Ben comes out swinging: homework, and some generalisations 

Well, Ben Slavic never pulls his punches (which is what I love about him) as you can see below.  Ben does implicitly raise a question, however: is it worth tarring all one’s colleagues with the same brush?  See Ben’s post, and my comments.

Well, my dear Mr Slavic, I would respectfully suggest that there is waaaaay more to the homework question than this.  So, Ben, what about these points?

What about teachers who have to give homework? Required in some places.  Are all these teachers mean, afraid, in need of approval, boring, or incompetent?  Generalise much?  It is a much better idea to look at a specific practice than something like “homework” which is so vague it could mean almost anything.

What about good homework? Things that I send home with kids– making simplified cartoons from asked stories, or Textivate sequences, or translations of short passages from L2 into L1– all deliver good C.I., are easy, and do not take much time.  I tell my kids, budget 15 min/week for Spanish homework.  Hey Ben, do you think my homework mean, or coming from fear, boring or pointless?

What about finishing up class work? My policy– in all classes except English, where there is simply not enough time to read novels in class– is, if you don’t get it done in class, it’s homework.  Would you recommend something else, Ben?

Your kids “don’t do it anyway.” Why?  Was the homework pointless, too much, too hard, infantile, or what?  Does what works (or not) with your kids apply to me and mine? 90% of my kids will do my homework if it’s not unreasonable.

Homework “seems insulting.” I’ve never heard or felt this from kids.  I have heard, it’s too much/hard/boring though. The reality in schools, with languages, is that most students  do not get enough exposure to the language (comprehensibly) in class, even with great teachers, to get anywhere near mastery in 2-4 years.  A bit of enjoyable and not too difficult reading or listening outside of  class is going to do what all comprehensible input does: boost acquisition.  How we mark hwk etc will vary across contexts, but the “insulting” tag seems, well, pointless and unclear.

Homework “is a national sickness.”  It would be much more accurate to say, stupid homework is a national sickness.  And by stupid homework, I mean more or less what Alfie Kohn means: things that do any of “building work habits,” or which unnecessarily repeat what was done in class, or which don’t work (in our world, grammar stuff etc), or which cut into family/leisure or personal interest or sports time, etc.

I don’t make decisions for my kids based on other people’s dumb ideas…I make them based on what’s going to help my kids pick up Spanish.

Anyway, my dear sh*t-disturbing Ben, you havn’t offended me.  But then, I don’t speak for everyone.



Frequency Lessons #2: What Really Matters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Does this claim hold up?

A: Not according to their evidence. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We could develop oral fluency by 

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

• watching target-language, L1-subtitled film. 

• reading (it boosts vocabulary). 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward? Ben Slavic, envelope-pusher.

Ben Slavic, the “retired” French teacher, has been crusading around the U.S. with energy ball Tina Hargaden, showing people how to use what he calls “untargeted input” to teach languages.  Slavic’s passionate announcements and fascinating ideas have earned him a lot of respect, and also anger from some people in the C.I. universe, but, whatever, haters gonna hate and there is no progress without friction.  Whatever you think of One Word Images, untargeted stories, the Invisibles, etc., you have to hand it to Ben: he is doing the most important work of all:  he is making us radically question our practice.

On a recent Facebook post, Slavic discussed the C.I. practices which he`s dropped, and why.  This is fascinating reading.  Slavic is in italics and my comments in boring normal.

I have dropped the following things – weights around my ankles for more than 15 years:

1. Targeted language – pre-chosen structures and words that I want the students to “acquire” (more like consciously learn) in my lesson.

Slavic’s thinking here is, students will learn best when they choose the agenda (vocab, verbs etc).  Slavic’s work is actually not “untargeted”– it’s like he says in his book, the targets emerge while stories are built.


2. Massed reps of targets Students can smell agendae, which are off-putting, and massed reps (what Slavic calls heavy circling) slow down stories.

4. Reading up*  This means, you don’t make kids read to acquire language– you allow them to choose reading which they decide is at their developmental level.

5. PQA – it didn’t take long for the kids to see that I was asking them personalized questions merely in order to try to teach them a structure, not to have a true conversation with them.

Ben has a point, but this is to a certain extent a straw-man  argument: Personalised Questions and Answers should always follow what students are interested in.  Good, organic PQA emerges when students have more control over stories.

6. Establishing meaning- this is not necessary if we are teaching slowly enough and the content is interesting.

Here, I could not agree less. It seems like, no matter how clear I make it, I always have a kid ask me “how do you say there is in Spanish?” after four months of C.I.!  I have learned, you can never be too clear when teaching a language, and there is no research supporting the idea that guessing/deducing meaning supports acquisition.

7. Having kids supply cute answers – this puts stress on them, favors the louder, bolder, and more socially gifted students (linked to privilege), thus dividing the classroom among the haves and the have nots.  

Absolutely.  Bang on.

8. Gesturing as a group – because we forget to do it half the time. Now I just do light gesturing. (I think of light gesturing as a kind of embedded form of TPR that we just do with our hands, while seated, during a story but is not a separate activity like TPR.)

I’ve never done this.  I gesture as a teacher– I have gestures for many nouns, verbs, verb tenses and we, you, I etc.

9. Lengthy undisciplined stories that last more than 25 minutes. Once the kids know that in class they won’t get to know what happens in that class period they tune it all out and by springtime they are all the way tuned out on stories. Short 25-35 min. stories that actually have an ending are necessary. The students need for the story to end that class period.

Do they?  I have had stories go on for up to three periods.  This depends on how good you are at asking stories– it’s not everyone’s forte, and it’s work– and what your class is like.

10. Class reading of novels – that is a school thing and leads to rule by the few. I suggest that we never do a single class novel in Level 1 anymore. So what do we read as a class? Just our own class-created stories. They are more interesting and comprehensible to the kids. And what about novels, magazines, and books? Free choice for SSR is what works best for me. I find that when I do it that way some kids in Level 2 choose Level 3/4 books and some choose Level 1 books, as per their own processing speed. It’s all a big plan to reduce stress in the classroom and fight hard for the most important thing in a school classroom – equity and no-stress learning and no-stress teaching. 

Do you generate enough reading from asking stories that you have enough reading in level 1?  If so, great.  If not…you are going to want some SSR choices.  I use Berto y sus Buenas Ideas, my own Berto y sus Buenos Amigos, and two Brandon Brown books by Carol Gaab. If I keep novel reading to about 10 min/day, kids stay pretty tuned in.


11. Using celebrities as characters in stories. I don’t know or care who they are, and many of my kid don’t either. Who is Justin Bieber drinking Cheerwine on the beach with? I simply don’t care. It’s about a section of the class – the kids who know the celebrities – running the class again. Why not we make our own characters up? It’s much more fun!

Whatever works for you and yours.  The key for me is to really dig at all the kids and get the quiet ones to also suggest ideas, to use Invisibles (class-created, drawn), to use kids as parallel characters, etc.

12. Feeling as if I had to do a story even when I wasn’t having the best day. I always felt pressure to do stories even when I didn’t want to.

BOOM!  Exactly.  Good PQA, Movietalk, Picturetalk, novels, word games….there is loads of stuff one can do that delivers compelling C.I.

13. Trying to finish a story that was too long. Long stories only stay long bc of the few kids of privilege who turn the class into THEIR class bc they have the social skills, learned them at home where the other kids didn’t because of poverty. 

What’s “too long?” As long as kids are listening and understanding, all is good.

15. Dominance of the classroom by the few because of the targeting of lists (high frequency lists, thematic unit word lists, semantic set lists, lists of words taken from chapters in novels for backwards planning, TPR lists). 

I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve never done any of this, other than to direct student suggestions toward higher-frequency language.  If they want Selena Gomez doing whatever, wherever, with whoever, fine…but if the kids want her vacuuming the beach, nope: aspiradora is low-frequency, so I’d steer them toward limpiar.

16. Being cute. I can’t be cute anymore. There is nothing in the research on CI that indicates that cuteness is a requisite ingredient of good foreign language teaching. An example is cuing of any kind, like the “Ohhhh!” thing. Or the “Oh no oh no oh me oh my!” thing. […] When we cue them, it is like controlling them. That’s not what I want to do. I want to let interesting input drive the class. Each student will respond in their own way, how they would in a free and open conversation.

Sure…but cued responses– when minimally used– add to the theatre atmosphere of TPRS, and are another way to check comprehension.

*Reading up is where the teachers hand the kids books that they can’t read. When it is in the form of a class novel, it is especially onerous to the students who come from less privileged backgrounds. Now I just do SSR/FVR to start class for ten minutes. They read what they want from a pile of books on a table. The feeling for over the half of the kids when we do class novels is like standing under a cherry tree and being told to jump up to get the cherries. Some can’t jump as high as others. This reduces equity and inclusion in the classroom and divides the class. It is the teacher’s job to pull the branch down so that all the kids can easily do the classroom assignments and thus make it effortless for them, because that is what the research says how we acquire languages – when it is literally effortless. So I say we need to implement more “reading down” in our classes.

Bang on.  As Marco Benavides shows, if we don’t have 98% comprehension, we don’t have much acquisition going on.  The key, as legendary Spanish teacher Joe Neilson explained, is to use “simpler” novels with higher-level students, and to use a broadly shared meaning base that erveryone gets to generate grammatically more complex discussion.  A sentence in my book Berto y sus Buenos Amigos where Paquita says estoy haciendo un video (“I am making a video”) is easy to understand.  The slower processors get it.  Now, we ask the faster processors questions like ¿te gusta hacer videos?  ¿prefieres hacer videos o tocar música?  ¿es divertido hacer videos, es difícil, o los dos?  ¿por qué? 

It should also be noted that much of what Ben is advocating was part of Blaine Ray’s “classic” TPRS.  He wanted a lot of student input into stories (and targeted that vocab/grammar, etc), has specifically said that TPRS does not always need to be cute, etc.  The idea of “planned” stories came when Ray was asked by Susan Gross to explain his methods (which he did with his Fluency book.  Faced with the inevitable question of where do I get stories? from teachers, Ray published the Look, I Can Talk series (and similar texts soon followed from Carol Gaab, etc).  This was inevitable, but any attempt to systematise what appears to be a freewheeling method inevitably loses some of the method’s magic, when Slavic ha clearly rediscovered.

Anyway, thanks to Ben for getting us thinking about our practice!

Icebreakers…why bother?

How do you start the school year? asked somebody recently.  After I said, I ask a story, somebody asked what do you do for an icebreaker to get the kids to know each other?  Another teacher wrote that she was shocked how, at the end of the year, a couple of the kids in her class still didn’t know each others’ names, and wanted to create a more caring and supportive environment.  

Image result for icebreakers groups

At this point I had a flashback to when I was 13 and switched schools and had to grind through the make-new-friends-and-figure-out-social-hierarchy thing.  I knew a few kids from my old school, but most of us didn’t know each other much.

In English class, Mr Maunderson had cunningly devised a game wherein we ended up having to tell each other names and basic personal info.  I was super-shy and wasn’t much into it; my neighbour (and future Christian, then meth dealer, then again Christian), Cory, was much more forthright, muttering this is fucking gay loudly enough that he and Mr Maunderson became enemies on Day 1. Not only did I have to talk to twenty-seven strangers that hour, but I had to deal with girls who had in two brief months gone from being like boys– they would ride bikes, go on expeditions, play Lego with us, etc,  but sometimes wore dresses– to another species entirely, which species had the magic power of making me feel like an idiot as soon as I even thought about opening my mouth, which I very much wanted to do, because, well, they were girls.  And I was thirteen.  Oh my God was I glad when class ended.

When the flashback ended, I realised, I never do ice breakers.  You know, the games or activities that get people to interact, share info, and, you know “get comfortable” with each other.  Yet, oddly enough, my kids all know a ton about each other by the end of the year.   Anyway, here is why I don’t do icebreakers.

  1. If they aren’t in the target language we are wasting precious input time. Why spend an hour talking in English when you could be asking a story, or doing Picturetalk?


  2. You don’t need icebreakers to personalise a class.  Good personalisation has two qualities: that what happens in class is interesting to (and modifiable by) students, and that students know that teachers know (and acknowledge) them.  With TPRS, students are driving the story, and with PQA (basically, asking students the same questions as the actors in stories) students will eventually know that the teacher knows and cares about them.

    When I’m asking my first story, I might ask the actor do you like dogs? and, after they answer, I would ask a random student the same question. If I’m on the ball, and I can remember, I can bring this up later:  class, does Mandeep like soccer or cricket?  That’s right– Mandeep likes cricket.  As soon as the student knows that I know (and remember) something about them, they get a bit more comfortable in the room.  As the year goes on, both I and the class know more and more about each other.  Right now, in my Spanish 1 class, off the top of my head, I can tell you that Kauthar likes Hector Bellerín, Isha watches 13 Reasons Why (and regards Profe Stolz as a total fashion disaster argh), Dalawar is dating Miley Cyrus, Avlin likes smart boys, Abdullah is an expert in kissing Selena Gomez, Ali hates X-box FIFA, Sundus dances with Chris Brown, Brian both reads and is buddies with Obama, Idris works as an assassin when not playing NBA 17, Zahra is fasting, Kajal has three boyfriends and a giant silver ring, Noor loves K-Pop, Samrina plays clarinet, can’t stand stupid boys or bad music and is dating young Leonardo DiCaprio, Taranjot has a guitar and a pit-bull, Avleen likes sleeping more than anything else, Riya likes smart boys and good books, Ravneet likes cooking but hates science…and I could tell you ten more “facts” per kid.

    Note that in my class, I encourage kids to invent a “Spanish self” which can be whatever they want, provided they are OK with others and their parents hearing about it).  And because PQA is done aloud, and because everybody has to listen, the kids get to know something about each other without straight-off-the-bat face-to-face awkwardness.Psychologists will tell you that if you can remember somebody’s name and one or two specific facts about them, they will like and trust you a fair bit.

  3. Icebreakers make people self-conscious.  Nothing– nothing– is as uncomfortable for a teen as forced social contact. Ask your students:  most would rather wash dishes for three hours than have to spend face-to-face time with total strangers.  Why do teens text all the time and start relationships by texting?  Because texting takes the edge off of self-consciousness. For kids with anxiety, autism or stress, or for people with limited/newer English, icebreakers are simply awful.


  4. If we want TL output on Day 1 (eg class, everybody ask 3 ppl ¿cómo te llamas?) we are again wasting our time:  output does not develop speaking ability, it makes people uncomfortable, and most language learners inevitably make mistakes when they speak (bad input for other learners). What kids most want in a language class– to understand what is going on— is not something that practicing output develops.

One question I have never seen answered is this: do people actually want to know others (or have others know them) immediately in a new social situation?  I suspect that for a few kids, the answer is yes…and those kids are going to be chatty and putting up their hands right away.  The rest?  Mostly what they want is to understand what is going on, and to feel comfortable.  With time, they will “feel out” the social world.

EDIT: teacher Jeff Brown writes this:  on the first day I have the kids take home a questionnaire in English. The last question is: Tell me something interesting about yourself, Then after reading all of them, the following day I introduce everyone in the target language knowing the little bit the students wrote about themselves in English. It’s always a blast. I love it. It’s one of my favorite days. I have had triplets, concert musicians, children of CEOs, etc. The kids love it too and it’s all target language (works for all levels). This is done on the third day to be exact.

I think Jeff’s idea is great:  kids don’t have to talk, it personalises language, and it helps people know each other without having to get in each others’ faces.


Anyway, this is why I don’t do icebreakers.



Frequency List Lessons

There was a recent discussion in which a teacher said, my department head insisted on teaching only the present tense in Level 1, the preterite in Level 2, etc.  This Head’s reasoning was, people must “master” one set of “vocabulary” at a time. Bad idea.

Anyway, let us look at which verbforms in Spanish are actually most frequently used.  Here, from’s Spanish Frequency List, are the most-used verbs in Spanish, then some ideas about what this means for teachers.

The verbform is as given, and the number refers to how close to most-used the verbform is.  The lower the number, the more often used the verb is. Reference point: in Spanish, the most-used word is que (“what” or “that”) whose number is therefore 1.  The second most-used word is de (“of” or “from”) whose number is 2, and the articles la and el (“the”) are the 6th and 7th most-frequently-used words.  OK, verbs:

8.             es
22           está
42           vamos
44           hay
47           estoy
48           tengo
53           ha
55           sé
56           estás
58           puedo
60           quiero
62           soy
63           tiene
68           fue
69           ser
70           hacer
71           son
73           era
74           eres
76           tienes
77           creo
79           he
81           voy
82           puede
83           sabes
91           quieres
100        estaba
102         están
103         va
109         siento
110         tenemos
111         puedes
115         ver
124         decir
128         ir
132         has
136         estar
137        estamos
141        quiere
146        trabajo
148        mira
149        vas
150        sea
154        hecho
156        dijo
157        pasa
162        hablar
169        espera
171        han
173        sabe
177        fuera
181        podemos
182        dije
184        necesito
185        estado
186        podría
187        acuerdo
189        tener
190        dice
192        crees
194        gusta
197        será
198        haciendo
202        había


First, the facts.

A.  The top 202 most-used Spanish words include

  • verbs in seven verb tenses (present, preterite, imperfect, present perfect, present progressive, formal future, informal future e.g. va a hablar)
  • verbs in two subjunctive moods (present and past)
  • reflexive verbs

B. Verbs we think are oft-used such as gustar are less-used than for example fue

C. The traditional textbook order of teaching verb tenses (typically, present ⇒ preterite ⇒ imperfect ⇒ present perfect ⇒ subjunctive) is totally at odds with how frequently verb forms are actually used.

The implications (in no particular order):

  1. Traditional textbook verb sequencing will not help students in real-world use. Most students will not take five years of Spanish– two is more typical– and so traditional sequencing will overplay less-used “categories” (e.g. stem-changing verbs) and underplay what actually gets used (everything, basically).  They will therefore understand less than they should/could.

    We know this:  according to Davies and others, the 1500 most-used words make up 85% of all spoken language (in any language).  A reasonable target for a five-year high-school language program would therefore be, 300 words per year, more or less.  What if students only take two?  Well then, they will get the most benefit from using the 600 most-used words.

  2. Textbook sequencing does not properly “model” grammar “rules.”  It is pretty obvious that everything normally used is “mixed together.”  A four year old will say something like yesterday Daddy took me to a playdate.  I hurt myself playing with Jason. But it was fun.  I like playing with Jason.  He’s nice.  Here, there are three verb tenses and a reflexive verb.In Spanish, English speakers have a whack of verb subtleties to soak up.  For example, the term “I was” could be estaba, estuve, me sentí or fui. If we teach one tense as a time, as the textbook does, we play up the morphology (form) at the expense of contextual “rule” awareness.  E.g. a Colombian will say cuando estaba cansado ayer en la tarde, me tomé un tinto (“when I was tired yesterday afternoon, I grabbed a coffee”).  The Colombian has acquired the “rule” that the preterite tense “interrupts” the “background” that the imperfect tense establishes.In a traditional textbook, however (eg the ¡Juntos! books I used to use), students will spend quite a while on the preterite, and then on the imperfect.  Even if they acquire the specific forms (which they generally don’t, because nobody is on anybody else’s schedule in terms of acquisition), when a new form shows up, two things happen:

    a. they will start using the new form (verb endings) everywhere and apparently forget the older form’s endings.  Kids who knew to say ayer yo fui a la escuela now say ayer yo iba a la escuela intending to mean the same thing.

    b. when (if) they pick up the new form, they will have huge problems “knowing” which form to use where.  Why?  Because there are so many “rules” to remember that the only effective way to pick them up is from contextual input modeling.  Basically, we need to hear an ocean of meaningful Spanish sentences which use both these verb tenses together.  This is true in any language of any grammatical structure.

    An English speaker can do a thought experiment here:  what is the “rule” for using the very high-frequency English words some and any?  Why can’t I ask do you have some advice? or answer no I don’t have some advice for you?  Why can I say do you have some of those washers for my drum? but not do you have some ideas? 

Anyway.  There you go: some data and ideas about word frequency.  Comments as always welcome.


Stuffies, Students & Stories: a simple Monday opener.

My Spanish classes are fully “unsheltered” grammar, which means we use past tense, present, subjunctive, whatever right from Day 1.  We need a lot of varied input for this to work, so stories are asked in present tense but read in past, and Movietalk and Picturetalk are in present.

In addition to my daily intro routine, I have started playing around with student-generated stories.  Each weekend, a student takes Victor the black-and-white monkey home.  They have to take five photos of Victor that tell a story.  They email me them, I project them on Monday, and we ask a past-tense(s) story.

So, this week Zahra had Victor and his wife/girlfriend/partner bla bla Victoria.  Here are the photos she made, and what we did with them in class.  We are working on quiere impresionar (wants to impress), le da (gives him/her) and quiere ser (wants to be).


There was a monkey named Victor and another named Victoria.  Victor was [invent details] and Victoria was [ditto].  They lived in ____.  Victor liked ___ and Victoria liked ____.


Victor saw Victoria.  He liked her.  He wanted to impress her. He gave her a rose.
Victor said you are very beautiful.  I am rich, handsome and nice. Would you like this rose?
Victoria said your rose does not impress me.


Victor kissed Victoria.  Victoria was not impressed.
Victoria said your kisses do not impress me.
Victor said what impresses you?
Victoria said rings impress me.


Victor gave Victoria a ring.
Victor said does my ring impress you?
Victoria said yes your ring impresses me.
Victor said do you want to be my wife?
Victoria said yes I want to be your wife. 


Victor and Victoria had a son.  Their son was a cat.  Their son’s name was ____.

I will narrate, kids suggest details, and I ventriloquise voices for the monkeys.

ANYWAY this is easy.  Just send a character home with a student.  Get the student to take 4-6 photos that tell a story.  Kids can use just the character, or add themselves, or use their friends, etc.  They can digitally manipulate the photos if they want.  Then, they email them to you, you project, and you can either ask a story, or Picturetalk them.

BTW this is not my idea– it comes from The Internet.  This is just an example of how one can do it.

UPDATE: so when the photos came to me, we “picturetalked the story” and then there was a twist.  Kajal asked, if the two monkeys had a baby tiger, did the girl monkey Victoria cheat on Victor? Who is the real Dad?  The vocab introduced here was ¿es posible que _____ engañara a ____ (“is it possible that _____ cheated on ____?”).  Yes, it’s past subjunctive and these are Level 1s but some circling and comp checks and they get it.

So…Kajal is this weekend taking the stuffies home and is going to create a backstory that explains how Victoria had a baby tiger.  This is the cool stuff, when stories take twists the kids come up with.





How Do I Explain Comprehensible Input?

Kids, parents and colleagues often ask us why do we do stories in Blablabian class, and read so much Blablabian? or why don’t we practise speaking Blablabian more? or why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s class?

These are good questions.  Now, since most kids and parents, and an unfortunately  staggering number of teachers, administrators, heads, and methods instructors in Uni don’t, won’t or can’t read S.L.A. research, we have to be able to get people to think about why we teach languages basically by using comprehensible stories and reading that recycle vocabulary a lot.  Our best explanation will be, because it works, and we show the kids, colleagues, parents or admins what kids can understand and do.  We can also point them to the user-friendly Tea With BVP radio show/podcast. We can also do the best thing of all time: ask our students, do you feel like you are understanding lots of Blablabian, and is it easy?

But sometimes you want to make a point quickly, or get people thinking, so, today’s question: how do I explain comprehensible input teaching?  Some of these are my ideas, and others come from Robert Harrell and Terry Waltz.

Q: Why don’t we study Blablabian grammar like they do in Mr Smith’s Blablabian class?

A: Ask the questioner, so knowing grammar rules is important to be able to speak a language?  When they say yes, say OK, let’s do a simple experiment.  First, ask them to tell you three things they did last night.  They’ll say something like first I went home and ate Pizza pops, and then I did homework that totally sucked, and after dinner I played Minecraft on my Xbox.Then, say OK, now tell me three things you did last night, but do not use the letter “n.”  This will open the door to a conversation that can show them why having to consciously think about language while using it will basically cripple our ability to talk.


Q: Why don’t we/your students/my children in your classes practise talking?

Ask the person what language that you don’t know would you like to learn?  They might say Urdu, or Dari, or French.  Then say to them OK, let’s start speaking Urdu.

At this point, they will say yes but I don’t know how to say anything. Then you say something like well, how would you like to learn to say something, and they will say something like by listening to it or by reading or watching it and you say exactly!  You can now talk about how input, and lots of it, must– and does– precede any kind of output.

Q: Don’t people need grammar rules explained to them to be able to speak?

A:  Ask whether or not the sentence “I enjoy to run” sounds right.  When they say, no, ask why not?  Most people will say uhhhhh, while the grammar freaks will say well the verb to enjoy must be followed by a noun or a gerund bla bla bla.  Right…and now you ask them when you were a kid, who explained that rule to you?  What, wait, nobody?  Well then how did you pick it up?

This is where you can talk about what polyglot Kato Lomb (21 languages) said:  we learn grammar from language, not language from grammar.


Q: Don’t people need to memorise a lot of vocabulary to learn a language?  Why don’t you get your students to study vocab lists?

A:  Ask them, could you explain how to turn a cellphone off? Obviously:  simply find the button, and press the button long enough.  Now, ask them, can you tell me how to draw a cube?  Here, I have pen and paper, explain away.

Image result for cube

When they try to tell you what to do to make this cube, you will probably end up with something very different from this nice neat cube.
The point? Some activities that we do are simple enough to first explain and then simply do, like turning a phone on or off.  In school, things low on Bloom’s taxonomy, like memorising some dates for a history class, or doing long division, can easily be broken down into steps, practiced, and mastered.  Basiclaly, if a computer can or could do it, we can learn it by breaking it down into steps.

Other activities, however, are so complex that breaking them down into steps or chunks is either impossible or not worth the effort.  You could theoretically “explain” how  to draw a cube, but it would be way easier to just show somebody a cube and have them go at experimenting with copying it.  Similarly, you could ask students to memorise twenty Blablabian words (or some grammar “rules”) for a test.  But it would be much simpler to get them to listen to some sentences containing the words, explain what the sentences mean, and then ask them some questions about the sentences (ie circle them) in order to recycle the words.

Q: I learned Blablabian from textbooks, memorising word lists, and studying grammar.  I can still speak it.  Why should we do anything differently?  (This question  btw is one that I have never heard from a parent, but rather from some older languages teachers.)

A: First, we ask Mr Old Grammar Student a couple of questions in Blablabian, speaking at the speed of at which native speakers of Blablabian.  One of two things will happen: 1. MOGS will not understand the question, or 2. MOGS will get it and give us a fluent answer.

If MOGS doesn’t understand, the point is moot.

If MOGS gives us a fluent answer, we then ask, have you done anything to acquire Blablabian other than study the text etc? The answer is always one or more of the following: yes, I lived in Blablabia for three years, or I married a Blablabian who did not speak English, or I watch Blablabian-language news, or I really enjoy watching the Blablabian soap opera ROTFL BFF OMG LULZ on Netflix. 

At this point, one can politely bring up Lance Piantaggini’s point that how we actually acquired Blablabian might differ from how we think we acquired it.  The way I put it is this: can you tell me how much of your Blablabian came from Blablabian experiences, and how much came from the text?  Even if people don’t know, we point out that, at best, a student of Blablabian in a five-year high-school Blablabian program got 500 hours of Blablabian (and, if the teacher was using a textbook, probably a lot less). If they lived in Blablabia, they got that much exposure to Blablabian in six weeks!

At this point, only a hardened grizzled grammarian fighting the noble battle of the textbook will stick to their guns, and say something like well grammar preparation made it possible for me to go out and experience real-life in Blablabia successfully.  At this point we might say, and what percent of your students will eventually end up in a Blablabian immersion environment? but frankly I would rather at this point go and grab a couple of beers.


Ok folks, there it is, a few simple ways to get people thinking about why C.I. works.

Why Don’t I Take “Late Marks” Off?

This teacher is angry cos a student dared to show up late at his class, and have the audacity to tell him I know it’s due today, but I’ll hand it in tomorrow.

Image result for teacher angry with student


A recent discussion had people asking, what do you do about kids handing work in late– do you take marks off?

My answer to this question: no, never.

Why? Well, for many of the same reasons I don’t mark behaviour, plus one more: when I am marking student work, and telling them/Admins/their parents etc their mark, that mark must reflect the curriculum and map onto criteria.

So here’s today’s though experiment about two students, Chris and Enid.

Chris looooooves Mr Hardass’s Spanish class. LOOOOOOOOVES it. He likes Spanish class soooooo much he wants to be a Spanish teacher just like Mr Hardass when he grows up. But Chris, sadly, is an idiot. He is s.l.o.w. and, well, not very good at Spanish. His mark is 75% despite extended Duolingo sessions, tutors his parents have hired, and even a crew of Latino kids in high school.

Then we have Enid, who is a major badass. She starts with a late-morning blunt sesh to a. take the edge off her Tuesday hangover, generated by partying with her 23 year old coke-dealing boyfriend until Falstavian hours, and b. make Math class less tedious.  Even if she could be bothered to go to Mr Hardass’s Spanish, she sure wouldn’t do/bring any homework cos omfg I have way funner things to do.  However– and this irritates the crap out of both Mr Hardass and Chris– Enid is really good at Spanish. Her drug dealer’s best friend is Latino, and she’s acquired a bunch (of Spanish) from him over bong hits. She also works with a crew of Latinos. She also, well, likes a lot of salsa music, and has a thing for Mexican reggaeton, and has been secretly following Corazon Salvaje for a few years.

So at the end of Term 1, poor dunderheaded Chris scrapes by with a B, because Mr Hardass mercy-ups him to 75% from 71. Enid, meanwhile, crushes on everything and gets an A, 95%…but then the penalties kick in. Mr Hardass, who fancies himself a teacher of “soft skills” and “rigor” and “reality preparation,” and who wants his students to “respect” him and the system, deducts late marks, missed homework marks, attitude and participation marks, bla bla bla, until Enid is down to a 75%.

Enid and Chris, both disappointed, go to see Mr Hardass about their marks.  Chris’s question is what can I do to get a higher mark? and Mr Hardass knows, not much, everybody is different and hems and haws and prays that Chris’ helicopter parents don’t email the principal.

Enid meanwhile struts in, reeking of cigarette smoke.

Enid: ¿por qué me diste una B si hablo español, y lo entiendo?

Mr Hardass: Well, you don’t hand work in, or pay attention, and your attitude is terrible. This means marks come off, so your mark is low, as explained in my fascinating course outline, which I know you read, because I gave you a 5-mark test to ensure that you’d read it, because in my experience if marks aren’t attached to something, students don’t do it.

Enid: But I can speak, read and understand everything in Spanish.  Every test I do I get 90% or over on, and I can answer any question I hear.

Mr Hardass:

Riddle me this, my brothers and sisters:  how does a mark of 75% accurately reflect both Chris’ and Enid’s skills?

Anyway, here are some comments about this and my responses:

That’s great. Does the Spanish (or whatever) curriculum specify that marks should partly be based on attendance? No? Hmm… And sure, “soft skills” like punctuality matter…but shouldn’t a student’s Spanish mark be based on Spanish skills? Does the curriculum say,  students will hand things in on teacher-decided due dates?


Sounds like a power tip to me: do it my way– which is correct– or be penalised.  Who cares if a kid “blows off” one’s class?  If they aren’t in class, or doing homework (and the class and homework provide useful and meaningful input and activities), their language skills will drop, as will their mark.

False analogy.  You have to be ready to effectively teach for Friday.  If your Adminz require lesson plans, they are missing the point, and wasting your and their time.  I don’t follow or even have lesson plans, but I show up and get my job done.  In a language class, a student’s job is to acquire language.  Being on time, or handing work in on time, matter, but they aren’t the point.


This assumes, falsely, that obvious work habits = acquisition.  This is simply not the case.  JGR is not a valid assessment tool.  As I noted in an earlier post, my best-ever student would have lost about 20% of his grade had I used JGR for his mark.

Now, here is my own policy.

  1. We have work to do which builds mental representation of language.  This work includes PQA, storyasking, reading, Movietalk, Picturetalk, etc.
  2. We will try to do as much of this as possible in class.  If it doesn’t get done in class, it’s homework.  Students in my class can generally expect about 30 min. of Spanish hwk per week, and it’s easy: it is all basically read and translate, either on paper or through Textivate.
  3. If the homework is late, I put an INC in the spreadsheet where the mark should be.  The computer does not generate a mark if there is an INC.  The kids all see the marks they have for various assignments.  However, if they have not handed something in, the computer generates an INC for their overall grade. This is motivation for most kids to do and hand in their work:  they always ask what am I getting in Spanish?  When work is done and marked, I add the mark and the kids know what they are getting.
  4. If the homework they have not done can be copiedand I have handed it back to those who did it on time, the kids who have not done it agree on one after-school day or lunch where they can come in and do it, supervised by me, so there is no copying.  If they miss this, they get a zero.
    Why do I use zeros?  Because I don’t have infinite time and patience, and because…
  5. …when the next story cycle starts, all previous marks now don’t count.  My students’ marks are always their most recent scores.  At any given time, their mark is combination of one or two listening tests, one or two reading assignments, and a writing score based on a five-minute write and a story write.
    So if Johnny blows off homework, he gets an INC until he hands work in or comes to after-school make-up session.  If he doesn’t, his mark drops…until the next “story cycle” starts.

And some final reasons not to “take off late marks”

Grades, as Alfie Kohn and many others have argued, should not be used for motivation. We want work to be intrinsically interesting, and not a “payment” for “work” done.

If a kid isn’t doing work, we also have to ask ourselves the teacher’s difficult question: is there something I need to change? Is the homework too difficult?  Does it take too much time, or time away from things that kids would get more out of?  Is the homework stupid? (by which we mean not teaching students anything useful)  Does it reflect what is happening in class?