Textivate Reflections

I am not a fan of most tech in the classroom.  Kids already spend 5-8 hours a day on screens; there is an epic amount of fiddle-around time involved when loading programs and apps; kids with devices would waaaaay rather Snapchat than do their Spanish activities (and I can see why), etc.

That said, I do like using Textivate, which is a platform that allows you to upload stories (or whatever you use in your target language), and then have students do stuff with these activities.  There are all kinds of activities available, from Hangman games to re-order scrambled sentences from stories. You need the basic paid version ($50 or so Cdn. per year) to get full functionality. The best deal is the group membership, where you get 10 accounts for about $100/year– awesome for a dept.

Textivate allows you to assign (and score, and track) sets of activities called sequences great for homework).  You can also have challenges, where students choose activities and compete for points (the game generates a leaderboard, etc).

I like Textivate because it involves students reading and processing meaning, it is relatively low-tech, it is simple and reliable, and kids don’t need accounts, apps etc (it is doable on a phone).

textivate pic

Anyway, I have used it three times this semester with my Spanish 1s.  Recently, I uploaded a French story my colleague wrote, and I “played” the Textivate challenge to see what it was like being a student.  I am functional in French but not awesome at it.  Doing Textivate made me think. So, today’s question:  what are some guidelines for C.I. teachers using Textivate?

  1.  Make the stories short. The French story I uploaded was 107 words…and it was real work getting through multiple activities.  The Textivate limit is 500 words.  But a 500-word story is waaaaaay too long.
  2. Use only meaning-processing whole-language activities.  If your kids are reading whole sentences (narration, or dialogue) for meaning, this is helpful.

    So, I will not use the following activities:

    • jumble
    • space
    • snake
    • invaders
    • speed read
    • next word

Why not?  Well, these activities have one (or more) of the following problems.

a. They do not involve processing of “whole” language (sentences of narration, or dialogue).  Some involve separating strings of letters into words.  Others involve guessing.  These are not input processing.

b. They put pointless pressure on students (eg speed read, invaders).  I don’t know how rushing somebody will help them understand.  When I read in a second language, I find the opposite: I like to sometimes stop and go, oh that’s what ____ means.  I also find I can’t really “think” or understand any faster than I naturally do.  Mind you, I’m

c. They require students to have the entire story in front of them.  If this is the case, they can simply look for words and match, rather than reading.

3. Make sure that when students use Textivate, they do not have the written version from the class story in front of them.  This is so that they have to actually read the sentences, rather than just looking for one-word visual cues.

4. Mark the activities.  I find that if I don’t mark the challenges, some kids are like hey free time to Snapchat! so now I assign marks.

Anyway– props to Martin Lapworth for making a useful tool for C.I. language teachers.


Frequency List Lessons #3

So…in Spanish, the “super 7 verbs” are to have, to want, to go, to like, to exist, to be, to be located.  This Terry Waltz-compiled list is the most-used verbs.  Mike Peto added nine more to make the “sweet 16.”  These are worth heavily focusing on in Year 1 of any language. They are the acquisitional platform on which subsequent Spanish is built, and they allow us to get about 90% of necessary work done in Spanish (with circumlocution etc).

It’s a central tenet in C.I. teaching that we want to focus on high-frequency words.  Then, on C.I. Fight Club, the topic of how frequently used numbers are came up, and Terry had this to say:

This is why the “Super 7” is a list of concepts, not specific words. For me, thinking about getting students able to express or work with concepts is more important than specific vocabulary. They need some way of quantifying (at first maybe just “many” and “few”, later more specific). That’s really important, but it’s made up in turn of a whole lot of options. Individual number words don’t “score” highly on standard frequency lists of words, but if you looked at the concepts those words stood for, I bet the “quantity” concept would be right up there.

So I went and looked at how frequently numbers and quantity-connnoting words appear in the 1000 most frequently used Spanish words. (The only numbers in the 100 most-used Spanish words are 1 and 2).

#37  mas    more
todo   all
#72  todos all (plural)
#96  tan (used for as…as)
#153 mismo (same)
#204 tres (three)
#205 menos (less)
#240 cada (each)
#296 casi (almost)
#311 primera (first)
#327 cuanto (how much)
#392 ningun (none, not any)
#425 cinco (five)
#428 cuando (when)
#430 algunos (certain)
#434 unos/unas (some)
#435 muchos (many)
#437 segundo (second)
#456 cuatro (four)

The next numberish word is diez (ten) at #708.

So it would seem that Terry is right: there are a whopping five numbers in the most-used 708 words, but there are 14 words which have to do with quantity.  In other words, having a feel for quantity is more important than knowing lots of specific numbers.






An Easy Opening Routine

Routines work. Here’s mine. 

1. Write day, date & month on board. Pause, point & say class, today is Friday, the 13th of December. Then circle this briefly. Then, ask what was the date yesterday? What was the day?  #s 1-30, days, months: DONE w/o a stupid “unit” on them. 

2. For the first few days of the course, write the weather on the board: it’s windy and raining. Briefly circle this. If the weather never changes where you are, talk about other places in the world. Weather DONE w/o boring “activities.” After the first 10-15 days, you can skip writing.  

3.  What did we do yesterday? I tell a brief absurd story about myself in the past, eg class, yesterday my nine girlfriends and I drove my Ferrari to McDonalds. I ordered 37 Big Macs and 89 coffees. Then I got tired and fell asleep in McDonalds.  I use this poster to pause & point:

After, I ask my FPs what they did.  BOOM! Past tense, by the time you get to stories with it, will be totally familiar to them. 

If you either aren’t personally comfortable making stories up like I am, get the FPs to talk more…we can always say if you guys are gonna be boring, you have to listen to me. 

4. The news. On Day 1, ask one news question: what happened in the news yesterday?  Kids will say something like the Patriots played the Chargers. Write this on board, then S.L.O.W.L.Y. circle it. Introduce ONE verb form per day. 

With that vocab, you can ask questions such as did the Patriots play the Broncos? (no) Did the Patriots play the Seahawks? More reps? Point to your question words and ask where did the Patriots play? and when did the Patriots play? 

The next day, ask the same question what happened in the news? and circle a different item eg Brad Pitt was dumped by Angelina Jolie! Return to the Day 1 sentence and use that vocab for another set of Q&A. Within 5 classes you will have a solid set of good vocab, kid centered, to discuss.  Only introduce one verb per day

5.  Monday? Do selfies ‘n’ stuffies!

6. Friday? Put up a poster with am going (to), is going (to) etc and talk about weekend plans. I start: class, this weekend, I am going to climb Mt Everest with Jennifer Anniston and Steve Jobs. Then, on Sunday, I am going to sleep late and my dog and I are going to eat Vietnamese food in Russia. I briefly circle this, then point at board, pause, and get my FPs to tell their plans and answer a few questions. (Also remember to send your stuffies home!)

These are great to remember for Monday: class, on Sunday I wanted to eat with Vladimir Putin, but I was unable to, because my dog had explosive diahrea (this has actually happened). 

Here’s my Friday poster:

7. If your class is into it, after a week or two of the news, you can start soap operas, which are loads of fun.  

Anyway: that’s a simple opener. Got ideas? Share in the comments. 

Don’t Do This

One C.I.-using American colleague recently shared this section from a Spanish test which their defartment head gave their Spanish class, viz

idiot task

How dumb is this?  Let us count the ways:

  1. Unclear instructions.  Are we supposed to rearrange the words in the sentences, or the sentences themselves, or both?
  2. Some of these have more than one possible answer (way to rearrange words).  Eg c. could be vivir juntos no es fácil or no vivir juntos es fácil.
  3. What does this have to do with actual Spanish that people actually speak or write?  Nothing.
  4. I have never seen a language curriculum that says students will be able to take scrambled words and turn them into sentences.
  5. I’m not sure what they are assessing here.  It’s not comprehension of actual Spanish, since nobody speaks or writes like that.  It’s not output, since students aren’t generating language.


This reminds me of those high-school math problems that felt like this:  Suzie is twice as old as Baninder.  When Baninder is twice as old as John, John will be three times as old as Suzie.  How old will Suzie’s dog be on Thursday when Baninder is four? 😉

This is basically a gotcha! question for the grammar geeks.  Yes, you could figure it out, but why bother?


To plan, or not to plan?

How do we know what a student can really do with an additional language, in, say, writing?  Suppose we wanted to be deadly boring for our students.  Hmmm, how about, we make them write about their daily routine, that should put both students and teacher nicely to sleep.

If we are a traditional teacher, we want to know what they have learned: what they can consciously do with language.  We could give them a writing prompt–describe your daily routine– time to plan/look at vocab/check out Google translate/”reflect on our learning”/plan out our metacognitive strategies/whatever, then give them a bunch of time to write, and then mark it.

If we are C.I. teachers, we want to see what students have acquired— what they can do without any planning, immediately. So we give them the same topic, zero prep time, a bit of time to write, then mark.

A teacher recently shared two writing samples from Spanish 1.  One sample is from a CI-taught kid in his class, the other from a kid taught by his grammarian colleague.

EXAMPLE A.  This is from the textbook/grammar teacher’s top student

  • the teacher spent three weeks doing a “unit” on reflexive verbs
  • the teacher’s students had just finished their “reflexive verb unit”
  • they had time to “prepare” their writing
  • they had 20 min. to write
  • about 120 words
  • quality: excellent, with minor errors

GT refl par.

EXAMPLE B. from one of the C.I. teacher’s middle-of-the-road students

  • the C.I. teacher spent about one week doing a story involving this vocab
  • the story using this vocabulary was asked one month prior to this being written
  • zero planning time
  • 10 min. writing time
  • 104 words
  • Quality: excellent, with very minor errors

CI reflexive write
What I noticed:

  • The CI student’s output is twice the speed of the traditionally-taught kid
  • the CI kid does as well as the grammar kid with no planning time and half the writing time
  • The CI kid has “been away” from the vocab for three weeks and uses it as well as the kid who just finished a “unit” on it
  • The CI kid spent one week with this vocab while the grammar kid spent three weeks

Anyway…faster writing with zero prep time and less instructional time: C.I. is looking a lot better than the text.

Win-Win with Comic Books!

This is an idea that came to me via a District colleague from a special ed. class she took and it’s simply brilliant.  It makes the kids re-read the story and focus in on its meaning, it’s easy, and it’s low-stress.

So, you have asked a story, and you (or your class writer) have written it out (and this has been edited by you).  OR, you are using somebody’s curriculum (eg Blaine Ray) and you have asked a story that uses the vocab in the printed version(s) of their story.

You hand out the written version of the story, and you do your various activities around it– volleyball/pingpong reading, Textivate, choral translation, Q&A, running dictation,  whatever.

Then, you get the kids to make a comic.  All they have to do is read the story, and make a 6-12 panel comic. Each panel must have 1-2 sentences of narration, relevant pictures, and either (a) the character thinking/saying what they are doing (eg “I am a boy, and I’m going to Taiwan”) or dialogue from the story. I give them 45 min. in one class (and one sheet of white paper) and if they aren’t done it’s hwk.  They need only copy sentences and dialogue from the story.  The emphasis is not on “writing” but on processing input.

While they are working on this, you, the teacher, get time to mark, plan whatever.  You can mark one of these in like 20 sec.  I give them a mark out of 3 (which goes into reading assessment): drawings match words, there are thoughts bubbles/dialogue, it’s complete, etc.  Anyone can do this.

These are the instructions they get:

Comics and art for stories:

  • One or two sentences per panel
  • Include all dialogue
  • Must have thought or speech bubbles in every panel
  • Words MUST match images
  • MUST have colour and look decent (but don’t obsess…stick-people are fine!)
  • Clip-art etc OK, or you can draw it
  • Messy, pencil, lined-paper, ugly, etc work will not be marked.


Here is an example (from my egg-head student Angela, who overdoes everything 😉): most kids’ work is not this fancy and doesn’t need to be.  In this story, the mermaid who wants legs meets Barack Obama and then Suhail, a kid on our class.




Anyways…awesome!  Also, save them…BOOM! you are building a FVR library.


Q & A from Julie in Ontario

Here are some questions from Julie Quenneville in Ontario, Canada, and my thoughts.
1.  I teach grades 1-3 FSL as well as 4-8.  In Ontario, reading and writing isn’t reported on formally for grades 1-3.  How would the story reading/writing work in this case?  I realize that I could just go as far as making a class big book together with a couple of stories..and students could create their own story orally rather than in writing?
I think it will work better than ever if you don’t have to assign numbers.  What freedom!  I would get the kids to re-write class stories (but get them to change names and so on).  I would read them aloud (share with class while reading as if there were no errors).  For these kids, writing will really be a confidence booster.
2.  I haven’t been able to see that much about the reading/writing aspects of TPRS.  How does it work…do you simply “save” ideas from yesterday’s class, type it out, and then use it as a class reading?  Do the students then do writing activities that contain the new vocab but they add in original (in-bounds) words?
This is what I do.  I write the most important sentences on the board, then write it into a doc and print for the class (I also use novels).  We don’t do “writing activities”– because writing doesn’t teach people to write; reading does– but rather reading in lots of ways.
We create a story together.  I type it up.  When it is handed out, we will do the following:
1. I read aloud and ask some questions (focus on slower processors).
2. The kids do volleyball translation.
3. The kids do a comic of our story.
4. If I am organised, I’ll write up some questions and the kids answer (find answer, copy, translate).
5.  We also do running dictation sometimes– loads of fun.
3.  Wondering how students show engagement during a 40-min class when the majority of time is spent on input.  Would this be maybe once every 3rd class?  Or am I missing something?  With elementary and primary students you do have to mix things up every 10 minutes or you lose them…if you could give me a sketch of how a few classes in a row would look I would greatly appreciate it!!
If you have a 40 min. class, I would do
1. a brief 5 min intro (date, time and weather).
2. ask a story but not for more than 10 min.  If they get fidgety change activity.
3. TPR for a brain break
4. Picturetalk or Movietalk (or you can do show-and-tell with stuff the kids bring in)
5. Modified persona especial is good (keep it short).
I look forward to your reply Chris!  I find this so intriguing based on how I felt at the end of each unit last year — we spent so much time on a unit but in the end, students really didn’t produce much!!  I felt something was missing.
Production is  not important.  Understanding is.  The more they hear and read, the more– eventually– they will be able to produce.
Anyway, I’m not an expert, so please don’t take me too seriously.  There are really good Facebook groups for TPRS and elementary TPRS specifically…go forth!

Stories 1 Textbook 0

We are three weeks into Spanish 1. I have 30 students: 29 total beginners, and one kid, Marc, who has taken Spanish 1 and 2 at another school with a traditional teacher (where he got a high B both years). Marc is a solid student who pays attention in class. 

Another beginner, Mariam, arrived one week late because of holidays, and she has never taken Spanish. 

Here are their first story writes. They had 20 min (no notes or dictionaries) to rewrite our story with new names, places and details. 

Who would you expect to do better– the kid who’s taken Spanish for two years, or the kid who’s taken it for 11 days?  Check it: 

This is Marc’s story. He’s taken two years of Spanish

Now, here is Mariam’s. She has had eleven days of Spanish. 

Now let us be clear: not all the 1s wrote this much or well. Some wrote 30 words (goal is 100 for the story) with awful grammar. I’ll post stats when I have everything entered.  But it is interesting that a beginner can do this well after 11 days. 

Comprehensible Input Terms and Inventors

Here is a list of terms and practices, and their inventors, used by teachers who use comprehensible input to teach.  I hope I got it all…if there are mistakes or omissions  please leave a comment.


Affective Filter—mentioned in Krashen (1981).  Probably originally from psychology.

Circling— process named by Susan Gross (from observing Blaine Ray)

CCR (Cold Character Reading)—Terry Waltz

Comprehended Input—Terry Waltz

Comprehensible Input—Stephen Krashen

Circling with Balls (aka Card Talk)—Ben Slavic

Class Jobs—Ben Slavic

Comprehended Input—Terry Waltz

CI (Comprehensible Input)—Stephen Krashen

Embedded Reading—Laurie Clarq and Michelle Whaley

FVR (free voluntary reading)— Stephen Krashen, or ???

i +1 – Stephen Krashen

Invisibles—Ben Slavic

Legacy Methods—Terry Waltz

Movietalk—originally Narrative Paraphrase—Ashley Hastings.  Brought to C.I. by Michele Whaley?

Novel—the first C.I. novels (vocab-restricted and designed for learners) were Casi Se Muere and Pobre Ana by Blaine Ray

OWI (one word images)—Ben Slavic

PI (processing instruction)—Bill VanPatten

Págame (“pay me”)—Blaine Ray

Parallel characters—Blaine Ray

Persona Especial—Jody Noble or Bryce Hedstrom?

Picturetalk—referred to on Ben Slavic’s blog as “Look and Discuss”—Chris Stolz (I recall first using the term, but it could be someone else’s– the practice was not my invention)

“Shelter vocabulary, not grammar”—Susan Gross

Storyasking– Jason Fritze

Super Seven verbs—Terry Waltz

Sweet Sixteen verbs—Mike Peto?

“Teach to the eyes”—Susan Gross

Tonal Semantic Gestures—Terry Waltz

Tonally Orthographic Pinyin—Terry Waltz

TPR ® — James Asher

TPR Storytelling ® — Blaine Ray

Unpredictable repetition—Terry Waltz

The Grammar-Teaching Question: a Simple Explanation

Despite demonstrated mega-gains from C.I. which always beat traditional methods, many traditional-method teachers still insist, the students must learn and know and practise grammar rules to use the language.  But do they?

Here is a simple answer to this comment:

  1. We ask Mr or Mrs Grammar, which of the following sentences sounds better:  “I like to run,” or “I enjoy to run”?  They will say duhh, “I like to run” sounds better.
  2. Ask them, why?  They either won’t have an answer, or they will think for a bit, and then say something like well the verb enjoy requires a gerund or a noun.
  3. Say, right, then ask them, how did you use that properly without consciously knowing the rule?  The only possible answer is, I heard it a lot when I was growing up.
  4. Ask your colleague, have you taught [common basic grammar rule in whatever language, eg how to use gustar in Spanish]?  When they say yes, ask them do they still make mistakes [eg saying “yo gusto como”]?  Your colleague will say yes obviously.

And here is the point: if we can accurately produce L1 language feature X in real time despite not knowing the rule for it, but in L2 we cannot produce language feature Y in real time despite knowing it, it is clear that the conscious mind and the implicit system do not have anything to do with each other.

Your colleague may then bust out the “skill building” argument:  that they have not “practised” saying/writing language feature Y enough, or havn’t memorised their grammar notes or whatever. But this begs the question: they acquired X perfectly without any “practise” at all, so why assume that knowledge or practice of Y will help?