Meredith McDonald White

Tech Done Wrong…and Right.

“Techmology,” as Ali G. says, “is everywhere,” and we feel forced to use it.  E-learning! i-Tech! Online portfoli-oli-olios! Quizkamodo!  Boogle!  Anyway, the litmus test for tech in the language classroom is the same as it is for anything else:  does it deliver compelling, vocab-restricted comprehensible input?

Today, a look at two ways to play with tech.

Here is a recent #langchat tweet from a new-waveish language teacher:
What’s the problem here?

1.  As Alfie Kohn has noted, using rewards to encourage ____ behaviour turns teaching & learning into a payment & reward system: kids buy a pizza by doing ____.  But we really want to get kids to acquire languages because the process itself is interesting.  If we have to pizza-bribe kids, we are doing something wrong.

2.  The kids get a pizza party…during class time? Is this a good way to deliver the target language to kids? What about the kids who don’t write une carte?  Do they not get to be part of the pizza party?  Do they sit there and do worksheets or CPAs or whatever while their peers gleefully yap in English, chat and cram junk food into their mouths?  What if kids are good at French, but can’t be bothered to write “une carte”?  What if they are working, or lack digital access?

3.  Output, as the research shows, does not improve acquisition…unless it provokes a TON of target-language response which meets all the following criteria:

  • it’s comprehensible
  • it’s quality and not student-made (ie impoverished)
  • it actually gets read/listened to

So if the teacher responds, and if the student reads/listens to the response…it might help.

4. Workload.  Kids don’t benefit from creating output.  The teacher also has to spend time wading through bad voicemails, tweets and what have you.  Do you want to spend another 30 minutes/day looking at well-intentioned– though bad– “homework” that doesn’t do much good?

5. What do kids do when they compete?  They try to win.  So the kid who really wants pizza is going to do the simplest easiest thing in French every day just so s/he can get the pizza.

 

Now, while the “tweet/talk for pizza” idea is a non-starter, there are much better uses for tech out here…here is one, from powerhouse Spanish teacher Meredith McDonald White.

The Señora uses every tech platform I’ve ever heard of, among them Snapchat (a free smartphone app).  You get it, make a user profile, and add people à la Facebook. Once people “follow” you, you can exchange images and short video with text added, and you can do hilarious things with images (eg face swap, add extra eyeballs, etc).

Her idea is simple and awesome:

  1. She sends her followers (students) a sentence from a story or from PQA.
  2. The kids create or find an image for which the sentence becomes a caption.
  3. They send her the captioned image.
  4. She uses these by projecting them and then doing Picturetalk about them.

You can also do the same thing with a meme generator program (loads free online):  write sentence on the board, kids copy, and they email you their captioned pics.

Here is a crude example:

  1. Teacher sends out/writes on board a line from a story, e.g. La chica tiene un gran problema (the girl has a big problem).
  2. Kids use sentence as a caption & send back to teacher, e.g.

meme

3.  This serves for Picturetalk:  Is there a girl/boy?  Does she have a problem?  What problem?  What is her hair like?  Is she happy?  Why is she unhappy?  Where is she?  What is her name? etc…there are a hundred questions you can ask about this.

Not all the kids will chat/email back, and not all images will work, but over a few months they should all come up with some cool stuff.  You can get them illustrating stories (4-6 images) using memes…

This is excellent practice (for outside class). Why?  Because the kids are

  • getting quality comprehensible input
  • personalising the input without having to make or process junky language
  • building a community of their own ideas/images
  • generating kid-interesting stuff which becomes an in-class platform for generating more comprehensible input

And– equally as importantly– the teacher can read these things in like 3 seconds each, and they are fun to read.  #eduwin, or what?

Here’s a few examples done by Meredith and her kids.


 

Project-based Learning in the Second Language Classroom

Project-based learning is a staple in my Social Justice, English and Philosophy classes.  When I heard that it has been tried in the language classroom, I was curious.  I read a detailed lesson plan for a Spanish unit and thought about it.

So here are some observations on this unit, whose objective is to get students– who have decided on (or come up with) a new invention “to convince a Spanish-speaking audience that they need this new invention.”  These are low-mid and late novice students.

We know from research and from successful (i.e. significant and positive results-based) teaching for language acquisition that best practices include:

  • a focus on high-frequency vocabulary (yes, this varies somewhat by context)
  • keeping input comprehensible and vocab limited
  • little focus on output
  • a lot of input (listening and reading)
  • avoidance of L1 as much as possible (outside of keeping L2 meaning clear)
  • providing quality input (ie, not what beginners inevitably produce)
  • reading and listening to “whole” language (stories, dialogues, reports etc  etc, not lists or discontinuous text) etc.

So how does P.B.L. stack up against input-based language-teaching  practice?

What I first noticed is the heavy emphasis on early output and what we would loosely call “communicative pair activities” (CPAs).  There is a lot of “learn to say ____” and “get someone to respond by _____,” in everything from choosing inventions to forming groups.  I also noticed a lot of group work (decide, choose, evaluate, predict the meaning of ___, etc).  The aim— using the target language– is laudable. The problems here are that

a. you can expect lots of English use during these activities, inevitably.  Why would someone use L2 if L1 is easier.  We’ll expect a lot of English also because for most of these activities the students themselves have to find the vocabulary they want to use.  Since they don’t have that vocabulary, they will use L1.

b. the Spanish output— because it comes from beginners– will be limited, error-filled and impoverished.

Second, the kids go through a list of cognates, predicting meaning, then doing various activities to check the meaning.  This seems useful,  since kids certainly do need to be taught reading skills (e.g. to look for and make educated guesses about cognates).  But this takes a lot of time, and will be accompanied with a lot of English (“what do you think vender means?  –I think…”). The issues: group work means English use, and CPAs mean junky Spanish.  If language is acquired through input, I don’t see how poor input and English are helping the kids.

The implicit claim here is, predicting and then checking meaning is a helpful learning strategy.  This is true– for explicit (conscious) learning.  For language, not so much. What we need to acquire language is comprehended input.  That’s what we give our learners, and what parents give their kids. Yes, kids will do some guessing about vocab when acquiring their L1s, but this is OK for them, because they have 100s of hours.  We have a couple of hundred.

Here is one of the activities:

Third, an issue here is the use of word lists.  Language is not acquired through memorising, practising or predicting/checking the meaning of words on lists.  The brain is pre-wired to process whole language:  meaningful sentences which are part of bigger communicative acts (stories, conversations, etc). You can memorise via lists…but it’s not fun (read: many kids won’t do it), and it’s not efficient.

Another problem with lists: the “grammar” that “ties together” words is absent. Lists provide impoverished input.

Fourth, we have the problem of the use of low-frequency vocabulary.  Here are some examples from the unit.Sexton pic #1 low freq These are necessary words for marketing.  However, according to the Wiktionary Spanish frequency list, none of these words are in the 2000 most-used Spanish words.  Why teach this to novice or mid students?  If you want to get your kids ready for Mexico or Spain (or the A.P. exam), you– they– are much better off  reading a ton of writing which full of high frequency vocabulary, i.e. the stuff they are going to actually hear a lot in Spain and Mexico.

Fifth, we have the interest and learning problem.  If the class is going to share these projects– i.e. the kids present their projects to other kids– how are the various groups going to learn each others’ vocab?  Viewers of reports, presentations, posters etc will get short-term and non-repated exposure to the vocabulary.  And why should they necessarily care about others’ work?  If the point of P.B.L. is for students to engage in what interests them, why should they sit and listen to what others have done? If I like sewing, and Suzie likes motorcycles, why on Earth would we want to listen to each other?   This problem is solved– to the extent that it can be– in a TPRS, narrative paraphrase, A.I.M., Story Listening or other storytelling classroom, where stories and characters (which are almost universally interesting) are the focus.

Sixth, we don’t have any evidence (of which I am aware) that PBL works from a proficiency-oriented basis. That is, PBL advocates have not shown us what kids can do (without notes, dictionaries etc) after lessons.

Blaine Ray has said that the litmus test of successful language teaching is the unannounced, timed write, where students get, say, ten minutes to describe a picture, event, person etc without any advance notice, preparation, use of notes, etc. This evaluates acquisition— what people have “wired into” their heads. Lots of C.I. teachers share results. I do. Adriana Ramírez does. Online groups regularly do. Meredith White does.

PBL advocates– as far as I know– havn’t shown us proficiency-based, zero-prep results. The PBL kids however do do quite well when they have lots of access to notes, when they have time to prep, memorise presentations, etc.

So…from what I have seen, P.B.L. is not going to fit in with comprehensible input-based instruction.  Caveats:

  • I havn’t used it, and so I don’t have any data to support my gut feeling that P.B.L.’s effectiveness is limited.
  • Maybe you could do PBL with shared vocabulary, ie the whole class decides on a problem, and gets some strict guidelines about what can/cannot be used.
  • Bill VanPatten has commented that “PBL is not an appropriate teaching strategy for most language learners,” because “they don’t yet have enough language in their heads.”
  • You could easily make PBL work in L1.