T.P.R.S. Results

Level Two Spanish Results: First Picture Description

Spanish 2 has been running for three weeks.  We have read a couple of easy novels, and have done one story cycle: el restaurante, which included reading, storyasking, Movietalk (Mr Bean videos RULE!) and Picturetalk.

Today’s first writing assessment: describe this photo.

Here are four writing samples.  The kids had 5 minutes, no notes or dictionaries.

First, Janelle, the top student. Amazing how she mixes past and present appropriately.


Next, we can compare two Level Two students who are not top performers. Hassan went to another school last year, where he had traditional grammar-and-textbook-based teaching.  This is garbled and nonsensical.  Hasan has some learning challenges and struggles in other classes.

Next, Abbas, who like Hassan has some challenges and struggles with school.  This is not awesome…but we understand, and he has built in a bit of a backstory.  Abbas had only TPRS in Level One.

Based on results, C.I. clearly helps the challenged kids more than does a traditional text.

Finally, Amneet.  This is not very good writing.  What is interesting here is that Amneet is probably the best speaker in the class.  I have found this kind of thing typical:  while most of the kids can undertsand everything (the scores for reading and listening quizzes are all between 80-100%), production skills vary dramatically from kid to kid and medium to medium.  Writers are not necessarily speakers, and vice-versa.

Amneet arrived late in Spanish 2, has missed a bunch of classes, but did well last year (over 80%) so I am expecting her written output will pick up.


T.P.R.S. or…whatever? More Evidence for the Effectiveness of Comprehensible Input

I have documented TPRS kids’ success in the past (see this) but today we are in for a different kind of treat: we are going to look first at what top students can do with traditional methods (forced output, grammar practice, word lists, memorisation, etc) and then with comprehensible input.

Today, totally by accident, I found my old Spanish 2 binder from when I was a traditional methods teacher using the ¡Juntos Dos! program.  One of my old Level 2 final projects was to create a children’s book.  The kids generally used themselves as characters.   This story was written by Nuvjit S.

Nuvjit was a keen language learner in high school, and has since then acquired Japanese. She was the top student in Spanish in her year.   For this project, the kids got editing help from me, they could use dictionaries, etc. Here is Nuvjit’s children’s book. This was the best project of its kind that I got that year.  So take a look at what I was able to get done with traditional methods.  This is second year Spanish.


Now, let’s take a look at what a kid taught with only comprehensible input methods can do.

This is Neha D.’s story. She is one of the top five or six students from this year.  This was done today, in 50 minutes, with no notes or dictionary.  First draft.  No editing.  Neha is Nuvjit, ten years later, with  Spanish teaching based on what we know the brain needs to acquire language: tons of compelling comprehensible input, in aural and written form.

Neha has never seen a grammar worksheet, a verb conjugation table or an explanation of how the pretérito  differs from the imperfecto.  She has never had her work corrected, and she has never “reflected on her learning,” or fiddled with a portfolio.  She probably can’t even tell you what a verb is and she has never heard the word “conjugate.”

This is first year Spanish.


So…it’s pretty obvious which method works better…for me, and for these students.  Your mileage may vary.

Now let me also be clear here:  I was a pretty bad communicative teacher.  I didn’t get good results (well, I couldn’t get my kids to have awesome results).  There were– and are– loads of people better than me in that tradition.  So I am pretty sure that any number of people could have gotten better results.  I’m also at best a slowly-improving T.P.R.S. practitioner, and there are loads of people who get better results than me.

This however is also my post’s silver lining:  if I was a bad “communicative” teacher and I’m a marginal (but improving) T.P.R.S. practitioner, my kids are getting more out of the class with T.P.R.S.

At bottom, I don’t attribute Neha’s success to me being smart or a good teacher, or to how funny I am– err, try to be– etc.  Neha and her classmates’ success ultimately stems from T.P.R.S., Movietalk, etc, allowing us to remain comprehensibly in the target language for huuuuuge amounts of time.

Spanish Results: Adriana Ramírez’s Level 1 Spanish #showumine

My colleague Adriana Ramírez (@veganadri) has published some beginner results.  Here are three of her kids’ writing samples from early October 2015.  This is semi-sheltered grammar (no past tense yet) from classic TPRS: storyasking and reading, with some MovieTalk. They had 30 mintes to write these.  Also note that these kids

  • do not “practice” writing
  • do not “practice” or “study” grammar
  • are not forced into any kind of “communicative output” or “communicative pair” activities
  • do not use notes or dictionaries when doing writing assessments.

These are very good results.  Check it!

Ramirez 2015 Sept 1 Ramirez 2015 Sept 2

What results does T.P.R.S. get? Amazing ones…and here’s the proof.

Do T.P.R.S., Movietalk, Look and Discuss, and other comprehensible input methods work?

Yes.  And not only do they work, they work much better than anything else out there.

What began as a friendly Twitter challenge– beat my beginner kids’ output using old-school methods or textbook, and I’ll take you crafty beer-drinking, hashtag #showumine– now has a bunch of T.P.R.S. teachers showing what their kids can do.

The rules are simple: show what your kids can do in writing (or speech) without dictionaries, rehearsal, Internet, notes or advance warning, with limited time and no preparation.  In other words, show what’s wired in, i.e. acquired, and not “learned.”

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.  So, without any further ado, here are results.  This entry, constantly updated, provides links to various teachers’ kids’ written and oral output.

We need more French samples, and all other languages are welcome.  Know something that needs adding?  Lemme know and I’ll add it.


Eric Herman‘s oral assessment of beginners is here.  Eric notes that “these are unfamiliar tasks and functions, but I challenge non-c.i. teachers to give the same test and get the same results.”

Chris Stolz has Spring semester 2015 beginner writing samples from 7 weeks in8 weeks in, stories from 8 weeks in and 11 weeks in.  This post compares two top students– one taught with legacy methods, one with C.I.

Grant Boulanger has 8th graders doing oral output here.  Here is one of Grant’s beginners– using three verb tenses and other so-called “advanced” grammar– to retell a story.  Grant also showcases his 8th graders (Level 1 Spanish) doing an impromptu story retell here.

Mike Coxon‘s kids are recorded here.

Mike Peto has some writing samples here.

Crsytal Barragan here shows first-day-back-to-school writing samples. Here, the student who was taught with T.P.R.S. writes rings around the student from the legacy-methods class.

Adriana Ramírez’ Level 1 Spanish results are here.

Jim Tripp has some Level 2 examples (with discussion) here.

Darcy Pippins’ AP results are here.  


Magister Lance Piantaggini shows what beginner kids can do in Latin.


Terry Waltz‘s site has writing samples plus oral stuff.  Her kids can throw down with charactersCheck it.

Hai Yun Lu has a level 1 Mandarin student storytelling here.


Brigitte Kahn‘s kids do 5-min speedwrites here.


Bess Hayles shows first day back from vacation writing samples here.

A traditionalist and Kim A. (comprehensible input) here have writing samples.  The reader can decide if the Level 2 (traditional) or Level 1 (C.I.) Kim A vs Traditojnalist exemplars.

Beginner results after 11 weeks: 5-min Speedwrites. #showumine

Here are my beginner speedwrite  results after 11 weeks of T.P.R.S.  No notes, dictionaries or Internet.  Their task was in 5 min describe yourself. This is their 5th 5-min write so their curving bonus is now down to 20. Their score will be wordcount/100 plus grammar score /3 (x33) averaged together.  The small #is grammar and the big # is wordcount.  If a kid got 52 words, their wordcount mark is 72.

Note: this is fully unsheltered grammar, and the kids are in a split 1 and 2 class.

She’s got some past/present tense confusion. Also a few other issues. This is actually not as good as her last one from three weeks ago.mmark will be about 70%. 

Next, Marya:

This is basically perfect. Nice work. Mark will be about 89%


She has the plural son and gustan problem but otherwise this is really good. Mark will be between 85 and 90.

Manisha is already at 100 basically perfect words– nice. Mark will be 100%

Manvir (gr 10) also writes nicely but much more slowly than Manisha (gr 12). She makes a few mistakes but nothing crazy. Mark around 90%

Finally, Eric.  This kid has an IEP and started class two weeks late.  He has spelling problems etc etc (in English), has some kind of “processing problem,” is supposed to write using a computer (but declined one today), is supposed to get extra time, and was dutifully failed out of French in gr 8.

Now, this is not awesome…for a kid with no challenges. For a kid with Eric’s challenges, it’s frikkin’ amazing.  Three weeks ago he wrote 6 words. His oral language is also booting up and he can now say sentences.  This will get him about 60%

So. I’ll mark stories in a day or two.  The beginners– who are getting fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1– are doing well.
The challenge stands: beat my results using grammar teaching, and an evening of drinking is on me. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines…and if you want to share results,  use the Twitter hashtage #showumine

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.

Steve Bruno’s AWESOME T.P.R.S. results

So Steve Bruno– after frustrated years with traditional “communicative” and grammar teaching– heard about T.P.R.S. last year and basically took a Nietzschean look at teaching. You’ll remember that Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” idea: if you can make the same choice an infinite number of times, it’s right. Steve thought “what could I do over and over that would rock in my Spanish class?” T.P.R.S. was the answer for him. After emailing people, asking a lot of good questions, watching Adriana Ramírez’ class and seeing a Blaine workshop, he dove in headfirst. Here’s his recent email (and by the way ALL the credit I.M.H.O. should go to Adriana and Blaine):

Hi Chris,

T.P.R.S. is  going just fine! I can’t believe the general success I’ve been
having with all my classes. I have some of my 9s writing over 300 words in 25 minutes! My weakest kids could write around 150. Same thing with my 10s.

Students who last year couldn’t write a simple paragraph at the end of a vocabulary, listening, grammar, writing old-style test and having all period to do so, are now writing 200/300 words in 20-25 minutes.

I love not having to teach any formal grammar and yet see how well they are speaking and writing!

My senior students, although sceptical at first, our now buying into T.P.R.S. as they see the strides they are making, especially in their spoken Spanish. I love how each class is so different, and, although we may be “telling” [asking] the same story in a given grade, the details, surprises, and endings may be totally different.

My 11s are able to tell a story in the past using both imperfect and preterito, again without any formal grammar and  not one lesson on conjugation on either tense!

With my 12s, it’s been awesome as our stories have taken so many twists and turns, and as a result, we’ve had so many laughs!

Another thing I’ve noticed is how students will speak to me/greet me in Spanish in the hallways, something that used to happen only with my older students but now I am seeing it with my 9s as well!

I have had administrators, other teachers, and the head of our district learning services come and observe my classes. They have all been blown away at the level of student engagement. They were all surprised that I’ve only been doing this since September! I can’t wait to get a year or two of experience under my belt; the sky’s the limit!

I’ve been asked to teach a group of interested teachers at my school’s next Pro-d day in January which I’m looking forward to (and the interest is high as it’s so different and they are curious; also, the students talk about T.P.R.S. in their classes all the time!). The head of our district learning services has asked me to do likewise for the district but I don’t feel experienced enough to take that on yet; maybe next year.

I can’t wait to see what happens with next year’s classes. In the past, I’ve had a huge drop out rate from grade 9 to 10. Based on the feedback I’ve been getting, I have a strong feeling most students will continue as they are experiencing success. My principal feels our Spanish programme will grow as more and more students get wind of this fantastic method; she’s worried about finding another TPRS teacher!

I will forever be grateful to both you and Adriana for showing me the way!

Feliz Navidad,