Low-Frequency Vocabulary

Dictionary bad; story good

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


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.

    : 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.”

    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.

     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.

    : 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…

Why I (Almost) Never Assess Speaking

So this was asked on a forum recently and, as usual, it got me thinking.

This is a question about “El Internado,” but, really, it applies to anything we do in a language class.  We read/ask a story/do a Movietalk or Picturetalk, etc, and then we want to assess speaking, comprehension, etc.

My response to this question is don’t bother assessing speaking.

But first, a qualifier:  if our Board/school/dept. etc says we absolutely MUST assess speaking, well, then, go for it.  We do what we have to do to keep our job.  But if we don’t have to assess speaking, don’t.  Here is why.

  1. The info we gain from this cannot generally guide instruction, which is the point of any assessment (other than at the very end of the course).  The reason for this is very simple: what will we do if what we learn from assessment varies wildly (which it almost certainly will)? If Samba has problems with the pretérito verb tense, Max doesn’t understand questions with pronouns, and Sky can fluidly ask and answer anything, how are we going to design future instruction around that info?  How are we going to “customise”  reading/stories, etc to give 30 different kids the input they need?  Answer:  we can’t.
  2. This takes forever.  If we have 30 kids in our class, and we can assess them in three minutes each (which is tough) we are spending 90 min alone on speech assessment.  That’s a period and a half!  During this time, we have to design something else for them to do…and good luck having 29 kids– whose teacher is “distracted” by sitting in the corner assessing speech– staying on task for 60 minutes.
  3. We already know how well they speak.  If we are doing regular PQA– personalised questions and answers (basically, asking the class members the same questions we are asking the actors)– we know exactly how well each kid can talk.  So why waste time with a formal assessment?  In my Spanish 1 right now, Ronnie can only do y/n answers to questions, while Emma Watson (aka Kauthr) speaks fluid sentences, and so does Riya, while Sadhna mixes up present and past tense in her output (but understands tense differences in questions) etc.
    Indeed, this is where feedback to the teacher is useful. If—in the PQA moment—I see that Sadhna mixes up past and present in answers, I can guide PQA around that right then and there.
  4. In terms of bang-for-buck, we are going to get way more results from more input than from assessing speech.  We acquire language not by practising talking etc, but by processing input, as Bill VanPatten endlessly reminds us.  I used to do regular “speaking tests” and they did nothing and the info was useless.  Now, I never test speaking until the end of the course, and the kids speak better, mostly because the wasted time now goes into input.
  5. A question that comes up here, regarding assessing speech post-Internado, is, what are we testing the kids on?  Are they expected to remember content— names, events, “facts” etc– from the show?  Or are we assessing speech generally?  In my opinion, “content” should be off-limits: we are building language ability, not recall.In terms of language ability, one of the problems with assessing right after specific content (eg some of El Internado) is that, since this input is generally not very targeted, we don’t have much of a guarantee that the kids are getting enough exposure (in a period or two) to “master” or acquire anything new.  This is to say, while an episode may be 90- or even 100% comprehensible, thanks to the teacher’s guidance etc, it almost does not focus on a specific vocab set.  In a classic T.P.R.S. story, the teacher makes sure to restrict (shelter) vocab used in order to maximise the number of times each word/phrase/etc is used.

    This is whether s/he has a plan, or, as in totally “untargeted” story creation à la Ben Slavic, the kids are totally driving the bus.  As a result, the odds of the kids picking up specific “stuff” from the story—in the short term, which is the focus of the question– are greater (and greater still if the asked story is followed by reading, Movietalk and Picturetalk) than if the input is familiar but untargeted.

  6. What about the kid who missed some of (in this case) El Internado? If the speaking assessment focuses on Internado-specific vocab, it would (in my opinion) be unfair to ask Johnny who was there for all three periods and Maninder, who missed two of three periods, to do the same thing with the “language content” of the episodes.
  7.  Kids hate speaking and tests.  Anything I can do to avoid tests, or putting people on the spot– which a one-on-one test does– I do.  This is what Johnny looks like when you tell him, speaking test tomorrow:Image result for kid being interviewed by teacher
    (image:  Youtube)
  8. “Authentic content” eg El Internado has lots of low-frequency vocabulary. Sure, the teacher can keep things comprehensible, but there is inevitably kids’ mental bandwidth going into processing low-freq vocab…which is exactly what kids don’t need in a speaking assessment, where you want high-freq vocabulary that is easy to recall and applicable to lots of topics.

Anyway…this is why I save speaking assessment until the end of the course: I know how well my kids can speak, I can adjust aural input where it matters– right now–, I don’t want assessment to detract from input, and speaking assessment doesn’t really help me or my kids.




C.O.F.L.T. Conference Reflections

The energy-loaded Tina Hargaden, vice-president of the C.O.F.L.T. in Portland, organised a conference and I got to do the T.P.R.S. part of it– a one-day workshop with German storyasking demo, reading, Movietalk, Picturetalk, method explanation, Q&A, etc.

To say I had a busy weekend would be an understatement:  work Fri, drive 7 hours to Portland (through Seattle traffic, its own special Hell, thank you NPR for making it bearable), have a beer and talk shop with Tina, sleep like a baby at the Kennedy School Hotel (a high school converted to hotel– awesome– “fall asleep in class” is their tag), do presentation, drive back to Canada, time change, it’s now 1 AM, sleep three hours, get on plane to Cuba…where thank God they have mojitos  and overhung limestone rock routes.

Anyway, we had the most people of any workshop at the conference (almost 30) and Tina told me that we were the only room where people were regularly laughing.  There were a bunch of Chinese student teachers doing their degrees in Portland, a few TPRSers who were in for a tune-up, and a whack of curious rookies.

So I got my evaluations back.  You can see the COFLT 2016 Stolz TPRS feedback forms if you want to see how awesome I am 😉 and how much Oregonians appreciate their gluten-free, salad-based, vegan or organic meat, locally-sourced artisanally-cooked dishes, etc 😄.  But mostly what is interesting in the comments are the themes that recur.

1.  A lot of people said they really appreciated the German demo aspect of the presentation (an idea I got from Blaine Ray).  People wrote along the lines of “it was great to experience what it is like to be a student.”  I remain convinced that the only way to make any language-instruction method convincing is to teach people part of a language they don’t know.  It is so easy for us to forget how tough it is– even with good C.I.– to pick up a new language.

2.  Recognising that, and because we had some native Mandarin speakers at the workshop, I asked participant Yuan to teach us some Mandarin (Blaine Ray also does this).  She parallel-circled two sentences:  Chris climbs mountains and Tina drinks beer

This put me into the students’ seat and it was enlightening.  I noticed two things:

a) I needed a LOT of reps to remember the Mandarin, and I was glad Yuan went s.l.o.w.l.y.

b) Mandarin does not seem very difficult.  No articles, verb conjugation, etc, though word order seems crucial.

3.  Most people wanted more time with T.P.R.S. (or even me as presenter).  There seems to be a need (in OR and WA) for more C.I.-themed language workshops.  Luckily, Tina Hargaden and C.O.F.L.T. on it and there will be a conference Oct 13-15 which will feature Steve Krashen, Karen Rowan, etc.

4. I talked to another presenter who had a workshop called something like “using authentic docs to design authentic tasks for authentic assessment.” He did some explaining and I wondered two things:

a. What do you actually do with the info from an “end of unit” assessment?  If Max and Sky do well, and Rorie and Arabella terribly, now what? How does that info shape your next “unit”?  I guess if you want a number, awesome, but numbers help neither teachers nor students. 

b. How much energy is a teacher productively using when they design #authres-based activities for assessment? I mean, most #authres don’t use high-freq vocab and are often more of a guessing game for students.  

As I talked to this guy, it struck me that you would get a lot better assessment with exit quizzes for reading & translating, and with comprehension checks along the way– especially with what Ben Slavic has called “barometer kids”– so that, in the moment, you can provide more input for what the kids are misunderstanding. 

5. Laughter matters. Laughing bonds people, lightens any mood, is a brain break, comes from when unexpected ideas are conjoined, etc. So I am glad that we got to laugh at our workshop (yet another practice that Blaine Ray is all about with his dancing monkeys and girls without noses). 

6. There were some experienced C.I. teachers there and I was super-stoked (sorry I can’t remember names). These folks asked good questions, and they often said “well Chris does ____ but I do _____ instead.”  Which teaches us that while there is a basic C.I. recipe– use a story, limit and recycle vocab, have people read the story, add images and short films for more vocab recycling– there are many cooks with a panoply of flavours.  Also,  the experienced people generated great lunchtime discussions over craft organic artisanal salads and quinoa vegan quiche 😉. 

So, thanks COFLT and Tina for a great opportunity for all those language teachers. Their Oct confernce will rock– stay tuned. 

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.



Dumb gatekeeping

OK I’m feeling hyperbolic today, but you gotta agree, this is pretty dumb:

So my former colleague Polly, an innovative French teacher in the communicative tradition, told me about becoming a teacher.  She’d been a languages monitor in Quebec, had read a ton, been to France, yadda yadda– she was fluent in French– and then decided to become a French teacher.  When she applied to the University, she had to take a French “entrance exam” to make sure she was “good enough” at French to teach it.  Il faut pouvoir parler comme un francais and all that. Keep the riff-raff out of the profession etc. 

So she went to the French qualification test and the oral exam was, the examiner showed her a picture of a bicycle.  “Dècrivez la biciclette” said the examiner.  Polly did what she could– it’s red, it has two wheels, it’s a ____ brand, on l’utilise au Tour de France, etc, and then the examiner said “qu’est-ce que sont  ____?” and pointed to the cogs.  Polly had no idea how to say “cogs” in French.  The examiner proceeded to ask her more biciclette questions which she didn’t know the answers for.  Front forks?  Hubs?  Brakes?

She failed the exam and had to qualify as an English teacher.  Of course, when she was applying for work, the Abbotsford board– desperate as always for French teachers– hired her to teach French.  Polly would later go on to write Provincial curricula, mark Provincial exams, sit on a zillion committees, teach French at all levels, pilot texts, sit as a department head, etc.  Yet the University powers-that-be decided that, on the basis of not being able to describe a bicycle’s components, she was unqualified to be a French teacher.

Anyway, that’s the dumbest thing ever.  Bike vocab:  low frequency.  Describe an object not normally given much consideration by people other than roadies, hipsters and bike mechanics: linguistically infrequent.  Assessment of actual relevant skill?  Zero.  Thank God the real world found Polly’s mad French skillz useful, yo, and let’s learn from her experiences by

  • teaching high-frequency vocabulary
  • not asking kids to learn idiotic, seldom-used words
  • keeping assessment authentic