Grammar practice

Against Rules: Rothman vs the Grammarians

It is a lovely Sunday, work is over, but sadly my climbing partner Tiff has decided to chase boys instead of vert, and so here I am reading SLA papers, in this case Jason Rothman’s “Aspect Selection in Adult L2 Spanish and the Competing Systems Hypothesis: When pedagogical and linguistic rules conflict” (2008).

Rothman in this paper hypothesises that conscious learning of grammar “rules”– in this case, the distinction between the preterite and imperfect tenses in Spanish, for L2 learners of Spanish– will interfere with native-like acquisition of those “rules.”

There is a standard explanation of the preterite and imperfect that we Spanish teachers give: the preterite is a snapshot of the past, and the imperfect a movie.  Finished past action vs habitual or ongoing past action, etc. Now this is not wrong, but it is far from complete. Which of the following (from Rothman, 2008), for example, is correct?

(11) Siempre que  fuimos a la universidad, estudiamos en la bliblioteca.
(12) Siempre que íbamos a la universidad, estudiábamos en la biblioteca.

Both are, obviously, but the meanings do not follow the ongoing-vs-completed template of instruction. Both mean more-or-less “when we went to the Uni, we ended up studying in the library.” Both are generalisations, but 11 connotes an accidental (unforseen) generalisation, whereas 12 is a foreseen generalisation.

Rothman took three groups of people who knew Spanish: native speakers, those who had studied, and those who had acquired Spanish “naturalistically,” i.e. on their own, largely through TV, radio and interactions with native speakers. All did the same two tasks.

They sorted the students to account for Spanish knowledge etc etc, so they got three groups who were functionally similar (ie all could read Spanish about equally well).

Task One was, read “Goldilocks” in Spanish, and choose the correct of two forms of the verb (preterite or imperfect). Task Two: read a paragraph with blanks, and generate the right form of the verb (again, the choice was between preterite and imperfect).

Now, this was a “Monitor” task. The students dealt with writing, and had time to employ the conscious mind, rules, declarative memory etc. Rothman hypothesised that, because conscious learning and rules couldn’t capture the subtleties of the p-vs-i distinctions, students who had acquired via these rules would underperform others.

The results?

1. Native speakers all overwhelmingly made the same and correct choices.

2. The “taught” students of Spanish made a wider variety of errors, and many more of them, than did the native speakers.

3. The “naturalistic acquirers” of Spanish made significantly fewer errors than did the “taught” students, and their error patterns were more native-like than those of the “taught” students.

Rothman’s hypothesis was therefore confirmed: acquisition of the aspectual (tense) system of Spanish was significantly slowed by conscious learning and speeded up by exposure to input. As he puts it, “pedagogical rules of oversimplification can result in L2 performance variation, perhaps indefinitely.

Rothman points out that if teachers wanted to meaningfully and beneficially “explain” the p-vs-i distinction, they have to do it in significantly more complex ways than they– we– now do. There is, in other words, way more going on than the “photo vs movie” metaphor.

And the old problem of mental bandwidth here arises: because, as Bill VanPatten notes, we have limited “room” in our heads for explicit information, the more explanations we get, the less “sticky” they will be in our memory. In addition to this, some of these explanations about why we would use one verb tenses or the other– are not particularly student-friendly. Do you want to explain about adverbial quantifiers, semantic distinctions, and accidental vs foreseen generalisations? Could kids understand these? Would they care?  

There are obviously also about 1,000,000 more “rules” in Spanish– or any other language– and so we would rapidly hit a wall if we had to teach using rules.  No time, little student interest, and no way to keep all those rules in your head (or access them in real time tasks, such as speaking or listening).

Luckily, there is a way out. One major implication for teachers, which Rothman notes, is that “the only compulsory variable is sufficient access to quality input.” This is exactly what Stephen Krashen predicted forty years ago: providing input beats anything else, and there is very limited benefit to learning grammar “rules.” Krashen’s dry comment that the relative clause is less than compelling also merits note: nobody other than classroom teachers really cares about grammar.

People who have to teach to stupid, grammar-focused tests take heart:  loads of C.I. is way more fun than studying the stupid textbook, and it works much better!

The moral of the story: input gets the job done just fine. Stories ahoy– carry on!




To plan, or not to plan?

How do we know what a student can really do with an additional language, in, say, writing?  Suppose we wanted to be deadly boring for our students.  Hmmm, how about, we make them write about their daily routine, that should put both students and teacher nicely to sleep.

If we are a traditional teacher, we want to know what they have learned: what they can consciously do with language.  We could give them a writing prompt–describe your daily routine– time to plan/look at vocab/check out Google translate/”reflect on our learning”/plan out our metacognitive strategies/whatever, then give them a bunch of time to write, and then mark it.

If we are C.I. teachers, we want to see what students have acquired— what they can do without any planning, immediately. So we give them the same topic, zero prep time, a bit of time to write, then mark.

A teacher recently shared two writing samples from Spanish 1.  One sample is from a CI-taught kid in his class, the other from a kid taught by his grammarian colleague.

EXAMPLE A.  This is from the textbook/grammar teacher’s top student

  • the teacher spent three weeks doing a “unit” on reflexive verbs
  • the teacher’s students had just finished their “reflexive verb unit”
  • they had time to “prepare” their writing
  • they had 20 min. to write
  • about 120 words
  • quality: excellent, with minor errors

GT refl par.

EXAMPLE B. from one of the C.I. teacher’s middle-of-the-road students

  • the C.I. teacher spent about one week doing a story involving this vocab
  • the story using this vocabulary was asked one month prior to this being written
  • zero planning time
  • 10 min. writing time
  • 104 words
  • Quality: excellent, with very minor errors

CI reflexive write
What I noticed:

  • The CI student’s output is twice the speed of the traditionally-taught kid
  • the CI kid does as well as the grammar kid with no planning time and half the writing time
  • The CI kid has “been away” from the vocab for three weeks and uses it as well as the kid who just finished a “unit” on it
  • The CI kid spent one week with this vocab while the grammar kid spent three weeks

Anyway…faster writing with zero prep time and less instructional time: C.I. is looking a lot better than the text.

How Do I Explain Comprehensible Input?

Kids, parents and colleagues often ask us why do we do stories in Blablabian class, and read so much Blablabian? or why don’t we practise speaking Blablabian more? or why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s class?

These are good questions.  Now, since most kids and parents, and an unfortunately  staggering number of teachers, administrators, heads, and methods instructors in Uni don’t, won’t or can’t read S.L.A. research, we have to be able to get people to think about why we teach languages basically by using comprehensible stories and reading that recycle vocabulary a lot.  Our best explanation will be, because it works, and we show the kids, colleagues, parents or admins what kids can understand and do.  We can also point them to the user-friendly Tea With BVP radio show/podcast. We can also do the best thing of all time: ask our students, do you feel like you are understanding lots of Blablabian, and is it easy?

But sometimes you want to make a point quickly, or get people thinking, so, today’s question: how do I explain comprehensible input teaching?  Some of these are my ideas, and others come from Robert Harrell and Terry Waltz.

Q: Why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s Blablabian class?

A: Ask the questioner, so knowing grammar rules is important to be able to speak a language?  When they say yes, say OK, let’s do a simple experiment.  First, ask them to tell you three things they did last night.  They’ll say something like first I went home and ate Pizza pops, and then I did homework that totally sucked, and after dinner I played Minecraft on my Xbox.Then, say OK, now tell me three things you did last night, but do not use the letter “n.”  This will open the door to a conversation that can show them why having to consciously think about language while using it will basically cripple our ability to talk.


Q: Why don’t we/your students/my children in your classes practise talking?

Ask the person what language that you don’t know would you like to learn?  They might say Urdu, or Dari, or French.  Then say to them OK, let’s start speaking Urdu.

At this point, they will say yes but I don’t know how to say anything. Then you say something like well, how would you like to learn to say something, and they will say something like by listening to it or by reading or watching it and you say exactly!  You can now talk about how input, and lots of it, must– and does– precede any kind of output.

Q: Don’t people need grammar rules explained to them to be able to speak?

A:  Ask whether or not the sentence “I enjoy to run” sounds right.  When they say, no, ask why not?  Most people will say uhhhhh, while the grammar freaks will say well the verb to enjoy must be followed by a noun or a gerund bla bla bla.  Right…and now you ask them when you were a kid, who explained that rule to you?  What, wait, nobody?  Well then how did you pick it up?

This is where you can talk about what polyglot Kato Lomb (21 languages) said:  we learn grammar from language, not language from grammar.


Q: Don’t people need to memorise a lot of vocabulary to learn a language?  Why don’t you get your students to study vocab lists?

A:  Ask them, could you explain how to turn a cellphone off? Obviously:  simply find the button, and press the button long enough.  Now, ask them, can you tell me how to draw a cube?  Here, I have pen and paper, explain away.

Image result for cube

When they try to tell you what to do to make this cube, you will probably end up with something very different from this nice neat cube.
The point? Some activities that we do are simple enough to first explain and then simply do, like turning a phone on or off.  In school, things low on Bloom’s taxonomy, like memorising some dates for a history class, or doing long division, can easily be broken down into steps, practiced, and mastered.  Basiclaly, if a computer can or could do it, we can learn it by breaking it down into steps.

Other activities, however, are so complex that breaking them down into steps or chunks is either impossible or not worth the effort.  You could theoretically “explain” how  to draw a cube, but it would be way easier to just show somebody a cube and have them go at experimenting with copying it.  Similarly, you could ask students to memorise twenty Blablabian words (or some grammar “rules”) for a test.  But it would be much simpler to get them to listen to some sentences containing the words, explain what the sentences mean, and then ask them some questions about the sentences (ie circle them) in order to recycle the words.

Q: I learned Blablabian from textbooks, memorising word lists, and studying grammar.  I can still speak it.  Why should we do anything differently?  (This question  btw is one that I have never heard from a parent, but rather from some older languages teachers.)

A: First, we ask Mr Old Grammar Student a couple of questions in Blablabian, speaking at the speed of at which native speakers of Blablabian.  One of two things will happen: 1. MOGS will not understand the question, or 2. MOGS will get it and give us a fluent answer.

If MOGS doesn’t understand, the point is moot.

If MOGS gives us a fluent answer, we then ask, have you done anything to acquire Blablabian other than study the text etc? The answer is always one or more of the following: yes, I lived in Blablabia for three years, or I married a Blablabian who did not speak English, or I watch Blablabian-language news, or I really enjoy watching the Blablabian soap opera ROTFL BFF OMG LULZ on Netflix. 

At this point, one can politely bring up Lance Piantaggini’s point that how we actually acquired Blablabian might differ from how we think we acquired it.  The way I put it is this: can you tell me how much of your Blablabian came from Blablabian experiences, and how much came from the text?  Even if people don’t know, we point out that, at best, a student of Blablabian in a five-year high-school Blablabian program got 500 hours of Blablabian (and, if the teacher was using a textbook, probably a lot less). If they lived in Blablabia, they got that much exposure to Blablabian in six weeks!

At this point, only a hardened grizzled grammarian fighting the noble battle of the textbook will stick to their guns, and say something like well grammar preparation made it possible for me to go out and experience real-life in Blablabia successfully.  At this point we might say, and what percent of your students will eventually end up in a Blablabian immersion environment? but frankly I would rather at this point go and grab a couple of beers.


Ok folks, there it is, a few simple ways to get people thinking about why C.I. works.

Clarifications: A.I.M.’s claims about T.P.R.S. and reality.

The Accelerated Integrative Method— AIM– is a comprehensible-input second-languages method which was developed by Wendy Maxwell in Canada.  I havn’t used AIM (but have posted some comments about it from practitioners here).  AIM is better than any standard text:  they use stories, lots of repeated (and sheltered) vocab, etc, which are practices in line with what we know about what the brain needs to acquire languages.

AIM makes some claims about TPRS here, claims which I don’t think are always accurate.  Mainly I want to clarify TPRS (as I understand it).  I’ll quote AIM’s claims about TPRS and then clarify each in turn.  What is in the text boxes is all AIM’s words.



Students speak primarily in sentences. Students respond primarily with one-word responses.

Reality: in TPRS, students say whatever they are developmentally ready to say.  In a beginner class, students’ initial output will be one-word and yes/no responses to questions.  As input builds mental representation of language, their output grows longer and more complex.  TPRS is built on research, which shows that forcing output beyond what students are developmentally ready for does nothing for acquisition and makes many students uncomfortable.




The teacher uses a variety of strategies when students don’t understand.


Translation is the primary method used when students don’t understand.

Reality: a TPRS practitioner will establish meaning using direct translation, and use translation to clarify, but will also use gestures, props, actors etc to clarify what is happening.  What TPRS does not do: make students guess (or, in edubabble,  “use metacognitive strategies to decode meaning”).  Why?  Because there is no substantiation in research that language acquisition gets easier and/or speeds up when people have to guess at meaning, and because how effective decoding strategies are depends on how much the learner already knows (and on the language being taught– good luck using cognates and “sounding out” when acquiring Mandarin).  While babies and first language learners must guess, they have unlimited time to do so, while a classroom teacher has about 100 hrs/year max.



Offers a full online teacher training and certification program.


Offers webinars online.

Reality: both AIM and TPRS offer live training, and both offer online training, DVDs, etc.




Supported by a variety of research. (See attached)


Based on research of comprehensible input (CI) by Krashen.

Reality: the research into language acquisition supporting what TPRS does has been done by Krashen, Bill VanPatten, Ashley Hastings, Wynne Wong, James Asher, Beniko Mason and many others.  See this for a summary. A.I.M. is built around most of the same ideas.

There is some good data from the Netherlands which suggests that A.I.M. works somewhat better than a traditional “skill-buuilding” approach.  However, most of what is on the research portion of their page does not qualify as good science:  small sample sizes, lack of control groups, etc, mean that AIM claims must be taken with a grain of salt.




Yes/no questions are rarely used. The teacher focuses on total and partial questions with complete sentence answers.



Questioning is done by circling (asking the same question in many ways) that includes yes/no questions, QT and QP as well as PQA (personalized questions and answers). Answers are usually one word.

PQA = teacher talk


  1.  PQA is not teacher talk.  It is teacher-initiated and teacher guided, because the teacher is the one who knows the target language.
  2. Answers are whatever the student is developmentally ready for.  For beginners, this means one-word and/or y/n answers.  Later, output will become more complex and longer.  We know from research that asking people to output beyond what they can do– eg complete sentences for beginners– is not really language use; it is memorised performance.
  3. Not all questioning is circling.  In reality, TPRS practitioners circle some new vocabulary, but prefer to use parallel characters (or students) for vocab repetition rather than focusing on questioning one sentence (though one-sentence focus is appropriate at times).





The students and teacher write very long, detailed stories together, which are generally based on the play being studied. This happens twice as a whole class activity and twice as a partner activity per 50 hours of instruction. The play, vocabulary and language manipulation activities/creative writing are systematically integrated for success, predictability


The student and teacher build a series of short stories (including 3 new words or phrases) called PMS (personalized mini-situation) by having the teacher “ask” the story. This oral activity happens frequently. Written exercises become more of a focus in the 3rd and 4th year.

Reality: TPRS includes writing right from the get-go.  However, writing (and speech) in TPRS are indicators, not causes, of acquisition.  In TPRS, students begin simple re-writes of stories after first co-creating one, and then reading various versions of it.

TPRS uses minimally-targeted (focused or chosen) vocabulary to build stories.  Aside from a few basic verbs, nouns etc, the stories go more or less in the direction that students want them to.

TPRS stories vary in length, generally getting longer as students acquire more L2.  Student written output (at the end of say Level 1) will be 600-1,000 words in one hour.




Believe in a balanced literacy approach.




High emphasis on the importance of reading (every second day) for language development. Students read early on. Students translate all readings out loud in a whole-class setting


  1. I have no idea what a “balanced literacy approach” is.
  2. No, TPRS practitioners don’t necessarily translate all readings out loud, OR in a whole class setting.  Sometimes…but we do partner translation, story illustration (comics), free voluntary reading, etc as well.




The number of structures per lesson varies significantly.


In a typical lesson, the teacher introduces and focuses on three target language structures.


There is no pre-set number of structures in TPRS.  An initial story will use a lot (because you need the “super 7” verbs to start storyasking with beginners).  Later ones will use more, or fewer.




All words and grammatical structures are associated with a gesture. The gestures are standardized. Gestures accelerate comprehension – no need to translate – the gestures allow the teacher to teach words as each represents clearly [sic] the meaning


Gestures are sometimes used in conjunction with new vocabulary, however teacher and/or students can create his/her own gestures. Gestures or a physical response (TPR) from the body (limits to imperative form) and are used mostly with younger students (under Gr. 5) when needed only.


  1. In TPRS, TPR is not limited to third-person imperative.  As a matter of fact, Ray and Seely (2015) advocate using third-person singular (and other) forms when doing TPR.
  2. TPR is suggested for younger learners, but also works well (albeit with limited effectiveness) for older learners.



TPRS has a “Five-day lesson plan which includes only three activities: PMS or mini-story, reading the extension, timed free writing and reading”

Reality: umm…TPRS practitioners also do any of the following activities:

  • Movietalk
  • novel reading
  • translation (in various formats)
  • la persona especial
  • Picturetalk
  • reading/listening to developmentally appropriate cultural texts and/or songs
  • other games, such as Mafia, paper airplane translation, running dictation, etc.




Teachers are encouraged to “flood” the student with vocabulary in the target language.


Teachers are encouraged to limit the amount of vocabulary introduced at one time.

Reality:  This is true.  Why do TPRS practitioners carefully restrict vocabulary?  Because of the “bandwidth” issue, or what Bill VanPatten calls “working memory constraints.”  Basically, the less variety of info the brain has to process, the more in-depth the processing of each item (and the sounds, grammar “rules,” etc with which it is implicitly associated) can be.  If we can recycle a limited vocab set over and over, the vocab will be easy to pick up.  In addition, when we have limited vocab– and so are not constantly guessing at/trying to recall meaning, because the working mind can have about 7 items in its awareness at a time– our brain can devote mental energy to soaking up grammar, pronunciation and other properties.

In TPRS, we “practice” language– by processing input– much like musicians practice pieces they are learning: we go over limited parts of tunes/songs to really nail them, rather than trying to soak up an entire piece in one go.




Provides everything for the teacher in terms of outlining in detail and with scripted teacher talk for teachers to model what they might say during whole-class activities.




The teacher asks many questions using the new vocabulary (5-6 questions) being taught. These questions are created ‘on the spot’. No teacher’s guide is provided since questions depend on student answers and reactions. A PMS (personalized mini-situation) is created by the teacher with the help of students, but all of this depends highly on teacher’s knowledge of the L2.

Reality: this is one of the alleged strengths (and to my mind) weaknesses of AIM.  The AIM curriculum is massively structured, which means that– provided they know the routines– any teacher can, in theory, start AIM with very little planning.  However, the rigid structure– this is what your play will be, these are your questions and answers– will inhibit personalisation possibilities, and also raises the question,  what if the students do not find the story interesting?




All students participate by speaking chorally, gesturing or reading the gestures. There is never silence in an AIM classroom – all students speak 30 minutes of a 30 minute class



One or a few students are responding to commands at once. The teacher does most of the speaking. Students only start producing the L2 when enough comprehensible input has been provided (called the silent period – several hours to several weeks)


  1. Nobody at AIM has ever explained why it is necessary for students to speak.  We know from research that input, not output, drives acquisition, and that forced output is not language, but what VanPatten calls “language-like behavior” which does not develop acquisition.
  2. TPRS– outside of during bursts of TPR– does not use “commands.”
  3. Students produce developmentally-appropriate L2 from Day 1.  Initially, this will be y/n and then then one-word answers, and later sentences.




Syntax and grammar are visualized, produced and embedded kinesthetically in this multi-modal approach

AIM’s three-stage inductive grammar approach ensures a Natural Approach (Krashen) to the understanding of grammar


Teacher uses translation to clarify grammar and structures. They use pop-up grammar and one-second grammar explanations. For example, during the translation of a reading it is used every 20 second or so and always in the L1.

Reality: there is no need to “visualize” syntax or grammar.  Since acquisition of L1 (and L2, L3 etc) follow the same processes, and since nobody “teaches” their own kids grammar, vocab etc, it is not clear why one must “visualize” syntax.  If one understands the input, the brain will build mental representation of grammar.  This is not a problem in AIM, however– there is nothing wrong with grammar visuals– but they are unnecessary.

TPRS uses direct translation in order to waste as little time as possible and to stay in L2 as much as possible.




Specific language manipulation activities to scaffold the ability for language use


Does not contain specific language manipulation activities to scaffold the ability for language use


  1. “Manipulation” of language is not necessary to acquire it.  As Bill VanPatten notes, processing of comprehensible input alone “appears to be sufficient” to develop mental representation of L2.  In other words, reading and listening to what students understand is all they need to acquire the language.
  2. TPRS does scaffold.  This fancy word means “make things progressively  more complex while keeping them comprehensible.”  TPRS practitioners go sentence-at-a-time with narration, use embedded readings, recycle previous vocab, do comprehension checks, etc.




Cooperative learning is emphasized – all written language skills are developed orally in conjunction/discussion/interaction with a partner


Students mostly work individually when it comes to written activities and frequently assigned as homework. Oral work is mostly presented as a whole-class activity

Reality: true.  Why does TPRS avoid “partner” or “communicative pair” activities?

  1. Learners inevitably produce junky output, which becomes junky input for other learners.  If we accquire language through input, the purpose of generating bad output and having that bad output become bad input is, well, something I have not heard explained by AIM.
  2. Learners need only comprehensible input to acquire a language.  If they want to talk, great…but they don’t have to talk, and the lack of forced output means many kids are more comfortable in class.




Carefully sequenced partner/group activities



Various random activities for ‘partner vocabulary practice’



TPRS does not require or suggest that teachers to do “partner vocabulary practice.”  What “vocabulary practice” would be is not mentioned.  I am not sure where AIM got this idea.




Each activity of one type lasts a maximum of ten minutes to ensure the highest level of focus and learning potential



One mini-story/PMS is taught per 50-minute daily class




  1. There is no defined max/min length for any TPRS story.  Blaine Ray has famously told of spending four months on one story.  Sometimes a story doesn’t work, so a TPRS practitioner ends it quickly and moves on to other activities.  Some TPRS practitioners advocate what Mike Peto and Ben Slavic have called “quick takeoffs and landings,” i.e. stories that last 25-40 min.
  2. How long an activity in a TPRS class lasts depends on how interesting the students find it. 
  3. A TPRS class is not just story-asking.  TPRS practitioners also do Movietalk, Picturetalk, reading, persona especial, C.I. games, translation, skits, etc.




Students visualize every single word as the teacher gestures delaying showing the written word.


Students visualize the written word/translated written word very early on…

Reality: there is no requirement/suggestion that students in a TPRS class “visualize” the written word.  A TPRS practitioner will write whatever words are used (with translation) on board.  This is to help “anchor” and clarify the meaning of words, as we know that comprehensible– and not ambiguous– input is what leads to acquisition.


Anyway, that’s what AIM claims and what (my understanding of) TPRS actually is.  Be good to hear from AIM what they think, or if they can clarify.  Also be nice to hear from TPRS practitioners re: what they think.



Old Myths Debunked

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

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

The Wayback Machine

I was recently at a conference and thought, OK, I should go see what the Intensive Language teachers do, nd went to a workshop called something like “Get Your Beginners Talking!” Every language conference I’ve ever been to has a workshop like this. 

Here’s a part of a handout:

And here is what the kids would have handed out to them:

This is a classic “communicative” activity: it wants people to use the target language to bridge information gaps as a way to acquire the target language. 

So…what do the research and our classroom experience say about these activities?

1. Speaking “practice” as the exercise suggests does not improve aquisition.  We’ve heard this from VanPatten, Krashen and of course Kirk (2013). 

2.  Feedback– in this case on pronunciation– does not work. There are two main reasons for this:

  • You can’t produce language in real time while self-monitoring to make sure you are using the feedback correctly (Krashen). 
  • Conscious info does not end up in the implicit linguistic system, as VanPatten notes (see this). 

As BVP puts it,

3. This turns the teacher into the language police.  Someone asked the presenter “do they ever speak L1 while doing this?” and they answered “yes, I have to keep an eye on them.”  No fun. I personally find using L2 with other L2s “fake” feeling…and I’m a language geek. 

4.  In terms of personal interest, we have a problem: what if Johnny likes playing with dolls, and doesn’t care that Suzie is really interested in playing Grand Theft Auto?  What if these are low-frequency words?  If these are the case– and they usually are– the amount of vocab that the kids hear that is repeated is going to be minimal. If I hear about 15 different people’s 15 different activities, I am getting less input per item = less acquisition. 

5.  The junky output becoming impoverished input problem among L2s is here unaddressed.  

6. The repetition would be boring. In the presenter’s example, a classic beginner question is do you like to _____? and kids have to answer Yes, I like… or No, I don’t like… This is going to get old really quickly and of course it would be more natural, easier and faster just to use English. 

Anyway…the wayback machine took me to activities that I have never been able to make work. However as they say, your mileage may vary. 

I’ve been able to ditch 95% of output-focused activities, and– thanks to the ease and power of comprehensible input– I have ironically managed to build better speakers by avoiding making kids speak. Go figure. 

More Notes on Feedback

Amy Lenord started a great Twitter discussion about how one encourages language learners to process language.  This eventually led to Martina Bex refering us to her excellent “I am a grammar geek” post, in which she talks about how much she loved– and found effective– the “red ink” from her Spanish profs in Uni. Bex and I very briefly discussed this.  (I will bet that when she has a spare moment– and she is a Mom again, congrats!– she’ll discuss this more.  Ha!)

Now, anyone who knows Bex knows that the basic deal with her is that what she wants done, she gets done.  Bex wants babies? Bex has four (at last count).  Bex wants to acquire Spanish?  Bex signs a months-long “no English” agreement with her room-mate!  Bex wants to master C.I.?  Bex does, in like two years of teaching.

So it is not surprising that she acquired a ton of Spanish in very short order in Uni. 

Again: she wanted, liked & felt she benefited from corrective feedback  in her Spanish classes. 

This raises two questions:  did the feedback she got actually help her, and, if so, why and how?

Well, let’s take Martina’s word for it, and say, sure, corrections and comments helped.  Now, how?

Well, suppose young Bex– or anyone else– wrote this on their Spanish 201 composition:

*  Ayer, yo fue al cine con mis amigos, y vimos una película.

This should be “yo fui,” and say her prof writes that on her paper.  Now, what happens next?

  1. Bex notes there is an error.
  2. Bex re-reds the sentence: yo fui al cine.

Most of our students will not even do #1.  Most will go straight to the mark, wondering  what did I get?  did I get an A?

Some will note, ok, there was an error.

A very few will re-read the corrected sentence, and maybe linger on it, in which case it is functioning as good comprehensible input (albeit not many repetitions).

So, why is the feedback working for Bex?  In my view, it is because

a. Bex is majorly motivated which means,

b. Bex wants feedback, and when she gets it,

c. the feedback provides comprehensible input.

Suppose the prof had written “ser takes an -i in the first-person singular.”  Would this have done Bex any good?  The research says no.  Maybe for Bex it did.  Maybe she went, hmm, yo fui al cine…

I was also recently talking to Adriana Ramírez and Luce Arsenault about giving corrections in their Sp and Fr classes.  Both maintained that their kids got better as a reuslt of having to do corrections.  They havn’t obviously had time to do a controlled study, but we noted a few things:

  1.  Both have very motivated, mostly Asian and wealthy white kids, who have been hearing from their literate parents from Day 1 of school, memorise (for many Asian kids, who have had to learn zillions of Chinese characters before coming to and sometimes while in Canada), and edit (for wealthy white kids, whose parents are uber-literate, professional, etc).
  2. My kids– who are generally Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu-speaking, and have less-literate and generally non-English speaking parents, almost none of whom have any formal experience learning additional languages– have not been primed to memorise and relentlessly improve their work.  This is not to say that our parents do not value education– they do, very much– but it is to say that they have not “acquired” some of the academic habits that can sometimes for kids in language classes.

There is a simple lesson here:  unless people want feedback, and get it, and the feedback is comprehensible input, it is not going to do any good.

So the teacher should focus not on marking and correcting, but on relaxing and reading and being happy in their spare time, so when they show up in class, they have the energy and mood to provide good C.I.– in story asking or reading or MovieTalk form– for kids.  And kids should not be forced to correct work (although if they want to, why not?).  Rather, their work should be hearing C.I. in class, and– if they must have homework– reading or viewing comprehensible and interesting target-language stuff.




What Is Rule Overgeneralization, and What Can We Do About it?

So you are teaching with your text and in year one the kids “learn” first how to say “I like” in Spanish– me gusta– and then how to conjugate regular present-tense verbs.  And suddenly they are saying *yo gusto no trabajo. Then in Level 2 you “teach” them the past tense, like “she ran” is corrió.  And suddenly they are saying *los lunes corrió a la escuela.  These are a lot like how kids pick up L1:  they acquire Daddy went to the store and then later say Daddy goed yesterday.

This is “rule overgeneralisation:” a new “rule” shows up and suddenly it gets applied everywhere, inappropriately.

Kids pull out of this very quickly, mostly because of the masses of input they get from L1 parents and other adults.  But what can we do about this in the language classroom?

So some random notes:

1. Avoiding conscious learning is the first key.  If you have to consciously learn AND remember AND apply “rules” in real time– ie during oral production– you will naturally default to the most recently-learned rule.  So all that hard work on the present tense seems to go out the window when the passé composé gets introduced.  This is not cos kids are dumb, lazy etc, but it is a brain-structure and bandwidth problem: you have a limited amount of conscious brainpower, and forcing it to “learn” and then remember and apply “grammar rules” (and the brain, as Bill VanPatten reminds us, doesn’t even actually use what we teachers call “grammar rules” in the first place) is too much.  Too many mental balls to juggle. TPRS or AIM-style stories, Movietalk, Picturetalk, novels etc– i.e. interesting comprehensible input– will take care of a bunch of this.

2.  Unsequenced or “unsheltered” grammar is second. Blaine Ray and Susan Gross pioneered using “unsheltered” grammar– using all verb tenses, pronouns, verb #s etc — from Day 1.  If the input is “modeling” L2 in all its diversity, the brain won’t default to conscious or recently-“learned” rules.  Yes, beginners can cope with sentences like El chico quería un mono que bailara (the boy wanted a monkey who might dance) easily.  There you have inperfect, subordinate clause and past subjunctive all in one sentence.

This way, the brain has “everything” coming in at once, and it is getting the “mental spaces” for the different “rules” built, ground up, from Day 1.  The kids won’t substitute trabajaba for trabajó because they have been hearing and reading them– mixed together, naturally– from the beginning.

(There is, btw, another argument for the use of unsheltered grammar: frequency.  A glance at any word frequency list shows us that the 250 most-used words (i.e. what Level 1 of any language class should teach) includes verbs in five tenses and the subjunctive mood.  And it’s not like Mexican moms or French dads delay speaking the subjunctive (or whatever) till their kids are ten years old!)

3. Avoiding “grammar practice” is the third key. The problems any output activity where we “practice” grammar are numerous:

  •  How do we expect people to do what they are trying to learn to do?  Are we not putting the cart before the horse here?
  • If we acquire languages via input, what good does output do?  “Little or nothing” is Steve Krashen and Bill VanPatten’s answer.
  • This will inevitably be accompanied by tons of English or other L1 discussion.  Even the eager beavers will be saying “is it the thingy, the subtunction?  Is that like you put an -a on it?  No wait that’s an -e. OMG this Snapchat. Shut up I don’t like her, OK it’s *ella trabajió.
  • It’s boring. Generating sentences such as “the girl wants her cousin to cook” or “I want my friend to run” is not fun.  I’ve tried everything–everything– and believe me, I can get kids to listen to a fun story that has [whatever grammar] in it, but I cannot get 90% of kids to “practice grammar” or “practice speaking” in any meaningful way.

4. Remember that “errors” do not exist, from the learner’s point of view.  If somebody “screws up” in writing or speech, they quite simply have not acquired what they need to produce the language properly.  They are being asked to do something they quite literally cannot do. There’s an entire Tea With BVP devoted to this question. So, rule overgeneralisation– like any error– has more to do with what teachers want than how “good” students are.

5. We have to remember that acquisition is non-linear.  We can minimise problems such as rule overgeneralisation, but we can’t get rid of them.  Check out this mama bear and her cub going rock climbing.

They test pawholds.  They back down.  They try the sequence differently.  They don’t get there in one fast line.

Teachers are mama bear and students the cubs, if you will. They’ll do the moves…when they are ready.

Finally, we need to up the input.  Students only acquire via input.  Yes, it may seem like they are learning from doing worksheets, or using the subjunctive chart above, or practicing dialogues.  But such “learning” is incidental, and as we see from research, much less effective than lots of good input.  If you keep hearing “j’allais à l’école hier” or “yo gusto hamburguesas,” the students need to hear (and read) more je suis allé and me gustan las hamburguesas.  In the long run, that’s the only thing that is going to work.




Level Two Spanish Results: First Picture Description

Spanish 2 has been running for three weeks.  We have read a couple of easy novels, and have done one story cycle: el restaurante, which included reading, storyasking, Movietalk (Mr Bean videos RULE!) and Picturetalk.

Today’s first writing assessment: describe this photo.

Here are four writing samples.  The kids had 5 minutes, no notes or dictionaries.

First, Janelle, the top student. Amazing how she mixes past and present appropriately.


Next, we can compare two Level Two students who are not top performers. Hassan went to another school last year, where he had traditional grammar-and-textbook-based teaching.  This is garbled and nonsensical.  Hasan has some learning challenges and struggles in other classes.

Next, Abbas, who like Hassan has some challenges and struggles with school.  This is not awesome…but we understand, and he has built in a bit of a backstory.  Abbas had only TPRS in Level One.

Based on results, C.I. clearly helps the challenged kids more than does a traditional text.

Finally, Amneet.  This is not very good writing.  What is interesting here is that Amneet is probably the best speaker in the class.  I have found this kind of thing typical:  while most of the kids can undertsand everything (the scores for reading and listening quizzes are all between 80-100%), production skills vary dramatically from kid to kid and medium to medium.  Writers are not necessarily speakers, and vice-versa.

Amneet arrived late in Spanish 2, has missed a bunch of classes, but did well last year (over 80%) so I am expecting her written output will pick up.


Useful Vocab is Useless

What should language teachers teach? And how should teachers prepare students for “hard” tests like say the French or Spanish A.P. exam?

  • Some say “task-based” stuff, where you learn vocab, necessary grammar and verbs etc to get a specific job done.  This seems pretty obvious: if I’m going to France, I am going to need to order food, so we had better do a unit on food, restaurants, ordering, money etc.
  • Some (including me) suggest teaching starting with the most-used words in a language (which by definition includes unsheltered grammar from the beginning).
  • A few dinosaurs suggest grammar rules.

I’ll be controversial here and say that “real world” prep and teaching “useful” vocabulary etc is not what we should be doing.  If we want to prepare students for the “real” world and teach them “useful” vocab etc, we should avoid “preparation” and “usefulness.”  I agree with Nicole Naditz’ idea…but for very different reasons.  Why?

First, as Bill VanPatten noted in one of the earlier episodes of his podcast, we don’t prepare people for specific “real-world” situations.  Rather, we teach them to cope.  Since we can’t anticipate what will happen after/outside class, and even if we could there’s way too much necessary vocab to be learned to deal with possible situations, and since single unknown words can throw us off our carefully-practiced restaurant (or whatever) interactions, what we should be doing is giving people as much understanding and as many tools as possible to get language work done.

Here is a standard student response to a typical “communicative” task: practice using restaurant and food vocabulary in a “realistic” situation.  Of course, the kids wrote a script.   They are learning the vocab, and naturally have not yet acquired it, and so they write it down to try to remember (“quick can we do our oral test before we forget?” they say).           The usual problems with “communicative” tasks apply here: junky output becomes junky input for other learners, it’s what Bill VanPatten calls “language-like behaviour,” as opposed to language, most of the time “preparing” it was probably spent giggling in English about the humour of two gangsters arguing over pizza, etc.

The biggest problem, though, is its usefulness.   When the kids “perform” this for their teacher, one misremembered line will throw the whole thing off.   And if either of them ever gets to France, what happens if the server doesn’t say commander? What if s/he says qu’est-ce que vous voulez?  This– in context– won’t matter that much.  It’s pretty obvious that the server is asking what you want.

The real question here is, was this activity acquisition-building?  Since it’s output-focused, full of junky language, rehearsed etc, the answer is no. The best tools, in language as in carpentry, are those that are simple and versatile.  In terms of bang-for-buck this is super low-value.  If we spent two periods creating, rehearsing and then “performing” these dialogues, that’s 120 minutes where the kids could have been reading/listening to input.  If you were dead set on teaching them food vocab, you could have done Movietalk or Picturetalk about restaurants, or done a story.  But the acquisitive value of output is very limited.

This is where high-frequency vocab comes in.  Starting with what Terry Waltz has called the “super seven” verbs– to have, be, be located, want, need, go, like and want– and using high-frequency vocab, we give learners the “flexible basics” for “real world” situations. You might not know the French for “I would like to buy a train ticket for Lyons,” but if you can use high-frequency vocab at the ticket booth– “I want to go to Lyons”– you’ll be fine.  (train, ticket and to buy are relatively low-frequency words).

Terry Waltz made a similar argument recently.  She asked us to imagine buying copper wire and pliers (low-frequency vocabulary) in a foreign country.  Now, what is more important?  Knowing how to say “do you have?” or knowing the words for “copper wire” and “pliers”?  If you can say “do you have…?” (a very high-frequency expression), it is relatively easy to point, gesture, use a dictionary etc to learn the words for “copper wire” and “pliers.”

Second, most “real world” (i.e. situation-specific) vocab is almost always available in context.  You think you need to know forty Spanish words for food?  No you don’t– when in Colombia or Spain, look at the menu!  Can’t say “towel” in Hindi? If you know mujhee jaruurat hai (“I want to buy…”), you can point at a towel, and the kaparwallah will beam, tell you what the word is and also maybe offer you chai.  Don’t know how to say “buy” and “ticket” and “first class” in French? Go to the train station and if you can say j’aimerais aller à Lyons, you’ll be fine.  You’ll learn…and in all of these cases, because the words are associated with movement, other speakers, images, sights, sounds etc, there’s a good chance you’ll remember their meanings and eventually just spit them out.

Third, we have the problem of, basically, who cares about future “payoffs”?  Most of our students won’t end up in China or Mexico or wherever.  Should we assume that sufficient motivation for them is the possibility that one day they will be chatting up French or Chinese people?  That– like grammar teaching– will work for one student in twenty.

What is going to movitate the other 19? We know from psychology that the three main motivators to do well (in anything) are autonomy, mastery and group belonging.  The highest-paying job in the world blows if you’re robotically following orders.  The living definition of stress is lack of mastery (or at least being good at something) while being obliged to do it, and people will go to incredible lengths to be a part of (and defend) a community.  I suspect that this is why online games such as Call of Duty are so massively popular:  you can re-do levels until you get them, you can do “ops” in groups, and you have a fair amount of control over who you are (avatar building) and what you do.

What about the A.P. exam?   Teacher David W. on the FB group recently asked this:

“at what point/level (if any) do you or other TPRS teachers stop striving for 100% comprehensibility? I’m tied to the Advanced Placement Spanish Exam as an end goal, and it draws heavily on authentic print and audio sources. It’s more or less impossible for non-heritage speakers to have 100% comprehension of these by their fifth year taking Spanish classes. So at some point it seems like they have to start getting used to doing their best despite not getting everything (which they’ll also face when interacting with non-teacher native speakers). Would love to hear any thoughts on this.”

Great question.  Here’s what I think (thanks Terry Waltz for many discussions on this):

  1. Language comes in two kinds:  what we understand, and what we don’t.  The more we understand, the easier it is to figure out the rest.  Look at these two Blablabian sentences:John florfly Miami 24 Nov.
    John florfly squits Miami 24 Nov.

    The first, well, it probably means “John goes to/is in/went to/was in Miami on the 24 Nov.”  The second…well…there are waaaaaay more possibilities.  So, how do we make the second sentence easiest for the Blablabian 101 student to figure out?  Well, we have two options:

    a. we can get them to “practise” various “metacognitive strategies” or whatever edubabble currently stands in for “guess.”
    b. we can teach them as many words as possible.

    Now, if the students know that florfly means “went to,” they will have an easier time guessing at what squits means.

    Bill VanPatten has talked about this problem and has noted that “constraints on working memory” have a significant effect on processing.  Basically, having “too much stuff in the head” at once slows processing.  So, the more high-frequency vocab students have “wired in” to the point where they automatically process it, the more “mental bandwidth” they have for dealing with unknown stuff.

    It’s like organising your cycling or climbing gear, or books, or clothes, in a room or in a closet.  All the Googling, planning and ideas won’t help if you don’t have racks or shelves.  C.I. of high-frequency vocab is the shelving system of language:  it makes life easier by providing slots to stash things as they come in.

  2. There is no research (of which I am aware) suggesting that “processing noise” or getting incomprehensible input helps acquisition.  Indeed, one of the reasons why babies need 4,000-5,000 hours of input to generate even single words (while a student in a C.I. class can start generating simple sentences within a few hours of starting C.I.) is that most of what babies hear is incomprehensible.  A little kid literally hears this when Mom talks to him:  bla bla bla candy bla bla bla tomorrow.

    Many people who travel get a lot of incomprehensible input even when they know the language where they are traveling.  When I am in a Mexican market, I would say that 90% of what I overhear– slang, fast Spanish, low-freq vocab– is over my head, and I’m pretty fly (for a white guy) at Spanish.

  3. There is no way to speed up processing speed.  As American audiologist Ray Hull notes, adolescents process L1 at a max of about 140-150 word per minute, while adults typically speak in L1 at about 180 WPM.  In L2, Hull suggests that 125-130 WPM is optimal speed, and that nothing can speed up processing speed.  Asking an adolescent to “practise” understanding adult L2 speech is like telling a short kid to grow– it’s a developmental thing that cannot be changed.


I would suggest that if you have A.P., you have three strategies which are your best friends:

  1. Reading.  Blaine ray and others have noted that by Level 5, students should be reading 1,000 words a night.  If the reading is 95-98% comprehensible, the kids will slowly acquire new words.  This will help on the A.P.
  2. Movies and video.  Watching anything in the TL, with L1 subtitles, will help.  It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s good L1, accurate L2, and it’s compelling.
  3. Online language apps– e.g. Duolingo, or LingQ– are (to me) boring, but a lot of kids like them.  If they are reading/listening and understanding, they are acquiring.

Anyway, there we go:  “useful” vocab is useless, and “real world” language is not really effective processing practise.