Research

Against Rules: Rothman vs the Grammarians

It is a lovely Sunday, work is over, but sadly my climbing partner Tiff has decided to chase boys instead of vert, and so here I am reading SLA papers, in this case Jason Rothman’s “Aspect Selection in Adult L2 Spanish and the Competing Systems Hypothesis: When pedagogical and linguistic rules conflict” (2008).

Rothman in this paper hypothesises that conscious learning of grammar “rules”– in this case, the distinction between the preterite and imperfect tenses in Spanish, for L2 learners of Spanish– will interfere with native-like acquisition of those “rules.”

There is a standard explanation of the preterite and imperfect that we Spanish teachers give: the preterite is a snapshot of the past, and the imperfect a movie.  Finished past action vs habitual or ongoing past action, etc. Now this is not wrong, but it is far from complete. Which of the following (from Rothman, 2008), for example, is correct?

(11) Siempre que  fuimos a la universidad, estudiamos en la bliblioteca.
(12) Siempre que íbamos a la universidad, estudiábamos en la biblioteca.

Both are, obviously, but the meanings do not follow the ongoing-vs-completed template of instruction. Both mean more-or-less “when we went to the Uni, we ended up studying in the library.” Both are generalisations, but 11 connotes an accidental (unforseen) generalisation, whereas 12 is a foreseen generalisation.

Rothman took three groups of people who knew Spanish: native speakers, those who had studied, and those who had acquired Spanish “naturalistically,” i.e. on their own, largely through TV, radio and interactions with native speakers. All did the same two tasks.

They sorted the students to account for Spanish knowledge etc etc, so they got three groups who were functionally similar (ie all could read Spanish about equally well).

Task One was, read “Goldilocks” in Spanish, and choose the correct of two forms of the verb (preterite or imperfect). Task Two: read a paragraph with blanks, and generate the right form of the verb (again, the choice was between preterite and imperfect).

Now, this was a “Monitor” task. The students dealt with writing, and had time to employ the conscious mind, rules, declarative memory etc. Rothman hypothesised that, because conscious learning and rules couldn’t capture the subtleties of the p-vs-i distinctions, students who had acquired via these rules would underperform others.

The results?

1. Native speakers all overwhelmingly made the same and correct choices.

2. The “taught” students of Spanish made a wider variety of errors, and many more of them, than did the native speakers.

3. The “naturalistic acquirers” of Spanish made significantly fewer errors than did the “taught” students, and their error patterns were more native-like than those of the “taught” students.

Rothman’s hypothesis was therefore confirmed: acquisition of the aspectual (tense) system of Spanish was significantly slowed by conscious learning and speeded up by exposure to input. As he puts it, “pedagogical rules of oversimplification can result in L2 performance variation, perhaps indefinitely.

Rothman points out that if teachers wanted to meaningfully and beneficially “explain” the p-vs-i distinction, they have to do it in significantly more complex ways than they– we– now do. There is, in other words, way more going on than the “photo vs movie” metaphor.

And the old problem of mental bandwidth here arises: because, as Bill VanPatten notes, we have limited “room” in our heads for explicit information, the more explanations we get, the less “sticky” they will be in our memory. In addition to this, some of these explanations about why we would use one verb tenses or the other– are not particularly student-friendly. Do you want to explain about adverbial quantifiers, semantic distinctions, and accidental vs foreseen generalisations? Could kids understand these? Would they care?  

There are obviously also about 1,000,000 more “rules” in Spanish– or any other language– and so we would rapidly hit a wall if we had to teach using rules.  No time, little student interest, and no way to keep all those rules in your head (or access them in real time tasks, such as speaking or listening).

Luckily, there is a way out. One major implication for teachers, which Rothman notes, is that “the only compulsory variable is sufficient access to quality input.” This is exactly what Stephen Krashen predicted forty years ago: providing input beats anything else, and there is very limited benefit to learning grammar “rules.” Krashen’s dry comment that the relative clause is less than compelling also merits note: nobody other than classroom teachers really cares about grammar.

People who have to teach to stupid, grammar-focused tests take heart:  loads of C.I. is way more fun than studying the stupid textbook, and it works much better!

The moral of the story: input gets the job done just fine. Stories ahoy– carry on!

 

 

 

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Do We Need To Do “Post-Reading Activities”?

Everybody agrees that input is the central component of language acquisition.  Even a skill-builder such as DeKeyser, and grammarian colleagues, admit that without hearing and reading the language, much less acquisition happens.

One big question, however, remains endlessly discussed: what should language teachers get students to “do” with input? Broadly, the options as I understand them are thus:

  1. Language-class students just…get input.
  2. They get input, and then “do activities” with the input.

#2 is the approach most used by most C.I. teachers. In classical TPRS, students do re-tells. In Slavic and Hargaden’s “untargeted” input, there are “one word at a time” story activities, “read and discuss,” etc post-story. VanPatten’s “task oriented” teaching gets students to “do” things with input (sort, rank, find out, order, etc).

With reading C.I. novels, when kids have read the novel/story, there are questions, word-searches, personal responses, sentence-re-ordering, etc. Indeed, so devoted are even C.I. teachers to “activities” that almost every novel published in the C.I. tradition has a teacher’s guide to go with it, and Teachers Pay Teachers is full of novel guides, post-reading activities and so forth. The same, by the way, is true of Movietalk: there are regularly questions posted on FB or Yahoo, from C.I. teachers, asking does anybody have Movietalk activities to go with ____? 

Anyway, obviously what we are always most concerned with in a language class is acquisition. We decide to do/not do _____ based on how well it develops students’ grasp of the target language, and this brings up today’s question:

Do “activities” with reading (or listening to stories) boost acquisition?

The answer, it turns out, is probably not. A paper by Beniko Mason and Stephen Krashen, one of many that reach similar conclusions, took a simple and elegant look at this question. In another paper, the Backseat Linguist compares the effects of reading (CI only) with direct instruction (activities plus reading plus teacher talking).

First, Mason & Krashen.  Beniko Mason, who teaches English to Japanese college kids, compared two functionally identical classes’ responses to (1) listening to her tell (and illustrate) a story, and (2) listening to the same story and then doing a variety of activities (including reading) about the story. Both groups were pre-tested for grasp of vocabulary, treated, and post-tested (immediate post-treatment, and delayed post-test).

What did Mason find?

Two things emerge from this paper, one obvious and one striking.  First, the obvious: the students who did the post-reading activities gained more vocabulary. This is what we would predict: the more times we hear/read something, the more it will get into our heads and stick around. In both immediate and delayed post-tests, the “activity” group retained more new vocabulary.

Sounds like we should be doing post-listening/reading activities, right?  Wrong.

The second finding of Mason’s is remarkable: the input-only group acquired much more vocabulary per unit of time than did the input-plus-activities group. As Mason and Krashen write,

[o]n the delayed post-test, the story-only efficiency was .25 (3.8 words gained/15 minutes), and efficiency for the story-plus-study group was .16 (gain of 11.4 words/70 minutes).

In other words, the most efficient use of time for delivering C.I. is…delivering C.I. alone, and not doing anything else. (This is a conclusion which has also been oft-reached by reading researchers.  Broadly speaking, just reading for pleasure beats reading-plus-activities in just about every measurable way. Much of the research is summarised by Krashen here).   There is also another good study on Korean EFL learners here.

Next, the Backseat Linguist aka Jeff McQuillan. TBS in his post looks at a number of studies of the effects of reading on vocab acquisition.  Note that most studies define acquisition as the ability to recognise the meaning of a word. What TBS shows us is how many words per hour students learn via different methods of instruction.

Free Voluntary Reading: students acquire about 9.5 words per hour.
Direct instruction: students pick up about 3.5 words/hour.

FVR is just that: reading without any follow-up “activities” or “accountability.” “Direct instruction” includes bits of reading, speaking practice, note-taking, answering questions about readings, etc.

Bottom line: aural and written comprehensible input alone do the acquisitional work.  Why is this?  Why don’t “supplementary activities” boost acquisition?

The answer probably has to do with how the brain evolved to pick language up: in the moment, on the fly, informally, and over time. Our hominid ancestors didn’t worksheet their kids, or have writing, and probably did no instruction in speech. We know that kids don’t get targeted input: other than “rough tuning” their speech to their kids’ levels (ie clarifying where necessary, and not using words such as “epistemology” around their three-year olds), parents just, well, talk to (and around) their kids, and their kids pick up loads. Parents don’t repeat words deliberately, do comprehension checks, regularly ask kids conversation-topic specific questions, etc.

So…what are the implications for a language classroom?

  1. We should spend our time on input, and not on anything else. We know talking and writing “practice” do very little for acquisition.  It is now also clear that activities such as retelling to a partner, answering questions, etc, are overall a less-then-optimal use of time
  2. Thought experiment:

    OPTION A: over two months, Johnny can spend, say, eight hours reading four novels, and then two hours doing “activities.” If, as Mason found, he gains .16 words per minute, he will acquire 96 words over 10 hours of reading plus activities.

    OPTION B: Johnny can spend ten hours reading five novels, with no “activities.” Mason’s data suggest that he will pick up a bunch more language: .25 words per minute x 10 hours = 150 words.

    If we teach Johnny for five years, and we commit each year to a free voluntary reading program sans “activities,” Johnny– from reading alone– will have picked up 275 words more than if he had spent his class time reading and doing “activities.”  If we pace a five-year proficiency-oriented language program at 300 words per year (which will enable students to acquire the 1500 most-used words, giving them 85% of the most-used vocabulary in any language), this reading alone will add almost a year’s worth of gains to his language ability.If we are doing storyasking (classical TPRS), or OWI creation (and then story), or Movietalk, or Picturetalk, we should not be doing any post-input activities. These C.I. strategies deliver C.I. and as such are useful in and of themselves.

  3. We should spend our resources on materials that deliver input, and not in resources that create busywork for students or teachers. As we have seen with C.I. curricula, “pure C.I.” is not only the best, but the cheapest option.

    For example, with reading, say we want to use novels.  We can get a novel from Blaine Ray or Carol Gaab for $5 in quantities of 30 or more.  So, a class set = $150.  The teacher’s guides are typically $35-40. Five sets of novels (no teacher’s guides) = $750.  Four sets of novels plus teacher’s guides = $600 + $140-160 = $740-$760. If we buy the five sets of novels instead of four sets plus teacher’s guides, and ditch the “activities,” our students have more choice in reading for close the same cost. If they like the books (ie find them compelling and comprehensible), simply reading them will be the best use of both class time and money.

    Or, we could do even better: we could negotiate a bulk price (Carol and Blaine are very reasonable) and get 15 copies each of TEN novels.  Here we would have much more choice, which is always good for readers, especially reluctant ones.

    If we combine smart novel investment with building an FVR library out of kids’ comics, we are well on our way to maximising our C.I. game.

  4. We might also find that teacher wellness and language ability will increase with an input-only program. It has been said that a legendary C.I. innovator developed their method partly to boost acquisition, and partly to boost their golf score. Underlying this is a solid truth. The happier and better-rested a teacher is, the easier it will be for them to teach well. Much the same is true for students: as much work as possible should be done in class, so students can relax, work, pursue their own interests, do sports etc outside of class.

    Instead of “prepping activitites” for tomorrow, marking Q&As or whatever, checking homework, and supervising students during post-input “activity time,”, a teacher can simply deliver C.I. and let the kids read.  And, as Bryce Hedstrom and Beniko Mason note, free reading also builds teacher competence in the target language. While the kids read their novels (or last year’s class stories), we read ours, and everyone gets better!

CAVEATS

If you have real trouble getting kids to listen/you have kids that cannot listen/read, or you are in an awful school where if it’s not for marks, I’m not doing it is the norm, you might have to do post-C.I. “activities.” And there is nothing wrong with that. We do the best we can with what– and who– we have, and where we are. You also might need “activities” to maintain your in-class sanity.

I was recently discussing the most recent version of Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk! books with Mike Coxon and Craig Sheehy, and Victoria, BC school district language co-ordinator Denise Wehner. All of us like Blaine’s book, but all of us questioned some of the post-story and post-reading activities that are in it (eg crosswords, word searches).  And then Craig said but sometimes a teacher just needs kids to be quiet and focused on something other than the teacher’s voice.  And we all looked at each other and nodded.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Deliver as much aural and/or written comprehensible input as you can. When you have delivered some, deliver more. If you do T.P.R.S., ask another story.  If you do Mason’s Story Listening, give students a written version of what you have just told, then tell another story. If you are doing “untargeted input” a la Slavic and Hargaden, make another OWI and put it into another story. If your thing is reading, get kids to do more reading with as few “accountability” activities as possible.

ACTFL: Almost There!

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages provides American teachers with guidance about “core practices” which ACTFL recommends.  Unfortunately, ACTFL hasn’t done much reading of science (or discussion with successful teachers) in forming these guidelines.

Today’s question:  are ACTFL’s core practices best practice?

Answer: Sometimes.

dumb actfl list

First, ACTFL’s suggestion that teachers “facilitate target language comprehensibility” is solid.  No arguments from science or good languages teachers.  Now, the rest…

  1. The use of “authentic resources” is, well, problematic.  As I have discussed, an awful lot of #authres use low frequency vocabulary, and they don’t repeat it very much.  Yes, you can “scaffold” their “use” by frontloading vocab, removing vocab, etc.  Which raises the question of why bother using #authres? Why not just start with something that is actually comprehensible?Want to teach culture?  Picturetalk and Movietalk work well.  Music…great, because if it’s good, people will listen to it over and over (and maybe focus on the lyrics) but expect a load of slang and other low-freq vocab.

    In terms of acquisition bang-per-buck, or gains per unit of time, nothing beats a diet of comprehensible input.

  2. That  teachers should “design oral communication tasks” for students is not the best idea.  Learner-to-learner communication in the target languagea. is a difficult thing on which to keep students (especially adolescents)  focused.  Why use the TL to discuss something in which L1 is quicker and easier? is what kids often think.  In my experience, for every three minutes of class time students get for “talking practice,” you might get thirty seconds of actual “practice,” and then L1, Snapchat etc take over.  In a full C.I. class, you have a lot more time where students are focusing on interpreting the target language.

    b. will feature poor learner L2 use becoming poor L2 input for other students, which is not optimal practice.  As Terry Waltz has noted, “peer to peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching.”

    c. lowers the “richness” of input: what a teacher (or good book) can provide has richer and more complex input than what learners can do for each other.

  3. Planning with a “backward design model”– i.e. having specific plans for specific goals– is something we might have to do in some Districts, where there are imposed exams with vocab lists and so forth.  Much better practice is to simply  allow student interests– and frequency lists– guide what is taught. Student interests– self-selected reading; story co-creation and activities using vocabulary in student stories– will by definition be compelling, and high-frequency vocabulary  most useful.The only meaningful primary goals in a second-language classroom are  that 1. students be able to easily demonstrate comprehension of a LOT of the target language and 2. that students read and listen to a lot of the target language (in comprehended form). If this is accomplished, everything else– ability to speak and write– inevitably follows. Planning anything else– S.W.B.A.T. discuss ______; SWABT write ______— gives instruction an unproductive interest-narrowing and skill-practicing focus.

    It is also well worth thinking about the ideal “end state” or goal of language teaching.  I agree with Krashen: we are here to get people to the point where they can continue to acquire on their own.  If they automatically recognise a ton of high-frequency vocabulary (which will by definition include most grammar “rules”), they will understand a lot and be able to “slot in” new vocab. And most importantly, when they get to France or Mexico or China or Blablabia, input will ramp up so much that spoken French, Spanish, Chinese and Blablabian will emerge on its own.

  4.  “Teach grammar as concept and use in context”– not bad.  ACTFL here notes that meaning comes first, yaaay.  Should we “teach grammar”? Other than explaining meaning, no: conscious knowledge about language does nothing to develop competence with language. Although if students ask why do we _______ in Blablabian, a ten-second “grammar commercial” won’t hurt.
  5. “Provide oral feedback” is a terrible idea. Why?a. Anything we address to explicit awareness does not enter into implicit memory.  If Johnny says yo gusto chicas, and we say no, it should be me gustan chicas, he might be able to remember this for the eight-second auditory window, and maybe even repeat after us. But if Johnny is merely listening and repeating, he is not processing for meaning, which is how language is acquired.

    b. Oral correction makes Johnny embarassed— it raises his affective filter– and this is both uncomfortable and unproductive for him.

 

Anyway, we are getting there.  ACTFL puts C.I. front and center; as we C.I. practiioners continue to show just how well C.I. works, hopefully ACTFL eventually ditches its old-school recomendations.

Frequency List Lessons #3

So…in Spanish, the “super 7 verbs” are to have, to want, to go, to like, to exist, to be, to be located.  This Terry Waltz-compiled list is the most-used verbs.  Mike Peto added nine more to make the “sweet 16.”  These are worth heavily focusing on in Year 1 of any language. They are the acquisitional platform on which subsequent Spanish is built, and they allow us to get about 90% of necessary work done in Spanish (with circumlocution etc).

It’s a central tenet in C.I. teaching that we want to focus on high-frequency words.  Then, on C.I. Fight Club, the topic of how frequently used numbers are came up, and Terry had this to say:

This is why the “Super 7” is a list of concepts, not specific words. For me, thinking about getting students able to express or work with concepts is more important than specific vocabulary. They need some way of quantifying (at first maybe just “many” and “few”, later more specific). That’s really important, but it’s made up in turn of a whole lot of options. Individual number words don’t “score” highly on standard frequency lists of words, but if you looked at the concepts those words stood for, I bet the “quantity” concept would be right up there.

So I went and looked at how frequently numbers and quantity-connnoting words appear in the 1000 most frequently used Spanish words. (The only numbers in the 100 most-used Spanish words are 1 and 2).

#37  mas    more
#40  
todo   all
#72  todos all (plural)
#96  tan (used for as…as)
#153 mismo (same)
#204 tres (three)
#205 menos (less)
#240 cada (each)
#296 casi (almost)
#311 primera (first)
#327 cuanto (how much)
#392 ningun (none, not any)
#425 cinco (five)
#428 cuando (when)
#430 algunos (certain)
#434 unos/unas (some)
#435 muchos (many)
#437 segundo (second)
#456 cuatro (four)

The next numberish word is diez (ten) at #708.

So it would seem that Terry is right: there are a whopping five numbers in the most-used 708 words, but there are 14 words which have to do with quantity.  In other words, having a feel for quantity is more important than knowing lots of specific numbers.

 

 

 

 

 

Does iPad “talking practice” boost oral fluency? A look at Schenker & Kraemer (2017).


In a 2017 paper, Schenker and Kraemer argue that iPad use helps develop oral fluency. Specifically, they found that iPad app users after “speaking practice” were able to say more in German, and were more fluent– rapid and seamless– in saying it than were controls who had not “practiced” speaking. 
So, prima facie, the authors can claim that focused speaking practice helps develop fluency. 

Q: Does this claim hold up?

A: Not according to their evidence. 

Let’s start with the method. Kraemer and Schenker took English L1 students of second-year German, divided them into two groups, and gave one batch iPads. The iPad group had to use Adobe Voice to record three tasks per week, which had to be posted to a group blog. In addition, each iPad user had to respond verbally to some other students’ posted responses to the tasks. 

The tasks included things such as “describe your room” and “recommend a movie to a friend.”

The control group did nothing outside class other than their usual homework, and the iPad group had their other homework (which the authors do not detail, but describe as work involving “vocabulary and grammar knowledge”) slightly reduced in quantity. 

In terms of results, the iPad group during oral testing on average said more, and was more fluent (using language “seamlessly”) than the control.  The authors thereby claim that “practice speaking” boosted oral competence. 

However, there are a number of atudy design flaws which render the authors’ conclusions problematic.

First, the study compares apples and oranges. The speaking group practised, well, speaking, while the controls did not. The speaking group had more time with German (class, plus speaking, plus doing whatever they did to prepare their recordings, plus listening and responding to others’ posted task responses) than did the controls (class, plus “vocabulary and grammar” hwk). The speaking group had more time doing speaking as well as more total German time than the controls. 

This is akin to studying physical fitness by comparing people who work out with those who are couch potatoes, or by comparing people who do two hours a week of working out with those who do four. 

Second, the study does not compare speaking development-focused methods. One group “practiced speaking,” while the other did “vocabulary and grammar” homework.
 This is like comparing strength gains between a group of people who only run two hours a week with another group that runs two hours a week and lifts weights. Yes, both will get fitter, and both will be able to lift more weights  and run a bit faster (overall fitness provides some strength gains, and vice-versa).  

However, what should have been compared here are different ways of developing oral fluency. (We should note that fluency first requires broad comprehension, because you cannot respond to what you don’t understand). 

We could develop oral fluency by 

• listening to various kinds of target-language input (stories, conversations, news etc). 

• watching target-language, L1-subtitled film. 

• reading (it boosts vocabulary). 

Schenker and Kraemer’s “practice speaking” will help (at least in the short term). One could also in theory mix all of these, as a typical class does.

Schenker and Kraemer, however, compare one approach to developing speaking with an approach that does nothing at all to address speaking. 

A more persuasive study design would have had three groups: a control, and two different “speaking development” groups. The “speaking development” groups could have included those doing Schenker & Kraemer’s “practice talking” with, say, people listening to speech, or reading, or watching subtitled film (or a mix).  One group would spend 60 min per week recording German (and listening to 50-75 second German recordings made by their peers). The other would spend 60 min per week, say, listening to German. At the end, control, speakers and listeners would be tested and compared. 

Third, the study does not control for the role of aural (or other) input. The iPad group for one had to come up with their ideas. Since no relatively novice learner by definition comes up with much on their own, they must have gotten language somewhere (Kraemer and Schenker do not discuss what the students did pre-recording their German). My guess is, the speakers used dictionaries, Google translate, reading, grammar charts, things they heard on Youtube, anything they remembered/wrote down from class, possibly Duolingo etc, to “figure out” what to say and how to say it. If you were recording work, being marked on it, and having it responded to by strangers, you would surely make it sound as good as you could…and that (in a language class) could only mean getting extra input.  So did the speaking group get better at speaking because they “practiced speaking,” because they (probably) got help pre-recording, or both? 

Which leads us to the next problem, namely, that the iPad group got aural input which the control group did not. Recall that the iPad group not only had to post their recordings, they also had to listen and respond to these recordings. So, again, did the iPad group get better because they talked, or because they also listened to others’ recordings of German?

Finally, there was no delayed post-test to see if the results “stuck.”  Even if the design had shown the effectiveness of speaking “practice” (which in my view it did not), no delayed post test = no real results. 

The upshot is this: the iPad group got more input, spent more time listening, spent more total time with German, and spent more time preparing, than did the controls. This looks (to me) like a problematic study design. Ideally, both groups would have had the same input, the same amount of listening, etc, with the only difference being that the iPad group recorded their tasks. 

Anyway, the skill-builders’ quest continues for the Holy Grail of evidence that talking, in and of itself, helps us learn to talk. 

The implications for classroom teachers are (in my view) that this is waaaay too much work for too few results. The teacher has to set the tasks (and the blog, iPad apps, etc) up, then check to make sure students are doing the work, and then test them. Sounds like a lot of work! 

Better practice– if one feels one must assign homework– would be to have students listen to a story, or watch a video in the T.L., and answer some basic questions about that. This way people are focused on processing input, which the research clearly says drives acquisition. 

On a personal note, I’m too lazy to plan and assess this sort of thing. My homework is whatever we don’t get done in class, and always involves reading. 

How Do I Explain Comprehensible Input?

Kids, parents and colleagues often ask us why do we do stories in Blablabian class, and read so much Blablabian? or why don’t we practise speaking Blablabian more? or why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s class?

These are good questions.  Now, since most kids and parents, and an unfortunately  staggering number of teachers, administrators, heads, and methods instructors in Uni don’t, won’t or can’t read S.L.A. research, we have to be able to get people to think about why we teach languages basically by using comprehensible stories and reading that recycle vocabulary a lot.  Our best explanation will be, because it works, and we show the kids, colleagues, parents or admins what kids can understand and do.  We can also point them to the user-friendly Tea With BVP radio show/podcast. We can also do the best thing of all time: ask our students, do you feel like you are understanding lots of Blablabian, and is it easy?

But sometimes you want to make a point quickly, or get people thinking, so, today’s question: how do I explain comprehensible input teaching?  Some of these are my ideas, and others come from Robert Harrell and Terry Waltz.

Q: Why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s Blablabian class?

A: Ask the questioner, so knowing grammar rules is important to be able to speak a language?  When they say yes, say OK, let’s do a simple experiment.  First, ask them to tell you three things they did last night.  They’ll say something like first I went home and ate Pizza pops, and then I did homework that totally sucked, and after dinner I played Minecraft on my Xbox.Then, say OK, now tell me three things you did last night, but do not use the letter “n.”  This will open the door to a conversation that can show them why having to consciously think about language while using it will basically cripple our ability to talk.

 

Q: Why don’t we/your students/my children in your classes practise talking?

A: 
Ask the person what language that you don’t know would you like to learn?  They might say Urdu, or Dari, or French.  Then say to them OK, let’s start speaking Urdu.

At this point, they will say yes but I don’t know how to say anything. Then you say something like well, how would you like to learn to say something, and they will say something like by listening to it or by reading or watching it and you say exactly!  You can now talk about how input, and lots of it, must– and does– precede any kind of output.

Q: Don’t people need grammar rules explained to them to be able to speak?

A:  Ask whether or not the sentence “I enjoy to run” sounds right.  When they say, no, ask why not?  Most people will say uhhhhh, while the grammar freaks will say well the verb to enjoy must be followed by a noun or a gerund bla bla bla.  Right…and now you ask them when you were a kid, who explained that rule to you?  What, wait, nobody?  Well then how did you pick it up?

This is where you can talk about what polyglot Kato Lomb (21 languages) said:  we learn grammar from language, not language from grammar.

 

Q: Don’t people need to memorise a lot of vocabulary to learn a language?  Why don’t you get your students to study vocab lists?

A:  Ask them, could you explain how to turn a cellphone off? Obviously:  simply find the button, and press the button long enough.  Now, ask them, can you tell me how to draw a cube?  Here, I have pen and paper, explain away.

Image result for cube

When they try to tell you what to do to make this cube, you will probably end up with something very different from this nice neat cube.
The point? Some activities that we do are simple enough to first explain and then simply do, like turning a phone on or off.  In school, things low on Bloom’s taxonomy, like memorising some dates for a history class, or doing long division, can easily be broken down into steps, practiced, and mastered.  Basiclaly, if a computer can or could do it, we can learn it by breaking it down into steps.

Other activities, however, are so complex that breaking them down into steps or chunks is either impossible or not worth the effort.  You could theoretically “explain” how  to draw a cube, but it would be way easier to just show somebody a cube and have them go at experimenting with copying it.  Similarly, you could ask students to memorise twenty Blablabian words (or some grammar “rules”) for a test.  But it would be much simpler to get them to listen to some sentences containing the words, explain what the sentences mean, and then ask them some questions about the sentences (ie circle them) in order to recycle the words.

Q: I learned Blablabian from textbooks, memorising word lists, and studying grammar.  I can still speak it.  Why should we do anything differently?  (This question  btw is one that I have never heard from a parent, but rather from some older languages teachers.)

A: First, we ask Mr Old Grammar Student a couple of questions in Blablabian, speaking at the speed of at which native speakers of Blablabian.  One of two things will happen: 1. MOGS will not understand the question, or 2. MOGS will get it and give us a fluent answer.

If MOGS doesn’t understand, the point is moot.

If MOGS gives us a fluent answer, we then ask, have you done anything to acquire Blablabian other than study the text etc? The answer is always one or more of the following: yes, I lived in Blablabia for three years, or I married a Blablabian who did not speak English, or I watch Blablabian-language news, or I really enjoy watching the Blablabian soap opera ROTFL BFF OMG LULZ on Netflix. 

At this point, one can politely bring up Lance Piantaggini’s point that how we actually acquired Blablabian might differ from how we think we acquired it.  The way I put it is this: can you tell me how much of your Blablabian came from Blablabian experiences, and how much came from the text?  Even if people don’t know, we point out that, at best, a student of Blablabian in a five-year high-school Blablabian program got 500 hours of Blablabian (and, if the teacher was using a textbook, probably a lot less). If they lived in Blablabia, they got that much exposure to Blablabian in six weeks!

At this point, only a hardened grizzled grammarian fighting the noble battle of the textbook will stick to their guns, and say something like well grammar preparation made it possible for me to go out and experience real-life in Blablabia successfully.  At this point we might say, and what percent of your students will eventually end up in a Blablabian immersion environment? but frankly I would rather at this point go and grab a couple of beers.

 

Ok folks, there it is, a few simple ways to get people thinking about why C.I. works.

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

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

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

 

Claim: 

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

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

 

Claim:

AIM

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

TPRS

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

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

Claim:

AIM

Offers a full online teacher training and certification program.

TPRS

Offers webinars online.

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

 

Claim:

AIM

Supported by a variety of research. (See attached)

TPRS

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

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

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

 

Claim:

AIM

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

 

TPRS

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

PQA = teacher talk

Reality:

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

 

Claim:

 

AIM

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

TPRS

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

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

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

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

 

Claim:

AIM

Believe in a balanced literacy approach.

 

 

TPRS

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

Reality:

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

 

Claim:

AIM

The number of structures per lesson varies significantly.

TPRS

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

Reality:

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

 

Claim:

AIM

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

TPRS

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

Reality: 

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

 

Claim: 

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

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

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

 

Claim: 

AIM

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

TPRS

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

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

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

 

Claim:

AIM

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

 

 

TPRS

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

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

 

Claim:

AIM

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

 

TPRS

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

Reality:

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

 

Claim:

AIM

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

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

TPRS

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

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

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

 

Claim:

AIM

Specific language manipulation activities to scaffold the ability for language use

TPRS

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

Reality:

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

 

Reality:

AIM

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

TPRS

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

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

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

 

Claim:

AIM

Carefully sequenced partner/group activities

 

TPRS

Various random activities for ‘partner vocabulary practice’

 

Reality:

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

 

Claim:

AIM

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

 

TPRS

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

 

 

Reality:

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

 

Claim:

AIM

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

TPRS

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

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

 

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

 

 

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.” 😉

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.😜

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?

Me: LOOOOOL

 Dr K.:  LOOOOOOOL

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?” 😉

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, à 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.”

AND THEN I GOT TO POSE IN A PHOTO WITH THE COOL KIDS!

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 

Me:  LOOOOOOL

Terry: LOOOOOOL

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 Jðkvar Sqkvðd’s 3,700-page opus “Krœy Hrâ B’nÿä Pö” 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 Montréal 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.

 

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!

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

Part One: The Basics

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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).