Program Assessment

The Curriculum That Actually Works For Everyone

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




T.P.R.S. or…whatever? More Evidence for the Effectiveness of Comprehensible Input

I have documented TPRS kids’ success in the past (see this) but today we are in for a different kind of treat: we are going to look first at what top students can do with traditional methods (forced output, grammar practice, word lists, memorisation, etc) and then with comprehensible input.

Today, totally by accident, I found my old Spanish 2 binder from when I was a traditional methods teacher using the ¡Juntos Dos! program.  One of my old Level 2 final projects was to create a children’s book.  The kids generally used themselves as characters.   This story was written by Nuvjit S.

Nuvjit was a keen language learner in high school, and has since then acquired Japanese. She was the top student in Spanish in her year.   For this project, the kids got editing help from me, they could use dictionaries, etc. Here is Nuvjit’s children’s book. This was the best project of its kind that I got that year.  So take a look at what I was able to get done with traditional methods.  This is second year Spanish.


Now, let’s take a look at what a kid taught with only comprehensible input methods can do.

This is Neha D.’s story. She is one of the top five or six students from this year.  This was done today, in 50 minutes, with no notes or dictionary.  First draft.  No editing.  Neha is Nuvjit, ten years later, with  Spanish teaching based on what we know the brain needs to acquire language: tons of compelling comprehensible input, in aural and written form.

Neha has never seen a grammar worksheet, a verb conjugation table or an explanation of how the pretérito  differs from the imperfecto.  She has never had her work corrected, and she has never “reflected on her learning,” or fiddled with a portfolio.  She probably can’t even tell you what a verb is and she has never heard the word “conjugate.”

This is first year Spanish.


So…it’s pretty obvious which method works better…for me, and for these students.  Your mileage may vary.

Now let me also be clear here:  I was a pretty bad communicative teacher.  I didn’t get good results (well, I couldn’t get my kids to have awesome results).  There were– and are– loads of people better than me in that tradition.  So I am pretty sure that any number of people could have gotten better results.  I’m also at best a slowly-improving T.P.R.S. practitioner, and there are loads of people who get better results than me.

This however is also my post’s silver lining:  if I was a bad “communicative” teacher and I’m a marginal (but improving) T.P.R.S. practitioner, my kids are getting more out of the class with T.P.R.S.

At bottom, I don’t attribute Neha’s success to me being smart or a good teacher, or to how funny I am– err, try to be– etc.  Neha and her classmates’ success ultimately stems from T.P.R.S., Movietalk, etc, allowing us to remain comprehensibly in the target language for huuuuuge amounts of time.

Two Kids Talk About Language Classes

Two of my students, Ace and Kavi, are in my English 11 class and I also have Ace in Spanish.  Both are very bright. Kavi takes French and Ace bailed out of French into Spanish. 

One day in June they were both in my room after school, finishing English projects, and they were talking about language class. 

Kavi: So you have Stolz for Spanish. How is it?

Ace: It’s easy. Just listen and read and you pick it up. I got an A both years. 

Kavi: French is hard. I can’t get an A. 

Ace: You’re not a dumbass. 

Me: Yeah, Kavi. You have good work habits. 

Kavi: Three things. They just keep adding rules.  So it keeps on getting harder to remember all the rules. It’s also confusing.  Part of the rules thing.  Also I get bored.  They make you talk about boring crap like buying groceries and they make you do these tests where it is all grammar. 

Now, I’m probably the worst T.P.R.S. teacher in the world. I mean, my dog could probably do TPRS as well as me.  So this is a beacon of hope for, well, all languages teachers: if I can pull of TPRS, anyone can.  I’m the dummest guyy in the roomm and I experienced success with this thanks to Blaine Ray. 

Go forth and try it, people, go forth. 

What does good language teaching look like? The Ten Principles for ALL language teachers

Today’s question is “What does good language teaching– regardless of method– look like?”

Here are criteria.  Comments welcome!

1) The class delivers a LOT of aural and written comprehensible input, supported where necessary with translation, images, acting, gestures and whatever makes the input comprehensible.  Input is:

  • always comprehensible
  • quality, and not generated by (error-making) learners
  • compelling (this will vary with class, age, culture etc)
  • delivered via progress along frequency lists (more-frequently used vocab is taught before less frequently used)
  • not impoverished: it does not overfocus on one grammatical/vocabulary rule or grouping, and it does not leave out any elements of the language’s grammar
  • repeated frequently without being boring

2) Both input and class are personalised.  The teacher will make an ongoing effort to get students to understand and respond to vocabulary in ways which reflect students’ interests, identities (real and/or imagined) and views.

3)  Grammar— the rules and conventions of language as traditionally understood by teachers and texts–

  • is briefly mentioned only to clarify meaning
  • does not form the goal, organisational system or focus of instruction
  • is not practiced through drills, worksheets, songs, etc, because research shows these ineffective

4)  Instruction primarily focuses on immersing learners in comprehending compelling meaning in the target language.  This means that portfolio-work-revision, correction, grammar concept explanations and mind-mapping, feedback, focus on teacher-or-text-driven ideas about “cultural relevance,” etc are avoided.

5)  Output has the following characteristics:

  • it is always unrehearsed and unforced
  • it has no goal other than immediately authentic conversation (no role plays, etc; scripted activities such as A.I.M. or T.P.R.S.-style stories provide input for other learners)
  • the learner, and not the teacher, chooses the level of output they are comfortable with, from yes/no answers to essays

6) The classroom is safe and welcoming.  The classroom should not make anyone feel uncomfortable or self-conscious.  The minimum behaviour standards are that students

  • listen and read with the intent to understand, and avoid focus on distractions
  • do not distract anyone in class
  • signal comprehension or a lack thereof

7)  Instruction recognises the unchangeability of (and tremendous variation between students’ progress along) internal linguistic syllabi.  Instruction therefore delivers an always-rich, non-impoverished diet of comprehensible language, so that

  • neural architecture constantly builds
  • learners consistently have exposure to whatever they need
  • learners can acquire new items or rules when they are ready, because “everything is present in the mix” (Susan Gross).

8)  Instruction and assessment avoid

  • explicit goals
  • “I can” or any other kind of language-narrowing statements
  • textbook-style, discrete-item sequencing, presentation and assessment of grammar and vocabulary

9) Evaluation only involves meaningful, multi-dimensional language tasks (reading, writing, listening and speaking) which are in-context authentic and holistic.  Evaluation therefore avoids legacy practices such as grammar-item tests, vocabulary quizzes, “show me you can do this real-world dialogue”-style talking activities, etc.

10) Level-to-level attrition rates, marks variability and failure rates are all low, and special-needs students succeeed int he class.  In other words, people who start taking the language keep on taking it, the difference between higher and lower marks is minimal, and scores are high.

(11)  The teacher  modifies practice if something better comes along, or current practice does not work for students.

OK.  Ça va?  ¿Sirve?  Geht’s?  If these statements describe us, our classes and our students, we are doing everything right.