legacy methods

But They Can’t Conjugate Verbs!

Image result for angry spanish teacher

(I looked for an image for upset Spanish teacher and this was all I got)

Here is a comment from the SPANISH TEACHERS IN THE US page on Facebook. Here, Dan brings up a classic argument between a more traditional language teacher and a C.I. practitioner

Here is a response to a discussion about whether or not C.I. delivers better results than does the textbook:

My first question to Dan’s interlocutor– the teacher who has inherited some C.I.-taught kids who can’t conjugate saber— is, what do you mean by “conjugate?”

If we mean, can we tell the kid “conjugate the verb saber in the present indicative yo a.k.a. first person form” and can they do it?, the answer might well be no. This is because consciously knowing

  1. what an infinitive is
  2. what conjugating is
  3. what first person is
  4. the rule

is what we would call conscious knowledge– Bill VanPatten calls it “explicit knowledge” and Krashen “Monitor awareness.” Neither of these have anything to do with the subconscious linguistic system where language is acquired, processed and stored. We can successfully use a variety of grammar “rules”– such as saying “I am” instead of “I are,“, or “I enjoy running” instead of “I enjoy to run“– without knowing (or even having been taught the rule).

As Bob Patrick says, conjugate the verb to run in the pluperfect passive third person progressive. Can you do this? Really?  You mean you can’t say the race had been being run on demand?

Knowing the “rules,” and how and when and where to apply them, does not guarantee successful production of language.

As Jason Rothman (2008) write, “Variation in language use is simply a fact of all output, native and non-native. As a result, any given linguistic performance does not always accurately represent underlying competence.”

My second question to Dan’s interlocutor is, can textbook-taught kids produce this– or any other verbform– on demand better than C.I. taught kids? Maybe. It’s possible that Johnny’s Spanish teacher has hammered away at verb tables bla bla bla and Johnny, that eager beaver, has spent countless hours studying, and can now say “right, —er verb, first person, irregular, lemme see, uh, sé.”

The real question, however, is do they do it without being asked to do it, ie in real-time, unrehearsed communication? If my experience of 12 years with the text is a guide, no, absolutely not, and the same goes true for writing. Kids taught with textbooks and a focus on grammar rules memorise dialogues, and they do not produce very much (nevermind very much good) written language spontaneously.  Here is an example of just how grammatically accurate kids taught with C.I. can be.

My third question to Dan’s interlocutor is, what cost does an obsession with perfect grammatical output carry? If Johnny’s Spanish teacher gets the kids to obsess over verb tables, that means they won’t be either “practising” other grammar, or– worse– getting input. There will also be a cost to students’ enjoyment of Spanish: reading/watching good stories is way more fun than doing tedious grammar stuff, correcting one’s writing, etc.  And this means that students who end up in grammar and textbook programs drop out more, as Grant Boulanger has thoroughly documented. It also means that, in the long run, students will not do as well in a textbook/grammar program as they will in a C.I. program (see Part Two of Boulanger’s work here).

My fourth question to Dan’s interlocutor is, if you put a C.I.-taught kid on the spot and get them to meaningfully communicate, can they do it well? My answer: generally– if the task is developmentally appropriate— yes, they can. We have to be realistic about what we can get done in a language class.  Babies get 4,000-5,000 hours of input before they start saying single words; at age 6 (after ~14,000 hrs of input), kids are still making errors with irregular past-tense verbs in English. They are, however, communicating just fine.

My fifth question to Dan’s interlocutor: when C.I.-taught kids use sabo instead of sé, how much of a problem is that? My answer: a Mexican or a Spaniard who hears a kid say “yo no sabo donde está el baño” is going to know exactly what the kid is trying to say. This is like a Chinese kid asking you “where bathroom?” Mandarin doesn’t have “to be” the way English does, and the Chinese kid obviously hasn’t “studied hard enough,” as a grammarian would say, but we get it. When a Mexican asks, “did he went to the bathroom?,” we understand just fine.

Finally, I’d point one thing out to Dan’s interlocutor: When Johnny gets to Spain or Bolivia, he is going to hear more– and better– Spanish in 6 days than he will in class in one year.  Input will ramp up so much that Johnny’s errors will inevitably get corrected by the epic amounts of Spanish he is hearing.





Against Rules: Rothman vs the Grammarians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




C.I.-taught Students Evaluated by A.C.T.F.L. Writing Standards

How well do C.I.-taught students do in terms of ACTFL writing standards? Well…pretty darned well, I’d say.

Inspired by a Facebook post, I thought I would measure some of my Spanish 1 students’ writing on the ACTFL scale.

Here is their criteria for Novice High

Writers at the Novice High sublevel are able to meet limited basic practical writing needs using lists, short messages, postcards, and simple notes. They are able to express themselves within the context in which the language was learned, relying mainly on practiced material. Their writing is focused on common elements of daily life. Novice High writers are able to recombine learned vocabulary and structures to create simple sentences on very familiar topics, but are not able to sustain sentence-level writing all the time. Due to inadequate vocabulary and/or grammar, writing at this level may only partially communicate the intentions of the writer. Novice High writing is often comprehensible to natives used to the writing of non-natives, but gaps in comprehension may occur.

Here are some writing samples.  This is Bani’s work, after about 60 hours of C.I. (I do mostly TPRS, along with Movietalk, Picturetalk and some Slavic-style Invisible “untargeted” stories.)


Let’s see…Bani uses a load of sentences (actually, she uses only sentences). She fully communicates her intentions. There are no gaps in comprehension, The writing is far beyond the “lists, short messages, postcards, and simple notes” that ACTFL says Novice High writers can produce.  So, where is Bani?

Considering her use of various verb tenses, clarity etc, I would say somewhere between Intermediate Mid and Intermediate Advanced. What do you think?

Next, we have Marcus. This kid has an IEP, and has missed about two weeks (~13 hrs) of class.  He has some behaviour challenges, some of which involve staying focused in class.  Here is his most recent story:



 This is obviously not even close in quantity or quality to Bani’s. He uses English, has some problems with basic verbs, is occasionally incomprehensible, and the story does not really flow.

So, where does this fit on the ACTFL scale? Well, here is their Novice Mid descriptor set:

Writers at the Novice Mid sublevel can reproduce from memory a modest number of words and phrases in context. They can supply limited information on simple forms and documents, and other basic biographical information, such as names, numbers, and nationality. Novice Mid writers exhibit a high degree of accuracy when writing on well-practiced, familiar topics using limited formulaic language. With less familiar topics, there is a marked decrease in accuracy. Errors in spelling or in the representation of symbols may be frequent. There is little evidence of functional writing skills. At this level, the writing may be difficult to understand even by those accustomed to non-native writers.

Marcus fits most of this.  However, he does use sentences, sometimes properly. So– at about 50 hrs of C.I., plus behaviour and learning challenges– he’s at Novice Mid.

The lessons?

  1. C.I. works very well indeed, even for students who are not especially motivated or focused, or who have attendance issues. One of many key C.I. plusses: the vocabulary is constantly recycled in comprehensible but new ways.
  2. C.I. does get the “grammar teaching” done, despite traditionalist “those TPRS kids don’t know grammar” complaints. As we have all experienced, the stereotypically successful  language-class kids– wealthier, whiter  and fairly L1-literate females– will pick up and memorise whatever grammar rules etc we throw at them. The rest, not so much. Bani can’t tell you what a verb is, or conjugate one in a chart, or explain the difference between preterite and imperfect verb tenses…but she can use them correctly and meaningfully. Grammar: my kids havn’t been taught it…but they got it.
  3. C.I. is going to reach kids who would be dead in the water with a textbook. I have had loads of kids like Marcus over the years.  Most of them failed with the text.  Worse, most were disengaged.  Now, I’m not much of a teacher…so if *I* can get Markus this far, anyone can do well!
  4. Anyone who has issues with department members who complain that eg “when I get your TPRS kids in Spanish 2, they can’t write out all the numbers from 555 to 579,” or “they can’t conjugate the verb traer in the pluperfect ablative subjunctive causal declension” can just point at ACTFL guidelines to show where their students are. Verb charts, memorised grammar rules, etc, are not part of ACTFL’s proficiency scales: the ability to write in contextually clear and meaningful ways is.
  5. ACTFL broadly suggests that in a regular (ie non-Immersion) classroom, students will need about two years to get to Novice High, another two for Intermediate High, and two more to Advanced. These writing samples suggest that we can go waaaaay faster than ACTFL thinks.

One last thing:  these kids do well not because Mr Stolz is a brilliant teacher, but because C.I. methods allow us to stay in the target language much more than the textbook does.







The Curriculum That Actually Works For Everyone

Longtime C.I. badass Mike Peto recently weighed in on a good question. Peto, who led his entire department from textbook servitude to effective C.I. (all their kids who write A.P. and I.B. exams pass), addressed this:

We are getting rid of the textbook.  What should we teach? What are people’s favorite stories and themes?

This is a good question.  Standard language teaching is organised around cunningly-disguised grammar units: we learn the present tense verbs with school vocabulary, the conditional a year later with shopping, etc.

My answer: agree as a department to use 250 high-frequency words per year.  Peto’s is better:  focus on “the Super Seven verbs” (Terry Waltz’s list of highest-frequency verbs), along with nine more that add up to what Peto calls “the Sweet Sixteen verbs.”


Here is Peto’s explanation of how and why his language department organised their language program the way they did.

Short answer: 16 verbs & a commitment to fill every class with compelling CI.

Long answer: As a department chair trying to design a common experience for students in different classes, with a half dozen different teachers on staff, I could have insisted that every teacher follow the same collection of story scripts, movie talks, and novels. That is, “all Spanish 1 students will read X novel and discuss Z movie talk. All Spanish 2 students will acquire this list of target structures so that they will be “ready” for Spanish 3.”

The problem Peto correctly notes here is that we are not guaranteed acquisition of “rule”/word ______ on any teacher’s schedule. Just because you taught it doesn’t mean they got it.

 On the other hand, the Sweet 16 verbs represent a different path towards creating a common experience between classes. We do not simply repeat sixteen words for four years, but we do agree that structures with these verbs are the ones that are recycled and given priority at every step in the journey. The Sweet 16 gives a department the flexibility to allow their teachers and students to pursue different interests in class, to use different language, but guarantees that there will be a common communicative foundation throughout the entire program. For example, the Sweet 16 verbs allow one teacher to develop an independent reading program for her students in which students are all reading different books (and thus developing their own idiosyncratic vocabularies), while another teacher develops his CI skills guiding his students through an authentic telenovela, while another teacher spends a good part of her classes discussing student illustrations and spinning stories from them.

This is how it’s done: you make enough horizontal links– the sweet 16– to ensure that kids in different classes can end up a year later with the same teacher and be able to function.  And you leave it open enough that what kids (and teachers) find interesting can be explored.

We collect everything: novels, Martina Bex units, TPRS textbooks by Carol Gaab as well as the ones by Blaine Ray, our own stories, huge collections of movie talks, telenovelas. We invest in PD like some departments buy workbooks; we brought Ben Slavic to our department to show everyone how to make One Word Images and next summer they are all going to Boston to refresh their skills on classic TPRS techniques. When someone starts using a new item (book, movie, whatever) then that person has the right to claim it for a particular level. Teachers can opt in to use it in their classroom, but nobody is obliged to use any particular item. Therefore, I claimed El Internado for level 1 and Gran Hotel for level 3. Any Spanish 1 teacher could use El Internado. Someone else claimed Fiesta Fatal as a level 1 book… I then included it in my FVR library while my colleague taught it as a whole class novel. A colleague claimed La Vampirata as a Spanish 2 whole class novel, so I did not include that in my FVR library (which is potentially read by Spanish 1 students).

We recognized that in any classroom there will be many different interests, and that when students and teachers are following their own interests then the input is likely to be more compelling. More compelling leads to faster acquisition. That is the funny thing about those studies which try to count how many times a student needs to hear a word to fully acquire it… teachers know that swears might be fully acquired the very first time they are understood, whereas an abstract transition word that the student never uses in their own L1 could be uttered comprehensibly 500 times and not be fully acquired. 

There is another major advantage to running a department this way. When any of my teachers get students at the beginning of the year, we do not have a list of target structures in our minds that we assume our students have acquired. We do not get angry if our level 3 kids do not understand X phrase; instead we are trained to start the conversation assuming nothing and paying close attention to their eyes.

Or, as Blaine Ray so perfectly puts it, “figure out what they don’t know, and start there.

At all levels, as we think about how to phrase our language so that it will be comprehensible, we all return to the Sweet 16 verbs and posters. It is a common experience in all classes, even though I spend a week talking about whales and my colleague spends weeks talking about football (what would you expect from a football coach!).

This illustrates exactly what high-frequency vocabulary does: it provides the flexible foundation onto which people can “stack” whatever vocabulary interests them. The football coach can play around with “el rodilla de Tom Brady se vuelve mejor” while in another class, students can create an OWI who “se vuelve loco por no haber comido.”

Terry Waltz has also famously made this point. She says, imagine you are learning Mandarin Chinese and you are going shopping, and you want to buy a wrench and some apples. If you had to pick one phrase which mattered most, what would it be?  That’s right: want to buy.  This works everywhere.  And ultra-low frequency words (hammer, apples, most clothing words, etc etc) you can figure out on the spot, or gesture, or look up, etc. Waltz elsewhere makes a similar point in response to a teacher who asks shoudl they not know food vocabulary? Waltz, who is translator-fluent in Mandarin (we are talking 10,000 characters plus real-time translation) says, despite having lived for years in Taiwan, that she doesn’t know most of the food words.  Is this a problem?  No, she says, most of the time when I (and Taiwanese) who don’t know the name of something we want to eat just say “I’ll have that” and point. Brilliant. The same is true in, say, Mexico: every region has basic staples– frijoles, tortillas, cerveza– but the local dishes are ultra-low frequency so you just ask about it when you are there. There is no point in teaching Spanish students chapulines, tlayudas, de lechon, etc.

This is also necessary because students move into our district at every level, and we cannot just leave them behind because they did not start with us. We need to provide a comprehensible experience at all levels, even if students missed the first 3 years of our CI  CI program because they were learning thematic vocab in another district.

This is brilliant:  C.I. accommodates everyone, while the textbook does not. The kid from Greg the Grammarian’s class will show up in Peto’s room and go, OMG wut? and probably spend quite a while simply listening.  However, whether or not he has spent four years or four weeks in Grammar Grinder Greg’s class, he will be able to catch up in Peto’s class.

Peto leaves out only one thing: when kids leave his school for Grammarian Greg’s class, high-frequency words will serve more of them much better than anything else.  A teacher (or department) who obsesses about themes and topics is rolling the dice on whether their alumni will end up in a class that uses the same vocabulary. Those who teach high-frequency vocabulary are preparing students for anything.



ACTFL: Almost There!

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages provides American teachers with guidance about “core practices” which ACTFL recommends.  Unfortunately, ACTFL hasn’t done much reading of science (or discussion with successful teachers) in forming these guidelines.

Today’s question:  are ACTFL’s core practices best practice?

Answer: Sometimes.

dumb actfl list

First, ACTFL’s suggestion that teachers “facilitate target language comprehensibility” is solid.  No arguments from science or good languages teachers.  Now, the rest…

  1. The use of “authentic resources” is, well, problematic.  As I have discussed, an awful lot of #authres use low frequency vocabulary, and they don’t repeat it very much.  Yes, you can “scaffold” their “use” by frontloading vocab, removing vocab, etc.  Which raises the question of why bother using #authres? Why not just start with something that is actually comprehensible?Want to teach culture?  Picturetalk and Movietalk work well.  Music…great, because if it’s good, people will listen to it over and over (and maybe focus on the lyrics) but expect a load of slang and other low-freq vocab.

    In terms of acquisition bang-per-buck, or gains per unit of time, nothing beats a diet of comprehensible input.

  2. That  teachers should “design oral communication tasks” for students is not the best idea.  Learner-to-learner communication in the target languagea. is a difficult thing on which to keep students (especially adolescents)  focused.  Why use the TL to discuss something in which L1 is quicker and easier? is what kids often think.  In my experience, for every three minutes of class time students get for “talking practice,” you might get thirty seconds of actual “practice,” and then L1, Snapchat etc take over.  In a full C.I. class, you have a lot more time where students are focusing on interpreting the target language.

    b. will feature poor learner L2 use becoming poor L2 input for other students, which is not optimal practice.  As Terry Waltz has noted, “peer to peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching.”

    c. lowers the “richness” of input: what a teacher (or good book) can provide has richer and more complex input than what learners can do for each other.

  3. Planning with a “backward design model”– i.e. having specific plans for specific goals– is something we might have to do in some Districts, where there are imposed exams with vocab lists and so forth.  Much better practice is to simply  allow student interests– and frequency lists– guide what is taught. Student interests– self-selected reading; story co-creation and activities using vocabulary in student stories– will by definition be compelling, and high-frequency vocabulary  most useful.The only meaningful primary goals in a second-language classroom are  that 1. students be able to easily demonstrate comprehension of a LOT of the target language and 2. that students read and listen to a lot of the target language (in comprehended form). If this is accomplished, everything else– ability to speak and write– inevitably follows. Planning anything else– S.W.B.A.T. discuss ______; SWABT write ______— gives instruction an unproductive interest-narrowing and skill-practicing focus.

    It is also well worth thinking about the ideal “end state” or goal of language teaching.  I agree with Krashen: we are here to get people to the point where they can continue to acquire on their own.  If they automatically recognise a ton of high-frequency vocabulary (which will by definition include most grammar “rules”), they will understand a lot and be able to “slot in” new vocab. And most importantly, when they get to France or Mexico or China or Blablabia, input will ramp up so much that spoken French, Spanish, Chinese and Blablabian will emerge on its own.

  4.  “Teach grammar as concept and use in context”– not bad.  ACTFL here notes that meaning comes first, yaaay.  Should we “teach grammar”? Other than explaining meaning, no: conscious knowledge about language does nothing to develop competence with language. Although if students ask why do we _______ in Blablabian, a ten-second “grammar commercial” won’t hurt.
  5. “Provide oral feedback” is a terrible idea. Why?a. Anything we address to explicit awareness does not enter into implicit memory.  If Johnny says yo gusto chicas, and we say no, it should be me gustan chicas, he might be able to remember this for the eight-second auditory window, and maybe even repeat after us. But if Johnny is merely listening and repeating, he is not processing for meaning, which is how language is acquired.

    b. Oral correction makes Johnny embarassed— it raises his affective filter– and this is both uncomfortable and unproductive for him.


Anyway, we are getting there.  ACTFL puts C.I. front and center; as we C.I. practiioners continue to show just how well C.I. works, hopefully ACTFL eventually ditches its old-school recomendations.

Does iPad “talking practice” boost oral fluency? A look at Schenker & Kraemer (2017).

In a 2017 paper, Schenker and Kraemer argue that iPad use helps develop oral fluency. Specifically, they found that iPad app users after “speaking practice” were able to say more in German, and were more fluent– rapid and seamless– in saying it than were controls who had not “practiced” speaking. 
So, prima facie, the authors can claim that focused speaking practice helps develop fluency. 

Q: Does this claim hold up?

A: Not according to their evidence. 

Let’s start with the method. Kraemer and Schenker took English L1 students of second-year German, divided them into two groups, and gave one batch iPads. The iPad group had to use Adobe Voice to record three tasks per week, which had to be posted to a group blog. In addition, each iPad user had to respond verbally to some other students’ posted responses to the tasks. 

The tasks included things such as “describe your room” and “recommend a movie to a friend.”

The control group did nothing outside class other than their usual homework, and the iPad group had their other homework (which the authors do not detail, but describe as work involving “vocabulary and grammar knowledge”) slightly reduced in quantity. 

In terms of results, the iPad group during oral testing on average said more, and was more fluent (using language “seamlessly”) than the control.  The authors thereby claim that “practice speaking” boosted oral competence. 

However, there are a number of atudy design flaws which render the authors’ conclusions problematic.

First, the study compares apples and oranges. The speaking group practised, well, speaking, while the controls did not. The speaking group had more time with German (class, plus speaking, plus doing whatever they did to prepare their recordings, plus listening and responding to others’ posted task responses) than did the controls (class, plus “vocabulary and grammar” hwk). The speaking group had more time doing speaking as well as more total German time than the controls. 

This is akin to studying physical fitness by comparing people who work out with those who are couch potatoes, or by comparing people who do two hours a week of working out with those who do four. 

Second, the study does not compare speaking development-focused methods. One group “practiced speaking,” while the other did “vocabulary and grammar” homework.
 This is like comparing strength gains between a group of people who only run two hours a week with another group that runs two hours a week and lifts weights. Yes, both will get fitter, and both will be able to lift more weights  and run a bit faster (overall fitness provides some strength gains, and vice-versa).  

However, what should have been compared here are different ways of developing oral fluency. (We should note that fluency first requires broad comprehension, because you cannot respond to what you don’t understand). 

We could develop oral fluency by 

• listening to various kinds of target-language input (stories, conversations, news etc). 

• watching target-language, L1-subtitled film. 

• reading (it boosts vocabulary). 

Schenker and Kraemer’s “practice speaking” will help (at least in the short term). One could also in theory mix all of these, as a typical class does.

Schenker and Kraemer, however, compare one approach to developing speaking with an approach that does nothing at all to address speaking. 

A more persuasive study design would have had three groups: a control, and two different “speaking development” groups. The “speaking development” groups could have included those doing Schenker & Kraemer’s “practice talking” with, say, people listening to speech, or reading, or watching subtitled film (or a mix).  One group would spend 60 min per week recording German (and listening to 50-75 second German recordings made by their peers). The other would spend 60 min per week, say, listening to German. At the end, control, speakers and listeners would be tested and compared. 

Third, the study does not control for the role of aural (or other) input. The iPad group for one had to come up with their ideas. Since no relatively novice learner by definition comes up with much on their own, they must have gotten language somewhere (Kraemer and Schenker do not discuss what the students did pre-recording their German). My guess is, the speakers used dictionaries, Google translate, reading, grammar charts, things they heard on Youtube, anything they remembered/wrote down from class, possibly Duolingo etc, to “figure out” what to say and how to say it. If you were recording work, being marked on it, and having it responded to by strangers, you would surely make it sound as good as you could…and that (in a language class) could only mean getting extra input.  So did the speaking group get better at speaking because they “practiced speaking,” because they (probably) got help pre-recording, or both? 

Which leads us to the next problem, namely, that the iPad group got aural input which the control group did not. Recall that the iPad group not only had to post their recordings, they also had to listen and respond to these recordings. So, again, did the iPad group get better because they talked, or because they also listened to others’ recordings of German?

Finally, there was no delayed post-test to see if the results “stuck.”  Even if the design had shown the effectiveness of speaking “practice” (which in my view it did not), no delayed post test = no real results. 

The upshot is this: the iPad group got more input, spent more time listening, spent more total time with German, and spent more time preparing, than did the controls. This looks (to me) like a problematic study design. Ideally, both groups would have had the same input, the same amount of listening, etc, with the only difference being that the iPad group recorded their tasks. 

Anyway, the skill-builders’ quest continues for the Holy Grail of evidence that talking, in and of itself, helps us learn to talk. 

The implications for classroom teachers are (in my view) that this is waaaay too much work for too few results. The teacher has to set the tasks (and the blog, iPad apps, etc) up, then check to make sure students are doing the work, and then test them. Sounds like a lot of work! 

Better practice– if one feels one must assign homework– would be to have students listen to a story, or watch a video in the T.L., and answer some basic questions about that. This way people are focused on processing input, which the research clearly says drives acquisition. 

On a personal note, I’m too lazy to plan and assess this sort of thing. My homework is whatever we don’t get done in class, and always involves reading. 

How Much Does C.I. Cost?

books pic

Image:  Omaha Public Library

Being poor sucks.  It is well-known that the poorer (and darker-skinned) you (and your school District) are, the worse your educational outcomes are, anywhere in North America or Europe.  In language education, the bias is even more specific: in a traditional language program, by 5th year, the few remaining students tend to be affluent, white, with educated parents, and often female.

Grant Boulanger has done some exemplary work in Minnesota, showing how good C.I.-based language instruction will enable all learners to do more-or-less equally well.  And the research is clear:  C.I.-based teaching narrows marks ranges and raises all of them.

We tend to argue for C.I.’s effectiveness by saying it works better and showing how amazingly well kids can write Chinese or Spanish, or speak it, etc.  Kids who get C.I.– through free voluntary reading, Movietalk, T.P.R.S. stories and reading, Picturetalk, etc– never do worse than grammar kids, occasionally do as well, and generally do significantly better.  But what if there were an economic argument to be made for adopting a C.I. program?

Let’s settle this by looking at the numbers, viz

OPTION A: Our beloved Monsieur Tabernac has 30 kids in his French 1 class.  Every 10 years, his District replaces his French textbook program.  This year, he has options.  He can get the Communi-quête program (traditional teaching, with videos, audio listening stuff, cahiers, etc) or

OPTION B: he can go in for, say, Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk books (which include readings, and let’s throw in a Movietalk book too) .

We are assuming that in both cases
1.  The resources will serve 30 kids, for 10 years
2. At the end, everything will get thrown out and bought anew
3. Each year, in each program, the kids will buy the workbook. This cost is born by students, and not by the school.


Text: 30 books x $65/book   $1950
Teacher book:                         $350
Audio CDs:                               $200
Video DVD:                               $190

TOTAL                                        $2700
COST PER YEAR                      $270
(Workbooks: $13/student/year)

Look, I Can Talk

Textbook:                                  none
Teacher book:                           $30
Movietalk book                         $30
Green Bible how-to kit             $40
props for stories                        $100

TOTAL                                          $200
COST PER YEAR                        $20
(LICT workbooks
include readings)                         $14/student/year

So…the textbook option costs thirteen times as much as the T.P.R.S. optionwhile the per-year cost to the students is $1 higher for T.P.R.S.

So if Monsieur Tabernac was given $3,000 for his language program–use it or lose it; if you don’t buy stuff, the English department gets to order 400 more copies of Lord of the Flies etc– what should he buy?  The answer is obvious: the T.P.R.S. curriculum, and novels!

If he ditches the text, Tabernac has $2,800 to buy novels.  At about $5/novel from Blaine Ray or Carol Gaab, he can buy 18 class sets of 30 novels each.  Or, he could by 36 sets of 15 novels each (so the kids can have more free voluntary reading options).

The costs are even better when we look at Beniko Mason’s story listening. With Story Listening, there is no text, no student workbook, and indeed no materials at all! The stories are available for free on the Stories First Foundation website. All you need is a black/whiteboard, some chalk/markers, and you are good to go.  If Monsieur Tabernac went in for story listening, he would pay nothing, and could buy, well, every language-learner-focused novel that exists.

Given what we know about how much student choice and readings and personalisation matter, the answer is a no-brainer: a C.I. curriculum will be cheaper, more fun, and waaaaay more effective.

This is also a significant issue for poorer Districts.  In wealthier areas, the richer, whiter kids can hire tutors, go to France in summer, etc, if the textbook and/or grammarian teacher are useless and they want to get better at French.  Poor kids don’t have those options…and if we want them to have a shot at college or Uni, money shouldn’t be wasted on bad textbooks that aren’t fun, don’t work, and cost too much.

But ssssshhhhh….don’t tell ACTFL or the textbook companies…

Old Myths Debunked

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

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