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


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. Here are some suggestions about doing more with less. Remember what Blaine Ray says: you will get back out what you put in. 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 the 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 the situation.”

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

6. Teacher as parallel character. If you are using a TPRS-style story, you are in the story too. If you are doing something more free-range (eg Draw and Discuss), whatever happens to the main character also happens to you. For example, here is a DrAnDi from yesterday:

The Person Without Extremities

For this, the basic story is “___ did not have any ____. He went to the Extremities Store and bought arms, legs, a face and a name. Now his name is Pasta Doodles.”

When I am discussing this, I put myself in the story too (I could just draw a stick figure): class, yesterday I lost my nose. So I went to the extremities store…

7. Puppets. I took an old sock, glued some googly eyes on, and presto! I have another character who is in every story and who speaks in a weird voice. Yet another set of reps. Sock can do silly stuff with really small props eg a toy car. Easy, and you can practice your ventriloquism. Hint: a puppet’s mouth must open and close for each syllable it says.

UPDATE May 6, 2022. Here is an update from Blaine Ray, whose “describe the situation” (see above) is very helpful.

Blaine: I’ve been working with describe the situation [DTS]. I think there are five keys.

A) Manageable chunk. Some teachers make the chunk too big. It has to be limited. We want our students to be able to DTS easily.

B) Perspective. Students need to DTS from perspective. Usually they speak from the perspective of the main character. Have several students be the main character. The best students speak first. They are always talking in their own words. We encourage them to give their opinions when they talk. Hearing this over and over is like magic for students learning a language.

C) Compare. Add a short parallel story about you. Colton had a horse that falls a lot. He bought him at a horse convention. The horse falls too much. I bought a cat. He falls a little bit. I bought the cat at Petsmart. ” Now the DTS is having the student be the character (Colton). You say, “You are Colton. Compare your situation with my situation.”

D) Have several students DTS each time. If you want, you can verify the DTS. You say, “yes, you are Colton. You bought a horse at a horse convention. It wasn’t a good horse. He falls a lot. He falls too much. I bought a cat. My cat isn’t a good cat because he falls too much.” This lets the students compare the teacher’s language to the students’ language.

This process is amazingly powerful. It also has the added benefit of requiring almost no teacher preparation. The class is spent having the students talk. It is wonderful.

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


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.

Dear White Guys

We white guys basically run much of the world, own even more of it, and have ruined it for a lot of people…but the world is changing, and so, how us white guys should interact with people who question us is changing. There are two reasons to change these interactions:

a. you are a human being and want to treat others like they are too
b. you want to look progressive. Even if it’s just a look, it’s a good look.

I’m 51 and I learned all this the hard way. You can @ me in the comments.

1. Hey. That’s racist! If you hear that from a person of colour, a Black person, or whoever, it’s probably racist. This means…

2. …it’s your job to figure out why, and not the job of person who pointed it out to you. The person who told you hey that’s racist! has heard and experienced racist stuff like 900,000 times in their life, they know what racism is, they know racism better than you do, and they are probably tired of explaining it to white people. After you go and do your reading or discussion, and you still have questions, then you get to ask your interlocutor “so about what I said/did…”

3. That’s sexist! If you hear that from a woman, proceed as for hey that’s racist! Women aren’t stupid, women aren’t habitually liars, and women generally let a lot of dumb stuff slide, so yeah, there is a very good chance it’s sexist. Yes, there are dumb women and women who misread feminism…but your odds of meeting one such are fairly low.

4. “I find that offensive,” Never, ever use this sentence. Why?

A. the issue is not what you find offensive. The issue is what actually is offensive.

B. “offensive” locates displeasure in the speaker’s feelings. Nobody cares about your feelings.

C. “offensive” isn’t respondable-to. What does it mean? How is it offensive? Call a spade a spade: say it’s sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, what have you. I’m a teacher. I don’t tell a kid who says “that’s gay” to “be nice!” I tell him– and it usually is a him– that “saying gay like that makes it sound like gay is bad, and gay isn’t bad.” I also add “that makes you look homophobic. Is that how you want to look?”

D. “I find…” makes you sound like a judge. You aren’t.

Also, as Zeb Brown pointed out years ago, have you noticed that people always say I find that offensive, rather than that offends me? Hmmm…

5. “If we base discussions and judgements around feelings, we aren’t discussing objective reality: we are just talking about the insides of people’s heads. And anyone can say they don’t like anything and anyone can feel any way they want to.” This is a stupid alt-right argument. When eg a woman says “I don’t like that, because it’s sexist,” it is not her feelings that are the main issue. The issue is the sexist words or actions to which the feelings are a response.

6. Just because somebody else says it doesn’t mean you can say it. Yes, rappers use the word nigga constantly, and you loooove rap music, and you have Black friends. You still can’t use that word. You have gay friends? You can’t use fag. A general rule: if we aren’t a member of an oppressed group, we don’t get to use diss words about that group. Yes, you can use these words if you are discussing them: it’s not wrong to say “dude, saying nigger is racist,” but it’s better to say “dude, the n-word is racist when you use it.”

7. You have privilege. Do you know what that is? Here it is: privilege is an unearned benefit. If you are white, you didn’t do anything to be white. You just got handed that card when life was dealing. And because you’re white, you generally don’t have to deal with racism. That’s a benefit. If you’re a man, you didn’t choose to be a man, but you benefit: you don’t have to deal with sexism, or giving birth, or sexist double standards and so on. Relax: nobody’s dumping on you because you have privilege. But you– we— gotta use it wisely. By– at a minimum– not being eg sexist or racist.

Having (any degree of) privilege also doesn’t mean your life has not been difficult. It just means that being white (or male, or straight, etc), has not made your life any more difficult. Again: a working-class white man has less privilege than a rich white man. Being white hasn’t been a problem for the poorer guy, but being poor sure has.

8. Privilege is intersectional. All this means is, privileges interact with systems of oppression and our identities in different ways. A man has gender privilege vis a vis a woman, eg, a man doesn’t have to worry about rape or forced birth by Republican politicians. A middle-class woman has socioeconomic privilege vis a vis a working class man, but he has male privilege compared to her: she will probably have a longer and healthier life, and less stress, and more opportunities than he will, but he will almost never have to deal with slut-shaming, sexual violence, sexist double standards and so on. You are better off being white and gay than Black and gay. Chris Rock notes of white audiences that “none of you would trade places with me, a Black man, and I’m rich.”

9. No, it’s not cool to take other people’s cultural stuff for fun, aka doing cultural appropriation. No, you cannot wear e.g. the Indian/First Nations feathered head-dress. Why?

First, ask an Indian/First Nations person. If they say no, here is why: cos you– we– are part of the white family tree, and people like us fucked Indians/First Nations people over. No, you personally didn’t fuck somebody over. But we still do. So wearing that ___ is a double fuck-you.

Second, a lot of cool culture-specific stuff– like Indian/First nations head-dresses– have to be earned. The head-dress is worn by somebody who has done things like held political office, served a community, gone to war, etc. Going to Burning Man or Coachella does not qualify. Like dreads, cos you’re chill and Rasta, man? Dreads are by and for Black people, and also they make you look like a trust fund douche or ’90s wanna-be hippie.

10. Who can I make fun of? Thank you for the question. The general guide is, we criticise privilege and choice, not inherent qualities. You can have a laugh at

  • yourself, and people just like you
  • people who are objectively more privileged than you (fuck Elon Musk, Republicans, etc)
  • me
  • people who are assholes (eg Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Republicans, religious fuckwits, etc)

Another way to think about this is, are you punching up, sideways or down?

Saying it ironically or satirically? Remember: satire is meant to criticise power, privilege, cruelty and hypocrisy.

11. Are there stupid women, Black people, etc? YES! And sometimes you run into one, and they say “that’s sexist!” or “that’s racist!” For example, on a language teachers’ Facebook group, I shared some cartoons about sexism, some of which I suggested would make for good class discussion. I was pilloried by a Karen who said “these are sexist.” This woman did not seem to understand that a depiction of sexism is not the same as actual sexism. By her “logic,” the feminist classic Thelma and Louise would be sexist, because the film’s characters do sexist stuff and experience sexism.

When this is the case, ask other people from the group what they think.

12. Aren’t there Black conservatives, women who aren’t feminist, etc? YES, absolutely. When a member of an oppressed group takes up the ideas of oppressors, the question we must ask is cui bono?, or, follow the money. Money, as Marx noted, trumps everything (although, as we have seen, Chris Rock disagrees). Somebody like Candace Owens (who parrots Faux News talking points and despises liberals, feminists, Black Lives Matter, etc) is very well paid to do so. One must also compare objective reality (eg, in the US, Black people are overwhelmingly disadvantaged) with the claims of minority douchebags like Owens or Kanye West.

When you hear the claims of an Owens or a West that eg racism can be overcome by individual will, ask, why hasn’t it? There is a reality out there and we can measure and report it.

13. What makes an “ism”, anyway?

A Republican or other Con questioned on race relations will generally say two things: I’m not racist, and constantly discussing racism is hateful and divisive. Both of these illustrate the central fact of racism (and are like, but not identical to, sexism, homophobia, etc): racism is neither a set of bad words nor an attitude, but a system of oppression.

The term “systemic oppression” or “systemic racism” (or any other -ism) means that racism (or whatever) consists in a mix— a system— of language, attitudes, laws, institutional practices, historical views, etc etc which work together to make life miserable for a specific group.

Here is a condensed factual example. In Canada, we are systematically racist against First Nations (FN) people. How?

A. Racist language— chug, nitch, Indian, savage etc.

B. Policing that over-focuses on FN people

C. A court system which makes the 5% of Canadians who are FN over 50% of the prison population.

D. Popular stereotypes: the drunken Indian, the natives who live on welfare, the pre-Colombian “noble savage,” etc.

E. Discriminstion in employment, and systematic underhousing.

F. Systematic underfunding of First Nations schools.

The list goes on and on. This is the system that makes life so awful for so many First Nations people. Whatever your words and your attitudes are, the system is doing its thing. Just because you don’t say “nigger”— or “chug”— doesn’t mean you aren’t participating in (and benefiting from) a racist system.

14. If you wanna see your own privilege, try this. Here are a set of word pairs. For each, figure out which— on average— it would be easier to be. Every choice on the right = one point. Every one on the left = zero points.

  • LGB or straight?
  • Female or male?
  • Black/PoC or white?
  • Working class or wealthy?
  • English learned as adult, or as first lang.?
  • Immigrated to 🇨🇦 or US, or born here?
  • transgender or cisgender?
  • Indigenous/First Nations or settler?
  • Muslim or Hindu, or Christian?
  • Renting or owning?

My score— I am a cis white het man, who was born in Canada with English as a first language, etc, is 9/10 (if I owned poperty it would be 10). A white woman “just like me” would be an 8. A First Nations woman like me would be a 6. The higher your number, the more privilege you have.

15. But it looks like everybody is racist, sexist etc! 😩😩

Yup…but don’t worry, it’s where we are going that matters, not where we’re from. We can unlearn an awful lot, and learn even more. Say you’re white in North America. At least during this lifetime, we are going to benefit from whiteness (ie you and I are at minimum not going to get screwed over by the racist parts of our society). What are our white-person options?

a. Be an active racist eg be in KKK, be a Republican, etc.

b. be a passive racist eg don’t do anything (activism, voting, education, calling your racist friends out) about racism but don’t personally be a dick.

c. be an active anti-racist

If you move from A to B, or from B to C, your and others’ lives are getting better. Nobody wants/expects you to be perfect…but it’s a human imperative to try.

16. Q: What do feminists, Black people, the LBGTQ+ community etc really want?

A: to be treated like others.

I have been working in anti-racism, pro-LBGTQ+ etc circles my entire life, and the end goal of all repeat all social justice movements is, people just wanna be people. Nobody wants “special rights” for gays, or women to hate men, etc. What women and gay ppl want (as nearly as I can tell) is for their differences from others to not be a problem for anyone. This does not mean that women want to, or should, act like any kind of men, or gays like straights. It simply means, what your gender, race, sexual orientation etc is should be an aspect of identity and not a barrier to a fulfilling life.

17. What about when oppressed minorities do/say bad stuff?

Here is some nasty rap from NWA-era Dr Dre:

cos if a bitch try an diss me while I’m fulla liquor/I smack the bitch up, shoot the nigga that’s with her

This is violent and misogynist, obviously. How bad is it? Here are some things to think about

  • is Dre saying this is real? that it should be real?
  • could the staggering powerlessness of Black men be the soil from which this strange plant sprung?
  • is this a description of reality, or is it a verbal game?
  • what does a woman say about this? a Black woman? a white woman? How does this sound different to Black or white people?
  • is this more offensive than the fact that in 2020, Black people were 13% of the US’ population but 38% of its prison population?
  • is this more offensive than Johnny Cash singing I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, or Axl Rose singing I used to love her, but I had to kill her?

Is Dre a violent, misogynistic asshole here? Yes. Is this to be taken as real? No. Would you want your kids to listen to this? Probably not. Is it understandable that a bunch of Black guys would write this and that it would have broad appeal? Absolutely. Was this written 30 years ago in a much more sexist time? Yes. Does NWA get a “pass” because they— unlike, say, Andrew Dice Clay, who made a career of being a douchebag— are Black? Probably, to a certain extent.

You can probably see where this is going, and I’ll put it crudely: the fact that some people in some oppressed groups sometimes act like dicks neither invalidates the/their struggle nor gives them a free pass.

18. But my freedom of speech is being

Gents— and Karens— let’s get something straight. The only thing the US’ First Amendment and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantee you regarding freedom of speech is that the government cannot prevent you from saying or writing anything. That’s it.

The 1st Amendment and Charter do not

a. guarantee anyone freedom from the consequences of speech. If, for example, you are publicly racist, and your boss sees that and thinks, our company is committed to inclusion and diversity, and your name is linked to the company, your boss can fire you. You have a right to speech/writing, but you do not have a right to associate your views with another person or business without their consent. You also do not have the right to potentially harm that person or business’ reputation. Just because you aren’t physically in the office does not mean you aren’t an employee.

b. guarantee anyone a platform. Nobody is required by law to host/distribute/preserve etc your words. With every social media company— all of which are privately owned—you sign terms of service. Break those terms? They can de-platform you. Want a platform? You are free to make your own.

c. allow for unlimited freedom of speech. Almost all speech is regulated, and for good reason. For example,

• You cannot slander or libel people or businesses. • You cannot operate in a profession (eg engineer, lawyer, teacher , doctor) and demean that profession, or lie while practicing your profession. • You cannot yell fire! in a crowded theatre. • Most businesses, all professional organizations, many charities etc have standards of speech and behaviour. These exist to preserve the organization’s reputation, and to make its customer base and employees comfortable and welcome.

The easiest way to summarize this is, nothing is free except what you choose to say or write or record.

19. “We should debate all sides of an issue.”

Uh, not always. Why?

A. Some issues are settled and some ideas are dead or bad. Nazis are bad, period. So is the KKK. So is anti-Semitism. Trans people are real. Gay is not a choice. Human-caused global warming is real. There are facts and science behind all of these. As Greta Thunberg notes when asked her opinion of climate change, “I have the same opinion about climate change that I do about gravity and the laws of physics.”

B. Debating eg “should there be Black and white parts of the US, or an integrated society?” assumes that— like choosing ice cream— both options have equal moral weight. They don’t.

Trans People Facts

Trans ppl get the worst treatment so listen up.

A. Trans ideology. There is no such thing, and if your reading or viewing is far-right bullshit like Ben Shapiro or Faux News, there still is no such thing.

B. “A man can’t have a baby, and a woman can’t have a penis.” This misconception rests on not understanding that sex is not the same thing as gender. Sex = physical body. You can be male, female or be gender-binary. Start here. Gender = to what extent do you feel male, female, neither, or a mix.

Trans: your sex and your gender don’t align.

C. “Trans ideology is a modern idea and trans people are an invention of liberalism.” (There are many variations on this).

First, why would anybody, given the amount of transphobia, want to be trans?

Second, trans people have always existed everywhere. Whether— and how— they are visible has to do with the culture they are/were in. Again, start here.

Third, Caitlynn Jenner.


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?

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

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

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.

Nothing But Stories

How well should students be able to write in the L2+ after 300 hrs of class? It depends what they do. The more time they spend listening to and reading comprehensible input, the better a grasp of the L2+ they will have, and that, depending on the individual, will enable them to write and speak a bunch.

If, on the other hand, they do practice dialogues, grammar worksheets and so on, they won’t do as well as kids who get lots of C.I.

Today, I’m sharing my 3rd year Spanish student Gursher’s final story. He did this in 50 min, without notes or dictionary. He has never seen a worksheet and he couldn’t tell you what a verb conjugation or boot verbs are. He has never “reflected on his learning,” or done “goal setting” for Spanish, or revised a Spanish portfolio, or any other conscious-learning blather. All he has ever gotten was lots of C.I.

Most interestingly, although he was in Spanish 3, I never gave him any Spanish-3specific work. He just hung out, did PQA and stories and Movietalks and whatever random babbling I managed, along with the 2s. So what, exactly, did he “learn”?

What he learned was, he got way better at Spanish. You will note teacher-geek qualities such as subj-verb and adjective agreement etc. And he got better at it just by being in class. This is something Blaine and Von Ray noticed some years ago: the greatest beneficiaries of mixed-level classes are the advanced kids, who seem to soak up “better grammar” (and some vocab from whatever they are reading that the lower-level kids aren’t reading).

This is the final writing assignment. Kids had 50 min. No notes, no dictionary. We will let the evidence for C.I.’s effectiveness speak for itself.

Story Listening? Oh yea!

Dr Beniko Mason.

This post encourages you to try Story Listening, and responds to objections to it.

Story Listening— SL— is a comprehensible input teaching technique developed by Beniko Mason, who taught English to Japanese Uni students, many of whom had failed first-year Uni English. Mason’s students— the “bad” ones— consistently outperformed their traditionally-taught peers, in many cases acquiring twice as quickly as other students.

SL is very simple. The teacher tells a story (ideally, a folktale or something from literature) in the target language and illustrates it on the board by drawing pictures, writing key words, using arrows etc. The teacher can translate and answer any student questions. When this is done, students read the story. Some teachers have students write an summary of the story in their L1. The SL program is supplemented with as much free-choice reading as students have time for. There is no “accountability piece”: the work is done in class, there are few or no quizzes, and students’ homework— should they choose to do it—- is just…reading!

SL does not involve homework, output, grammar (or other) “practice,” grammar instruction (other than the teacher answering student questions). The instructional sequence moves from shorter, simpler stories to longer and more complex ones.

SL is a “pure input” technique, and it works. Read the research here.

Story Listening has many advantages over textbook instruction, and it’s a wonderful complement o TPRS-style stories, etc:

  • In my experience, it’s effective, easy and fun, and I regularly use it.
  • It’s also low-prep, and you can use the stories on the website for free (you need an email to sign up). This is the least expensive SL method there is.
  • It’s low prep.
  • It generally avoids controversy, because it focuses on folktales and literature, rather than news or teachers’ experiences. People whose students have religious parents will very much appreciate this
  • It is a way for teachers to maintain their target-language skills. SL uses actual real folktales, or abbreviated literary works, so teachers are being exposed to non-learner-focused language.

Here in North America, lots of us want to use SL in our classes. But there are some biiig differences between Mason’s teaching and research context, and those of eg most North American teachers. These differences (in my experience— your mileage may vary) may pose challenges. The differences between Japan and North America— and objections to SL— include

  • Mason’s research does not look at pure beginners.
  • Mason’s students tend to be 19 and up.
  • The Japanese school system is very big on “sit, listen and learn.” In Canada and the US, uh, not so much 😜
  • English is a fairly phonetic language (unlike say Chinese).
  • Neither Mason nor her students have to be “accountable” to anything stupid, such as a set of textbook exercises, or a set of dumb and scheduled exams, etc. They get one big comprehension & writing test at the end of the course.

There have also been other comments. Here are some.

Today’s question: how do we deal with these problems and objections? Answers follow.

1. SL hasn’t been studied/tried with pure beginners. Sure. So, I don’t start with story listening until kids have had about 40 hrs of L2 input. This is enough time for them to implicitly understand sweet 16 verbs, basic sentence & question structure, and some high-freq vocab. This is the platform onto which SL builds a bigger language stack.

The idea is that a basic gut feel for the language will make adding new words easier by reducing the processing load. To illustrate processing load challenges, here are two German sentences:

1. Mark hat einen Fisch.

2. Mark ist gestern nach Hamburg mit seinem Kumpel gegangen.

You could probably figure that the first sentence means Mark has a fish. The only really new word is einen. So it’s 25% unfamiliar.

In the second— which has the two obvious words Mark and Hamburg— you have 6 totally new words, and you might have guessed that ist means “is.” So this is 66% unfamiliar words. We also have some weird word order. That sentence literally translates as “Mark is yesterday to Hamburg with his buddy gone.” Sooo…when the new-word ratio is low, we have much easier processing

There are teachers who start SL with beginners. You can talk to them (and to Beniko Mason) on Facebook here. Kathrin Schechtman is doing her PhD dissertation on SL: she began German in Sept 2019 with a class of pure beginners (elementary kids) and tracked their progress until Covid-189 hit in March. You can watch her videos here.

2. Mason’s students are older, and have been trained to sit, listen and be quiet. Sure! So, we do a few shorter stories instead of one long one in a class. Or, we do SL for part of a class only. We have brain breaks! We do some PQA when a story is done (point to board, and ask basic questions). We can add PQA to the story. No, these modifications of Mason’s method are not ideal, but we do what works in our context.

Mason has correctly commented that anything other than C.I. isn’t helping acquisition nearly as much as does pure C.I. However, our objectives may well include generating output (for admin/observation & teacher eval purposes), and they will certainly include classroom management. So we might well have to mix other things in to SL.

3. English is fairly phonetic, so SL won’t work for non-phonetic languages. True. For F.P.I.G.S. teachers, SL works (in part) because literate L1 learners can read (and there are cognates). SL will not work for eg English L1s acquiring say Chinese. You can’t read a Chinese character, sound it out, and map that sound onto your understanding of spoken Chinese, at least not until you are at a very advanced level.

If you taught eg Thai, Hebrew or Hindi— non-Roman alphabetic languages— to English L1s, you would want to ensure a massive amount of vocab-limited input (aural and written) before you started SL, and people would have to be able to read. If ppl cannot read the board, they have problems, because the word-sound-meaning matches we need for acquisition aren’t there.

4. There is no “visible accountability”— i.e. there’s no evidence the students are “doing anything” with the language— in a SL class. This is a problem for teachers being observed/tied to a specific curriculum.

If you are tied to a stupid textbook sequence, and/or have dumb grammar-focused exams, SL is not going to work that well.

If you are being observed, and your observer doesn’t understand SLA, I would do something other than SL (unless observer has an open mind 🤣🤣). If they do understand SLA, we tell them this is CI delivery, followed up with reading, and we could— during the reading phase— ask some questions to keep kids visibly focused.

If you must occasionally have kids show output, I would do some TPRS-style stories, and make (and write up) OWI stories. Especially in Levels 1 and 2, these will give kids the simple language chunks they need to throw down some stories or descriptions.

5. There is “no assessment of any kind.” This is not true. Although Mason, with her college students, can avoid tests etc until the final, we can easily do tests to assess comprehension. You can do a dictation to assess listening. You can also have students either summarise or translate the written version of the story. This can generate two marks/week.

My experience with Story Listening was at a demo with Mason herself, who told a very short story in Japanese to us. She wrote the Japanese words with Roman letters. None of us knew any Japanese. I was lost within two minutes, because I saw pictures, and heard and read words, but they didn’t go together. I got the gist of the story but found the language hard to follow.

When she was done, I counted about 25 words. I could follow the story via pictures and I learned a couple of words— ojo (princess) and shinrin (forest)— but I would not have been able to read a Roman-alphabet version of the story. Japanese has weird word-order and question “rules” and few cognates.

From this I concluded that SL would work best if students had some base knowledge. This would focus mental energy on new stuff, rather than having to focus on everything new all at once, and it is why I start SL with my Spanish classes after the kids have had 40 or so hours of input.

Anyway, overall, Story Listening is fun, effective, low-prep, and low-cost, and is therefore well worth learning and using. 😁😁

What is my C.I. Workload?

Recently somebody asked how do I reduce my marking load? This is a crucial question. Anyone who is overloaded/tired makes poorer, short term choices (and is functionally less intelligent than) the non-overloaded.

Blaine Ray once joked that TPRS was developed partly to improve his golf game. There is a solid kernel of truth here: when teachers have family lives, hobbies and rest, they are much better focused in class. Same for kids!

So…here is a look at the workload in Spanish 1 to offer people perspective.

Background: my language teaching is about 50% classical TPRS. On top of that, we have Movietalk, Picturetalk, opening routine, Story Listening, zero-prep activities and of course reading (and I use OWIs in TPRS-style stories). I more or less base everything around a story cycle.

I also want to spend as little time as possible testing and marking (these take away input time, and are boring).

The Marking Workload

I deliver C.I. for 75 min/day for a total of 6 hrs/week for five months per year. My testing includes

• one or two 5-7 sentence-story listening quizzes per story cycle (about teo weeks). I read a 5-7 sentence story aloud, sentence by sentence, the kids copy them down, then translate into English.

• one reading assessment per story cycle. Here, kids translate any of the following: a short story (using recent story vocab), a Wooly story, sentences from the novel we are reading, or I upload a class story to Textivate and use that.

• At the end of every story cycle, we test writing. First, kids have 5 min. to describe a picture. Second, they have between 15 and 50 min. (depending on grade & time during semester) to write a story.

It takes me about 15 min/block to mark & enter quizzes, so 30-45 min every two weeks for quizzes (faster if it’s Textivate or I’m using Wooly for listening).

5-min writes = 15 min/class to read & enter.

Stories take about 40 min (you don’t have to read all of each story— reading 5 random sentences will give you a very accurate picture of their writing).

So 95 min biweekly of work.

Marking load per block per week: 45 min.

The Preparation Workload

I have a vague idea pre-story what vocab (usually verbs, adverbs and prepositions) I want in each story. So prep is zero.

Once a story is asked, I type it up (15 min), look for & cue up some Movetalks (5 min), look for & load pics for Picturetalks (5 min) and type up the most recent bits from the Soap Opera (10 min). So the prep takes 35 min/two weeks = 20 min/week.

So Spanish workload = 1 hr 5 min per block per week outside of class time.

This seems to be a bit lower than the workload in English, about comparable to Philosophy, and much higher than for guitar. One thing is for sure: I get waaaaaay better results, have much more fun (as do the kids), and work a lot less than I did when I used the textbook.

In other words, as research shows, C.I. is not just fun and effective, it’s efficient! 😁😁

So…what did I do to reduce marking?

  1. I stopped giving out & marking stupid cahier/cuaderno homework.
  2. I stopped planning “activities.” C.I. stuff delivers everything we need to acquire language.
  3. I ditched huge projects. Output and translate-into-TL don’t do much for acquisition.
  4. I got rid of most electronics. I’m too lazy to plan QR-code this and Quizlet that. A flashcard on a smartphone is still a flashcard.
  5. I stopped giving stupid “unit exams” complete with multiple-guess questions which took forever to mark.

Different = Better? A Look at New Wave Untargeted C.I.


Q: Do methods for teaching languages need updating?
A: DUH. As Blaine Ray put it, “if we find a way to make TPRS better, we will change it.”

The first broadly-used comprehensible input-based languages method in the US– TPRS– has enjoyed both enormous success and substantial revision, both by Ray and his crew, and by outsiders.

In the last few years, two newish C.I. methods have landed in the U.S. and Canada: Story Listening (developed by Beniko Mason) and the ideas broadly called “untargeted” comprehensible input– UCI– developed by Ben Slavic, Tina Hargaden, me and others. UCI– a term not everybody uses– has taken bits of TPRS and modified or added to them. Things such as Calendar Talk (or my version thereof), Card Talk (the artist formerly known as “Circling With Balls”), One Word Images etc have been added to (or have replaced) TPRS-style stories.

What has been loosely called “UCI” was developed because– as with every technique in teaching– not everybody could make “classical” TPRS work for them in their specific situation. Your kids, your department, the standardised exams you might have, your school’s socioeconomic status, your sense of humour, your flexibility, your creativity, bla bla: these might affect how well a method works for you and your students.

So people innovated. And now, you can go to C.I. demos and acquire bits of a language via classical TPRS, new-wave UCI, or Story Listening. I use all three, by the way: I loooooves me some OWIs, I do card/calendar talk, I like old-school TPRS, and every Friday I do Story Listening.

I have had the chance to learn bits of many languages via TPRS.  I remember learning some Russian in Victoria a few years ago.  To this day, I can hear it in my head: Maykl yest velosiped.  Maykl khochet velosipedo. Velosipedy vpechatlyayut devushek. “Mike wants a bike.  Mike has bikes.  Bikes impress girls.” TPRS does that with language: it makes it stick.

Does UCI work? We don’t (yet) know. We do know some teachers like it. We have anecdotes.  So, I thought I’d some experience it for myself! It being Fall and so conference season, I had the pleasure of attending some Pro-D which involved acquiring a language– Bréag–which is unlike English but is written with our alphabet. I spent a total of 6 hrs over three days acquiring Bréag.

The challenges (ie non-Englishy aspects) of Bréag include

  • no cognates
  • SOV word order
  • consonants regularly change sounds they make, or don’t make any sounds
  • consonants appear in words sometimes and not in others and slightly change pronunciation of the word
  • inflection
  • unmarked noun gender
  • “conjugation” of prepositions

So, it’s very hard to pronounce, and you cannot guess at meanings unless the words are between names of people or places. On the upside, no verb endings etc.

My experiences acquiring other languages via C.I. have included Story Listening and TPRS. In TPRS, there is close focus on a limited set of vocab, and as much repetition as is possible without making things boring. In S.L., you get to see/hear a story being told, and then you read it. 

Our teacher was a wonderful, warm person who is fluent in Bréag. She knew to go slow, translate when necessary etc. IE she was very good at making things comprehensible. In three days, we did the following:

  1. made an OW and put it into a story (over 3 days)
  2. did Calendar Talk (every day)
  3. did Card Talk (ditto)
  4. used Write and Discuss at the end of each class

Q: How did it work?
A: Well…

The class was fun. Lots of laughing. I was very happy to acquire bits of a language I hadn’t learned. I came away with a few new words! Also, the bizarre word order and other weird grammar stuff felt natural within about 20 min as the brain adjusted. 😁😁

As with any method, your UCI mileage may vary: every teacher, student and class is different. This is what I noticed in my UCI class that I would change.

1. The vocabulary load was way too high. At the end of our first two-hour class, 32 words had been introduced (none cognates). Second class, 16 more, third class 14 more, to 62. (This works out to about 10 words/hour. If this was a high-school class, we would have been on track to using almost 1,000 words in one year.)

I found that I simply could not remember the meanings of even close to all the words. I had to guess at words sandwiched between or near other words that I (thought I) knew, and by constantly looking at the board or at a steadily-growing forest of posters crammed with vocab.

2. There was far too little repetition. Partly because “circling”– asking varied questions about a sentence, in order to repeat it– is not emphasised in UCI, I found sentences introduced, and then poof! another would come along shortly after, with no or minimal repetition.

Because of the vocab load and the lack of repetition, I was lost about 25 min. into Day 1. and I had to constantly ask “what does ____ mean?” Now, I was a keen learner, so stayed focused, but I am not sure that a typical 8th grader would have been as tuned-in as I was.

I wanted to hear fewer sentences repeated more. I never had Ben Slavic’s “invisible ka-thunk” moment when the language just…felt 100% automatically easy to understand.

3. Card Talk and Calendar Talk were boring. In Card Talk, the teacher discusses student interests drawn on the name cards they have on their desks. Eg, if a kid has a picture of a basketball, you are supposed to talk about basketball. (eg You play basketball.  Do you like it? Who plays it? Where? Do you play with Big Bird or Kobe?, etc). In Calendar Talk, discussion revolves around who did/is doing/will do what and when.

Card Talk and Calendar Talk were boring, because, basically, I just didn’t care that Mike liked wine and Carmen didn’t. I also assumed that they didn’t really care whether or not I liked wine. I also was not especially interested in what people had done the evening before. Now yes, we got to “practice,” but this wasn’t especially compelling. Also, none of us could properly speak Bréag, so I’m not sure how useful the input was for the rest of us.

This is making me rethink how much PQA I do. One or two questions is loads. Better might be classical TPRS: just question the actors, because they have interesting situations and people don’t need to talk to acquire language.

What I noticed after about five hours: I could only really remember the story. I could not remember the words from Calendar or Card . I think this was because there was much more repetition of the story (because on days 2 and 3 we had a recap of previous bits of story) than in Card/Calendar Talk. I also found the story much more interesting than hearing about the weather or food or what Consuela did last night for 15 min.

My lesson here, again: put more stuff in stories and less into intro activities.

4. The presentation of One Word Images (OWIs) was not repeated (memorable) enough. We made a three headed vacuum that loved to argue with itself. I loooove OWIs and so do kids (I am basically a small child 😁😁, thank you Ben Slavic for OWIs and Invisibles), and the process was fun. But I also found that, because circling and repetition is discouraged in UCI, once we got our OWI into its story, there wasn’t enough repetition of Q&A to remember the vocab (and there was a LOT of vocab).

The lesson for me: use native speakers/fast processors to speak for the OWI, add human actors, and, yes, figure out ways to repeat the sentences. Circling is not a dirty verb.

5. There was no repetition of dialogue. The story we made with our OWI had almost no dialogue.

Breag like French Spanish etc has a lot of different verb endings.  I didn’t get to hear or read nearly enough of these because the stories had almost no dialogue.

6. Write and Discuss was distracting. This is a technique where basically teacher writes & kids copy what was done in class (eg OWI details, story, etc), and while so doing, discussion about the sentences happens. I did W&D this year and I enjoyed it and my kids didn’t complain.

But…does it work as well/easily as…just reading something that re-uses the vocab from the day’s OWI/story/Card Talk? In my experience, no. Here is what me-as-student found challenging about W&D:

  • I’m not sure writing (eg copying) helped me remember anything. And before you Google “does hand writing help us remember?” articles, and get 1,000 “yes!” answers, note that those studies refer to conscious learning and fact retention.
  • I would much rather have been given something to read, and some basic questions. I found the constant switching between reading, copying and questions (and English) tiring, and I never really got into the groove of enjoying understanding. With just reading (or listening) and dealing with questions, you have fewer energy-draining attention-switchers.
  • Some ppl (eg me) were very slow copy-and-understanders. Others were ultra-quick. So while slow me was copying away, others were either waiting for Sluggish Stolzie, or there was discussion going on which I couldn’t follow and whose English bits were distracting.

There was a BVP show recently where The Diva was asked about note-taking and writing down meanings of words.  He said that his concern was that this would get students to rely on conscious memory as much as on processing input.

So, overall, I’m gonna hafta rethink whether or not– and how– to use W&D. My feeling right now is, reading (with old-school comp. questions, or done volleyball-style, or just…reading!) will work as well as W&D.

7. There was far too much visual clutter. Because the vocab load was so high, and there was relatively little repetition, our teacher wrote things on giant Post-Its. And by the middle of Day Two, it took 5-10 seconds to sort through the word-ocean and find what you didn’t understand. My conviction– less is much more– was reconfirmed for both vocab and wall/board visuals. If you have to see it written to remember it, you havn’t acquired it. 

At the end of the presentation, I talked to an experienced C.I. teacher, and told them that I didn’t feel like I had learned much (compared to what I had picked up in TPRS demos). They said “TPRS is for in-the-moment acquisition. UCI is something that works over time.” Hmmm.  Maybe they were right.  But I can tell you, I have had consistent success with focused, TPRS-style input, and with UCI– at least the way it worked in the demo– I didn’t feel at all successful.

A few weeks after this, I was on YouTube and chanced across my Breag teacher. What struck me was, she was saying words I distinctly remember from class, but I had no idea what they meant. To me, that is not successful teaching.

This made me think, how well would this work for kids? I don’t know, but I do know how I felt. And I resolved to use less vocab and to repeat it more, do much less calendar and card talk, to mostly abandon Write and Discuss, and to focus on stories