Grammar teaching

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.


A Simple Subjunctive Trick

Here’s a super-simple trick for using the allegedly “advanced” subjunctive from Day 1 in Spanish class.

When you are creating a story– or an Invisible, or an OWI– you ask the kids for suggestions.  All we do is, we restate suggestions in the subjunctive, which is appropriate.

So, if this is “classical” TPRS, and our character has to go somewhere, we ask ¿adónde va la sirena? We solicit three suggestions and as each one comes up, we say es posible que la sirena vaya a Nueva York, then también es posible que vaya a la casa de Barack Obama, and finally es posible que vaya a San Diego.

We do our five-second pop-up by saying we say “vaya” instead of “va” because it’s not certain (yet) where the mermaid goes.

We can also do this with tener, querer, ser, etc: es posible que tenga un perro, es probable que quiera tener menos tarea,  and es posible que el hombre sea malo, etc.

If we are doing a Slavic-style OWI, we must first figure out how many characters there are.  We get suggestions, and we restate them, saying es posible que haya tres chicos or es posible que la chica tenga tres perros.

For teachers who are using fully unsheltered grammar — ie past tenses from Day 1– you can also use the past subjunctive, eg fue posible que la chica hiciera su tarea or ¿fue probable que el profesor no diera mucha tarea?

We aren’t “teaching” the subjunctive to students who are expected to “master” it as a “unit.” We are just using it appropriately and meaningfully where it is necessary.  If we do this all year, the kids will develop a basic feel for it, which is really all they  need.

Eventually, after enough input, the kids will start using the subjunctive.  While they don’t, don’t worry: you can communicate just fine in Spanish without using it, and you don’t have to have a conscious explicit understanding of it to get the point. We know from research that a thing like mood is less important in the hierarchy of acquisition than is meaning, so learners will pay attention to word roots– eg. that hable  has to do with “talk”– before they tune into “oh, that e must mean incertitude or desire.”

Bill VanPatten recently called the Spanish subjunctive “peripheral,” meaning that while native speakers use it, it is not necessary for functional communication.  So…let’s use it and not worry about it.



Frequency List Lessons

There was a recent discussion in which a teacher said, my department head insisted on teaching only the present tense in Level 1, the preterite in Level 2, etc.  This Head’s reasoning was, people must “master” one set of “vocabulary” at a time. Bad idea.

Anyway, let us look at which verbforms in Spanish are actually most frequently used.  Here, from’s Spanish Frequency List, are the most-used verbs in Spanish, then some ideas about what this means for teachers.

The verbform is as given, and the number refers to how close to most-used the verbform is.  The lower the number, the more often used the verb is. Reference point: in Spanish, the most-used word is que (“what” or “that”) whose number is therefore 1.  The second most-used word is de (“of” or “from”) whose number is 2, and the articles la and el (“the”) are the 6th and 7th most-frequently-used words.  OK, verbs:

8.             es
22           está
42           vamos
44           hay
47           estoy
48           tengo
53           ha
55           sé
56           estás
58           puedo
60           quiero
62           soy
63           tiene
68           fue
69           ser
70           hacer
71           son
73           era
74           eres
76           tienes
77           creo
79           he
81           voy
82           puede
83           sabes
91           quieres
100        estaba
102         están
103         va
109         siento
110         tenemos
111         puedes
115         ver
124         decir
128         ir
132         has
136         estar
137        estamos
141        quiere
146        trabajo
148        mira
149        vas
150        sea
154        hecho
156        dijo
157        pasa
162        hablar
169        espera
171        han
173        sabe
177        fuera
181        podemos
182        dije
184        necesito
185        estado
186        podría
187        acuerdo
189        tener
190        dice
192        crees
194        gusta
197        será
198        haciendo
202        había


First, the facts.

A.  The top 202 most-used Spanish words include

  • verbs in seven verb tenses (present, preterite, imperfect, present perfect, present progressive, formal future, informal future e.g. va a hablar)
  • verbs in two subjunctive moods (present and past)
  • reflexive verbs

B. Verbs we think are oft-used such as gustar are less-used than for example fue

C. The traditional textbook order of teaching verb tenses (typically, present ⇒ preterite ⇒ imperfect ⇒ present perfect ⇒ subjunctive) is totally at odds with how frequently verb forms are actually used.

The implications (in no particular order):

  1. Traditional textbook verb sequencing will not help students in real-world use. Most students will not take five years of Spanish– two is more typical– and so traditional sequencing will overplay less-used “categories” (e.g. stem-changing verbs) and underplay what actually gets used (everything, basically).  They will therefore understand less than they should/could.

    We know this:  according to Davies and others, the 1500 most-used words make up 85% of all spoken language (in any language).  A reasonable target for a five-year high-school language program would therefore be, 300 words per year, more or less.  What if students only take two?  Well then, they will get the most benefit from using the 600 most-used words.

  2. Textbook sequencing does not properly “model” grammar “rules.”  It is pretty obvious that everything normally used is “mixed together.”  A four year old will say something like yesterday Daddy took me to a playdate.  I hurt myself playing with Jason. But it was fun.  I like playing with Jason.  He’s nice.  Here, there are three verb tenses and a reflexive verb.In Spanish, English speakers have a whack of verb subtleties to soak up.  For example, the term “I was” could be estaba, estuve, me sentí or fui. If we teach one tense as a time, as the textbook does, we play up the morphology (form) at the expense of contextual “rule” awareness.  E.g. a Colombian will say cuando estaba cansado ayer en la tarde, me tomé un tinto (“when I was tired yesterday afternoon, I grabbed a coffee”).  The Colombian has acquired the “rule” that the preterite tense “interrupts” the “background” that the imperfect tense establishes.In a traditional textbook, however (eg the ¡Juntos! books I used to use), students will spend quite a while on the preterite, and then on the imperfect.  Even if they acquire the specific forms (which they generally don’t, because nobody is on anybody else’s schedule in terms of acquisition), when a new form shows up, two things happen:

    a. they will start using the new form (verb endings) everywhere and apparently forget the older form’s endings.  Kids who knew to say ayer yo fui a la escuela now say ayer yo iba a la escuela intending to mean the same thing.

    b. when (if) they pick up the new form, they will have huge problems “knowing” which form to use where.  Why?  Because there are so many “rules” to remember that the only effective way to pick them up is from contextual input modeling.  Basically, we need to hear an ocean of meaningful Spanish sentences which use both these verb tenses together.  This is true in any language of any grammatical structure.

    An English speaker can do a thought experiment here:  what is the “rule” for using the very high-frequency English words some and any?  Why can’t I ask do you have some advice? or answer no I don’t have some advice for you?  Why can I say do you have some of those washers for my drum? but not do you have some ideas? 

Anyway.  There you go: some data and ideas about word frequency.  Comments as always welcome.


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.



Should I do Word-For-Word Translation?

A recent Facebook group post asked about whether or not teachers should do word-for-word translation.

Word-for-word is not necessarily the same as direct translation, though it can be.  For example, in German we say mein Nahme ist Chris (“my name is Chris”).  In this case, the two languages use the same word order.

Here are some more examples of what word-for-word translation looks like:

In Spanish, a grammatically good sentence is estudiar no me gusta, which literally means “to study not me pleases” but an English speaker would translate this as “I don’t like studying” or “I don’t like to study.”

In other languages, things get weirder: some languages don’t (always) use pronouns.  When I acquired a bit of Mandarin years ago working for Taiwan-born Visco in the camera store, some of the sentences in Mandarin were something like “go store yesterday” which translates into English as “Yesterday I went to the store.” In other languages, like French, you can’t just say “no” or “not:” you have to wrap the verb with ne…pas.  In some languages in some places you do not always need a verb.  E.g in German, if somebody asks you Bist du  gestern nach Berlin gegangen? (meaning “Did you go to Berlin?”), you can answer with Nein, gestern bin ich nicht nach Berlin (literally “No, yesterday am I not to Berlin”).

I think we should generally not use word-for-word translation.  Why?

  1. WFW unnecessarily confuses the kids.  The point of direct translation is to clarify meaning.  You want to waste as little time as possible and having them think through weird word order is not doing much for meaning.  Terry Waltz calls this “a quick meaning dump,” by which she means the point is to get from L2 to L1 in as simple and easy a way as possible.

2. WFW turns on the Monitor.  In other words, when we do this, students start to focus on language as opposed to meaning.  We know that the implicit (subconscious) system is where language is acquired and stored, so there is little point in getting them to focus on language.  Both Krashen and VanPatten have argued (and shown) that conscious knowledge about language does not translate into acquisition of language.  Monitor use is at best not very helpful so why bother?

3. WFW can cause problems for people whose L1 is not English.  In my classes, we have lots of kids whose first languages are Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Tagalog etc etc.  Some of them are fairly new to English (they speak with accents and their English output has errors).  For example, a classic South Asian L2 English error I hear/read in my English classes all the time is “yesterday he had gone to the store” instead of “yesterday he went to the store.”

What these L2s need, more than anything, is not just grammatically good L3 but also gramamtically coherent English.  We tend to forget that, say, the Ilocarno-speaking Filipino kid who is in our Spanish class is also learning English in our Spanish classes.


Powerhouse Spanish teacher Alina Filipescu writes

I tell students what “ME LLAMO” means word for word, “myself I call,” then I add that in other words it means “my name is.” Since I’ve switched to this instead of just telling students that ME LLAMO means “my name is” like a textbook says it, I’ve seen a lot less errors. I now rarely see students make the mistake “ME LLAMO ES John.” When students do volleyball translations, then I have them do translations that make sense and not word for word. I do it word for word as a class so that I can control where it goes. I also like that students can “feel” what the syntax of the sentence is in the language that I teach. Just like Blaine always says, if there is something better than I will try it and adopt it. This is not written in stone for me, it’s what I do right now because it made sense when I heard/saw somebody else do it.

Filipescu makes three good points here.  First, students should know that you generally cannot translate most things WFW and have it make sense.  We all know what happens when legacy-methods assignments demand output beyond kids’ abilities:  Google transliterate!

She also says that she gets less *me llamo es (“myself I call is”) as a result.  I don’t doubt it…but she raises the interesting question of why and under what conditions?  Was this compared to when she used legacy methods?  Or compared to when she started C.I. and just did general meaning translation? I too get a lot less me llamo es and other such errors, but I think it has more to do with C.I. allowing me to spend way more time meaningfully in the target language than anything else.

Third, Filipescu translates me as “myself” which is correct…here.  However, elsewhere me means “me,” rather than “myself,” more or less like in English, eg me pegó means “she hit me.”  Now if we obsess over WFW (not that Alina does so) we are going to focus the kids on two different meanings “anchored” to one word.  Which I could see being confusing.

Filipescu’s post also raises the interesting question of under what conditions the kids write.  I have found that the more time they have, the more they screw up, because when they have notes, dictionaries, etc, they start thinking, and thinking is what (linguistically speaking) gets you into grammatical trouble.  One of the reasons C.I. uses little vocab and LOADS of repetition (via parallel characters, repeating scenes, embedded readings, etc) is to automatise (via processing, and not via “practise” talking) language use.   The less time they have to write, the less they think, and the more you get to see what the students’ implicit (subconscious) systems have picked up.

Anyway, overall, I would say, point out the weirdness of word order (or whatever aspect of grammar is different) once, then stick to natural, meaningful L1 useage for translation.  Mainly, this is to keep us in the TL as much as possible, and eliminate L1 distractions.

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!

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

Part One: The Basics


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you see where we are going with this?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free weight lifting is the comprehensible input of fitness.

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two: Planning and Feedback

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.