Starting The Year

Dear Mr and Mrs Smith

So you have parents– or Adminz–going, Johnny ‘s taking Blablabian, and he likes it, and he talks a lot about stories.  But I don’t see worksheets and essays or other homework.  Can you explain your methods?

Sure you can! Here is my take on explaining T.P.R.S. to parents.  If you repost please provide a link to this.


Dear Parents or Guardians–

Your son or daughter is enrolled in my Beginning Blablabian language class.  The language-learning world has changed a lot since you and I were in school, so I thought I’d let you know what we do to help our kids succeed in Blablabian.

In our class, we acquire Blablabian by first making up stories together in Blablabian. I provide the Blablabian, and students the story details. We act out our stories (including dialogue), answer oral questions about our story, and then we read  versions of our story which “recycle” the vocabulary from our story.  We also watch videos, which we discuss in Blablabian, and Blablabian novels written specifically for students.

Our goal is to provide lots of interesting spoken and written Blablabian which students understand, and to re-use these words over and over so students feel comfortable with Blablabian and have lots of chances to pick up the words and grammar.

We know from modern linguistic research that interesting comprehensible input–compelling messages we understand– in the language we are acquiring, allow us to  subconsciously and easily pick up both the vocabulary and the grammar.  It turns out the those grammar worksheets and talking drills which were probably a part of our high-school Blablabian classes do very little to help us pick up language.  Reading and listening do a lot more for both adults and kids.

If she or he regularly attends and pays attention in class, you can expect your daughter or son to first understand Blablabian and (a bit later) to start speaking it, beginning with words and phrases and then sentences, the way babies first understand Mom and Dad and make simple statemens before getting to complete sentences. If your son or daughter does not speak lots of Blablabian right away, that’s natural and OK: we need lots of input before we can speak, and even in our first language(s), we recognise more words than we can produce.

If you want to help your son or daughter to acquire more Blablabian, having them do any of the following will help:

  • watching interesting videos in Blablabian, with English subtitles to keep the Blablabian understandable
  • reading anything that is both interesting and easy to understand in Blablabian.
  • using online platforms such as Dulingo, as long as they are interesting and understandable
  • re-reading anything from class and translating it for you

By the end of the year, I am expecting students to write 600-800 word Blablabian stories (without using notes or dictionaries) in one hour; to understand basic written and spoken Blablabian, and to orally respond in Blablabian to basic questions about themselves, family, stories, etc.  The course outline in their binders explains how students are marked.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch.


Yours truly,

Mr John Talkalot

Department of Ancient, Modern, Futuristic and Non-Existent Languages

Yapperville High School, home of the Yap Cats.  GO YAPCAT PRIDE!

What Should The First Day of Language Class Look Like?

The always-on-point Laura Sexton (@SraSpanglish–follow her on Twitter) recently said during a #langchat session that, on a successful first day of school “students can say something when they leave.” 

I disagree.  So, today’s question:  what should a successful Day 1 with beginners look like?

First, kids should feel comfortable.  They need to know they are in the right room, in the right class with the right teacher, who knows their name, and that they are sitting where they should be sitting.  They also need to know what they have to do to be successful in class (and it’s very simple: 1. listen and read with the intent to understand 2. don’t distract yourself or anyone else 3. ask questions when you don’t understand), and to feel expectations without pressure.  And those expectations boil down to one simple thing: tune in. 

Second, kids need to do something meaningful.  I am a firm believer in getting to work right away.  While getting to know the kids matters a lot, I religiously avoid “let’s get to know each other!”-type activities which I think are silly and often feel awkward. Getting to know the kids will happen during the year as you intelligently personalise, and most kids (even if they don’t want to say it) are fairly shy with a new teacher.

Before any kid wants to tell you anything about themselves, they want to know two things:

a) do you care about– and respect– me as a person?

b) are you going to run this class in such a way that I can succeed?

We start with B– meaningful Day 1 language activities (in my case stories; for Ben Slavic various sentence-based activities like “Circling With Balls” or “One Word Images,” etc).  We show A by careful listening to the kids as they suggest details (or volunteer) during stories, and by not forcing them to do anything they don’t want to do (typically, talking aloud and speaking the target language in class top the list).  If kids know we are listening, they will trust us, and slowly open up.

Third, we make kids feel successful.  And no, in response to Laura Sexton, that does not mean they are speaking Blablabian when they exit our class on Day 1.  I flat-out tell my students that “success is understanding; speaking will follow when you’re ready.”   As I’ve noted, most kids’ grammar or “communicative” class experiences boil down to them feeling three things:

  • “it was boring” or “it was stressful”
  • “I didn’t understand”
  • “they made us remember too many words and rules”

If you get through a chunk of story, the kids contribute, and most importantly— the kids understand, you will have done something too many teachers havn’t: build the foundations for real success on Day 1.

If you havn’t read this blog before, or you want a refresher, note that it is not necessary to “practise” speaking or writing to develop those skills.  If people read and listen– and understand– they will, without any effort, after an initial silent period, be able to speak and write.  If you don’t believe me, fine– see what the experts have to say about output.

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

Now, if the students on Day 1 want to talk– i.e. they speak Blablabian without you urging them to— that’s great.  Enjoy!  But don’t expect them to talk.  If you finish Day 1 with the students, and 80% of the class gets 4/5 or better on their exit quiz, and you ask ten of them at random “did you understand everything?”, and they say “yes,” you are doing it right.  

How do I start the Year with T.P.R.S.?

Craig West asked me, “how do you start your year?”  Good question.  So here is what I do on Day 1.

A) Kids come in, I take attendance, they sit where they want, I make a seating plan. If it turns out they can’t work together, I will move them later.

B) I hand out the COURSE OUTLINE , the INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric (a modified version of Ben Slavic and Jen Schongalla’s jGR) and kids fill out paperwork.

C) I basically tell them two things. First, general expectations (no swearing, sexist or homophobic etc language, don’t make a mess, yadda yadda).  Then, I ask them “if you took another language, and it didn’t work for you, or you didn’t like it, I want to know why” and they tell the class.  Usually they say things like “[language] was boring, hard to understand, bla bla.”

Then, I tell them, “Ok, here we learn through stories and it’s really easy. All you have to do to learn a language is listen to words you understand in it, or read it.” I also tell them, the amount of fun in class depends on how much energy they bring to it (suggestions), I show them the rules poster, and I tell them how to do responses.

Then, I hand out my vocab sheet for my first story–Los Gatos Azules— where the words are written in Spanish.  They write down the English. Then I start asking the story. I write a few of the first sentences on the board.  Había un chico.  Vivía en ________. Se llamaba ________.  I get the kids to suggest funny names etc.  I ask for a volunteer to act, or appoint a native speaker if I have one, and I ask him questions from the PQA chart.  On Day 1, I probably won’t get much further than quieres, eres and tienes– questions.

This (below) is my PQA chart.

So if I narrate Había un chico, I ask my actor ¿eres un chico? and he answers soy un chico by reading off PQA chart.  (If I have a native speaker, I’ll use him/her.) I’ll also ask ¿tienes un perro/gato? and he answers Sí, tengo un gato and/or no tengo un perro, and I’ll ask ¿cómo te llamas? –me llamo _____ and ¿vives en _____? — sí/no, no vivo en. I make sure I do a LOT of comprehension checks with both actor and class. A comp check involves asking either one person or the class “what did I just say?” or “what did I just ask?” and checking if they understand.

I’ll also start with another kid as my first parallel character.  Usually a girl (so we can start in on feminine nouns etc) and my parallel character stays in her seat but I will give her a prop to help be a visual anchor.  So, with Los Gatos Azules, the main character (boy) has a dog (I give him a stuffed dog) but wants 10 blue cats.  The parallel character– a girl, seated– has a cat (and prop) but wants 27 purple dogs.

I have realia– for this story stuffed animals– which are good “meaning anchors.” Anything you say which is comprehensible– and which has any other kind of meaning support, such as realia, props, gestures– will help kids acquire language.  Below, gato and perro are vocab from the story; ratón is an obvious easy cognate that provides easy contrast for circling a pair of sentences.  I could even vary the story…el chico quería tener diez gatos azules…but…el gato quería un ratón blanco

I will stop my story 10 min before the end, and then I’ll do an exit quiz. This sets tone– yes, T.P.R.S. is fun BUT you still have to tune in– and also an exit quiz is easy. The kids “get” Spanish on their first day and that feels good.

For homework for day two, I’ll have the kids make simple desk signs. On one side goes their name (can be fake), a picture/drawing of something they like to do, and another of something they own (or a pet).  On the back goes ¿puedo ir al baño? and ¿puedo ir a tomar agua? and ¿puedo ir a mi armario? This is a Ben Slavic idea.  You can always pick one kid’s sign, write a sentence about it on the board (or write a sentence about another kid’s sign also) and presto!, instant mini-c.i. activity.  Plus, the signs help me learn the kids’ names and get to know them better.

There are a zillion other activities you can do on start-up day/week (Ben Slavic has a whole book called Stepping Stones to Stories where he describes his start-up system). Some teachers have to “norm” their classes, i.e. teach them how to behave.  But I have found that, for me, the best thing is to go straight into stories.  It seems that kids learn best when vocab is “packaged” into stories, and when they have to read embedded versions of stories.  I have basically learned that said in September, forgot by December, so if it gets said, it has to be read if I want the kids to remember it.  I do enjoy scene-spinning and improv though…

On Day 2, I start by circling weather and date (good to put boring stuff in background). I review the story, and we continue on– I’ll be able to introduce vas, te gusta(n) and queria— and this day I start personalised questins and answers.  For me, P.Q.A. is basically asking the class members the same question as the actors.

So, if this was Day 2 PQA, I would do the following before reviewing and then continuing the story.  I would first say “OK, yesterday we started a story, and today, I want to get to know you guys, so I’ll ask you some of the questions I asked [actor and parallel character]. Answer with whatever you are comfortable with: sí/no, a word, or a sentence.” Then I’ll point to the PQA chart, make sure they know what the questions mean– and how to answer them– and off we go.

I pick a random kid and ask ¿eres un chico? and he has to answer , or soy un chico.  I’ll repeat the same with a girl, then I’ll do ¿tienes un gato/perro? This is where personalisation starts.  Little by little, you start to learn about your kids.  Who has a dog? Who likes/hates cats?  I also tell them, if you want, totally lie, as long as it’s not inappropriate (e.g. if you said it to your Mom, would she laugh or perma-ground you?) so some kids will want to say tengo un dinosaurio and that can become part of class culture.  It is also fun to ask a boy ¿eres una chica? etc.

Then, we go back to our story. I’ll review details from Day 1, then ask for more details, introduce the problem, etc. This year, I started changing things a wee bit– I now ask characters in my stories present tense questions about other characters– e.g. Donald Trump, ¿es un chico Barack Obama?–  which gets me present-tense reps.

So there you go– starting the year with t.p.r.s.

Mixed-level Spanish Class– Day 1

In 2004, I was given a Spanish 1/2 split and floundered big-time. This year, our beginning Spanish numbers are up, so I have 1.5 blocks of Beginning Spanish plus Level 2s, and today I started with my split…and unlike in 2004, this split is going to be just fine, thank you.

Class composition:

— a bunch of kids who had TPRS with me last year (full mix– all verbs and grammar from Day 1. A few of these had me 2 years ago, then didn’t take Spanish last year (schedule conflicts)).

— 3 very low native speakers

— 3 total beginners

– 1 kid who has had 2 years of full-on grammar grind at another school. Super-low output but understands a bit.

— 1 kid who had the grammar grind at another school until November last year, and who then got full-mix TPRS with me for 1.5 months (about 30 classes). She did terribly on arriving– she had spent 2.5 months doing “units” on numbers, colours, etc– but her fluency grew after about 3 weeks and eventually she got around 75% on her final.

Today I paired the beginners with my proficient 2s and told the beginners “you are sitting beside a dictionary.” They are supposed to ask their “dictionaries” if things are unclear or I am busy. The dictionaries are my most-proficient students.

They filled out their class questionaires. This (idea from Ben Slavic) is great: they write down their real name, and then favorite colour, pet, celebrity girlfrind/boyfriend, where they live, and secret skill. They can tell the truth (fine…) or lie (much more interesting). The key: I told them that they have to be OK with me talking about whatever they write down. So Jas– err, Bee Once– has three boyfriends (Jake T Austin, Dave Franco, and Theo James), while Chelsea has a pet dolphin, and Breileigh lives in the Florida Keys with Ashton Kutcher and her pet koala. Fahim I told, not more than 5 girlfriends, please. Jürgen, who has a certain admiration for Walter White, chose as his nickname Heisenjürg. This stuff will be used in stories, where the various kids will be parallel characters.

I handed out course outlines, made my seating chart, then jumped right into pre-story PQA– personalised questions and answers. On my board was the following:

— has, wants, is
— are you…? I am…
— do you have? I (don’t) have
— what’s your name? My name is____
— what’s his/her name? His/her name is ____

— good-looking, ugly
— girl, boy
— girlfriend, boyfriend

I got Ace to come up and sit in the megachair, and started asking him questions. What’s your name? Are you a boy? Do you have a girlfriend? What is her name? Is your girlfriend good-looking? I went s.l.o.w.l.y. and then asked my other Level 2s the same questions. I did a LOT of pop-ups today.

The energy moment came when I asked the class “Is Jürgen a boy?” and Fahim said “no, she is a girl.” “Fine,” I said, “if Jürgen is a girl, so are you,” and I got my blond wig out, and Fahim became Fahima, answering questions in an absurdly high girl voice. Fahim is quite a ham and happily messes with genders. This would actually be an interesting idea: have a willing kid wear/take off the wig (signifying gender change) and answer PQA questions in 2 genders.

I was able to spend about 45 min in random PQA. The 1s at the end were able to answer yes/no to various questions, and they understood the questions (I directly asked them).

I am gonna start Adriana’s story “Los Gatos Azules” (the blue cats) tomorrow and today was basically setting up for the actor questions. I will do a bit more PQA tomorrow with gustar (“to like,” more or less), querer (“to want”) and ir (“to go”), then jump into the story.

So the operative principles are

A) the 2s are providing comprehensible input for the 1s. Since everybody is rusty right now (1 year since last Spanish class and in some cases 2 years), they are using the Q&As on board, but output, while simple, is flawless. Elicited output from the 2s is going to be sí/no questions with the occasional one-word answer.

B) I direct comprehension checks mostly at the 1s, since the 2s are mostly answering quickly and accurately.

C) The biggest challenge is going to be reading: the 1s will be slower, and know a lot less vocab, than the 2s. I have embedded readings for our asked stories, but the question– and I would love advice on this– will be how to keep the 2s engaged and the 1s not lost.

What should teachers tell kids about language learning methods?

Mark Koopman, an E.S.L. teacher and school organiser in Japan, asked about what we T.P.R.S. teachers tell our students when they come into our classroom.  Today’s question:

What should languages teachers tell their students about language learning?

My overall answer to this is, you tell them how people learn languages, and you lay out class expectations.

a)  My course outline (for Spanish) has this in it.  I read it to the kids and briefly talk about it

“People can only learn languages by getting comprehensible input—that means, they hear language they can understand (with translation, gestures, etc). They need to hear that language over and over, with variations, so they can pick it up and not be bored by it. They also need to read the language in comprehensible form.

 There will be no grammar worksheets, grammar notes, vocab quizzes or games built around grammar devices in this class. Contribute, pay attention, and learn!”

I don’t blather on at any length about this.  I want the kids to know they can easily learn, and don’t have to worry.  I also quote Blaine Ray: “I teach stories, and my stories always have a surprise.”  This year we started our first story 30 min after I first met the kids.

When I hear from Americans, a lot of teachers say their kids looooove worksheets and other legacy methods, and that it is a challenge getting “buy-in” from kids. I have not had this problem, partly because Canada is less insane than the U.S. (less poverty and classism affecting kids’ schooling, way less standardised testing, and much greater teacher autonomy), but mostly because if you run your class rigorously– what Ben Slavic calls “norming their behaviour”– they will succeed, and people who succeed are generally happy.

When I do get asked questions about methods, I refer people to the research. I also ask the kids “are you understanding everything?” They always say “yes,” and then I say “the more you hear and read it, the more you’ll remember, and eventually you’ll just automatically be able to say and write things.”

I also ask them “if you took another language before you started Spanish, how was it?” and I get a few responses, detailed here, and I then tell them “if you listen and read, and ask when you don’t understand, you will pick this up.”  Again I don’t spend a ton of time on this, as it’s mostly for my own interest.

b) Any teacher has to lay out some ground rules.  Mine are the classic T.P.R.S. rules, which I learned from the amazing Michelle Metcalfe:

— English only for places and names

— no blurting: only one person talks

— humour!

— ask for help

— eyes on teacher, sit up straight, no distractions

Buenas palabras — good words– “would you say it to Mom?”

c) I have had a few parents ask me about T.P.R.S., as their kids’ experiences with languages are so totally different in a comprehensible-input classroom than in others. I always ask them “does Johnny find it easy, and feel like he is learning?” I have never had a “no” answer. I also say “while this seems weird sometimes, it seems to keep the kids engaged,” and I also tell the parents to look at their kids’ writing assessments. This last always lets the kids impress their Mom and Dad.

As Robert Harrell (I think) said on Ben’s, “if you feel like you have to criticise me, look at my results, and if you wonder about my results, look at my methods.” I have never had to do this: kids getting T.P.R.S. find it easy, develop massive and very visible skills, and feel safe and capable in class.

There have obviously been some public arguments (e.g. recently on the A.C.T.F.L. forum) about what constitutes best practices. One thing is clear: people who teach with c.i. need to make sure they explain their methods– and the brain research behind them– to students, parents, colleagues and others.

But the bottom line, as always, is the kids. In a T.P.R.S. class, they can learn, and they generally like learning, another language.

Meaning First!

When I think back to high-school math, what I remember is, algebra was kind of neat, but pointless to me…until grade 11 physics, at which point algebra stopped being idiotic questions about how old Johnny’s younger brother will be in five years when he is twice as old as Suzy, and started being about how fast– and in what direction– the car is going after a collision. In other words, physics with Gary Laidlaw was meaningful. Despite being a math moron, I was able to get a B in Gr11 physics and to get a 4 on the A.P. physics exam in Gr12. This came back to me three days ago when I totally blew it with my Spanish beginners.

Backstory: this year I am doing TPRS totally differently: it will be 100% story-based and my “rough guide” will be Adriana Ramírez’ Teaching Spanish Through Comprehensible Input text. I’ll keep people posted with regular stats about how the kids (true beginners) are doing.

So I started asking “Los Gatos Azules” on Day 1 and 4 periods later I’d asked it. (Before starting, I gave the kids a vocab list of all the Spanish words and we translated into English.). I gave them a quiz on Day 5. The quiz was, I gave them the vocab sheet with only Spanish on it, and they had to write out the English. There were words like “talks” and “goes to” and “cats.” 33 words total.

The results were abysmal. Class average of 37%. This despite zillions of reps of all the structures. Interestingly, my native speaker kids– and the ones with one Hispanic parent– also did relatively poorly. Also, my actor– a kid we nicknamed “El Chapo” after the legendary Mexican gangster– who is amazingly quick on his feet and picks Spanish up super-fast, bombed.

So, the next day, I gave them another test. In this one, I used many of the same words, but I said them aloud in sentences. I got the kids to write down the Spanish (at which they sucked, expectedly, having done basically zero reading) and the sentence meanings in English. The results were WAY better: class average of 75%. The marks were basically, did they understand the meaning?

So…what did I learn?

A) People– especially beginners-remember in context. If they learn through stories, they’ll best remember through stories. Teaching one way and remembering in another doesn’t work.

B) Language is learned in chunks. A sentence such as el chico quiere tener 10 gatos azules (“the boy wants to have 10 blue cats”) is easier to remember than “the boy” and “cats” and “blue,” etc.

C) Meaning must come first. If it’s not meaning-based– i.e. people are dealing with what feel like random chunks of stuff– it’s much harder to remember. If it’s part of a story, or anchored with a picture or video or actor, everything hangs together. We MUST teach with meaning first or we’re wasting our time.

D) Beginners know a LOT less than we think they do The second test results should have been around 95%. When I asked questions about the story today, I was surprised to note that I got weak responses when I asked “What does el chico no quiere tener un perro mean?” As Ben Slavic puts it, we must ask zillions of comprehension questions to make sure students actually understand. I’m also going for a traditional TPRS no-no: asking individuals what “____” means because I’m not always sure meaning is clear. I think kids sometimes “chant along” with their peers, so I’ll ask more one-on-one questions.

E) Another thing I’ll do from now on is the exit quiz. I’ll read 5 sentences aloud and have the kids write down the meanings. In abfew weeks, they’ll start also writing down the Spanish. Slightly more regular assessment will help me in that if many kids get # ____, wrong, I can go back and circle that more next day.