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Should I Use Word Clouds?

Word-clouds look really cool. Here’s one in Spanish:

Somebody asked, should I use word clouds in Spanish? My answer: it depends. Here are bits of the conversation and comments.

First, it seems to me that if you need “support” to write, you havn’t fully acquired the language you are using. This raises the question of what exactly one is assessing. Second, using written prompts for oral output…this won’t help acquisition, but— for the kids who actually bother doing it instead of chatting in L1 to their friends— it might boost confidence. Third, for the music, there is no meaning processing going on, which means no acquisition.

If somebody gives me the Blablabian word “gerfzl,” gets me to listen to a song by Blablabian singer Zpfl, and I hear Zpfl sing 🎶 gerfzl 🎶, I have completed a task that I could do without knowing the meaning of what I am hearing. And not only am I not necessarily processing the individual words, but I am almost certainly not processing Zpfl’s meaning at the sentence & verse level.

I pointed this out, and got the following response:

I’m not sure what is meant here by “recognition.” I do think demonstrating comprehension is a good idea though. The second writer’s comment again raises the problem: this activity can be done without processing meaning.

Another person chimed in with the following:

If you didn’t take more than a minute to show the kids how many words from the cloud they know, great. But again…processing isolated words means students are not processing grammar, or sentence-level meaning.

The final comment— using word-clouds to see what ppl know and don’t— is mayyybeeee not a bad idea. But it raises the question, why in a c.i. class are people processing or working with non-comprehended vocab? As somebody who follows TPRS dictae— comprehended, or stop and circle/review until comprehended— I wouldn’t use anything non-comprehended.

Another question here is, what will you do with the info regarding which words are comprehended or not? If we find students know most of the vocab, great. If they don’t? Well, you have to “review,” and we know how poorly the “hear it once and try to remember” approach works.

I think a much better way to show kids vocabulary that you want them to use would be…in a story. There, they get “whole” language where the words are used in context.

We should remember one thing: acquisition occurs when comprehended input is processed for a purpose in a communicative context. And “communicative” means meaning-based. An activity that has students “recognizing” words, or putting words into blanks (cloze), or reviewing meaning (basically a test) is not communicative. And if the purpose is “learning” or “reviewing” vocab, this is also not meaning-based in an interesting way.

How interesting would you find it if your _____ language teacher said “ok here is a lis— er, cloud— of words. Tell me which ones you don’t know, and I’ll tell you their meanings”? 😉

There Are No Shortcuts

It has been oft-observed that no matter what your first language is, your brain acquires additional languages in the same way (ie via comprehended input, in stages, following a set order, etc).

One study looked at L1 German and English speakers acquiring L2 French. It was found that both Germans and English made the same mistakes with subject-verb inversion during question formation, despite German having the same “rule” as French.

This should be comforting to language teachers, who often see “errors” persisting seemingly forever. Why can’t the kids just use plural verbs?, ask Spanish teachers. What is so difficult about the fartitive arricle? whine our French-teaching colleagues. Well, here is a story that may shed some light.

I’m a native German speaker who learned English starting in kindergarten, French in grade seven, and Spanish at age twenty-two. I acquired a lot of Cantonese from neighbourhood kids around age three, but I forgot it.

In Spanish, when you say I wash my hands, you don’t say lavo mis manos. You actually say me lavo las manos, which literally means something like “for myself I wash the hands.” The me makes it clear that these are my and not somebody else’s hands.

This “rule” took me forever to acquire. Like, years. And then it hit me.

In German, we have exactly the same “rule” as Spanish. To say I wash my hands, you don’t say ich wasche meine Hände. You say ich wasche mir die Hände, or “I wash for me the hands.” (The only difference between Spanish and German is where the reflexive pronoun me/mir goes.)

I had to acquire the same “rule” in Spanish that I had already acquired in German, and I had to acquire it the same way that I— and anyone else— acquires it: from the input.

So if your kids are taking forever to say eg estoy bien instead of soy bien, or whatever, relax. Even if their L1 “rule” is like the L2 “rule” they are acquiring— and equally so if there is no similarity— they still have to work through ordered development.

And if there is one lesson here, it might be, resist the urge for grammatical explanations, or cleverly-disguised “practice”, or God help you worksheets, when your kids’ emergent grammars raises your teacherly hackles. Patience, my good sir and madame— there are no shortcuts.

How Not To Start The Year

It’s August, which means I’m going climbing and my poor American colleagues are thinking about The First Day of School, the poor things, and writing about How To Start The Year.

Well here at tprsquestionsandanswers, we take a different tack. We here provide a list of what not to do, and why.

1. Don’t discuss proficiency levels. Nobody benefits. Nobody cares. Nobody will remember. And omfg is this ever boring. The time to do this is roughly mid-year, when people have enough language in their heads that rubrics and descriptors and giant farting sounds make sense.

2. Do not assign target-language names. Do you even know your kids’ actual names yet? Do you think it might be, uh, stereotypical to provide a list of French (or whatever) names? Do your kids want Spanish names? What actually is a “Spanish name,” anyway? I know Spaniards named Desirée, Pedro, Mandeep and Ahmed.

3. Do not show a video/play a soundclip in the target language that your kids don’t understand. Teachers who do this say this shows students how it is going to feel during the beginning of class and while traveling to the country where ____ is spoken. Well, DUH, Johnny signed up for Intro Blablabian because he doesn’t know any Blablabian, and believe me, he knows what he doesn’t know. I cannot see the point of this. And if it’s a C.I. class, they are supposed to understand when you teach, because you make it comprehensible.

4. Do not do icebreakers, or “get to know,” or “find someone who ____”- type activities. Dunno if you know this, but most people of all ages haaaate icebreakers. If you are doing a “find someone who ___” activity in the target language, a lot of L1 is going to be used, most adolescents don’t really want to talk to strangers, and people find these activities silly (especially people who have spent years in school together, and who know each other).

5. Do not do “goal setting.” This is one of those stupid ideas that comes from the mix of psychobabble and corporate wankguage that is common to North American workplaces. There can only be one goal in a language class: learn the language (and hopefully a bit about the peoples who speak it). What are you going to do if a kid has a silly goal? What if a kid has been put into your class and hates it already? And, above all, does goal setting have anything to do with acquiring the language?

If you must do goal setting, the proper time for this is about 1/4 of the way through the course, when people have some language in their heads, some ideas about how acquisition works, and hopefully an interest in the language and its attendant cultures.

6. Do not play a game on Day 1. Especially with pure beginners, they have basically zero language in their heads, and games typically involve things like name-guessing/remembering, or one-word answers. This is impoverished input. Also, we want people to see what class is actually like, and if you don’t play a lot of games…

7. Do not “go over the syllabus” on Day 1. It’s boring. Nobody cares. Nobody will remember. You probably won’t even look at it again 😂😂. The way to “go over the syllabus” is when you need to address a specific point, eg marking, management bla bla. As teacher Wendy-Ann Alisa says, “just dive in and show them what a true lesson in the class looks like. Then, you can go back and do the necessary things to get everything set up in the days/weeks to come.”

I mean, Day 1 is First Impressions Day, and you better show kids what is going to happen and how much they can easily learn.

8. Do not administer a “placement test.” Placement/“level” tests might show you that a kid is placed way above/below their level…and so? If you can’t move the kid into a more appropriate section, what are you gonna do with the info?

Placement tests (for 80% of students) feel like a judgement, serve no purpose (unless the kid can get moved), and waste time. If you have a split/multilevel class, don’t stress, we gotcha.

9. Do not make people learn and orally repeat the alphabet, numbers, or anything else. Chanting & repetition can be done without knowing what one is saying, and therefore isn’t teaching anyone anything (it’s not communicative). And it’s silly. Yes, students will eventually have to learn boring crap…here is how to make that process less painful.

10. Do not avoid using the target language on Day 1. We need to get kids processing easy input ASAP, because we only have 100 or so hours. Card talk works. So does a TPRS story. Whatever you do, get them processing a limited number of words (in sentence form) which deal with an interesting idea and which can be repeated over and over.

11. Do not discuss metacognition. It’s boring, nobody cares, nobody will remember, and you cannot really reflect on the implicit linguistic system. After a few weeks, sure, ask your class what is going on in our class to make Blablabian easy to learn? and discuss from there.

So, what should we do on Day 1? Here’s my routine:

  • collect phones into the Hoteléfono when kids come in
  • make a seating chart, hand out the syllabus, & take attendance
  • tell them I’m Sr Stolz. To acquire Spanish, pay attention, ask questions, and don’t interfere with me or other kids.
  • Grab a kid and start asking a TPRS-style story.
  • Do a simple exit quiz

Happy teaching! I’m headed to the Valhallas.

What Is Learning Chinese With Terry Waltz Like?

I took a three hr/day, five-day Mandarin workshop via Zoom with Terry Waltz. The tl;dr: CI works; Terry is a badass; I learned some stuff.

She has a setup where there is a picture in the middle of the screen, question words on top, and new/current vocab (Chinese word written with Roman letters and translation) on the sides and bottom. When she talks, she points the cursor at the word, and it gets highlighted = easy to follow.

Class was daily the following:

A. Some focused talk around a topic, eg Day 1: who is cool/not cool. Day 4: days and numbers.

B. A story with an ocean of repetitions (circling questions)

C. Terry re-telling the story whilst pointing and clicking on words.

D. On the 4th day, some reading.

It’s three weeks later and I still have Chinese ricocheting around my head, which I cannot say about the language I took two years earlier at a conference which focused on “non-targeted” input, where there was so much vocab and so little repetition that I only remember how to say “I like beer.”

So…what did I learn? In no particular order:

1. Some shi— er, stuff— is too boring to ever make even a 5-min lesson around. Numbers, days, dates, weather.

2. Anything in a story is easy to remember. Anything randomly talked about, not so much.

3. Chinese is easy the way Terry taught it: with very focused C.I. and a lot of repetition. I’m gonna make a claim here: there is no way to effectively teach a language such as Chinese without narrowly-focused C.I. The language is a joke in terms of “grammar rules”: no genders, tenses, cases, articles etc. The barrier is, no cognates, and a weird writing system.

4. The “cold character” reading method works. They write an English word eg a name, then you read the Chinese character for it, then they put in another English word. Eg “Chris 他爬進去 Squamish” = Chris climbs in Squamish. You read that middle bit enough and presto! you’ve acquired it. You need a LOT of reading to remember them so the readers feature an ocean of repetition.

5. Zoom blows.

6. Any suggestions from teacher or other students about “how I remembered the meaning of ____ was by thinking ____” does not work (for me). Like in math, metacognition works best (or only?) when you do it your way.

7. Only two things worked to acquire the language: comprehended input, and clarification of meaning. Eg when I heard wo shi ku (“I am cool”) I thought shi meant “am” or “is”. But no— Chinese (like Russian) doesn’t have “to be”— Terry clarified and said it means something like “equals.”

8. Gestures work. Terry had gestures for the four tones of Chinese, as well as for meaning. If the gesture looks like the word, awesome.

9. There is a lot of stuff that you do not need to have explained to you that you can acquire easily just from input. Eg the “rules” for bu (no, not) and der (roughly, the ‘s in English or German): the way Terry said them, all I knew was what they meant. They got used in different ways (ie where they were in sentences, IIRC), but I didn’t worry about it: I realised that I would eventually “get” them.

The tones was another thing: Terry started off exaggerating them. On Day 4 a Chinese guy was in the lesson and when he talked— normally— I could hear the tones. No need to “practice”— just give us a good simple story.

In Spanish: I literally never teach the kids the alphabet, rules about ____, why Spanish has the ¡!, ¿? and accents bla bla bla…and yet the kids acquire them.

10. You can get a lot of mileage out of simple word games. Eg Terry’s characters visited McRonalds, Burger Duke, Taco Buzzer, etc.

Anyway, these are the same lessons I learned in my first two weeks of C.I. back in Jan 2012, but hey, good to learn them from the student’s point of view. And if you wanna acquire Chinese…Terry Waltz is your go-to 😁😁.

What Can I Do To Improve My Grade?

It’s May 32, and in walks Enid, who has spent most of the year…not doing much Spanish. Boys, food, mojitos and especially good music and books have ensured that she knows three words of Spanish: quiero mas cerveza. Her question, of course, is Sr, what can I do to improve my grade? I really need to pass this class, also my parents will kill me. Jenn S. brought this up recently in C.I. Fight Club:

Today’s question: Can a kid “improve their grade at the last minute?
Answer: Yes…but it’s almost impossible.

You need to have clear performance expectations starting on Day 1. Mine– which are in my course outline, along with criteria– are that, by the end of the course (for Level 1), students will be able to

a. ask and answer simple questions, and describe things, in simple sentences.
b. write a 125-word paragraph describing a picture (or on a given topic) in 5 min.
c. write a 600-word story in 50 min.
d. read basic Spanish stories and demonstrate comprehension thereof
e. listen to aural Spanish and write down what is being said (eg a 10-sentence story)

During the year, we do reading, writing and listening assessments (see this), so the kids have a “sort of” idea about their grade. Every 10 days or so I add up their most recent marks, and they get a provisional grade.

I also tell them, you could– in theory– do nothing all year, and then crush the final. This is 99.9% unlikely to happen, though…please do not show up on May 32nd and ask for extra work to pull your grade up. That’s extra unpaid work for me.

However, I base my grade 100% on the final.

So, if Enid walks in and says “can I raise my grade,” I say, “Sure. The standards are in your course outline.” Enid just has to sit down and do the reading, writing and listening quizzes, and I’ll mark them (word count + grammar mark) and that will be her grade. 5 min of casual Spanish chat will show us Enid’s oral proficiency.

Now…what if she says “is there anything else I can do?” Here, there are two answers:

  1. Yes, pay me. $750 gets you a pass; $1000 gets you an A, small unmarked bills only, no Bitcoin.
  2. No. I taught, and provided you with specific activities to do to acquire Spanish. You either didn’t show up, or you didn’t pay attention.


If I get grief from parents or admins– which I don’t, because along the way I have phoned & emailed them about Baninder or Suzie not doing much– I show them my gradebook, which will generally have either zeros or INCs. Parents may argue, but when a kid hasn’t actually…done anything, the kid hasn’t got much of a leg to stand on.

The point is, at the end of the course, I am measuring performance (and to a certain extent proficiency). What counts is what you can do with no prep and no support. What doesn’t count: attendance, “attitude,” homework, binder organisation, note completion, role-play memorization, bla bla bla.

Your grade ultimately is not what you have done, but what you can now do.

How to Grade Reading

Reading…our State and provincial standards say students should read. Therefore, we must grade reading. This is because, as we all know well, everything that can be counted matters, and everything that matters can be counted.

Here is a great question from CI Liftoff.

I have two things to say about this.

First, yes this is largely nonsense. Therefore, ignore it.

Second, here is how to grade reading. Note this: any assessment expert will tell you that there are only really three levels of proficiency:

3. Fully Meets Expectations: the job is done with only minor errors.
2. Minimaly Meets Expectations: the job is mostly done, with some significant mistakes.
1. Not Meeting Expectations: the job is not done, and/or has significant errors mistakes

In reading, the “mistakes” are comprehension errors, and “significant” means that these errors show that the student does not understand important sections– or the main idea– of the text.

Yes, you can split hairs and make a four-, five- or six-point rubric, but why bother? Kids don’t care, and feedback won’t help. Also, we don’t need to have more work.

So here is how to assess reading:
a. Assign reading that is 98% comprehended.
b. Have the students translate into L1.
c. Read their translation and assign 1/3, 2/3 or 3/3 according to the following rubric:

3. Fully Meets Expectations: everything comprehended with a few minor errors.
2. Minimaly Meets Expectations: mostly comprehended, with a few significant errors.
1. Not Meeting Expectations: not finished, and/or enough significant errors that the main messages are lost

NOTES:

You can also majorly speed things up by reading 3-5 sentences of their translation at random (ie you don’t have to read the entire same thing 30 times) 😊.

In my experience, reading (and listening) comprehension scores don’t vary that much among kids who have regularly attended class and done the very limited reading homework I assign. Scores for output tend to vary more.

If you are worried about copying, hand out two or three versions of the text and move two paragraphs (other than the opening one) around. It will be quite obvious who read and who got their buddy to help them out 😊😊.

Do not assess reading sentence-by-sentence, ie via Q&A. Why not? Well, how do you mark one sentence? What if the kid misunderstands the question? You might as well subdivide the ocean.

Do not mark for higher-level thinking (inferences etc) unless you are prepared for a staggering variety of acceptable answers. Yes, I just said that. Inference is complex in L1. In L2, things get even trickier. The literal and the figurative/thematic meanings of sentences also often conflict, bla bla. For me, the bottom line is, did the kid understand what was written? and by “understand” I mean can they tell me the literal meaning?

Super basic and super-effective

The more I do C.I., the more I am convinced that the basics– use as little vocabulary as possible, and recycle the crap out of it– are the most important. Thanks to Blaine Ray and me, here are some suggestions about more with less. I do all the following.

I’m adding a disclaimer: not all of these recommendations are 100% organic free-range communicative. Rather, they are designed to optimise input for students. When I ask “did you do your homework?” and a kid answers with “yeah,” this is an authentic and 100% appropriate communicative event…for the kid and I. For the rest of the class, not so much. It would be better if tyhe kids heard “I did my homework” or “No, I partied with my boyfriend” instead. More language, and more whole language. So…

1. All output should be in complete sentences. Yes, from Day 1.
If we are story-asking, we can
1. write the response on the board
2. use an actor who can answer
3. model the response. This we do with teacher as parallel character.

If we are doing PQA, Movietalk, Picturetalk etc, we ask either/or questions and we model both possible answers, and ideally we ask kids who can answer in complete sentences. For example, I’m showing a film where a cat hunts a mouse.

Clase, el gato caza el ratón. What does that mean?
— The cat hunts the mouse.
Correcto, clase: the cat hunts the mouse. Johnny, el gato caza. ¿Caza el ratón, o caza al Sr Stolz?
–Caza el ratón.

This takes a bit of practice, but it is effective: the class hears complete output, and the student has to process two whole sentences in order to answer. The trick here is to keep a really tight lid on the vocab (yes, you must target).

2. Have students– ideally, your fastest processors–describe la situación.”

This is where a kid describes what is happening so far in the story. They can describe either what is happening to the main character, or if they are a character, what is happening to themselves. This is a good way for another rep, and lets the egg-heads shine.

I pick my fast processors to do this. It seems like the kids listen more to an actor/class member doing a retell than they do to me 😂😂

This is a Blaine Ray idea and I love it.

3. For non-personal questions, model both possible answers in complete sentences in the question. Eg:

Ayer, ¿llovió mucho, o hizo sol? (yesterday, did it rain, or was it sunny?)
— Ayer, hizo sol. (It was sunny)

This provides good input for everyone, and when the kid answers, we get quality output again which again is good input for others.

4. For personal questions, ask the question, and model an answer using yourself first. Example:

¿Dónde comiste ayer, John? (Where did you eat yesterday, John?) This sets us up. Then we say
Yo comí en DcMonalds. ¿Comiste en DcMonalds? (I ate in DcMonalds. Did you eat in DcMonalds?) Here, John has an answer. He can say Sí comí en DcMonalds, or No, no comí en DcMonalds.

5. Ask me! This is another Blaine Ray idea. When doing PQA or talking to a character in a story, ask the actor/any student a question. Have them answer….then have them ask you back, then you answer. “Teacher-as-parallel-character” (another Blaine Ray idea) demands this. We do much as in #4, above, but the actor has to ask us also, thus:

Ayer, ¿tenías una cita con Miley Cyrus o con Selena Gómez?
— Tenía una cita con Selena. ¿Y tú?
Tenía una cita con Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

These are very simple, but hugely boost the quality of language in the classroom or on your Zoom meeting :-).

Got MAGATs?

Make America Great Again Trumpers— MAGATs— are the redpilled. They are those who ignore the minstream media (MSM), and who do their own research. And by “research” we mean, I watched some Youtube videos.

These people are SO SMART that they see RIGHT THROUGH the liberal conspiracy to take our Constitutional right to not wear masks and turn us into socialist sheep. Sheep are people without guns.

Here is seven images is the story of a brave MAGAT, Richard Rose.

Slow Down Tools

Ben Slavic once wrote that “the single most-important skill in language teaching is going slowly,” and he’s right: audiologist Ray Hull responded to my inquiry about ideal language speeds with “[f]or an adolescent, spoken speech at around 135 words per minute is perfect for speech understanding, particularly when the student is learning a new language. So, 130 WPM may be even better. It will seem very slow to you, but the central auditory system of the student will appreciate it.” We should note that adult speech is about 170-180 wpm, so…no slow = no go for kids.

Linguist Bill VanPatten also added that clear “spaces” between words are useful, as the learner’s phonological and other systems need clarity.

People speaking too quickly is always a problem for language learners in any context. Luckily, for input outside class, we now have some options.

YouTube has two useful features, both accessed through the gear icon. First, it can generate subtitles. Second, you can slow down the playback speed without changing the pitch. This is a feature I regularly use for learning tunes (because you can hear individual notes without the pitch dropping) and it works wonderfully for watching L2 video. Before COVID, when I occasionally used Spanish YouTube videos, I turned on subtitles and slowed to 80% speed and the kids were happy with that.

(Side note: as an English, Philosophy & Social Justice teacher, I have learned to always put on English subtitles in English-language films. All kids find adult speech too fast, and half of my kids in any class are ELLs who can process writing more easily than fast English speech)

If you watch Netflix through a Chrome browser, you can add the free Language Learning With Netflix extension. This has a whack of cool features. I have two faves:
a. two-language subtitles. I watch & listen in Spanish, read Spanish subtitles, and can read English subtitles when I don’t get the Spanish.
b. slowed playback. You watch the show at 70-90% of original speed (pitch stays the same) so the sound gets much clearer.

I find Spanish Spanish basically incomprehensible– it’s fast, it has slang that Mexicans don’t use, it uses vosotros— so I tried the slow-downer. And guess what? It wasn’t 90% speed or even 80% speed that worked. It was, yup, 70% of standard speed! That is where I could hear most of the words clearly.

Anyway, two good tricks.

PQA Without Output? Sure!

Image result for self conscious student"
We don’t want our kids to feel self-conscious…which is what speaking often does, especially for beginners.

Great question on CI Liftoff today: how do we do PQA without forcing output? Don’t students have to talk during PQA?

Yes, they do, but only to indicate comprehension. You could have them answer questions in English— which sometimes is a good idea, because that is the fastest way to know exactly how much they understand— but…but…but…it’s kinda cool to stay in the target language, right? Right? Sure!

So how do we do personalised questions and answers— PQA— with minimal output? Easy! But first, let us remind ourselves: science says, people do not need to speak the target language to acquire it. They need only understand the message. So teachers— those new to C.I., and those who have levels 1 and 2— need to ditch the kids-must-talk urge.

So what do we do? Easy. We use ourselves as models in PQA conversations.

Say I want to teach them the essential teen words “I can drive (a car)”. I will write on the board— with translation— puedo manejar un carro.

Then, I will say a few sentences, such as clase, ¿qué quiere decir “puedo manejar”? and “puedo manejar los Ferrari, pero no puedo manejar los Toyota Yaris.” I will do comprehension checks.

Then, I ask eg Granthi— who cannot shut up about cars— ¿puedes manejar? He will answer with or no. Then I ask, what did I just ask you? and he will (hopefully) say can you drive?

Now, we are all set. I am going to ask Granthi first— and then others— ¿puedes manejar?-type questions, restate answers, and talk about myself, like this:

Granthi, ¿puedes manejar bien?
Sí.

Granthi, yo no puedo manejar bien. Tengo muchas multas (fines). ¿Tienes multas?
No.

¿No? ¿No tienes multas? ¿Eres experto en manejar?
Sí.

Bueno, eres experto en manejar. Yo no lo soy. ¿Qué manejas— un Mercedes o un Dodge Caravan?
un Mercedes.

Bueno— tú manejas un Mercedes…pero YO manejo un Ferrari.
ya whatever Mr Stolz I saw your Yaris in the parking lot.

¡Granthi! No es mi Yaris. Es el Yaris de mi novia, Angelina Jolie. Ella no maneja el Yaris porque ella maneja mi Ferrari.
ya whatever she’s rich why would she even HAVE a Yaris?

¡Granthi! Ang tiene un Yaris para disfraz (disguise). Es muy famosa. A veces, ella maneja su Yaris.

All we have to do is ask questions, have kids provide answers, and we model “proper”— ie more complex— answers by comparing ourselves (or other students, such as native speakers) with students.

So…do we need output other than yes, no or one-word answers? Nope…and kids will acquire just fine.