Sequence of Instruction

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’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


What is T.P.R.S.’ Sequence of Instruction?

Now that I have been using Adriana Ramírez’ Learning Spanish With Comprehensible Input Storytelling for 10 weeks I thought I’d show how I use the text. At any point, if there is extra time, or we are bored, we take out our novel– Berto y sus Buenas Ideas, or whatever, and we read– guided and questioned by me– for 5-15 min.

Adriana’s teacher book has the historia básica– the story version we ask– and the preguntas personalizadas, along with a short list of the grammar “points” introduced in each story.

A) Photocopy the historia básica and the preguntas personalizadas and give the kids each a copy.  I give my kids the historia básica in photocopy form because I want them to re-read a simple version of the story.  The historia extendida and the comprehension questions are in the student book.

B) establish meaning– have kids write down Spanish words and English meanings in the student books.

C) ask the story, sticking fairly close to the historia básica. Add 1-2 parallel characters. Have 1-2 actors for the main story and have the parallel characters sit at their desks (with one prop each) to identify them. The beginning is always establishing lots of details about the characters.

D) Personalised questions and answers (PQA): ask the faster processors in class (just regular kids sitting there) the questions you ask the actors. Do this AFTER each actor has said his/her answer. E.g. If you narrate “the boy wants to speak Spanish,” ask the actor “do you want to speak Spanish?” Then ask the kids “do YOU want to speak ____?” For this I use whatever I ask actors plus the preguntas personalizadas in the teacher’s book (the kids also have copies of these).

E) When done, ask a thousand comp questions. Does the boy want to own a Ferrari? Does the girl want 10 blue cats or 20? I read sentences from the historia básica aloud and ask questions, and I also throw a TON of PQA into this.  I will generally do the comp questions around the historia básica  that I’ve copied and given them– I have found that another, very simple, re-reading of more or less exactly what was asked helps a lot.

F) Spend one block (75 min) reading the historia extendida aloud, asking zillions of questions, doing PQA, etc.  This takes awhile, as the historia extendida typically has a bunch of new vocab (typically 15 or so words not in the asked/básica version of the story).

G) Do ping-pong reading of the historia extendida for about 15 min. Then give them 20 min to write the answers to the comprehension questions in the student book. I collect these and mark 3 questions/student for comprehension.

H) at this point, Adriana gives them one period to practise and perform the story– changing only names and places– but I have ditched this because the kids give me crappy output and retells do not seem to boost acquisition. Adriana is convinced it works– it definitely works for her and her kids– but I have not figured this out yet.  I’ll keep ppl posted as hopefully Adriana can walk me through this for the 37th time (I am not a smurt guyy).

This is where I do MovieTalk and PictureTalk (Ben Slavic’s “Look and Discuss”). I will picturetalk 1-3 images that support the vocab from our story, and I’ll movietalk one video that does the same.

I) for homework, they have to either draw a 12-panel comic of the story, or copy and translate the story (the historia extendida). This is “deep reading” that really focuses them in on the story.

J) I sometimes “re-ask” the basic story super-quickly at some point (much less circling).

K) Test. First, speedwrite: they must write as many words as they can in 5 min. The topic will be either 1. describe yourself or 2. describe a picture I put on the overhead (this picture will be of a person who has possessions or characteristics of a character in the story).

Then we have a 5-min brain break.

Second, relaxed write. They have 35 min to re-write the story. They need 2 characters minimum, 4 dialogues central to the story, and they have to “twist” the story after our 3rd story. For the first two, they can just re-write the story. After that, they have to substantially change the story details.

L) I then give them the vocab etc (see A) for our next story.

Test and introducing new vocab takes 1 block.


1. If the kids like whatever we are doing, or reading,nand/or PQA takes off, I’ll spend as long as I can on this. If they are in the target language, and they understand, and there are zillions of reps, they are learning. Remember what Papa Blaine said: “My goal is to never finish a story.”

2. Another AWESOME thing to throw in are fake texts– easy to generate and personalise/customise for each story– kids like the visuals and you get loads more reps on the dialogue (this is the hardest thing to do– reps on dialogue). Just google “fake text generator” or try this one for iPhone texts.

3. Each class begins with me circling date, day, month, time and weather for about 1 min.  This means that by end of five-month semester kids will know all weather, #s 1-30, days of the week, etc.

4. It’s crucially important to remember that you must do what works for you and your kids. Adriana and I and Natalia and everyone I know who uses this book (and T.P.R.S. in general) uses it differently. T.P.R.S. itself is now different than what Blaine Ray created– he himself continues to modify the method– so do your thing. As I told Adriana, her excellent book is a platform from which Spanish teaching launches.  Adriana does retells; I don’t; both of us do assessment slightly differently, etc.

Ok there you have it, what I do.