How Can I Teach Family Vocabulary?

One of the first questions I was asked in any conversation in India was kya aapake bache hain? (“do you have children?”) and, pre-stepfatherhood, I quickly learned to say mujhe koee bache nahin hai. This happens anywhere.

Now, although family vocabulary is relatively low-frequency, it is still a reauired part of most curricula, and it’s useful for travelers. So, today’s question: how do I teach family vocabulary?

As with any vocabulary “topic,” family words are best taught contextually— in stories— a word at a time. In C.I., we will simply give each character a relative, and then ask them questions about that relative (and add a different relative per story). However, if you must teach this vocabulary in a “unit” by Nov 27th because your Headz and Adminz think Languagez can be learned on strict Timelinez, this is how you do it.

What we’re going to do is build a famly tree on the board/OH/document camera. We will include some kids from class, plus the famous people they choose, and we are going to make it as wacky as possible.

So we ask for a volunteer— say, Jameel— and we ask him who’s your brother? Jameel can use his actual brother, or another kid in class, or someone famous, eg Kobe Bryant. Then, we ask about, say his Dad. Jameel or another student can answer the question who is Jameel’s father?

We will keep going, and then we might get this:

Now, note the labeling. The arrows’ directionality indicates the relationship. In Spanish, we can’t say “Jameel’s brother.” We have to say “the brother of Jameel,” so the arrow points and is labeled the way it is.

Once we have eight or ten people in our family tree, we are going to Q&A the crap out of it. For beginners, the questions will be things like

• who is _______’s sister?

• how old is _____’s aunt?

• is ____ Jameel’s brother or boyfriend?

• how many wives does Señor Stolz have?

For more advanced students (those acquiring lower-frequency grammar), questions (thanks Carol Gaab) will include things like

• who would you like your brother to be?

• if Barack had another kid, how many aunts would Michelle have?

The idea is to generate something student focused, and to provide input (via questions) about people’s relationships, ages, pets, possessions and really anything else you can fit into your picture.

If we want to talk about age, we will have something like this:

This is also a great bail-out activity for dead stories or a time-filler. Kids always remember these: “Sr Stolz, Manmeet was Trey Songz’s girlfriend not his sister!” etc.

Basically, we are inventing and and then Picturetalking a family tree. REMEMBER THIS ABOVE ALL ELSE: this is not an “output activity.” Kids supply details, but 95% of talk is the teacher asking y/n or e/o questions and making statements. We do this to deliver comprehensible input.

VARIATIONS

1. If we/class don’t like wacky, we can do this á la Bryce Hedstrom’s persona especial and just ask a kid straight-up factual questions about their family. This often works because there’s always someone interesting in any family, and because, well, we are always curious about others. Doing this– if your kids are cool with it, and nice about it– will also build classroom community.

2. The “famous family” is a great hook. For this, we just draw a family tree of the Simpsons, Griffins, Star Wars characters etc. Kids will find this quite compelling and will argue details.

3. If we are doing a novel– especially a simple one like my own Berto y sus Buenos Amigos or the more advanced El Nuevo Houdini— we just make a family tree based on the novel.

Anyway. Easy and fun– enjoy!

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ACTFL: Almost There!

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages provides American teachers with guidance about “core practices” which ACTFL recommends.  Unfortunately, ACTFL hasn’t done much reading of science (or discussion with successful teachers) in forming these guidelines.

Today’s question:  are ACTFL’s core practices best practice?

Answer: Sometimes.

dumb actfl list

First, ACTFL’s suggestion that teachers “facilitate target language comprehensibility” is solid.  No arguments from science or good languages teachers.  Now, the rest…

  1. The use of “authentic resources” is, well, problematic.  As I have discussed, an awful lot of #authres use low frequency vocabulary, and they don’t repeat it very much.  Yes, you can “scaffold” their “use” by frontloading vocab, removing vocab, etc.  Which raises the question of why bother using #authres? Why not just start with something that is actually comprehensible?Want to teach culture?  Picturetalk and Movietalk work well.  Music…great, because if it’s good, people will listen to it over and over (and maybe focus on the lyrics) but expect a load of slang and other low-freq vocab.

    In terms of acquisition bang-per-buck, or gains per unit of time, nothing beats a diet of comprehensible input.

  2. That  teachers should “design oral communication tasks” for students is not the best idea.  Learner-to-learner communication in the target languagea. is a difficult thing on which to keep students (especially adolescents)  focused.  Why use the TL to discuss something in which L1 is quicker and easier? is what kids often think.  In my experience, for every three minutes of class time students get for “talking practice,” you might get thirty seconds of actual “practice,” and then L1, Snapchat etc take over.  In a full C.I. class, you have a lot more time where students are focusing on interpreting the target language.

    b. will feature poor learner L2 use becoming poor L2 input for other students, which is not optimal practice.  As Terry Waltz has noted, “peer to peer communication is the McDonalds of language teaching.”

    c. lowers the “richness” of input: what a teacher (or good book) can provide has richer and more complex input than what learners can do for each other.

  3. Planning with a “backward design model”– i.e. having specific plans for specific goals– is something we might have to do in some Districts, where there are imposed exams with vocab lists and so forth.  Much better practice is to simply  allow student interests– and frequency lists– guide what is taught. Student interests– self-selected reading; story co-creation and activities using vocabulary in student stories– will by definition be compelling, and high-frequency vocabulary  most useful.The only meaningful primary goals in a second-language classroom are  that 1. students be able to easily demonstrate comprehension of a LOT of the target language and 2. that students read and listen to a lot of the target language (in comprehended form). If this is accomplished, everything else– ability to speak and write– inevitably follows. Planning anything else– S.W.B.A.T. discuss ______; SWABT write ______— gives instruction an unproductive interest-narrowing and skill-practicing focus.

    It is also well worth thinking about the ideal “end state” or goal of language teaching.  I agree with Krashen: we are here to get people to the point where they can continue to acquire on their own.  If they automatically recognise a ton of high-frequency vocabulary (which will by definition include most grammar “rules”), they will understand a lot and be able to “slot in” new vocab. And most importantly, when they get to France or Mexico or China or Blablabia, input will ramp up so much that spoken French, Spanish, Chinese and Blablabian will emerge on its own.

  4.  “Teach grammar as concept and use in context”– not bad.  ACTFL here notes that meaning comes first, yaaay.  Should we “teach grammar”? Other than explaining meaning, no: conscious knowledge about language does nothing to develop competence with language. Although if students ask why do we _______ in Blablabian, a ten-second “grammar commercial” won’t hurt.
  5. “Provide oral feedback” is a terrible idea. Why?a. Anything we address to explicit awareness does not enter into implicit memory.  If Johnny says yo gusto chicas, and we say no, it should be me gustan chicas, he might be able to remember this for the eight-second auditory window, and maybe even repeat after us. But if Johnny is merely listening and repeating, he is not processing for meaning, which is how language is acquired.

    b. Oral correction makes Johnny embarassed— it raises his affective filter– and this is both uncomfortable and unproductive for him.

 

Anyway, we are getting there.  ACTFL puts C.I. front and center; as we C.I. practiioners continue to show just how well C.I. works, hopefully ACTFL eventually ditches its old-school recomendations.

New Idea? Novel Re-telling

I teach English, Social Justice and Philosophy as well as Spanish.  In English, we start every class with silent reading, and I usually read a kids’ novel.

The other day, as we were doing our “what did you do yesterday?” part of our opening routine, I said “last night, I was reading a book” and a kid asked “which book?”

I’m reading The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B (in English) and so I held it up and said “I’m reading this.”  A kid asked in English “what happens?” and I narrated Chapter One in Spanish, in story listening mode (i.e. I drew some pictures on the board, and some lines, and words):

There is a boy named Adam.  He is 14.  He has a Mom, a dad and a half-brother.  His parents are divorced.  He likes playing videogames and reading. He also has O.C.D.  He goes to a therapy group.  One day in his therapy group, a girl walks in.  Her name is Robyn.  She has dark hair and dark eyes, and she is beautiful. Adam falls in love with Robin. But there is a problem: she is older! And Adam does not think she likes him!

Now, this is massively simplified vocabulary– these are Spanish 1s after about 60 hrs of input– but I am able to get the main points across.

So basically, what I did was this:

  1. I narrated the story one sentence at a time.
  2. I left out extraneous detail, words I didn’t know in Spanish, and anything that would clutter the narrative.
  3. I drew simple pictures of the main characters on the board (and a few pictures of other things in the story). As per Beniko Mason’s ideas, this slowed me down and made the language more comprehensible for kids.
  4. I did a few convos in exaggerated voices.
  5. I left the kids at a cliffhanger chapter ending.

Today, I narrated Chapter Two. The kids are pretty into it.  Basically, all I have to do is narrate a chapter a day (adding some wacky-voice dialogue) and boom! I have a good ten minutes of C.I. per class.  On Monday, I’m gonna review Ch1 and 2 in past tense, and I’m gonna narrate Ch3 in present tense.  Stay tuned!

Some Notes on Level 1 Results (Fall 2017)

Meaningful discussion of language teaching is kind of like language learning itself: you need a thing to discuss. Language acquisition starts with stuff: language to be processed.  Language teaching discussion starts with student results.  This semester I have two English 9s, Social Justice 12 and intro Spanish, so I have too little time to “curate” results regularly.  Feb 2017 I have both more 1s and time so I will publish more results then.

Bott…ehhhmm, as they say in Ireland, here are two interesting recent story writes.  30 min, no notes or dictionaries, paper-and-pen only.  These students have had about 50 hrs of input.  Instruction is almost pure C.I.: no metacognition, grammar practice, talking practice, writing practice, K/W/A activities, peer group work, bla bla.  Just a lot of input.

This is the fourth story they have written.  Word target was 400.  Most kids are below average this year.  This is possibly because I am doing mostly Slavic-style “untargeted” input, where we have much less repetition of specific vocabulary targets in the short term.

First, here is Angela’s story.  Ang is Filipina and still has a bit of an accent.  She has been in Canada for two years, and reads a lot.  She is also a Duolingo user.  She tells me she is putting in about four hours/week.  Check it:

img_0111

There is a bunch of stuff I havn’t used in there.  She is generally getting it right in terms of meaning but there are still grammatical holes.  I’m including this because, yes, Duolingo– which frankly bores the crap out of me– does deliver decent C.I.  Krashen noted in a paper that Duolingo works about as well as traditional college Spanish instruction, if the user can manage to stay interested, which most do not.  Angela says she likes the new story feature on Duolingo.

Next, we have Nisha.  She is Punjabi, and has had zero previous Spanish. Lotsa words, a good story, but some obvious issues (eg noun gender).  What is tough for the Punjabi kids (in writing) is that adjective and noun endings in Spanish– -a indicates feminine– indicate masculine in Punjabi (e.g. bacha = boy, bachi = girl, bache = kids) so we get confusion. Also in Punjabi (as nearly as I can tell) there is a lot less verb conjugation (or maybe I just can’t hear it when I ask them about it). Nisha is not a Duolingo user.  Her only Spanish is at school.

But anyway, props to Nisha for doing so well after only 50 hours.

 

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
#40  
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.

 
img_9765

 

img_9766

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