#showumine

To plan, or not to plan?

How do we know what a student can really do with an additional language, in, say, writing?  Suppose we wanted to be deadly boring for our students.  Hmmm, how about, we make them write about their daily routine, that should put both students and teacher nicely to sleep.

If we are a traditional teacher, we want to know what they have learned: what they can consciously do with language.  We could give them a writing prompt–describe your daily routine– time to plan/look at vocab/check out Google translate/”reflect on our learning”/plan out our metacognitive strategies/whatever, then give them a bunch of time to write, and then mark it.

If we are C.I. teachers, we want to see what students have acquired— what they can do without any planning, immediately. So we give them the same topic, zero prep time, a bit of time to write, then mark.

A teacher recently shared two writing samples from Spanish 1.  One sample is from a CI-taught kid in his class, the other from a kid taught by his grammarian colleague.

EXAMPLE A.  This is from the textbook/grammar teacher’s top student

  • the teacher spent three weeks doing a “unit” on reflexive verbs
  • the teacher’s students had just finished their “reflexive verb unit”
  • they had time to “prepare” their writing
  • they had 20 min. to write
  • about 120 words
  • quality: excellent, with minor errors

GT refl par.

EXAMPLE B. from one of the C.I. teacher’s middle-of-the-road students

  • the C.I. teacher spent about one week doing a story involving this vocab
  • the story using this vocabulary was asked one month prior to this being written
  • zero planning time
  • 10 min. writing time
  • 104 words
  • Quality: excellent, with very minor errors

CI reflexive write
What I noticed:

  • The CI student’s output is twice the speed of the traditionally-taught kid
  • the CI kid does as well as the grammar kid with no planning time and half the writing time
  • The CI kid has “been away” from the vocab for three weeks and uses it as well as the kid who just finished a “unit” on it
  • The CI kid spent one week with this vocab while the grammar kid spent three weeks

Anyway…faster writing with zero prep time and less instructional time: C.I. is looking a lot better than the text.

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Whaddaya got, grammarians?

My Twitter challenge from a month ago stands: if you can use grammar and output-focused methods, and get better results than me with true beginners, an evening of beer (or wine) tasting is on me.

(Before we discuss results, let’s discuss what really matters: 🍻…Vancouver now has a bunch of crafty breweries. My favorite is Brassneck, who do not bottle, and who have only two beers (and I.P.A. and a northwest pale ale– this very close to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the gold standard for this style) which are always on tap. The other eight or so rotating taps are brewmaster Conrad Gmoser “unleashed” and you never see the same beers twice.  You may find cherry sours, Belgian Trippels, saisons, pilseners, Gmoser’s legendary 11% espresso stout… But Brassneck is not alone: there are a bunch of other great places too and though we are neither Denver nor Portland there is good beer to be had.  My colleague Leanda read this and said “what about 🍷?” so fair enough a wine-guzz–, er I mean, tasting evening is also ip for grabs)

ANYWAY…so far nobody has stepped up for their free beer evening.  Hello, grammarians.  Whaddaya got? “Communicative” teachers– you out there?  American Adminz who think talking, self-reflection, writing, grammar practice and “essential questions” matter– you feelin’ me?

Now allow me to explain the somewhat sarcastic tone here.  There are a bunch of teachers in the U.S. whose idio– err I mean, Administratorz, sorry, are totally unaware of how language acquisition works. These Adminz watch competent c.i. practitioners and then say stupid things like

  • “I want to see more communicative pair activities”
  • “the students aren’t talking enough”
  • “there is too much teacher talk”
  • “TPRS does not teach grammar”
  • “I do not see essential questions on the board”
  • “I do not see students reflecting on their learning”
  • “While stories I am sure are fun, the kids will also need grammar practice.”

The only thing worse than an admin who knows nothing about language acquisition is an admin who points to bad practices and wants to see more of them.  Uninformed Adminz are often two-year-olds: they want to see some shiny, commonsensical obvious “stuff” being “done” by kids “right now” as “evidence” of ________.  Uninformed Adminz love seeing communicative pair activities– “look! The kids are talking!”– and they looooove things with edubabbble– “look! E-learning! Portfolios! Self-assessment! Rigor!”– and they do not like classrooms with kids who appear to be, well, thinking and absorbing.

So these idi– err I mean, educational leaders, make life hard for c.i. practitioners, and point at bad practices for what c.i. people “should” be doing (and generally do not look at the results of c.i. instruction). Anyway, this is a challenge.  My kids do NONE of the following

  • Self assessment
  • Grammar worksheets
  • Speaking Spanish (unless they want to)
  • Communicative pair activities
  • Internet/dictionary word searches
  • Revision of writing
  • Goal setting
  • Portfolios
  • anything online

Challenge: use all the things I don’t, and get better results than me.

Here’s what my beginner kids are doing at 8 weeks of Spanish.  These are examples of story writes (a.k.a. relaxed writes). They have 40 minutes to write a story which is a variation on the most recent story we asked (and read extended versions of) in class.  They are not allowed to use notes, dictionaries, Internet, etc.  What you see here is from memory.

Manisha missed the first week of class and misses about a day a week cos of stress issues.  The grammar mistakes are absolutely minor. Here is page 1. 

Roshini also did amazingly well: 324 words.  Note the French error! Ha! She mixes up dio and dijo.

Manvir also did well. 282 words. She has a few errors– minor spelling and adj agreement. I’ll post her whole thing.

Here’s Manvir’s 2nd page

and here is her conclusion

Standard disclaimer: I am neither smart, hardworking nor good at languages. If I can get these results, anyone can get these results!

And if you think these are good…you should see what Adriana Ramírez’ kids can do.  Ella es mi profesora diosa. 

Results: Beginner Speedwrites Week 8 (Spring 2015)

Today was our fourth story test.  The class had a speedwrite assignment: in five minutes, describe this picture in as many words as possible. Note: we are unsheltered (i.e. we use all necessary grammar and do not restrict ourselves to any one verb tense, mood, etc).  Also we are a split class: beginners, 2s and three native speakers.

This picture works well: we just did the “Cambio de Pelo” story and the kids know words for hair, eyes, colours, dog, cat, guitar.

 

So here are what the beginners did.

First, Marya.  Note spelling mistake– “guitare”– this kid had French last year and it shows.  Also note tense & person confusion.  I have started doing ¿qué hiciste anoche?  PQA at the start of every class and the beginners are mixing these up.  My theory is that if it’s not also in structured writing (i.e. story form) they mix it up more.

Manvir has some problems with verbs. She is missing hay and es which may have to do with not enough present-tense PQA and/or reading.  Also adjective agreement errors.  The thing is entirely comprehensible, but the errors at times make you go huh?

  Minali’s was interesting. It hit me that the beginners have problems with the definite article!  I had assumed, my God, this goes without saying…but…most of our kids being L1 Punjabi or Hindi (which do not have articles) perhaps I can’t assume that English crossover grammar will kick in.  Again here hay and es and está are missing.  Also note jugar guitar a classic French/English cognate mistake, one that comes from the conscious mind.

Manisha’s is basically perfect but she did not write in 3rd person.

Roshini’s is also perfect basically and very high wordcount.  But she did not write in present– I am wondering if these guys actually can consciously think about verb tenses. Also note classic on-the-way error: Saturn gustaba instead of A Saturn le gustaba.  She hasn’t added the a and le because these are of low importance: the beginner language brain is focusing on gustaba, which has all the essential info. Interesting also how she used plural adjective form azules for pelo.

Wordcounts are lower than last time. This is (I think) because when we do story-related PQA, all of the answers are in first person, so it’s easy to describe yourself.  We simply do a whole lot less talk in 3rd person present.

What did I learn? 

  • Do MUCH more present tense PQA (or ask actors about each other)
  • do pop-ups for everything including articles!
  • put more present-tense commentary in written versions of unsheltered stories, OR do way more Picturetalk  (look and discuss) in present tense.
  • the kids don’t make mistakes unless I don’t provide enough input

What Results Am I Getting? Beginner Speedwrites week 7 (Spring 2015)

I have a split class right now– Spanish 1 and 2.  We are doing our third assessment now after our third story.  These are what my beginners did today. They have five minutes to describe themselves.  (The other topic we sometimes do is, describe a picture that is projected on the overhead.) They do this from memory– no notes or dictionaries etc.   The idea is, write as much as you can asquickly as you can, so we see acquisition– what’s “wired in”– as opposed to what the conscious, rule-focused mind can do.

These kids have had 6.5 weeks of unsheltered, comprehensible input stories.  Narration: past tenses.  Dialogue and PQA: present tense.  They knew zero Spanish when they started.  On the sheets, the larger number is wordcount and the smaller (1, 2 or 3) is their grammar mark.

First, Minali’s. There is some verb tense confusion but otherwise solid.

Next, Manvir. She’s got some problems with remembering son and es and I am wondering if this comes from the unsheltered input. She also doesn’t yet have gusta/gustan. High wordcount though!

Here is Marya’s work.   What’s interesting here is that saludables made it into this speedwrite.  She has it in the plural because that is how we see it in the story. So she has acquired meaning but she hasn’t got the grammar rule of adj agreement/placement yet.  Still, this is rock-solid writing.

Next,  Roshini.  Note tense confusion.  But also interesting: she used yo tener fue a London.  It’s wrong but she knows that something like fu- means go (past tense). I think this is rule overgeneralisation.  This kid BTW has missed one entire week of class.

This is Eric’s.  He was put into Spanish 2 weeks after course started, and has a writing output challenge (he has an I.E.P.). Only this week has he been starting to speak whole sentences aloud. I mercy-passed him with a 2/3 for grammar.

Finally, here is Manisha’s. Again, she has not yet acquired gusta/gustan but otherwise this is impeccable beginner writing. She missed the first 6 days of class so this to me is doubly impressive.

Anyway, neat, hey?  These guys are sure doing better than my kids used to do under “communicative” or grammar-focused teaching.  Would be cool to see others’ results and I’ll post more as we progress.

How Badly Did I Fail Teaching Languages? (1)

I have been reflecting on my teaching and I thought I would share my many screw-ups, and offer some better alternatives (which might be useful for teachers who use textbook programs and are getting frustrated).  So here we go– today’s question–

Q: How– and how badly– did I screw up teaching languages?

A: Pretty badly– and here is how 

 1. I used grammar worksheets and explicit grammar practice to “teach grammar.” The programs I used– first ¡Díme! and then Juntos— had a lot of these.  Fill in the blanks with the correct verbform, pronoun, or word, etc. The research about this is clear: a grammar item is acquired when the learner has heard loads of comprehensible input containing the item/rule in question, AND when their brain is “ready” to pick it up.   If a learner hasn’t acquired it, they aren’t ready for it.  If they have, there’s little point in practicing. Truscott writes that “no meaningful support has been provided for the […] position that grammar should be taught” (and practiced) and VanPatten says that “tenses are not acquired as “units” and the brain doesn’t store grammar as a textbook-stated rule.”

“Conscious awareness” of grammar rules (as Krashen points out) only helps us if ALL of the following conditions are met:

1.  we know the rule

2. we know how to apply the rule

3.  we have time to consciously reflect on and apply the rule

So, if students have worksheets or whatever where they are “practising the passé composé” or whatever, they’ll do well.  They’ll beaver away, slowly, filling in the blanks.  Of course, in real life, they won’t have time to go “hmm, is that a DR AND MRS VANDERTRAMP verb?  Oh, it is, so, let’s see, how do we conjugate that?” Or, as Yogi Berra said, “you can’t think and hit at the same time.” Worksheets cannot help those who havn’t acquired a grammar rule; they are unnecessary for those who have. And they’re boring.

Doing it betterI would have kids read a ton of stuff which has the grammar item, etc, they are learning.  If I had worksheets, a better way to use them would be to give the kids the worksheets with the blanks filled in and have them translate:  this is quality (if boring) input.

 

2.  I used to do projects in the target language.   One typical one:  the ____ report.  Research ___, write up what you learned about ____ on a poster and add some pictures and lines connecting different elements.  Oh, and do it in Spanish.  Then read it aloud to the class.  Variations: use the Interwebz and add things that talk, move, have colours, etc.  The only problems were…

  • the kids had to look up a ton of vocab (read: Google translate)
  • almost none of this vocab got repeated for the rest of the year (read: little acquisition)
  • most of the writing had to be “edited” (read: totally re-written) by me before the final product was assembled.
  • most of the audience focused on pictures and missed most of the target language during the presentation because the presenters are the only ones who know the vocab, and the audience wanted to understand, and pictures were easier to understand.
  • if done in poster form, nobody except me, the teacher, ever read the Spanish, and a week after it was done, not even the kids who wrote the poster typically what it meant because all they did was copy it down
  • most of the Spanish on these was low-frequency vocab.  How often is somebody going to need to say “principal exports of ___ are petroleum and fried dog” or “The Cathedral of was built in ____”?

Now, kids did pick up a bit of vocab– and culture knowledge– but at the cost of good input.

Doing it better: I now do culture, etc, projects in English.  I can  get higher-order thinking, more learning-via-sharing, and less energy wasted on poor target language use.  Plus, the kids can easily understand each others’ work.

 

3.  I “used games” to “make grammar and learning fun.  From class soccer leagues to Hangman to cross-4, games got the kids focused and they found them fun.  Too bad, however, that

  • most of their output was flawed and/or English, and that therefore
  • they got little accurate input, and
  • the language they were exposed to was fragmented (ie generally not sentences which were part of bigger meaningful “whole” passages or conversations
  • they got low-frequency vocab.  E.g. the class soccer/hockey/baseball game.  Lots of fun, shouting, etc…but words like “scores” and “goal” and “foul” are not much-used.

 

4.  I didn’t know what I was doing with assessment.

a) I screwed up listening assessment.  In every languages program I have ever seen, the listening test at the end of each unit has something like, it  plays a native speaker saying something, or a conversation.  Then, there are multiple-guess questions  Why was this a problem for my kids?

  • the kids had to “hold” quite a lot of vocab in their heads while listening to (say) 60 seconds of language.  This is very hard to do.
  • The pattern was clear:  if the speaker(s) said it, the kids picked that as the answer.  If the statement was more complex– eg John was not tired– and the question was How did John feel? a) tired b) awake c) energetic, the kids would pick a, because thinking about “not” and the meaning of the word tired is cognitive overload for a lot of them.

Doing it better:  Give them WAY more time, restrict vocab to only what they know, and provide aural input much more slowly.  I would also now suggest using aural input as listen, copy and translate.

b) I screwed up writing assessment.  Yes, I had a marking rubric (thanks, Julia Macrae), which worked fine for paragraphs.  However, what do you do with single-sentence questions?  For example, a question would be ¿Te gustan los perros? (Do you like dogs?).  If a kid wrote me gusta los perros, or yo gusto las gatos (both of which demonstrate understanding of meaning, but which have basic grammar errors), how do you mark it?  Half a mark off for the mistake?  1/4?  How do you do holistic assessment for a sentence?  Impossible.

Doing it better: Now, I make them write only paragraphs and stories and assess holistically.  I check for understanding when I am asking stories, or while we are reading.

 

5.  I used to expect oral output from Day 1.  I used to do a lot of “communicative pair” or “information gap” activities.  The problems here were many:

  • the kids would always make output mistakes– e.g. they would have a list of things or activities, and they would have to ask their partner about them.  So, dogs.  A kid would say  ¿Te gusta el perros?  and get the answer No yo gusto perros— which was meaningful, but very low-quality input for their partners.  If this is where their language modeling came from, I realised eventually that there would be huge problems.  They would not acquire articles, verb endings etc properly.
  • I felt like a cop, cruising around the class to ensure Spanish compliance.  As one person I talked to said, “speaking ____ with other people who are also learning it feels fake.”  Kids simply felt funny using the language.
  • the logical thing to do is to get the info as easily and quickly as possible, i.e. L1, whose use was a constant problem.
  • the activities in books were dull:  ask your partner if s/he a) went to the beach b) played soccer, c) had a BBQ last summer.  I dunno about you but I and the kids don’t find that compelling.

Doing it better:   I don’t do any forced oral activities and end-of-course assessment with beginners.  I do one totally random three-minute oral interview with 2nd and up level kids at the end of level 2.  The kids do have to chorally answer story questions, and I will ask superstars personalised questions in the PQA (personalised questions and answers) process (basically, asking the superstars the questions I ask the actors).  This has allowed me to deliver much more– and better– input, partly because I am not spending 6-8 blocks/year assessing output, and because the output they do– acting in stories, and superstar PQA– is super high quality (and so is good input) for other learners.

Now, when I have kids who are reluctant to talk, I ask them yes/no or one-word PQA questions.  If we are doing a story and I say a la chica, le gustaban los gatos, I’ll first circle that, and then I’ll ask the actress ¿te gustan los gatos?  and a few other questions involving gustan and los gatos, los perros, los dinosaurios, etc.  Then, I ask my superstar or a native speaker ¿te gustan los gatos?  and they can answer with a complete sentence.  Then, I go to the slower processors (or shyer kids) and ask the same question.  They can say sí/no and that’s fine, or they can say a complete sentence.  The point now is to deliver input, not to force output, and to use output to signal understanding.

I also no longer do communicative pair activities.  Kids now pick up Q&A (first and second person) forms (and everything else) through PQA and stories.

 

6.  I used to do kid-created target-language movie projects.   Typically, I said “make a short film of ___,” ___ being either some thematic vocab (e.g. the food or shopping unit) or this plus some specific grammar requirements (e.g. use the imparfait).  Now, these are fun.  My daughters also did them, and when they did, I’ve never at my house seen five teenagers spend so much intense time rehearsing, giggling, planning, etc.  However…

  • the target language output was bad.  They’re learners.
  • most of the time spent making a film was in English.
  • most of the energy, mental and otherwise, spent in making the film was fixed on visuals, acting, bloopers, editing, etc
  • when they watched each others’ films in class, mostly they could not hear or understand the Spanish…because most of the Spanish had been special-occasion looked-up just for the film, and because the sound was bad
  • because the kids KNEW that the story must be primarily visually told, and they would film/edit for visual comprehension, viewers didn’t really need to pay attention to target language.
  • even the understood good target language was often not repeated much throughout the year (low frequency).

In retrospect, movie projects did get the kids talking, and they were fun.  But they didn’t deliver the sine qua non of good languages teaching: delivering compelling comprehensible input.

Doing it better:  Thanks to Adriana Ramírez, I now do this.  Provide the kids a script of 100% comprehensible vocab– including dialogue, with errors edited out– and have them film it.  They will have a blast filming (picking costumes, editing, hanging out with their buddies, adding music etc).  When you show it in class, they will be intrigued to see their friends acting, and they will not even notice that they are hearing and understanding the target language.

7. I used to give grammar tests.  Read the sentence and fill in the blanks with the right ____.  Conjugate the verb.  Show me where the pronoun goes. The research is clear:  grammar instruction works wonders if you want your students to become manipulators of grammar.  However, the part of the brain that stores “metalinguistic awareness” stuff like grammar rules is at best tangentially connected to the subconscious part that actually processes language.  The researchers all say the same thing: the brain does not acquire grammar by practicing grammar, and what we teachers call “grammar rules” is not how the brain “does” grammar.  So, making kids study for tests that ask them to consciously manipulate words and apply grammar rules took away from real, deep processing that happens when they hear or read stories or other meaningful language.

 

Doing it better: assess whole-language use (read, listening to and writing real meaningful stuff) and just, well, don’t give grammar tests.  If you really want to ensure that the kids learn to conjugate, use pronouns, etc, make them do a lot of reading.

8. I used to do the portfolio.  Kids take evidence of what they do– writing, reports, videos or oral presentations, tests and quizzzes, etc, and stick them in a folder called a “portfolio.”  Modern versions include online collections (e.g. you video your restaurant unit dialogue and put it on Youtube).  The rationale for portfolios is a) kids can “reflect on their learning, document  areas of growth and areas that need work” or some such edubabble, and b) kids can go and revise stuff and c) they can see what they did and learn from their mistakes.

First, (b) I agree with– you learned more, go fix it, good.  But, second, we run into a problem with A and C, because, basically, most adolescents simply cannot reflect on something as (1) complex and (2) innate as grammar etc.  Most of them can’t do it in English with essays/paragraphs etc, so how can we expect them to do it in a second language?  As an English teacher who teaches lit and composition to English speakers in English, I know that kids cannot meaningfully self-edit.  They also mostly cannot peer edit.  Yes, you can give them checklists…and they will look for– and sometimes even find– things on the checklists…and miss everything else.  And this is in English, their first language.  I used to provide Spanish grammatical feedback, the kids would dutifully re-copy their paragraphs and “improve them” and then they would make exactly the same mistakes on tests.

You can talk about ____ till you are blue in the face, but most kids just can’t do it.  They also don’t care– I mean, what student in their right mind would care how many of the 19 irregular passé composé verbs they don’t know or whatever?  That’s boring.  Also, I would give kids their writing back, correct the hell out of it, and they would look for how much red ink was on it, and what Number they got on it.  This is because they quite correctly understood that Numberz are what Matterz to Teacherz and Parentz.

Portfolios however look cool– especially if the student is a girl; girls in my experience are more into neatness and colouring and nice pictures than boys– and Thingz That Look Cool (extra Pointz if its online!  E-learningz!  Cross-platform sharingz!) get attention, Adminz and Headz love them, etc etc.  The only problem is, they don’t provide the acquisitional effects we expect.  The only thing a portfolio can do is show growth.  Kids will have 4-sentence paragraphs at start and 20 at end of a class.  Great, a teacher’s markbook should reflect that, throw the quiz in the kid’s binder, why waste time on packages and prettiness and empty self-analyses?

 

So…how has eliminating the screw-ups helped my kids?

My epiphany came thanks to Michelle Metcalfe’s demo workshop, and my results now blow the old results out of the water.  I have abandoned grammar practice and testing, communicative gap activities, oral output and most oral assessment, games, movie and culture projects in Spanish, and portfolios.

My Level 1 kids now write 600-1,00 word stories, in good Spanish, in multiple verb tenses, in an hour at the end of the course.  They understand everything they hear.  They feel great when they head somewhere Spanish-speaking.  I have no management issues. I have every kid who attends and pays attention passing.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary.  Mainly I am happy that I can experience more success with second languages and I hope I can inspire others to get there also (though not necessarily by doing what I do).  And I mean honestly people, I am neither smart nor talented so if I can do OK with T.P.R.S., anyone can do well.

Results: Beginners after 10 weeks of T.P.R.S. (Fall 2014)

I did my stats today on my beginning Spanish class.

Relaxed write (they have 35 min to re-write a modified version of our most recent story, or to make up their own):

Average word-count = 360 words
Average grammar mark = 1.9/3

Speedwrites (they have 5 min to write as many words as possible. Topics alternate between a) describe yourself and b) describe a picture on overhead (the picture will be of someone very like in our most recent story)):

Average wordcount = 60 words
Average grammar mark = 2.2/3

The grammar marking rubric is this:

3 The writing flows smoothly and logically, with minor errors that do not interfere with meaning, and no what? moments.

2 The writing mostly flows smoothly, with a few rough spots and the occasional what? moment

1 The writing is rough and/or illogical, hard to follow, and has many what? moments.

Notes:

— I have one student with real problems– some home stress, attendance issues, and she has difficulty focusing in class– whose writing is simply not improving. Without her, the speedwrite wordcount goes up by about 7 and the grammar mark by .2. Relaxed write wordcounts & marks would also be higher.

— Of course I also have superstar Shayla, who wrote a letter-perfect 550 words last relaxed write.

— the speedwrite grammar marks on the “describe yourself” tasks are better because– I think– the work is more repetitive, and because the input is as well. If I am constantly asking my actors “are you a guy?” or “do you live in North Korea?”, the class will be hearing the answers– the “describe yourself” vocab– more than the story vocab.

— the speedwrite marks on “describe the picture” tasks are a bit lower, because there is less repetition and more new vocab. Also because they are a “two-step” process: they have to look, think, then write.

— course goals: write 100 excellent words in 5 min; write an excellent-grammar 800-word story in 40 min. I am hoping that 9 of 10 kids can do this and that 1 in 10 will do 80/500 words at grammar level 2

— so far we are well on track to course goals. I am speeding up story-asking process (5 days/story including one block for speedwrite and relaxed write and introducing vocab for new story). I am hoping to do six more stories (plus novel reading) so 11 total– we should be well into the past-tense stuff

— overall I am pleased and this year I am going to take video of some beginners’ oral output at end of year (just to document how far they got, not for marks)

Should– and do– student teachers try T.P.R.S.?

Last year I did workshops at Simon Fraser University for Janet Dunkin’s French methods class.  Dunkin, a longtime French teacher in North Vancouver, is on a two-year secondment to S.F.U. where she teaches student teachers how to “be a French teacher.”  She has an academic colleague, Timothy Cart, who co-teaches.  Congrats to Janet Dunkin for inviting CI/TPRS practitioners in to meet her student teachers. Next up– presenting the method to U.B.C. And U.Vic. languages teacher candidates.

A few of the STs are at myb school and I got a chance to talk to them and their cohort so today’s question is should– and do–student teachers try TPRS, and, when they do, how does it work out?

First, there is significant resistance to TPRS/CI in many schools.  As noted earlier, teachers are generally a conservative bunch who operate in conservative environments and who learn from people steeped in tradition.  Many languages teachers don’t want to/don’t know how to change practices.  This makes it difficult for innovators– especially younger ones– to try something their mentor/mentrix isn’t familiar or comfortable with.

Second, there is a power differential in a student-teacher situation.  The student teacher has to do a “good job,” and that usually means doing what the mentor/mentrix wants.  The all-important letter of reference and final evaluation will too often be dependent not on authentic language acquisition but on whether or not the student-teacher did what his/her “boss” wanted done.

Third, student teachers often don’t know the method thoroughly.  Anyone who’s tried TPRS knows, as Adriana Ramírez said, that there is a three-year time needed to go from start to something like mastery.  So a student teacher often cannot get the results the method delivers right away, which makes them– and the method– superficially “look bad.”  In my experience, bad TPRS trumps good grammar grind/communicative teaching hands-down, but the results are long term…kids will not immediately spit out awesome French/Spanish/whatever.  In the grammar grind class, or even the communicative, you  appear to get immediate results— “Look, the kids are talking!  Look, the kids are doing worksheets, or revising their paragraphs!”– which is pleasing to anyone who doesn’t really get how language acquisition works.

Fourth, student teachers do not know the research.  I can argue with anyone because I’m a geek.  People like Eric Herman, Ben Slavic (and me, to a lesser extent) read studies etc, plus we practice the method daily, so we can say things like “Lightbrown and Spada, 2013, argue for very limited grammar instruction, and show that grammar instruction has very limited results.”  So…unfamiliarity with research and method makes justifying “weird” practices like TPRS much harder.

Fifth, the lack of initial output in a TPRS/CI class is disconcerting.  If the goal of language acquisition is speaking and writing– the “markers” of acquisition– then the choral responses, masses of input and lack of one-on-one speech seems weird to traditional teachers.  We know, as Wong puts it, that “a flood of input must precede even a trickle of output,” but to the uninitiated, it looks…weird.   Most languages teachers put the cart before the horse: speaking and writing are the result of acquisition, not the cause .

Sixth, Universities do not generally choose innovators to instruct student teachers.   I have looked in detail at the languages methods programs offered by the Univeristy of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria.  S.F.U. offers a basic intro to comprehensible input.  We’re working on UBC and UVIC.My best guess is that what happens with helping teachers, co-ordinators, etc, is that they get out of the classroom– they get bored or ambitious or whatever– and when in an advisory role they stop experimenting.  These people too must please the powers that be.  So it is almost everywhere: you gotta lick the hand that feeds you.   (This is not, however, universally true.  For example, Christine Carrioux– languages helping teacher for the Delta School District– is a major innovator who has urged her staff to see TPRS/CI demos and workshops; S.F.U.’s Janet Dunkin is very open to new methods.)

So, the odds are not good that a student teacher will find a TPRS/CI-friendly classroom environment.  However, this is a blessing in disguise.  If you are a student teacher, your practicum can “teach” you by negative example.  If you must do the grammar grind/communicative thing whilst learning your trade, because your mentor/mentrix “has always done it this way,” you get to reflect.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this work?
  • What does “it works” mean?
  • Do the kids like it?
  • How much time getting quality input in the target language do the kids get?  Can you stay in the target language 90% of the time, as the A.C.T.F.L. says you should?
  • Are they improving?  What is “improving?”
  • Do they want to take the language again next year?
  • How well has communicative/grammar grind teaching worked for them in the past?    

The answers to these will guide student teachers when they finally get their own classroom.  Sometimes you need to see what works– TPRS/CI stories and reading– and what doesn’t to make your instructional decisions.  If you are a student teacher who wants to try CI/TPRS, I would suggest you try…but the bottom line is, you need a solid ref from your mentor/mentrix so we can get you into the system.  You may have to suck it up and play the game.  Once you’re in, and you have no conservative/non-innovative people to please, you’re good to go, and you can then explain why you have chosen method ___ over method ____.