C.O.F.L.T./W.A.F.L.T. 2016 

C.O.F.L.T. and W.A.F.L.T. under the conference leadership of energy ball Tina Hargaden jointly put their annual gig on in Portland.  I got to meet, well, a zillion interesting languages teachers and a few luminaries, and sit in on a load of workshops, oh and enjoy the rain, epic Mexican food and arguments about gluten-free diets. So here’s my notes in zero discernable order.

First, we got a TPR demo from the glowing Karen Rowan.  Total Physical Response– revived and popularised by James Asher in the late 1960s (he did not invent it)– is basically, the teacher says and does an action, and then students do the action while the teacher says it.   T.P.R. has its advantages: it’s easy, fast, memory-sticky and fun. Its disadvantages: it gets old really quickly, it’s basically limited to command forms, and what is “TPR-able” tends to be low-frequency vocab (eg touches, walks, hand, eye etc).

Rowan threw down some good reminders: we aren’t teaching all you teachers here just a method, but mostly a way to meaningfully connect with students and we are always trying to keep everything 100% comprehensible even though we can’t always do that.

Now if caffeine is available, your odds of running into one Dr Stephen Krashen are higher than they would be if you went to, say, a Donald Trump rally (not that Trump would come to Oregon– he would be murdered by people hurling artisanal tofu at him).  And there was Himself, ordering literally 6 coffees for a crew which included one Dr Beniko Mason.

 For himself, Krashen ordered– and I quote– “a gigantic latte with extra espresso.” The good Doctor said hello in einem ausgezeichneten Deutsch and then threw down some Japanese to get Dr M. a cuppa Joe.

Now when you get to meet Dr K. you better have your questions ready.  Here are mine:

Me: So did you have any specific epiphanies on the way to developing the hypothesis that languages are acquired through getting comprehensible input?

Dr K.: Yes, two. One was in 1975 in New York when I was giving a presentation to language teachers.  There was a Japanese student of English there whose spoken English was not very advanced, yet her English writing was excellent.  And then it hit me that there were two systems operating here: the conscious and the implicit, and they either weren’t or were only minimally connected. 

The other was driving down the freeway in Pomona, when I asked myself “in what order should we teach words and grammar rules?” and I realized, it doesn’t matter, because the order of acquisition [of grammar “rules,” as has been confirmedis mostly fixed, and there is very little we can do to change them.

Me: so do you still lift?

Dr K.: OK let’s start that again, you should be saying “so I see you still lift.” ūüėČ

Me: Yes of course [he was wearing a huge baggy jacket and pants!] I can see you still lift.  When you won the press award, what did you weigh and lift?

Dr K.: I weighed 181 and I incline-pressed 285.

Me: Wow; cool you still lift.  May I ask how old you are?

Dr K.:  I’m 75.  But I read like an 80 year old.

Me: Well I’m 47 but I lift like I’m 10.ūüėú

Dr K.: [switches into German] Well, you’re on the uphill.

Me: [in German] Hey I loved that video of you doing C.I. in German.

Dr K.: See how much German you picked up from just five minutes of comprehensible input?



So after that bit of banter, Krashen wandered off under loads of coffees, muttering I’m going to find a piano, and there were more T.P.R. basics with Karen.  Here is one cool idea: dialogue bubbles!  Here are Lynn and Ethan acting a scene from Karen’s demo.  A great way to start with relative beginners.  Lynn’s reads “I want to touch your hand” and Ethan’s reads “with what?” ūüėČ

So then there was an epically varied lunch set out.

In the afternoon, C.I. offerings being as scant on the ground as Donald Trump in Oregon, I went to something I ended up hating: ” _______ In The Second Language Classroom.”  Here was the schedule:

  1.  10 minutes  “everybody say your name and where you teach and what brought you here”
  2. 15 min.  “OK everybody share with your group on thing related to ______ that you did recently”
  3. 15 min. “OK can each table report out to the whole room please”
  4. 15 min. the presenter showing us how to do two things which, basically, you learned when you yourself were in high school
  5. 10 min. feedback and fill out the form.

If you’re gonna present, plz a. have something to present, and b. if it’s a “sharing session” please CALL IT a sharing session, and c. we want to learn things other than each others’ names.

That evening after Mexican with my teaching BFF Sarah-Beth, it was the COFLT/WAFLT social where I got to finally meet Mike Coxon and Karen Rowan.  I had made some offhand online comment about “Karen if ever I meet you, beers are on me” so the cunning Karen had me buying her evening’s worth of drinks (two whole glasses). She likes red wine, can’t remember what kind. Also present was Von Ray who is this mass of warm vibes just like his Dad but not drinking:  the Rays are L.D.S. folk.  Then appeared Martina Bex and her husband.  Bex, who has four kids under 5 (she left them with Oma in Alaska) AND who publishes non-stop, was presenting Sat, but tonight was Date Night and hubby Matt hung around while Bex made precisely one tour of the room before whisking her off to kid-free cocktails YOU GO GIRL.

Then appeared Carol Gaab who at 4’11” you have to look carefully for but OMG what an energy ball, first ppl she is 32 not 52, second she is a grandmother (how do grannies look 32?), third she has the most solid sage advice on anything you can imagine and fourth Gaab has a remarkable quality of fusing public principles, private beliefs and personality, etc, into one package.  You always feel when talking to Carol that you are getting the full meal deal.  Gaab’s point from her #iflt2014 session: it is quite possible– indeed easy– to do higher-level thinking even with beginners. Women are superhuman, basically, is what I realised AGAIN watching the energy-tornado Gaab, Supermom Bex and multi-tasker Rowan.

Friday the Philipines had extra rain so they sent it over.  Now it was time to see Dr Beniko Mason‘s presentation about free voluntary reading (FVR)  and story listening in the 2nd language class.  I’m gonna sum it up quick:

  1. Mason has experimented with having  her Japanese-speaking students do a ton of self-selected reading in English, and write occasional summaries in Japanese (L1).  At the end of this process, she found that despite having not “practised” English writing, their writing was much improved.  She speculates that this is because when they are summarising in Japanese, they are focused on reading (processing) the English and don’t worry about English writing, so they absorb more.  [edit: Mason clarified that it was not the Japanese writing per se that improved acquisition, but rather that it was the English input]. Bill VanPatten has also replaced writing exercises with processing exercises in his Spanish classes.  Students get the individual sentences from a story, and have to read and order them, √† la Textivate).

2. She had students who had failed English 1 classes at Japanese universities who spent one semester in her class doing only FVR and listening in English.  These students outperformed the second-year students of English who had passed English !!

3. Mason discussed how she uses folktales translated into English.  She said she is not a huge user of props, actors etc (partly cos Japanese kids are trained to sit and listen) but prefers reading and asking questions, which her students seemed to enjoy.  Here’s  Claire Ensor’s intro to how to do story-listening.  Insofar is it is possible to measure…

4. …FVR seems to double the rate of acquisition of language by direct instruction or other non-C.I. classroom practice.  

5. [edit: Mason also mentioned how corrective feedback did not do anything to improve acquisition of English.]

The vendors’ area was interesting: in one room you had vendors like these side-by-side.  The language teaching world in microcosm: weird new-wavish (and fun, and effective) on the left (that’s Mike Coxon and Von Ray), and tradition on the right.

In the background of C.O.F.L.T. was the debate on targeted vs. untargeted input. Basically, how much control over the story vocab— and not just the details as in classical T.P.R.S.– should the kids have?  Ben Slavic, Tina Hargden and others have been experimenting with 100% student-generated stories and love it.  Others, such as me, were initially somewhat skeptical.  So it was cool to hear Mike Coxon and Von Ray and whoever stopped by their or Carol Gaab’s table to argue the this way and that.  And then Mike said, “this is amazing…we’re arguing like we always do about teaching…but we’re arguing C.I. methods vs other C.I. methods, rather than C.I. versus other approaches.”

One of the things I love about the C.I. world is what Blaine Ray has repeatedly said:  “if we find something that works as well, or better, we add it to T.P.R.S., or we change T.P.R.S.”


L-R: Karen Rowan, some guy, Terry Waltz, Martina Bex and Craig Sheehy

Terry Waltz was passing through so she got railroaded into coming and hanging out.  Of course I have been fanboying away to meet all these people, and there was Terry, ripping along in fluent Mandarin with a crew of Chinese teachers.  After I said hello, we chatted:

Me: OMG so you can speak 13 languages?  OMG

Terry: Well, I can get into trouble in 13, but I can only get out of trouble in about 7 



Terry’s T.P.R.S. With Chinese Characteristics is being translated into written Chinese.  Terry told me that this had proven a bit of work, as somebody either knows killer Mandarin but not T.P.R.S. well enough, or they know killer T.P.R.S. and not Mandarin well enough.  Classic translation problem in any field.  I also thought, translation is a good idea, because there is something authoritative about the heft of a book in your own language, plus you can spend your time going back, re-reading, re-thinking, etc.  T.P.R.S. is work to master; in Chinese, you have additional steps and tricks (e.g. cold character reading) cos the language is not written phonetically and it has zero cognates.  It will be very helpful for Chinese-literate teachers to have these tricks in the language they are teaching.

Terry also made remarks about Chinese teaching culture, to the effect that books still carry a weight of authority about them in a way they don’t in North America.  E.g. you can officially learn via webinars, blog reading, group Skype lessons etc in North America but the Chinese– with their 4,000 year old tradition of literacy– still like books as authorities.

Note the amount of brain power in that pic, minus the random guy.  Karen and Terry are legendary disagree-ers and have generated some amazing discussions about everything from targeting to method labels to the value of output.  Sometimes, when you hear them discussing C.I., you imagine this:

but then when they talk in person it’s more like this:

OMG awieeee OMG

ANYway, the targeting debate came up again, and some of the points raised included

  • if you want to train a newish T.P.R.S. teacher, is it not easiest to start with structured stories so they have one less thing to think about while learning to slow, circle etc?
  • will kids “choose” low-freq vocab if you let them decide whatever they want?
  • how do you support untargeted stories with writing (eg novels)…do you simply write up what each class came up with each time? (cool, but lots of work)
  • Terry brought up some solid points re: Mason’s research, noting that the Japanese students reading English had a massive foundation on which additional English input scaffolded and that it was not necessarily best practice for Level 1 and 2 students in any L2 to just read a ton.

No, I do not have any answers heh heh.

The human buffet continued:  next I got to meet the smart, funny, articulate, determined (oh and gorgeous) Claire Ensor come all the way from Tennessee.  Here’s Claire and Dr. K:

Claire is cool.  She teaches E.S.L. and is going to do her PhD in S.L.A.  She is interested in untargeted input, and how poverty affects S.L.A., and a million other things.  How awesome is that, running a thesis idea past Dr K.?  Claire and a few of us discussed her research project idea:  measuring acquisition gains through comparing story listening with FVR and “standard” TPRS…details to come when the experimental design gets hammered out.

So Friday late aft was Dr K. showing & discussing C.I. case studies and other, more general educational stuff. I’ll be brief:

  1. Mexican immigrant Armando worked at a Moroccan restaurant run by Moroccan Jews in L.A., and acquired enough Hebrew– via listening– that he fooled Israeli embassy staff and other Hebrew native speakers into thinking him a NS.  Krashen notes that he basically only listened, got unsheltered grammar, and got restricted vocab mostly focused around customer service, food, kitchen stuff and “hey what did you do last night?”-type routine conversation.
  2. Hungarian Kato Lomb acquired dozens of languages– starting at age 20– basically by reading books she liked and listening to whatever radio she could get.
  3. U.S.-born children of various immigrants who find interesting reading– in any format– in their parents’ language acquire and retain significantly more language than do other second-generation immigrants.  If you have native speakers in your class, get them to read.
  4. There is basically zero research showing that anything language-related that people do on a computer– other than read or watch understandable stuff they find interesting– helps anyone acquire a language.
  5. Because I stopped caring about Star Trek about the time Picard’s series got canned, I tuned out of the alien languages discussion but apparently Arrival is worth a watch.
  6. Ok modify that, I watched Arrival and I hated how it pretended to be deep bla bla, however, the aliens and their writing were cool.

Saturday morning was Tina Hargaden showing us in French how to use “the Invisibles”:

Basically, this is what you do for The Invisibles:

  1. The kids invent a character– a talking potato, a doll, a human, whatever.
  2. The class artist draws the character while it’s being developed.
  3. The class invents one or two more.
  4. You show the class the drawings and circle a bit.
  5. Then the kids make up a story about them.  You can have kids holding the (in)Visibles and doing the dialogue or teacher can do the dialogue.
  6. There has been argument: should teacher have a plan re: grammar and vocab (a list of “structures”), or should kids run the narrative show?  Dunno…as long as you restrict the vocab, get loads of reps, and keep it comprehensible, it doesn’t really matter.
  7. You provide some kind of reading once the story has been asked.  The challenge with the Invisibles is, if the stories are newly-made every time, you have to write each one up which takes a lot of time but also it’s customised for each class.

Saturday afternoon was Bex-a-rama.  Martina’s Herculean task: show us how to use “authentic documents” in the language classroom.  Nobody– including Bex herself– has been able to convince me its realistically possible– or worthwhile– to use things made by and for native speakers in a language class, but by golly did Martina ever come close.

The gist of it is this: you have to use something that has as few words as possible (songs and short newscasts/articles best), that repeats the words as much as possible, and you have to not focus on all the words, and go for general rather than specific meaning.

I personally don’t buy it, but Martina is super-helpful for teachers who are forced to “use authentic documents” by Adminz or Textz that don’t get S.L.A.  If you must use # authres, Bex’s plan is where you start.

Finally, in the evening I managed to round up most of the cool kids and convince them to let me tag along, and we went for beers and dinner.  Dr Beniko Mason speaks killer German (better than mine anyway) and Krashen can throw down pretty good in prolly six.  He is enjoying Aramaic (what Jesus spoke; still used today) but griped about troubles finding people to acquire from.  So here is the random good stuff from Dr K, Dr M, and a fascinating crew of teachers.

  1. Krashen studied classical piano for a bit when younger (and still plays).  For him a major breakthrough was the fake book.  These are simplified versions of complex music, most often jazz standards and now pop music.  These are the C.I. of music: they make something that’s too complex for beginners comprehensible and playable.  Just as you don’t start acquiring Blablabian by reading legendary Blablabian writer J√įkvar Sqkv√įd’s 3,700-page opus “KrŇďy Hr√Ę B’n√Ņ√§ P√∂” with its 19 unreliable narrators and allusions to everything from Moby Dick to the Baghavad Gita to Taylor Swift longs, so we don’t start learning music with Rachmaninoff concertos. 
  2.  Mason: she acquired a LOT of her very excellent German in Germany not just from reading etc but from routine interactions.  If every time you go to the store you hear kann ich Ihnen mit etwas helfen? (literally “Can I you with something to help?”), you will first understand and then over a longer time pick up the “rules” behind this odd word order).  This is good C.I.: restricted vocab, unrestricted grammar, and useful repetition.

3. Mason: loves folktales (and simplified versions of Hollywood etc films) because if people know the story in advance, much of the decoding work has been done and the brain can focus on meaning. Mason does not do much T.P.R.S.-style co-creation but is 100% into stories.

4. Krashen: in music as in language, listening is the foundational pre-requisite.  He praised the Suzuki method, where students acquire music from songs, rather than songs/pieces from musical theory, as the C.I. of music.  In the Suzuki method, students first learn a super-simple song (say “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), and then gradually more complex pieces.  Sight reading comes much later, and musical theory last.  Man, I wished I’d learned piano this way: I started with sight reading at 6 years of age and I’ve been trying to un-learn classical habits ever since.  This echoes what Bill VanPatten wrote me when I asked him about language and music: “most of what is in a musician’s head does not get there from conscious learning and practice.”

5. Krashen reminded me of my Uncle Alan, who was sent to Jewish school 50 years ago in Montr√©al and who can to this day throw down a whole lotta Hebrew songs despite not having spoken it for years…because of music.  The kids were taught Hebrew hymns (?) and these were also discussed so Alan has a stock of Hebrew from which to draw. Music anchors this stuff in memory.  But does it help us acquire language?  Hmmm…I know that I remembered (and still do) a lot of French songs from French Immersion kindergarten.  I also know that I didn’t know what most meant until later, because we did a lot of singing and clapping but most of the lyrics were not explained.

6. I thought about my Muslim kids, who come (linguistically) in two varieties: those who have been forced to simply memorise the Qu’ran, and those who have memorised and learned meaning.  In some places– e.g. rural Somalia– simple Qu’ranic memorisation seems to be the norm and the imams appear to think that, gosh, the meaning of words will simply reveal themselves. These kids can say things in Arabic, and make sounds from written Arabic, but literally have no idea what they are saying.  In other places, the kids memorise bits of the Qu’ran, but also learn its meaning and discuss it.  These kids are the ones who can actually understand (and sometimes speak) Arabic.

Islamic religious instruction could be good C.I. if the Arabic’s meaning were made clear, the Qu’ran were presented in a compelling way, etc. The Qu’ran (which I have only read in English) uses a lot of classical liturgical tricks:  it repeats things a lot, it plays around with variations on sentences e.g. “Allah asks us to keep our houses clean.  Why does Allah ask us to keep clean houses?  Because a clean house…” when it takes up a topic, it restricts the vocabulary, it “circles” its thematic words, etc.

After bringing the Drs K. and M. back to their hotel, I went for locally-sourced, artisanal, organic, vegan, free-range, fair-trade craft beers with this pair of live wires, Elena Overvold and Tina Hargaden.

Elena is like 20 years younger than me which makes for super-cool intergenerational teacher talk.  We had a discussion about feminism applied in the classroom.  A few of the topics that came up:

  • there’s a lot of heterosexism built into many TPRS story scripts e.g. the girl obvs wants a boyfriend, the boy obvs wants a GF, etc, and…
  • …this is also an opportunity to “undo” this…through gender reversal, LBGTQ characters, surprise endings etc (“no, class, the girl didn’t want a boyfriend…she wanted a good book!“)
  • to what extent am I, a male teacher, being sexist when during PQA I say something like “I like Angelina Jolie”?  Elena pointed out that this could be interpreted two ways: I value her as a good-looking woman (and nothing more) or if given context as good-looking and an interesting human being, and…
  • …this point transfers over to the kids.  Say we do PQA (or stories) and we ask a student do you like ____? why? and the student answers because _____ is super hot!    Fair enough…appearance is the first thing that grabs our attention.  But we can– and probably should– also take it a step further by (even humorously) asking questions like is ____ a nice person?  do you like ____ because they are hot, smart, compassionate, or all three? etc.  We have the chance to remind kids that life (even their language-class-invented-personality lives) can be more complex than what popular culture often hands us.

Ok well that was COFLT/WAFLT. Great workshops, a fascinating crew of people, good food and Portland delivered on its rainputation.  I hope C.O.F.L.T. does another such conference and thanks to Ms and Mrs Mason, Krashen, Rowan, Waltz, Bex, Gaab, Hargaden etc for their contributions & workshops & willingness to sit and chat with all comers.

Ok here is a picture of some guy and Stephen Krashen.


More Notes on Feedback

Amy Lenord started a great Twitter discussion about how one encourages language learners to process language.  This eventually led to Martina Bex refering us to her excellent “I am a grammar geek” post, in which she talks about how much she loved– and found effective– the “red ink” from her Spanish profs in Uni. Bex and I very briefly discussed this.  (I will bet that when she has a spare moment– and she is a Mom again, congrats!– she’ll discuss this more.  Ha!)

Now, anyone who knows Bex knows that the basic deal with her is that what she wants done, she gets done.  Bex wants babies? Bex has four (at last count).  Bex wants to acquire Spanish?  Bex signs a months-long “no English” agreement with her room-mate!  Bex wants to master C.I.?  Bex does, in like two years of teaching.

So it is not surprising that she acquired a ton of Spanish in very short order in Uni. 

Again: she wanted, liked & felt she benefited from corrective feedback  in her Spanish classes. 

This raises two questions:  did the feedback she got actually help her, and, if so, why and how?

Well, let’s take Martina’s word for it, and say, sure, corrections and comments helped.  Now, how?

Well, suppose young Bex– or anyone else– wrote this on their Spanish 201 composition:

*  Ayer, yo fue al cine con mis amigos, y vimos una pel√≠cula.

This should be “yo fui,” and say her prof writes that on her paper.  Now, what happens next?

  1. Bex notes there is an error.
  2. Bex re-reds the sentence: yo fui al cine.

Most of our students will not even do #1.  Most will go straight to the mark, wondering  what did I get?  did I get an A?

Some will note, ok, there was an error.

A very few will re-read the corrected sentence, and maybe linger on it, in which case it is functioning as good comprehensible input (albeit not many repetitions).

So, why is the feedback working for Bex?  In my view, it is because

a. Bex is majorly motivated which means,

b. Bex wants feedback, and when she gets it,

c. the feedback provides comprehensible input.

Suppose the prof had written “ser takes an -i in the first-person singular.”  Would this have done Bex any good?  The research says no.  Maybe for Bex it did.  Maybe she went, hmm, yo fui al cine…

I was also recently talking to Adriana Ram√≠rez and Luce Arsenault about giving corrections in their Sp and Fr classes.  Both maintained that their kids got better as a reuslt of having to do corrections.  They havn’t obviously had time to do a controlled study, but we noted a few things:

  1.  Both have very motivated, mostly Asian and wealthy white kids, who have been hearing from their literate parents from Day 1 of school, memorise (for many Asian kids, who have had to learn zillions of Chinese characters before coming to and sometimes while in Canada), and edit (for wealthy white kids, whose parents are uber-literate, professional, etc).
  2. My kids– who are generally Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu-speaking, and have less-literate and generally non-English speaking parents, almost none of whom have any formal experience learning additional languages– have not been primed to memorise and relentlessly improve their work.  This is not to say that our parents do not value education– they do, very much– but it is to say that they have not “acquired” some of the academic habits that can sometimes for kids in language classes.

There is a simple lesson here:  unless people want feedback, and get it, and the feedback is comprehensible input, it is not going to do any good.

So the teacher should focus not on marking and correcting, but on relaxing and reading and being happy in their spare time, so when they show up in class, they have the energy and mood to provide good C.I.– in story asking or reading or MovieTalk form– for kids.  And kids should not be forced to correct work (although if they want to, why not?).  Rather, their work should be hearing C.I. in class, and– if they must have homework– reading or viewing comprehensible and interesting target-language stuff.




Paper Airplane Translation

This awesome, simple, zero-prep activity came to me via Martina Bex, from Jason Fritze originally, and was recommended by Victoria B.C. teacher Martha McKay. It was fun, physical and a great way to get through another reading of the story.

(Edits are at the bottom of this page)

If you have tried it, or changed anything, I would love to hear  about it. This is a post-story activity.  I.e., you have already asked a story, and your students have read the story (or a similar version of it), and they understand it. This is not for introducing new vocab. The story should be say 25-30 sentences so the kids have to actually read more than they write.

You have to use a story for this, as the whole thing depends on reading, predicting meaning, confirming meaning etc (order is essential).

  1. Divide students into teams of two. ¬†They make a “portmanteau name” for their group. ¬†E.g. if their names are Simrowdy and El Chapo, they become SimChapo or El Sim.
  2. Put half the teams on one side of the room, and half on the other.  There should be a no-go zone in the middle.
  3. Each group needs one printed copy of the story, one sheet of paper, and one pen or     pencil.
  4. Each team picks one sentence from anywhere in the story.
  5. Each team translates that sentence into English, writes it onto the sheet of paper, and then writes their portmanteau name.
  6. Each team then makes their sheet into a simple paper airplane, and throws it across the no-go zone to the other side.
  7. Each team picks up one airplane, unfolds it, and reads the sentence written there.
  8. They figure out what it means.  Then, they have to find it in the target language in the story.
  9. Each team then picks another sentence that comes  within 1-3 sentences after the one they have just read, translates into English, writes it down, signs their group name, and throws across the no-go zone.
  10. If an airplane doesn’t make it across the no-go zone, the throwers have to retrieve it by picking it up…but they cannot use their hands, heh heh, and then they throw it again.
  11. If the sentence they read is at the end of the story, they can make their next sentence the beginning.

The objective is to read and translate as much as possible.

I assessed (reading category) very simply. ¬†I collected the airplanes after about 25 min. ¬†There were 13 teams = 13 airplanes. ¬†I got the kids to unfold the airplanes, we laid them out in a row, and I told each team to count the number of sentences they had written, and come and ¬†tell me. ¬†The differences between the speedy kids and the slower ones was not very great. E.g. Manta had 11 and Anbas had 9. ¬†I probably won’t assess next time.

I don’t think you actually need to mark this if the kids are engaged (but I tell them I am going to because a few need the er-hem “focusing power” of the grade). ¬†The kids liked it. ¬†I figure this takes 20-30 min.

Some variation/additional ideas from other teachers: 

  • write directions on board in target language
  • put one person (start with teacher) in the middle of the room, all kids throw their airplane at the person, they they scramble to pick up a plane not theirs (Alina Filipescu’s idea)
  • make them do one simple line drawing to go with each sentence (e.g. a stick man holding a stick dog– quick & easy)


What I would do differently next time.

  1. I would make each pair of kids throw to the same set of kids.  E.g. Marya and Minali will be exchanging airplanes only with Hassan and Jaskarn. This will keep people more focused.
  2. If the plane lands in the no-go zone, it has to be retrieved without using hands or feet.  heh heh
  3. Make sure that the same sentence is not written twice on each airplane.
  4. I would use TL vocab:  make, throw, pick up, write, airplane.

Talking Without Understanding

I was at Steve and Kim’s last Saturday, and when their kids’ bedtime came, Uncle Stolzie got the chance to read to Jasper, 4, from his new book, while the parents put Calder (20 months) to bed.

So we snuggled up on the couch and I started reading the book. ¬†I’m a pretty good reader: ¬†I can do different voices and accents, and I’m verbally quick. ¬†I would read a paragraph or two, and Jasper would ask questions about the pictures. He liked the reading. ¬†After about twenty minutes, Jasper was sleepyheaded and off to bed.

And then I realised that¬†I had no idea what I’d just read. ¬†I was so focused on the reading, voices, dialogue, going slow, etc, that the story itself eluded me. ¬†I know there was a squirrel and a toad, and that was about it.

So it made me think about language performance. ¬†If we make kids read aloud, how much do they actually understand? ¬†Can you speak a foreign language– in my case, a totally new book– and know what you are saying? ¬†Can you read and speak well, and sound good, and not know what you’re doing? ¬†Does output help us learn things? ¬† When we “get through” a performance, have we experienced something like what a reader or viewer has?

I’ve been playing Irish music for ten years now. ¬†So how do you learn? ¬†Well, primarily you listen. ¬†Irish music is played in sets. ¬† A reel will have an A part (played twice) and a B part (ditto). ¬†The whole thing is played three times, then you jump directly into the next tune, then another, etc. ¬†The music repeats a fair bit, so you have many chances to pick it up.

When I go to sessions or festivals, I see people hear a tune (from teacher or session group), use Tunepal or Shazam to identify it, then look up the sheet music, and then start playing along.  I wonder why.  Until you know the tuneРi.e. you can hum or whistle itРthere is very little point in playing.  And the only way you can really learn a tune is by listening.  Yes, you have to practice, because making music with mouth and fingers, unlike speech, is not something the brain is prewired to do.

Learning tunes by playing is like learning a language by talking: sure, you’ll pick something up. ¬†But it will be slow, and you’ll be so busy working on sounds and notes that you won’t really process what you’re hearing.


Why don’t immigrants’ kids properly acquire their parents’ language?

My colleague Rome Lacvrencic, head of the B.C. Association of Teachers of Modern Languages, and I had an interesting Twitter discussion recently. 

Lavrencic, of Polish extraction, heard some Polish at home in Ontario, Canada, English everywhere, and was in late French Immersion. By the end of Grade 12, he says he was “more proficient in L3 than L1.”  He attributes this to being able to speak more French than Polish. 

 This  is a familiar refrain: “I used to be good at ____ but now I don’t speak it much so I’m bad at it.”

This was where I disagreed. I told him that speaking wasn’t the point, but that listening was.  

So I thought I’d take a look at this via numbers and my own experiences. 

My L1 was German.  I heard it at home a lot until Grade One, and much less after Grade Four, when my cousin Sig came to live with us.  Sig spoke Spanish, French and English, so English it was at home. 

Now, when I speak German, I sound like a five-year-old from 1963. I hear my folks speak German but that’s about my only exposure. And I suck at German. When I am around German speakers, I understand a ton but I can say much less than I understand. 

In terms of input, mine dropped to close to zero at age 9. Lavrencic went through a roughly similar process: Polish dropped off but French input massively upped.  My guess is that he (and anyone else in his shoes) would get 5-6 hours daily of French input at school, plus homework (reading) while in Polish (like me in German) would have gotten maybe an hour or two.  

Lavrencic took French in Uni and also teaches it so he’s obviously super-proficient.  

In my view, Lavrencic is bringing up the problem of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this), also known as the correlation vs causation problem. There was speaking and input, then there was acquisition.  The acquisition happened after both the speaking and input. Was it therefore because of the speaking? 

The research says it’s the input. Terry Waltz recently remarked, echoing Krashen, that there are loads of cases of people acquiring languages without speaking them. The deaf who do not get speech training are one. As we all know, when we start acquiring a  language, we go through Krashen’s “silent period” where we understand more and more but our speaking lags.  It is also well-known that babies as young as a few days have begun understanding some aspects of language 8 months prior to even single words emerging. 

Recently on Yahoo this topic came up and master teacher Hai Yun Lu weighed in. She’s Chinese, married an American, and wants her kid to acquire Chinese. Check it:

“I have raised my son to be bilingual. There are many rules and  practices we have implemented at home in order for this to happen. After my son was born, a college professor visited me and shared research she had read. If I wanted to raise a bilingual child, then his second language input needed to be minimal 30% of his total language input (I wish I could find this actual research to share with everyone).

Let’s say, if his waking/alert time is 14 hours a day. 8-9 hours in daycare = English input. He has about 5 hours at home with us. Listening to me speaking Chinese to him, his father speaking English with him and his parents conversing in English. Of course, on the weekends/holidays, he gets more Chinese input. Still, we can barely meet the minimal input amount. Therefore, rules have come into place in our house. Each time we go back to visit China, first and most, we carry a suitcase full children books back for him. (Richard Scary’s collections, Curious Gorge, Clifford…) I only read to him in Chinese, even with an English book [she means, she reads the words to herself silently in English but says them in Chinese].

We rarely turn on TV before he goes to bed. If he’s interested in watching some cartoons, I do whatever I can to get them in Chinese. Therefore, he watches his favorite cartoons in Chinese (e.g Thomas and Friends, Disney films, Curious Gorge, Magic Flute’s Adventure). The majority of his playmates have been Chinese-speaking kids until this spring. He has developed close friendships in JK, where we have finally “extended” our friends circle.

My son is one of the very few kids who can speak Chinese fluently, in comparison to the kids in a similar situation. Many people complain to me that their kids understand their languages, but only speak back in English. I always say “input” proceeds “output”. They need more comprehensible input before they can output. (Here I have left out some psychological factors such as the desire to “fit in”, which typically occurs once when kids start school and they start to refuse to speak their parents’ languages.)

Many of my son’s friends’ parents are very eager to have their children to speak Chinese, and they keep saying to me: “just speak Chinese to my child, I hope we will be able to speak.” It hasn’t worked for any of his friends yet, because what we can say to each other is incomprehensible to his friends, unless I want to turn a playdate into a Chinese lesson time.”

Haiyun Lu

The Power of Reading

On my way back from El Salvador, I ran into a Vancouver couple and we got to talking about language acquisition. ¬†Jackie is a grade 3 & 4 split French Immersion teacher, and her husband Jaques (originally from Quebec) is a paramedic. ¬†Here is what they had to say about the sheer power of what Stephen Krashen calls “free voluntary reading” (FVR).

Jackie said: ¬†Reading is as important as anything else she can do as a teacher. ¬†She has sets of readers in French. ¬†There are 15 “levels” (1 easiest, 15 hardest) and there are about 10 books/level. ¬†The kids pick their book, and every day they get 30 min to read. ¬†Initially, the kids have trouble picking appropriate books, but Jackie asks them questions about what they are reading. ¬†If a kid can’t explain what they are reading (i.e. the basics of plot and characters), she gets them to pick books from a level down. ¬†Once the kids generally know their reading level, they can pick books that work for them. ¬†Typically, they read most of the books from a level before they move on to the next level. ¬†Do they like FVR? ¬†Hell yeah! ¬†Jackie reports that the kids want to read, do read, and report liking reading.

Jackie interviews two kids/day about their reading. ¬†She asks them questions in French, and they can answers in as much French or English as they want (nice– no pressure to use the language). ¬†There are no marks assigned to FVR. ¬†There is no “accountability piece” or other edubabble/admin babble. ¬†The only things she expects are that the kids read, and understand.

Jackie also notes tremendous improvement in both writing and speaking French– generally within two months of the school year starting– as a result of the FVR program. ¬†I asked her how she knew the improved fluency, greater vocab, etc, came from reading, and she said “the kids are using words I havn’t taught them and they are using them appropriately.”

Jackie also commented that comic books– e.g. Garfield translated into French– were probably the best reading tools. ¬†Comics, in Jackie’s opinion, do¬†not— as Ujiie and Krashen have shown— replace other reading. ¬†(In my view, comics are the future of second-language reading. ¬†With visual support for text, story format, Q&A in present tense and narration in past, how could comics not work?)

I looked at Krashen’s summary of FVR benefits, issues, questions & research, etc, and I concluded that, in terms of FVR, ¬†Jackie¬†is doing everything right.

The bottom line?  Give kids lots of choice surrounding, and time to engage in, interesting free voluntary reading, and everyone will benefit.  We should also note that the benefits of reading work in both first and second languages.

Now, Jackie’s husband, Jaques, also had a bunch of interesting things to say about learning English:

— He got English for an hour a day from grade 1 to grade 10 in Quebec, but still couldn’t speak or write it. ¬†There was generally very heavy emphasis on grammar and writing, which he found both boring and useless.

— His favorite English teacher used music cloze exercises (listen to a song, read along, and fill in the occasional blank with what you hear), which Jaques liked.

— When he moved to B.C. at age 17, he had little $$ and spoke basically no English. ¬†So he taught himself by getting kids’ books from the Salvation Army (at first). ¬†Twenty-five cents got you a pile of books. ¬†As he got better at English, he read young adult/youth fiction, and eventually graduated to stuff like “Game of Thrones.” ¬†He was able to do his paramedic training in English with no problems. ¬†He also very much liked comics and read as many as he could. He said that comics were easy to understand (because of the visuals), and a great way to learn slang.

— He does easy crosswords but says that the cultural in-jokes of English make any harder puzzles (e.g. Globe and Mail) impossible.

— He said “When you read a new word in a book, you don’t get it, but if you know the words around it, you can guess what it means. ¬†And if you read it a hundred more times, you get a better idea about it. ¬†Then the next day you hear it on the street, and you get it, and then you have it in your head.”

In other news, we have a short blog summary of veteran and master T.P.R.S. teacher Joe Neilson being observed. This guy has been using T.P.R.S. thirty years and was the guy who pioneered fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1. ¬†Joe is probably the greatest living TPRS practitioner, and certainly among the very best languages teachers in the world. ¬†Anyway, of note here is what Joe does with novels: with very advanced (i.e. 4th and 5th year) students, he is doing “basic” novels like Pobre Ana— to provide a super-easy “input base”– but throwing in very high-level discussion. ¬†Read it here.

My own¬†recent¬†experience with reading: ¬†when I went to El Salvador, it quickly became obvious that I was rusty, very rusty, with Spanish. ¬†As my Mexican friend Mauricio put it in one of our trash-talking text convos, hablas como un pinche gringo maleducado. ¬†So I put myself to work: ¬†I read as much as I could of the newspaper every day (especially comics– I love comics), and I spent a LOT of time in markets, chatting in Spanish. ¬†My brain strained, and new words–gu√≠nda, guanaco, p√ļchica– came online.

On my second-last day in the country, I ran into Lucio “Chiyo” V√°squez, 43, a guy who ¬†at age 9 (yes, you read that correctly) joined the F.M.L.N. guerrillas in the fight against an American-backed right-wing asshole government which used voter suppression, poverty, death-squads, media manupulation, military aid, etc, and the usual bag of tricks to maintain a landed aristocracy in wealth and the other 95% of people in horrible poverty. ¬†Chiyo joined the guerrillas after American-trained death squads raped and killed his mother and sister, and tortured and killed three of his brothers and literally hundreds of his neighbours. ¬†As his Dad– still alive today at age 90– put it, “they killed those women like dogs. ¬†But they aren’t going to kill us like dogs. ¬†They’re going to kill us fighting.”

Chiyo became a soldier, then a radio operator for the F.M.L.N. ¬†Anyway, Chiyo had a guitar– a magnificent miked Fender classical given him by a German friend– and no case. My heart went out to that guitar, so I gave him $30 to buy a case, and he gave me a copy of his riveting autobiography,¬†Siete Gorriones, which I started reading on the plane home. ¬†There’s an interview with him about the book here

You could not make up the stuff in that book. ¬†From the insane battle scenes (a guerrilla loses both legs to machinegun fire, begs to be killed, but none of his compas can do it), to the horrifying details (e.g. women giving birth during the middle of mortar attacks), to the heartbreak (losing friends, or having to kill all of the dogs because they could not be trusted to be quiet when the guerrillas were evading military patrols) to the surrealism (Chiyo has always been fascinated with music, and had always wanted to play harmonica, and was delighted when a harmonica player joined his guerrilla brigade…but unfortunately, this guy played harmonica with his nose and so Chiyo understandably never got to try the guy’s harp…), this book is amazing.

So I’m 100 pages into the first book I have ever read in Spanish and it’s been an interesting experience. ¬†This is what I note:

—¬†it works (i.e. is interesting) because it is story-driven. ¬†There is a protagonist, there are clear problems, and there is very little “literary trickery” like interior monologues, multiple points of view, etc etc. ¬†I want to know¬†what happens next and that’s what he shows me. ¬†It’s good writing– Hemingwayesque in its simplicity but not merely lists of facts and events.

I know the context  so I can follow along (background knowledge activated).  A book like this would be impossible for someone who did not know the social and political context of the Salvadorean wars of liberation.

I am not getting all the vocab but I can still follow the story. ¬†When he discusses plants, birds and animals (very important to farmers and guerrillas), I am often a bit lost. ¬†However, the stuff comes back often enough that I am starting to pick it up. E.g. ¬†zopilotes I think must mean “vultures.” ¬†I am also picking up other vocab steadily. ¬†Ponerle la queja de ____ a ____¬†means “to complain about ___ to ____.” ¬†If I am wrong, big deal…with enough reading most of this sorts itself out.

grammar acquisition is scaffolding off of what I know. ¬†For example, I know that tomate and ma√≠z mean “tomato” and corn.” ¬†My guess:¬†the¬†-al ending in Spanish I think means “a place of,” so a¬†tomatal is a tomato plantation, and a¬†ma√≠cetal is a cornfield. ¬†How did I learn this? ¬†Simple– and it illustrates the power that comprehensible input has to “teach” us grammar:

a) he writes¬†fuimos al tomatal. ¬†“we went to tomato-something

b) he writes ibamos al ma√≠cetal y regres√°bamos con elotes:¬†“we would go to corn-something and come back with cobs of corn”

c)¬†-al gets used when the narrator goes somewhere, and where he goes seems to have edible/useful stuff growing there, so– enter hypothesis–¬†-al means “place of growing ____.”

Also I am slowly picking up the Salvadorean¬†vos which has a few weird tweaks– you say¬†vos habl√°s¬†and vos ten√©s where others would say t√ļ hablas¬† and¬†t√ļ tienes¬†(I think– it’s acquisitional early days and I could be wrong, but, again, whatever, I’ll pick it up eventually). ¬†What’s interesting is that this is¬†easy.

there is grammar which I have had explained to me which I still cannot use, or explain, but which I understand. ¬†I don’t get why they say things like¬†se me sali√≥ la babita cuando hab√≠a comida¬†(“I drooled/my mouth watered when there was food”). ¬†I get that¬†salirse means “to come out of” but why do you need the se? ¬†Why can’t you just say¬† me sali√≥ la babita? ¬†Whatever– I will eventually pick it up.

Ok people, there you go, the power of reading.

Marc F.’s questions about “after story” activities.

T.P.R.S. newbie Marc F. has switched over from the grammar grind and has some good questions about what to do after we ask¬†ask a¬†story. I’ll give my answers and maybe others can say their thing too in comments.

Marc writes:

I have been impressed with the re-writes that my students have been doing in the 10 minutes that I give them after we ask the story. I always write down any “out of bounds” words (although I try to keep them to a minimum) on the whiteboard and define them in L1 to establish meaning. Obviously, I also write the three (occasionally four) target structures as well. Do you leave the board as-is when the students do their re-write? I have been leaving everything up, as I believe that them seeing it as they write is just more repetitions and helps them establish meaning even more. Is this a good practice in your opinion?

Hells yea! There are a LOT of reasons why leaving vocab on the board is a great idea

A) the kids are still acquiring— both the retellers and the listeners– and reps = good.

B) you want brainpower going into processing (understanding) the language, not remembering how to say/write it (which is very difficult for beginners).   Output is hard and ideally we want to delay it as long as possible, and support it as much as possible.

C) they are self-conscious, so support will make it easier = happier, less stressed kids.

Second, I know that a part of the story cycle is to re-write the story that the class told, but sometimes with variations and more detail. Is this what is considered the embedded reading?

Sort of. An embedded reading has two basic defining properties:

(a) It is a basic story, and two (or more) progressively more complex versions of the same story  These stories recycle the vocab you used in  the asked version of the story.

(b) Each version contains all of the target structures, and you can add a few new words.

There is an English sample (from my workshops) here:¬†embedded reading 1 page summary. This should more or less clarify it.¬† The aim is basically “scaffolding:” you want to make people comfy with a simple, short version, then get reps (etc) from 2-3 longer versions.

Also, I have been combining elements from different classes’ stories to create one story that all four of my Spanish 2 sections will read. I’ve done the same with my two sections of Spanish 1. I’ve been doing this so that I am not re-writing four stories per night, and also so that students can be exposed to a slightly different angle to the story (they are all based on the same script however). Is this on point?

I think this is an AMAZING idea. Especially if the kids in the classes know each other, the idea of mixing details (especially ones they come up with) is great. This is personalisation. How cool is it to create cross-class connections and to put kids into stories? It is also a solid mental health strategy: you need to have time for your family, hobbies, sports, etc.  You are also creating novelty, which the brain craves to stay focused.

I personally don’t do this– we invent and ask one story in class, and I give them a reading that contains those structures– but my colleague Leanda does and it rocks. I think this is great. As long as you are repeating restricted amounts of high-frequency vocab in interesting (and, ideally, personal) ways, the kids are learning.

I think you’re doing everything right. You are supporting comprehensibility, making kids feel at ease, personalising vocab, putting a new spin on old vocab, and saving yourself from burnout by not spending 8 hours each night madly pecking away at your keyboard while the wife sulks and the kids act like it’s a country song, wondering who Daddy is.

What are the “Six Bridges” to Traditional Teaching?

Everybody reading this blog has talked to colleagues who either don’t like¬†or don’t get¬†T.P.R.S. and other comprehensible input strategies. Yet it’s pretty obvious our profession needs modernising. At least in Canada, a program such as Core French (regular classroom French) does not work very well: we do not, despite between four and eight years of instruction, produce fluent graduates, and savvy parents want their kids in French Immersion partly because it actually works (and we Spanish, Japanese etc teachers are not much better). This is not because teachers aren’t hard-working, innovative, etc– I havn’t yet met a languages teacher who doesn’t work his or her butt off– but because we don’t use researched, scientifically-sound modern methods.

I think T.P.R.S. (and A.I.M., and narrative paraphrase, and reading) are the best ways (so far) for upping our game. If comprehensible input works, we T.P.R.S. teachers must do our part to modernise the profession. For my part, I will– and do– demo T.P.R.S., talk to colleagues, coach, share materials, write this blog, etc, but we require something else: a simple, do-it-now bridge between comprehensible-input teachers and people who have learned more traditional methods.¬†We need to start somewhere simple: by showing people what we do which works. So, today’s question:

What can comprehensible-input practitioners share with others?

Here are Six Bridges between c.i. and communicative and/or grammarians: simple things ANYONE can do to up their game without doing stories. If your colleague sees how well T.P.R.S. works in your class, but is reluctant, here are six easy ways to start.

A) Go s-l-o-w-l-y. As I have shown, if any teacher– and not just in languages– speaks too quickly, they will lose the kids.

B) Reduce the vocab load, focus on high-frequency vocab, and increase input via repetitions.¬† A person who uses their textbook can make life much easier on the kids by reducing the number of words the kids must memorise per unit. Do you really need to know all ten ways of saying “goodbye” in Spanish? Do the kids really need to know the words for “underwear” and “socks” in French?

When I taught “communicatively,” with ¬°Juntos!‘ massive vocab lists, the kids only ended up using half of the words anyway. Pick the most-frequent, necessary stuff, and focus on that.

Think this way: you have 60 min in a class. If you use 60 vocab items, you have on average 1 minute/item if you want the kids to learn them all. If you have 30 items, you have 2 minutes/item. What do you think the kids are going to better remember: many items superficially “covered,” or fewer items presented in depth?

C) Do more reading. The novels by Karen Rowan, Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab etc, will work in any classroom. If the kids understand, they are learning.

In my view, a lack of reading is the single-greatest flaw that “communicative” teachers’ practice has: they are so focused on talking and writing that their kids don’t read nearly enough. It doesn’t matter what you “believe” or “feel” about language acquisition: there isn’t a teacher in the world who would argue with the value of reading. All we have to do is provide reading that’s comprehensible and interesting.

D) Always clarify.. No kid in any class should ever be guessing what something means. Ambiguity or misunderstanding = no or less acquisition, and frustration (read: behaviour problems). A bit of English is just fine, thank you, if it helps kids understand.

To those who think that the process of establishing meaning (guess, look it up, think of cognates etc) aids acquisition: The involvment load hypothesis suggests that the more meaning processing that happens to an item, the better it is retained.  However, we get a lot more processing via stories, circling etc than through dictionaries, collaborative sentence creation, etc.  Best idea:  give translation where necessary, and make focus the meaningful use of language.

Do you learn a sports skill by Googling and then watching a demo video on Youtube, or by practising? That’s right: in language acquisition, getting comprehensible input is practising. The more you hear/read which you understand, the more you learn.

E) Don’t force output. This will be the hardest pill for “communicative” teachers to swallow, because they like the idea that talking results in acquisition (while we know that the reverse is true). So how should a “communicative” teacher downplay output? Here are some ideas:

1. Use the tapes/DVDs/movies and reading exercises that come with your textbook package before you do any speaking activities. This will provide more input and put the kids on a more solid footing for when you do want them to speak.

2. Confine output– at least initially– to the superstars. If you have a couple of kids who are quick on the uptake and lovers of French/Chinese etc, get them to do the practice dialogues first when you get to new vocab, grammar, etc. If Rorie and Arabella love to chat (and are good at it) have them practice all of the info-gap activities with the rest of the class listening, so that the slower Samba and Max can get some input before they have to try talking.

3. Provide input by using sock puppets, educational software, etc. With various free things such as Bitstrips, Educreations, Storyboard That,and a zillion other apps (most of them free or dirt cheap), it is very easy to provide input– and tons of dialogue modeling– without using kids.

F) Use MovieTalk (a.k.a. “narrative paraphrase,” developed by Ashley Hastings). Kids love it, it’s easy, it requires minimal prep, it’s very effective, and it’s infinitely flexible. Here is how to do Movietalk. Just remember: MovieTalk is not for introducing new vocab.

How do we do “ping pong” (a.k.a. “volleyball”) reading?

We know from Krashen and many others that reading is crucial to acquisition of first and other languages. ¬†Reading gives us repetitions on vocab, “fuses” the visual with the auditory, and, crucially, allows us to slow down, pause, and go back, which we can’t do as much when getting oral input.

Also, crucially, reading shows us the zillions of subtle ‘rules’ that make up language use, rules which we¬†could teach but which would be tedious. ¬†For example, which sounds better: “I am a hard-working, employed professional” or “I am an employed, hard-working professional”? ¬†The first. ¬†Why? ¬†I dunno. ¬†I could work it out, probably, but who cares– I’d rather read a good story and soak it up that way than have to hack through a set of rules. ¬†In Spanish, this is another tricky thing: you can say “es un gran hombre” and “es un hombre grande.” ¬†The first means “he is a great man” and the second means “he is a [physically] large man.” ¬†You could teach people the rules about literal vs figurative adjective placement, bla bla, or you could let them read. ¬†For what it’s worth, as an English teacher, I can tell you with 100% certainty, the best writers are–¬†always— readers. ¬†There are no good writers who don’t read a ton.¬†(I often joke with friends that the exception here are the Irish, and in the case of the Irish what we have are a culture that seems above all to value verbal dexterity and storytelling.)

(By the way, in my view, one of the biggest problems in the so-called “communicative” classrooms I see is that¬†they don’t read. ¬†No matter how good your teaching is, if you don’t make the kids read, you are shooting yourself in the foot).

So, reading matters a lot. First, principles:

a) reading should be 95%+ comprehensible. ¬†If it isn’t, the kids stop or majorly slow acquisition, screw around, get annoyed, etc.

b) reading should be easy, and not intimidating/embarrassing, etc.

c) reading should be interesting— and what is interesting usually involves people, suspense, and a bit of humour (and surrealism sure doesn’t hurt either).

The best non-teacher-centered reading strategy I have yet seen I learned from Von Ray, and it’s called “ping-pong” reading, also known as “volleyball” reading: ¬†the kids take a text, sentence at a time, and “volley” the target language and the English back and forth at each other.

So how do we do ping-pong reading?

a) Get kids into pairs. ¬†I do pairs of rows (5 kids per row, two rows beside each other, three “pairs” of rows = 30 kids). ¬†They can “be with their friends” because they will be moving soon. ¬†You can also do Socratic circles. ¬†Any system where kids can easily move to a new partner works.

b) Make sure each kid has a copy of whatever you are reading (versions of asked stories best– novels tend to have WAY too much new vocab).

c) Set a timer with alarm for 3 min.

d) One kid per pair reads the first sentence aloud in the target language.

e) The other kid translates that into English, then reads the second sentence in the TL.

f) The first kid translates that into English and reads the third sentence aloud, etc.

g) When your timer goes, they switch partners.  In my room, the left-hand kid moves one back; kid at back moves to front.

h) ¬†They figure out where each was, and start from the least-far-along kid’s last spot. ¬†E.g. if Max and his partner read to the 19th sentence in the story, while Samba and her partner read to the 15th, when Max and Samba sit together, they will start reading where Samba got to: the 15th sentence. ¬†That way Samba doesn’t get lost, and Max gets reps.

i) Reset phone and start timer again.  Repeat until they are done the story.  Then of course review the crap out of it!  You can ask t/f questions, or get your superstars to give one-sentence answers (and have the slower processors translate) etc.


  • I don’t do this a lot– typically once per story, and it will last about 15 min– but I have not yet seen a better way to keep kids reading and focused. ¬†I also tell them “if you disagree about what something means, check your vocab sheet or ask me.”
  • Another¬†REALLY good idea thanks to Laurie Clarq is to use embedded readings for this (Blaine Ray is also big on embedded readings). ¬†For this, the teacher reads the first version– the simplest one which contains the target structures– aloud and the kids chorally translate. ¬†For the¬†second, more complex version, the teacher reads aloud, the kids translate, and you can throw in a few questions. ¬†You¬†must make sure they understand¬†everything,¬†because if they don’t, they will screw up/misunderstand when they are reading on their own. ¬†For the¬†third and longest version, the kids go into full ping-pong on their own and the teacher just sets timer and keeps them on track.
  • the kids seem to see this as almost a game, which is cool. ¬†Also the get-up-and-move thing is really helpful and they like that they can sit even for a few minutes with their friends.
  • I have found that my kids really do stay on task for this,¬†provided it doesn’t go on too long and provided that the reading is comprehensible.
  • One of the reasons the kids like this– other than the “I get to sit with my friend” thing– is that, like choral output, this is non-intimidating. ¬†You know the words so you probably won’t screw up either the reading or the translation, and if you¬†do screw up, only one person gets to hear.

The Research Supporting the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis and C.I. Instruction

Research shows that

  • languages are acquired only when people get aural or written comprehensible input
  • comprehensible reading in the target language improves acquisition a lot
  • grammar practice and explanations, most metacognition, performance feedback, and output are of minimal or no value
  • drills and any other kind of output practice don’t work
  • there are predictable, unavoidable, error-involving stages and sequences of acquisition of grammar which cannot be changed
  • learners’ speaking the target language does not help learners acquire it, and often slows acquisition
  • comprehensible input methods (including T.P.R.S., narrative paraphrase a.k.a. Movietalk, and free voluntary reading) do more for acquisition than legacy methods
  • despite superficial differences, children and adults learn languages in the same way

Here is the evidence supporting what we know about language acquisition.  Thanks to Eric Herman for digging a lot of this up, and thanks to Karen Lichtman, Bill VanPatten, Ray Hull, Stephen D. Krashen, Wynne Wong, Reed Riggs and Paul Nation for sending papers, comments, etc.

Want a live crash course in research?  See Bill VanPatten’s presentation (in 6 parts) here.  His weekly podcast is archived here (free to listen to/download, etc).  Lance Pantagiani’s condensed Tea With BVP episodes are archived here. Sarah Cottrell’s Musicuentos podcasts are also worth a listen. 

1) Should students be taught and practice specific grammar points?  NO.  Truscott reviews research and says that no meaningful support has been provided for the […] position that grammar should be taught. Krashen annihilates the grammarians’ arguments here. Wong and VanPatten also dismiss the grammar-practice argument here, and VanPatten, Keating & Leeser (2012) conclude that “things like person-number endings on verbs must be learnt from the input like anything else; they can‚Äôt be taught and practiced in order to build a mental representation of them.”  See VanPatten & Rothman (2014?) for a full discussion

VanPatten also notes that “what we call grammar rules are what we end up with, and are not how we learn or what the brain actually does” (MIWLA presentation, 2013), and that “classroom rule learning is not the same as acquisition.” Lightbrown writes that “structured input works as well as structured input plus explanation” (in VanPatten, 2004): in other words, explanations don’t aid acquisition (though some students may feel good getting them). 

Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as  VanPatten and Wong (2003) put it, that “learners– again, both in and out of the classroom– have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/pass√© compos√© and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”

VanPatten (1998) also notes that “[a] reading of the literature on second language acquisition and use suggests that communication is not the result of learning discrete bits of language and then putting them together.

VanPatten (2013) also echoes Susan Gross when he notes that “building up in a learner’s brain [are] simultaneously  lexicon and morphology, syntatic features and constraints, pragmatics and discourse, interfaces between components, communicative discourse [and] skill” and that “these happen all at once.  They are almost impossible to isolate and practice one at a time, because they don’t operate one at a time.

In a fascinating study, Batterink & Neville (2013) found evidence that the “longstanding hypothesis is that syntactic processing occurs outside of conscious awareness, relying upon computational mechanisms that are autonomous and automatic” (what Krashen calls the Monitor model) is, in fact, correct.

2) How much vocabulary, grammar and general language skill do students pick up via free voluntary reading (FVR)? LOTS…and loads more than from direct instruction. There are estimates that readers acquire an average of a word every twenty minutes of FVR, that FVR works about twenty times as quickly as classroom instruction, and that 75% of an adult’s vocabulary comes from reading.  See Lehman (2007), summarised here. Additional free voluntary reading research is detailed on Krashen’s site and Japanese researcher Beniko Mason has also done a ton of good FVR research.  There is very good research on the Fijian Book Flood experiment detailed here, which shows, among other things, that some “focus on form”– grammar and writing feedback– is useful for second-language acquisition at later and higher levels, even while comprehensible input does 95% of the work and remains the sine qua non of language acquisition.  In a recent study (abstract here), non-native speakers of Spanish who had a Spanish reading habit had much greater vocabulary than native Spanish speakers who did not read.  Rob Waring makes the “Inescapable Case for Extensive Reading.”

VanPatten writes that “for maximum vocabulary development, learners need to read all along the way, since most vocabulary development in both L1 and L2 is incidental, meaning that vocabulary is learned as a by-product of some other intention (normally reading).” Warwick Ely here examines free voluntary reading, grammar instruction, etc, and comes to the same conclusions that Krashen, VanPatten, Wong, Lightbrown & Spada etc do. Waring (2015) here makes the “inescapable case” for reading.  Mason and Krashen’s look at F.V.R. among Japanese learners of English showed significant positive effects.

Self-selected, comprehensible, interesting reading in the target (or native) language is boosts acquisition for the following reasons:
  • it delivers masses of comprehensible input
  • learners can pause, slow down, go back and seek extra (e.g. online or dictionary) help, which they cannot do nearly as well with a live speaker, and especially not with many native speakers (who often do not adjust vocabulary and speed to non-native-speakers’ needs)
  • readers can (and generally do) select books (input) tailored to their level
  • there is no output pressure, so the affective filter is low
  • for beginners, prosodic features like word differentiation are easier to see than to hear (but others, such as tone and accent, are harder to grasp)
  • the brain’s visual system is acute and, especially for monolinguals, better developed than the hearing processing system.

3) Do people acquire language via comprehensible input? YES. Krashen here summarises the comprehension hypothesis and destroys its rivals. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) state that “comprehensible input remains the foundation of all language acquisition.”  VanPatten and Wong (2003) note that “Acquisition of a linguistic system is input dependent.”  Krashen also takes a look at savants, polyglots and ordinary folk who have learned languages via comprehensible input in this fascinating paper.  In a study of Spanish learners, comprehensible input teaching worked about six times as quickly as traditional instruction.  There is a great short comprehensible input demo by Krashen here, and here (starts at about 12:30) is a longer and more detailed lecture.

Krashen also lists the academic research supporting comprehensible input here.

Ashely Hastings’ “Focal Skills” program (which presents first aural (and video), then written comprehensible input before moving into writing and speaking), was designed for use in Uni classes, and is where what we call “Movietalk” came from.  The research on Focal Skills shows it much more effective than traditional present-and-practice approaches.

Karen Lichtman lists the T.P.R.S.-supportive research here.

4) Should we organise curriculum thematically?  NO.  Among other reasons, it turns out that it’s harder to remember clusters of similar vocab than collections of thematically disparate vocab. As Paul Nation writes, ‚Äúresearch on learning related vocabulary, such as lexical sets, ‚Ķ shows that learning related words at the same time [e.g. in thematic/semantic units such as ‚Äúclothes‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúchores‚ÄĚ] makes learning them more difficult. This learning difficulty can be avoided if related words are learned separately, as they are when learning from normal language use.‚ÄĚ See Paul Nation on lexical sets and Rob Waring’s paper on vocab learning.

5) Should we “shelter” (limit) vocab?  YES. Evidence from children’s language acquisition suggests that we should, while “upping” prosodic variation (“wacky” or differentiated voices), reading rituals, and responses to student output (the paper is forthcoming). There is some processing research (VanPatten) that suggests that the amount of “mental energy” available for comprehension is limited, and that a minimal amount of new vocab be introduced in structured patterns over a broad overlay of well-known vocab, so that “mental energy” can be devoted to acquiring newer items. VanPatten: “any model of L2 input processing [must] consider in some way the impact of capacity issues in working memory on what learners can do at a given point in time.”  In other words, overload = bad. 

Children also acquire vocabulary more quickly if it is “framed”: delivered in interactive, structured and limited speech-and-response sets (see chapter 10 of the interesting book Nurture Shock for details). It is estimated (Nation, 2006) that in most languages, the top 1000 most-frequently-used words account for about 85% of all oral language use, and the top 2000 for ~95%.  Best practice is probably to teach “along the frequency list” where the most emphasis is on words that are most used (with variations that cater to student needs and interests).

6) Can learners “learn” grammar that teachers “teach?”  NO.  VanPatten (2010) argues in this very comprehensive paper that “some domains [aspects of language acquisition] may be more or less amenable to explicit instruction and practice [e.g.vocabulary], while others are stubborn or resistant to external influences [e.g. grammar].”  VanPatten, echoing Krashen, concludes that there is limited transfer of conscious knowledge “about” language into functional fluency and comprehension, and notes that “[n]ot only does instruction not alter the order of acquisition, neither does practice” (2013).

Ellis (1993) says that “what is learned is controlled by the learner and not the teacher, not the text books, and not the syllabus.‚ÄĚ 

7) Should we use L1– the “mother tongue”– in class? YES, (albeit as little as possible), as Krashen notes, because this avoids both ambiguity AND incomprehensibility, neither of which  help acquisition. Here are some ideas about why L1 should be used in the languages classroom (Immersion teachers take note…all the _______ in the world won’t help kids who do not understand it).  Nation (2003) notes “There are numerous ways of conveying the meaning of an unknown word […] However, studies comparing the effectiveness of various methods for learning always come up with the result that an L1 translation is the most effective (Lado, Baldwin and Lobo 1967; Mishima 1967; Laufer and Shmueli 1997).”  
8) Can we change the order of acquisition? NO. Krashen’s books have examples of order of acquisition. More recently, Lightbrown and Spada (2013) reiterate Krashen’s contentions, showing how acquisition order of verb forms (in English-learning children) is fixed. Wong and VanPatten (2003) make the same point.  There is very little we can do to “speed up” acquisition of any “foreign” grammar rule (e.g. English speakers learning the Spanish subjunctive) or vocabulary, other than providing lots of comprehensible input that contains the rule in question.  

VanPatten (2013) notes that instruction “does not alter the order of acquisition,” and Long (1997) says that “[t]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.” We also know that L2 mistakes are partially a function of L1, have partly to do with L1-L2 differences, but mostly to do with learners not being mentally ready to produce the new form (which is a result of a lack of input).  

For example, L1 German learners of L2 French make mistakes with subject-verb inversion…despite German having exactly the same rule as French for s-v inversion.  Arika Okrent documents children’s L1 acquisition errors; note that errors 5-8 are also classic adult L2 acquisition errors (stages).  

Again, Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as  VanPatten and Wong (2003)  put it, that “learners […] have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/pass√© compos√© and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”

9) Does correcting or properly re-stating learner mistakes–recasting– improve learner performance? NO. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) point out that while teachers like recasting (and do it a lot), and while students can and do immediately generate improved output as a result, “these interactions were not associated with improved performance on […] subsequent test[s].”  My view: if there is a place for recasts in the languages classroom, it is in ensuring that student output– which is also input for other students– is comprehensible and accurate.

10) Is there broad agreement among second-languages-acquisition researchers about what constitutes effective practice? YES. In this paper, Ellis lays out the “ten principles” of second languages teaching.  He notes

  • comprehensible input is the sine qua non of second language acquisition
  • we must provide some “focus on form” (grammar explanations) to support meaning
  • there is no transfer from explicit knowledge of grammar to implicit language competence
  • the use of quite a lot of “formulaic” expressions– a.k.a. “lexical chunks”– is essential esp. for beginners
  • instruction must primarily focus on meaning
  • drills don’t work
  • some output is necessary for acquisition in much later stages as this focuses learner attention on some aspects of form

S.L.A. researcher Patsy Lightbrown here explains the “known facts” about second language acquisition.  Here is a video of S.L.A. research and what works/does not work by Bill VanPatten.

11) Do “learning styles” or “multiple intelligences” exist?  NO.  In this paper, psychologist Daniel Willingham puts the boots to the idea that teachers need to kill themselves providing nineteen different ways to learn the verb “to run.”  While people often have preferences about learning, and while some people definitely have better skills in some areas than others, there is no evidence to suggest that language acquisition is positively affected by anything other than the presence of masses of comprehensible input, and the absence of counterproductive activities (grammar practice, forced output, grammar lectures, etc).  

VanPatten has said that “No research has found a link between learning styles and individual differences on the one hand, and on the other the processes involved in language acquisition.

12) Do students like speaking in a second-language class?  Generally, no.  Krashen first made this point, and Baker and MacIntyre note that “Speaking has been found to be the most anxiety-provoking form of communication,” (references to Maclntyre & Gardner (1991) and McCroskey & Richmond (1987)) and also note that production anxiety in classes is high among non-Immersion students.  

Best practice is probably to let those want to, talk, and to delay any output for others while asking them to signal comprehension or lack thereof (as natural approach, A.I.M., Narrative Paraphrase and T.P.R.S. do).

13)  Does speaking improve acquisition?  NO.  Despite (a few) studies which try to make the case for output, there isn’t a strong one. See Krashen’s response to one such study here, and his examination of Swain’s output hypothesis– and the research testing it– here. In another study, English-speaking students were taught Spanish structures (subjunctive and conditional) via various mixes of input and practice output. In this study, students who

  • got input only did very well
  • got input and did limited output (“practise”) did no better than input-only students
  • did more output (“practise”) than getting input did significantly worse than those who got more input.

Wong and VanPatten (2003) note that ‚Äú[a]cquisition of a linguistic system is input-dependent, meaning that learners must be engaged in comprehension in order to construct that system […] Production is not comprehension and thus produced language is not input for the learner. That input must come from others.‚ÄĚ They also note that “drills are unnecessary and in some cases hinder acquisition,” and Van Patten (2013) remarks that “traditional ‘practice’ may result in language-like behaviour, but not acquisition” and that “practice is not a substitute for input.”  He goes on to ask “if input is so important, what does traditional practice do?” and answers “essentially very little, if anything.  It does not help mental representation.  It is not clear it helps skills.”  

VanPatten also says that when “mechanical drills attempt to get the learner to acquire the thing they are asked to produce, the cart has been put before the horse,” and notes that “research conducted since the early 1990s has shown that traditional approaches to teaching grammar that involve the use of mechanical, meaningful and communicative drills do not foster acquisition in the way that practice [listening/reading] with structured input does.

14) Should we speak s.l.o.w.l.y. in class? YES. Audiologist Ray Hull writes  “[f]or an adolescent, spoken speech at around 135 words per minute is perfect for speech understanding, particularly when the student is learning a new language. So, 130 WPM may be even better. It will seem very slow to you, but the central auditory system of the student will appreciate it.” Adult native-language output is 170-180 words per minute, so slowness is essential (for all teachers, not just those of languages).  Note that there is no way to speed up auditory processing speed.

15) Do learners need many repetitions of vocab items to acquire them? YES.  In this study, scientists concluded that 160 repetitions of an item resulted in new items being “wired in” like older (or L1) items.  However, acquisition rates vary and depends on various factors:  is the word an L1 cognate?  Is it being used comprehensibly?  Is its use meaningful?, etc. 

16) Does feedback about performance in a language (e.g. correction, explicit information, etc) help acquisition?  NO.  Sanz and Morgan-Short (2002) replicated with computer-delivered input what VanPatten & Cadierno (1993) did with spoken and written input.  And, as VanPatten & Wong (2003) put it, they found that “neither explicit information nor explicit feedback seemed to be crucial for a change in performance; practice in decoding structured input alone […] was sufficient.”  In other words, explaining to people how a grammar rule in a language works, and/or pointing out, explaining and recasting (correcting) errors has no effect on acquisition.  VanPatten also writes that “Overt correction does little good in the long run” but “indirect correction may be useful,” but notes that the research on indirect feedback is far from clear. 

17)  Are some people better language learners than others?  NO.  Older research (as Vanpatten, 2013, watch it here, video 5, says) suggested different people had different aptitudes.  New research (VanPatten 2013b, 2014) suggests, echoing Krashen, that on traditional tests of aptitude that measure conscious learninge.g. knowing grammar rules– there are “better” and “worse” students.  

HOWEVER, in terms of processing (understanding) ability, there is no difference among people.  If they get comprehensible input, they acquire at roughly the same rate, in the same way.  A classroom that foregrounds grammar practice and output should produce a more varied mix of outcomes than one which focuses on input.  VanPatten notes that working memory– roughly, how much “stuff” one can keep in their head consciously at a time– varies between individuals, and that those with greater working memory may find language acquisition easier.

18) Do children and adults learn languages in the same way? Mostly, yes.  Children must develop a linguistic system while simultaneously acquiring a language.  For example, kids need to develop basic competencies (which adults take for granted), such as knowing that words can represent reality, that that there are such things as individual words, etc.  Once this “linguistic foundation” has been laid, kids and adults acquire languages in the same way. We know this because kids and adults make similar errors, have similar sequences of acquiring grammar, etc. As VanPatten notes, “adults and children appear to be constrained by the same mechanisms during language acquisition regardless of context, and the fundamental ingredients of language acquisition are at play in both situations: input (communicatively embedded language that learners hear or see, if sign language); Universal Grammar coupled with general learning architecture; and processing mechanisms that mediate between input and the internal architecture. In short, much of what we observe as differences between adults and children are externally imposed differences; not differences in underlying linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects of acquisition. And some of those externally imposed differences are a direct result of myths about language acquisition.”

 19) Do we have data showing how well comprehensible input methods work in comparison with legacy methods?  YES.  (note:  Nov 14 2015– this section is being updated; please comment if you have things to add)
  • C.A.L.A. testing showed T.P.R.S.-taught students outperforming other students despite having less in-class time than other students
  • Joe Dziedzic found that T.P.R.S. outperformed “communicative” teaching, with the biggest gains for T.P.R.S.-taught students being in oral and written output, despite T.P.R.S. students not being forced to speak or write outside of evaluation.
  • Ray & Seely’s Fluency Through T.P.R. Storytelling (7th ed.) has a research appendix.  Summary:  T.P.R.S. never works worse than, sometimes performs as well as, but mostly performs better than traditional methods.
There is no evidence suggesting that the following legacy language practices are effective:
  • grammar teaching and practice
  • forced and/or early output
  • any kind of drill
  • error correction and/or recasts
  • minimal reading; “fragmented” one-dimensional reading (e.g. lists, informational text, etc)
  • sequenced grammar instruction

Got a study, paper, etc that needs adding? Email me or add a comment and I’ll update this.