High-Frequency Vocabulary

How to teach “to have” and “to be.”

Kids’ souls, err I mean cell phones, fit perfectly into the Intro Routine and are an awesome way to teach “to have” and “to be located in” (tener and estar).

  1. If you cruelly collect cell phones, you walk around with the phone basket as class starts and you have these simple conversations. You’re going to have to model them the first time or two. I hold my phone out and use it to clariify if kids have trouble answering.

Do you have your phone? — Yes, I have my phone/no, I don’t have my phone.

How much battery do you have? — I have lots of/little battery. In Spanish, ¿cuánta pila tienes? –Tengo mucha/poca pila.

Do you have a Galaxy 96/iPhone 24? –No, I have a Galaxy 6/iPhone 7.

Where is your phone? — my phone is at home/in my locker/in my pack — I don’t have my phone

(in Spanish, ¿dónde está tu teléfono? — está en… or no tengo mi teléfono)

I also like to react with mock horror: What?!? You don’t have your phone?!? (in Spanish, get your pronouns on: ¿qué? ¿No lo tienes?

The “cell phone hotel”:

2. If your kids put phones in a “cell phone parking lot” (especially good if spots are numbered/named) you stand beside the “lot,” point and pause, and ask the questions above, plus ones such as these:

Where is John’s phone– in 4 or 17? Whose phone is in 6? Does Mandeep have her phone, or is it in the phone hotel?

In my class, any kid who gets 100% can have their phone. Major jealousy from slackers! So to model plurals, I’ll point at a kid who has their phone and ask/say things such as

Do Bani and I have our phones? Do Bani and Jagveer have their phones? Where are out phones?

Anyway. Simple, easy and of some interest to kids. Note: don’t overkill: kids will hear this every day, so no need to beat it to death. Just make sure they understand.

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Frequency List Lessons #3

So…in Spanish, the “super 7 verbs” are to have, to want, to go, to like, to exist, to be, to be located.  This Terry Waltz-compiled list is the most-used verbs.  Mike Peto added nine more to make the “sweet 16.”  These are worth heavily focusing on in Year 1 of any language. They are the acquisitional platform on which subsequent Spanish is built, and they allow us to get about 90% of necessary work done in Spanish (with circumlocution etc).

It’s a central tenet in C.I. teaching that we want to focus on high-frequency words.  Then, on C.I. Fight Club, the topic of how frequently used numbers are came up, and Terry had this to say:

This is why the “Super 7” is a list of concepts, not specific words. For me, thinking about getting students able to express or work with concepts is more important than specific vocabulary. They need some way of quantifying (at first maybe just “many” and “few”, later more specific). That’s really important, but it’s made up in turn of a whole lot of options. Individual number words don’t “score” highly on standard frequency lists of words, but if you looked at the concepts those words stood for, I bet the “quantity” concept would be right up there.

So I went and looked at how frequently numbers and quantity-connnoting words appear in the 1000 most frequently used Spanish words. (The only numbers in the 100 most-used Spanish words are 1 and 2).

#37  mas    more
#40  
todo   all
#72  todos all (plural)
#96  tan (used for as…as)
#153 mismo (same)
#204 tres (three)
#205 menos (less)
#240 cada (each)
#296 casi (almost)
#311 primera (first)
#327 cuanto (how much)
#392 ningun (none, not any)
#425 cinco (five)
#428 cuando (when)
#430 algunos (certain)
#434 unos/unas (some)
#435 muchos (many)
#437 segundo (second)
#456 cuatro (four)

The next numberish word is diez (ten) at #708.

So it would seem that Terry is right: there are a whopping five numbers in the most-used 708 words, but there are 14 words which have to do with quantity.  In other words, having a feel for quantity is more important than knowing lots of specific numbers.

 

 

 

 

 

Frequency Lessons #2: What Really Matters?

Thought experiment, and neat discussion item for Defartment Meetingz, or Headz or Adminz who don’t understand why Textbookz are the devil in disguise. 

First, read the following lists.  These are English equivalents of Spanish words from Wiktionary.com’s frequency list. If you are using this with colleagues, don’t at first tell them where you got the words. 

List A: welcome, together, window, comes, red

List B: went, that he be, world, shit, that she had gone out

First, you could think about what these lists have in common, how they differ, etc. 

Second, anwer this question: which words will be the most useful for students in the real world?

The obvious answer is List A. After all, we always “welcome” people, kids need to know words for classroom stuff like “windows,” we set the tone for classes by working peacefully “together,” and common sense suggests that “comes” and colours such as “red” are super-important. 

The List B words are, obviously, either less immediately useful or “advanced” (ie textbook level 4 or 5) grammar. 

Now here’s the surprise for us and our colleagues: the List B words are all in the 200 most-used Spanish words, while none of the List A words are in the 1000 most-used Spanish words.

What I got from this was, first, that what is obvious isn’t necessarily true, and second that a sequenced plan of instruction (eg from “simple” to “complex” grammar) would majorly short-change students for their real-world Spanish experiences. 

The textbook, or the doddering grammarian (or even the smiley new school grammarian with their apps, feedback gadgetry, evidence of learning portfolios, self-reflections bla bla bla) will see language acquisition as a set of skills that we master one rule set or vocab set at a time, starting with simplest and going to “more complex.” However, what people need to actually function in México or Spain is, well, high-frequency vocabulary, as much of it as possible. Why is this? Two simple reasons. 

First, high-freq vocab is what one hears most. Knowing it means getting the functional basics and feeling good because you can understand lots. If you easily understand lots of the target language, you can function even if– as is always the case– you can’t speak as much as you understand. When I’m in Mexico and I can’t say blablabla, I can gesture, point, use other words etc. Never yet had a problem with getting my point across, but I’m always wishing I understood more. 

Second, high-freq vocab builds the “acquistional platform.” When our students are finally in a Spanish or Mandarin environment, knowing high-freq vocab reduces the processing load for new input. If students already know a high-frequency sentence such as I wanted that he had been nicer (in Spanish quería que estuviera/fuera más amable), it will be much easier to figure out what I wanted that she had been more engaging means, because we only have to really focus on the word engaging

This is the acquisition platform: when we have the basics (high-freq words and grammar) wired in, it gets steadily easier to pick up new words. 

Anyway…be curious to see what ppl and their colleagues think of this. OH WAIT I FORGOT THE DEVIL 😈. Textbooks. Well the basic prob with texts here is that they don’t even close to introduce words along frequency lines, as I have noted elsewhere

Dictionary bad; story good

How’s these for fun? Would you prefer these to, say, movies or novels?

BilingualDictionaries.jpg

Here’s a question recently asked on a Facebook group for C.I. teachers:


My answer to this:  the $$ would be better spent on a set of novels.  

But first, a caveat: if you have Adminz or Headz of Defartmentz who run your job, and insist on dictionaries– it’s just common sense, you know, we need dictionaries to learn new words— well, you do what you must to keep your job.  But for those of us with choice, I maintain dictionaries are a terrible use of money and a waste of time on the classroom.  Here’s why:

Note that we can do two things with dictionaries: decoding language we don’t know, or generating language we cannot yet produce.

  1. Kids can’t really use dictionaries.  When Johnny looks up the Spanish sentence “I can eat fish,” he writes yo lata pez (I tin can living fish).  Hell, even among adults, language boners abound.
    Better: ask the teacher.  If you, the teacher, doesn’t know the word, well, you get to up your mad skillz yo, and you get to model to kids that it’s OK to say when I don’t know something, I admit it and I figure it out with the best possible help I know.

    Also, the teacher can head off mis-translations at the pass, and can work on ensuring that the word gets used properly after it’s been properly introduced, and ensure that it gets used as much as possible.

  2. Dictionaries even when necessary– e.g. during reading–are slow.  Let’s face it: you have to thumb through a big book, and look at words in tiny print, and find the one word you want among a hundred others on the same page.  This apparently trivial feeling is for a 14 year old kid–in their 2nd or 3rd language– tough and slow going. Then there are the obscure (to kids) notes, like vt and prep. And we are talking Spanish here…I have no idea how dictionaries work in say Chinese but they can’t be simple.


    Better
    : in the back of C.I. novels (e.g. the Gaab et al. ones, or the Ray et al ones) there are alphabetical vocab lists of only the words in the book.  Faster and much easier to use than a dictionary.

  3. If we need dictionaries, we probably aren’t doing optimal C.I.  We know that to build language acquisition, input– aural or written– needs to be comprehensible.  If you need a dictionary for reading activities, the reading by definition isn’t that comprehensible.  And we know that if people are going to read on their own, reading has to be 98% comprehensible and generally not an “authentic resource.”


    Better: 
    use student-friendly texts that recycle high-frequency vocabulary.

  4. It is sometimes argued, well we want kids to be able to find and use vocabulary personally relevant to them (ie we need to personalise) and therefore they need dictionaries.  Wrong, and here is why.


    Better:
     any chance where the teacher and/or other kids learn– and acknowledge– something about a student is good personalisation.

  5. Dictionaries do not properly model language use.  If  you want to pick up a word (or grammar “rule”), you need it to be comprehensible, and in context.  Dictionaries don’t show you sentences, dialogue, etc.  In Spanish, for example, the word for living fish is pez and the word for fish that is caught/being cooked and eaten is pescado.  You can’t tell from the dictionary which you use where.


    Better
    : do what Blaine Ray does and teach one sentence at a time (using parallel characters for more reps), writing it on board if need be.

  6. Even as decoding tools, dictionaries have limits.  In Spanish, the classic one is this:  Melinda sees Yo le traje un regalo (I brought him/her a present).  So she goes looking for traje. But traje isn’t in the dictionary, while the infinitive– traer— is.  It is assumed that the reader knows the “rules” of getting from a conjugated form to the infinitive (or v.v.), and/or how to use the verb conjugation tables.  99% of kids in my experience can’t do this, and while sure they could learn it with years of tedious, boring practice, life (and class) is too short.
  7. “But the kids can use wordreference.com on their cellphones!” says somebody.  Well here is what happens when Monsieur Tabernac gets his students to look up the very important French verb for “to dine on gourmet food whilst picnicking in Fontainebleu and looking as good as a Manet painting”:
    a. Maninder hears bla bla bla bla phone bla bla bla
    b. He turns his phone on and finds 37 texts, 15 Snapchats, a worrisome tweet he’s been tagged in, plus a missed call– with voice message, quelle horreur, why do parents use these stupid things instead of texts?– from Mom, but no wait, here’s a cute text from Rajnit, hey u wanna chll @ lunch? atr which point his brain totally shuts down.
    c. ten minutes later, Monsieur Tabernac asks Maninder eeeuuhh, comment est-ce qu’on le dit en français?
    d. Maninder looks at Mr Tabernac, and thinks, wut?

 

In terms of bang for buck, I would say, get some novels.  They are $5 typically when you buy 30.  Dictionaries are at least $10.  So for the price of 30 dictionaries you could get two sets of novels, which will be waaaaaay more fun, and plus kids will pick up grammar, idioms etc from novels, as they present multidimensional, “whole” language.

In my class, I have one dictionary and I use it maybe once a week.  More often, I ask Hispanic ppl on Facebook etc how they use words.  Oddly enough, the Hispanics often disagree with the dictionary.  Hmmm…

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. 

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.

 

 

 

T.P.R.S. or…whatever? More Evidence for the Effectiveness of Comprehensible Input

I have documented TPRS kids’ success in the past (see this) but today we are in for a different kind of treat: we are going to look first at what top students can do with traditional methods (forced output, grammar practice, word lists, memorisation, etc) and then with comprehensible input.

Today, totally by accident, I found my old Spanish 2 binder from when I was a traditional methods teacher using the ¡Juntos Dos! program.  One of my old Level 2 final projects was to create a children’s book.  The kids generally used themselves as characters.   This story was written by Nuvjit S.

Nuvjit was a keen language learner in high school, and has since then acquired Japanese. She was the top student in Spanish in her year.   For this project, the kids got editing help from me, they could use dictionaries, etc. Here is Nuvjit’s children’s book. This was the best project of its kind that I got that year.  So take a look at what I was able to get done with traditional methods.  This is second year Spanish.


  
  
  

Now, let’s take a look at what a kid taught with only comprehensible input methods can do.

This is Neha D.’s story. She is one of the top five or six students from this year.  This was done today, in 50 minutes, with no notes or dictionary.  First draft.  No editing.  Neha is Nuvjit, ten years later, with  Spanish teaching based on what we know the brain needs to acquire language: tons of compelling comprehensible input, in aural and written form.

Neha has never seen a grammar worksheet, a verb conjugation table or an explanation of how the pretérito  differs from the imperfecto.  She has never had her work corrected, and she has never “reflected on her learning,” or fiddled with a portfolio.  She probably can’t even tell you what a verb is and she has never heard the word “conjugate.”

This is first year Spanish.


  
  
  
  
  

So…it’s pretty obvious which method works better…for me, and for these students.  Your mileage may vary.

Now let me also be clear here:  I was a pretty bad communicative teacher.  I didn’t get good results (well, I couldn’t get my kids to have awesome results).  There were– and are– loads of people better than me in that tradition.  So I am pretty sure that any number of people could have gotten better results.  I’m also at best a slowly-improving T.P.R.S. practitioner, and there are loads of people who get better results than me.

This however is also my post’s silver lining:  if I was a bad “communicative” teacher and I’m a marginal (but improving) T.P.R.S. practitioner, my kids are getting more out of the class with T.P.R.S.

At bottom, I don’t attribute Neha’s success to me being smart or a good teacher, or to how funny I am– err, try to be– etc.  Neha and her classmates’ success ultimately stems from T.P.R.S., Movietalk, etc, allowing us to remain comprehensibly in the target language for huuuuuge amounts of time.

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.

 

 

What Is Personalisation? Two Approaches.

What is “personalisation”?  We all agree it matters.  My definition: personalisation is any connection between subject matter and individuals’ interests and characteristics.

A very talented District colleague recently did me the favour of Twarguing with me.  She posted a picture of a bicycle with some Spanish sentences explaining the value of riding a bike, thus: 

For the non-Spanish-speakers, the sentences include “puts a big smile on your face” and “reduces the risks of heart attack,” etc.  These are all about the advantages of riding a bicycle regularly.  I would never use this with kids, cos like O.M.G. it’s boring, LULZ but anyway.

When I saw this, I looked at a few words from the picture Wiktionary’s Spanish frequency lists.  Most of that picture is low-frequency vocabulary (i.e. not in the top 1500 most-used Spanish words).  So, I responded with the following question:

How is low-frequency vocabulary “important”? If your reference is to grammar (e.g. 3rd person verbs), this better taught w/ high-frequency vocab.”

 

Shauna here is suggesting that students investigate their own interests and use language pertaining thereto.  In other areas, we have suggestions about using project based learning and genius hour in the language classroom (with excellent rebuttals (especially for genius hour proposals) from Sarah E. Cottrell).

We are here getting into a classic traditional-methods-vs-comprehensible-input teachers’ argument:  do we make language class interesting– and personalised– for students by

a) recycling high-frequency vocabulary, or

b) by allowing students to choose their own vocabulary for activities?

A general note: while we all take some interest in what others do/like etc, there are limits.  Walk into a Joshua Tree fire circle, and if you’re not a rock-climber, you’ll be baffled and bored within minutes, because “it’s slammer left-facing hands on 2s to a sidepull and then a mantle over a crappy blue Alien and a slab runout” is basically irrelevant to you.  In any social situation, there is a balancing act between interest in others’ stuff and being bored.  So it is in a classroom.

Textbook personalisation suggestions have a number of basic problems, one of which is keeping kids interested.  Why should Johnny want to listen to/read the vocab about ordering dinner, or recycling, or bargaining for fruit in a French market, over and over?  It’s not that these activities and words are boring per se, but when was the last time you spent three weeks using forty words and one grammar device to discuss the same topic? Never– because that’s boring. So the simple answer– for teachers who do not use stories– is, let the kids pick and choose their vocab.   T.P.R.S. and A.I.M. teachers, as we shall see, don’t have many challenges keeping kids interested.

But if students choose their own vocab for class activities or projects, there are five big problems.

First, there is the problem of usable frequency.  If we want to build functional fluency in any language, our first priority is make sure students acquire the most-used words before the less-used.  Obviously, there will be exceptions: “communicative” teachers typically like to make sure kids know all the words for school things such as pencil, desk etc, while we comprehensible input people like animals etc for our stories.  Now, a student may be into activities that use high-frequency words.  But much more often, the opposite is the case.

If Johnny is into, say, bicycle racing, and Sheila likes wrestling, great.  But how often is Johnny going to hear/read cycling-related– and Sheila wrestling-related– words?  The answer:  in most language communities, especially ones to which people in their first five years of language acquisition belong, not very often.  This means they are putting effort into something which has limited communicative value for them and for others in their class.

Second, we have the problem of shared interest.  As I noted above, if Baninder likes Call of Duty and Maricela likes chess, what– as relative beginners– are they going to talk about?  Maricela is probably not going to be especially interested in hearing about shooting people, team missions, ammunition etc, and Baninder is not going to want to hear about endgame strategies and Sicilian openings, etc.

In the “real” world (probably online), Baninder can find his own C.o.D. crew in French and Maricela can play chess with French speakers, but in class– where realistically 95% of language acquisition happens for our students– how are we going to get each kid– not to mention the rest of the class– to “buy into” hearing and reading others’ specialist vocab?

(As an English teacher, my first great reading realisation years ago came from my brilliant colleague Louise Hazemi, who in Surrey pioneered the use of literature circles for novel reading.  We used to have a “novel a year” system, where kids were assigned To Kill A Mockingbird in 10th grade, Lord of the Flies in 11th, etc.  The problem?  Most kids hated these books (either because they were “too hard,” or simply because they had been assigned), didn’t read them, cheated on tests and essays, etc.  So, at our school, we asked the kids what books they would like (and asked teachers) and for each grade bought 10 copies of 8 novels.  Now, the kids in each grade pick a novel to read (yes; we still offer Mockingbird and L.o.t.F.) and BOOM! all the kids read at least one novel, and all the kids report enjoying their reading (they still do essays, discussions etc about their chosen novel).

It is much the same with silent reading.  I start each English and Social Justice class with 20 minutes of silent reading.  There are three silent reading rules:

  1. You must read a book (no newspapers or magazines) and not talk, listen to music, or use your phone.
  2. You must not read anything from any class during silent reading.
  3. Your book must not suck.  If it does, get another one.

How does it work?  Brilliantly.  While my less-literate boys grumble at the start of the year, after a week every kid reads and every kid likes reading.  Probably two-thirds of kids read young adult novels, while another third prefer things like biographies, how-to books, various factual genres, self-help, etc.  This is because they choose things that are interesting (and readable) to them and because there is no “accountability piece.”  No “book report” marks, reading logs, etc.  As long as they are reading and enjoying their reading, I am happy.

Now at this point I can see Madame Nero (and any other person who shares her view about how to personalise the language class) saying “Exactly!  Let language kids do the same thing! Let them decide!” However, the key here is that nobody is forcing the kids to learn/acquire things which they are not interested in.  Kids like free reading because it’s free:  they aren’t forced into something they don’t care about.)

Third, there is the quantity of input problem.  We know that what people acquire is a function of how much comprehensible input they get.  They need to hear the words or structures a lot to first recognise them automatically, and even more to be able to automatically say them.  So if we are going to run our class around student-identified student interests, how do we deliver 30 different sets of vocab often enough that the kids– even if they want to, which we are not guaranteed– pick them up?

Say each kid gets to decide 5 words germane to their interests which they want to have incorporated into class activities.  That’s 150 words.  That’s half of a year’s recommended vocab load right there!  As we very well know, it’s simple math:  the greater a variety of vocab we use, the less time we have on each word which means poorer acquisition of each word. As the great Terry Waltz recently noted, if you want the kids to acquire more words, teach fewer words. There is also the challenge of integrating specialist vocabulary into teacher-planned activity.

Fourth, we have the output problem.  In many traditional classes, it is assumed– wrongly– that if kids “learn” vocab (and grammar) and present it in some way, they are picking it up.  This is simply wrong, as the research shows.  And, learners by definition generate error-filled and impoverished (two-dimensional) output.  I do not see the point of making other learners listen to that.  As Terry Waltz has famously said– with Stephen Krashen agreeing– “peer to peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching.”

This is what is supposed to happen in a “communicative classroom (here, two Vietnamese speakers are learning English):

Thanh: Where Michael today? He here?

Vien: Where is Michael today?  He is not here.

Thanh: Ahh, yes, where is Michael today?  He is not here.

Here, Vien– who is also learning English– is supposed to notice Thanh’s error, “remodel it” properly, so Thanh can fix his output.  Now, here is what would actually happen:

Thanh: Where Michael today?  He here?

Vien: Michael home.  He not here.

Thanh: Ah, yes, Michael home.

Even though Vien and Thanh want to learn English, and are working away at it, they will inevitably produce poor output (for a variety of reasons).  So the ideal situation described above generally does not happen with two learners.  If Thanh’s interlocutor was a native (or very competent) English speaker, this communicative activity would probably work.

Fifth, there is the dictionary/Internet problem.   As soon as the kids want to generate their own vocab, we know what they do:  they fire it into Google translate, and we know the results.  So it becomes the teacher’s job to edit word lists, activities, presentations, rehearsed dialogues, etc.  I don’t know about you, but that’s boring and often I am myself scrambling to figure out how to say _____ in Spanish.

So, if our goal is to deliver a ton of compelling and multidimensional high-frequency language, and to repeat that language over and over so students hear it often enough that it gets wired in, the “choose your own topic” idea won’t work.   But the question remains, how do we personalise vocabulary and maintain student interest? 

One answer involves using the world’s oldest and most-proven teaching method;  stories.  Everybody likes a story, because we naturally find people and their hopes, problems etc more interesting than things or ideas, and because suspense– what happens to ____?— is another universal hook.  Stories are always more interesting than any other kind of input.  Everyone can relate to basic human questions such as wanting to have ___, being scared of ____, liking/disliking someone, etc.

In T.P.R.S., our use of parallel characters and parallel problems allows us tremendous room for personalisation.  If we’re working on esperaba que ____ le explicara… (“s/he hoped that _____ would explain…”), say, I can have a boy who wants to have the mysteries of talking to girls explained to him (great topic for all teens: boys want info, girls will think it’s hilarious) and a girl who wants to have say Call of Duty explained to her.  (Stereotypes are great to play around with).  This works even better when we know students, and we can throw a kid (and their interests, from say our start-of-year questionnaire) into a story.   If we know Breleigh likes dogs, hates cats and looooves Ashton Kutcher, well, Breleigh eseperaba que Ashton Kutcher le explicara por qué no le gustaban los gatos.  Any half-decent storyteller can get the audience to empathise with or at least be interested in a character who is a bit different than they are.

Another answer involves recycling high-frequency vocabulary in a way that ackowledges student interests and preferences.  For a rank beginner, something like owning a specific kind of pet, or liking or disliking any kind of thing or activity is a great start.  In my first story, Los Gatos Azules, a boy wants to own ten blue cats.  So, we personalise by asking the students the same questions we ask our actors:

Here’s an example from my Level 1 class:

Me: Ace, ¿tienes un perro?  Do you have a dog?

Ace: No.

Me: ¿Tienes un gato? Do you have a cat?

Ace: No tengo gato. I don’t have a cat.

Me: ¿Te gustan los gatos o los perros? A mí (pointing at myself), me gustan MUCHO los gatos. Do you like cats or dogs?  Me, I REALLY like cats.

Ace: Me gustan los gatos. I like cats.

Me: Clase, levanta las manos si te gustan los gatos. (half of class raises hands, so I point at a kid who didn’t). Mandeep, ¿te gustan los gatos? Mandeep, do you like cats?

Mandeep: No.

Me: What did I just ask you?

Mandeep: Do you like cats?

Me:  Mandeep, los gatos– ¿Son simpáticos, o no son simpáticos? Cats– are they nice, or not nice?

Mandeep: No.

Me:  ¿Los gatos no son simpáticos? Cats aren’t nice?

Mandeep:  No.

Me: Class, what did Mandeep just say?

Class: Cats aren’t nice.

So, here we have some personalisation: the kids are explaining their opinion about cats and dogs.  This is basic stuff.  (Note:  I am not expecting any output other than y/n here (though if the students want to say more, they can).  My only aims are that they understand what is being said and that they can connect the vocab to their selves or interests.

Here is a level 2 example of personalisation. In the story we are doing, a Dad is chewing his kids out for not having done homework and chores.  So we are acquiring what did you do? and I prefered, etc.  In the story, Dad asks his kid “What did you do last night?” and she says “I went to Cabo San Lucas and talked for 9 hours with Dave Franco.”  Dad asks “Did you do your homework?” and she says “No, I didn’t, Dave did it.”

All we have to do in P.Q.A.– personalised questions and answers– is ask kids in class the same questions we ask our actors.

Me: Breleigh, ¿que hiciste anoche?  What did you do last night?

Breleigh: No hice nada porque tenía que estudiar. I didn’t do anything cos I had to study

M: ¿Qué estudiaste anoche? What did you study last night?

B: Estudié la biología. I studied bio.

M: ¿Qué querías hacer anoche: estudiar, o bailar? What did you want to do last night: study, or dance?

B: Quería bailar. I wanted to dance.

M: John, ¿qué prefieres hacer tú– bailar, o jugar Call of Duty?  What do you prefer to do: dance, or play C.o.D.?

J: Prefiero jugar C.o.D. porque es más interesante. I prefer to play C.o.D. cos it’s more interesting.

We can get an immense amount of mileage out of a fairly limited range of vocab, as you can see.  If we throw in some weird stuff, we can get a zillion more miles.  For example, I could ask Breleigh if she likes elephants (free cognate) more than cats.  If she says yes, we’re off: do you own an elephant?  what is a good name for an elephant?  etc etc. These details can serve in stories, and they are great for random “review” P.Q.A.

Now, these are simple examples, and I hope you’re seeing the point:  we can personalise without getting into specialist vocab.  Not every kid is into Call of Duty (or chess, or ballet, or gangster rap, or Peruvian food, or French culture), but a teacher who is willing to listen to kids will figure out what people have opinions about and get them to express those.

The teacher’s job in part is to explore student interests, but also to make the language classroom functional (comprehensible and interesting) for everyone, so sometimes you have to say “sorry, Johnny, that’s too complicated” or “nobody else is interested in that, sorry.”

Personalisation: people basically want their interests and selves acknowledged.  If Johnny says “I prefer C.o.D. to ballet” and Suzy “God, I hate cats,” that is good personalisation.  We acknowledge their interests and views, and we give them what they need: an ocean of repetition on limited vocab, varied by context, cognates and sometimes wacky fun stuff.

So, in a nutshell, to personalise properly:

  • avoid having students generate lists of words
  • avoid making students listen to/read low-frequency specialist vocabulary
  • connect students with high-frequency vocab by soliciting their opinions, or info about them
  • use stories and ask students the same questions as you ask actors
  • integrate students– or info about their real (or imagined) selves– into stories

NOTE: Teachers in an immersion environment are going to be able to use more vocab than the rest of us, and there is therefore going to be more finely-tuned personalisation, and at serior Immersion levels there will be way more room for vocab personalisation.  But for most of us…keep it simple is the way to go.

Are these 17 statements about language acquisition true? Answers from the research.

Here’s a list of popular assumptions about language learning and teaching from Lightbrown and Spada (2006).  I found this on leaky grammar, which is well worth checking out.  I’m responding to these statements based on research from Stephen Krashen, Wynne Wong, Bill VanPatten, and of course the stuff in Lightbrown and Spada’s 2013 text, which everyone should read.

1. Languages are learned mainly through imitation  

No.  While obviously there is imitation– especially from children– the research is clear: most language learning comes from receiving aural or written comprehensible input.  At much later levels in the L2 acquisition process, some explicit feedback– especially for writing– will help things along.

2. Parents usually correct young children when they make grammatical errors 

Depends.  Some do, some don’t, some sometimes do.  There’s no evidence to show that this practice works.

3. Highly intelligent people are good language learners 

What does “learning” mean?  Research shows that people who traditionally test high on IQ tests (which have well-documented biases) are pretty good at doing things like remembering and consciously applying grammar rules.   However, many illiterate people– who would massively bomb any IQ test– have acquired many languages.

4. The most important predictor of success in second language acquisition is motivation 

No.  While motivation may keep students “tuned in” to instruction– they will listen/read much more (i.e. receive comprehensible input) if they want to learn– all the motivation in the world will not overcome ineffective methods.  A teacher who is providing incomprehensible input, or boring tasks, will eliminate motivation in all but the eggest-headed of students, or, even if those students stay engaged, will be unable to ‘reach’ them.  Krashen has declared motivation less than important.

Related:  motivation to what?  Most students don’t especially care about Spanish, French, etc.  I sure didn’t…what I did care about was being able to meet and talk to people in Mexico, read Paz in the original, order food, meet Colombian women, etc.

5. The earlier a second language is introduced in school programs, the greater the likelihood of success in learning 

Depends.  Canadian data on French Immersion supports this theory.  However, if a language program doesn’t follow brain rules– it provides incomprehensible input, it’s boring, it scares learners, etc– more instruction is not a good idea.  We also know that adults, under the right conditions (good comprehensible input), can massively out-pace Immersion learners and kids in acquisition.  Some estimates are that 1,000 hours of comprehensible input will build functional fluency.  Immersion and early exposure do one thing MUCH better than later exposure:  get rid of accents.

6. Most of the mistakes that second language learners make are due to interference from their first language 

No; only a very few are.  Many are interlanguage.  As Lightbrown and Spada show (in their 2013 4th edition), many errors made by second-language learners do not reflect their native language.  Indeed, studies show that many interlanguage errors are common across cultures and languages.

7. The best way to learn new vocabulary is through reading. 

Yes, provided the reading is comprehensible and interesting enough that learners will do a lot of it.  Some studies suggest that over 75% of a literate adult’s vocabulary comes from reading.

8. It is essential for learners to be able to pronounce all the individual sounds in the second language. 

Essential for what?  To acquire the language?  No.  There are plenty of cases of learning that happen without speaking.  I learned some Mandarin in 1995.  I couldn’t speak it for the life of me, but after working with my Chinese boss for 6 months, I could understand sentences such as “go to the back and grab the cleaning cloth.”  However, eventually, people will want to “roughly get” pronunciation because  saying “I have a big deck” wrong can make you sound like, uhh, well…

9. Once learners know roughly 1000 words and the basic structure of a language, they can easily participate in conversations with native speakers 

Generally.  BUT: conversational success also depends on

  • whether or not the native speaker can slow down and simplify enough for the L2 learner
  • what they are talking about– a native-speaker engineer talking engineering will be incomprehensible to an L2 learner who doesn’t know anything about engineering
  • what “know” means.  “Knowing’ grammar rules and vocab lists alone won’t work– the L2 learner must have had their 1,000 words presented in meaningful, comprehensible ways, over and over.

10. Teachers should present grammatical rules one at a time, and learners should practice examples of each one before going on to another. 

No. Grammatical rules are acquired at the learner’s own rate; some rule acquisition– e.g. use of negation in English–  follows predictable patterns, while some is piecemeal (i.e. appearing to be acquired, disappearing, reappearing etc).  Presenting rules in sequence will also make for much less compelling input (see the ¡Díme! texts for an example).  Best practice:  present a comprehensible and interesting variety of multidimensional language so that whatever learners are ready to acquire is there all the time, as Susan Gross has said. VanPatten says that verb “[t]enses are not acquired as “units,” and the brain doesn’t store grammar as a textbook-stated rule.”

11. Teachers should teach simple language structures before complex ones. 

No.  The classic example is the third-person -s ending in English.  It appears simple, elementary, etc, yet is often very late acquired.  What is a “simple” structure anyway?  In Spanish, children often acquire such supposedly “complex” grammar as the subjunctive before they properly acquire the present tense.  In French and Spanish, there are supposedly “complex” verb tense items–  from the imperfect and preterite tenses– which are much more frequently used than some present tense verbs.

12. Learners’ errors should be corrected as soon as they are made in order to prevent the formation of bad habits. 

No.  There is no evidence to suggest that this works.  Error correction may actually slow acquisition because, let’s face it, it’s not fun to be shown “you’re wrong,” and, as it has been well-documented that happy secure learners = better learners, the self-consciousness that comes with error correction may impede acquisition.

13. Teachers should use materials that expose students to only those language structures they have already been taught 

This is 95% true…but learners can, and do, use metacognitive strategies to figure out new words or grammar, and/or often do so unconsciously.  While it is important that about 95% of language be 100% comprehensible, some “new stuff” is essential to growth.

14. When learners are allowed to interact freely (for example, in group or pair activities), they copy each others’ mistakes.

No.  They often make the same mistakes, but these are generally not from copying each other, but from interlanguage processes.    While language in a communicative classroom is typically impoverished– learners provide other learners with their by-definition low-level output– this does not generally cause errors.  The communicative classroom– which features lots of student talk– is, however, a bad idea, because students are not giving each other quality input.

15. Students learn what they are taught. 

Mostly, depending on the quality of instruction. In a comprehensible input language classroom– done properly— students will acquire most of the vocab and grammar that is presented, and will pick up a lot of things that are not consciously and deliberately presented.  However, if grammar is taught via the rule-then-practice method, or vocab is taught by list memorising, students will acquire much less than “what they are taught.”  Acquisition = how much repetitive, compelling and comprehensible input students get.  Students will not necessarily acquire what we teach when we teach it, as Long (1997) notes.

16. Teachers should respond to students’ errors by correctly rephrasing what they have said rather than by explicitly pointing out the error. 

This will feel better to the students than explicit correction, but there is no evidence it aids acquisition.  My view:  corrected output errors in a T.P.R.S. class are necessary to some extent because they provide better input for other learners.

and finally,

17. Students can learn both language and academic content (for example, science and history) simultaneously in classes where the subject matter is taught in their second language. 

Yes, absolutely, provided the language is 100% comprehensible.