Personalisation

Dictionary bad; story good

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

BilingualDictionaries.jpg

Here’s a question recently asked on a Facebook group for C.I. teachers:


My answer to this:  the $$ would be better spent on a set of novels.  

But first, a caveat: if you have Adnimz or Headz of Defartmentz who run your job, and insist on dictionaries– it’s just common sense, you know, we need dictionaries to learn new words— well, you do what you must to keep your job.  But for those of us with choice, I maintain dictionaries are a terrible use of money and a waste of time on the classroom.  Here’s why:

Note that we can do two things with dictionaries: decoding language we don’t know, or generating language we cannot yet produce.

  1. Kids can’t really use dictionaries.  When Johnny looks up the Spanish sentence “I can eat fish,” he writes yo lata pez (I tin can living fish).  Hell, even among adults, language boners abound.
     

    Better: ask the teacher.  If you, the teacher, doesn’t know the word, well, you get to up your mad skillz yo, and you get to model to kids that it’s OK to say when I don’t know something, I admit it and I figure it out with the best possible help I know.

    Also, the teacher can head off mis-translations at the pass, and can work on ensuring that the word gets used properly after it’s been properly introduced, and ensure that it gets used as much as possible.

  2. Dictionaries even when necessary– e.g. during reading–are slow.  Let’s face it: you have to thumb through a big book, and look at words in tiny print, and find the one word you want among a hundred others on the same page.  This apparently trivial feeling is for a 14 year old kid–in their 2nd or 3rd language– tough and slow going. Then there are the obscure (to kids) notes, like vt and prep. And we are talking Spanish here…I have no idea how dictionaries work in say Chinese but they can’t be simple.
    Better
    : in the back of C.I. novels (e.g. the Gaab et al. ones, or the Ray et al ones) there are alphabetical vocab lists of only the words in the book.  Faster and much easier to use than a dictionary.
  3. If we need dictionaries, we probably aren’t doing optimal C.I.  We know that to build language acquisition, input– aural or written– needs to be comprehensible.  If you need a dictionary for reading activities, the reading by definition isn’t that comprehensible.  And we know that if people are going to read on their own, reading has to be 98% comprehensible and generally not an “authentic resource.”
    Better: 
    use student-friendly texts that recycle high-frequency vocabulary.
  4. It is sometimes argued, well we want kids to be able to find and use vocabulary personally relevant to them (ie we need to personalise) and therefore they need dictionaries.  Wrong, and here is why.
    Better:
     any chance where the teacher and/or other kids learn– and acknowledge– something about a student is good personalisation.
  5. Dictionaries do not properly model language use.  If  you want to pick up a word (or grammar “rule”), you need it to be comprehensible, and in context.  Dictionaries don’t show you sentences, dialogue, etc.  In Spanish, for example, the word for living fish is pez and the word for fish that is caught/being cooked and eaten is pescado.  You can’t tell from the dictionary which you use where.
    Better
    : do what Blaine Ray does and teach one sentence at a time (using parallel characters for more reps), writing it on board if need be.
  6. Even as decoding tools, dictionaries have limits.  In Spanish, the classic one is this:  Melinda sees Yo le traje un regalo (I brought him/her a present).  So she goes looking for traje. But traje isn’t in the dictionary, while the infinitive– traer— is.  It is assumed that the reader knows the “rules” of getting from a conjugated form to the infinitive (or v.v.), and/or how to use the verb conjugation tables.  99% of kids in my experience can’t do this, and while sure they could learn it with years of tedious, boring practice, life (and class) is too short.
  7. “But the kids can use wordreference.com on their cellphones!” says somebody.  Well here is what happens when Monsieur Tabernac gets his students to look up the very important French verb for “to dine on gourmet food whilst picnicking in Fontainebleu and looking as good as a Manet painting”:

    a. Maninder hears bla bla bla bla phone bla bla bla
    b. He turns his phone on and finds 37 texts, 15 Snapchats, a worrisome tweet he’s been tagged in, plus a missed call– with voice message, quelle horreur, why do parents use these stupid things instead of texts?– from Mom.
    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…

Selfietalk!

The selfie is everywhere.  Even I have taken a few and I am the ugliest guy in the world and don’t much like looking at myself.

BUT selfies are loads of fun especially when the kids come up with them.  So how do we do selfietalk?

a. Get the kids to take a selfie.  Ideally, this will be taken somewhere there’s background that’s identifiable, and also ideally there will be two students from class in it.  Oh and it’s gotta be appropriate.

b. They email you the selfie.

c. Project it, and then Picturetalk it.  You make statements, and ask questions about it, and here, you ask the person(s) in the selfie to talk (in first person) about what was happening.

So the other day the foods teacher was teaching pancake-making to her grade 8s and brought me a plate of pancakes.  I couldn’t eat ’em but Neha– who had rolled out of bed late and had forgotten to eat breakfast WAS ALL OVER THESE and her pal took a photo which got sent to me.

So here’s some sample Q&A about the photo that I did:

Who’s eating? –Neha is eating.

What is Neha eating? –She is eating pancakes.

What is Neha wearing? –She is wearing a bunny hug.

Is her bunny hug blue or black? –Her bunny hug is blue

Is Drake or Neha eating pancakes?Neha is eating pancakes.  Drake is not eating pancakes.

 

Then, I asked Neha some questions:

Did you like the pancakes?  — Yes I liked the pancakes

Why did you like the pancakes? — I liked the panckaes bc they were delicious.

What were you eating? –I was eating pancakes.

Was SpongeBob eating pancakes? — No, *I* was eating pancakes.

That evening I made a crude meme out of this with a simple  sentence (“I like pancakes a lot”)

The next day, we spent a few minutes talking about the photo.  The cool thing here: the photo and Spanish were 100% comprehensible, and the writing 100% supported the picture.  I was able to ask the kids questions like ¿te gustan los pancqueques? and ¿te gustan los panqueques un poquito, o te gustan mucho? (do you like pancakes, and do you like panckaes a bit or a lot?) and they could easily answer from reading.

Here’s another: Max the Samoyed and me going climbing. 

The question reads “why are they happy?” and of course this is tailor-made for Sr Stolz to make fun of himself and the kids to go AWWWWWIEEE at Max. 

Anyway…happy selfietalk!

 

 

 

 

 

Should I Mark Behavior? The Great JGR Debate, and a Silver Lining for Behaviour Rubrics.

Some years ago, a teacher built a rubric for her C.I. classes, which Ben Slavic named JGR and which was discussed on his blog and then elsewhere.  Here is a version I have played around with: INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric.  I initially opposed the use of JGR, then used it, then ditched it, and now I use it (but not for marks). Note: this is a modified version of the original JGR; and I don’t know for how long she used her rubric, or if she still does, or what the original looked like.

JGR was developed because– like all of us, especially me– the creator had some challenges managing her C.I. classes in her initial year with T.P.R.S., which can in (especially my) rookie hands turn into a “woo-hoo no more textbook!” clown show.  JGR basically “marks” classroom behaviour.  JGR specifies that students make eye contact, add story details, ask for help, not blurt, not use cell-phones etc.  Jen used it (and if memory serves Ben also recommended its use) by making part of her class mark a function of behaviour as marked by JGR.  So the kids might get, say, 20% of their mark each for reading, writing, listening, speaking and 20% for their in-class behaviour.  Part of the thinking here was that some behaviours lead to acquisition, while others do not and also wreck the classroom environment, and so “acquisition-rewarding” behaviour should be rewarded.

JGR– for many people, including me– “works.”  Which is why– especially when linked with allegedly “acquisition-promoting” behaviours– lots of people are interested in it.

JGR is a kind of “carrot-and-stick” marking tool:  if the kids engaged in the behaviours JGR specified, their marks went up, partly because (a) they got marks for those behaviours, and partly because (b) the behaviours should– in theory– help them acquire more language.

This can of worms was shaken around a bit on Ben’s blog, and recently, thanks to the always-remarkable Terry Waltz, there have been FB and Yahoo discussions about it.  So, today’s question:

Should we assess in-class behaviour for final marks purposes?

My answer: no, never.  Why?

1. Behaviours typically asked for in JGR– or other such rubrics– are not part of any     curricula of which I am aware.  Every language curriculum says something like, students of the Blablabian language will read, write, speak and understand spoken Blablabian, and maybe say something about Blablabian culture.  Nowhere does any  curriculum say “students should suggest details for stories” or “students will lookthe teacher in the eye.”

If it’s going to get a mark, it has to be part of course outcomes.  Any assessment guru (Wormelli, Harlen, etc) will tell you the same thing: we do not mark attitude, behaviour, homework, etc, as these are not part of final outcomes.

To put it another way, how do we judge the New England Patriots football team?  By how well, often and/or enthusiastically they practice and look Bill Belichick in the eye, or by how many games they win?  How should Tom Brady be paid: by how often he shows up for practice, and how nice he is to Belichick, or by how many yards he successfully throws?  That’s right.

We could– and I often do– end up in situations where a “bad” kid does well, or a “good” kid does poorly.  I have had bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teacher’s pet-type kids who were not especially good at Spanish, and I have had giant pains-in-the-butt who were quite good.

My best-ever student in TPRS, Hamid Hamid, never added story details, never looked up, and always faced away from the board.  Yet he CRUSHED on assessments and got 100% in Spanish 2.  Two years later, his younger brother, Fahim (also a great student) told me that Hamid Hamid was both shy and deaf in his left ear, so always “pointed” his right ear at the board (and so appeared to be looking away).  This kid’s mark would have been lowered by assessing his “in-class behaviour,” which– given his epic Spanish skills– would have been absurd.

2. As Terry Waltz points out, neurodivergent kids can– and do– acquire language without engaging in many behaviours typically required by participation and behaviour rubrics. She also points out that forcing neurodivergent kids into the “normal” mold is at best less than productive. If you are autistic, anxious, suffering from PTSD (as my stepdaughter does) or facing any other neuro challenges, “engagement” rubrics can make your life miserable while not appreciably meaningfully measuring what you can do with the language.

3. The only thing required for language acquisition is reception of comprehensible input.  While the focus of behaviour rubrics is designed to get kids to tune in, it does not follow that many behaviours which do make for a good class– e.g. people adding good details to stories, looking at each other– are necessary to acquire language.

All of us have been there: you have a plan, you did your story warmup or whatever, but the kids aren’t into it.  You bust out a Movietalk but they aren’t into that either.  Dead class. Now, in a C.I. class, we don’t have recourse to worksheets or whatever, and we still have to teach the language. I have a bail-out move here: direct translation, and I always have a novel on the go, so I can read aloud, and Q&A the novel.  If I’m being particularly non-compelling, I’ll throw an exit quiz at them.

The point: if the kids are getting C.I., they are acquiring.  If they are miserable/tired/bored with stories, fine.  They are gonna get C.I. one way or another.

4. Any kind of behaviour rubric plays the awful “rewards” game.  Ask yourself this question:  why do I teach? The answer– other than because I have to make a living— is probably something like, because it’s interesting, I have some measure of control over my work, and I love kids and my subject.  Some will add that teaching, properly done, opens doors for kids.  Teachers do not teach because they want to be evaluated, or because they want to use the latest gizmo, or because they want public praise, etc.  They are, in other words, intrinsically motivated.  They want to work because the work is good and worthy in itself.

When we institute rewards for behaviours, as Alfie Kohn has spent a career arguing, we destroy intrinsic motivation.  We turn something interesting into payment for marks.  The point stops being paying attention to the story– or adding to it cos you actually care about it– and becomes something rote.

5. Using behaviour rubrics can dampen professional self-examination. If my practice is such that I have to use marks as a stick to keep kids in line (the policing metaphor is not an accident), there are two possibilities: tough kids, and/or I am doing a bad job.  The question why are they not tuned in? might be answerable with any of the following:

— I am not being sufficiently comprehensible

— I am ignoring the top or the bottom end of the class– too fast/slow or simple/complex

— my activities are not interesting, varied or meaningful enough

— the kids see no purpose

— accountability: they don’t see tuning in as something that results in real gains

— I lack basic skills (smart circling, control of vocab, etc etc)

— my story sucks 😉

I had better be able to look in the mirror, consider and then deal with these possibilities, rather than merely acting like a cop and demanding obedience.

Now, behaviour does matter.  You cannot run a T.P.R.S. class without rules etc.  My basic rules:

  • no phones or other distractions (including side-talk, blurting etc)
  • no insults of anyone other than oneself or of rich entitled people
  • listen, watch and read with the intent to understand; ask when you don’t
  • do not create or engage in distractions

The tools that we have for dealing with distracting behaviour include

  • warning the offender, standing by their desk, calling Mom and Dad, etc
  • pointing, with a smile, to classroom rules every time there is a problem
  • sending them to admin if necessary
  • taking their phone until 3:15 (most kids would rather die)
  • detention, where we discuss behaviour
  • assigning read & translate (quiet seatwork)
  • taking the kids outside for a walk, or doing some other kind of physical brain-break
  • changing activities
  • doing a quiz
  • talking to kids one on one and asking what do I need to do to get you focused?

 

The upshot?  We should not, and need not, mark “behaviour” or “participation.”

 

Addendum:  is there ever a use for classroom behaviour rubrics?

Yes.  I get my kids to self-evaluate using JGR every 2-3 weeks.  My version generates a mark out of 20.

Nineteen out of twenty kids will very honestly self-evaluate their behaviour, provided they understand exactly what is expected.  One kid in twenty will heap false praise on him/herself.  For the false praisers (“I never blurt in class!”), I sit them down and explain what I think, then we agree on a more realistic mark.

I save these JGR “marks” and once in a blue moon, when a helicopter parent or an Admin wants to know, how is Baninder doing in Spanish, I can point to both the spreadsheet with Numberz and JGR.  This frames the inevitable discussion about marks in terms any parent can understand.  Any parent, from any culture, understands that if Johnny screws around and/or does not pay attention in class, his mark will drop.

JGR– in my experience– accurately “predicts” the marks of about 80% of kids.  When I can show a kid (or a parent or admin), look, here are Johnny’s marks AND Johnny’s own description of how he behaves in class, we can have an honest discussion about marks, Spanish, etc.  Win-win.

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.


 

What Is Personalisation? Two Approaches.

What is “personalisation”?  We all agree it matters.  My definition: personalisation is any connection between subject matter and individuals’ interests and characteristics.

A very talented District colleague recently did me the favour of Twarguing with me.  She posted a picture of a bicycle with some Spanish sentences explaining the value of riding a bike, thus: 

For the non-Spanish-speakers, the sentences include “puts a big smile on your face” and “reduces the risks of heart attack,” etc.  These are all about the advantages of riding a bicycle regularly.  I would never use this with kids, cos like O.M.G. it’s boring, LULZ but anyway.

When I saw this, I looked at a few words from the picture Wiktionary’s Spanish frequency lists.  Most of that picture is low-frequency vocabulary (i.e. not in the top 1500 most-used Spanish words).  So, I responded with the following question:

How is low-frequency vocabulary “important”? If your reference is to grammar (e.g. 3rd person verbs), this better taught w/ high-frequency vocab.”

 

Shauna here is suggesting that students investigate their own interests and use language pertaining thereto.  In other areas, we have suggestions about using project based learning and genius hour in the language classroom (with excellent rebuttals (especially for genius hour proposals) from Sarah E. Cottrell).

We are here getting into a classic traditional-methods-vs-comprehensible-input teachers’ argument:  do we make language class interesting– and personalised– for students by

a) recycling high-frequency vocabulary, or

b) by allowing students to choose their own vocabulary for activities?

A general note: while we all take some interest in what others do/like etc, there are limits.  Walk into a Joshua Tree fire circle, and if you’re not a rock-climber, you’ll be baffled and bored within minutes, because “it’s slammer left-facing hands on 2s to a sidepull and then a mantle over a crappy blue Alien and a slab runout” is basically irrelevant to you.  In any social situation, there is a balancing act between interest in others’ stuff and being bored.  So it is in a classroom.

Textbook personalisation suggestions have a number of basic problems, one of which is keeping kids interested.  Why should Johnny want to listen to/read the vocab about ordering dinner, or recycling, or bargaining for fruit in a French market, over and over?  It’s not that these activities and words are boring per se, but when was the last time you spent three weeks using forty words and one grammar device to discuss the same topic? Never– because that’s boring. So the simple answer– for teachers who do not use stories– is, let the kids pick and choose their vocab.   T.P.R.S. and A.I.M. teachers, as we shall see, don’t have many challenges keeping kids interested.

But if students choose their own vocab for class activities or projects, there are five big problems.

First, there is the problem of usable frequency.  If we want to build functional fluency in any language, our first priority is make sure students acquire the most-used words before the less-used.  Obviously, there will be exceptions: “communicative” teachers typically like to make sure kids know all the words for school things such as pencil, desk etc, while we comprehensible input people like animals etc for our stories.  Now, a student may be into activities that use high-frequency words.  But much more often, the opposite is the case.

If Johnny is into, say, bicycle racing, and Sheila likes wrestling, great.  But how often is Johnny going to hear/read cycling-related– and Sheila wrestling-related– words?  The answer:  in most language communities, especially ones to which people in their first five years of language acquisition belong, not very often.  This means they are putting effort into something which has limited communicative value for them and for others in their class.

Second, we have the problem of shared interest.  As I noted above, if Baninder likes Call of Duty and Maricela likes chess, what– as relative beginners– are they going to talk about?  Maricela is probably not going to be especially interested in hearing about shooting people, team missions, ammunition etc, and Baninder is not going to want to hear about endgame strategies and Sicilian openings, etc.

In the “real” world (probably online), Baninder can find his own C.o.D. crew in French and Maricela can play chess with French speakers, but in class– where realistically 95% of language acquisition happens for our students– how are we going to get each kid– not to mention the rest of the class– to “buy into” hearing and reading others’ specialist vocab?

(As an English teacher, my first great reading realisation years ago came from my brilliant colleague Louise Hazemi, who in Surrey pioneered the use of literature circles for novel reading.  We used to have a “novel a year” system, where kids were assigned To Kill A Mockingbird in 10th grade, Lord of the Flies in 11th, etc.  The problem?  Most kids hated these books (either because they were “too hard,” or simply because they had been assigned), didn’t read them, cheated on tests and essays, etc.  So, at our school, we asked the kids what books they would like (and asked teachers) and for each grade bought 10 copies of 8 novels.  Now, the kids in each grade pick a novel to read (yes; we still offer Mockingbird and L.o.t.F.) and BOOM! all the kids read at least one novel, and all the kids report enjoying their reading (they still do essays, discussions etc about their chosen novel).

It is much the same with silent reading.  I start each English and Social Justice class with 20 minutes of silent reading.  There are three silent reading rules:

  1. You must read a book (no newspapers or magazines) and not talk, listen to music, or use your phone.
  2. You must not read anything from any class during silent reading.
  3. Your book must not suck.  If it does, get another one.

How does it work?  Brilliantly.  While my less-literate boys grumble at the start of the year, after a week every kid reads and every kid likes reading.  Probably two-thirds of kids read young adult novels, while another third prefer things like biographies, how-to books, various factual genres, self-help, etc.  This is because they choose things that are interesting (and readable) to them and because there is no “accountability piece.”  No “book report” marks, reading logs, etc.  As long as they are reading and enjoying their reading, I am happy.

Now at this point I can see Madame Nero (and any other person who shares her view about how to personalise the language class) saying “Exactly!  Let language kids do the same thing! Let them decide!” However, the key here is that nobody is forcing the kids to learn/acquire things which they are not interested in.  Kids like free reading because it’s free:  they aren’t forced into something they don’t care about.)

Third, there is the quantity of input problem.  We know that what people acquire is a function of how much comprehensible input they get.  They need to hear the words or structures a lot to first recognise them automatically, and even more to be able to automatically say them.  So if we are going to run our class around student-identified student interests, how do we deliver 30 different sets of vocab often enough that the kids– even if they want to, which we are not guaranteed– pick them up?

Say each kid gets to decide 5 words germane to their interests which they want to have incorporated into class activities.  That’s 150 words.  That’s half of a year’s recommended vocab load right there!  As we very well know, it’s simple math:  the greater a variety of vocab we use, the less time we have on each word which means poorer acquisition of each word. As the great Terry Waltz recently noted, if you want the kids to acquire more words, teach fewer words. There is also the challenge of integrating specialist vocabulary into teacher-planned activity.

Fourth, we have the output problem.  In many traditional classes, it is assumed– wrongly– that if kids “learn” vocab (and grammar) and present it in some way, they are picking it up.  This is simply wrong, as the research shows.  And, learners by definition generate error-filled and impoverished (two-dimensional) output.  I do not see the point of making other learners listen to that.  As Terry Waltz has famously said– with Stephen Krashen agreeing– “peer to peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching.”

This is what is supposed to happen in a “communicative classroom (here, two Vietnamese speakers are learning English):

Thanh: Where Michael today? He here?

Vien: Where is Michael today?  He is not here.

Thanh: Ahh, yes, where is Michael today?  He is not here.

Here, Vien– who is also learning English– is supposed to notice Thanh’s error, “remodel it” properly, so Thanh can fix his output.  Now, here is what would actually happen:

Thanh: Where Michael today?  He here?

Vien: Michael home.  He not here.

Thanh: Ah, yes, Michael home.

Even though Vien and Thanh want to learn English, and are working away at it, they will inevitably produce poor output (for a variety of reasons).  So the ideal situation described above generally does not happen with two learners.  If Thanh’s interlocutor was a native (or very competent) English speaker, this communicative activity would probably work.

Fifth, there is the dictionary/Internet problem.   As soon as the kids want to generate their own vocab, we know what they do:  they fire it into Google translate, and we know the results.  So it becomes the teacher’s job to edit word lists, activities, presentations, rehearsed dialogues, etc.  I don’t know about you, but that’s boring and often I am myself scrambling to figure out how to say _____ in Spanish.

So, if our goal is to deliver a ton of compelling and multidimensional high-frequency language, and to repeat that language over and over so students hear it often enough that it gets wired in, the “choose your own topic” idea won’t work.   But the question remains, how do we personalise vocabulary and maintain student interest? 

One answer involves using the world’s oldest and most-proven teaching method;  stories.  Everybody likes a story, because we naturally find people and their hopes, problems etc more interesting than things or ideas, and because suspense– what happens to ____?— is another universal hook.  Stories are always more interesting than any other kind of input.  Everyone can relate to basic human questions such as wanting to have ___, being scared of ____, liking/disliking someone, etc.

In T.P.R.S., our use of parallel characters and parallel problems allows us tremendous room for personalisation.  If we’re working on esperaba que ____ le explicara… (“s/he hoped that _____ would explain…”), say, I can have a boy who wants to have the mysteries of talking to girls explained to him (great topic for all teens: boys want info, girls will think it’s hilarious) and a girl who wants to have say Call of Duty explained to her.  (Stereotypes are great to play around with).  This works even better when we know students, and we can throw a kid (and their interests, from say our start-of-year questionnaire) into a story.   If we know Breleigh likes dogs, hates cats and looooves Ashton Kutcher, well, Breleigh eseperaba que Ashton Kutcher le explicara por qué no le gustaban los gatos.  Any half-decent storyteller can get the audience to empathise with or at least be interested in a character who is a bit different than they are.

Another answer involves recycling high-frequency vocabulary in a way that ackowledges student interests and preferences.  For a rank beginner, something like owning a specific kind of pet, or liking or disliking any kind of thing or activity is a great start.  In my first story, Los Gatos Azules, a boy wants to own ten blue cats.  So, we personalise by asking the students the same questions we ask our actors:

Here’s an example from my Level 1 class:

Me: Ace, ¿tienes un perro?  Do you have a dog?

Ace: No.

Me: ¿Tienes un gato? Do you have a cat?

Ace: No tengo gato. I don’t have a cat.

Me: ¿Te gustan los gatos o los perros? A mí (pointing at myself), me gustan MUCHO los gatos. Do you like cats or dogs?  Me, I REALLY like cats.

Ace: Me gustan los gatos. I like cats.

Me: Clase, levanta las manos si te gustan los gatos. (half of class raises hands, so I point at a kid who didn’t). Mandeep, ¿te gustan los gatos? Mandeep, do you like cats?

Mandeep: No.

Me: What did I just ask you?

Mandeep: Do you like cats?

Me:  Mandeep, los gatos– ¿Son simpáticos, o no son simpáticos? Cats– are they nice, or not nice?

Mandeep: No.

Me:  ¿Los gatos no son simpáticos? Cats aren’t nice?

Mandeep:  No.

Me: Class, what did Mandeep just say?

Class: Cats aren’t nice.

So, here we have some personalisation: the kids are explaining their opinion about cats and dogs.  This is basic stuff.  (Note:  I am not expecting any output other than y/n here (though if the students want to say more, they can).  My only aims are that they understand what is being said and that they can connect the vocab to their selves or interests.

Here is a level 2 example of personalisation. In the story we are doing, a Dad is chewing his kids out for not having done homework and chores.  So we are acquiring what did you do? and I prefered, etc.  In the story, Dad asks his kid “What did you do last night?” and she says “I went to Cabo San Lucas and talked for 9 hours with Dave Franco.”  Dad asks “Did you do your homework?” and she says “No, I didn’t, Dave did it.”

All we have to do in P.Q.A.– personalised questions and answers– is ask kids in class the same questions we ask our actors.

Me: Breleigh, ¿que hiciste anoche?  What did you do last night?

Breleigh: No hice nada porque tenía que estudiar. I didn’t do anything cos I had to study

M: ¿Qué estudiaste anoche? What did you study last night?

B: Estudié la biología. I studied bio.

M: ¿Qué querías hacer anoche: estudiar, o bailar? What did you want to do last night: study, or dance?

B: Quería bailar. I wanted to dance.

M: John, ¿qué prefieres hacer tú– bailar, o jugar Call of Duty?  What do you prefer to do: dance, or play C.o.D.?

J: Prefiero jugar C.o.D. porque es más interesante. I prefer to play C.o.D. cos it’s more interesting.

We can get an immense amount of mileage out of a fairly limited range of vocab, as you can see.  If we throw in some weird stuff, we can get a zillion more miles.  For example, I could ask Breleigh if she likes elephants (free cognate) more than cats.  If she says yes, we’re off: do you own an elephant?  what is a good name for an elephant?  etc etc. These details can serve in stories, and they are great for random “review” P.Q.A.

Now, these are simple examples, and I hope you’re seeing the point:  we can personalise without getting into specialist vocab.  Not every kid is into Call of Duty (or chess, or ballet, or gangster rap, or Peruvian food, or French culture), but a teacher who is willing to listen to kids will figure out what people have opinions about and get them to express those.

The teacher’s job in part is to explore student interests, but also to make the language classroom functional (comprehensible and interesting) for everyone, so sometimes you have to say “sorry, Johnny, that’s too complicated” or “nobody else is interested in that, sorry.”

Personalisation: people basically want their interests and selves acknowledged.  If Johnny says “I prefer C.o.D. to ballet” and Suzy “God, I hate cats,” that is good personalisation.  We acknowledge their interests and views, and we give them what they need: an ocean of repetition on limited vocab, varied by context, cognates and sometimes wacky fun stuff.

So, in a nutshell, to personalise properly:

  • avoid having students generate lists of words
  • avoid making students listen to/read low-frequency specialist vocabulary
  • connect students with high-frequency vocab by soliciting their opinions, or info about them
  • use stories and ask students the same questions as you ask actors
  • integrate students– or info about their real (or imagined) selves– into stories

NOTE: Teachers in an immersion environment are going to be able to use more vocab than the rest of us, and there is therefore going to be more finely-tuned personalisation, and at serior Immersion levels there will be way more room for vocab personalisation.  But for most of us…keep it simple is the way to go.