ever day as a language learner?

It was, as they say, Proustian. I was on the platform of the La Poubelle metro station in Paris.  It was a perfect, late-afternoon, orange-light tableau: me, Holden, a high-school classmate who I’d happened to run into purely by chance, a beautiful French girl in a black miniskirt, her three-year old girl, and a French man.  I had just bought, yes, a madeleine and as I bit off un petit morceau, the Frenchman said to me Est-ce que le train à Poitiers est sorti?.

Well, I think that’s what he said. You see, I hadn’t actually done a lot of listening to good French during my six years in my beloved Monsieur Tabernac’s French class. I had listened to Monsier Tabernac a lot and I will remain forever grateful for his long, complex and sophisticated lectures on the passé-composé and other interesting topics, and I had listened to a lot of my classmates speaking French– well, let’s face it, mostly English– but French, not so much.

But, no matter that I couldn’t be sure I understood my interlocutor. I just KNEW that Monsieur Tabernac had done his level best to prepare me for France, and so, as I stood with the Frenchman’s question ringing in my ears and chewed on the madeleine, I cast my mind’s eye back to those amazing French classes, searching for the answer to that question. What did I see?

Rows. A blackboard. A screen and an LCD projector. Dusty filing cabinets. Shelves of dictionaries– not dusty; we used the dictionaries daily– in French. Posters of French writers whose works, Monsieur Tabernac would assure us, were absolutely central to our development as both French speakers and solid human beings. An overhead projector.

At the front, comme d’habitude, was Monsier Tabernac asking us to take out our homework. Instead of staring at the amazing curves of Sonya– whom I’d been drooling over since we’d both been in home-ec together in 9th grade– I looked toward the screen, where the homework was projected. “Man,” I thought, “this is gonna frikkin’ rock— grammar homework!”  Like all of Monsieur Tabernac’s assignments, it was really interesting. There were sentences with the verbs removed, and you had to find out what was happening in each sentence by

A) reading the rest of the sentence to get a general overview of its meaning.
B) going to the list of verbs at the bottom and looking up their meanings in the dictionary
C) picking the verb that best fit
C) conjugating the verb

Some of the sentences that day were

Je ______ à Paris.

Tu _____ à Lourdes.

This was really cool. I didn’t know who “je” or “tu” were, or why they, uhh, something to?  in?  at? Paris and Lourdes, but man, what an interesting exercise. The best thing was, Monsieur Tabernac had given us not just two but forty such sentences so the passé-composé fun just kept on coming.

“Hey,” whispered my neighbour Holden, “this is dumb, I didn’t do it, let me see yours.” What! Really? Why would a kid want to copy my homework? This would deprive him of not only the valuable knowledge of the passé composé, but of the exquisite pleasure of filling in the blanks. I have never really understood why so many kids in my high school just copied each others’ French homework. I mean, did they not want to learn French?  How could you possibly learn French without worksheets and daily grammar practice?  Holden grabbed my cahier and furiously scribbled down the answers. Holden managed to finish just before Monsieur Tabernac shuffled up the aisle past us, glancing at our cahiers.

Once we’d finished marking our homework, Monsieur Tabernac said “I have noticed that some of you are having problems with passé composé adjective agreement avec le verbe être so I’ll do you the enormous favour of tapping into my extensive knowledge of French grammar and explaining this again for your benefit,” at which point he delivered a simply mesmerising lecture about how the subjects of sentences where the être verb is used in past-tense auxiliary formation dictate that the past participle agree in both number and gender with their antecedents.  As he delivered this impromptu and very beneficial lecture, an immense farting sound came from Holden’s desk, where he had fallen asleep. “HOLDEN!” yelled Monsieur Tabernac, and, when Holden sat up, blinking, he added “I am trying to give you as much detailed grammatical knowledge as possible about the French language, so that one day you may live the dream that all young men do, and go to Paris, and order a croque-monsieur with espresso, and read philosophy books in a café on the left bank. So turn that frown upside down, find some grit, and pay attention!”

Holden blinked, and said “Sorry, Monsieur, I don’t know why I fell asleep and dreamed about rolling fat blunts of bomb Cali chronic with my fine shorties, but clearly I need to get with the grammar program.”

This made me so happy. It would be ridiculous to imagine that a teenager should prefer thinking about marijuana and girls to learning about the passé composé and the possibility of one day discussing early twentieth-century philosophy with old French men. I was glad Monsieur Tabernac had straightened Holden out.

For our next activity, we were going to learn about pronoun placement. I’d been just DYING to learn this. Monsieur Tabernac began with showing us a short, amazing video called “Est-ce que tu l’a?” which was part of his new, cutting-edge teaching strategy called l’approche communcatif-experientielle. He’d explained this to us by saying “obviously, the most important aspect of knowing another language is a rock-solid grasp of the grammar rules, but we also have reason to believe that one must speak the language in realistic situations, such as finding out interesting and necessary information from others. After all, the more we talk, the more we learn” (which was true: Mr Tabernac talked for hours about French grammar, and he obviously knew it inside-out.  Also, duhh, that’s what babies do:  they learn by talking).

The video had a guy asking a girl interesting questions and she answered. It was also loaded with cool cultural stuff, like shopping for a dinner party in France. In the video, the man first asked the girl “as-tu acheté les baguettes? and she answered with “Oui, je les ai acheté.” How cool was that– in France an essential part of culture is that people eat bread! Who would have known?  I was psyched because although I would probably never say the word baguette in America, I would sure use it in France. Then the girl said “As-tu preparé le repas?” and the guy answered “Oui, je l’ai preparé.” MORE culture stuff– in France people eat dinner together! Americans never do that; we’re so different.

After the video, we got a five-minute grammar lesson on object pronoun placement, and then Monsieur Tabernac told us to ouvrez our livres to page 97. (He was SUCH a nice guy– he told us that he usually didn’t get to P.97 until the 17th of January each year– we were clearly a VERY advanced class as it was January 16th).

During the grammar lecture the massive farting sound came again from Holden’s desk and I elbowed him awake. I didn’t know it then, but the sounds and smells of farts would be forever associated with French grammar in my mind.  On P97 was a list of objects and we had to ask our partners if they had bought the object in question. Then they were supposed to ask us. This was cool: you learned to speak by speaking.  What, other than grammar practice, could be more natural?

“As-tu acheté la salade?” I asked Holden and he said  “is it tossed?” and giggled and I said “il faut parler en français” and he said “dude.” Then it was his turn and he said “Aimes-tu baiser les jeunes filles?” and I immediately applied all of my grammar knowledge and said “Oui, j’aime les baiser.” At this point Holden laughed but I didn’t know why– I obviously knew how to apply the rules and I had generated a perfect French sentence using them.  Then Holden was bored and I had to practice by myself.  And I did.  I mean, seriously, what is more fun: asking your friend French questions about really interesting stuff– like buying bread and salad or a scarf– or talking about weekend party plans in English?  As I looked aorund class, I was amazed to see most of my classmates Snapchatting or speaking English.  A few of them wanted to practice and that was awesome.  I asked “aiment-tu manger le pain?”  And they would answer “oui j’aimons manger le.”  I loved listening to good authentic French from American kids. Why would a kid speak English to another kid if they could speak French?  OK, sure, French was hard, and we didn’t really know what we were saying, and it was boring (for kids other than me) to talk about buying food over and over, but still…people had to get some grit and just knuckle down and do the work.

When this was done, we had some portfolio time. For me, the only thing more important than grammar lectures and homework, and practising speaking new vocab, was portfoli– err, portefeuille time. This was where we got out our portfolios and our writing assignments and reflected on how we could improve our Français.

There was a thing called the C.E.F.R. which stands for “completely explicated French rocks.” This was a system of giving students a Number from A1 (“you suck and must be stereotypically American”) to C2 (“you are ready to drink café au lait and manger des croques-monsieurs à Paris”). So if you got an A1, you would know, OK, you sucked, which would obviously motivate you to get to a C2. (It hit me then– this is why Monsieur Tabernac was such a rigorous teacher:  because a few low marks int he class motivated kids to not get those low marks).  Anyway for each Number there was this list of things you had to be able to do to get the number (French class was like work: you did Activity a, b or c, or made product e, f or g,  and they paid you with a Number).

The “explicated” means “broken down into bits and explained,” basically. So I was working on getting my C.E.F.R.  A2 (“You are now allowed into France, but only on a temporary work visa, and, because you still sound like an American, albeit less so than your countrymen, do not dare to talk to any French philosophers and don’t even think about chatting up a sexy French person”) and for this, as the Council of Europe website says, I had to be able to

  • understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc
  • deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
  • produce simple connected text on topics, which are familiar, or of personal interest.
  • describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans

So I rifled through my paragraphs, essays and worksheets, and thought, what learning and cognitive strategies can I use to reflect on my performance and thereby improve it? I realised that I had not, ever, reviewed my writing and checked for adjective agreement. I also realised that it had never occurred to me to look at pictures, or words that looked like English words, to help me guess the French meaning, and I also realised, I don’t spend enough time practising.

So I went through and checked all of my writing for adjective agreement problems. Lo and behold, my otherwise-perfect French was riddled with errors, like this: “Je être une grosse garçon” where obviously the problem was, I should have written “gros.” It just went to show what Monsieur Tabernac always told us: if you consciously focus on something, and really summon some grit, you can find and fix the problem.  There was my revised sentence, now perfect: “Je être une gros garçon.”  How useful it was to break out the grammar notes, find a rule, and fix one’s errors.

So for twenty-five minutes I beavered away at my adjective agreement. Almost at level two, I whispered to myself, almost there. One or two of the other kids– but not Holden– were also working really hard, not talking or on their phones. I had to periodically nudge Holden because his sleepy farts disrupted the class.

I was totally happy when Monsieur Tabernac assigned us fifty more sentences using direct object pronouns, dictionary searches, and verb conjugation. And to add to the fun, he said “you’re having a pronoun test on Monday.” Awesome– I love a challenge.

As I was lost in my reverie, the Frenchman on the metro platform said “allo?” and I thought, oh yes, he’d asked me a question, and I went back into my grammar knowledge and thought, ok, DR AND MRS VANDERTRAMP verb, masculine subject, passé composé, OK, I can do this, and opened my mouth, ready to use my French.

But there was nobody there.  Where had the Frenchman gone? I turned around and there was the three-year old girl telling him “Non, Monsieur, le train n’est pas sortí” and there was Holden talking to her gorgeous French maman. “T’es occupé ce soir?” he said, “j’aimerais t’inviter a manger parce que t’es trés belle et j’aimerais te connaître.”

I don’t know what Holden was saying to her, but she smiled at him and touched his shoulder as he took out his phone and started entering a number. I almost felt jealous, but then the train came, and I thought, awesome, soon I will be on the Left Bank, drinking café and eating a croque-monsieur while I discuss Sartre. I mean, what else was French for?

1 April 2015

Why is sustained play important for the language classroom?

T.P.R.S. is a kind of creative, collaborative game, really.  Teachers supply the language and story idea; kids supply details and together a story is built.  Sometimes people make fun of us– oh yes, T.P.R.S., talking sharks and flying purple elephants— because, well, a) they’re either stupid or misinformed, or b) they think that the learning world should be– or is– divided into these categories called “serious” and “silly,” and guess where language teaching belongs?  Bottom line: lotsa folks don’t like fun, especially elaborate fun.

Anyway, let’s not hate on the haters, as kids these days say, but rather let’s look at some fascinating research about what Po Bronson and Ashely Merryman call “sustained play” in their great book NurtureShock.  Today’s question:  what does “sustained play” look like, does it help learners, and can we apply it to the T.P.R.S. classroom?

What do kids do when they play?  What did you do when you were a kid?  My friends and I built forts, and dams and rivers when the snow melted, pretended we were cops and robbers, Star Trek characters, bla bla, wrestled, built weird stuff out of Lego, played tag, invented complicated variations on tag, devised wargames… The games were co-ed and the main differences between the guys and the girls was in the toys.  We guys wanted G.I. Joes, Transformers, etc, while the girls liked dolls a bit more…but, interestingly, most of our imaginative play was fully co-ed.  The girls wanted to explore alien planets and have wargame teams as much as the guys did.

What all of this had in common was that, for hours that invariably ended when our Moms called us in for dinner, was that we were in a state of what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow.”  We were unselfconsciously immersed in creative activities that we controlled, activities whose “purpose” was nothing other than having fun.  Now, it turns out that play– which all kids (and loads of adults) all over the world do– has legit developmental purposes.  Kids learn spatio-motor skills, empathy (via role-playing), sharing, etc etc.  There’s a good article about play here. But it turns out that play has other developmental benefits– self-restraint and developing “deep focus”– which can help us in the languages classroom.

In NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman discuss the “Tools of the Mind pre-school and kindergarten curriculum, created by Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong, one of whose central aspects is sustained play.  If the kids are learning about firemen, they make a “play plan” where they write down (as well as they can) what they want to do  and who they want to be for “fireman play” (“I am going to be the guy who needs to be rescued from the second storey of a burning house”). Playplan devised, they go to one of five “stations” in the class– firestation, firetruck, burning house, tree with kitty stuck in it, etc– and they play for 45 min.  If they get “off task,” the teacher asks “is that in your play plan?”

The program does other things too: it asks the kids to “self-talk” (create internal monologues about decisions), play “Simon Says” (listen, WAIT AND THINK, and, only then, act), and do “buddy reading,” where one kid gets a flipbook with pictures, and creates and narrates to his/her partner a story based on those pictures, and the other kid asks questions about the story.

The aim of all this?  To develop internal self-awareness, to develop abstract thought, to develop “executive self-control,” and to develop the capacity to focus.  As the data show,  Tools for the Mind works.  Why?  Because the kids set a purpose– one over which they have lots of control and which is both fun and meaningful– and then they are immersed in a state of “flow” in focused, sustained play, which makes their brains get used to long-term focus on something (playing at a role, listening to others, telling  a story, etc).  Crucially, it also teaches them to reflect and wait before talking and acting.

There is a fascinating aside in this chapter: in a 1975 Russian study, Z. V. Manuilenko asked five year olds to stand still, which they did for an average of two minutes. When the same kids to pretend they were on-duty palace guards, they were able to stand still for eleven minutes. Doesn’t work for younger kids and works less-well for older kids, but still…

Bodrova and Leong note that many of the demonstrated benefits of play are not reducible to isolated, time-specific, snapshot-style measurement. Indeed, they argue that the assumption that “the measurement of isolated skills over discrete intervals of time will accurately reflect the mechanisms of development” is wrong. Like language acquisition, play is complex and long-term. Their article is well worth a read.

So how does this apply to the comprehensible input classroom? 

We want ourselves and the kids to get into a state of “flow”– or close to it– defined by Wikipedia roughly as

  1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. a distortion of temporal experience, [where] one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

a) When we are using a story, we are “playing” in the sense that we are creating something over which we have control.  The byproduct: kids are learning– or having reinforced their capacity– to focus on– and through– imaginative elaboration.  The kids have to remember details, listen, and contribute.

b) We are asking the kids to engage in intrinsically rewarding– autotelic– activity.  They are not “doing stuff” to learn Language ____.  They don’t “do stuff” for the payment reward of marks.   A good story is interesting in its own right.  I have never in fifteen years of teaching met a kid who didn’t like a story.  Hell, I can– and do– read short stories and even novels aloud to Grade 12 students…and they love it!

In education, what you really want is for kids to not know/realise they are learning. What they do should– insofar as possible– be inherently interesting. As a side-product, they learn facts or skills or whatever.

c) We try to ditch self-consciousness as much as possible.  We don’t force the kids to talk if they can’t or don’t want to (other than easy, choral answers– yes, no, one-word).  We make them feel “safe.”  We do P.Q.A. with our superstars, and our actors are kids who want to act.  This allows us to “smuggle” grammar and vocab into the kids’ minds.

d)  When stories rock, we lose track of time.

e) as far as possible, we try to “blend” action and awareness (of at least language) by keeping things comprehensible and interesting– will the boy find his lost cat?  Will Mother Nature punish the chica mala who is littering Starbucks cups in the Amazon?

The side-effect of T.P.R.S.– one which will benefit kids everywhere, as do the Tools of the Mind practices– is going to be an ability to focus.  Rather than providing a “variety” of “activities” which “address core competencies” and “attributes” and other edubabble, we provide one, deep, long creative and interesting activity: a story.  We’re doing via language what Vipassana does via meditation for the brain.

In a world where kids are on-screen– with texts to answer, “likes” to click on, links to follow and shiny chattery games to play– for four hours a daydeep sustained focus is a crucial skill.  Whatever you do in life, you need to be able to tune in to your activity, tune out distractions, and “soak it up.” And if creative play develops that…awesome!

Texts from Celebrities

So I’m doing “let’s trade hair” (cambio de pelo), one of Adriana Ramirez’ stories, where two guys with ugly hair trade hair.  A parallel character– other than El Chapo the Mexican gangster– will be one of the girls, oh, and me.  Here’s the texts we’ll use during the story, generated by the iPhone Text Generator.  The first is from you-ladies-and-gay-guys-know-who to one of the girls in the class:

cambio de pelo text 2

The second, for comic relief, is Kate Upton texting me.  But, see, I’m not into blondes…

cambio de pelo text 1

What was my best-ever day of teaching languages?

I walked into class with my cup of coffee and all the kids said “¡Hola!” in unison. I then told them to get out their ¡Juntos! workbooks and turn to their homework, pages 89-93. I then asked them to read their answers– from fill-in-the-blanks exercises– aloud, one by one.

“The boy walks to the park,” read Nuvjit.
“We walk to school,” read Stella.
“I walk to the store,” read David.
“They walk to the movies,” read Akhtar.

We read another thirty or so sentences together. What was awesome during this homework review was, first, the kids were all listening intently to each other– because the homework was really interesting, and second, the kids all got every answer right, and third, all the kids had done their homework, again because the homework was super-interesting.

Then one student asked “why does the verb fartear have the irregular present tense first person plural form farteámonos?” The class, intently, listened while I discoursed about accent patterns and the need to preserve syllabificational rhythm across transformational grammatical matrices. I told them “we say farteámonos rather than farteamos because that accented á is a simple grammatical marker that indicates a collective wish and recomendation to do something. So vámonos means “let’s all go!” and “farteámonos” doesn’t just mean “we fart,” but rather “come ON, people, we have some farting to do, so let’s DO it!”

Grammar lecture over– and absorbed into their long-term working memory– we moved, with no distractions, on to conversational practice. I had devised a fiendishly clever way to get them to practice the imperfecto verb tense, which my textbook was forc– err I mean, suggesting, I teach with the theme of childhood memories. So, I had the kids interview each other about their childhood activities. It was awesome! They asked each other questions like “when you were a toddler, did you used to play with dolls?” and “did you used to like sleeping?”

The kids worked at this– speaking no English, switching partners quickly on command, correcting each others’ mistakes, asking for more detail, not glancing at snapchats or texts– for fifteen minutes nonstop. They were so into this activity they complained when I said “we have to move on.”

The rationale for the talking activity, by the way, was communicative. In the communicative language teaching tradition, we use real-world language to bridge information gaps in order to learn the language, because– as is obvious when you look at toddlers– they learn speech by talking.

Next up was our cultural vocabulary quiz. As part of our imperfecto— err, I mean, childhood memories, unit, I had devised ANOTHER fiendishly clever plan. We were going to

A) pretend each of us was from a different Spanish-speaking culture
B) pretend each of us had grown up in _______ attending local festivals
C) write about our memories about attending these festivals.

(At this point in class, Holden, who frankly is always a truculent and reluctant student, and the only such student I have, said “Señor, these are fake memories of things we don’t understand” and I said “Holden, turn that frown upside down, show me some grit, and remember that I am trying to make grammar fun!” which had an immediate and transformative effect on Holden. “Gosh,” he said, “you’re right, I really should be grateful for the chance to learn the names of Chilean and Salvadorean Easter celebrations. Can I have five minutes to go over my vocabulary list?”)

I thought to myself, these kids are so good I should relent, so I gave them five minutes to study their vocabulary lists. This unit had relatively little vocabulary– only about seventy words, some of which were festival names, and others just extremely useful (some of those words were “to hang lanterns” and “to make papier-maché animals” and “to clean the streets of garbage the night after a festival”). Now, while 95% of my students love Spanish, there is always the off-chance that they will not, of their own accord, learn the vocab at home, on their own. So what I do is, I give them a vocab list (all Spanish) and they take it home, look the words up in the dictionary– because a) that’s how we learn words and b) it’s fun– and then memorise these lists. Then, they get a quiz, for marks, and I have found that fear of getting a low mark is an amazing incentive for the kids to memorise their lists of words.  As my favorite administrators like to say, “the accountability piece ensures compliance.”

In this way, I hold the students accountable for their own learning. Also, I do this cool thing: I post the marks on my classroom wall. In this way, the kids see each others’ marks, and know who’s smar– err, I mean, studious– and who’s not. I firmly believe that if a kid sees themselves getting a low mark, they say to themselves “thanks, Profe for reminding me that I am not as sma– err, I really think, studious– as others. Now that I know how much I sucked on my last ______ assignment, I feel good about this clarity. This low number is good feedback! I want to improve!”

After our quiz– where I read vocab items aloud, the kids wrote the Spanish, and then the English– it was time for something even more fun than assessment: a listening activity! I played the DVD of a Spanish youth talking about his memories of attending Day of the Dead celebrations and the kids listened and chose the right answer on their multiple gue– err, I mean, choice– sheets. We marked their choices. All of them got 10/10. Then I asked them to translate the sentences into English, and, oddly, despite their high scores, none of them could explain what the sentences meant, so obviously I told them that, for homework, they should use their verb tables and dictionaries AND NOT GOOGLE TRANSLATE to decode the sentences.

I still had thirty minutes of class time, so I thought, let’s work on our portfolios. The kids silently got their folders, pulled out the many assignments they’d stuffed into them, and looked up on the board, where I had projected the Common European Framework for Reference criteria which describes the criteria for various levels of language learning from 1 (beginner) to 6 (advanced native speaker). I firmly believe that we can and should use these criteria to guide our instruction. For example, one of the criteria for Level 1 is that a learner can “introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has.”

So, I had backwards-designed a unit where the kids learned to say and ask about things such as “what is your name? My name is…” and “where are you from? I am from …” After spending three weeks practicing these expressions, I was confident that my students had both learned these items and had fun doing so. Anyway, I asked the students to get a recent piece of work– a paragraph, a culture report, a written dialogue– from their portfolios and look at my feedback, and reflect on how they could improve their performance.

The room was both totally silent and yet vibrating with energy.

One by one, the kids came up to me with questions. First up was the formerly-reluctant Holden. “Profe,” he said, gesturing at a worksheet that I had graciously given detailed, pink-ink feedback on, “I take it from your feedback that I am having a problem with adjective position. Could you explain that to me?” I then gave Holden an explanation of the rules governing figurative vs literal denotation with Spanish adjectives and, after thanking me, he went off to revise his worksheets.

Next up was Nuvjit, who said “how can I raise my mark?”

I looked at her work and said “review your irregular preterite verbs, memorise transition words for compositions, avoid Anglicisms, and review the rules for use of written accents.” Nuvjit was grateful for this advice. And why wouldn’t she be? She was being given clear feedback with which to improve her learning. She sat down at her desk, pulled out her grammar notes, and, as her lips silently formed Spanish verbs–traje, traje, traje— a grin spread across her face.

I had noticed that, since we started out childhood memories unit, the students had all forgotten their preterite verb endings, and had begun putting the imperfect endings onto all their verbs. As reluctant as I was to believe it, I began to suspec that I had made a mistake in my teaching of the preterite. But it only took me a few minutes to realise where the problem actually lay: with the students. I had lectured on grammar, made– err I mean, asked– them to practise speaking, worksheeted them, made them memorise verb endings, and listen to the CD dialogues. I had, in other words, done everything a good languages teacher should do to teach kids language. So that they had not learned to conjugate the past tense was clearly their choice.

The remedy was clear: more talking, more worksheets, and more explanations.

As I watched them beavering away over their portfolios, I thought, THIS is what learning about a language should be.

When the bell went, the students commented “what? already!?!” and reluctantly packed up their worksheets, workbooks and textbooks. Another day, another grammar rule learned about and practised. Soon my seventh-graders began streaming in for their beginner Spanish class. I love these younger kids– so fresh-faced and energetic and eager.

My favorite, a kid named Suzy, said “Profe, can we do some worksheets today, please?” and when I said “yes, of course,” the class burst into applause.

And then my wife was shaking me awake. “Chris,” she said, “it’s 7:15, sorry to interrupt your dream. You had hugest grin of all time on your face. Must have been great.”