Topical & Thematic Units

Frequency Lessons #2: What Really Matters?

Thought experiment, and neat discussion item for Defartment Meetingz, or Headz or Adminz who don’t understand why Textbookz are the devil in disguise. 

First, read the following lists.  These are English equivalents of Spanish words from’s frequency list. If you are using this with colleagues, don’t at first tell them where you got the words. 

List A: welcome, together, window, comes, red

List B: went, that he be, world, shit, that she had gone out

First, you could think about what these lists have in common, how they differ, etc. 

Second, anwer this question: which words will be the most useful for students in the real world?

The obvious answer is List A. After all, we always “welcome” people, kids need to know words for classroom stuff like “windows,” we set the tone for classes by working peacefully “together,” and common sense suggests that “comes” and colours such as “red” are super-important. 

The List B words are, obviously, either less immediately useful or “advanced” (ie textbook level 4 or 5) grammar. 

Now here’s the surprise for us and our colleagues: the List B words are all in the 200 most-used Spanish words, while none of the List A words are in the 1000 most-used Spanish words.

What I got from this was, first, that what is obvious isn’t necessarily true, and second that a sequenced plan of instruction (eg from “simple” to “complex” grammar) would majorly short-change students for their real-world Spanish experiences. 

The textbook, or the doddering grammarian (or even the smiley new school grammarian with their apps, feedback gadgetry, evidence of learning portfolios, self-reflections bla bla bla) will see language acquisition as a set of skills that we master one rule set or vocab set at a time, starting with simplest and going to “more complex.” However, what people need to actually function in México or Spain is, well, high-frequency vocabulary, as much of it as possible. Why is this? Two simple reasons. 

First, high-freq vocab is what one hears most. Knowing it means getting the functional basics and feeling good because you can understand lots. If you easily understand lots of the target language, you can function even if– as is always the case– you can’t speak as much as you understand. When I’m in Mexico and I can’t say blablabla, I can gesture, point, use other words etc. Never yet had a problem with getting my point across, but I’m always wishing I understood more. 

Second, high-freq vocab builds the “acquistional platform.” When our students are finally in a Spanish or Mandarin environment, knowing high-freq vocab reduces the processing load for new input. If students already know a high-frequency sentence such as I wanted that he had been nicer (in Spanish quería que estuviera/fuera más amable), it will be much easier to figure out what I wanted that she had been more engaging means, because we only have to really focus on the word engaging

This is the acquisition platform: when we have the basics (high-freq words and grammar) wired in, it gets steadily easier to pick up new words. 

Anyway…be curious to see what ppl and their colleagues think of this. OH WAIT I FORGOT THE DEVIL 😈. Textbooks. Well the basic prob with texts here is that they don’t even close to introduce words along frequency lines, as I have noted elsewhere


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

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

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

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

So some random notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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 à 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 apps– e.g. Duolingo, or LingQ– are (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.



Thematic & topical units: not so fast…

So here are a couple of  requests from a language teachers’ forum.  WHat do they have in common?

Yup– they are “grammar topic” focused.  We also regularly see requests for “units” or stories about shopping, clothing, body parts, etc.  This brings up the question of the day: should language be organised around either grammar or topical vocab?

My answer:  generally no, with one exception: if you work somewhere and you must do the “shopping unit” or the “body parts” test, you do it to save your job, bla bla.  But if you have control, avoid grammar-foc used or theme-focused units.  Why?

First, definitions. For languages, most curricula– with the notable exception of Blaine Ray’s original TPRS– are organised into topics. Typically it will be a grammar concept such as a new verb tense, plus a bunch of vocab on one topic– food, the environment, recycling, shopping– often organised around a cultural idea/place. My Avancemos book, for example, in its first chapter, has a setting (New York), a theme (introductions), a set of grammar ideas (the verb to be) and a bunch of vocab: hellos and good-byes, numbers, days, months, age etc.  ¡Juntos! did its imperfecto “unit” on childhood, as does my colleagues’ French courses.

I actually have never seen a non-T.P.R.S. text that wasn’t topically organised. Texts are done this way because, well, I dunno, as we shall see.

So…why are grammar or theme vocab units a bad idea?

A) Topics are boring. In a typical classroom, where, say, the restaurant unit is being taught, students will typically “do” stuff with the vocab. Match words and pictures. Act out a diner-and-waiter skit. Ask each other what they want to order. Make up their own restaurant and menu, etc. Write about eating out. The problem here is that after the initial interest– if any– of learning new vocab wears off, things are going to get boring because what can you actually do with all this vocab?. You are basically saying and hearing the vocab over and over…for what? How interesting is it to hear “I would like French fries” over and over? While the vocab may be useful (for kids who know they are going to France or Quebec someday) this stuff isn’t inherently interesting.

If you don’t see why, ask yourself this question: when was the last time you spent three weeks talking about one subject– food, say– in one verb tense, using one or two new grammar tricks and say forty words? Never? Why not? Cos it’s totally BORING, that’s why not!

This brings up the, uhh, interesting question “what is interesting, anyway?” I’d say a solid mix of novelty, repetition and control works.  Something is interesting when we don’t know what will happen and we want to find out, and I could be fooling myself here, but doesn’t that make stories the most interesting teaching tool ever?

B) Topics distort authentic language. Ok, I know, people are going to say “well we always use non-authentic (i.e. simplified, learner-suitable) language in a classroom, so who cares?” But by “authentic language” I mean something like “multidimensional.”

Here are two examples. First, from Avancemos Uno, Chapter 6, here’s a sentence from one of the telenovelas:  “I like cats more. Cats are nicer than dogs”

Second, this is from the 5th chapter of Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk:  “Caden knows that there are many gorillas who dance poorly, and so he doesn’t want any old gorilla, but rather one who knows how to dance well.”

The text sentence is tied to the chapter’s objective– teaching comparisons– and so it’s one-dimensional and boring.  Now, the problems with this aren’t the sentence itself (or the many others in the chapter that are just like it).  The problem is the idea of a theme or topic.  If your topic is a grammar point– in this case, comparisons– you are massively restricting yourself with what you can do with the vocab.

Imagine this:  you want to write a short story in English but the only thing you can use– outside of nouns and a few basic verbs– is comparisons.  The story would look something like this:  “There is a boy named John.  He is taller than his sister.  He has as much money as his sister.  He wants more money than his sister.  So he goes to meet a man who has more money than John does.”  OK, we get it, we are bored, it’s two-dimensional…but at least it’s a story.  What are you going to do with it if you don’t use stories?  Have them point to pictures and tell their partner “the girl is taller than the boy”?  Write a paragraph– cleverly disguised as a Facebook status update– about why your favorite actor Channing Tatum is more ______ than Ryan Gosling?  Boooooring!

Ray’s sentence, on the other hand, has two subordinate clauses, the subjunctive, it’s compound, and it’s interesting. Dancing gorillas? Cool! Where? How many?  In T.P.R.S., we don’t have one grammar objective per story, because we use all grammar all the time. The kids are always getting something like authentic– multidimensional– language.  When Ray wants to teach a grammar concept– e.g. comparisons– he’ll just pick one, make it comprehensible, and throw it into the story.  The point is the story, and the language, properly speaking, is incidental…but it’s also more authentic than the impoverished, one-dimensional stuff in texts.

C) Topical units tie grammar to vocab and decrease “transfer” from one theme or topic to another.  Years ago when I taught using a “communicative” program– ¡Juntos!— one problem repeatedly came up. Unit 5 taught the pretérito using school vocab. Unit 7 taught reflexive verbs using daily routines. Unit 9 or whatever taught the imperfect using childhood memories. The problem? Even when these “worked”– and they generally didn’t– at the end of the year the kids could only talk about childhood using the pretérito, daily routines using reflexive verbs, etc. What they should have been able to do was use everything everywhere.

A Spanish sentence such as cuando me desperté ayer, estaba cansado, y no había café en la cocina (“When I woke up yesterday, I was tired, and there was no coffee in the kitchen”) is totally normal. It also uses two past tenses and a reflexive verb (in the past). My kids could never have produced a sentence like that, because the text didn’t offer exercises or reading where these things were mixed together.

Much more effective: use a bit of [non-Englishy grammar item/vocab] in Level 1, and keep on using it all the time.

When I saw the amazing Joe Dziedzic this year at IFLT in Denver, he was rocking a Spanish story with level 2s and using every grammatical structure that exists.  He had 2nd year kids understanding things like “si hubiera ido, hubiera estado más feliz”  (if I had gone, I would have been happier).  Joe’s kids, as a result of his classic (but free-form) T.P.R.S., won’t “see” or “cover” immense vocab lists, and probably couldn’t tell you what exactly an -ar verb is.  BUT…over four or five years of very good C.I., they will hear complex, authentic Spanish that covers most of the grammar etc from Day One.  As a result, this stuff will be “wired in” in a much deeper way than if it were taught sequentially, and when/if the kids ever get to college Spanish, or Mexico, the input they’ll get, combined with having the “mental platform” of all the grammar, will mean much faster comprehension, better output, and quicker learning.

D) It’s harder to remember similar vocab items together. Here is Paul Nation’s paper, and here is Rob Waring’s (thanks, Eric Herman, you deity of rounding up research) which show us that when you have to learn a bunch of similar stuff together– e.g. a big list of food items, or of clothing, or of, say, reflexive verbs– they are harder to remember. Ideally, we should be learning a mix of really disparate things together because– as with the visual system, where it’s much easier to see interlocking patterns when the patterns are each of very different colours than if they are of similar colours– differences = contrast = memorability.  I remember teaching communicatively and oh my God did I ever suck when I gave the kids 40 food items to memorise.

Blaine Ray’s technique– teach, say, only two adjectives and two verbs in a story– is brilliant. This allows for massive numbers of repetitions (= acquisition), and makes sure that, since there are only a limited number of items, they will each “stand out” in memory better than if a massive list of items had each item only used a few times.

E) Topical texts do not follow frequency lists. As I have noted elsewhere, frequency lists– how often a word is used– should guide teaching. If 85% of all spoken language is 1,000 words, and 95% is 2,000 words (as Nation & Davies show) we should teach the most-used words first. Now in my Avancemos book, goodbye is one of the first words taught, yet it is in about 350th place in terms of frequency!  There are 349 more-used words than goodbye. So why does the text teach this before the 349 other more-used words? Avancemos also starts off with days of the week, yet many of these are in 1,100th place! Most texts do a unit on clothes, fashion etc within the first 2-3 years. A word such as T-shirt is in about 4,400 place.

F) Topical and thematic units disregard the order of acquisition.  Basically, people’s brains soak up the grammar they want on their own schedule.  Things like the third person -s in English which appears to be a “basic rule’ is actually late-acquired; in other languages such as Spanish, “complex” grammar” like subjunctive is nearly as frequently used as, say the present tense, and is in any case much easier to soak up with a lot of exposure over time than if it is “presented” late.  As soon as comprehensible input starts coming in, the brain starts “figuring out” grammar…so it is best to introduce it ASAP to maximise processing opportunities.

As ought to be clear by now, thematic texts are introducing too much similar vocab at a time, much of which is not worth learning right away.

Legacy methods use themes to tie language together; the right way to do it is to use stories (or something else that is inherently interesting) which uses all necessary grammar.   Here’s a broader=picture view of this question:

Suggestions for avoiding the topic trap:

use a mix of everything all the time (vocab, grammar, etc)

do not stick to only one verb tense, or grammar point, or whatever, in a story. With true beginners, you may have to do a few present-tense-only (or whatever) stories at the start to get them feeling comfy in the target language. After that, however, do not restrict yourself (Papa Blaine sure doesn’t).

— if you must have a “theme” or “topic” for a story– e.g. you want to teach vocab for ordering in a restaurant, and food items– restrict the amount of new vocab and make the story wacky and fun.

Here’s an example for a food story:

  • ordered
  • returned
  • brought
  • was very _____
  • adjectives,
  • a couple of food items.


What would you like?
— I would like…

Would you like to return it/send it back?
— Yes, I’d like to send it back, because it is too _____.

(Mary) was hungry and went to ___.  The waiter was ___.  Mary was happy because the waiter was very [handsome etc].  She ordered _____. The waiter brought her ____. But the food was very [bad].  So Mary returned it. (dialogue)

Mary went to _____. The waiter was ___.  Mary was happy because the waiter was very [handsome etc].  She ordered _____. The waiter brought her ____. But the food was very [bad].  So Mary returned it. (dialogue)

Finally, Mary went to McDonalds.  She ordered ____.  The guy behind counter was _____.  The food was delicious!  But oh no, the waiter was so (negative quality)/Mary had explosive diarrhea, Mary (lost her appetite/threw up/ etc).

Note:  while the food items are, well, food items, everything else is totally transferable.  E.g. you can order something online, return an ugly sweater, and one will always need to use “I would like.”

pay attention to the frequency lists. Some low-frequency items will be necessary for a good story, but go easy on these. If you must bring in low-frequency items, use cognates.  The Blaine Ray books are great for this.

recycling is your friend. If you’re worried that, oh my God, my kids didn’t master the blablabla vocab in unit one, just throw that stuff into subsequent stories. E.g. you do a restaurant story where you target a few food items and orders. If the kids don’t acquire orders in that story, have characters in subsequent stories stop in at restaurants or a taco stand and order something.

— don’t do entire units on  boring stuff like numbers, weather, etc.  Here’s how to make boring stuff slightly less boring.