Terry Waltz

C.O.F.L.T./W.A.F.L.T. 2016 

C.O.F.L.T. and W.A.F.L.T. under the conference leadership of energy ball Tina Hargaden jointly put their annual gig on in Portland.  I got to meet, well, a zillion interesting languages teachers and a few luminaries, and sit in on a load of workshops, oh and enjoy the rain, epic Mexican food and arguments about gluten-free diets. So here’s my notes in zero discernable order.

First, we got a TPR demo from the glowing Karen Rowan.  Total Physical Response– revived and popularised by James Asher in the late 1960s (he did not invent it)– is basically, the teacher says and does an action, and then students do the action while the teacher says it.   T.P.R. has its advantages: it’s easy, fast, memory-sticky and fun. Its disadvantages: it gets old really quickly, it’s basically limited to command forms, and what is “TPR-able” tends to be low-frequency vocab (eg touches, walks, hand, eye etc).

Rowan threw down some good reminders: we aren’t teaching all you teachers here just a method, but mostly a way to meaningfully connect with students and we are always trying to keep everything 100% comprehensible even though we can’t always do that.

Now if caffeine is available, your odds of running into one Dr Stephen Krashen are higher than they would be if you went to, say, a Donald Trump rally (not that Trump would come to Oregon– he would be murdered by people hurling artisanal tofu at him).  And there was Himself, ordering literally 6 coffees for a crew which included one Dr Beniko Mason.

 For himself, Krashen ordered– and I quote– “a gigantic latte with extra espresso.” The good Doctor said hello in einem ausgezeichneten Deutsch and then threw down some Japanese to get Dr M. a cuppa Joe.

Now when you get to meet Dr K. you better have your questions ready.  Here are mine:

Me: So did you have any specific epiphanies on the way to developing the hypothesis that languages are acquired through getting comprehensible input?

Dr K.: Yes, two. One was in 1975 in New York when I was giving a presentation to language teachers.  There was a Japanese student of English there whose spoken English was not very advanced, yet her English writing was excellent.  And then it hit me that there were two systems operating here: the conscious and the implicit, and they either weren’t or were only minimally connected. 

The other was driving down the freeway in Pomona, when I asked myself “in what order should we teach words and grammar rules?” and I realized, it doesn’t matter, because the order of acquisition [of grammar “rules,” as has been confirmedis mostly fixed, and there is very little we can do to change them.

Me: so do you still lift?

Dr K.: OK let’s start that again, you should be saying “so I see you still lift.” ūüėČ

Me: Yes of course [he was wearing a huge baggy jacket and pants!] I can see you still lift.  When you won the press award, what did you weigh and lift?

Dr K.: I weighed 181 and I incline-pressed 285.

Me: Wow; cool you still lift.  May I ask how old you are?

Dr K.:  I’m 75.  But I read like an 80 year old.

Me: Well I’m 47 but I lift like I’m 10.ūüėú

Dr K.: [switches into German] Well, you’re on the uphill.

Me: [in German] Hey I loved that video of you doing C.I. in German.

Dr K.: See how much German you picked up from just five minutes of comprehensible input?

Me: LOOOOOL

 Dr K.:  LOOOOOOOL

So after that bit of banter, Krashen wandered off under loads of coffees, muttering I’m going to find a piano, and there were more T.P.R. basics with Karen.  Here is one cool idea: dialogue bubbles!  Here are Lynn and Ethan acting a scene from Karen’s demo.  A great way to start with relative beginners.  Lynn’s reads “I want to touch your hand” and Ethan’s reads “with what?” ūüėČ

So then there was an epically varied lunch set out.

In the afternoon, C.I. offerings being as scant on the ground as Donald Trump in Oregon, I went to something I ended up hating: ” _______ In The Second Language Classroom.”  Here was the schedule:

  1.  10 minutes  “everybody say your name and where you teach and what brought you here”
  2. 15 min.  “OK everybody share with your group on thing related to ______ that you did recently”
  3. 15 min. “OK can each table report out to the whole room please”
  4. 15 min. the presenter showing us how to do two things which, basically, you learned when you yourself were in high school
  5. 10 min. feedback and fill out the form.

If you’re gonna present, plz a. have something to present, and b. if it’s a “sharing session” please CALL IT a sharing session, and c. we want to learn things other than each others’ names.

That evening after Mexican with my teaching BFF Sarah-Beth, it was the COFLT/WAFLT social where I got to finally meet Mike Coxon and Karen Rowan.  I had made some offhand online comment about “Karen if ever I meet you, beers are on me” so the cunning Karen had me buying her evening’s worth of drinks (two whole glasses). She likes red wine, can’t remember what kind. Also present was Von Ray who is this mass of warm vibes just like his Dad but not drinking:  the Rays are L.D.S. folk.  Then appeared Martina Bex and her husband.  Bex, who has four kids under 5 (she left them with Oma in Alaska) AND who publishes non-stop, was presenting Sat, but tonight was Date Night and hubby Matt hung around while Bex made precisely one tour of the room before whisking her off to kid-free cocktails YOU GO GIRL.

Then appeared Carol Gaab who at 4’11” you have to look carefully for but OMG what an energy ball, first ppl she is 32 not 52, second she is a grandmother (how do grannies look 32?), third she has the most solid sage advice on anything you can imagine and fourth Gaab has a remarkable quality of fusing public principles, private beliefs and personality, etc, into one package.  You always feel when talking to Carol that you are getting the full meal deal.  Gaab’s point from her #iflt2014 session: it is quite possible– indeed easy– to do higher-level thinking even with beginners. Women are superhuman, basically, is what I realised AGAIN watching the energy-tornado Gaab, Supermom Bex and multi-tasker Rowan.

Friday the Philipines had extra rain so they sent it over.  Now it was time to see Dr Beniko Mason‘s presentation about free voluntary reading (FVR)  and story listening in the 2nd language class.  I’m gonna sum it up quick:

  1. Mason has experimented with having  her Japanese-speaking students do a ton of self-selected reading in English, and write occasional summaries in Japanese (L1).  At the end of this process, she found that despite having not “practised” English writing, their writing was much improved.  She speculates that this is because when they are summarising in Japanese, they are focused on reading (processing) the English and don’t worry about English writing, so they absorb more.  [edit: Mason clarified that it was not the Japanese writing per se that improved acquisition, but rather that it was the English input]. Bill VanPatten has also replaced writing exercises with processing exercises in his Spanish classes.  Students get the individual sentences from a story, and have to read and order them, √† la Textivate).

2. She had students who had failed English 1 classes at Japanese universities who spent one semester in her class doing only FVR and listening in English.  These students outperformed the second-year students of English who had passed English !!

3. Mason discussed how she uses folktales translated into English.  She said she is not a huge user of props, actors etc (partly cos Japanese kids are trained to sit and listen) but prefers reading and asking questions, which her students seemed to enjoy.  Here’s  Claire Ensor’s intro to how to do story-listening.  Insofar is it is possible to measure…

4. …FVR seems to double the rate of acquisition of language by direct instruction or other non-C.I. classroom practice.  

5. [edit: Mason also mentioned how corrective feedback did not do anything to improve acquisition of English.]

The vendors’ area was interesting: in one room you had vendors like these side-by-side.  The language teaching world in microcosm: weird new-wavish (and fun, and effective) on the left (that’s Mike Coxon and Von Ray), and tradition on the right.

In the background of C.O.F.L.T. was the debate on targeted vs. untargeted input. Basically, how much control over the story vocab— and not just the details as in classical T.P.R.S.– should the kids have?  Ben Slavic, Tina Hargden and others have been experimenting with 100% student-generated stories and love it.  Others, such as me, were initially somewhat skeptical.  So it was cool to hear Mike Coxon and Von Ray and whoever stopped by their or Carol Gaab’s table to argue the this way and that.  And then Mike said, “this is amazing…we’re arguing like we always do about teaching…but we’re arguing C.I. methods vs other C.I. methods, rather than C.I. versus other approaches.”

One of the things I love about the C.I. world is what Blaine Ray has repeatedly said:  “if we find something that works as well, or better, we add it to T.P.R.S., or we change T.P.R.S.”

AND THEN I GOT TO POSE IN A PHOTO WITH THE COOL KIDS!

L-R: Karen Rowan, some guy, Terry Waltz, Martina Bex and Craig Sheehy

Terry Waltz was passing through so she got railroaded into coming and hanging out.  Of course I have been fanboying away to meet all these people, and there was Terry, ripping along in fluent Mandarin with a crew of Chinese teachers.  After I said hello, we chatted:

Me: OMG so you can speak 13 languages?  OMG

Terry: Well, I can get into trouble in 13, but I can only get out of trouble in about 7 

Me:  LOOOOOOL

Terry: LOOOOOOL

Terry’s T.P.R.S. With Chinese Characteristics is being translated into written Chinese.  Terry told me that this had proven a bit of work, as somebody either knows killer Mandarin but not T.P.R.S. well enough, or they know killer T.P.R.S. and not Mandarin well enough.  Classic translation problem in any field.  I also thought, translation is a good idea, because there is something authoritative about the heft of a book in your own language, plus you can spend your time going back, re-reading, re-thinking, etc.  T.P.R.S. is work to master; in Chinese, you have additional steps and tricks (e.g. cold character reading) cos the language is not written phonetically and it has zero cognates.  It will be very helpful for Chinese-literate teachers to have these tricks in the language they are teaching.

Terry also made remarks about Chinese teaching culture, to the effect that books still carry a weight of authority about them in a way they don’t in North America.  E.g. you can officially learn via webinars, blog reading, group Skype lessons etc in North America but the Chinese– with their 4,000 year old tradition of literacy– still like books as authorities.

Note the amount of brain power in that pic, minus the random guy.  Karen and Terry are legendary disagree-ers and have generated some amazing discussions about everything from targeting to method labels to the value of output.  Sometimes, when you hear them discussing C.I., you imagine this:

but then when they talk in person it’s more like this:

OMG awieeee OMG

ANYway, the targeting debate came up again, and some of the points raised included

  • if you want to train a newish T.P.R.S. teacher, is it not easiest to start with structured stories so they have one less thing to think about while learning to slow, circle etc?
  • will kids “choose” low-freq vocab if you let them decide whatever they want?
  • how do you support untargeted stories with writing (eg novels)…do you simply write up what each class came up with each time? (cool, but lots of work)
  • Terry brought up some solid points re: Mason’s research, noting that the Japanese students reading English had a massive foundation on which additional English input scaffolded and that it was not necessarily best practice for Level 1 and 2 students in any L2 to just read a ton.

No, I do not have any answers heh heh.

The human buffet continued:  next I got to meet the smart, funny, articulate, determined (oh and gorgeous) Claire Ensor come all the way from Tennessee.  Here’s Claire and Dr. K:

Claire is cool.  She teaches E.S.L. and is going to do her PhD in S.L.A.  She is interested in untargeted input, and how poverty affects S.L.A., and a million other things.  How awesome is that, running a thesis idea past Dr K.?  Claire and a few of us discussed her research project idea:  measuring acquisition gains through comparing story listening with FVR and “standard” TPRS…details to come when the experimental design gets hammered out.

So Friday late aft was Dr K. showing & discussing C.I. case studies and other, more general educational stuff. I’ll be brief:

  1. Mexican immigrant Armando worked at a Moroccan restaurant run by Moroccan Jews in L.A., and acquired enough Hebrew– via listening– that he fooled Israeli embassy staff and other Hebrew native speakers into thinking him a NS.  Krashen notes that he basically only listened, got unsheltered grammar, and got restricted vocab mostly focused around customer service, food, kitchen stuff and “hey what did you do last night?”-type routine conversation.
  2. Hungarian Kato Lomb acquired dozens of languages– starting at age 20– basically by reading books she liked and listening to whatever radio she could get.
  3. U.S.-born children of various immigrants who find interesting reading– in any format– in their parents’ language acquire and retain significantly more language than do other second-generation immigrants.  If you have native speakers in your class, get them to read.
  4. There is basically zero research showing that anything language-related that people do on a computer– other than read or watch understandable stuff they find interesting– helps anyone acquire a language.
  5. Because I stopped caring about Star Trek about the time Picard’s series got canned, I tuned out of the alien languages discussion but apparently Arrival is worth a watch.
  6. Ok modify that, I watched Arrival and I hated how it pretended to be deep bla bla, however, the aliens and their writing were cool.

Saturday morning was Tina Hargaden showing us in French how to use “the Invisibles”:

Basically, this is what you do for The Invisibles:

  1. The kids invent a character– a talking potato, a doll, a human, whatever.
  2. The class artist draws the character while it’s being developed.
  3. The class invents one or two more.
  4. You show the class the drawings and circle a bit.
  5. Then the kids make up a story about them.  You can have kids holding the (in)Visibles and doing the dialogue or teacher can do the dialogue.
  6. There has been argument: should teacher have a plan re: grammar and vocab (a list of “structures”), or should kids run the narrative show?  Dunno…as long as you restrict the vocab, get loads of reps, and keep it comprehensible, it doesn’t really matter.
  7. You provide some kind of reading once the story has been asked.  The challenge with the Invisibles is, if the stories are newly-made every time, you have to write each one up which takes a lot of time but also it’s customised for each class.

Saturday afternoon was Bex-a-rama.  Martina’s Herculean task: show us how to use “authentic documents” in the language classroom.  Nobody– including Bex herself– has been able to convince me its realistically possible– or worthwhile– to use things made by and for native speakers in a language class, but by golly did Martina ever come close.

The gist of it is this: you have to use something that has as few words as possible (songs and short newscasts/articles best), that repeats the words as much as possible, and you have to not focus on all the words, and go for general rather than specific meaning.

I personally don’t buy it, but Martina is super-helpful for teachers who are forced to “use authentic documents” by Adminz or Textz that don’t get S.L.A.  If you must use # authres, Bex’s plan is where you start.

Finally, in the evening I managed to round up most of the cool kids and convince them to let me tag along, and we went for beers and dinner.  Dr Beniko Mason speaks killer German (better than mine anyway) and Krashen can throw down pretty good in prolly six.  He is enjoying Aramaic (what Jesus spoke; still used today) but griped about troubles finding people to acquire from.  So here is the random good stuff from Dr K, Dr M, and a fascinating crew of teachers.

  1. Krashen studied classical piano for a bit when younger (and still plays).  For him a major breakthrough was the fake book.  These are simplified versions of complex music, most often jazz standards and now pop music.  These are the C.I. of music: they make something that’s too complex for beginners comprehensible and playable.  Just as you don’t start acquiring Blablabian by reading legendary Blablabian writer J√įkvar Sqkv√įd’s 3,700-page opus “KrŇďy Hr√Ę B’n√Ņ√§ P√∂” with its 19 unreliable narrators and allusions to everything from Moby Dick to the Baghavad Gita to Taylor Swift longs, so we don’t start learning music with Rachmaninoff concertos. 
  2.  Mason: she acquired a LOT of her very excellent German in Germany not just from reading etc but from routine interactions.  If every time you go to the store you hear kann ich Ihnen mit etwas helfen? (literally “Can I you with something to help?”), you will first understand and then over a longer time pick up the “rules” behind this odd word order).  This is good C.I.: restricted vocab, unrestricted grammar, and useful repetition.

3. Mason: loves folktales (and simplified versions of Hollywood etc films) because if people know the story in advance, much of the decoding work has been done and the brain can focus on meaning. Mason does not do much T.P.R.S.-style co-creation but is 100% into stories.

4. Krashen: in music as in language, listening is the foundational pre-requisite.  He praised the Suzuki method, where students acquire music from songs, rather than songs/pieces from musical theory, as the C.I. of music.  In the Suzuki method, students first learn a super-simple song (say “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), and then gradually more complex pieces.  Sight reading comes much later, and musical theory last.  Man, I wished I’d learned piano this way: I started with sight reading at 6 years of age and I’ve been trying to un-learn classical habits ever since.  This echoes what Bill VanPatten wrote me when I asked him about language and music: “most of what is in a musician’s head does not get there from conscious learning and practice.”

5. Krashen reminded me of my Uncle Alan, who was sent to Jewish school 50 years ago in Montr√©al and who can to this day throw down a whole lotta Hebrew songs despite not having spoken it for years…because of music.  The kids were taught Hebrew hymns (?) and these were also discussed so Alan has a stock of Hebrew from which to draw. Music anchors this stuff in memory.  But does it help us acquire language?  Hmmm…I know that I remembered (and still do) a lot of French songs from French Immersion kindergarten.  I also know that I didn’t know what most meant until later, because we did a lot of singing and clapping but most of the lyrics were not explained.

6. I thought about my Muslim kids, who come (linguistically) in two varieties: those who have been forced to simply memorise the Qu’ran, and those who have memorised and learned meaning.  In some places– e.g. rural Somalia– simple Qu’ranic memorisation seems to be the norm and the imams appear to think that, gosh, the meaning of words will simply reveal themselves. These kids can say things in Arabic, and make sounds from written Arabic, but literally have no idea what they are saying.  In other places, the kids memorise bits of the Qu’ran, but also learn its meaning and discuss it.  These kids are the ones who can actually understand (and sometimes speak) Arabic.

Islamic religious instruction could be good C.I. if the Arabic’s meaning were made clear, the Qu’ran were presented in a compelling way, etc. The Qu’ran (which I have only read in English) uses a lot of classical liturgical tricks:  it repeats things a lot, it plays around with variations on sentences e.g. “Allah asks us to keep our houses clean.  Why does Allah ask us to keep clean houses?  Because a clean house…” when it takes up a topic, it restricts the vocabulary, it “circles” its thematic words, etc.

After bringing the Drs K. and M. back to their hotel, I went for locally-sourced, artisanal, organic, vegan, free-range, fair-trade craft beers with this pair of live wires, Elena Overvold and Tina Hargaden.

Elena is like 20 years younger than me which makes for super-cool intergenerational teacher talk.  We had a discussion about feminism applied in the classroom.  A few of the topics that came up:

  • there’s a lot of heterosexism built into many TPRS story scripts e.g. the girl obvs wants a boyfriend, the boy obvs wants a GF, etc, and…
  • …this is also an opportunity to “undo” this…through gender reversal, LBGTQ characters, surprise endings etc (“no, class, the girl didn’t want a boyfriend…she wanted a good book!“)
  • to what extent am I, a male teacher, being sexist when during PQA I say something like “I like Angelina Jolie”?  Elena pointed out that this could be interpreted two ways: I value her as a good-looking woman (and nothing more) or if given context as good-looking and an interesting human being, and…
  • …this point transfers over to the kids.  Say we do PQA (or stories) and we ask a student do you like ____? why? and the student answers because _____ is super hot!    Fair enough…appearance is the first thing that grabs our attention.  But we can– and probably should– also take it a step further by (even humorously) asking questions like is ____ a nice person?  do you like ____ because they are hot, smart, compassionate, or all three? etc.  We have the chance to remind kids that life (even their language-class-invented-personality lives) can be more complex than what popular culture often hands us.

Ok well that was COFLT/WAFLT. Great workshops, a fascinating crew of people, good food and Portland delivered on its rainputation.  I hope C.O.F.L.T. does another such conference and thanks to Ms and Mrs Mason, Krashen, Rowan, Waltz, Bex, Gaab, Hargaden etc for their contributions & workshops & willingness to sit and chat with all comers.

Ok here is a picture of some guy and Stephen Krashen.

 

Should I Mark Behavior? The Great JGR Debate, and a Silver Lining for Behaviour Rubrics.

Some years ago, a teacher built a rubric for her C.I. classes, which Ben Slavic named JGR and which was discussed on his blog and then elsewhere. ¬†Here is a version I have played around with:¬†INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric. ¬†I initially opposed the use of JGR, then used it, then ditched it, and now I use it (but not for marks). Note: this is a¬†modified version of the original JGR; and I don’t know for how long she used her rubric, or if she still does, or what the original looked like.

JGR was developed because– like all of us, especially me– the creator had some challenges managing her C.I. classes in her initial year with T.P.R.S., which can in (especially my) rookie hands turn into a “woo-hoo no more textbook!” clown show. ¬†JGR basically “marks” classroom behaviour. ¬†JGR specifies that students make eye contact, add story details, ask for help, not blurt, not use cell-phones etc. ¬†Jen used it (and if memory serves Ben also recommended its use) by making part of her class mark a function of behaviour as marked by JGR. ¬†So the kids might get, say, 20% of their mark each for reading, writing, listening, speaking and 20% for their in-class behaviour. ¬†Part of the thinking here was that some behaviours lead to acquisition, while others do not and also wreck the classroom environment, and so “acquisition-rewarding” behaviour should be rewarded.

JGR– for many people, including me– “works.” ¬†Which is why– especially when linked with allegedly “acquisition-promoting” behaviours– lots of people are interested in it.

JGR is a kind of “carrot-and-stick” marking tool: ¬†if the kids engaged in the behaviours JGR specified, their marks went up, partly because (a) they got marks for those behaviours, and partly because¬†(b)¬†the behaviours should– in theory– help them acquire more language.

This can of worms was shaken around a bit on Ben’s blog, and recently, thanks to the always-remarkable Terry Waltz, there have been FB and Yahoo discussions about it. ¬†So, today’s question:

Should we assess in-class behaviour for final marks purposes?

My answer: no, never.  Why?

1.¬†Behaviours typically asked for in JGR– or other such rubrics– are not part of any ¬† ¬† curricula of which I am aware. ¬†Every language curriculum says something like, students of the Blablabian language will read, write, speak and understand spoken Blablabian, and maybe say something about Blablabian culture. ¬†Nowhere does any ¬†curriculum say “students should suggest details for stories” or “students will lookthe teacher in the eye.”

If it’s going to get a mark, it has to be part of course outcomes. ¬†Any assessment guru (Wormelli, Harlen, etc) will tell you the same thing: we do not mark attitude, behaviour, homework, etc, as these are¬†not part of final outcomes.

To put it another way, how do we judge the New England Patriots football team? ¬†By how well, often and/or enthusiastically they practice and look Bill Belichick in the eye, or¬†by how many games they win? ¬†How should Tom Brady be paid: by how often he shows up for practice, and how nice he is to Belichick, or by¬†how many yards he successfully throws? ¬†That’s right.

We could– and I often do– end up in situations where a “bad” kid does well, or a “good” kid does poorly. ¬†I have had bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teacher’s pet-type kids who were not especially good at Spanish, and I have had giant pains-in-the-butt who were quite good.

My best-ever student in TPRS, Hamid Hamid, never added story details, never looked up, and always faced away from the board. ¬†Yet he CRUSHED on assessments and got 100% in Spanish 2. ¬†Two years later, his younger brother, Fahim (also a great student) told me that Hamid Hamid was both shy and deaf in his left ear, so always “pointed” his right ear at the board (and so appeared to be looking away). ¬†This kid’s mark would have been lowered by assessing his “in-class behaviour,” which– given his epic Spanish skills– would have been absurd.

2.¬†As Terry Waltz points out,¬†neurodivergent kids can– and do– acquire language without engaging in many behaviours typically required by participation and behaviour rubrics. She also points out that forcing neurodivergent kids into the “normal” mold is at best less than productive. If you are autistic, anxious, suffering from PTSD (as my stepdaughter does) or facing any other neuro challenges, “engagement” rubrics can make your life miserable while not appreciably meaningfully measuring what you can do with the language.

3. The only thing required for language acquisition is reception of comprehensible input.  While the focus of behaviour rubrics is designed to get kids to tune in, it does not follow that many behaviours which do make for a good classРe.g. people adding good details to stories, looking at each otherРare necessary to acquire language.

All of us have been there: you have a plan, you did your story warmup or whatever, but the kids aren’t into it. ¬†You bust out a Movietalk but they aren’t into that either. ¬†Dead class. Now, in a C.I. class, we don’t have recourse to worksheets or whatever, and we still have to teach the language. I have a bail-out move here: direct translation, and I always have a novel on the go, so I can read aloud, and Q&A the novel. ¬†If I’m being particularly non-compelling, I’ll throw an exit quiz at them.

The point: if the kids are getting C.I., they are acquiring.  If they are miserable/tired/bored with stories, fine.  They are gonna get C.I. one way or another.

4.¬†Any kind of behaviour rubric plays the awful “rewards” game. ¬†Ask yourself this question: ¬†why do I teach? The answer– other than¬†because¬†I have to make a living— is probably something like,¬†because it’s interesting, I have some measure of control over my work, and I love kids and my subject. ¬†Some will add that teaching, properly done, opens doors for kids. ¬†Teachers¬†do not teach because they want to be evaluated, or because they want to use the latest gizmo, or because they want public praise, etc. ¬†They are, in other words,¬†intrinsically motivated. ¬†They want to work¬†because the work is good and worthy in itself.

When we institute rewards for behaviours, as Alfie Kohn has spent a career arguing, we destroy intrinsic motivation.  We turn something interesting into payment for marks.  The point stops being paying attention to the storyРor adding to it cos you actually care about itРand becomes something rote.

5. Using behaviour rubrics can dampen professional self-examination. If my practice is such that I have to use marks as a stick to keep kids in line (the policing metaphor is not an accident), there are two possibilities: tough kids, and/or I am doing a bad job.  The question why are they not tuned in? might be answerable with any of the following:

— I am not being sufficiently comprehensible

— I am ignoring the top or the bottom end of the class– too fast/slow or simple/complex

— my activities are not interesting, varied or meaningful enough

— the kids see no purpose

— accountability: they don’t see tuning in as something that results in real gains

— I lack basic skills (smart circling, control of vocab, etc etc)

— my story sucks ūüėČ

I had better be able to look in the mirror, consider and then deal with these possibilities, rather than merely acting like a cop and demanding obedience.

Now, behaviour does matter.  You cannot run a T.P.R.S. class without rules etc.  My basic rules:

  • no phones or other distractions (including side-talk, blurting etc)
  • no insults of anyone other than oneself or of rich entitled people
  • listen, watch and read with the intent to understand; ask when you don’t
  • do not create or engage in distractions

The tools that we have for dealing with distracting behaviour include

  • warning the offender, standing by their desk, calling Mom and Dad, etc
  • pointing, with a smile,¬†to classroom rules¬†every time there is a problem
  • sending them to admin if necessary
  • taking their phone until 3:15 (most kids would rather die)
  • detention, where we discuss behaviour
  • assigning read & translate (quiet seatwork)
  • taking the kids outside for a walk, or doing some other kind of physical brain-break
  • changing activities
  • doing a quiz
  • talking to kids one on one and asking¬†what do I need to do to get you focused?

 

The upshot? ¬†We should not, and need not, mark “behaviour” or “participation.”

 

Addendum:  is there ever a use for classroom behaviour rubrics?

Yes.  I get my kids to self-evaluate using JGR every 2-3 weeks.  My version generates a mark out of 20.

Nineteen out of twenty kids will very honestly self-evaluate their behaviour, provided they understand exactly what is expected. ¬†One kid in twenty will heap false praise on him/herself. ¬†For the false praisers (“I never blurt in class!”), I sit them down and explain what I think, then we agree on a more realistic mark.

I save these JGR “marks” and once in a blue moon, when a helicopter parent or an Admin wants to know,¬†how is Baninder doing in Spanish, I can point to both the spreadsheet with Numberz and JGR. ¬†This¬†frames the inevitable discussion about marks in terms any parent can understand. ¬†Any parent, from any culture, understands that¬†if Johnny screws around and/or does not pay attention in class, his mark will drop.

JGR– in my experience– accurately “predicts” the marks of about 80% of kids. ¬†When I can show a kid (or a parent or admin),¬†look, here are Johnny’s marks AND Johnny’s own description of how he behaves in class, we can have an honest discussion about marks, Spanish, etc. ¬†Win-win.

The Zen of Language Teaching

Here are your koans.  Think on them.

 

If you want to successfully teach grammar, do not teach grammar.

If you want your students to talk, do not ask them to talk.

If you want your students to write well, do not make them practise writing.

If you want them to acquire more words, teach them fewer words.

If you want to make them fluent, do not try to make them fluent.

If you want your students to acquire a language, do not teach them about the language.

If you want your students to know the meanings of lists of words, do not give them lists of words.

If you want your students to spell properly, do not make them practise spelling.

Just because nothing appears to happening doesn’t mean nothing is happening.

Just because something is happening doesn’t mean anything is happening.

If you want your students to read, do not teach them how or what to read.

If you want your students to prepare for the unknown, make them comfortable with what they know.

A student without a language dictionary is like a fish without a bicycle (sorry Gloria).

A language classroom without lists of words is like a phone book without stories.

“If you want to build a ship, do not gather the men to collect wood, divide up the work, or give orders. ¬†Teach them instead to yearn for the vast and infinite sea.”– Antoine de St. Exupery

As always, the ideas here are are grounded in research, and this one was inspired by Mandarin and S.L.A. guru Terry Waltz.

Useful Vocab is Useless

What should¬†language teachers¬†teach? And how should teachers prepare students for “hard” tests like say the French or Spanish A.P. exam?

  • Some say “task-based” stuff, where you learn vocab, necessary grammar and verbs etc to get a specific job done.¬† This seems pretty obvious: if I’m going to France, I am going to need to order food, so we had better do a unit on food, restaurants, ordering, money etc.
  • Some (including me) suggest teaching starting with the most-used words in a language (which by definition includes unsheltered grammar from the beginning).
  • A few dinosaurs suggest grammar rules.

I’ll be controversial here and say that “real world” prep and teaching “useful” vocabulary etc is not what we should be doing.¬† If we want to prepare students for the “real” world and teach them “useful” vocab etc, we should avoid¬†“preparation” and “usefulness.”¬† I agree with Nicole Naditz’ idea…but for very different reasons. ¬†Why?

First, as Bill VanPatten noted in one of the earlier episodes of his podcast, we don’t prepare people for specific “real-world” situations.¬† Rather, we teach them to cope.¬† Since we can’t anticipate¬†what will happen after/outside class, and even if we could there’s way too much necessary vocab to be learned to deal with possible situations, and since single unknown words can throw us off our carefully-practiced restaurant (or whatever) interactions, what we should be doing is giving people as much understanding and as many tools as possible to get language work done.

Here is a standard student response to a typical “communicative” task: practice using restaurant and food vocabulary in a “realistic” situation. ¬†Of course, the kids wrote a script. ¬† They are learning the vocab, and naturally have not yet acquired it, and so they write it down to try to remember (“quick can we do our oral test before we forget?” they say). ¬† ¬†¬†¬† ¬†¬†¬† The usual problems with “communicative” tasks apply here: junky output becomes junky input for other learners, it’s what Bill VanPatten calls “language-like behaviour,” as opposed to language, most of the time “preparing” it was probably spent giggling in English about the humour of two gangsters arguing over pizza, etc.

The biggest problem, though, is its usefulness. ¬† When the kids “perform” this for their teacher, one misremembered line will throw the whole thing off. ¬† And if either of them ever gets to France, what happens if the server doesn’t say commander? What if s/he says qu’est-ce que vous voulez? ¬†This– in context– won’t matter that much. ¬†It’s pretty obvious that the server is asking what you want.

The real¬†question here is, was this activity acquisition-building?¬† Since it’s output-focused, full of junky language, rehearsed etc, the answer is no. The best tools, in language as in carpentry, are those that are simple and versatile. ¬†In terms of bang-for-buck this is super low-value. ¬†If we spent two periods creating, rehearsing and then “performing” these dialogues, that’s 120 minutes where the kids could have been reading/listening to input. ¬†If you were dead set on teaching them food vocab, you could have done Movietalk or Picturetalk about restaurants, or done a story. ¬†But the acquisitive value of output is¬†very limited.

This is where high-frequency vocab comes in.¬† Starting with what Terry Waltz has called the “super seven” verbs– to have, be,¬†be located,¬†want, need, go, like and want– and using high-frequency vocab, we give learners the “flexible basics” for “real world” situations. You might not know the French for “I would like to buy a train ticket for Lyons,” but if you can use high-frequency vocab at the ticket booth– “I want to go to Lyons”– you’ll be fine.¬† (train, ticket and to buy are relatively low-frequency words).

Terry Waltz made a similar argument recently. ¬†She asked us to imagine buying copper wire and pliers (low-frequency vocabulary) in a foreign country. ¬†Now, what is more important? ¬†Knowing how to say “do you have?” or knowing the words for “copper wire” and “pliers”? ¬†If you can say “do you have…?” (a very high-frequency expression), it is relatively easy to point, gesture, use a dictionary etc to learn the words for “copper wire” and “pliers.”

Second, most “real world”¬†(i.e. situation-specific) vocab is almost always available in context.¬† You think you need to know forty Spanish words for food?¬† No you don’t– when in Colombia or Spain, look at the menu!¬† Can’t say “towel” in Hindi? If you know mujhee jaruurat hai (“I want to buy…”), you¬†can point at a towel, and the kaparwallah will beam, tell you what the word is and also maybe offer you chai.¬† Don’t know how to say “buy” and “ticket” and “first class” in French? Go to the train station and if you can say j’aimerais aller √† Lyons,¬†you’ll be fine.¬† You’ll learn…and in all of these cases, because the words are associated with movement, other speakers, images, sights, sounds etc, there’s a good chance you’ll remember their meanings and eventually just spit them out.

Third, we have the problem of, basically, who cares about future “payoffs”?¬† Most of our students won’t end up in China or Mexico or wherever.¬† Should we assume that sufficient motivation for them is the possibility that one day they will be chatting up French or Chinese people?¬† That– like grammar teaching–¬†will work for one¬†student in twenty.

What is going to movitate the other 19? We know from psychology that the three main motivators to do well (in anything) are autonomy, mastery and group belonging.¬† The highest-paying job in the world blows¬†if you’re¬†robotically following orders.¬† The living definition of stress is lack of mastery (or at least being good at something) while being obliged to do it, and people will go to incredible lengths to be a part of (and defend) a community.¬† I suspect that this is why online games such as Call of Duty are so massively popular:¬† you can re-do levels until you get them, you can do “ops” in groups, and you have a fair amount of control over who you are (avatar building) and what you do.

What about the A.P. exam?   Teacher David W. on the FB group recently asked this:

“at what point/level (if any) do you or other TPRS teachers stop striving for 100% comprehensibility? I’m tied to the Advanced Placement Spanish Exam as an end goal, and it draws heavily on authentic print and audio sources. It’s more or less impossible for non-heritage speakers to have 100% comprehension of these by their fifth year taking Spanish classes. So at some point it seems like they have to start getting used to doing their best despite not getting everything (which they’ll also face when interacting with non-teacher native speakers). Would love to hear any thoughts on this.”

Great question. ¬†Here’s what I think (thanks Terry Waltz for many discussions on this):

  1. Language comes in two kinds: ¬†what we understand, and what we don’t. ¬†The more we understand, the easier it is to figure out the rest. ¬†Look at these two Blablabian sentences:John florfly Miami 24 Nov.
    John florfly squits Miami 24 Nov.

    The first, well, it probably means “John goes to/is in/went to/was in Miami on the 24 Nov.” ¬†The second…well…there are waaaaaay more possibilities. ¬†So, how do we make the second sentence easiest for the Blablabian 101 student to figure out? ¬†Well, we have two options:

    a. we can get them to “practise” various “metacognitive strategies” or whatever edubabble currently stands in for “guess.”
    b. we can teach them as many words as possible.

    Now, if the students know that florfly means “went to,” they will have an easier time guessing at what squits means.

    Bill VanPatten has talked about this problem and has noted that “constraints on working memory” have a significant effect on processing. ¬†Basically, having “too much stuff in the head” at once slows processing. ¬†So, the more high-frequency vocab students have “wired in” to the point where they automatically process it, the more “mental bandwidth” they have for dealing with unknown stuff.

    It’s like organising your cycling or climbing gear, or books, or clothes, in a room or in a closet. ¬†All the Googling, planning and ideas won’t help¬†if you don’t have racks or shelves. ¬†C.I. of high-frequency vocab is the shelving system of language: ¬†it makes life easier by providing slots to stash things as they come in.

  2. There is no research (of which I am aware) suggesting that “processing noise” or getting incomprehensible input helps acquisition. ¬†Indeed, one of the reasons why babies need 4,000-5,000 hours of input to generate even single words (while a student in a C.I. class can start generating simple sentences within a few hours of starting C.I.) is that¬†most of what babies hear is incomprehensible. ¬†A little kid literally hears this when Mom talks to him: ¬†bla bla bla candy bla bla bla tomorrow.

    Many people who travel get a¬†lot of incomprehensible input¬†even when they know the language where they are traveling. ¬†When I am in a Mexican market, I would say that 90% of what I overhear– slang, fast Spanish, low-freq vocab– is over my head, and I’m pretty fly (for a white guy) at Spanish.

  3. There is no way to speed up processing speed. ¬†As American audiologist Ray Hull notes, adolescents process L1 at a max of about 140-150 word per minute, while adults typically speak in L1 at about 180 WPM. ¬†In L2, Hull suggests that 125-130 WPM is optimal speed, and that¬†nothing can speed up processing speed. ¬†Asking an adolescent to “practise” understanding adult L2 speech is like telling a short kid to grow– it’s a developmental thing that cannot be changed.

 

I would suggest that if you have A.P., you have three strategies which are your best friends:

  1. Reading.  Blaine ray and others have noted that by Level 5, students should be reading 1,000 words a night.  If the reading is 95-98% comprehensible, the kids will slowly acquire new words.  This will help on the A.P.
  2. Movies and video. ¬†Watching anything in the TL, with L1 subtitles, will help. ¬†It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s good L1, accurate L2, and it’s compelling.
  3. Online language appsРe.g. Duolingo, or LingQРare (to me) boring, but a lot of kids like them.  If they are reading/listening and understanding, they are acquiring.

Anyway, there we go: ¬†“useful” vocab is useless, and “real world” language is not really effective processing practise.

 

 

Why don’t immigrants’ kids properly acquire their parents’ language?

My colleague Rome Lacvrencic, head of the B.C. Association of Teachers of Modern Languages, and I had an interesting Twitter discussion recently. 

Lavrencic, of Polish extraction, heard some Polish at home in Ontario, Canada, English everywhere, and was in late French Immersion. By the end of Grade 12, he says he was “more proficient in L3 than L1.”  He attributes this to being able to speak more French than Polish. 

 This  is a familiar refrain: “I used to be good at ____ but now I don’t speak it much so I’m bad at it.”

This was where I disagreed. I told him that speaking wasn’t the point, but that listening was.  

So I thought I’d take a look at this via numbers and my own experiences. 

My L1 was German.  I heard it at home a lot until Grade One, and much less after Grade Four, when my cousin Sig came to live with us.  Sig spoke Spanish, French and English, so English it was at home. 

Now, when I speak German, I sound like a five-year-old from 1963. I hear my folks speak German but that’s about my only exposure. And I suck at German. When I am around German speakers, I understand a ton but I can say much less than I understand. 

In terms of input, mine dropped to close to zero at age 9. Lavrencic went through a roughly similar process: Polish dropped off but French input massively upped.  My guess is that he (and anyone else in his shoes) would get 5-6 hours daily of French input at school, plus homework (reading) while in Polish (like me in German) would have gotten maybe an hour or two.  

Lavrencic took French in Uni and also teaches it so he’s obviously super-proficient.  

In my view, Lavrencic is bringing up the problem of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this), also known as the correlation vs causation problem. There was speaking and input, then there was acquisition.  The acquisition happened after both the speaking and input. Was it therefore because of the speaking? 

The research says it’s the input. Terry Waltz recently remarked, echoing Krashen, that there are loads of cases of people acquiring languages without speaking them. The deaf who do not get speech training are one. As we all know, when we start acquiring a  language, we go through Krashen’s “silent period” where we understand more and more but our speaking lags.  It is also well-known that babies as young as a few days have begun understanding some aspects of language 8 months prior to even single words emerging. 

Recently on Yahoo this topic came up and master teacher Hai Yun Lu weighed in. She’s Chinese, married an American, and wants her kid to acquire Chinese. Check it:

“I have raised my son to be bilingual. There are many rules and  practices we have implemented at home in order for this to happen. After my son was born, a college professor visited me and shared research she had read. If I wanted to raise a bilingual child, then his second language input needed to be minimal 30% of his total language input (I wish I could find this actual research to share with everyone).

Let’s say, if his waking/alert time is 14 hours a day. 8-9 hours in daycare = English input. He has about 5 hours at home with us. Listening to me speaking Chinese to him, his father speaking English with him and his parents conversing in English. Of course, on the weekends/holidays, he gets more Chinese input. Still, we can barely meet the minimal input amount. Therefore, rules have come into place in our house. Each time we go back to visit China, first and most, we carry a suitcase full children books back for him. (Richard Scary’s collections, Curious Gorge, Clifford…) I only read to him in Chinese, even with an English book [she means, she reads the words to herself silently in English but says them in Chinese].

We rarely turn on TV before he goes to bed. If he’s interested in watching some cartoons, I do whatever I can to get them in Chinese. Therefore, he watches his favorite cartoons in Chinese (e.g Thomas and Friends, Disney films, Curious Gorge, Magic Flute’s Adventure). The majority of his playmates have been Chinese-speaking kids until this spring. He has developed close friendships in JK, where we have finally “extended” our friends circle.

My son is one of the very few kids who can speak Chinese fluently, in comparison to the kids in a similar situation. Many people complain to me that their kids understand their languages, but only speak back in English. I always say “input” proceeds “output”. They need more comprehensible input before they can output. (Here I have left out some psychological factors such as the desire to “fit in”, which typically occurs once when kids start school and they start to refuse to speak their parents’ languages.)

Many of my son’s friends’ parents are very eager to have their children to speak Chinese, and they keep saying to me: “just speak Chinese to my child, I hope we will be able to speak.” It hasn’t worked for any of his friends yet, because what we can say to each other is incomprehensible to his friends, unless I want to turn a playdate into a Chinese lesson time.”

Haiyun Lu

What Is Personalisation? Two Approaches.

What is “personalisation”? ¬†We all agree it matters. ¬†My definition: personalisation is any connection between subject matter and individuals’ interests and characteristics.

A very talented District colleague recently did me the favour of Twarguing with me.  She posted a picture of a bicycle with some Spanish sentences explaining the value of riding a bike, thus: 

For the non-Spanish-speakers, the sentences include “puts a big smile on your face” and “reduces the risks of heart attack,” etc. ¬†These are all about the advantages of riding a bicycle regularly. ¬†I would never use this with kids, cos like O.M.G. it’s boring, LULZ but anyway.

When I saw this, I looked at a few words from the picture Wiktionary’s Spanish frequency lists. ¬†Most of that picture is low-frequency vocabulary (i.e. not in the top 1500 most-used Spanish words). ¬†So,¬†I responded with the following question:

How is low-frequency vocabulary “important”? If your reference is to grammar (e.g. 3rd person verbs), this better taught w/ high-frequency vocab.”

 

Shauna here is suggesting that students investigate their own interests and use language pertaining thereto.  In other areas, we have suggestions about using project based learning and genius hour in the language classroom (with excellent rebuttals (especially for genius hour proposals) from Sarah E. Cottrell).

We¬†are here getting into a classic traditional-methods-vs-comprehensible-input teachers’ argument: ¬†do we make language class interesting– and personalised– for students by

a) recycling high-frequency vocabulary, or

b) by allowing students to choose their own vocabulary for activities?

A general note: while we all take¬†some interest in what others do/like etc, there are limits. ¬†Walk into a Joshua Tree fire circle, and if you’re not a rock-climber, you’ll be baffled and bored within minutes, because “it’s slammer left-facing hands on 2s to a sidepull and then a mantle over a crappy blue Alien and a slab runout” is basically irrelevant to you. ¬†In¬†any social situation, there is a balancing act between interest in others’ stuff and being bored. ¬†So it is in a classroom.

Textbook personalisation suggestions¬†have a number of basic problems, one of which is keeping kids interested. ¬†Why should Johnny want to listen to/read the vocab about ordering dinner, or recycling, or bargaining for fruit in a French market, over and over? ¬†It’s not that these activities¬†and words¬†are boring per se, but when was the last time you spent three weeks using forty words¬†and one grammar device¬†to discuss the same topic?¬†Never– because that’s¬†boring. So the simple answer– for teachers who do not use stories– is, let the kids pick and choose their vocab. ¬† T.P.R.S. and A.I.M. teachers, as we shall see, don’t have many challenges keeping kids interested.

But if students choose their own vocab for class activities or projects, there are five big problems.

First, there is the problem of usable frequency. ¬†If we want to build functional fluency in any language, our first priority is make sure students acquire the most-used words before the less-used. ¬†Obviously, there will be exceptions: “communicative” teachers typically like to make sure kids know all the words for school things such as pencil, desk etc, while we comprehensible input people like animals etc for our stories. ¬†Now, a student¬†may¬†be into activities that use high-frequency words. ¬†But much more often, the opposite is the case.

If Johnny is into, say, bicycle racing, and Sheila likes wrestling, great.  But how often is Johnny going to hear/read cycling-relatedРand Sheila wrestling-relatedРwords?  The answer:  in most language communities, especially ones to which people in their first five years of language acquisition belong, not very often.  This means they are putting effort into something which has limited communicative value for them and for others in their class.

Second, we have the problem of shared interest.  As I noted above, if Baninder likes Call of Duty and Maricela likes chess, whatРas relative beginnersРare they going to talk about?  Maricela is probably not going to be especially interested in hearing about shooting people, team missions, ammunition etc, and Baninder is not going to want to hear about endgame strategies and Sicilian openings, etc.

In the “real” world (probably online), Baninder can find his own C.o.D. crew in French and Maricela can play chess with French speakers, but in class– where realistically 95% of language acquisition happens for our students– how are we going to get each kid– not to mention the rest of the class– to “buy into” hearing and reading others’ specialist vocab?

(As an English teacher, my first great reading realisation years ago came from my brilliant colleague Louise Hazemi, who in Surrey pioneered the use of literature circles for novel reading. ¬†We¬†used to have a “novel a year” system, where kids were assigned¬†To Kill A Mockingbird in 10th grade,¬†Lord of the Flies in 11th, etc. ¬†The problem? ¬†Most kids hated these books (either because they were “too hard,” or simply because they had been assigned), didn’t read them, cheated on tests and essays, etc. ¬†So, at our school, we asked the kids what books they would like (and asked teachers) and for each grade bought 10 copies of 8 novels. ¬†Now, the kids in each grade pick a novel to read (yes; we still offer Mockingbird and L.o.t.F.) and BOOM!¬†all the kids read at least one novel, and¬†all the kids report enjoying their reading (they still do essays, discussions etc about their chosen novel).

It is much the same with silent reading.  I start each English and Social Justice class with 20 minutes of silent reading.  There are three silent reading rules:

  1. You must read a book (no newspapers or magazines) and not talk, listen to music, or use your phone.
  2. You must not read anything from any class during silent reading.
  3. Your book must not suck.  If it does, get another one.

How does it work? ¬†Brilliantly. ¬†While my less-literate boys grumble at the start of the year, after a week¬†every kid reads and every kid likes reading. ¬†Probably two-thirds of kids read young adult novels, while another third prefer things like biographies, how-to books, various factual genres, self-help, etc. ¬†This is because they¬†choose things that are interesting (and readable) to them and because¬†there is no “accountability piece.” ¬†No “book report” marks, reading logs, etc.¬†¬†As long as they are reading and enjoying their reading, I am happy.

Now at this point I can see Madame Nero (and any other person who shares her view about how to personalise the language class) saying “Exactly! ¬†Let language kids do the same thing! Let them decide!” However, the key here is that¬†nobody is forcing the kids to learn/acquire things which they are not interested in. ¬†Kids like free reading because it’s free:¬†¬†they aren’t forced into something they don’t care about.)

Third, there is the quantity of input problem.  We know that what people acquire is a function of how much comprehensible input they get.  They need to hear the words or structures a lot to first recognise them automatically, and even more to be able to automatically say them.  So if we are going to run our class around student-identified student interests, how do we deliver 30 different sets of vocab often enough that the kidsРeven if they want to, which we are not guaranteedРpick them up?

Say each kid gets to decide 5 words germane to their interests which they want to have incorporated into class activities. ¬†That’s 150 words. ¬†That’s¬†half of a year’s recommended vocab load right there! ¬†As we very well know, it’s simple math: ¬†the greater a variety of vocab we use, the less time we have on each word which means poorer acquisition of each word. As the great Terry Waltz recently noted, if you want the kids to acquire more words, teach fewer words. There is also the challenge of integrating specialist vocabulary into teacher-planned activity.

Fourth, we have¬†the output problem. ¬†In many traditional¬†classes, it is assumed– wrongly– that if kids “learn” vocab (and grammar) and present it in some way, they are picking it up. ¬†This is simply wrong, as the research shows. ¬†And, learners by definition generate error-filled and impoverished (two-dimensional) output. ¬†I do not see the point of making other learners listen to that. ¬†As Terry Waltz has famously said– with Stephen Krashen agreeing– “peer to peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching.”

This is what is¬†supposed to happen in a “communicative classroom (here, two Vietnamese speakers are learning English):

Thanh: Where Michael today? He here?

Vien: Where is Michael today?  He is not here.

Thanh: Ahh, yes, where is Michael today?  He is not here.

Here, Vien– who is also learning English– is supposed to notice Thanh’s error, “remodel it” properly, so Thanh can fix his output. ¬†Now, here is what would¬†actually happen:

Thanh: Where Michael today?  He here?

Vien: Michael home.  He not here.

Thanh: Ah, yes, Michael home.

Even though Vien and Thanh want to learn English, and are working away at it, they will¬†inevitably produce poor output (for a variety of reasons). ¬†So the ideal situation described above generally does not happen with two learners. ¬†If Thanh’s interlocutor was a native (or very competent) English speaker, this communicative activity would probably work.

Fifth, there is the¬†dictionary/Internet problem. ¬† As soon as the kids want to generate their own vocab, we know what they do: ¬†they fire it into Google translate, and we know the results. ¬†So it becomes the teacher’s job to edit word lists, activities, presentations, rehearsed dialogues, etc. ¬†I don’t know about you, but that’s boring and often I am myself scrambling to figure out how to say _____ in Spanish.

So,¬†if our goal is to deliver a ton of compelling and multidimensional high-frequency language, and to repeat that language over and over so students hear it often enough that it gets wired in, the “choose your own topic” idea won’t¬†work. ¬† But the question remains,¬†how do we personalise vocabulary and maintain student interest?¬†

One answer involves using the world’s oldest and most-proven teaching method; ¬†stories. ¬†Everybody likes a story, because we naturally find people and their hopes, problems etc more interesting than things or ideas, and because suspense–¬†what happens to ____?— is another universal hook. ¬†Stories are¬†always¬†more interesting than any other kind of input. ¬†Everyone can relate to basic human questions such as wanting to have ___, being scared of ____, liking/disliking someone, etc.

In T.P.R.S., our use of parallel characters and parallel problems allows us¬†tremendous room for personalisation. ¬†If we’re working on¬†esperaba que ____ le explicara…¬†(“s/he hoped that _____ would explain…”), say, I can have a boy who wants to have the mysteries of talking to girls explained to him (great¬†topic for¬†all teens: boys want info, girls will think it’s hilarious) and a girl who wants to have say Call of Duty explained to her. ¬†(Stereotypes are¬†great to play around with). ¬†This works even better when we know students, and we can throw a kid (and their interests, from say our start-of-year questionnaire) into a story. ¬† If we know Breleigh likes dogs, hates cats and looooves¬†Ashton Kutcher, well,¬†Breleigh eseperaba que Ashton Kutcher le explicara por qu√© no le gustaban los gatos. ¬†Any half-decent storyteller can get the audience to empathise with or at least be interested in a character who is a bit different than they are.

Another answer involves recycling high-frequency vocabulary in a way that ackowledges student interests and preferences.  For a rank beginner, something like owning a specific kind of pet, or liking or disliking any kind of thing or activity is a great start.  In my first story, Los Gatos Azules, a boy wants to own ten blue cats.  So, we personalise by asking the students the same questions we ask our actors:

Here’s an example from my Level 1 class:

Me: Ace, ¬Ņtienes un perro? ¬†Do you have a dog?

Ace: No.

Me: ¬ŅTienes un gato?¬†Do you have a cat?

Ace: No tengo gato.¬†I don’t have a cat.

Me: ¬ŅTe gustan los gatos o los perros? A m√≠¬†(pointing at myself), me gustan MUCHO los gatos.¬†Do you like cats or dogs? ¬†Me, I¬†REALLY like cats.

Ace: Me gustan los gatos. I like cats.

Me: Clase, levanta las manos si te gustan los gatos. (half of class raises hands, so I point at a kid who didn’t). Mandeep, ¬Ņte gustan los gatos?¬†Mandeep, do you like cats?

Mandeep: No.

Me: What did I just ask you?

Mandeep: Do you like cats?

Me: ¬†Mandeep, los gatos–¬†¬ŅSon simp√°ticos, o no son simp√°ticos?¬†Cats– are they nice, or not nice?

Mandeep: No.

Me: ¬†¬ŅLos gatos no son simp√°ticos?¬†Cats aren’t nice?

Mandeep:  No.

Me: Class, what did Mandeep just say?

Class: Cats aren’t nice.

So, here we have some personalisation: the kids are explaining their opinion about cats and dogs.  This is basic stuff.  (Note:  I am not expecting any output other than y/n here (though if the students want to say more, they can).  My only aims are that they understand what is being said and that they can connect the vocab to their selves or interests.

Here is a level 2 example of personalisation. In the story we are doing, a Dad is chewing his kids out for not having done homework and chores. ¬†So we are acquiring¬†what did you do?¬†and¬†I prefered,¬†etc. ¬†In the story, Dad asks his kid “What did you do last night?” and she says “I went to Cabo San Lucas and talked for 9 hours with Dave Franco.” ¬†Dad asks “Did you do your homework?” and she says “No, I didn’t, Dave did it.”

All we have to do in P.Q.A.– personalised questions and answers– is ask kids in class the same questions we ask our actors.

Me: Breleigh, ¬Ņque hiciste anoche? ¬†What did you do last night?

Breleigh: No hice nada porque ten√≠a que estudiar.¬†I didn’t do anything cos I had to study

M: ¬ŅQu√© estudiaste anoche? What did you study last night?

B: Estudié la biología. I studied bio.

M: ¬ŅQu√© quer√≠as hacer anoche: estudiar, o bailar?¬†What did you¬†want to do last night: study, or dance?

B: Quería bailar. I wanted to dance.

M: John, ¬Ņqu√© prefieres hacer t√ļ– bailar, o jugar Call of Duty? ¬†What do you prefer to do: dance, or play C.o.D.?

J: Prefiero jugar C.o.D. porque es m√°s interesante.¬†I prefer to play C.o.D. cos it’s more interesting.

We can get an immense amount of mileage out of a fairly limited range of vocab, as you can see. ¬†If we throw in some weird stuff, we can get a zillion¬†more miles. ¬†For example, I could ask Breleigh if she likes elephants (free cognate) more than cats. ¬†If she says yes, we’re off: do you own an elephant? ¬†what is a good name for an elephant? ¬†etc etc. These details can serve in stories, and they are great for random “review” P.Q.A.

Now, these are simple examples, and I hope you’re seeing the point: ¬†we can personalise without getting into specialist vocab. ¬†Not every kid is into Call of Duty (or chess, or ballet, or gangster rap, or Peruvian food, or French culture), but a teacher who is willing to¬†listen to kids will figure out what people have opinions about and get them to express those.

The teacher’s job in part is to explore student interests, but also to make the language classroom functional (comprehensible and interesting) for¬†everyone, so sometimes you have to say “sorry, Johnny, that’s too complicated” or “nobody else is interested in that, sorry.”

Personalisation: people basically¬†want their interests and selves acknowledged. ¬†If Johnny says “I prefer C.o.D. to ballet” and Suzy “God, I hate cats,”¬†that is good personalisation. ¬†We acknowledge their interests and views, and we give them what they need: an ocean of repetition on limited vocab, varied by context, cognates and sometimes wacky fun stuff.

So, in a nutshell, to personalise properly:

  • avoid having students generate lists of words
  • avoid making students listen to/read low-frequency specialist vocabulary
  • connect students with high-frequency vocab by soliciting their opinions, or info about them
  • use¬†stories¬†and ask students the same questions as you ask actors
  • integrate students– or info about their real (or imagined) selves– into stories

NOTE: Teachers in an immersion environment are going to be able to use more vocab than the rest of us, and there is therefore going to be more finely-tuned personalisation, and at serior Immersion levels there will be way more room for vocab personalisation. ¬†But for most of us…keep it simple is the way to go.