Clarifications: A.I.M.’s claims about T.P.R.S. and reality.

The Accelerated Integrative Method— AIM– is a comprehensible-input second-languages method which was developed by Wendy Maxwell in Canada.  I havn’t used AIM (but have posted some comments about it from practitioners here).  AIM is better than any standard text:  they use stories, lots of repeated (and sheltered) vocab, etc, which are practices in line with what we know about what the brain needs to acquire languages.

AIM makes some claims about TPRS here, claims which I don’t think are always accurate.  Mainly I want to clarify TPRS (as I understand it).  I’ll quote AIM’s claims about TPRS and then clarify each in turn.  What is in the text boxes is all AIM’s words.



Students speak primarily in sentences. Students respond primarily with one-word responses.

Reality: in TPRS, students say whatever they are developmentally ready to say.  In a beginner class, students’ initial output will be one-word and yes/no responses to questions.  As input builds mental representation of language, their output grows longer and more complex.  TPRS is built on research, which shows that forcing output beyond what students are developmentally ready for does nothing for acquisition and makes many students uncomfortable.




The teacher uses a variety of strategies when students don’t understand.


Translation is the primary method used when students don’t understand.

Reality: a TPRS practitioner will establish meaning using direct translation, and use translation to clarify, but will also use gestures, props, actors etc to clarify what is happening.  What TPRS does not do: make students guess (or, in edubabble,  “use metacognitive strategies to decode meaning”).  Why?  Because there is no substantiation in research that language acquisition gets easier and/or speeds up when people have to guess at meaning, and because how effective decoding strategies are depends on how much the learner already knows (and on the language being taught– good luck using cognates and “sounding out” when acquiring Mandarin).  While babies and first language learners must guess, they have unlimited time to do so, while a classroom teacher has about 100 hrs/year max.



Offers a full online teacher training and certification program.


Offers webinars online.

Reality: both AIM and TPRS offer live training, and both offer online training, DVDs, etc.




Supported by a variety of research. (See attached)


Based on research of comprehensible input (CI) by Krashen.

Reality: the research into language acquisition supporting what TPRS does has been done by Krashen, Bill VanPatten, Ashley Hastings, Wynne Wong, James Asher, Beniko Mason and many others.  See this for a summary. A.I.M. is built around most of the same ideas.

There is some good data from the Netherlands which suggests that A.I.M. works somewhat better than a traditional “skill-buuilding” approach.  However, most of what is on the research portion of their page does not qualify as good science:  small sample sizes, lack of control groups, etc, mean that AIM claims must be taken with a grain of salt.




Yes/no questions are rarely used. The teacher focuses on total and partial questions with complete sentence answers.



Questioning is done by circling (asking the same question in many ways) that includes yes/no questions, QT and QP as well as PQA (personalized questions and answers). Answers are usually one word.

PQA = teacher talk


  1.  PQA is not teacher talk.  It is teacher-initiated and teacher guided, because the teacher is the one who knows the target language.
  2. Answers are whatever the student is developmentally ready for.  For beginners, this means one-word and/or y/n answers.  Later, output will become more complex and longer.  We know from research that asking people to output beyond what they can do– eg complete sentences for beginners– is not really language use; it is memorised performance.
  3. Not all questioning is circling.  In reality, TPRS practitioners circle some new vocabulary, but prefer to use parallel characters (or students) for vocab repetition rather than focusing on questioning one sentence (though one-sentence focus is appropriate at times).





The students and teacher write very long, detailed stories together, which are generally based on the play being studied. This happens twice as a whole class activity and twice as a partner activity per 50 hours of instruction. The play, vocabulary and language manipulation activities/creative writing are systematically integrated for success, predictability


The student and teacher build a series of short stories (including 3 new words or phrases) called PMS (personalized mini-situation) by having the teacher “ask” the story. This oral activity happens frequently. Written exercises become more of a focus in the 3rd and 4th year.

Reality: TPRS includes writing right from the get-go.  However, writing (and speech) in TPRS are indicators, not causes, of acquisition.  In TPRS, students begin simple re-writes of stories after first co-creating one, and then reading various versions of it.

TPRS uses minimally-targeted (focused or chosen) vocabulary to build stories.  Aside from a few basic verbs, nouns etc, the stories go more or less in the direction that students want them to.

TPRS stories vary in length, generally getting longer as students acquire more L2.  Student written output (at the end of say Level 1) will be 600-1,000 words in one hour.




Believe in a balanced literacy approach.




High emphasis on the importance of reading (every second day) for language development. Students read early on. Students translate all readings out loud in a whole-class setting


  1. I have no idea what a “balanced literacy approach” is.
  2. No, TPRS practitioners don’t necessarily translate all readings out loud, OR in a whole class setting.  Sometimes…but we do partner translation, story illustration (comics), free voluntary reading, etc as well.




The number of structures per lesson varies significantly.


In a typical lesson, the teacher introduces and focuses on three target language structures.


There is no pre-set number of structures in TPRS.  An initial story will use a lot (because you need the “super 7” verbs to start storyasking with beginners).  Later ones will use more, or fewer.




All words and grammatical structures are associated with a gesture. The gestures are standardized. Gestures accelerate comprehension – no need to translate – the gestures allow the teacher to teach words as each represents clearly [sic] the meaning


Gestures are sometimes used in conjunction with new vocabulary, however teacher and/or students can create his/her own gestures. Gestures or a physical response (TPR) from the body (limits to imperative form) and are used mostly with younger students (under Gr. 5) when needed only.


  1. In TPRS, TPR is not limited to third-person imperative.  As a matter of fact, Ray and Seely (2015) advocate using third-person singular (and other) forms when doing TPR.
  2. TPR is suggested for younger learners, but also works well (albeit with limited effectiveness) for older learners.



TPRS has a “Five-day lesson plan which includes only three activities: PMS or mini-story, reading the extension, timed free writing and reading”

Reality: umm…TPRS practitioners also do any of the following activities:

  • Movietalk
  • novel reading
  • translation (in various formats)
  • la persona especial
  • Picturetalk
  • reading/listening to developmentally appropriate cultural texts and/or songs
  • other games, such as Mafia, paper airplane translation, running dictation, etc.




Teachers are encouraged to “flood” the student with vocabulary in the target language.


Teachers are encouraged to limit the amount of vocabulary introduced at one time.

Reality:  This is true.  Why do TPRS practitioners carefully restrict vocabulary?  Because of the “bandwidth” issue, or what Bill VanPatten calls “working memory constraints.”  Basically, the less variety of info the brain has to process, the more in-depth the processing of each item (and the sounds, grammar “rules,” etc with which it is implicitly associated) can be.  If we can recycle a limited vocab set over and over, the vocab will be easy to pick up.  In addition, when we have limited vocab– and so are not constantly guessing at/trying to recall meaning, because the working mind can have about 7 items in its awareness at a time– our brain can devote mental energy to soaking up grammar, pronunciation and other properties.

In TPRS, we “practice” language– by processing input– much like musicians practice pieces they are learning: we go over limited parts of tunes/songs to really nail them, rather than trying to soak up an entire piece in one go.




Provides everything for the teacher in terms of outlining in detail and with scripted teacher talk for teachers to model what they might say during whole-class activities.




The teacher asks many questions using the new vocabulary (5-6 questions) being taught. These questions are created ‘on the spot’. No teacher’s guide is provided since questions depend on student answers and reactions. A PMS (personalized mini-situation) is created by the teacher with the help of students, but all of this depends highly on teacher’s knowledge of the L2.

Reality: this is one of the alleged strengths (and to my mind) weaknesses of AIM.  The AIM curriculum is massively structured, which means that– provided they know the routines– any teacher can, in theory, start AIM with very little planning.  However, the rigid structure– this is what your play will be, these are your questions and answers– will inhibit personalisation possibilities, and also raises the question,  what if the students do not find the story interesting?




All students participate by speaking chorally, gesturing or reading the gestures. There is never silence in an AIM classroom – all students speak 30 minutes of a 30 minute class



One or a few students are responding to commands at once. The teacher does most of the speaking. Students only start producing the L2 when enough comprehensible input has been provided (called the silent period – several hours to several weeks)


  1. Nobody at AIM has ever explained why it is necessary for students to speak.  We know from research that input, not output, drives acquisition, and that forced output is not language, but what VanPatten calls “language-like behavior” which does not develop acquisition.
  2. TPRS– outside of during bursts of TPR– does not use “commands.”
  3. Students produce developmentally-appropriate L2 from Day 1.  Initially, this will be y/n and then then one-word answers, and later sentences.




Syntax and grammar are visualized, produced and embedded kinesthetically in this multi-modal approach

AIM’s three-stage inductive grammar approach ensures a Natural Approach (Krashen) to the understanding of grammar


Teacher uses translation to clarify grammar and structures. They use pop-up grammar and one-second grammar explanations. For example, during the translation of a reading it is used every 20 second or so and always in the L1.

Reality: there is no need to “visualize” syntax or grammar.  Since acquisition of L1 (and L2, L3 etc) follow the same processes, and since nobody “teaches” their own kids grammar, vocab etc, it is not clear why one must “visualize” syntax.  If one understands the input, the brain will build mental representation of grammar.  This is not a problem in AIM, however– there is nothing wrong with grammar visuals– but they are unnecessary.

TPRS uses direct translation in order to waste as little time as possible and to stay in L2 as much as possible.




Specific language manipulation activities to scaffold the ability for language use


Does not contain specific language manipulation activities to scaffold the ability for language use


  1. “Manipulation” of language is not necessary to acquire it.  As Bill VanPatten notes, processing of comprehensible input alone “appears to be sufficient” to develop mental representation of L2.  In other words, reading and listening to what students understand is all they need to acquire the language.
  2. TPRS does scaffold.  This fancy word means “make things progressively  more complex while keeping them comprehensible.”  TPRS practitioners go sentence-at-a-time with narration, use embedded readings, recycle previous vocab, do comprehension checks, etc.




Cooperative learning is emphasized – all written language skills are developed orally in conjunction/discussion/interaction with a partner


Students mostly work individually when it comes to written activities and frequently assigned as homework. Oral work is mostly presented as a whole-class activity

Reality: true.  Why does TPRS avoid “partner” or “communicative pair” activities?

  1. Learners inevitably produce junky output, which becomes junky input for other learners.  If we accquire language through input, the purpose of generating bad output and having that bad output become bad input is, well, something I have not heard explained by AIM.
  2. Learners need only comprehensible input to acquire a language.  If they want to talk, great…but they don’t have to talk, and the lack of forced output means many kids are more comfortable in class.




Carefully sequenced partner/group activities



Various random activities for ‘partner vocabulary practice’



TPRS does not require or suggest that teachers to do “partner vocabulary practice.”  What “vocabulary practice” would be is not mentioned.  I am not sure where AIM got this idea.




Each activity of one type lasts a maximum of ten minutes to ensure the highest level of focus and learning potential



One mini-story/PMS is taught per 50-minute daily class




  1. There is no defined max/min length for any TPRS story.  Blaine Ray has famously told of spending four months on one story.  Sometimes a story doesn’t work, so a TPRS practitioner ends it quickly and moves on to other activities.  Some TPRS practitioners advocate what Mike Peto and Ben Slavic have called “quick takeoffs and landings,” i.e. stories that last 25-40 min.
  2. How long an activity in a TPRS class lasts depends on how interesting the students find it. 
  3. A TPRS class is not just story-asking.  TPRS practitioners also do Movietalk, Picturetalk, reading, persona especial, C.I. games, translation, skits, etc.




Students visualize every single word as the teacher gestures delaying showing the written word.


Students visualize the written word/translated written word very early on…

Reality: there is no requirement/suggestion that students in a TPRS class “visualize” the written word.  A TPRS practitioner will write whatever words are used (with translation) on board.  This is to help “anchor” and clarify the meaning of words, as we know that comprehensible– and not ambiguous– input is what leads to acquisition.


Anyway, that’s what AIM claims and what (my understanding of) TPRS actually is.  Be good to hear from AIM what they think, or if they can clarify.  Also be nice to hear from TPRS practitioners re: what they think.



Should I do Word-For-Word Translation?

A recent Facebook group post asked about whether or not teachers should do word-for-word translation.

Word-for-word is not necessarily the same as direct translation, though it can be.  For example, in German we say mein Nahme ist Chris (“my name is Chris”).  In this case, the two languages use the same word order.

Here are some more examples of what word-for-word translation looks like:

In Spanish, a grammatically good sentence is estudiar no me gusta, which literally means “to study not me pleases” but an English speaker would translate this as “I don’t like studying” or “I don’t like to study.”

In other languages, things get weirder: some languages don’t (always) use pronouns.  When I acquired a bit of Mandarin years ago working for Taiwan-born Visco in the camera store, some of the sentences in Mandarin were something like “go store yesterday” which translates into English as “Yesterday I went to the store.” In other languages, like French, you can’t just say “no” or “not:” you have to wrap the verb with ne…pas.  In some languages in some places you do not always need a verb.  E.g in German, if somebody asks you Bist du  gestern nach Berlin gegangen? (meaning “Did you go to Berlin?”), you can answer with Nein, gestern bin ich nicht nach Berlin (literally “No, yesterday am I not to Berlin”).

I think we should generally not use word-for-word translation.  Why?

  1. WFW unnecessarily confuses the kids.  The point of direct translation is to clarify meaning.  You want to waste as little time as possible and having them think through weird word order is not doing much for meaning.  Terry Waltz calls this “a quick meaning dump,” by which she means the point is to get from L2 to L1 in as simple and easy a way as possible.

2. WFW turns on the Monitor.  In other words, when we do this, students start to focus on language as opposed to meaning.  We know that the implicit (subconscious) system is where language is acquired and stored, so there is little point in getting them to focus on language.  Both Krashen and VanPatten have argued (and shown) that conscious knowledge about language does not translate into acquisition of language.  Monitor use is at best not very helpful so why bother?

3. WFW can cause problems for people whose L1 is not English.  In my classes, we have lots of kids whose first languages are Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Tagalog etc etc.  Some of them are fairly new to English (they speak with accents and their English output has errors).  For example, a classic South Asian L2 English error I hear/read in my English classes all the time is “yesterday he had gone to the store” instead of “yesterday he went to the store.”

What these L2s need, more than anything, is not just grammatically good L3 but also gramamtically coherent English.  We tend to forget that, say, the Ilocarno-speaking Filipino kid who is in our Spanish class is also learning English in our Spanish classes.


Powerhouse Spanish teacher Alina Filipescu writes

I tell students what “ME LLAMO” means word for word, “myself I call,” then I add that in other words it means “my name is.” Since I’ve switched to this instead of just telling students that ME LLAMO means “my name is” like a textbook says it, I’ve seen a lot less errors. I now rarely see students make the mistake “ME LLAMO ES John.” When students do volleyball translations, then I have them do translations that make sense and not word for word. I do it word for word as a class so that I can control where it goes. I also like that students can “feel” what the syntax of the sentence is in the language that I teach. Just like Blaine always says, if there is something better than I will try it and adopt it. This is not written in stone for me, it’s what I do right now because it made sense when I heard/saw somebody else do it.

Filipescu makes three good points here.  First, students should know that you generally cannot translate most things WFW and have it make sense.  We all know what happens when legacy-methods assignments demand output beyond kids’ abilities:  Google transliterate!

She also says that she gets less *me llamo es (“myself I call is”) as a result.  I don’t doubt it…but she raises the interesting question of why and under what conditions?  Was this compared to when she used legacy methods?  Or compared to when she started C.I. and just did general meaning translation? I too get a lot less me llamo es and other such errors, but I think it has more to do with C.I. allowing me to spend way more time meaningfully in the target language than anything else.

Third, Filipescu translates me as “myself” which is correct…here.  However, elsewhere me means “me,” rather than “myself,” more or less like in English, eg me pegó means “she hit me.”  Now if we obsess over WFW (not that Alina does so) we are going to focus the kids on two different meanings “anchored” to one word.  Which I could see being confusing.

Filipescu’s post also raises the interesting question of under what conditions the kids write.  I have found that the more time they have, the more they screw up, because when they have notes, dictionaries, etc, they start thinking, and thinking is what (linguistically speaking) gets you into grammatical trouble.  One of the reasons C.I. uses little vocab and LOADS of repetition (via parallel characters, repeating scenes, embedded readings, etc) is to automatise (via processing, and not via “practise” talking) language use.   The less time they have to write, the less they think, and the more you get to see what the students’ implicit (subconscious) systems have picked up.

Anyway, overall, I would say, point out the weirdness of word order (or whatever aspect of grammar is different) once, then stick to natural, meaningful L1 useage for translation.  Mainly, this is to keep us in the TL as much as possible, and eliminate L1 distractions.

How clear should I make it?

I gave an all-day workshop in Victoria last Friday and as usual began with a German demo:  asking a story, PQA, Textivate, Picturetalk, Movietalk, embedded reading.  I’ll briefly mention two things of note:

Here’s a few German words:

hatten = had          eine = a, an          Katze = cat

Can you figure out this sentence?

“John und Candice hatten eine Katze”

Right:  “John and Candice had a cat.”

I had written on the board glücklich = 🙂 .  Glücklich means “happy” and sometimes “lucky” in German.  During storyasking, I had used the word “und” many, many times (but I had not written it on the board, or translated it on the embedded reading), and I had also used the word glücklich a bunch.

Near the end of the demo, a participant asked “what does glücklich mean?”  Another participant then asked “what does und mean?”

I was floored.  What, I thought, could be more obvious than 🙂 = happy?  What could possibly be more obvious than und means “and”?  These were language teachers who wanted to be there, who wanted to acquire some German, and who had the metacognitive skills to know when things weren’t clear and ask for help.  All of them spoke at least two languages, and most had studied more at some point.

Today’s question: How clear and unambiguous should I make my classroom target  language?

Today’s answer: Even clearer.  🙂



Bad science meets questionable usefulness: Lyster (2004a) on prompting feedback

McGill University professor Roy Lyster gave the British Columbia Language Coordinators’ Association annual conference talk in 2015 about best practices in the French Immersion classroom. He specifically mentioned that form-focused instruction and feedback were essential for acquisition of second languages.  Well, THAT got me wondering so I went and did what a sane guy does of a fine Sunday: I went climbing and then I read his paper.

Lyster has done a very good job in terms of his research, controls, etc etc.  Unlike Orlut and Bowles (2008), Lyster did very good science.  But, as we shall see, there are a lot of problems with his conclusions.  Let’s have a look.

To sum it up, Lyster — following Ellis, DeKeyser et al– argues that there needs to be some “focus on form”– explanations about language (as well as activities that make learners process that language)– in a language classroom in addition to meaningful language itself, because without some “focus on form,” acquisition of some items fossilises or goes wrong.

Lyster noted that English-speaking kids in French immersion were not picking up French noun gender very well.  There are a bunch of reasons for this.  Noun gender is of almost zero communicative significance and so acquirers’ brains pay it little attention, and Immersion students are typically exposed to native-speaker generated/targeted materials which do not foreground grammatical features.  Noun gender acquisition is a classic study question because French has it and English does not. Lyster’s question was, “can form focused instruction (FFI) centered on noun gender improve noun gender acquisition?”  FFI involved a bunch of instruction about noun gender (how to figure out what it is basically based on noun endings, which are in French fairly regular), plus various practice decoding activities.  Lyster set up four groups:

  1. a control group which got regular content teaching.
  2. another group that got (1) plus “focus on forms” (FFI; explanations) only
  3. a second group got (1) plus FFI plus recasts (errors being “properly resaid” by teacher)
  4. a third group got (1) plus FFI (explanations) plus prompts (e.g. the teacher asking un maison ou une maison? after hearing students make noun gender errors); these prompts were designed to get students to reflect on and then output the targeted form

The reasoning for prompts is to “force” the learner to bring “less used” (and improperly or not-yet acquired) stuff into the mental processing loop.  Note that this is a technique for advanced learners– those who have a ton of language skill already built up– and would, as Bill VanPatten has noted, overload any kind of beginner learner.

The results, basically, were that the FFI + prompt group did way better than the others on both immediate and 2-month delayed post-test.  Postests included both choosing the proper form, and producing the proper form.

So, prima facie, Lyster can make the following argument:

“The present study thus contributes to theoretical arguments underpinning FFI by demonstrating its effectiveness when implemented in the context of subject-matter instruction within an iterative process comprising three inter-related pedagogical components:

  1. Learners are led to notice frequent co-occurrences of appropriate gender attribution with selected noun endings, contrived to appear salient by means of typographical enhancement
  2. Learners’ metalinguistic awareness of orthographic and phonological rules governing gender attribution is activated through inductive rule-discovery tasks and metalinguistic explanation
  3. Learners engage in complementary processes of analysis and synthesis (Klein, 1986; Skehan, 1998) through opportunities for practice in associating gender attribution with noun endings.”

Lyster claims that his results contribute to the “theoretical arguments underpinning FFI.”  He is right.  And here is the crux:  the problem with work like this is simple: while he can make theoretical puppets dance on experimental strings, what Lyster does in this paper will never work in a classroom.  Here are the problems:

First. the bandwidth problem, which is that for every acquisitional problem a teacher focuses on “solving,” another problem will receive less attention, because the amount of time/energy we have is limited, and so tradeoffs have to be made.  In this case, Lyster decided that a worthy problem was noun gender acquisition.  So, materials were made for that, time was spent practising that, and teachers focused recasts or prompts on that.  The students got 8-10 hours of FFI.

The question: what did they “de-emphasise” in order to focus on noun gender?  But Lyster does not address this.  Was Lyster’s testing instrument designed to catch changes in other errors that students made?  No– they looked specifically at noun gender. It is possible, indeed, it is almost certain, that the FFI resulted in other grammar or vocab content being downplayed.  Lyster’s testing instrument, in other words, was not holistic: he looked only at one specific aspect of language.

An analogy may be useful here.  A triathlete needs to excel in three sports– swimming, cycling and running– to win.  She may work on the bike until she is a drug-free version of Lance Armstrong. But if she ignores– or undertrains– the swimsuit and the runners, she’ll never podium.  An economist would say there is an opportunity cost: if you invest your money in stocks, you cannot buy the Ferrari, and vice versa.

Second is what Krashen called the constraint on interest problem.  By focusing instruction (or vocab) around a grammar device, we have much less room as teacher to deliver either an interesting variety of traditional “present, practice, produce” lessons or T.P.R.S. or A.I.M.-style stories.   Imagine deciding that since the kids have not acquired the French être avec le passé composé, you must build every activity  around that.  How quickly will the kids get bored?  Je suis allé aux toilettes.  Est-ce que tu est allé à l’ecole? etc. In T.P.R.S. (and in A.I.M.), stuff like this is in every story, but as background, because it’s boring.   It’s like saying, “paint but you only have red and blue.”

Third is the rule choice problem.  Since, as noted above, we can’t deal with every not-yet-acquired rule, we have to choose some items and rules over others. Which will they be? How will we decide?  What if teachers came up with a list of a hundred common errors that 6th grade French immersion kids made.  Which errors should they focus on?  How should materials be built– and paid for– to deal with these?  What if Profeseur Stolz couldn’t give a rat’s ass about French noun gender, but Profeseur Lyster foams at the mouth on hearing “une garçon”?

Fourth, Lyster’s study does not take into account individual learning needs.  OK, all of the subjects in the 4th group got better with noun genders (temporarily, and with prompting) .  But was this the most pressing issue for each person?  What if Max hasn’t acquired the passé composé?  What if Samba is OK with noun gender but terrible with pronouns?  When you use a grammar hammer, everything looks like the same nail.  Noun gender is not very important.  It’s like stripping a car: no brakes and the whole thing crashes; but no hood ornament only looks bad.  Noun gender is the hood ornament of French: looks good but hardly essential.

The problem with a study like Lyster’s– or a legacy-methods program that tries to systematically do what Lyster did– is that it reduces the multidimensionality of both the classroom language and activities and the teacher’s feedback, with the effect of impoverishing input.  If Max needs passé composé and Samba pronom input, and the experiment focuses activities, learning strategy instruction and teacher feedback on noun gender, the experiment’s focus inevitably cuts down on input they need as it plays up noun gender stuff.  As Susan Gross has argued, a comprehensible input classroom is going to solve that problem: by presenting “unsheltered” language– language with no verb tenses, pronouns or other grammatical features edited out– everything learners need is always in the mix.

Fifth, and most seriously, Lyster’s results do not– could not– pass Krashen’s “litmus test” for whether instructional interventions produce legitimate acquisition.  Krashen has said that if you really want to prove that your experimental treatment trying to get language learners to acquire __________ has worked, your results must meet the following criteria:

  • they must be statistically significant not just right after treatment, but three months later
  • they must occur unprompted (what Krashen calls not involving the Monitor)

The three-month delayed post-test is there to show that the intervention was “sticky.”   If it’s been acquired, it will be around for a long time; if it’s consciously learned, it will slowly disappear.  You can check the reasonableness of this by looking at your own experiences– or those of your students– and asking how well does language teaching stick in my or my kids’ heads? (Teachers who use T.P.R.S. know how sticky the results are: we do not need to review.  Legacy-methods teachers have to do review units.)  So what are Lyster’s study’s two most serious problems?

First, Lyster did a two month delayed post-test, so we don’t really know how “sticky” the FFI results were.

Second, Lyster’s assessment of results is largely Monitor-dependent. That is, he tested the students’ acquisition of noun gender when they had time to think about it, and under conditions where the experimenters (or test questions) often explicitly asked whether or not the noun in question was masculine or feminine. Given that the experimental kids had had explicit treatment, explanations etc about what they were learning– noun gender– it is not surprising that they were able to summon conscious knowledge to answer questions when it came assessment time.

At one point in his study, Lyster’s investigators found out that the students being tested had figured out what the investigators were after– noun genders– and had developed a word that sounded like a mix of “un” and “une” specifically to try to “get it right” on the tests. This is not acquisition, but rather conscious learning. 

Indeed, Lyster notes that “it might be argued therefore that […] prompting affects online oral production skills only minimally, serving instead to increase students’ metaliguistic awareness and their ability to draw upon declarative, rule-based representations on tasks where they have sufficient time to monitor their performance ” (425).

Now, why does this matter? Why do Krashen and VanPatten insist that tests of true acquisition be Monitor-free? Simple: because any real-world language use happens in real time, without time to think and self-Monitor.  What VanPatten calls “mental representation of language”– an instinctive, unthinking and proper grasp of the language– kicks in without the speaker being aware.  Real acquisition– knowing a language– as opposed to learning, a.k.a. knowing about a language (being able to consciously manipulate vocab and grammar on tests, and for various kinds of performance)– is what we want students to have.

The marvellous Terry Waltz has called kids who are full of grammar rules, menmonics, games, vocab lists etc “sloshers”: all that stuff has been “put in there” by well-meaning teachers, and the kids have probably “practiced” it through games, role-plays or communicative pair activities, but it hasn’t been presented in meaning-focused, memorable chunks– stories– so it sloshes around.

We also want to avoid teaching with rules, lists, etc, because– as Krashen and Vanpatten note– there is only so much room in the conscious mind to “hold and focus on” rules, and because the brain cannot  build mental representation– wired-in competence– of language without oceans of input.  If we teach with rules and prompts, and when we assess we examine rules and prompts, we are teaching conscious (read: limited) mind stuff.  We’re teaching to the grammar test.

So…to sum up Lyster’s experiment, he

  • took a bunch of time away from meaningful (and linguistically multidimensional) activities & input, and, in so doing,
  • focused on a low-importance grammar rule, and his results
  • do not show that the learners still had it three months post-treatment,
  • do not show that learners could recognise or produce the form without conscious reminders, and
  • did not measure the opportunity cost of the intervention (the question of what the students lost out on while working on noun gender)

Does this matter?  YES.  Lyster, to the best of my knowledge, is giving bad advice when he recommends “focus on form” interventions.  If you teach Immersion (or just regular language class), doing grammar practice and noticing-style activities is probably a waste of time.   Or, to put it another way, we know that input does a ton of good work, but Lyster has not shown that conscious grammar interventions build cost-free, wired-in, long-term unprompted skill.

My questions to Lyster are these:  on what functionally useful evidence do you base your claim that focus on form is essential for SLA, and how would you suggest dealing with rule choice, bandwidth, opportunity cost and individualisation problems, etc?

Is Output Useful in the 2nd Language Classroom?

I’ve been arguing with Sarah Cottrell, Kari R. and others about the role of output in a FL classroom.  TPRS is primarily an input-based methodology:  students learn via hearing (and reading) comprehensible input.  So…should students in a TPRS class talk?  And, if so, when?

You can read Krashen’s views here.

My first answer is, talking is not useful– at all– when we start with beginners.  Most people don’t like talking at first, because they quite logically feel self-conscious because they know their accent is “wrong” or “off,” and because they know that they sound like a two-year-old.  There’s lots of research that suggests that talking in TL tops the list of “things I don’t like” in FL classrooms.

If Krashen is right about the affective filter– that people need to be happy and comfy (he says “open to input”) to learn a FL– then talking (for beginners) is totally the wrong strategy.

Output (from most learners) is often flawed, which means, bad input.  Ask any Spanish teacher what happens when you first teach “gustar” (“to be pleasing” or “to like”).  When you ask “te gusta ver la tele?”  the kids answer with “Si, te gusta ver la tele.” (Do you like watching TV? Yes, you like watching TV).  This is a classic beginner mistake.  Now, we understand (and so does the kid doing the listening)…but what they need to hear– “Si, me gusta…”– they don’t.  Why would we encourage poor modeling?

Bill VanPatten (2003) argues that language acquisition happens only when a learner is processing input. “Output,” he writes, “is not a substitute for input, which must come from other speakers.”

We might say, “poor modeling, fine, the kids will pick it up eventually.”  Sure…but that’s a waste of time; why dither?  If we can provide quality input via stories and reading, acquisition is much faster.

Another problem with output exercises– the “communication gap” activities that communicative teachers use, where kids are supposed to use (and thereby acquire) the TL to acquire information they want– is that they’re boring, and they can be bypassed via L1 use.

If you are teaching “to like,” and you tell the kids “OK, look at the list of things in your book on P. ___, and ask your partner what they like,” a lot of them will just point and say “do you like ___?” in English rather than saying “Aimes-tu les chats?”  Even if they do use TL, they’ll only do it once or twice, cos, let’s face it, this is a boring activity.  Which slows the acquisition even more.  Why would you use the target language if you don’t have to?  And everyone knows it feels fake using a non-native language with other learners.Plus, this turns the teacher into a police officer dutifully patrolling the class for TL, hounding the bad English away.  Fair enough…but don’t we have better things to do?

So if early output = bad modeling and slow acquisition, is there ever a place for output?  And we are talking output other than yes/no and one-word answers, or scripted story dialogue.  I think there is…but under some conditions.

a) Output must be perfect.  If a kid says it in class, and there’s any errors at all, it has to be immediately re-cast by teacher into perfection, and then circled.

b) Output must only come when students want to do it.  It must emerge organically.  Forced output is not language– it is drama, recitation, what VanPatten calls “language-like behaviour,” but it’s not language.  Language is what you say and understand without having to think.

With beginners, this is fairly easy: we allow only super-simple perfect output from the willing initially.  With my last batch of beginners, the first sentence they learned was Rochelle juega futbol con David Beckham en Los Angeles.  I circled that (and a parallel sentence: Breleigh baila en Cork con Seamus Ennis.).

I then wrote “juego = I play” on board and asked Rochelle “Juegas futbol con David Beckham?” and she was able to answer by reading off board– I pointed to “juego” and then “futbol con David Beckham.”  I then did a pop-up: “what do the “a” and “o” on “jueg-” mean?”  Note that I could do this because it was obvious from the first minute that Rochelle was an outgoing kid who was eager to talk (as were her friends Jasmin and Rasna, and a boy named Fahim…but they were the only ones).  Breleigh however wanted nothing to do with talking– she was OK answering questions chorally and in English– but she did not want to say anything in Spanish.  Fair enough.  After a few weeks, she started to want to answer in Spanish.

So I set it up so that the only thing they could say was meaningful to them, and perfect– they simply had to read off the board.  If they wanted vocab specific to them, I wrote it on board w/ translation.

Sarah Cotrell said to me on Twitter “My students don’t want to have language; they want to use language.”  Great…but how does quality input come from learners?  Your 4th year kids probably won’t make errors with “te gusta?” which they learned in first year…but they’ll inevitably make interlanguage etc errors with the subjunctive or whatever they have recently started seeing.

I would do some or all of the following with upper-level kids

a) limited discussion (with teacher recasts) about texts or images

b) assignments where students have to interact with native speakers and document the results (e.g. go find a Spanish speaker, and interview them, and record questions and answers with your phone or camera).

c) encourage kids to go and do stuff with the language outside of class.

Some teachers say “don’t kids in TPRS classes get bored just listening?” and I respond with “not if what they are listening to [and reading] is interesting.”  We personalise stories, we do simple Q&A about kid interests, we weave kids into stories, and we do readings about teen characters with real problems that kids care about, and we use our sense of humour above all.  We use stories because they are the most universal and oldest and most compelling form of packaging communication, period.  We always want to find out what happens in a story!

Merrill Swain often comes up here.  Swain essentially says two things: that output is important in acquisition because it “provokes” comprehensible input, and that output can make speakers aware of errors and problems, and in their desire to “fix” these problems they will acquire some language.  There are a few problems with Swain’s ideas.

Say I am in France and I am hungry, and I walk into a boulangerie.  If I stammer and point to a loaf of breadand say “Je veux acheter un…un…un…”, the boulangeur is probably going to say “baguette.”  A classic communication-gap scenario.  And I used metaliguistic strategies:  I pointed, I said “uhh” (or “eu”) over and over, etc.

Great.  I provoked output from him that became comprehensible input for me.  But there’s two problems.

a)  how am I going to remember “une baguette”?  Evidence suggests that I am going to need to hear (or read) it 20-50 times to get it hammered into my long-term memory, and more to be able to spit it out without thinking.  How are communication gaps going to do that?  This might work in an immersion environment– if the situation comes up every day, I’ll eventually pick up baguette— but we don’t have that kind of time in class.

b)  when I get input from the baker, I am getting perfect native-speaker French.   This is not what happens in a classroom, even one full of motivated, experienced and attentive students.   No matter how good the activities etc, students are still getting impoverished, error-filled input from other learners.

Swain isn’t wrong…but her theory, properly speaking, addresses learning conditions, not actual acquisition.  If I want to acquire “baguette,” I need to hear it and read it over and over– and be focused on it– otherwise my encounter with Monsieur Boulangeur will be a one-off that will find me scratching my head next time I want bread.

The second part of Swain’s theory– that output will increase the speaker’s self-awareness of problems in their grammar, vocab and pronunciation, etc, and that this will lead to acquisition– is also problematic.

Let’s say I am in India and I want some water in a restaurant.  I ask my server kanna he? and get a puzzled response.  He nods and brings me the menu.   But I don’t want a menu– I want water.  I must have screwed up.  But how did I screw up?  Did I get the word for “water” wrong?  Is my pronunciation off?  Did the guy not hear me?  Does he not speak Hindi?  (Perhaps he is a Malayalam or Bengali speaker).  As it turns out, I have the word for “water” wrong– it’s not kanna but rather panni.

First, it’s not clear what the problem is.  I know there’s a problem…but what is it?  As an adult language learner, with developed metacognitive skills, I can figure it out: wrong word.  Could a 15 year old?  A tourist with little interest in Hindi?  What if the problem is more complex, like I get a verb tense wrong, or I forget to add a crucial postposition.  Concrete nouns are easy to figure out– point and ask with raised eyebrows– how about complex grammar?

Second, even if I figure out that I got the word wrong– and I managed to ‘rescue’ the conversation by pointing to a water fountain or bottle– I will probably, as in the  boulangeur example above, probably get one mention of the word panni and that’s it.  This might work in an immersion environment, but in a classroom this is not a viable strategy.

This, to me, is the essence of the problem of language teaching: how do we provide  comprehensible input that is compelling enough that it can be repetitive enough that students can acquire it?  Of everything I’ve seen and tried– natural approach, T.P.R.S., Grammar Grind, communicative-experiential, audiolingual, “eclectic”– T.P.R.S. is the best solution to the problem, outside of an immersion environment, because it allows us to provide masses of comprehensible input that is personalised and interesting (via the personal and/or weird details, and because we use stories).