High-Frequency Vocabulary

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.

The Research Supporting the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis and C.I. Instruction

Research shows that

  • languages are acquired only when people get aural or written comprehensible input
  • comprehensible reading in the target language improves acquisition a lot
  • grammar practice and explanations, most metacognition, performance feedback, and output are of minimal or no value
  • drills and any other kind of output practice don’t work
  • there are predictable, unavoidable, error-involving stages and sequences of acquisition of grammar which cannot be changed
  • learners’ speaking the target language does not help learners acquire it, and often slows acquisition
  • comprehensible input methods (including T.P.R.S., narrative paraphrase a.k.a. Movietalk, and free voluntary reading) do more for acquisition than legacy methods
  • despite superficial differences, children and adults learn languages in the same way

Here is the evidence supporting what we know about language acquisition.  Thanks to Eric Herman for digging a lot of this up, and thanks to Karen Lichtman, Bill VanPatten, Ray Hull, Stephen D. Krashen, Wynne Wong, Reed Riggs and Paul Nation for sending papers, comments, etc.

Want a live crash course in research?  See Bill VanPatten’s presentation (in 6 parts) here.  His weekly podcast is archived here (free to listen to/download, etc).  Lance Pantagiani’s condensed Tea With BVP episodes are archived here. Sarah Cottrell’s Musicuentos podcasts are also worth a listen.

1) Should students be taught and practice specific grammar points?  NO.  Truscott reviews research and says that no meaningful support has been provided for the […] position that grammar should be taught. Krashen annihilates the grammarians’ arguments here. Wong and VanPatten also dismiss the grammar-practice argument here, and VanPatten, Keating & Leeser (2012) conclude that “things like person-number endings on verbs must be learnt from the input like anything else; they can’t be taught and practiced in order to build a mental representation of them.”  See VanPatten & Rothman (2014?) for a full discussion.

VanPatten also notes that “what we call grammar rules are what we end up with, and are not how we learn or what the brain actually does” (MIWLA presentation, 2013), and that “classroom rule learning is not the same as acquisition.” Lightbrown writes that “structured input works as well as structured input plus explanation” (in VanPatten, 2004): in other words, explanations don’t aid acquisition (though some students may feel good getting them).

Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as  VanPatten and Wong (2003) put it, that “learners– again, both in and out of the classroom– have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”

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.

VanPatten (2013) also echoes Susan Gross when he 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.

In a fascinating study, Batterink & Neville (2013) found evidence that the “longstanding hypothesis is that syntactic processing occurs outside of conscious awareness, relying upon computational mechanisms that are autonomous and automatic” (what Krashen calls the Monitor model) is, in fact, correct.

2) How much vocabulary, grammar and general language skill do students pick up via free voluntary reading (FVR)? LOTS…and loads more than from direct instruction. There are estimates that readers acquire an average of a word every twenty minutes of FVR, that FVR works about twenty times as quickly as classroom instruction, and that 75% of an adult’s vocabulary comes from reading.  See Lehman (2007), summarised here. Additional free voluntary reading research is detailed on Krashen’s site and Japanese researcher Beniko Mason has also done a ton of good FVR research.  There is very good research on the Fijian Book Flood experiment detailed here, which shows, among other things, that some “focus on form”– grammar and writing feedback– is useful for second-language acquisition at later and higher levels, even while comprehensible input does 95% of the work and remains the sine qua non of language acquisition.  In a recent study (abstract here), non-native speakers of Spanish who had a Spanish reading habit had much greater vocabulary than native Spanish speakers who did not read.  Rob Waring makes the “Inescapable Case for Extensive Reading.”

VanPatten writes that “for maximum vocabulary development, learners need to read all along the way, since most vocabulary development in both L1 and L2 is incidental, meaning that vocabulary is learned as a by-product of some other intention (normally reading).” Warwick Ely here examines free voluntary reading, grammar instruction, etc, and comes to the same conclusions that Krashen, VanPatten, Wong, Lightbrown & Spada etc do. Waring (2015) here makes the “inescapable case” for reading.  Mason and Krashen’s look at F.V.R. among Japanese learners of English showed significant positive effects.

Self-selected, comprehensible, interesting reading in the target (or native) language is boosts acquisition for the following reasons:
  • it delivers masses of comprehensible input
  • learners can pause, slow down, go back and seek extra (e.g. online or dictionary) help, which they cannot do nearly as well with a live speaker, and especially not with many native speakers (who often do not adjust vocabulary and speed to non-native-speakers’ needs)
  • readers can (and generally do) select books (input) tailored to their level
  • there is no output pressure, so the affective filter is low
  • for beginners, prosodic features like word differentiation are easier to see than to hear (but others, such as tone and accent, are harder to grasp)
  • the brain’s visual system is acute and, especially for monolinguals, better developed than the hearing processing system.

3) Do people acquire language via comprehensible input? YES. Krashen here summarises the comprehension hypothesis and destroys its rivals. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) state that “comprehensible input remains the foundation of all language acquisition.”  VanPatten and Wong (2003) note that “Acquisition of a linguistic system is input dependent.”  Krashen also takes a look at savants, polyglots and ordinary folk who have learned languages via comprehensible input in this fascinating paper.  In a study of Spanish learners, comprehensible input teaching worked about six times as quickly as traditional instruction.  There is a great short comprehensible input demo by Krashen here, and here (starts at about 12:30) is a longer and more detailed lecture.

Krashen also lists the academic research supporting comprehensible input here.

Ashely Hastings’ “Focal Skills” program (which presents first aural (and video), then written comprehensible input before moving into writing and speaking), was designed for use in Uni classes, and is where what we call “Movietalk” came from.  The research on Focal Skills shows it much more effective than traditional present-and-practice approaches.

Karen Lichtman lists the T.P.R.S.-supportive research here.

4) Should we organise curriculum thematically?  NO.  Among other reasons, it turns out that it’s harder to remember clusters of similar vocab than collections of thematically disparate vocab. As Paul Nation writes, “research on learning related vocabulary, such as lexical sets, … shows that learning related words at the same time [e.g. in thematic/semantic units such as “clothes” or “chores”] makes learning them more difficult. This learning difficulty can be avoided if related words are learned separately, as they are when learning from normal language use.” See Paul Nation on lexical sets and Rob Waring’s paper on vocab learning.

5) Should we “shelter” (limit) vocab?  YES. Evidence from children’s language acquisition suggests that we should, while “upping” prosodic variation (“wacky” or differentiated voices), reading rituals, and responses to student output (the paper is forthcoming). There is some processing research (VanPatten) that suggests that the amount of “mental energy” available for comprehension is limited, and that a minimal amount of new vocab be introduced in structured patterns over a broad overlay of well-known vocab, so that “mental energy” can be devoted to acquiring newer items. VanPatten: “any model of L2 input processing [must] consider in some way the impact of capacity issues in working memory on what learners can do at a given point in time.”  In other words, overload = bad.

Children also acquire vocabulary more quickly if it is “framed”: delivered in interactive, structured and limited speech-and-response sets (see chapter 10 of the interesting book Nurture Shock for details). It is estimated (Nation, 2006) that in most languages, the top 1000 most-frequently-used words account for about 85% of all oral language use, and the top 2000 for ~95%.  Best practice is probably to teach “along the frequency list” where the most emphasis is on words that are most used (with variations that cater to student needs and interests).

6) Do learners “learn” grammar that teachers “teach?”  Not on teachers’ or texts’ schedules.  VanPatten (2010) argues in this very comprehensive paper that “some domains [aspects of language acquisition] may be more or less amenable to explicit instruction and practice [e.g.vocabulary], while others are stubborn or resistant to external influences [e.g. grammar].”  VanPatten, echoing Krashen, concludes that there is limited transfer of conscious knowledge “about” language into functional fluency and comprehension, and notes that “[n]ot only does instruction not alter the order of acquisition, neither does practice” (2013).

Ellis (1993) says that “what is learned is controlled by the learner and not the teacher, not the text books, and not the syllabus.”

7) Should we use L1– the “mother tongue”– in class? YES, (albeit as little as possible), as Krashen notes, because this avoids both ambiguity AND incomprehensibility, neither of which  help acquisition. Here are some ideas about why L1 should be used in the languages classroom (Immersion teachers take note…all the _______ in the world won’t help kids who do not understand it).  Nation (2003) notes “There are numerous ways of conveying the meaning of an unknown word […] However, studies comparing the effectiveness of various methods for learning always come up with the result that an L1 translation is the most effective (Lado, Baldwin and Lobo 1967; Mishima 1967; Laufer and Shmueli 1997).”

8) Can we change the order of acquisition? NO. Krashen’s books have examples of order of acquisition. More recently, Lightbrown and Spada (2013) reiterate Krashen’s contentions, showing how acquisition order of verb forms (in English-learning children) is fixed. Wong and VanPatten (2003) make the same point.  There is very little we can do to “speed up” acquisition of any “foreign” grammar rule (e.g. English speakers learning the Spanish subjunctive) or vocabulary, other than providing lots of comprehensible input that contains the rule in question.

VanPatten (2013) notes that instruction “does not alter the order of acquisition,” and Long (1997) says that “[t]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.” We also know that L2 mistakes are partially a function of L1, have partly to do with L1-L2 differences, but mostly to do with learners not being mentally ready to produce the new form (which is a result of a lack of input).

For example, L1 German learners of L2 French make mistakes with subject-verb inversion…despite German having exactly the same rule as French for s-v inversion.  Arika Okrent documents children’s L1 acquisition errors; note that errors 5-8 are also classic adult L2 acquisition errors (stages).

Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as  VanPatten and Wong (2003)  put it, that “learners […] have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”  In Lightbown (1984), French-speaking students’ English output did not “match” the input they were given.  Students “do not simply learn linguistic elements as they are taught– adding them one after another in neat progession.  Rather, the students process the input in ways which are more “acquisition-like” and not often consistent with what the teacher intends for them to “learn”.”

9) Does correcting or properly re-stating learner mistakes–recasting– improve learner performance? NO. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) point out that while teachers like recasting (and do it a lot), and while students can and do immediately generate improved output as a result, “these interactions were not associated with improved performance on […] subsequent test[s].”  My view: if there is a place for recasts in the languages classroom, it is in ensuring that student output– which is also input for other students— is comprehensible and accurate.

10) Is there broad agreement among second-language-acquisition researchers about what constitutes effective practice? YES. In this paper, Ellis lays out the “ten principles” of second languages teaching.  He notes

  • comprehensible input is the sine qua non of second language acquisition
  • we must provide some “focus on form” (grammar explanations) to support meaning
  • there is no transfer from explicit knowledge of grammar to implicit language competence
  • the use of quite a lot of “formulaic” expressions– a.k.a. “lexical chunks”– is essential esp. for beginners
  • curricula organised along grammar sequential lines are probably not brain-friendly
  • instruction must primarily focus on meaning
  • drills don’t work
  • some output is necessary for acquisition in much later stages as this focuses learner attention on some aspects of form

S.L.A. researcher Patsy Lightbown here explains the “known facts” about second language acquisition.  Here is a video of S.L.A. research and what works/does not work by Bill VanPatten.

11) Do “learning styles” or “multiple intelligences” exist?  NO.  In this paper, psychologist Daniel Willingham puts the boots to the idea that teachers need to kill themselves providing nineteen different ways to learn the verb “to run.”  While people often have preferences about learning, and while some people definitely have better skills in some areas than others, there is no evidence to suggest that language acquisition is positively affected by anything other than the presence of masses of comprehensible input, and the absence of counterproductive activities (grammar practice, forced output, grammar lectures, etc).

VanPatten has said that “No research has found a link between learning styles and individual differences on the one hand, and on the other the processes involved in language acquisition.

12) Do students like speaking in a second-language class?  Generally, no.  Krashen first made this point, and Baker and MacIntyre note that “Speaking has been found to be the most anxiety-provoking form of communication,” (references to Maclntyre & Gardner (1991) and McCroskey & Richmond (1987)) and also note that production anxiety in classes is high among non-Immersion students.

Best practice is probably to let those want to, talk, and to delay any output for others while asking them to signal comprehension or lack thereof (as natural approach, A.I.M., Narrative Paraphrase and T.P.R.S. do).

13)  Does speaking improve acquisition?  NO.  Despite (a few) studies which try to make the case for output, there isn’t a strong one. See Krashen’s response to one such study here, and his examination of Swain’s output hypothesis– and the research testing it– here. In another study, English-speaking students were taught Spanish structures (subjunctive and conditional) via various mixes of input and practice output. In this study, students who

  • got input only did very well
  • got input and did limited output (“practise”) did no better than input-only students
  • did more output (“practise”) than getting input did significantly worse than those who got more input.

Wong and VanPatten (2003) note that “[a]cquisition of a linguistic system is input-dependent, meaning that learners must be engaged in comprehension in order to construct that system […] Production is not comprehension and thus produced language is not input for the learner. That input must come from others.” They also note that “drills are unnecessary and in some cases hinder acquisition,” and Van Patten (2013) remarks that “traditional ‘practice’ may result in language-like behaviour, but not acquisition” and that “practice is not a substitute for input.”  He goes on to ask “if input is so important, what does traditional practice do?” and answers “essentially very little, if anything.  It does not help mental representation.  It is not clear it helps skills.

VanPatten also says that when “mechanical drills attempt to get the learner to acquire the thing they are asked to produce, the cart has been put before the horse,” and notes that “research conducted since the early 1990s has shown that traditional approaches to teaching grammar that involve the use of mechanical, meaningful and communicative drills do not foster acquisition in the way that practice [listening/reading] with structured input does.

14) Should we speak s.l.o.w.l.y. in class? YES. Audiologist Ray Hull writes  “[f]or an adolescent, spoken speech at around 135 words per minute is perfect for speech understanding, particularly when the student is learning a new language. So, 130 WPM may be even better. It will seem very slow to you, but the central auditory system of the student will appreciate it.” Adult native-language output is 170-180 words per minute, so slowness is essential (for all teachers, not just those of languages).  Note that there is no way to speed up auditory processing speed.

15) Do learners need many repetitions of vocab items to acquire them? YES.  In this study, scientists concluded that 160 repetitions of an item resulted in new items being “wired in” like older (or L1) items.  However, acquisition rates vary and depends on various factors:  is the word an L1 cognate?  Is it being used comprehensibly?  Is its use meaningful?, etc.

16) Does feedback about performance in a language (e.g. correction, explicit information, etc) help acquisition?  NO.  Sanz and Morgan-Short (2002) replicated with computer-delivered input what VanPatten & Cadierno (1993) did with spoken and written input.  And, as VanPatten & Wong (2003) put it, they found that “neither explicit information nor explicit feedback seemed to be crucial for a change in performance; practice in decoding structured input alone […] was sufficient.”  In other words, explaining to people how a grammar rule in a language works, and/or pointing out, explaining and recasting (correcting) errors has no effect on acquisition.  VanPatten also writes that “Overt correction does little good in the long run” but “indirect correction may be useful,” but notes that the research on indirect feedback is far from clear.

 

17)  Are some people better language learners than others?  NO.  Older research (as Vanpatten, 2013, watch it here, video 5, says) suggested different people had different aptitudes.  New research (VanPatten 2013b, 2014) suggests, echoing Krashen, that on traditional tests of aptitude that measure conscious learninge.g. knowing grammar rules– there are “better” and “worse” students.

HOWEVER, in terms of processing (understanding) ability, there is no difference among people.  If they get comprehensible input, they acquire at roughly the same rate, in the same way.  A classroom that foregrounds grammar practice and output should produce a more varied mix of outcomes than one which focuses on input.  VanPatten notes that working memory– roughly, how much “stuff” one can keep in their head consciously at a time– varies between individuals, and that those with greater working memory may find language acquisition easier.

18) Do children and adults learn languages in the same way? Mostly, yes.  Children must develop a linguistic system while simultaneously acquiring a language.  For example, kids need to develop basic competencies (which adults take for granted), such as knowing that words can represent reality, that that there are such things as individual words, etc.  Once this “linguistic foundation” has been laid, kids and adults acquire languages in the same way. We know this because kids and adults make similar errors, have similar sequences of acquiring grammar, etc. As VanPatten notes, “adults and children appear to be constrained by the same mechanisms during language acquisition regardless of context, and the fundamental ingredients of language acquisition are at play in both situations: input (communicatively embedded language that learners hear or see, if sign language); Universal Grammar coupled with general learning architecture; and processing mechanisms that mediate between input and the internal architecture. In short, much of what we observe as differences between adults and children are externally imposed differences; not differences in underlying linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects of acquisition. And some of those externally imposed differences are a direct result of myths about language acquisition.”

 19) Do we have data showing how well comprehensible input methods work in comparison with legacy methods?  YES.  (note:  Nov 14, 2015– this section is being updated; please comment if you have things to add)
  • C.A.L.A. testing shows T.P.R.S.-taught students outperforming other students despite having less in-class time than other students
  • Joe Dziedzic found that T.P.R.S. outperformed “communicative” teaching, with the biggest gains for T.P.R.S.-taught students being in oral and written output, despite T.P.R.S. students not being forced to speak or write outside of evaluation.
  • Ray & Seely’s Fluency Through T.P.R. Storytelling (7th ed.) has a research appendix.  Summary:  T.P.R.S. never works worse than, sometimes performs as well as, but mostly performs better than traditional methods.
  • Ashley Hastings’ “focal skills” C.I. approach– where what we call “Movietalk” comes from– significantly beats traditional teaching.
There is no evidence suggesting that the following legacy language practices are effective:
  • grammar teaching and practice
  • forced and/or early output
  • any kind of drill
  • error correction and/or recasts
  • minimal reading; “fragmented” one-dimensional reading (e.g. lists, informational text, etc)
  • sequenced grammar instruction

Got a study, paper, etc that needs adding? Email me or add a comment and I’ll update this.

Which words should we teach?

Nathaneil recently corrected my Avancemos word count (thanks!) and this raised the question, which words should we be teaching in a foreign-language classroom?  As I’ve said before, we should be aiming at teaching appr.250 words/year, and over four years 1,000 words.

There are a couple of answers to this question.

a)  According to Stephen Krashen, we should be teaching whatever interests the students.  Input that is comprehensible, compelling (and can be repeated zillions oftimes) is the holy grail of foreign language teaching.

b)  We should be teaching the most-frequently-used words in our target language.

Paul Nation (2006) has compiled a Spanish frequency list.  You can see onlne versions for Spanish, French and other languages here.  Here’s some info that totally shocked me.

1.  85% of all the words spoken in any language are about 1,000 words.  I.e., if you looked at speech– from people, films, radio, etc– in any language, 85% of the words used would be the same 1,000 words.   The other 15% of words are used much less frequently.

2.  In Spanish, the 100 most-used words include verbs in four tenses.  In the top 200 most-used words, there are verbs in FIVE verb tenses plus the subjunctive mood.

3.  In Spanish, the only numbers in the top 100 are one and two, and the only greeting/goodbye is “hello.”  “Goodbye” is at # 315!

4. Top 200 words include no colours, weather expressions, days of the week, food items, months or sports.

Here are some word-frequency rankings from Davies’ A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish (2006). Words are translated to English.  The numbers in brackets indicate the rank of how often the word is used.  The higher the #, the less frequently the word is used.

  • Animals: (780) horse, (4,945) elephant
  • Body: (150) hand, (2,407) ear
  • Clothing: (1,710) suit, (4,427) t-shirt
  • Colors: (250) white, (8225) orange
  • Days: (1,121) Sunday, (3490) Tuesday
  • Family: (166) son, (5,071) niece
  • Food: (787) meat, (7602) carrot
  • Months: (1,244) August, (2,574) September
  • Sports: (2,513) soccer, (28,388) hockey
  • Weather: (989) heat, (5493) breeze

So…what should we teach?  The evidence is pretty clear:  frequently-used vocab.

How weird are textbooks?  Well, you’ll spend a few days (as a beginner) learning hellos and goodbyes.  You’ll almost certainly spend some time on numbers, weather, clothing, family etc units..even though none of these are in the top 200!  Avancemos spends Unit 1 on time, numbers, hellos and goodbyes, and introductions.  OK, ok.  We do need to know these…but, seriously, how boring is it to spend 2-3 days on this.  “Hello” is not interesting.  “Hello, my name is Sharkeisha, and I want to buy 39 pitbulls for my birthday” is interesting, especially when it’s part of a story.  And when it’s part of a story, we focus on the meaning– who is Sharkeisha? will she get her pitbulls? will her party be fun?– and we effortlessly pick up “hello” (once we know what it means) as part of background to a story.

I remember when I was a traditional, “communicative” teacher and I dutifully made games and “activities” to teach these things.  I had to, because they are little-used and boring.  Now, with T.P.R.S., I just throw them randomly into stories as background, and I can focus kids on the things we most use, and keep them interested by using stories with real chaarcters and problems (and humor).