Traditional Methods

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 Wiktionary.com’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

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Does iPad “talking practice” boost oral fluency? A look at Schenker & Kraemer (2017).


In a 2017 paper, Schenker and Kraemer argue that iPad use helps develop oral fluency. Specifically, they found that iPad app users after “speaking practice” were able to say more in German, and were more fluent– rapid and seamless– in saying it than were controls who had not “practiced” speaking. 
So, prima facie, the authors can claim that focused speaking practice helps develop fluency. 

Q: Does this claim hold up?

A: Not according to their evidence. 

Let’s start with the method. Kraemer and Schenker took English L1 students of second-year German, divided them into two groups, and gave one batch iPads. The iPad group had to use Adobe Voice to record three tasks per week, which had to be posted to a group blog. In addition, each iPad user had to respond verbally to some other students’ posted responses to the tasks. 

The tasks included things such as “describe your room” and “recommend a movie to a friend.”

The control group did nothing outside class other than their usual homework, and the iPad group had their other homework (which the authors do not detail, but describe as work involving “vocabulary and grammar knowledge”) slightly reduced in quantity. 

In terms of results, the iPad group during oral testing on average said more, and was more fluent (using language “seamlessly”) than the control.  The authors thereby claim that “practice speaking” boosted oral competence. 

However, there are a number of atudy design flaws which render the authors’ conclusions problematic.

First, the study compares apples and oranges. The speaking group practised, well, speaking, while the controls did not. The speaking group had more time with German (class, plus speaking, plus doing whatever they did to prepare their recordings, plus listening and responding to others’ posted task responses) than did the controls (class, plus “vocabulary and grammar” hwk). The speaking group had more time doing speaking as well as more total German time than the controls. 

This is akin to studying physical fitness by comparing people who work out with those who are couch potatoes, or by comparing people who do two hours a week of working out with those who do four. 

Second, the study does not compare speaking development-focused methods. One group “practiced speaking,” while the other did “vocabulary and grammar” homework.
 This is like comparing strength gains between a group of people who only run two hours a week with another group that runs two hours a week and lifts weights. Yes, both will get fitter, and both will be able to lift more weights  and run a bit faster (overall fitness provides some strength gains, and vice-versa).  

However, what should have been compared here are different ways of developing oral fluency. (We should note that fluency first requires broad comprehension, because you cannot respond to what you don’t understand). 

We could develop oral fluency by 

• listening to various kinds of target-language input (stories, conversations, news etc). 

• watching target-language, L1-subtitled film. 

• reading (it boosts vocabulary). 

Schenker and Kraemer’s “practice speaking” will help (at least in the short term). One could also in theory mix all of these, as a typical class does.

Schenker and Kraemer, however, compare one approach to developing speaking with an approach that does nothing at all to address speaking. 

A more persuasive study design would have had three groups: a control, and two different “speaking development” groups. The “speaking development” groups could have included those doing Schenker & Kraemer’s “practice talking” with, say, people listening to speech, or reading, or watching subtitled film (or a mix).  One group would spend 60 min per week recording German (and listening to 50-75 second German recordings made by their peers). The other would spend 60 min per week, say, listening to German. At the end, control, speakers and listeners would be tested and compared. 

Third, the study does not control for the role of aural (or other) input. The iPad group for one had to come up with their ideas. Since no relatively novice learner by definition comes up with much on their own, they must have gotten language somewhere (Kraemer and Schenker do not discuss what the students did pre-recording their German). My guess is, the speakers used dictionaries, Google translate, reading, grammar charts, things they heard on Youtube, anything they remembered/wrote down from class, possibly Duolingo etc, to “figure out” what to say and how to say it. If you were recording work, being marked on it, and having it responded to by strangers, you would surely make it sound as good as you could…and that (in a language class) could only mean getting extra input.  So did the speaking group get better at speaking because they “practiced speaking,” because they (probably) got help pre-recording, or both? 

Which leads us to the next problem, namely, that the iPad group got aural input which the control group did not. Recall that the iPad group not only had to post their recordings, they also had to listen and respond to these recordings. So, again, did the iPad group get better because they talked, or because they also listened to others’ recordings of German?

Finally, there was no delayed post-test to see if the results “stuck.”  Even if the design had shown the effectiveness of speaking “practice” (which in my view it did not), no delayed post test = no real results. 

The upshot is this: the iPad group got more input, spent more time listening, spent more total time with German, and spent more time preparing, than did the controls. This looks (to me) like a problematic study design. Ideally, both groups would have had the same input, the same amount of listening, etc, with the only difference being that the iPad group recorded their tasks. 

Anyway, the skill-builders’ quest continues for the Holy Grail of evidence that talking, in and of itself, helps us learn to talk. 

The implications for classroom teachers are (in my view) that this is waaaay too much work for too few results. The teacher has to set the tasks (and the blog, iPad apps, etc) up, then check to make sure students are doing the work, and then test them. Sounds like a lot of work! 

Better practice– if one feels one must assign homework– would be to have students listen to a story, or watch a video in the T.L., and answer some basic questions about that. This way people are focused on processing input, which the research clearly says drives acquisition. 

On a personal note, I’m too lazy to plan and assess this sort of thing. My homework is whatever we don’t get done in class, and always involves reading. 

How Much Does T.P.R.S. Cost?

books pic

Image:  Omaha Public Library

Being poor sucks.  It is well-known that the poorer (and darker-skinned) you (and your school District) are, the worse your educational outcomes are, anywhere in North America or Europe.  In language education, the bias is even more specific: in a traditional “communicative” language program, by 5th year, the few remaining students will be affluent, white, with educated parents, and often female.  Yet everyone has the same innate capacity for language learning, so it’s got to be teaching that separates wealthier and whiter from darker and poorer.

Grant Boulanger has done some exemplary work in Minnesota, showing how good C.I.-based language instruction will enable all learners to do more-or-less equally well.  And the research is clear:  C.I.-based teaching narrows marks ranges and raises all of them.

We tend to argue for C.I.’s effectiveness by saying it works better and showing how amazingly well kids can write Chinese or Spanish, or speak it, etc.  Kids who get C.I.– through free voluntary reading, Movietalk, T.P.R.S. stories and reading, Picturetalk, etc– never do worse than grammar kids, occasionally do as well, and generally do significantly better.  But what if there were an economic argument to be made for adopting a C.I. program?

Our beloved Monsieur Tabernac has 30 kids in his French 1 class.  Every 10 years, his District replaces his French textbook program.  This year, he has options.  He can get the Communi-quête program (traditional “communicative” teaching, with videos, audio listening stuff, cahiers, etc) or he can go in for, say, Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk books (which include readings, and let’s throw in a Movietalk book too) .  Let’s take a look at the costs of these options.

We are assuming that
1.  The resources will serve 30 kids, for 10 years
2. At the end, everything will get thrown out and bought anew
3. Each year, in each program, the kids will buy the workbook.

Communi-quête 

Text: 30 books x $65/book = $1950
Teacher book:                            $350
Audio CDs:                                   $200
Video DVD:                                   $190

TOTAL                                             $2700
Workbooks: $13/student/year

Look, I Can Talk

Textbook:                                  none
Teacher book:                            $30
Movietalk book                         $30
Green Bible how-to kit          $40
props for stories                       $100

TOTAL                                          $200

LICT workbooks (these
include readings)                     $14/student/year

So…the textbook option costs thirteen times as much as the T.P.R.S. optionwhile the per-year cost to the students is $1 higher for T.P.R.S.

So if Monsieur Tabernac was given $3,000 for his language program–use it or lose it; if you don’t buy stuff, the English department gets to order 400 more copies of Lord of the Flies etc– what should he buy?  The answer is obvious: the T.P.R.S. curriculum, and novels!

If he ditches the text, Tabernac has $2,800 to buy novels.  At about $5/novel from Blaine Ray or Carol Gaab, he can buy 18 class sets of 30 novels each.  Or, he could by 36 sets of 15 novels each (so the kids can have more free voluntary reading options).

Given what we know about how much student choice and readings and personalisation matter, the answer is a no-brainer: a C.I. curriculum will be cheaper, more fun, and waaaaay more effective.

This is also a significant issue for poorer Districts.  In wealthier areas, the richer, whiter kids can hire tutors, go to France in summer, etc, if the textbook is useless and they want to get better at French.  Poor kids don’t have those options…and if we want them to have a shot at college or Uni, money shouldn’t be wasted on bad textbooks that aren’t fun, don’t work, and cost too much.

But ssssshhhhh….don’t tell ACTFL or the textbook companies…

Old Myths Debunked

This post comes from Carol Gaab.  She is an author, teacher and San Francisco Giants language coach, as well as a presenter and all-around thinker.  Gaab has one of the most critical minds I have ever run into, and likes to dismantle misconceptions almost as much as she likes to show us interesting and effective ways to teach languages.

So here she is, responding to myths like “we must use authentic documents” and “we must practice speaking,” etc.  A fascinating read, and great if you are having discussions with colleagues who embrace older methods.  Thanks, Carol!

Do You Even Lift? S.L.A. and Free Weights

Part One: The Basics

weightlifter_1216621c

My Mom– who at age 75 is still ski-touring, mountain biking and hiking, and is doing a three-week non-sag cycle tour in Quebec this summer!– is my stay-healthy role model.  Thanks to her, I’ve always been interested in– but lazy about– general fitness.  I’ve always thought, I hate fitness and training, but I like climbing, hiking and cycling, and acro yoga.  Through years of activity, and recent discussions with athlete Will Gadd, I’ve learned a few things about fitness– for anyone, not just athletes– which we can boil down to three things

  1. Everybody should have basic cardio fitness.  A total of 60 minutes a week of sweat-inducing heavy breathing will do it.  You can do this in fancy running gear, or in a gym, or in your living room, skipping.
  2. We all need functional strength, i.e. the ability to lift and move things.  This can be done in about 50 minutes/week, in a gym or around the house.
  3. If you have basic cardio and strength, you can easily pick up anything else
  4. You may much later want some feedback to improve yourself.

On recommendation of one of my partners, I tried Pilates last year.  It’s a set of exercises that stretch and work various muscles, and also aligns various bits of anatomy.  I did it for a few months.  I found it worked– it sure targeted specific muscles, and I got better at the exercises– but it was boring as hell and I did not see any overall fitness or strength gains.

And then I read this article about fitness. And started lifting free weights: squats, bench-presses, vertical presses, power cleans and deadlifts, five sets of five each, twice a week, after school in our weight room.  I’m not trying to gain in size (that’s bodybuilding) but rather in functional strength.  My total weight room time is about 50 minutes/week.

The results have been remarkable (for me).  All my weights have gone up.  I also feel much more stable while on trails and on the bike, and I can “do” more stuff, like carry a week’s worth of groceries with one arm and a climbing pack in another.  I’m not much of a hiker– hiking is the boring warm-up on the way to the base of the climb– but now on trails, despite me never “training” by walking or running, my legs are waaaay more solid.  Although my weights are up, I am not feeling much bigger. I feel “connected” to myself in a way that vaguely resembles a post-yoga feeling but stronger.

I thought weights would be boring, but oddly I am not bored.  The post-first-set body buzz is killer, and since I am rotating through the various weights and it only takes about twenty-five minutes, and I blast music, so I am not bored.

Bottom line: basic cardio fitness, and then weight training make everyone healthy, and make it much easier for us to acquire other activity skills (climbing, tennis, paddling, etc).

Can you see where we are going with this?  

a. The basic cardio of language acquisition is oral input and reading in any language.

The person who can’t get their heart rate up won’t benefit from any activity-specific training.  But the person who can get the heart and lungs cranking can do/learn other stuff.  Yes, you can lift, or play tennis, if you’re a two-pack-a-day smoker…but you can’t do it very well, and you sure won’t make much progress.

If you get basic spoken (or recorded) comprehensible input, and you read in L2, you are going to be able to acquire a ton more language than if you don’t.

b. The strength training of language acquisition is whole language, not “exercises” and “practise.”

Free weights, as Mark Rippetoe argues, effectively train the whole body, because all bodily systems work– and must be trained– together.  A squat fires basically every muscle from the shoulders down.  A vertical press engages everything from the waist up.  Balance, co-ordination, big muscles, small muscles, tendons and ligaments: all are working together, the way the body is meant to.

In terms of method, Pilates (or exercise machines) are to fitness what the textbook is to language learning.  It breaks movement down into components, you “practise” each one, and your individual “skills” get better…even while the overall functional fitness gains are minimal.

Free weight lifting is the comprehensible input of fitness.

Bill VanPatten (1998) also notes that “[a] reading of the literature on second language acquisition and use suggests that communication is not the result of learning discrete bits of language and then putting them together. 

Language learners need big meaning chunks– meaningful sentences as part of conversation or description, which are in turn part of stories, etc– to acquire the language.  The “stuff” of a language– vocab, grammar, pragmatics, semantics etc– can only be acquired by exposure to “whole” input and can not be developed by “practising” various “skills.”  Sure, students will get some incidental benefits from worksheets or textbook exercises if they are attending to meaning.  Kids often don’t, though.  The worksheets I see kids copying in the morning don’t suggest kids are doing anything other than making the teacher happy.  And Bill VanPatten notes that “building up in a learner’s brain [are] simultaneously  lexicon and morphology, syntatic features and constraints, pragmatics and discourse, interfaces between components, communicative discourse [and] skill” and that “these happen all at once.  They are almost impossible to isolate and practice one at a time, because they don’t operate one at a time” (2013).

You might be the one in twenty people who can assemble textbook fragments into something like language– and you might enjoy practicing and getting marks for your various “skills.”  But you would get more out of good interesting comprehensible input, and most people do get much more from C.I.

So…let’s get into beast mode and get swole!

(Totally random side-note:  Doctor Stephen Krashen was once a champion weightlifter!  He weighed 181 and incline-pressed 285 💪💪)

Part Two: Planning and Feedback

So…what can athlete stories tell us about the language class?  Do planning and feedback work in a language classroom?

Other than a teacher clarifying what was said/written, feedback does nothing…because it comes via conscious awareness, and language is processed and stored in the implicit (subconscious) system.

Planning, i.e. organising sets of vocab and grammar “rules” in a sequence (what textbooks do)  doesn’t work very well, mainly because it is the brain, and not the teacher’s or student’s desire, that controls what gets acquired (see this).

Now, here is an interview with top climber Chris Sharma.  Sharma, who has done routes that only two or three people in the world can do, has never really trained.  To stay in shape, he climbs a lot.  But then he hit a wall trying to climb a route called Dura Dura graded 5.15c (imagine climbing 30 meters along a 45-degree overhanging wall, using only one fingertip per hand, and one foot at a time!).  He tried and tried, and failed and failed.

So, for the first time in his life, Sharma went into a gym and trained.  Circuits.  4x4s.  Hangboard workouts.  Weights.  Structured rest and recover, mesocycles, the works.  And…filmed feedback.  His trainer Paxti videotaped Sharma trying moves and sequences, they watched them, and Sharma was able to adjust body position, timing, foot position etc.

He eventually climbed the route (after Adam Ondra got the first ascent).

 

The Wayback Machine

I was recently at a conference and thought, OK, I should go see what the Intensive Language teachers do, nd went to a workshop called something like “Get Your Beginners Talking!” Every language conference I’ve ever been to has a workshop like this. 

Here’s a part of a handout:


And here is what the kids would have handed out to them:


This is a classic “communicative” activity: it wants people to use the target language to bridge information gaps as a way to acquire the target language. 

So…what do the research and our classroom experience say about these activities?

1. Speaking “practice” as the exercise suggests does not improve aquisition.  We’ve heard this from VanPatten, Krashen and of course Kirk (2013). 

2.  Feedback– in this case on pronunciation– does not work. There are two main reasons for this:

  • You can’t produce language in real time while self-monitoring to make sure you are using the feedback correctly (Krashen). 
  • Conscious info does not end up in the implicit linguistic system, as VanPatten notes (see this). 

As BVP puts it,

3. This turns the teacher into the language police.  Someone asked the presenter “do they ever speak L1 while doing this?” and they answered “yes, I have to keep an eye on them.”  No fun. I personally find using L2 with other L2s “fake” feeling…and I’m a language geek. 

4.  In terms of personal interest, we have a problem: what if Johnny likes playing with dolls, and doesn’t care that Suzie is really interested in playing Grand Theft Auto?  What if these are low-frequency words?  If these are the case– and they usually are– the amount of vocab that the kids hear that is repeated is going to be minimal. If I hear about 15 different people’s 15 different activities, I am getting less input per item = less acquisition. 

5.  The junky output becoming impoverished input problem among L2s is here unaddressed.  

6. The repetition would be boring. In the presenter’s example, a classic beginner question is do you like to _____? and kids have to answer Yes, I like… or No, I don’t like… This is going to get old really quickly and of course it would be more natural, easier and faster just to use English. 

Anyway…the wayback machine took me to activities that I have never been able to make work. However as they say, your mileage may vary. 

I’ve been able to ditch 95% of output-focused activities, and– thanks to the ease and power of comprehensible input– I have ironically managed to build better speakers by avoiding making kids speak. Go figure.