Reflections on Practice

Frequency Lessons #2: What Really Matters?

Thought experiment, and neat discussion item for Defartment Meetingz, or Headz or Adminz who don’t understand why Textbookz are the devil in disguise. 

First, read the following lists.  These are English equivalents of Spanish words from Wiktionary.com’s frequency list. If you are using this with colleagues, don’t at first tell them where you got the words. 

List A: welcome, together, window, comes, red

List B: went, that he be, world, shit, that she had gone out

First, you could think about what these lists have in common, how they differ, etc. 

Second, anwer this question: which words will be the most useful for students in the real world?

The obvious answer is List A. After all, we always “welcome” people, kids need to know words for classroom stuff like “windows,” we set the tone for classes by working peacefully “together,” and common sense suggests that “comes” and colours such as “red” are super-important. 

The List B words are, obviously, either less immediately useful or “advanced” (ie textbook level 4 or 5) grammar. 

Now here’s the surprise for us and our colleagues: the List B words are all in the 200 most-used Spanish words, while none of the List A words are in the 1000 most-used Spanish words.

What I got from this was, first, that what is obvious isn’t necessarily true, and second that a sequenced plan of instruction (eg from “simple” to “complex” grammar) would majorly short-change students for their real-world Spanish experiences. 

The textbook, or the doddering grammarian (or even the smiley new school grammarian with their apps, feedback gadgetry, evidence of learning portfolios, self-reflections bla bla bla) will see language acquisition as a set of skills that we master one rule set or vocab set at a time, starting with simplest and going to “more complex.” However, what people need to actually function in México or Spain is, well, high-frequency vocabulary, as much of it as possible. Why is this? Two simple reasons. 

First, high-freq vocab is what one hears most. Knowing it means getting the functional basics and feeling good because you can understand lots. If you easily understand lots of the target language, you can function even if– as is always the case– you can’t speak as much as you understand. When I’m in Mexico and I can’t say blablabla, I can gesture, point, use other words etc. Never yet had a problem with getting my point across, but I’m always wishing I understood more. 

Second, high-freq vocab builds the “acquistional platform.” When our students are finally in a Spanish or Mandarin environment, knowing high-freq vocab reduces the processing load for new input. If students already know a high-frequency sentence such as I wanted that he had been nicer (in Spanish quería que estuviera/fuera más amable), it will be much easier to figure out what I wanted that she had been more engaging means, because we only have to really focus on the word engaging

This is the acquisition platform: when we have the basics (high-freq words and grammar) wired in, it gets steadily easier to pick up new words. 

Anyway…be curious to see what ppl and their colleagues think of this. OH WAIT I FORGOT THE DEVIL 😈. Textbooks. Well the basic prob with texts here is that they don’t even close to introduce words along frequency lines, as I have noted elsewhere

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The Way Forward? Ben Slavic, envelope-pusher.

Ben Slavic, the “retired” French teacher, has been crusading around the U.S. with energy ball Tina Hargaden, showing people how to use what he calls “untargeted input” to teach languages.  Slavic’s passionate announcements and fascinating ideas have earned him a lot of respect, and also anger from some people in the C.I. universe, but, whatever, haters gonna hate and there is no progress without friction.  Whatever you think of One Word Images, untargeted stories, the Invisibles, etc., you have to hand it to Ben: he is doing the most important work of all:  he is making us radically question our practice.

On a recent Facebook post, Slavic discussed the C.I. practices which he`s dropped, and why.  This is fascinating reading.  Slavic is in italics and my comments in boring normal.

I have dropped the following things – weights around my ankles for more than 15 years:

1. Targeted language – pre-chosen structures and words that I want the students to “acquire” (more like consciously learn) in my lesson.

Slavic’s thinking here is, students will learn best when they choose the agenda (vocab, verbs etc).  Slavic’s work is actually not “untargeted”– it’s like he says in his book, the targets emerge while stories are built.

 

2. Massed reps of targets Students can smell agendae, which are off-putting, and massed reps (what Slavic calls heavy circling) slow down stories.

4. Reading up*  This means, you don’t make kids read to acquire language– you allow them to choose reading which they decide is at their developmental level.

5. PQA – it didn’t take long for the kids to see that I was asking them personalized questions merely in order to try to teach them a structure, not to have a true conversation with them.

Ben has a point, but this is to a certain extent a straw-man  argument: Personalised Questions and Answers should always follow what students are interested in.  Good, organic PQA emerges when students have more control over stories.

6. Establishing meaning- this is not necessary if we are teaching slowly enough and the content is interesting.

Here, I could not agree less. It seems like, no matter how clear I make it, I always have a kid ask me “how do you say there is in Spanish?” after four months of C.I.!  I have learned, you can never be too clear when teaching a language, and there is no research supporting the idea that guessing/deducing meaning supports acquisition.

7. Having kids supply cute answers – this puts stress on them, favors the louder, bolder, and more socially gifted students (linked to privilege), thus dividing the classroom among the haves and the have nots.  

Absolutely.  Bang on.

8. Gesturing as a group – because we forget to do it half the time. Now I just do light gesturing. (I think of light gesturing as a kind of embedded form of TPR that we just do with our hands, while seated, during a story but is not a separate activity like TPR.)

I’ve never done this.  I gesture as a teacher– I have gestures for many nouns, verbs, verb tenses and we, you, I etc.

9. Lengthy undisciplined stories that last more than 25 minutes. Once the kids know that in class they won’t get to know what happens in that class period they tune it all out and by springtime they are all the way tuned out on stories. Short 25-35 min. stories that actually have an ending are necessary. The students need for the story to end that class period.

Do they?  I have had stories go on for up to three periods.  This depends on how good you are at asking stories– it’s not everyone’s forte, and it’s work– and what your class is like.

10. Class reading of novels – that is a school thing and leads to rule by the few. I suggest that we never do a single class novel in Level 1 anymore. So what do we read as a class? Just our own class-created stories. They are more interesting and comprehensible to the kids. And what about novels, magazines, and books? Free choice for SSR is what works best for me. I find that when I do it that way some kids in Level 2 choose Level 3/4 books and some choose Level 1 books, as per their own processing speed. It’s all a big plan to reduce stress in the classroom and fight hard for the most important thing in a school classroom – equity and no-stress learning and no-stress teaching. 

Do you generate enough reading from asking stories that you have enough reading in level 1?  If so, great.  If not…you are going to want some SSR choices.  I use Berto y sus Buenas Ideas, my own Berto y sus Buenos Amigos, and two Brandon Brown books by Carol Gaab. If I keep novel reading to about 10 min/day, kids stay pretty tuned in.

 

11. Using celebrities as characters in stories. I don’t know or care who they are, and many of my kid don’t either. Who is Justin Bieber drinking Cheerwine on the beach with? I simply don’t care. It’s about a section of the class – the kids who know the celebrities – running the class again. Why not we make our own characters up? It’s much more fun!

Whatever works for you and yours.  The key for me is to really dig at all the kids and get the quiet ones to also suggest ideas, to use Invisibles (class-created, drawn), to use kids as parallel characters, etc.

12. Feeling as if I had to do a story even when I wasn’t having the best day. I always felt pressure to do stories even when I didn’t want to.

BOOM!  Exactly.  Good PQA, Movietalk, Picturetalk, novels, word games….there is loads of stuff one can do that delivers compelling C.I.

13. Trying to finish a story that was too long. Long stories only stay long bc of the few kids of privilege who turn the class into THEIR class bc they have the social skills, learned them at home where the other kids didn’t because of poverty. 

What’s “too long?” As long as kids are listening and understanding, all is good.

15. Dominance of the classroom by the few because of the targeting of lists (high frequency lists, thematic unit word lists, semantic set lists, lists of words taken from chapters in novels for backwards planning, TPR lists). 

I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve never done any of this, other than to direct student suggestions toward higher-frequency language.  If they want Selena Gomez doing whatever, wherever, with whoever, fine…but if the kids want her vacuuming the beach, nope: aspiradora is low-frequency, so I’d steer them toward limpiar.

16. Being cute. I can’t be cute anymore. There is nothing in the research on CI that indicates that cuteness is a requisite ingredient of good foreign language teaching. An example is cuing of any kind, like the “Ohhhh!” thing. Or the “Oh no oh no oh me oh my!” thing. […] When we cue them, it is like controlling them. That’s not what I want to do. I want to let interesting input drive the class. Each student will respond in their own way, how they would in a free and open conversation.

Sure…but cued responses– when minimally used– add to the theatre atmosphere of TPRS, and are another way to check comprehension.

*Reading up is where the teachers hand the kids books that they can’t read. When it is in the form of a class novel, it is especially onerous to the students who come from less privileged backgrounds. Now I just do SSR/FVR to start class for ten minutes. They read what they want from a pile of books on a table. The feeling for over the half of the kids when we do class novels is like standing under a cherry tree and being told to jump up to get the cherries. Some can’t jump as high as others. This reduces equity and inclusion in the classroom and divides the class. It is the teacher’s job to pull the branch down so that all the kids can easily do the classroom assignments and thus make it effortless for them, because that is what the research says how we acquire languages – when it is literally effortless. So I say we need to implement more “reading down” in our classes.

Bang on.  As Marco Benavides shows, if we don’t have 98% comprehension, we don’t have much acquisition going on.  The key, as legendary Spanish teacher Joe Neilson explained, is to use “simpler” novels with higher-level students, and to use a broadly shared meaning base that erveryone gets to generate grammatically more complex discussion.  A sentence in my book Berto y sus Buenos Amigos where Paquita says estoy haciendo un video (“I am making a video”) is easy to understand.  The slower processors get it.  Now, we ask the faster processors questions like ¿te gusta hacer videos?  ¿prefieres hacer videos o tocar música?  ¿es divertido hacer videos, es difícil, o los dos?  ¿por qué? 

It should also be noted that much of what Ben is advocating was part of Blaine Ray’s “classic” TPRS.  He wanted a lot of student input into stories (and targeted that vocab/grammar, etc), has specifically said that TPRS does not always need to be cute, etc.  The idea of “planned” stories came when Ray was asked by Susan Gross to explain his methods (which he did with his Fluency book.  Faced with the inevitable question of where do I get stories? from teachers, Ray published the Look, I Can Talk series (and similar texts soon followed from Carol Gaab, etc).  This was inevitable, but any attempt to systematise what appears to be a freewheeling method inevitably loses some of the method’s magic, when Slavic ha clearly rediscovered.

Anyway, thanks to Ben for getting us thinking about our practice!

Why I (Almost) Never Assess Speaking

So this was asked on a forum recently and, as usual, it got me thinking.


This is a question about “El Internado,” but, really, it applies to anything we do in a language class.  We read/ask a story/do a Movietalk or Picturetalk, etc, and then we want to assess speaking, comprehension, etc.

My response to this question is don’t bother assessing speaking.

But first, a qualifier:  if our Board/school/dept. etc says we absolutely MUST assess speaking, well, then, go for it.  We do what we have to do to keep our job.  But if we don’t have to assess speaking, don’t.  Here is why.

  1. The info we gain from this cannot generally guide instruction, which is the point of any assessment (other than at the very end of the course).  The reason for this is very simple: what will we do if what we learn from assessment varies wildly (which it almost certainly will)? If Samba has problems with the pretérito verb tense, Max doesn’t understand questions with pronouns, and Sky can fluidly ask and answer anything, how are we going to design future instruction around that info?  How are we going to “customise”  reading/stories, etc to give 30 different kids the input they need?  Answer:  we can’t.
  2. This takes forever.  If we have 30 kids in our class, and we can assess them in three minutes each (which is tough) we are spending 90 min alone on speech assessment.  That’s a period and a half!  During this time, we have to design something else for them to do…and good luck having 29 kids– whose teacher is “distracted” by sitting in the corner assessing speech– staying on task for 60 minutes.
  3. We already know how well they speak.  If we are doing regular PQA– personalised questions and answers (basically, asking the class members the same questions we are asking the actors)– we know exactly how well each kid can talk.  So why waste time with a formal assessment?  In my Spanish 1 right now, Ronnie can only do y/n answers to questions, while Emma Watson (aka Kauthr) speaks fluid sentences, and so does Riya, while Sadhna mixes up present and past tense in her output (but understands tense differences in questions) etc.
    Indeed, this is where feedback to the teacher is useful. If—in the PQA moment—I see that Sadhna mixes up past and present in answers, I can guide PQA around that right then and there.
  4. In terms of bang-for-buck, we are going to get way more results from more input than from assessing speech.  We acquire language not by practising talking etc, but by processing input, as Bill VanPatten endlessly reminds us.  I used to do regular “speaking tests” and they did nothing and the info was useless.  Now, I never test speaking until the end of the course, and the kids speak better, mostly because the wasted time now goes into input.
  5. A question that comes up here, regarding assessing speech post-Internado, is, what are we testing the kids on?  Are they expected to remember content— names, events, “facts” etc– from the show?  Or are we assessing speech generally?  In my opinion, “content” should be off-limits: we are building language ability, not recall.In terms of language ability, one of the problems with assessing right after specific content (eg some of El Internado) is that, since this input is generally not very targeted, we don’t have much of a guarantee that the kids are getting enough exposure (in a period or two) to “master” or acquire anything new.  This is to say, while an episode may be 90- or even 100% comprehensible, thanks to the teacher’s guidance etc, it almost does not focus on a specific vocab set.  In a classic T.P.R.S. story, the teacher makes sure to restrict (shelter) vocab used in order to maximise the number of times each word/phrase/etc is used.

    This is whether s/he has a plan, or, as in totally “untargeted” story creation à la Ben Slavic, the kids are totally driving the bus.  As a result, the odds of the kids picking up specific “stuff” from the story—in the short term, which is the focus of the question– are greater (and greater still if the asked story is followed by reading, Movietalk and Picturetalk) than if the input is familiar but untargeted.

  6. What about the kid who missed some of (in this case) El Internado? If the speaking assessment focuses on Internado-specific vocab, it would (in my opinion) be unfair to ask Johnny who was there for all three periods and Maninder, who missed two of three periods, to do the same thing with the “language content” of the episodes.
  7.  Kids hate speaking and tests.  Anything I can do to avoid tests, or putting people on the spot– which a one-on-one test does– I do.  This is what Johnny looks like when you tell him, speaking test tomorrow:Image result for kid being interviewed by teacher
    (image:  Youtube)
  8. “Authentic content” eg El Internado has lots of low-frequency vocabulary. Sure, the teacher can keep things comprehensible, but there is inevitably kids’ mental bandwidth going into processing low-freq vocab…which is exactly what kids don’t need in a speaking assessment, where you want high-freq vocabulary that is easy to recall and applicable to lots of topics.

Anyway…this is why I save speaking assessment until the end of the course: I know how well my kids can speak, I can adjust aural input where it matters– right now–, I don’t want assessment to detract from input, and speaking assessment doesn’t really help me or my kids.

 

 

 

Old Myths Debunked

This post comes from Carol Gaab.  She is an author, teacher and San Francisco Giants language coach, as well as a presenter and all-around thinker.  Gaab has one of the most critical minds I have ever run into, and likes to dismantle misconceptions almost as much as she likes to show us interesting and effective ways to teach languages.

So here she is, responding to myths like “we must use authentic documents” and “we must practice speaking,” etc.  A fascinating read, and great if you are having discussions with colleagues who embrace older methods.  Thanks, Carol!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My answer: no, never.  Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— I am not being sufficiently comprehensible

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

— my activities are not interesting, varied or meaningful enough

— the kids see no purpose

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

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

— my story sucks 😉

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

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

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

The tools that we have for dealing with distracting behaviour include

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Do You Even Lift? S.L.A. and Free Weights

Part One: The Basics

weightlifter_1216621c

My Mom– who at age 75 is still ski-touring, mountain biking and hiking, and is doing a three-week non-sag cycle tour in Quebec this summer!– is my stay-healthy role model.  Thanks to her, I’ve always been interested in– but lazy about– general fitness.  I’ve always thought, I hate fitness and training, but I like climbing, hiking and cycling, and acro yoga.  Through years of activity, and recent discussions with athlete Will Gadd, I’ve learned a few things about fitness– for anyone, not just athletes– which we can boil down to three things

  1. Everybody should have basic cardio fitness.  A total of 60 minutes a week of sweat-inducing heavy breathing will do it.  You can do this in fancy running gear, or in a gym, or in your living room, skipping.
  2. We all need functional strength, i.e. the ability to lift and move things.  This can be done in about 50 minutes/week, in a gym or around the house.
  3. If you have basic cardio and strength, you can easily pick up anything else
  4. You may much later want some feedback to improve yourself.

On recommendation of one of my partners, I tried Pilates last year.  It’s a set of exercises that stretch and work various muscles, and also aligns various bits of anatomy.  I did it for a few months.  I found it worked– it sure targeted specific muscles, and I got better at the exercises– but it was boring as hell and I did not see any overall fitness or strength gains.

And then I read this article about fitness. And started lifting free weights: squats, bench-presses, vertical presses, power cleans and deadlifts, five sets of five each, twice a week, after school in our weight room.  I’m not trying to gain in size (that’s bodybuilding) but rather in functional strength.  My total weight room time is about 50 minutes/week.

The results have been remarkable (for me).  All my weights have gone up.  I also feel much more stable while on trails and on the bike, and I can “do” more stuff, like carry a week’s worth of groceries with one arm and a climbing pack in another.  I’m not much of a hiker– hiking is the boring warm-up on the way to the base of the climb– but now on trails, despite me never “training” by walking or running, my legs are waaaay more solid.  Although my weights are up, I am not feeling much bigger. I feel “connected” to myself in a way that vaguely resembles a post-yoga feeling but stronger.

I thought weights would be boring, but oddly I am not bored.  The post-first-set body buzz is killer, and since I am rotating through the various weights and it only takes about twenty-five minutes, and I blast music, so I am not bored.

Bottom line: basic cardio fitness, and then weight training make everyone healthy, and make it much easier for us to acquire other activity skills (climbing, tennis, paddling, etc).

Can you see where we are going with this?  

a. The basic cardio of language acquisition is oral input and reading in any language.

The person who can’t get their heart rate up won’t benefit from any activity-specific training.  But the person who can get the heart and lungs cranking can do/learn other stuff.  Yes, you can lift, or play tennis, if you’re a two-pack-a-day smoker…but you can’t do it very well, and you sure won’t make much progress.

If you get basic spoken (or recorded) comprehensible input, and you read in L2, you are going to be able to acquire a ton more language than if you don’t.

b. The strength training of language acquisition is whole language, not “exercises” and “practise.”

Free weights, as Mark Rippetoe argues, effectively train the whole body, because all bodily systems work– and must be trained– together.  A squat fires basically every muscle from the shoulders down.  A vertical press engages everything from the waist up.  Balance, co-ordination, big muscles, small muscles, tendons and ligaments: all are working together, the way the body is meant to.

In terms of method, Pilates (or exercise machines) are to fitness what the textbook is to language learning.  It breaks movement down into components, you “practise” each one, and your individual “skills” get better…even while the overall functional fitness gains are minimal.

Free weight lifting is the comprehensible input of fitness.

Bill 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. 

Language learners need big meaning chunks– meaningful sentences as part of conversation or description, which are in turn part of stories, etc– to acquire the language.  The “stuff” of a language– vocab, grammar, pragmatics, semantics etc– can only be acquired by exposure to “whole” input and can not be developed by “practising” various “skills.”  Sure, students will get some incidental benefits from worksheets or textbook exercises if they are attending to meaning.  Kids often don’t, though.  The worksheets I see kids copying in the morning don’t suggest kids are doing anything other than making the teacher happy.  And Bill VanPatten 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” (2013).

You might be the one in twenty people who can assemble textbook fragments into something like language– and you might enjoy practicing and getting marks for your various “skills.”  But you would get more out of good interesting comprehensible input, and most people do get much more from C.I.

So…let’s get into beast mode and get swole!

(Totally random side-note:  Doctor Stephen Krashen was once a champion weightlifter!  He weighed 181 and incline-pressed 285 💪💪)

Part Two: Planning and Feedback

So…what can athlete stories tell us about the language class?  Do planning and feedback work in a language classroom?

Other than a teacher clarifying what was said/written, feedback does nothing…because it comes via conscious awareness, and language is processed and stored in the implicit (subconscious) system.

Planning, i.e. organising sets of vocab and grammar “rules” in a sequence (what textbooks do)  doesn’t work very well, mainly because it is the brain, and not the teacher’s or student’s desire, that controls what gets acquired (see this).

Now, here is an interview with top climber Chris Sharma.  Sharma, who has done routes that only two or three people in the world can do, has never really trained.  To stay in shape, he climbs a lot.  But then he hit a wall trying to climb a route called Dura Dura graded 5.15c (imagine climbing 30 meters along a 45-degree overhanging wall, using only one fingertip per hand, and one foot at a time!).  He tried and tried, and failed and failed.

So, for the first time in his life, Sharma went into a gym and trained.  Circuits.  4x4s.  Hangboard workouts.  Weights.  Structured rest and recover, mesocycles, the works.  And…filmed feedback.  His trainer Paxti videotaped Sharma trying moves and sequences, they watched them, and Sharma was able to adjust body position, timing, foot position etc.

He eventually climbed the route (after Adam Ondra got the first ascent).

 

C.O.F.L.T. Conference Reflections

The energy-loaded Tina Hargaden, vice-president of the C.O.F.L.T. in Portland, organised a conference and I got to do the T.P.R.S. part of it– a one-day workshop with German storyasking demo, reading, Movietalk, Picturetalk, method explanation, Q&A, etc.

To say I had a busy weekend would be an understatement:  work Fri, drive 7 hours to Portland (through Seattle traffic, its own special Hell, thank you NPR for making it bearable), have a beer and talk shop with Tina, sleep like a baby at the Kennedy School Hotel (a high school converted to hotel– awesome– “fall asleep in class” is their tag), do presentation, drive back to Canada, time change, it’s now 1 AM, sleep three hours, get on plane to Cuba…where thank God they have mojitos  and overhung limestone rock routes.

Anyway, we had the most people of any workshop at the conference (almost 30) and Tina told me that we were the only room where people were regularly laughing.  There were a bunch of Chinese student teachers doing their degrees in Portland, a few TPRSers who were in for a tune-up, and a whack of curious rookies.

So I got my evaluations back.  You can see the COFLT 2016 Stolz TPRS feedback forms if you want to see how awesome I am 😉 and how much Oregonians appreciate their gluten-free, salad-based, vegan or organic meat, locally-sourced artisanally-cooked dishes, etc 😄.  But mostly what is interesting in the comments are the themes that recur.

1.  A lot of people said they really appreciated the German demo aspect of the presentation (an idea I got from Blaine Ray).  People wrote along the lines of “it was great to experience what it is like to be a student.”  I remain convinced that the only way to make any language-instruction method convincing is to teach people part of a language they don’t know.  It is so easy for us to forget how tough it is– even with good C.I.– to pick up a new language.

2.  Recognising that, and because we had some native Mandarin speakers at the workshop, I asked participant Yuan to teach us some Mandarin (Blaine Ray also does this).  She parallel-circled two sentences:  Chris climbs mountains and Tina drinks beer

  
This put me into the students’ seat and it was enlightening.  I noticed two things:

a) I needed a LOT of reps to remember the Mandarin, and I was glad Yuan went s.l.o.w.l.y.

b) Mandarin does not seem very difficult.  No articles, verb conjugation, etc, though word order seems crucial.

3.  Most people wanted more time with T.P.R.S. (or even me as presenter).  There seems to be a need (in OR and WA) for more C.I.-themed language workshops.  Luckily, Tina Hargaden and C.O.F.L.T. on it and there will be a conference Oct 13-15 which will feature Steve Krashen, Karen Rowan, etc.

4. I talked to another presenter who had a workshop called something like “using authentic docs to design authentic tasks for authentic assessment.” He did some explaining and I wondered two things:

a. What do you actually do with the info from an “end of unit” assessment?  If Max and Sky do well, and Rorie and Arabella terribly, now what? How does that info shape your next “unit”?  I guess if you want a number, awesome, but numbers help neither teachers nor students. 

b. How much energy is a teacher productively using when they design #authres-based activities for assessment? I mean, most #authres don’t use high-freq vocab and are often more of a guessing game for students.  

As I talked to this guy, it struck me that you would get a lot better assessment with exit quizzes for reading & translating, and with comprehension checks along the way– especially with what Ben Slavic has called “barometer kids”– so that, in the moment, you can provide more input for what the kids are misunderstanding. 

5. Laughter matters. Laughing bonds people, lightens any mood, is a brain break, comes from when unexpected ideas are conjoined, etc. So I am glad that we got to laugh at our workshop (yet another practice that Blaine Ray is all about with his dancing monkeys and girls without noses). 

6. There were some experienced C.I. teachers there and I was super-stoked (sorry I can’t remember names). These folks asked good questions, and they often said “well Chris does ____ but I do _____ instead.”  Which teaches us that while there is a basic C.I. recipe– use a story, limit and recycle vocab, have people read the story, add images and short films for more vocab recycling– there are many cooks with a panoply of flavours.  Also,  the experienced people generated great lunchtime discussions over craft organic artisanal salads and quinoa vegan quiche 😉. 

So, thanks COFLT and Tina for a great opportunity for all those language teachers. Their Oct confernce will rock– stay tuned. 

Level Two Spanish Results: First Picture Description

Spanish 2 has been running for three weeks.  We have read a couple of easy novels, and have done one story cycle: el restaurante, which included reading, storyasking, Movietalk (Mr Bean videos RULE!) and Picturetalk.

Today’s first writing assessment: describe this photo.

  
Here are four writing samples.  The kids had 5 minutes, no notes or dictionaries.

First, Janelle, the top student. Amazing how she mixes past and present appropriately.

 

Next, we can compare two Level Two students who are not top performers. Hassan went to another school last year, where he had traditional grammar-and-textbook-based teaching.  This is garbled and nonsensical.  Hasan has some learning challenges and struggles in other classes.

Next, Abbas, who like Hassan has some challenges and struggles with school.  This is not awesome…but we understand, and he has built in a bit of a backstory.  Abbas had only TPRS in Level One.

Based on results, C.I. clearly helps the challenged kids more than does a traditional text.

   
Finally, Amneet.  This is not very good writing.  What is interesting here is that Amneet is probably the best speaker in the class.  I have found this kind of thing typical:  while most of the kids can undertsand everything (the scores for reading and listening quizzes are all between 80-100%), production skills vary dramatically from kid to kid and medium to medium.  Writers are not necessarily speakers, and vice-versa.

Amneet arrived late in Spanish 2, has missed a bunch of classes, but did well last year (over 80%) so I am expecting her written output will pick up.

 

How clear should I make it?

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

Here’s a few German words:

hatten = had          eine = a, an          Katze = cat

Can you figure out this sentence?

“John und Candice hatten eine Katze”

Right:  “John and Candice had a cat.”

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

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

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

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

Today’s answer: Even clearer.  🙂

 

 

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?

This made me think of music. I’ve been playing Irish music (and old-time) for ten years now.  So how do you learn?  Well, primarily you listen.  Irish music is played in sets.   A tune 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 tune– i.e. you can hum or whistle it– there 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.