Susan Gross

What Is Rule Overgeneralization, and What Can We Do About it?

So you are teaching with your text and in year one the kids “learn” first how to say “I like” in Spanish– me gusta– and then how to conjugate regular present-tense verbs.  And suddenly they are saying *yo gusto no trabajo. Then in Level 2 you “teach” them the past tense, like “she ran” is corrió.  And suddenly they are saying *los lunes corrió a la escuela.  These are a lot like how kids pick up L1:  they acquire Daddy went to the store and then later say Daddy goed yesterday.

This is “rule overgeneralisation:” a new “rule” shows up and suddenly it gets applied everywhere, inappropriately.

Kids pull out of this very quickly, mostly because of the masses of input they get from L1 parents and other adults.  But what can we do about this in the language classroom?

So some random notes:

1. Avoiding conscious learning is the first key.  If you have to consciously learn AND remember AND apply “rules” in real time– ie during oral production– you will naturally default to the most recently-learned rule.  So all that hard work on the present tense seems to go out the window when the passé composé gets introduced.  This is not cos kids are dumb, lazy etc, but it is a brain-structure and bandwidth problem: you have a limited amount of conscious brainpower, and forcing it to “learn” and then remember and apply “grammar rules” (and the brain, as Bill VanPatten reminds us, doesn’t even actually use what we teachers call “grammar rules” in the first place) is too much.  Too many mental balls to juggle. TPRS or AIM-style stories, Movietalk, Picturetalk, novels etc– i.e. interesting comprehensible input– will take care of a bunch of this.

2.  Unsequenced or “unsheltered” grammar is second. Blaine Ray and Susan Gross pioneered using “unsheltered” grammar– using all verb tenses, pronouns, verb #s etc — from Day 1.  If the input is “modeling” L2 in all its diversity, the brain won’t default to conscious or recently-“learned” rules.  Yes, beginners can cope with sentences like El chico quería un mono que bailara (the boy wanted a monkey who might dance) easily.  There you have inperfect, subordinate clause and past subjunctive all in one sentence.

This way, the brain has “everything” coming in at once, and it is getting the “mental spaces” for the different “rules” built, ground up, from Day 1.  The kids won’t substitute trabajaba for trabajó because they have been hearing and reading them– mixed together, naturally– from the beginning.

(There is, btw, another argument for the use of unsheltered grammar: frequency.  A glance at any word frequency list shows us that the 250 most-used words (i.e. what Level 1 of any language class should teach) includes verbs in five tenses and the subjunctive mood.  And it’s not like Mexican moms or French dads delay speaking the subjunctive (or whatever) till their kids are ten years old!)

3. Avoiding “grammar practice” is the third key. The problems any output activity where we “practice” grammar are numerous:

  •  How do we expect people to do what they are trying to learn to do?  Are we not putting the cart before the horse here?
  • If we acquire languages via input, what good does output do?  “Little or nothing” is Steve Krashen and Bill VanPatten’s answer.
  • This will inevitably be accompanied by tons of English or other L1 discussion.  Even the eager beavers will be saying “is it the thingy, the subtunction?  Is that like you put an -a on it?  No wait that’s an -e. OMG this Snapchat. Shut up I don’t like her, OK it’s *ella trabajió.
  • It’s boring. Generating sentences such as “the girl wants her cousin to cook” or “I want my friend to run” is not fun.  I’ve tried everything–everything– and believe me, I can get kids to listen to a fun story that has [whatever grammar] in it, but I cannot get 90% of kids to “practice grammar” or “practice speaking” in any meaningful way.

4. Remember that “errors” do not exist, from the learner’s point of view.  If somebody “screws up” in writing or speech, they quite simply have not acquired what they need to produce the language properly.  They are being asked to do something they quite literally cannot do. There’s an entire Tea With BVP devoted to this question. So, rule overgeneralisation– like any error– has more to do with what teachers want than how “good” students are.

5. We have to remember that acquisition is non-linear.  We can minimise problems such as rule overgeneralisation, but we can’t get rid of them.  Check out this mama bear and her cub going rock climbing.

They test pawholds.  They back down.  They try the sequence differently.  They don’t get there in one fast line.

Teachers are mama bear and students the cubs, if you will. They’ll do the moves…when they are ready.

Finally, we need to up the input.  Students only acquire via input.  Yes, it may seem like they are learning from doing worksheets, or using the subjunctive chart above, or practicing dialogues.  But such “learning” is incidental, and as we see from research, much less effective than lots of good input.  If you keep hearing “j’allais à l’école hier” or “yo gusto hamburguesas,” the students need to hear (and read) more je suis allé and me gustan las hamburguesas.  In the long run, that’s the only thing that is going to work.

 

 

 

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How should I teach SER and ESTAR?

Spanish teacher conundrum, recently brought up on the Yahoo moretprs listserv by teacher Marji:

How do I teach the difference between ser and estar? Marji is asking this question because the kids are making errors, and also she only sees them infrequently, so they seem “slow” in picking this up.

Ser = to be, for permament, inherent qualities
Estar = to be, for location and feelings

The essence of the question– like the French teachers’ eternal How do I get them to remember the difference between être and avoir passé composé verbs?— is this: how do I teach a “non-English” grammatical structure to English speakers?. The answer is simple! I’ve written about this before, so here is a Spanish and French-focused refresher.

First, I translate only meaning. So on the board, I write

era = was
estaba = felt, was located in _____

es = is
está = feels, is located in ______

Now, note here.  The kids do not get an explanation of the inherwnt essential aspects and differences of/between these verbs.  All they get is the meaning.

They also have the I/you forms in my simple PQA/direct questions chart:

IMG_0172

I narrate our first story– Adriana Ramírez’ Los Gatos Azules— in past tense but I question actors and do PQA (personalised questions and answers) in present tense.

Second, I keep it all comprehensible. I say el chico estaba en Watts and ask “what did I just say?” to make sure the students understand. I then say something like el chico era alto, going slowly, pointing and pausing, doing comprehension checks.

Now, they have not had the grammatical difference between ser and estar explained, but I will keep on using these appropriately. All they need to do is

A) clearly hear the difference
B) understand the meaning(s)

Because, as Blaine Ray points out, ser and estar are the most-used verbs in Spanish, we want to start using them on Day 1 and keep using them always.

Third, I will use these expressions in both past and present. For past tense, as noted above, I narrate (and ask class questions about the narration) in past tense. For present tense, I will direct-question the actors. ¿Eres un chico? — Sí, soy un chico. ¿Estás en California? — Sí, estoy en California. Then, I will do PQA by asking class members the same question(s) I have just asked the actors. If they can answer, great; if not, they can read off the PQA/direct questions chart.

(New trick: this year, to get more reps on 3rd person present, I ask the actors about each other in the present tense. So if I narrate había un chico en Brooklyn and circle that, I still want some present-tense reps on hay, so I will ask my main character about another character in the story. E.g. I introduce my parallel character by saying Había una chica en San Francisco. Then, I ask my boy in Brooklyn ¿Hay una chica en San Francisco? and he says Sí, hay una chica en S.F.)

The aim is for them to hear it a zillion times in proper context, in all necessary tenses, and slowly their “language acquisition devices,” as Chomsky calls them, will start developing subconscious pattern awareness and then performative competence.

Fourth, I will not lecture about grammar. As Laurie Clarq and Susan Gross have said (I am paraphrasing), “if they ask for an explanation, they can have a five-second one.”

I taught French last year for a colleague for two periods and we did a story where I used il est arrivé, il a oublié, and il/elle etait faché (this is two different passé composé verbs, and two past tenses).

The kids did not need to know that there are “Dr and Mrs Vandertramp” verbs, or the house-movement mnemonic, or the camera/video metaphors for p-c and imparfait, bla bla. All they needed to know was the meaning. Now, I suck at French, but the teacher was impressed because these Level 2s were getting “fourth year grammar,” and understanding it. The method generally works even when a hack like me uses it 😉.

BTW the story idea, improvised by student teacher Nicole Kunkel and I, was
— Jean est arrivé en retard à la classe
— La prof etait trés fachée avec lui.
— Il a cherché dans son sac pour ses devoirs.

— Dans son sac, il n’y avait pas ses devoirs!  Mais, il y’avait des autres choses…
— C’etait dommage– il a oublié ses devors! Madame Prof etait trés fachée!

(Jean had a backpack which we put random things into, and every time Jean looked in it for his hwk, a pencil, etc, he’d pull out something funny and Madame Prof would get more mad (and we got a zillion reps on both present and past forms of all 3 structures).

We also wrote up embedded (progressively more complex) readings of our story, and then did the usual with that, for even more reps.

It doesn’t matter what first or second language people have. We know that everyone can– and does– learn at least one language without any formal instuction at all. Any baby of any race or either gender can learn any language. We teachers can use this amazing potential. All we have to do is

— restrict vocab (to not confuse and overload people)
— use all grammar (so people can “pick up” what they’re ready for)
— keep it all 100% comprehensible
— provide a ton of listening and reading repetitions

In Hindi, we have “postpositions” as opposed to prepositions. Chinese has tones, and no verb “to be.” German has complex word-order rules invented by a sadistic language demon. Try explaining the difference between “some” and “any” questions to a non-native speaker of English. French and German have two past tense auxiliaries. Russian has cases. But whatever it is, people can pick it up.

The point? They don’t need to know anything other than meaning, and the brain– given enough input– will take over and start figuring the patterns out.

What does T.P.R.S. Goddess Laurie Clarq say about circling?

Laurie Clarq– the inventor of embedded readings— is one of the nicest, smartest teachers I have ever met.  Not only is she a T.P.R.S. goddess, she also beat cancer, is a brilliant presenter, a solid writer, and just an all-around wonderful person.  She’s been doing comprehensible input for a loooong time now and recently on Ben’s  she submitted some comments re: how to circle.

Circling is where the teacher says a sentence– e.g.  Mike saw the girl— and then asks yes/no, either/or, true/false and more-detail questions about it, all the time repeating the target structure.  This is how we get repetitions of target structures and also how we add detail.  Circling was invented by Susan Gross.

So today, here are some comments shamelessly stolen from Ben’s blog 😉 where Laurie gives some ideas about circling.  You’ll have to join Ben’s ($5/month– a good deal) for the full-meal-deal.

Laurie writes:   “Confusion about circling is often at the heart of why people feel successful [in this work], or don’t. When we first learn to “circle” we learn that we can stay on one question/statement and get over a dozen ways to ask questions on that one question/statement. When we practice, we practice using that statement all of those different ways. It helps us to get familiar with all of the different options for asking questions/making statements and recycling one simple structure.

That is ‘CIRCLING PRACTICE’ and I’m afraid that as trainers, we don’t make that clear. Teachers leave thinking that storyasking in the classroom looks like circling one statement twelve ways and then moving on to the next statement [and circling that in the same] twelve ways and the next and the next and so on.  Then, when they do that in the classroom, students’ eyes glaze over and the teachers feel as if they aren’t doing it right.

So what is the “right” way?  Whatever works with your students [and whatever keeps the story moving and the interest high].  Granted, we can have twelve ways to recycle a statement/question. But as you already figured out, using all of them in a row over and over doesn’t work.

Think of it like sanding wood.  If you only sand in one place, in the same direction, you end up with a groove…exactly the opposite of what you want! Sanding needs to take place repeatedly, but over various places, and sometimes, depending on your goal in circles. Then you step back, look at how it’s going, find a place that needs a little more work and start over there…..sanding and smoothing and blending until you have the effect that you want. You may even change the types of sandpaper that you want to a finer grit as you get closer and closer to your goal.

You can use the “circling training” process when you, and/or your students, are new to the process. It helps them, and/or you, get used to the thought process. Now that you all are used to that, here are some strategies that you can use to make circling seem fresh.

GO SLOWLY, especially at first, but once they have the circling idea, these will work beautifully.

Here’s a sentence to work with: Ethan saw the wallet.

Strategy #1: Remind students that they are to ‘see the story in their head/visualize.’ Number one important skill for students!!!!! This allows you to ask students to occasionally close their eyes and visualize as you ask the questions.

Strategy # 2: Ask these questions as if they ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS ON EARTH. Your tone of voice can completely change circling!! [anyone who has ever seen West Vancouver’s own T.P.R.S. goddess Michelle Metcalfe in action will get this].  How?

a. Add pauses. Class………………..did Ethan………….or Jay-Z see the wallet? Right…….Jay-Z did not ……see the wallet. Ethan……saw the wallet.

b.  Adopt a “thinking pose”. Before, during or after a question stop and pose….as if the question deserves your entire body’s attention to figure out. You can be natural or overly dramatic..either works!

c. Pause and point. Or, have a student point. Or have a student hold up the phrase on a card as you use it.

d. React facially to the students’ response. Raise your eyebrows, shake your head, look confused or relieved, nod knowingly. When students answer a question, they need to know that you are LISTENING, not just waiting for a sound.

e. Add short, natural phrases that are comprehensible to your circling: It’s obvious, Yes, I had no idea, It’s the truth, Who knew? Do this slowly and put a phrase on the board if necessary, but this is very fun. “No?!! Seriously? Ethan saw the wallet? Who knew?”

Strategy # 3. Ask the individual opinions of several students. “In your opinion Marcos, who saw the wallet first? Really? Interesting, class, Marcos said that Ethan saw the wallet first. Ale, in your opinion, who saw the wallet first? Oh…class Ale also said that Ethan saw the wallet first. Who said that Ethan saw the wallet first? Marcos and Ale both said that Ethan saw the wallet first (give Marcos and Ale a high five). Who said FIRST that Ethan saw the wallet first? Yes! Marcos. Why did Ale and Marcos say that Ethan found the wallet first? Because it’s the truth!! Ethan found the wallet first!!”

Strategy #4Add at least one extra piece of information to the statements other than the Subject+Verb+Complement. This gives you more to circle. Instead of “Ethan saw the wallet. ” Consider: “Ethan the elephant saw the wallet.” Or “Ethan saw the wallet first.” This is of particular use if you have a variety of “processors” in your room. The faster processors love hearing/knowing/remember the extra information. This also makes visualization easier…more details. Be careful not to add too much.

I add this: when adding extra information, the easiest things to add are always place and person, because these do not require any new vocab, and allow a ton of interest and loads more reps.  For example, if we have “Ethan saw the wallet” and we add “in McDonalds,” we need no new vocab, and we have a ton more room for asking questions.  “Did Ethan see the wallet in McDonalds or in Burger King?  Did John or Ethan see the wallet in McDonalds?” etc.

Strategy #5: Get that information from the students. Fish, Fish, Fish. Keep adding details so that they can visualize, so that you can reuse the structure, so that it stays interesting. IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW FAR YOU GET IN THE STORY IF YOU ARE USING A STRUCTURE. Was Ethan a big elephant or a gigantic elephant? (get the opinion of three or four students…then have the class vote.) “According to the popular vote, Ethan, a gigantic elephant saw the wallet first!! Yes!! So, Ethan, a gigantic elephant saw the wallet first…..wait….what kind of wallet did Ethan see? ”[

[Blaine Ray: “My goal is to never finish a story.”]

Strategy #6: Say two statements then circle, rather than circling after every sentence. So say your statement is “Ethan the elephant saw the wallet first.” Add a second statement before “circling” “Ethan the elephant saw the wallet first. The wallet was in the garbage.” This gives you more information to “circle” and will keep them more alert to the questions that you are asking. “Did Ethan the elephant or Morgan the snake see the wallet first? Ah yes, Morgan didn’t see the wallet first, Ethan saw the wallet first. Where did he see the wallet? He saw the wallet in the garbage?? Really?? Did he see the wallet in the toilet? No? He didn’t see it in the toilet ? Ok so he didn’t see it in the toilet, he saw it in the garbage.

Strategy #7: Go back in the story. You’ve established that Ethan the elephant saw the wallet first. You’ve established that he saw the wallet in the garbage. You’ve found out that it was inside of a Mountain Dew cup on top of one half of a sandwich. Ok class….let’s go back a minute and remember how this started. Who saw the wallet first? Did Ethan or Morgan see the wallet first? Ask 2 or 3 questions and get back to where you left off. Don’t beat it to death, but go back for a short time.

Strategy #8: Go back in the story and add a detail. Who saw the wallet first? Where was the wallet? What did Ethan do when he saw the wallet? (did he yell when he saw the wallet? did he pick up the wallet when he saw the wallet? did he eat the 1/2 sandwich when he saw the wallet? Did he pick up the wallet before he ate the sandwich or after he ate the sandwich?)

Strategy #9: Incorporate a gesture. Create (or, better, class-create) a gesture for saw. EVERY time you say “saw” in your narration/circling, the students show you the gesture. Use this judiciously. It can get old. Another option is to put two “gesturers” in the front of the class to gesture for the class every time you use the phrase.

[I note: gestures are good with any verb, noun etc.  After awhile, you can drop them when you know the kids have them.  E.g. when your slowest processor knows “there is” (a crucial yet oddly hard term) you can stop gesturing it]

Strategy #10/11: Interview the actors (if you are using actors….or…ADD actors…Class…oooo…let’s really SEE this scene…then you have to go back and review the story with the actors) Ethan, did you see the sandwich first? Yes. Class, did Ethan say that he saw the sandwich first? Yes class, Ethan says that he saw the sandwich first. Marcos, did you see the sandwich first? Yes. Class, did Marcos say that he found the sandwich first? Yes, Marcos also says that he saw the sandwich first. Hmmm Did Ethan or Marcos really see the sandwich first? What is your opinion?

DO NOT TRY ALL OF THESE STRATEGIES AT ONCE. My guess is that you are already, naturally incorporating some of them. Make note of that first. Improve on what you are already naturally doing!! Then pick one and integrate it until you are comfortable…then add another.

The more advanced your students are, the more of these strategies you will eventually want to incorporate. These are some of the “skills” that bring “practice circling” to the level of “natural circling”!!”