acquisition

How does Bill VanPatten describe how we acquire language?

Linguistics is a rabbit-hole second only to Hegelian philosophy in terms of depth and complexity.  You can move down there and spend the rest of your life looking at cross-clause meaning transfers, lexical ambiguities and other odd denizens who like the Cheshire Cat are easy to visualise and often impossible to grasp.

Fortunately, amateur geeks like Eric Herman and I, and a few pros like Bill VanPatten and Mr Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen, are here to make sense of the research so that the rest of us can look at thirty kids and pull off meaningful, acquisition-building activities.

Today, a brief run-through answering the question what actually happens in language acquisition?

Well, to put it simply, we start with linguistic data (words spoken or written).  This just means language with an intent to communicate meaning.  If it is comprehensible, or partly comprehensible, the language gets “scanned” by the aspect of the brain that we could loosely call “the input processor.”  This input “must come from others,” as VanPatten says.

This processor does a bunch of stuff.  It first looks for meaning, and it does that by looking at what Bill VanPatten informally labels “big words” such as nouns and verbs, and then adverbs and adjectives.  While the input processor is Mainly looking for meaning, it is also looking at a bunch of other data.  How do the words in question relate in terms of meaning to other words?  How do they sound?  Where do they go in the sentence?  How do they change when said/written in a sentence?  What are tone and speaker’s intent?  (there are other data the processor looks for too).  It’s important to note that the only thing the input processor can process is language.  It cannot process images, any kind of explicit rules, or incomprehensible input.

This point is absolutely crucial. A teacher can explain, say, verb conjugation or pronouns or whatever up the yin-yang, but this information cannot become part of acquired competence.  As VanPatten argues, echoing Krashen, any kind of conscious awareness of grammar etc rules is only useful if the learner

  1. knows the rule.
  2. knows how to use the rule
  3. has time to recall, apply and use the rule.

The processor kicks sorted data (or, more accurately, information derived from sorted data) upstairs to Chomsky’s “language acquisition device,” which runs “software” called “universal grammar.”  The U.G. does a bunch of stuff to the sorted data, with which it starts building what VanPatten calls “mental representation of language.”  All this big fancy-schmancy term means is, unconsciously getting it, and having an unconscious “language blueprint” or “language software.”  Mental representation is like using the Force: when you have it, things just flow.  Do, or do not– there is no try.  And by “getting it,” we basically mean two things:

a) understanding the language

b) knowing what is grammatically OK and what is not.

You, the reader, have a very well-developed mental representation of English.  You just know–but probably can’t explain why— that you can enjoy running, but that you cannot enjoy to run, and that you can untie your laces, but you cannot unsleep.  You also know that “does John live here?” is OK but “lives John here?” or “lives here John?” is not.

As mental representation develops, output potential emerges.  The more meaningful input we get, the more we process language, build mental representation, and thereby start being able to “spit out” first words, then phrases, and finally progressively more complex sentences.  There is in fact an order of appearance of rules in organic, unforced output (what people can do without any teacher or written prompting).  This is briefly detailed in VanPatten’s 2003 book From Input to Output.

So, recap: comprehensible language comes in, is parsed (sorted) by processor, goes to universal grammar, which only via linguistic input builds a progressively more complex “mental representation” of language, which as it develops will permit first understanding and then output of gradually increasing complexity.

Here is how VanPatten describes it in an email:

“I use the metaphor of a grocery checkout. The cash register computer is the mind/brain.  The bar codes on the product is the input. And the red light scanner is the input processor.

[Note: in this case, the cash register develops a “mental representation” of your grocery bills– scanner codes plus $$ amounts– from the moment it begins scanning]

The scanner can only read bar codes. It cannot read pictures, labels, rings on a can, signs, and so on.  And the computer can only receive what the red scanner delivers to it as data. It cannot read the bar codes but instead the processed information processed by the scanner. 

Language acquisition is the same.  Only input is useful for the input processor, not knowledge about language or practice. And the mind/brain needs the processed input data in order to build a linguistic system. All components in both systems are dedicated to specific activities and act on only certain kinds of info.”

Take a minute and re-read that.  Good.  Now, read it again.

It is also important to note a few other things that VanPatten (and Krashen) have said:

First, there are “working memory” bandwidth limits which come into play during input.  Not everyone can “hold in their head” the same amount of info, and too much info renders the input processor useless.

Second, there is an “order of attention,” so to speak, of what the input processor pays attention to.  At the beginning stages of acquisition, it processes “big words”– nouns, verbs etc– and only once these “make sense” can the brain sort through things like verb endings, articles, gender etc.  Basically, the brain is going to pay attention to the most important aspects of input first.

We know this because, for example, when we teach a relative beginner, say, habla (speaks) in Spanish, the learner will probably be able to tell you quite quickly what habla means (or close to it), but be unable to explain that the -a ending means “he” or “she.”  This does not mean that the brain is not registering that -a, or anything else, but rather that its main focus is on first “big meaning” and only later on inflections etc.

Finally, teachers need to ensure that learners process L2-unique grammar properly.  VanPatten’s work on processing instruction– getting people to not screw up interpretation– looks at things like this sentence in Spanish:  A la mujer vio el hombre  (“the man saw the woman”).  In English, this literally translates as “to the woman saw the man,” and English speakers tend to interpret it as “the woman saw the man.”  Some “focus on form,” as Long calls it, is necessary to make sure that learners don’t develop “bad processing” habits.

The one thing VanPatten’s metaphor does not do is explain how much repetition the brain needs to acquire something.  In the case of the cash register, all it needs is one bit of data from the scanner and its “mental representation” of the pile of groceries– an itemised bill– grows.  In language, however, the U.G. works by hypthesis testing.  Data comes in, partial rules are formed, and the system waits for confirmation or denial of rule.  So the U.G. needs LOADS of data.

Consider this.  Habla means “s/he speaks” in Spanish.  Now, here are a bunch of possible ways to use habla:

1. Juan habla con sus amigos.

2. ¿Habla o quiere hablar con sus amigos Juan? 

3. ¿No habla Juan?  Juan no habla.

4. Cuando se pone enjojado, ¿habla o grita Juan?

5. ¿Quién habla con Martina—Juan o Antonio?

Every time habla is said here, a slightly different set of meanings, grammar rules, positions in sentence, intonations, etc etc, are in play.  It is not enough for the brain to simply know what habla means.  It has to see/hear habla associated with other words and sounds, doing different jobs in different places, etc.  Indeed, a word is not a thing, but a cluster of relational properties which changes in contexts.

Consider this.   ¿Habla con sus amigos Juan?  This means “does Juan talk with his friends?” and literally “talks with his friends Juan?”  The U.G. will build a number of hypotheses here, which will look (to us from the outside– what the brain actually does looks….different) like “where does the subject in a question go?  Hypothesis: the end” and “why does sus have an -s?  Hypothesis: -s is for plural adjectives.”  The next time data comes in, the U.G. will test its hypotheses and if they are confirmed, that bit of neural wiring gets reinforced.

This– among other reasons– is why output, grammar instruction and drills simply do not develop linguistic competence, or mental representation. There are too many rules which are too complex and subtle for the conscious mind, and acquisition can only happen through meaningful, varied input over time.  Grammar instruction– like grapefruits, music and pictures– cannot be processed by the input processor, output is not hypothesis formation (though it may generate input on which the processor and U.G. can operate), and drills of any kind at best offer dull, impoverished input.

The upshot?  VanPatten’s metaphor flat out tells us

  • there will be no meaningful language development without oceans of comprehensible input
  • anything other than comprehensible input– grammar rules and practice, output, ambiguity– does not help develop mental representation
  • if there is a place in the classroom for grammar talk, is is this: we should discuss grammar ONLY insofar as such discussions support accurate meaning. Anything other than, say, “-aste or -iste mean you did ___ in the past” are useless.

What grades should kids get? Notes on evaluation for the mathematically-challenged.

Here is a part of a post from Ben’s.  A teacher– let’s call him Mr John Speaking– who uses T.P.R.S. in their language class writes:

“I was told by a Defartment Chair a few weeks ago that my grades were too high across the board (all 90s/100s) and that I needed more of a range for each assessment. Two weeks later I had not fixed this “problem” and this same Defartment Chair pulled me out of class and proceeded to tell me, referencing gradebook printouts for all my classes, that these high grades “tell me there is not enough rigor in your class, or that you’re not really grading these assessments.” After this accusation, this Defartment Chair told me I was “brought on board [for a maternity leave replacement] in the hopes of being able to keep me, but that based on what he’d seen the past few weeks, I’m honestly not tenure track material.”

Obviously, Mr John Speaking’s Defartment Chair is an idiot, but, as idiots do, he does us a favour:  he brings up things worth thinking about.

There are two issues here:

a) Should– or do— student scores follow any predictable distribution?  I.e., should there be– or are there–a set percentage of kids in a class who get As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs?

b) How do you know when scores are “too low” or “too high”?

Today’s question: what grades should students get?

First, a simple, math idiot’s detour into grading systems and stats.  The math idiot is me.  Hate stats?  Bad at math? Read on!  If I can get it, anyone can get it!

It is important to note that there are basically two kinds of grading systems. We have criterion-referenced grading and curved (norm-referenced) grading.

First, we have criterion-referenced grading.  This is, we have a standard– to get an A, a student does X.  To get a B, a student does Y, etc.  For example, we want to see what our Samoyed Dogs’ fetching skills are and assign them fetching marks. Here is our Stick Fetching Rubric:

A:  the dog runs directly and quickly to the thrown stick, picks it up, brings it back to its owner, and drops it at owner’s feet.

B: the dog dawdles on its way to the stick, plays with it, dawdles on the way back, and doesn’t drop it until asked.

C: the dog takes seemingly forever to find the stick, bring it back, and refuses to drop it.

So we take our pack of five Samoyed Dogs, and we test them on their retrieval skills.  Max, who is a total idiot, can’t find the stick forever, then visits everyone else in the park, then poos, then brings the stick an hour later but won’t drop it because, hell, wrestling with owner is more fun.  Samba dutifully retrieves and drops.  Rorie is a total diva and prances around the park before bringing the stick back.  Arabella is like her mother, Rorie, but won’t drop the stick.  Sky, who is so old he can remember when dinosaurs walked the Earth, goes straight there, gets the stick, and slowly trudges back.  So we have one A, one B, one C, one C- (Max– we mercy passed him) and one A- (Sky, cos he’s good and focused, but slow).

Here are our Samoyeds:

Samoyeds

Now note–

1. Under this scheme, we could theoretically get five As (if all the Dogs were like Samba), or five Fs (if everybody was as dumb and lovable as Max).  We could actually get pretty much any set of grades at all.

2.  The Samoyed is a notoriously hard-to-train Dog.  These results are from untrained Samoyeds.  But suppose we trained them?  We used food, praise, hand signals etc etc to get them to fetch better and we did lots of practice.  Now, Sky is faster, Rorie and Arabella don’t prance around the park, and even silly Max can find the stick and bring it.  In other words, all the scores went up, and because there is an upper limit– what Samba does– and nobody is as bad as Max was at fetching, the scores are now clustered closer together.

The new scores, post-training, are:

Sky and Samba: A

Rorie, Max and Arabella: B

Variation, in other words, has been reduced.

3.  Suppose we wanted– for whatever reason– to lower their scores.  So, we play fetch, but we coat the sticks in a nasty mix of chocolate and chili powder, so that whenever the Dogs get near them, they get itchy noses, and very sick if they eat them.  The Dogs stop wanting to fetch our sticks.  Some of them will dutifully do it (e.g. Samba), but they aren’t idiots, and so most of them will decide to forget or ignore their training.

4.  Also note who we don’t have in our Dog Pool:  Labrador Retrievers (the genius of the fetching world), and three-legged Samoyeds.  There’s no Labs because they are three orders of magnitude better than Samoyeds at fetch, and we don’t have three-legged Samoyeds because, well, they can’t run.

In other words, we could reasonably get any mix of scores, and we could improve the scores, or we could– theoretically– lower them.  Also, we don’t have any Einstein-level retrievers or, uhh, “challenged” retreivers– there are no “outliers.”

Now, let’s look at “bell curve” (a.k.a. norm-referenced) grading.  In this case, we decide– in advance— how many of each score we want to assign.  We don’t want any random number of As or Fs or whatever– we want one A, one F, etc.  We want the scores to fit into a bell curve, which looks like this:

bell curve

We are saying “we want a certain # of As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs.”  Now, we have a problem.  In our above stick fetching example, we got an A, an A-, a B, a C and a C-.  We have no Ds or Fs, because all of the Dogs could perform.  None of them were totally useless.  (After doing some training, we would get two As (Samba, Sky) and three Bs (Rorie, Max and Arabella).  But if we have decided to bell curve, or norm reference, our scores, we must “force” them to fit this distribution.

So Samba gets an A, Sky gets a B, Rorie gets a C, Arabella gets a D, and Max fails.

Now, why would anyone do this?  The answer is simple: norm referencing is only a way to sort students into ranks where the only thing that matters is where each person ranks in regard to others.  We are not interested in being able to say “in reference to criteria ____, Max ranks at C.”  All we want to do here is to say where everyone is on the marks ladder compared to everyone else.

Universities, law schools, etc sometimes do this, because they have to sort students into ranks for admissions purposes, get into the next level qualifiers, etc etc.  For example, law firm Homo Hic Ebrius Est goes to U.B.C. and has 100 students from which to hire their summer slav– err, articling students.  If they can see bell-curved scores, they can immediately decide to not interview the bottom ___ % of the group, etc.  Which U.B.C. engineers get into second year Engineering?  Why, the top 40% of first-year Engineering students, of course!

Now I am pretty sure you can see the problem with norm referencing:  when we norm reference (bell curve), we don’t necessarily say anything about what students actually know/can do.  In the engineering example, every student could theoretically fail…but the people with the highest marks (say between 40 and 45 per cent) would still be the top ones and get moved on.  In the law example, probably 95% of the students are doing very well, yet a lot of them won’t be considered for hire. Often, bell-curves generate absurd results.  For example, with the law students, you could have an overall mark of 75% (which is pretty good) but be ranked at the bottom of the class.

So where does the idea for norm referencing (“bell curving”) sudent scores come from?  Simple: the idea that scores should  disitribute along bell-curve line comes from a set of wrong assumptions about learning and about “nature.”  In Nature, lots of numbers are distributed along bell-curve lines.  For example, take the height of, say, adult men living in Vancouver.  There will be a massive cluster who within two inches of 5’11” (from 5’9″ to 6’1″).  There will be a smaller # who are 5’6″ to 5’8″ (and also who are 6’1.5″ to 6’3″).  There will be an even smaller number who are shorter than 5’6″ and taller than 6’3″.  Get it?  If you graphed their heights, you’d get a bell curve like this:

bc2

If you graphed adult women, you’d also get a bell curve, but it would be “lower” as women (as dating websites tell us) are generally shorter than men.

Now– pay attention, this is where we gotta really focus– there are THREE THINGS WE HAVE TO REMEMBER ABOUT BELL CURVES

a)  Bell curve distributions only happen when we have an absolutely massive set of numbers.  If you looked at five men, they might all be the same height, short, tall, mixed, whatever (i.e. you could get any curveat all). But when you up your sampling to a thousand, a bell curve emerges.

b) Bell curve distributions only happen when the sample is completely random.  In other words, if you sampled only elderly Chinese-born Chinese men (who are generally shorter than their Caucasian counterparts), the curve would look flatter and the left end would be higher.  If you didn’t include elderly Chinese men, the curve would look “pointier” and the left end would be smaller. A bell curve emerges when we include all adult men in Vancouver.  If you “edit out” anyone, or any group, from the sample, the distribution skews.

c)  Bell curves raise one student’s mark at the expense of another’s.  When we trained our Samoyed Dogs, then marked them on the Stick Fetching Rubric, we got three As and two Bs.  When we convert this into a curve, however, what happens is, each point on the curve can only have one Dog on it.  Or, to put it another way, each Dog has a different mark, no matter how well they actually do.  So, our three As and two Bs become an A, a B, a C, a D and an F.  If Rorie gets a B, that automatically (for math-geek reasons) means that Max will get a different mark, even if they are actually equally skilled.

As you can see in (c), bell curves are absolutely the wrong thing to do with student marks.

And now we can address the issues that Mr John Speaking’s Defartment Head brings up.  Mr Defartment Head seems to think that there are too many high marks, and not enough variation within the marks.

First, there is no way one class– even of 35 kids– has enough members to form an adequate sample size for a bell-curve distribution.  If Mr Defartment Head thinks, “by golly, if that damned Mr John Speaking were teaching rigorously, we’d have only a few As, a few Ds, and far more Bs and Cs,” he’s got it dead wrong: there aren’t enough kids to make that distribution  possible.  Now, it could happen, but it certainly doesn’t have to happen.

Second, Mr John Speaking does not have a statistically random selection of kids in his class.  First, he probably doesn’t have any kids with special challenges (e.g. severe autism, super-low I.Q., deaf, etc etc).  BOOM!– there goes the left side of the bell curve and up go the scores.  He probably also doesn’t have Baby Einstein or Baby Curie in his class– those kids are in the gifted program, or they’ve dropped out and started hi-techs in Silicon Valley.  BOOM!– there goes the right side of your curve.  He’ll still have a distribution, and it could be vaguely bell-like, but it sure won’t be a classic bell curve.

Or he could have something totally different.  Let’s say in 4th block there are zero shop classes, and zero Advanced Placement calculus classes.  All of the kids who take A.P. calculus and shop– and who also take Spanish– therefore get put in Mr Speaking’s 4th block Spanish class.  So we now have fifteen totally non-academic kids, and fifteen college-bound egg-heads.  Mr Speaking, if he used poor methods, could get a double peaked curve:  a bunch of scores clustering in the C range, and another punch in the A, with fewer Bs and Ds.

Third, instruction can– and does– make a massive difference in scores. Remember what happened when we trained our Samoyeds to give them mad fetching skillz, yo? Every Dog got better. If Mr Speaking gave the kids a text, said “here, learn it yourself,” then put his feet up and did Sudoku on his phone or read the newspaper for a year (I have a T.O.C. who comes in and literally does this), his kids would basically suck at the language (our curve just sank down).  On the other hand, if he used excellent methods, his kids’ scores would rise (curve goes up).  Or, he is awesome, but gets sick, and misses half the year, and his substitute is useless, so his kids’ scores come out average.  Or, he sucks, gets sick, and for half the year his kids have Blaine Ray teaching them Spanish, so, again, his kids’ scores are average:  Blaine giveth, and Speaking taketh away.

“Fine,” says the learned Defartment Chair, “Mr John Speaking is a great teacher, and obviously his students’ scores are high as a result of his great teaching, but there should still be a greater range of scores in his class.”

To this, we say a few  things

a)  How do we know what the “right” variability of scores is?  The answer:  there is no way of knowing without doing various kinds of statistical comparisons.  This is because it’s possible that Mr Speaking has a bunch of geniuses in his class.  Or, wait, maybe they just love him (or Spanish) and so all work their butts off.  No, no, maybe they are all exactly the same in IQ?  No, that’s not it.  Perhaps the weak ones get extra tutoring to make up for their weakness. Unless you are prepared to do– and have the data for– something called regression squares analysis, you are not even going to have the faintest idea about what the scores “should” be.

b)  score variability has been reduced with effective teaching.  There are zillions of real-world examples of where appropriate, specific instruction reduces the variation in performance. Any kid speaks their native language quite well.  Sure, some kids have more vocab than others, but no two Bengali (or English-speaking) ten year olds are significantly different in their basic speaking skills.  95% of drivers are never going to have an accident worse than a minor parking-lot fender-bender.  U.S. studies show that an overwhelming majority of long-gun firearm owners store and handle guns properly (the rate is a bit lower for handgun owners). Teach them right, and– if they are paying attention– they will learn.

Think about this.  The top possible score is 100%, and good teaching by definition raises marks.  This means that all marks should rise, and because there is a top end, there will be less variation.

Most importantly,  good teaching works for all students. In the case of a comprehensible input class, all of the teaching is working through what Chomsky called the “universal grammar” mechanism.  It is also restricted in vocab, less (or not) restricted in grammar, and the teacher keeps everything comprehensible and focuses on input.  This is how everyone learns languages– by getting comprehensible input– so it ought to work well (tho not to exactly the same extent) on all learners.

Because there is an upper end of scores (100%), because we have no outliers, and because good teaching by definition reaches everyone, we will have reduced variation in scores in a comprehensible input class.

So, Mr Speaking’s response to his Defartment Head should be “low variation in scores is an indication of the quality of my work. If my work were done poorly, I would have greater variation, as well as lower marks.” High marks plus low variation = good teaching. How could it be otherwise?

In a grammar class, or a “communicative” class, you would expect much more variation in scores.  This is because the teaching– which focuses on grammar and or output, and downplays input– does not follow language acquisition brain rules.  How does this translate into greater score variation?

a) Some kids won’t get enough input– or the input won’t be comprehensible enough– and so they will pick up less.  Now you have more lower scores.

b) Some kids will be OK with that.  Some kids won’t, and they’ll do extra work to catch up.  Result: variation in acquisition.  Now, there will be a few high scores and more low ones.

c) Some kids will hate speaking and so will do poorly on the speaking assessments, which will increse variation.

d) Many kids don’t learn well from grammar teaching, so in a grammar-focused class, you’d expect one or two As, and a lot of lower marks.

e) if the teacher is into things like “self-reflection on one’s language skills and areas for growth” or such edubabble and the kids are supposed to go back and rework/redo assignments, things could go either way.  If, for example, they re-do a dialogue from the start of the course at the end, they might– if the vocab has been recycled all year– do better.  If, however, it’s the check your grammar stuff, you’d again expect variation: only a very few kids can do that, even if their language skills have grown during the year.

And, of course, there is the “grammar bandwidth” problem: any effort to focus on a specific aspect of grammar means that other areas suffer, because our conscious minds have limited capacity. A District colleague told me that, for Level 5 (grade 12) French, the kids self-edit portfolio work. They have an editing checklist– subject-verb agreement, adjective agreement, etc– and they are supposed to go and revise their work.

The problems with this, of course, are two: in their mad hunt for s-v errors, the kids will miss out on other stuff, and we know that little to no conscious learning makes it into long-term memory.

Some real-life examples of how good instruction narrows variation  in scores:

At Half-Baked School, in the Scurvy School District (names have been changed to protect the guilty), TPRS teacher Alicia Rodriguez has Beginning Spanish.  So does her Defartment Chair, Michelle Double-Barreled.  When, at the end of the semester, they have to decide on awards– who is the best Beginning Spanish student?– Alicia has 16 kids getting an A, another 12 getting a B, and two betting a C+.  None fail.  Michelle Double-Barreled has one kid getting an A, a bunch of Bs and Cs, a couple of Ds, and a few failures.

What this means is, 16 of Alicia’s kids can

a) write 100 excellent words in Spanish in 5 min, on topics ranging from “describe yourself” to “describe [a picture].”

b) Write a 600-1000 word story in 45 min.

Both will have totally comprehensible, minor-errors-only Spanish.

Michelle Double-Barrelled, on the other hand, has one A.  Her “A” kid can

a) do grammar stuff

b) write a 100-word paragraph on one of the topics from the text (e.g. shopping, eating in restaurant, sports s/he plays, family).

This will be not-bad Spanish.

Now, who’s doing a better job?  Alicia has more kids doing more and better work.  Michelle has a classic bell-curve distribution.  According to Mr John Speaking’s Defartment Chair, Mrs Double-Barreled has a “normal” range of scores.  Yet Alicia is clearly getting her kids to kick major butt. Hmm…

The point is, with appropriate and effective instruction– good Dog training, or good Spanish teaching– we are going to get a cluster of generally higher scores.  Poor or no teaching might produce something like a bell curve.

So…what does T.P.R.S. and other comprehensible input teaching do for student outcomes?

In my class, T.P.R.S. did the following

a) all scores rose.

b) the difference between top and bottom scores (variation) decreased.

c) I.E.P. kids all passed.

d)  First-year kids in second-year classes did about 85% as well as second year kids, despite having missed a year of class.

e) In terms of what the kids could actually do, it was light-years ahead of the communicative grammar grind.  Kids at end of 2nd year were telling and writing 400-600 word stories in 3-5 verb tenses, in fluent and comprehensible (though not perfect) Spanish.  Oral output was greater in quality and quantity too.

f) Nobody failed.

My colleague Leanda Monro (3rd year French via T.P.R.S.) explains what T.P.R.S. did in her classes:

“[I saw a ] huge change in overall motivation. I attribute this to a variety of well-grounded theories including “emotion precedes cognition” (John Dewey), Krashen’s affective filter, and the possible power of the 9th type of intelligence, drama and creativity. (Fels, Gardener).   There is a  general feeling of excitement, curiosity, eagerness to speak French, incorporation of new vocabulary, spontaneous speech.

All but one student has an A or a B. The one student in the C range has significant learning challenges , and despite excellent attendance in all courses is failing both math and English. No one is failing.

[There was] far less variation. Overall, far greater success for all students. My contribution to the “Your scores are too high” comment is this: As educators we need to pose an important question:  Are we trying to identify talent, or are we trying to nurture and foster talent?  T.P.R.S. works to nurture and foster.”

And here are Steve Bruno’s comments on the effect of T.P.R.S. on his kids’ scores:

“I now get more  As and Bs [than before]. A few C+s and very few Cs. Let’s put it this way, in the past I’ve had to send between 20 and 25 interims/I reports (total 7 classes); this year, so far, I’ve sent just THREE! Of these, two had poor attendance; the other one is an L.A.C. student who is taking a language for the first time (Gr. 9).

Marks are also closer together.  Anyone who has been teaching C.I. will understand why this is the case:  Students feel more confident, less stressed and simply love T.P.R.S. They don’t like doing drills, or memorizing grammar rules, etc.

Here’s anther example [of how comprehensible input has changed student behaviour].  Last year, I had a few students who on the day of an announced test (usually, with one week of warning) would suddenly become ill, and, or skip. Some of my L.A.C. students would have to write the test in a separate room. Others would show all sorts of anxiety as I handed out the tests. Many of these students would end up either failing the test or doing very poorly.

This year, I have the same students in my class, and the day of an unannounced test, they don’t have to go to another room, nobody complains and they just get down to it and, yes, they do quite well, thank you very much!

OK, people…you want to report on how things are going with T.P.R.S.? Post some comments, or email.

What is T.P.R.S.’ Sequence of Instruction?

Now that I have been using Adriana Ramírez’ Learning Spanish With Comprehensible Input Storytelling for 10 weeks I thought I’d show how I use the text. At any point, if there is extra time, or we are bored, we take out our novel– Berto y sus Buenas Ideas, or whatever, and we read– guided and questioned by me– for 5-15 min.

Adriana’s teacher book has the historia básica– the story version we ask– and the preguntas personalizadas, along with a short list of the grammar “points” introduced in each story.

A) Photocopy the historia básica and the preguntas personalizadas and give the kids each a copy.  I give my kids the historia básica in photocopy form because I want them to re-read a simple version of the story.  The historia extendida and the comprehension questions are in the student book.

B) establish meaning– have kids write down Spanish words and English meanings in the student books.

C) ask the story, sticking fairly close to the historia básica. Add 1-2 parallel characters. Have 1-2 actors for the main story and have the parallel characters sit at their desks (with one prop each) to identify them. The beginning is always establishing lots of details about the characters.

D) Personalised questions and answers (PQA): ask the faster processors in class (just regular kids sitting there) the questions you ask the actors. Do this AFTER each actor has said his/her answer. E.g. If you narrate “the boy wants to speak Spanish,” ask the actor “do you want to speak Spanish?” Then ask the kids “do YOU want to speak ____?” For this I use whatever I ask actors plus the preguntas personalizadas in the teacher’s book (the kids also have copies of these).

E) When done, ask a thousand comp questions. Does the boy want to own a Ferrari? Does the girl want 10 blue cats or 20? I read sentences from the historia básica aloud and ask questions, and I also throw a TON of PQA into this.  I will generally do the comp questions around the historia básica  that I’ve copied and given them– I have found that another, very simple, re-reading of more or less exactly what was asked helps a lot.

F) Spend one block (75 min) reading the historia extendida aloud, asking zillions of questions, doing PQA, etc.  This takes awhile, as the historia extendida typically has a bunch of new vocab (typically 15 or so words not in the asked/básica version of the story).

G) Do ping-pong reading of the historia extendida for about 15 min. Then give them 20 min to write the answers to the comprehension questions in the student book. I collect these and mark 3 questions/student for comprehension.

H) at this point, Adriana gives them one period to practise and perform the story– changing only names and places– but I have ditched this because the kids give me crappy output and retells do not seem to boost acquisition. Adriana is convinced it works– it definitely works for her and her kids– but I have not figured this out yet.  I’ll keep ppl posted as hopefully Adriana can walk me through this for the 37th time (I am not a smurt guyy).

This is where I do MovieTalk and PictureTalk (Ben Slavic’s “Look and Discuss”). I will picturetalk 1-3 images that support the vocab from our story, and I’ll movietalk one video that does the same.

I) for homework, they have to either draw a 12-panel comic of the story, or copy and translate the story (the historia extendida). This is “deep reading” that really focuses them in on the story.

J) I sometimes “re-ask” the basic story super-quickly at some point (much less circling).

K) Test. First, speedwrite: they must write as many words as they can in 5 min. The topic will be either 1. describe yourself or 2. describe a picture I put on the overhead (this picture will be of a person who has possessions or characteristics of a character in the story).

Then we have a 5-min brain break.

Second, relaxed write. They have 35 min to re-write the story. They need 2 characters minimum, 4 dialogues central to the story, and they have to “twist” the story after our 3rd story. For the first two, they can just re-write the story. After that, they have to substantially change the story details.

L) I then give them the vocab etc (see A) for our next story.

Test and introducing new vocab takes 1 block.

NOTES:

1. If the kids like whatever we are doing, or reading,nand/or PQA takes off, I’ll spend as long as I can on this. If they are in the target language, and they understand, and there are zillions of reps, they are learning. Remember what Papa Blaine said: “My goal is to never finish a story.”

2. Another AWESOME thing to throw in are fake texts– easy to generate and personalise/customise for each story– kids like the visuals and you get loads more reps on the dialogue (this is the hardest thing to do– reps on dialogue). Just google “fake text generator” or try this one for iPhone texts.

3. Each class begins with me circling date, day, month, time and weather for about 1 min.  This means that by end of five-month semester kids will know all weather, #s 1-30, days of the week, etc.

4. It’s crucially important to remember that you must do what works for you and your kids. Adriana and I and Natalia and everyone I know who uses this book (and T.P.R.S. in general) uses it differently. T.P.R.S. itself is now different than what Blaine Ray created– he himself continues to modify the method– so do your thing. As I told Adriana, her excellent book is a platform from which Spanish teaching launches.  Adriana does retells; I don’t; both of us do assessment slightly differently, etc.

Ok there you have it, what I do.

How well is Adriana Ramírez’ book working so far?

This year I decided to go in for a more classical, purely story-based T.P.R.S. than what I began with– what Ben Slavic described as “the freewheelin’ c.i.” I am using my colleague Adriana Ramírez’ Teaching Spanish Through Comprehesible Input Storytelling text. This is a set of 16 stories. You get a vocab list, a basic story, an extended reading, story comprehension questions and personalised questions. The thing was loosely designed to “piggyback” on Avancemos, the Spanish text our District adopted, but it stands alone too.

Today’s question: how well is Adriana’s book working?

1) Great.

2) I am almost done my 4th story– “Cambio de Pelo”– and these are my results:

a) for speedwrites (“write as many words as you can in 5 min”) I am alternating topics. For even-numbered stories, the speedwrite assignment is “describe yourself.” For the odd-numbered stories, the assignment is “describe a picture on the overhead” (Picture will have something to do with just-asked story).

Word count averages for speedwrites as follows:

— story 1 25 words + 45-word bonus = 70% average

— story 2 43 words + 40-word bonus = 83% average

— story 3 50 words + 35-word bonus = 85% average

In terms of grammar, every kid– except those who miss 2-3 classes– is getting at least 2/3 and over 1/2 are getting 3/3. Out of 30 kids, only 3 have “bombed” in terms of grammar and in each case their subsequent mark went way up. I.e. a kid who misses a bunch of classes, does the test, then bombs, will do much better later on (on the test after next story) because the stories recycle all the grammar and vocab.

Word count averages for “relaxed writes” (“rewrite the story, or modify it, or make up your own, and include 2 main characters and at least 2 dialogues”)

— story 1 ~80 words (they totally sucked– average grammar mark 1/3)

— story 2 ~130 words (much better– average grammar mark 2/3)

— story 3 ~ 180 words (better again– class evenly split between 2/3 and 3/3 for grammar mark)

Oral output:

The system for “teaching” kids to talk in T.P.R.S.– a.k.a. P.Q.A. (personalised questions and answers) is super-simple: you basically ask members of the class the questions you ask your actors. So, in the first story, you ask your actor “what is your name?” and s/he says “My name is ____.” Because s/he doesn’t know any Spanish, you write it on the board and they can just read off board. You then ask them “is your name

?” and they say “No, my name is _____.” You then ask your parallel character(s) the same question(s). Then– after the audience has heard it a bunch of times from actors– you ask the members of the class, starting with the keeners, the same question. Initially, the keeners will be able to spit it our right away in sentence form, while other kids will just say “John.”

After 5 weeks x 5 classes/week = 25 classes, 4/5 of the kids can now unhesitatingly and fluently answer these questions:

— what is your name? how old are you? where do you live? are you a [boy, girl, cat…]? Are you [tall, short, crazy…]?

— do you like _____? [about 15 verbs and 15 nouns to choose from]

— what’s the weather, day, date?

— what are you like? (i.e. describe yourself)

— do you prefer ___ or ___?

— do you have ____?

The other 1/5 of class (the slower-acquirers) ALL understand the questions, and all can say something— even if it’s just one word– that makes sense. E.g. “What’s the weather like?” — “Cold.”

3) Why is it working, and what would I change?

First, it’s working cos it restricts (shelters) vocab, and because the extended reading closely mirrors the story asked. Second, it restricts vocab overall. I have done a rough count and it comes out to the kids get about 3 new words/day on average. Third, the comp questions force re-reading, and fourth, I am liking Adriana’s comic idea.

Update on the comic: for the comic, after we have done the extended reading (teacher guided, and ping-pong), the kids have to create a 12-panel comic that illustrates the story. It has to look awesome– clip art, etc fine– with colour, each panel must have at least one sentence, and the comic must include all dialogue. This time, I also added a translation option: copy the story– by hand– then translate underneath in different colour, then leave a blank line (to keep it neat) and indent all dialogue. I am gonna see how the translation works, but the comic rationale is, it’s deep reading: kids have to re-read, select, and illustrate (read: concise focus). Adriana says it works best for the laggard boys and I have to agree.

My changes: First, My kids are 90% Indian, so English is often their 2nd language, and almost none of them hear English at home. Our kids read, and are literate, but lack some of the linguistic mental infrastructure that Adriana’s (rich, white and Asian, educated) kids do. So, they need MUCH more reading practice than Adriana’s, so I make them read BOTH the basic script– the story I ask, by photocopying it and handing it out– AND the extended one in Adriana’s book. Second, I am varying the speedwrites (5 mins) as noted above. Third, my kids don’t always get the comprehension questions, so I have to go through them. E.g. on the last story, one question was ¿Dónde vive el chico? (Where does the boy live?) and the kids all answered with “Vivo en Colombia” (I live in Colombia). Fourth, the retells don’t work. I am getting junky output from the kids so I am putting the kaibosh on retells for awhile until I figure out a better way to do this.

Anyway, overall, the program is working well and I am both recommending it and gonna stick with it. If ppl want to try it, email Adriana (ramirez_a (attt) surreyschools (dottt) ca or hit her up on twitter: @veganadri

What is “sheltered subject matter teaching,” and does it work?

Susan Gross has said of T.P.R.S. that “we shelter vocabulary, not grammar.” This means we do not give our students tons of vocab items– we “shelter” them from a downpour of different words– but we do use whatever grammar we need right from the get-go (keeping it all comprehensible). This is what we call “sheltered subject matter teaching.” Today’s question:

Does sheltered subject matter teaching have a research basis?

The answer, it would seem, according to a new study mentioned in the Times, would appear to be “yes.” (I have emailed the author asking for a copy of the paper; forthcoming).

Background: there’s lots of evidence that poorer kids are exposed to– and pick up on– much less language than wealthier kids (Hart and Risley 1995 is the best-known study). So, people have suggested poorer kids need to be exposed to more language. The question, of course, is what “more” should mean.

Researchers studied parent-child language interactions and, long story short, found that

A) the number of words parents use with their kids does not significantly affect how linguistically capable they become in the future. In other words, super-dooper edumacated parents who went to one of them fancy Ivy League schools– and use a greater variety (and quantity) of vocabulary than do the less-educated– do not manage to make most of their vocabulary “rub off” onto their kids. While wealthier, better-educated people do end up with kids who know more words,this acquisition does not happen because the parents know, or say, a greater number or variety of words.

B) The article notes that “the prevalence of one-on-one interactions and frequent use of parentese — the slow, high-pitched voice commonly used for talking to babies — were reliable predictors of language ability at age 2. The total number of words had no correlation with future ability.” In other words, it is the type and quality of communication that matters more than the quantity.

C) Researchers “found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Sound familiar?

So…if older kids learn anything like their younger siblings, we can maximise language acquisition by

— reducing the variety of vocab we use. We don’t have to stampede through 1,400 words/year– as my Avancemos text demands– to get kids to learn a ton…we just really focus on using our fewer words quite clearly.

— using realia to to support meaning (props, wigs, costumes, actors, etc)

— using rituals– shared, repetitive actions– to support learning by providing context clues/prompts to clarify meaning. E.g. We begin stories with “there was a girl/boy…” Blaine Ray emphasises one specific technique– the teacher turning their shoulder to audience and facing the actor– about which I thought, “why bother?” initially. But now I get it: it’s a ritual signal to the audience that we are switching from narration to questions (and often from one verb tense to another).

— “saying it back” to students (part of the circling technique). If we ask “did the girl forget her giant purple dog at the nightclub?”, and the kids answer “yes,” we repeat back to them “yes, the girl forgot her giant purple dog at the club.”

— using “wacky voices,” baby talk and other prosodic tools to clarify meaning (Michelle Metcalfe is the goddess of this technique). These “other prosodic tools” include changing tone and volume, using accents, exaggerating question and exclamation intonations, etc. The more “shaped” language is, the easier it is to understand. If I exaggerate my question tone, the kids don’t need to devote mental bandwidth to wondering is Señor Stolz asking a question, or is he stating a fact?. Rather, they know that it’s a question, and can focus directly on the meaning.

We want to do everything we can to ensure that the kids understand.

Are these 17 statements about language acquisition true? Answers from the research.

Here’s a list of popular assumptions about language learning and teaching from Lightbrown and Spada (2006).  I found this on leaky grammar, which is well worth checking out.  I’m responding to these statements based on research from Stephen Krashen, Wynne Wong, Bill VanPatten, and of course the stuff in Lightbrown and Spada’s 2013 text, which everyone should read.

1. Languages are learned mainly through imitation  

No.  While obviously there is imitation– especially from children– the research is clear: most language learning comes from receiving aural or written comprehensible input.  At much later levels in the L2 acquisition process, some explicit feedback– especially for writing– will help things along.

2. Parents usually correct young children when they make grammatical errors 

Depends.  Some do, some don’t, some sometimes do.  There’s no evidence to show that this practice works.

3. Highly intelligent people are good language learners 

What does “learning” mean?  Research shows that people who traditionally test high on IQ tests (which have well-documented biases) are pretty good at doing things like remembering and consciously applying grammar rules.   However, many illiterate people– who would massively bomb any IQ test– have acquired many languages.

4. The most important predictor of success in second language acquisition is motivation 

No.  While motivation may keep students “tuned in” to instruction– they will listen/read much more (i.e. receive comprehensible input) if they want to learn– all the motivation in the world will not overcome ineffective methods.  A teacher who is providing incomprehensible input, or boring tasks, will eliminate motivation in all but the eggest-headed of students, or, even if those students stay engaged, will be unable to ‘reach’ them.  Krashen has declared motivation less than important.

Related:  motivation to what?  Most students don’t especially care about Spanish, French, etc.  I sure didn’t…what I did care about was being able to meet and talk to people in Mexico, read Paz in the original, order food, meet Colombian women, etc.

5. The earlier a second language is introduced in school programs, the greater the likelihood of success in learning 

Depends.  Canadian data on French Immersion supports this theory.  However, if a language program doesn’t follow brain rules– it provides incomprehensible input, it’s boring, it scares learners, etc– more instruction is not a good idea.  We also know that adults, under the right conditions (good comprehensible input), can massively out-pace Immersion learners and kids in acquisition.  Some estimates are that 1,000 hours of comprehensible input will build functional fluency.  Immersion and early exposure do one thing MUCH better than later exposure:  get rid of accents.

6. Most of the mistakes that second language learners make are due to interference from their first language 

No; only a very few are.  Many are interlanguage.  As Lightbrown and Spada show (in their 2013 4th edition), many errors made by second-language learners do not reflect their native language.  Indeed, studies show that many interlanguage errors are common across cultures and languages.

7. The best way to learn new vocabulary is through reading. 

Yes, provided the reading is comprehensible and interesting enough that learners will do a lot of it.  Some studies suggest that over 75% of a literate adult’s vocabulary comes from reading.

8. It is essential for learners to be able to pronounce all the individual sounds in the second language. 

Essential for what?  To acquire the language?  No.  There are plenty of cases of learning that happen without speaking.  I learned some Mandarin in 1995.  I couldn’t speak it for the life of me, but after working with my Chinese boss for 6 months, I could understand sentences such as “go to the back and grab the cleaning cloth.”  However, eventually, people will want to “roughly get” pronunciation because  saying “I have a big deck” wrong can make you sound like, uhh, well…

9. Once learners know roughly 1000 words and the basic structure of a language, they can easily participate in conversations with native speakers 

Generally.  BUT: conversational success also depends on

  • whether or not the native speaker can slow down and simplify enough for the L2 learner
  • what they are talking about– a native-speaker engineer talking engineering will be incomprehensible to an L2 learner who doesn’t know anything about engineering
  • what “know” means.  “Knowing’ grammar rules and vocab lists alone won’t work– the L2 learner must have had their 1,000 words presented in meaningful, comprehensible ways, over and over.

10. Teachers should present grammatical rules one at a time, and learners should practice examples of each one before going on to another. 

No. Grammatical rules are acquired at the learner’s own rate; some rule acquisition– e.g. use of negation in English–  follows predictable patterns, while some is piecemeal (i.e. appearing to be acquired, disappearing, reappearing etc).  Presenting rules in sequence will also make for much less compelling input (see the ¡Díme! texts for an example).  Best practice:  present a comprehensible and interesting variety of multidimensional language so that whatever learners are ready to acquire is there all the time, as Susan Gross has said. VanPatten says that verb “[t]enses are not acquired as “units,” and the brain doesn’t store grammar as a textbook-stated rule.”

11. Teachers should teach simple language structures before complex ones. 

No.  The classic example is the third-person -s ending in English.  It appears simple, elementary, etc, yet is often very late acquired.  What is a “simple” structure anyway?  In Spanish, children often acquire such supposedly “complex” grammar as the subjunctive before they properly acquire the present tense.  In French and Spanish, there are supposedly “complex” verb tense items–  from the imperfect and preterite tenses– which are much more frequently used than some present tense verbs.

12. Learners’ errors should be corrected as soon as they are made in order to prevent the formation of bad habits. 

No.  There is no evidence to suggest that this works.  Error correction may actually slow acquisition because, let’s face it, it’s not fun to be shown “you’re wrong,” and, as it has been well-documented that happy secure learners = better learners, the self-consciousness that comes with error correction may impede acquisition.

13. Teachers should use materials that expose students to only those language structures they have already been taught 

This is 95% true…but learners can, and do, use metacognitive strategies to figure out new words or grammar, and/or often do so unconsciously.  While it is important that about 95% of language be 100% comprehensible, some “new stuff” is essential to growth.

14. When learners are allowed to interact freely (for example, in group or pair activities), they copy each others’ mistakes.

No.  They often make the same mistakes, but these are generally not from copying each other, but from interlanguage processes.    While language in a communicative classroom is typically impoverished– learners provide other learners with their by-definition low-level output– this does not generally cause errors.  The communicative classroom– which features lots of student talk– is, however, a bad idea, because students are not giving each other quality input.

15. Students learn what they are taught. 

Mostly, depending on the quality of instruction. In a comprehensible input language classroom– done properly— students will acquire most of the vocab and grammar that is presented, and will pick up a lot of things that are not consciously and deliberately presented.  However, if grammar is taught via the rule-then-practice method, or vocab is taught by list memorising, students will acquire much less than “what they are taught.”  Acquisition = how much repetitive, compelling and comprehensible input students get.  Students will not necessarily acquire what we teach when we teach it, as Long (1997) notes.

16. Teachers should respond to students’ errors by correctly rephrasing what they have said rather than by explicitly pointing out the error. 

This will feel better to the students than explicit correction, but there is no evidence it aids acquisition.  My view:  corrected output errors in a T.P.R.S. class are necessary to some extent because they provide better input for other learners.

and finally,

17. Students can learn both language and academic content (for example, science and history) simultaneously in classes where the subject matter is taught in their second language. 

Yes, absolutely, provided the language is 100% comprehensible.

Thematic & topical units: not so fast…

So here are a couple of  requests from a language teachers’ forum.  WHat do they have in common?

Yup– they are “grammar topic” focused.  We also regularly see requests for “units” or stories about shopping, clothing, body parts, etc.  This brings up the question of the day: should language be organised around either grammar or topical vocab?

My answer:  generally no, with one exception: if you work somewhere and you must do the “shopping unit” or the “body parts” test, you do it to save your job, bla bla.  But if you have control, avoid grammar-foc used or theme-focused units.  Why?

First, definitions. For languages, most curricula– with the notable exception of Blaine Ray’s original TPRS– are organised into topics. Typically it will be a grammar concept such as a new verb tense, plus a bunch of vocab on one topic– food, the environment, recycling, shopping– often organised around a cultural idea/place. My Avancemos book, for example, in its first chapter, has a setting (New York), a theme (introductions), a set of grammar ideas (the verb to be) and a bunch of vocab: hellos and good-byes, numbers, days, months, age etc.  ¡Juntos! did its imperfecto “unit” on childhood, as does my colleagues’ French courses.

I actually have never seen a non-T.P.R.S. text that wasn’t topically organised. Texts are done this way because, well, I dunno, as we shall see.

So…why are grammar or theme vocab units a bad idea?

A) Topics are boring. In a typical classroom, where, say, the restaurant unit is being taught, students will typically “do” stuff with the vocab. Match words and pictures. Act out a diner-and-waiter skit. Ask each other what they want to order. Make up their own restaurant and menu, etc. Write about eating out. The problem here is that after the initial interest– if any– of learning new vocab wears off, things are going to get boring because what can you actually do with all this vocab?. You are basically saying and hearing the vocab over and over…for what? How interesting is it to hear “I would like French fries” over and over? While the vocab may be useful (for kids who know they are going to France or Quebec someday) this stuff isn’t inherently interesting.

If you don’t see why, ask yourself this question: when was the last time you spent three weeks talking about one subject– food, say– in one verb tense, using one or two new grammar tricks and say forty words? Never? Why not? Cos it’s totally BORING, that’s why not!

This brings up the, uhh, interesting question “what is interesting, anyway?” I’d say a solid mix of novelty, repetition and control works.  Something is interesting when we don’t know what will happen and we want to find out, and I could be fooling myself here, but doesn’t that make stories the most interesting teaching tool ever?

B) Topics distort authentic language. Ok, I know, people are going to say “well we always use non-authentic (i.e. simplified, learner-suitable) language in a classroom, so who cares?” But by “authentic language” I mean something like “multidimensional.”

Here are two examples. First, from Avancemos Uno, Chapter 6, here’s a sentence from one of the telenovelas:  “I like cats more. Cats are nicer than dogs”

Second, this is from the 5th chapter of Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk:  “Caden knows that there are many gorillas who dance poorly, and so he doesn’t want any old gorilla, but rather one who knows how to dance well.”

The text sentence is tied to the chapter’s objective– teaching comparisons– and so it’s one-dimensional and boring.  Now, the problems with this aren’t the sentence itself (or the many others in the chapter that are just like it).  The problem is the idea of a theme or topic.  If your topic is a grammar point– in this case, comparisons– you are massively restricting yourself with what you can do with the vocab.

Imagine this:  you want to write a short story in English but the only thing you can use– outside of nouns and a few basic verbs– is comparisons.  The story would look something like this:  “There is a boy named John.  He is taller than his sister.  He has as much money as his sister.  He wants more money than his sister.  So he goes to meet a man who has more money than John does.”  OK, we get it, we are bored, it’s two-dimensional…but at least it’s a story.  What are you going to do with it if you don’t use stories?  Have them point to pictures and tell their partner “the girl is taller than the boy”?  Write a paragraph– cleverly disguised as a Facebook status update– about why your favorite actor Channing Tatum is more ______ than Ryan Gosling?  Boooooring!

Ray’s sentence, on the other hand, has two subordinate clauses, the subjunctive, it’s compound, and it’s interesting. Dancing gorillas? Cool! Where? How many?  In T.P.R.S., we don’t have one grammar objective per story, because we use all grammar all the time. The kids are always getting something like authentic– multidimensional– language.  When Ray wants to teach a grammar concept– e.g. comparisons– he’ll just pick one, make it comprehensible, and throw it into the story.  The point is the story, and the language, properly speaking, is incidental…but it’s also more authentic than the impoverished, one-dimensional stuff in texts.

C) Topical units tie grammar to vocab and decrease “transfer” from one theme or topic to another.  Years ago when I taught using a “communicative” program– ¡Juntos!— one problem repeatedly came up. Unit 5 taught the pretérito using school vocab. Unit 7 taught reflexive verbs using daily routines. Unit 9 or whatever taught the imperfect using childhood memories. The problem? Even when these “worked”– and they generally didn’t– at the end of the year the kids could only talk about childhood using the pretérito, daily routines using reflexive verbs, etc. What they should have been able to do was use everything everywhere.

A Spanish sentence such as cuando me desperté ayer, estaba cansado, y no había café en la cocina (“When I woke up yesterday, I was tired, and there was no coffee in the kitchen”) is totally normal. It also uses two past tenses and a reflexive verb (in the past). My kids could never have produced a sentence like that, because the text didn’t offer exercises or reading where these things were mixed together.

Much more effective: use a bit of [non-Englishy grammar item/vocab] in Level 1, and keep on using it all the time.

When I saw the amazing Joe Dziedzic this year at IFLT in Denver, he was rocking a Spanish story with level 2s and using every grammatical structure that exists.  He had 2nd year kids understanding things like “si hubiera ido, hubiera estado más feliz”  (if I had gone, I would have been happier).  Joe’s kids, as a result of his classic (but free-form) T.P.R.S., won’t “see” or “cover” immense vocab lists, and probably couldn’t tell you what exactly an -ar verb is.  BUT…over four or five years of very good C.I., they will hear complex, authentic Spanish that covers most of the grammar etc from Day One.  As a result, this stuff will be “wired in” in a much deeper way than if it were taught sequentially, and when/if the kids ever get to college Spanish, or Mexico, the input they’ll get, combined with having the “mental platform” of all the grammar, will mean much faster comprehension, better output, and quicker learning.

D) It’s harder to remember similar vocab items together. Here is Paul Nation’s paper, and here is Rob Waring’s (thanks, Eric Herman, you deity of rounding up research) which show us that when you have to learn a bunch of similar stuff together– e.g. a big list of food items, or of clothing, or of, say, reflexive verbs– they are harder to remember. Ideally, we should be learning a mix of really disparate things together because– as with the visual system, where it’s much easier to see interlocking patterns when the patterns are each of very different colours than if they are of similar colours– differences = contrast = memorability.  I remember teaching communicatively and oh my God did I ever suck when I gave the kids 40 food items to memorise.

Blaine Ray’s technique– teach, say, only two adjectives and two verbs in a story– is brilliant. This allows for massive numbers of repetitions (= acquisition), and makes sure that, since there are only a limited number of items, they will each “stand out” in memory better than if a massive list of items had each item only used a few times.

E) Topical texts do not follow frequency lists. As I have noted elsewhere, frequency lists– how often a word is used– should guide teaching. If 85% of all spoken language is 1,000 words, and 95% is 2,000 words (as Nation & Davies show) we should teach the most-used words first. Now in my Avancemos book, goodbye is one of the first words taught, yet it is in about 350th place in terms of frequency!  There are 349 more-used words than goodbye. So why does the text teach this before the 349 other more-used words? Avancemos also starts off with days of the week, yet many of these are in 1,100th place! Most texts do a unit on clothes, fashion etc within the first 2-3 years. A word such as T-shirt is in about 4,400 place.

F) Topical and thematic units disregard the order of acquisition.  Basically, people’s brains soak up the grammar they want on their own schedule.  Things like the third person -s in English which appears to be a “basic rule’ is actually late-acquired; in other languages such as Spanish, “complex” grammar” like subjunctive is nearly as frequently used as, say the present tense, and is in any case much easier to soak up with a lot of exposure over time than if it is “presented” late.  As soon as comprehensible input starts coming in, the brain starts “figuring out” grammar…so it is best to introduce it ASAP to maximise processing opportunities.

As ought to be clear by now, thematic texts are introducing too much similar vocab at a time, much of which is not worth learning right away.

Legacy methods use themes to tie language together; the right way to do it is to use stories (or something else that is inherently interesting) which uses all necessary grammar.   Here’s a broader=picture view of this question:

Suggestions for avoiding the topic trap:

use a mix of everything all the time (vocab, grammar, etc)

do not stick to only one verb tense, or grammar point, or whatever, in a story. With true beginners, you may have to do a few present-tense-only (or whatever) stories at the start to get them feeling comfy in the target language. After that, however, do not restrict yourself (Papa Blaine sure doesn’t).

— if you must have a “theme” or “topic” for a story– e.g. you want to teach vocab for ordering in a restaurant, and food items– restrict the amount of new vocab and make the story wacky and fun.

Here’s an example for a food story:

  • ordered
  • returned
  • brought
  • was very _____
  • adjectives,
  • a couple of food items.

Dialogue:

What would you like?
— I would like…

Would you like to return it/send it back?
— Yes, I’d like to send it back, because it is too _____.

(Mary) was hungry and went to ___.  The waiter was ___.  Mary was happy because the waiter was very [handsome etc].  She ordered _____. The waiter brought her ____. But the food was very [bad].  So Mary returned it. (dialogue)

Mary went to _____. The waiter was ___.  Mary was happy because the waiter was very [handsome etc].  She ordered _____. The waiter brought her ____. But the food was very [bad].  So Mary returned it. (dialogue)

Finally, Mary went to McDonalds.  She ordered ____.  The guy behind counter was _____.  The food was delicious!  But oh no, the waiter was so (negative quality)/Mary had explosive diarrhea, Mary (lost her appetite/threw up/ etc).

Note:  while the food items are, well, food items, everything else is totally transferable.  E.g. you can order something online, return an ugly sweater, and one will always need to use “I would like.”

pay attention to the frequency lists. Some low-frequency items will be necessary for a good story, but go easy on these. If you must bring in low-frequency items, use cognates.  The Blaine Ray books are great for this.

recycling is your friend. If you’re worried that, oh my God, my kids didn’t master the blablabla vocab in unit one, just throw that stuff into subsequent stories. E.g. you do a restaurant story where you target a few food items and orders. If the kids don’t acquire orders in that story, have characters in subsequent stories stop in at restaurants or a taco stand and order something.

— don’t do entire units on  boring stuff like numbers, weather, etc.  Here’s how to make boring stuff slightly less boring.

Evaluation is Over-rated

Yesterday the B.C.A.T.M.L. conference brochure came, as did the C.A.S.L.T. newsletter, and the usual fare was offered:  lots of  “how to use iPads” workshops, lots of “how to get the kids to speak” workshops, and, of course, lots of workshops (and webinars) on D.E.L.F.

The Diplome D’etudes des langues francaises (OK; I probably missed some French finery in there) is the Common European Framework for Reference bla bla which is basically, the E.U., before they began bailing out corrupt banks and kow-towing to Vladimir Putin, set up criteria for languages proficiency.  This is a set of 6 categories– from A1 (beginner), A2, B1, B2, C1 and native speaker mastery is C2.  The idea here was that for business, government employment, work etc purposes, a company or government could assess candidates/students etc to see where they fit onto the scale in terms of proficiency in Language ____ when making employment or palcement decisions.  That’s all good, and C.E.F.R. has come to Canada and the U.S. and the exam– the D.E.L.F., and the D.E.L.E. (Spanish)– that assesses people has been adopted in lots of places and now the big push is “learn to assess in terms of the DELE/DELF exam.”

What this means in practice is basically re-doing what texts do (poorly): “planning out” language teaching by going from allegedly “simple” stuff– hellos, goodbyes, the present tense– to supposedly “complex” stuff such as the imparfait, discussing hopes and dreams, etc.  The usual problems remain, though: what teachers see as “advanced” (e.g. the subjunctive) is actually used quite early on by native speakers; other supposedly “important” vocab (e.g. clothing) is not very frequently used, etc.

Outside of providing Numberz at the end of Semesterz, I think this C.E.F.R.-based organisation of curriculum is more or less a waste of time.  Here is why.

First, in my view, there should basically be zero evaluation (giving a student a number) until literally the last day of the course.  Why?

Well…what if you taught ___ and Johnny isn’t ready to acquire it?  What if Johnny acquires it after you tested him on it, and now he knows it, but that first test mark drags him down?  Johnny gets 70% on his passé composé or whatever test.  What good does a number do him?  Evidence suggests that feedback improves learning much more than assigning numbers.  However, this does not apply to languages, where, as Lightbrown and Spada (2013) put it, “comprehensible input remains the foundation of second language acquisition” and the research clearly shows very few gains resulting from conscious feedback to learners.

A test is also a waste of time.  That’s an hour or whatever where kids could be getting comprehensible input, which is what drives language acquisition.

Second, during-the-year tests do not provide useful feedback for the teacher.

Your kids averaged, say, 70% on the passé composé test they just took.  What does this tell you?  Or, more specifically, how does this info help you plan your next unit of teaching?  What if Arabella got 90% but Sky only got 70% and Max got 50%.  Can you “tailor” your instruction to them?  What if you have 30 kids, and they are all in different places?  What if Samba got 30%? How are you going to teach both Samba and Arabella?  What if Samba isn’t ready for the passé composé and Arabella is bored and wants to move on?

Answer:  with “communicative” or grammar grind or audiolingual teaching, you aren’t going to help them, and nobody else is either.  What you have is kids with a wide range of either abilities, or willingness to listen in class, or both, and you do not have time to teach or plan individually, no matter what your Adminz or Defartment Headz say.  It’s simply not going to happen.  You have thirty kids in your class– you simply do not have time to provide Samba with ____ and Max with ___.

Third, what does Johnny see when he gets his test back?  I’ll tell you what Johnny sees:  a number, and a bunch of red.  And this helps him acquire French how?

Now, at he end of the year, at an upper level (say Gr12), giving the D.E.L.F. or D.E.L.E. exam is great; most people eventually want to/must by law get a Number.  However, one fact– no matter what test we have at the end of the year is– remains: the more interesting comprehensible input students get, the better they will do (unless the exam is of the fill-in-the-blanks-with-the-right-verb-form kind of idiocy).

So what should T.P.R.S. teachers do “along the way”– assessment– to productively guide their instruction?  Remember, people learn by getting quality, attention-worthy comprehensible input (and some people like a bit of grammar explained).

a) check choral responses:  if they are weak or non-existent, your kids either misunderstood the question, or don’t know the vocab, or both.  Go back, explain, try again.  If they are actively listening– not on phones or chatting, following with their eyes, etc– their failure to understand is your fault, not theirs.

b) Monitor retells.  Beginners should be able to re-tell a story (in skeletal form) without too many mistakes.  If they can’t do that (after, say, 20 classes, from memory), you are going too fast and not getting enough repetitions.

c)  Monitor correct use of recent structures.  If you taught “wants to own,” and circled the crap out of it, and they are writing “wants I own” or “I want I own,” there wasn’t enough repetition.

One answer, I would say, is read your speedwrites post-story, find the most-made mistake, and throw that into your next story.  If they don’t know “wants to own,” have a parallel character in the next story who wants to own a dinosaur.

d)  Most importantly, provide rich and diverse input at all times.  As Susan Gross and Stephen Krashen have noted, providing “all the grammar, all the time”– i.e. not delivering simplified, one-dimensional input in order to beat a grammar item into kids’ heads– is the best strategy, provided all input is interesting and comprehensible.  If Samba didn’t get the passé composé on her test last week, if she keeps hearing/reading it, she’ll eventually get it.  If Arabella got 90% on her passé composé test and you’re worried she’s gonna get bored, making the next story interesting will keep her tuned in, while Samba both finds the next story interesting and gets more exposure to the passé composé.

The bottom line for the comprehensible input teacher is, make sure they are listening/reading, make sure they understand– as Ben Slavic says, we ask more y/n questions than we ever thought possible–, deliver lots of interesting, quality comprehensible input,  and if they aren’t understanding, go back and clarify.

This process– assessing as you go– will deliver results.  Self-monitoring, grammar lectures, conjugation exercises:  these are for teacher egos, not kid acquisition.  Deliver good C.I., and the D.E.L.F. scores will come.

Should– and do– student teachers try T.P.R.S.?

Last year I did workshops at Simon Fraser University for Janet Dunkin’s French methods class.  Dunkin, a longtime French teacher in North Vancouver, is on a two-year secondment to S.F.U. where she teaches student teachers how to “be a French teacher.”  She has an academic colleague, Timothy Cart, who co-teaches.  Congrats to Janet Dunkin for inviting CI/TPRS practitioners in to meet her student teachers. Next up– presenting the method to U.B.C. And U.Vic. languages teacher candidates.

A few of the STs are at myb school and I got a chance to talk to them and their cohort so today’s question is should– and do–student teachers try TPRS, and, when they do, how does it work out?

First, there is significant resistance to TPRS/CI in many schools.  As noted earlier, teachers are generally a conservative bunch who operate in conservative environments and who learn from people steeped in tradition.  Many languages teachers don’t want to/don’t know how to change practices.  This makes it difficult for innovators– especially younger ones– to try something their mentor/mentrix isn’t familiar or comfortable with.

Second, there is a power differential in a student-teacher situation.  The student teacher has to do a “good job,” and that usually means doing what the mentor/mentrix wants.  The all-important letter of reference and final evaluation will too often be dependent not on authentic language acquisition but on whether or not the student-teacher did what his/her “boss” wanted done.

Third, student teachers often don’t know the method thoroughly.  Anyone who’s tried TPRS knows, as Adriana Ramírez said, that there is a three-year time needed to go from start to something like mastery.  So a student teacher often cannot get the results the method delivers right away, which makes them– and the method– superficially “look bad.”  In my experience, bad TPRS trumps good grammar grind/communicative teaching hands-down, but the results are long term…kids will not immediately spit out awesome French/Spanish/whatever.  In the grammar grind class, or even the communicative, you  appear to get immediate results— “Look, the kids are talking!  Look, the kids are doing worksheets, or revising their paragraphs!”– which is pleasing to anyone who doesn’t really get how language acquisition works.

Fourth, student teachers do not know the research.  I can argue with anyone because I’m a geek.  People like Eric Herman, Ben Slavic (and me, to a lesser extent) read studies etc, plus we practice the method daily, so we can say things like “Lightbrown and Spada, 2013, argue for very limited grammar instruction, and show that grammar instruction has very limited results.”  So…unfamiliarity with research and method makes justifying “weird” practices like TPRS much harder.

Fifth, the lack of initial output in a TPRS/CI class is disconcerting.  If the goal of language acquisition is speaking and writing– the “markers” of acquisition– then the choral responses, masses of input and lack of one-on-one speech seems weird to traditional teachers.  We know, as Wong puts it, that “a flood of input must precede even a trickle of output,” but to the uninitiated, it looks…weird.   Most languages teachers put the cart before the horse: speaking and writing are the result of acquisition, not the cause .

Sixth, Universities do not generally choose innovators to instruct student teachers.   I have looked in detail at the languages methods programs offered by the Univeristy of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria.  S.F.U. offers a basic intro to comprehensible input.  We’re working on UBC and UVIC.My best guess is that what happens with helping teachers, co-ordinators, etc, is that they get out of the classroom– they get bored or ambitious or whatever– and when in an advisory role they stop experimenting.  These people too must please the powers that be.  So it is almost everywhere: you gotta lick the hand that feeds you.   (This is not, however, universally true.  For example, Christine Carrioux– languages helping teacher for the Delta School District– is a major innovator who has urged her staff to see TPRS/CI demos and workshops; S.F.U.’s Janet Dunkin is very open to new methods.)

So, the odds are not good that a student teacher will find a TPRS/CI-friendly classroom environment.  However, this is a blessing in disguise.  If you are a student teacher, your practicum can “teach” you by negative example.  If you must do the grammar grind/communicative thing whilst learning your trade, because your mentor/mentrix “has always done it this way,” you get to reflect.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this work?
  • What does “it works” mean?
  • Do the kids like it?
  • How much time getting quality input in the target language do the kids get?  Can you stay in the target language 90% of the time, as the A.C.T.F.L. says you should?
  • Are they improving?  What is “improving?”
  • Do they want to take the language again next year?
  • How well has communicative/grammar grind teaching worked for them in the past?    

The answers to these will guide student teachers when they finally get their own classroom.  Sometimes you need to see what works– TPRS/CI stories and reading– and what doesn’t to make your instructional decisions.  If you are a student teacher who wants to try CI/TPRS, I would suggest you try…but the bottom line is, you need a solid ref from your mentor/mentrix so we can get you into the system.  You may have to suck it up and play the game.  Once you’re in, and you have no conservative/non-innovative people to please, you’re good to go, and you can then explain why you have chosen method ___ over method ____.

Language Acquisition the EASY way!

I just read a really cool post by American ex-soldier Brad West about his language-learning experiences in the U.S. and Asia.  It’s worth a read.  Three parts of his story– which also recounts professor J. Marvin Brown’s experiences teaching foreign languages– are of particular interest.

a) Among Thai restaurant workers who are exposed to English, servants are supposed to listen to guests, and bargirls are expected to talk.  The servants’ English– both spoken and understood– was better than the bargirls’, despite that they rarely if ever spoke.

b) American foreign service students studying Thai are encouraged to speak Thai from their first day in Thailand, and attend Thai language classes.  Mormon missionaries, on the other hand, have a very different experience.  They do their missionary work in pairs, an elder with a junior Mormon.  The elder knows more Thai than the junior, and the junior is only there to listen while the elder preaches and explains to his Thai listeners.  Interestingly, the junior Mormons acquired much more Thai than the American service students, again despite not talking.

c) Brown studied what “drove” acquisition of Thai, and concluded that grmmar study was actually not helpful at all.  He ranked methods this way: 

worst = studying grammar.

bad = lots of grammar study + immersion. 

Better = less grammar study + immersion

BEST = little grammar study + immersion

This reminds me of a Spanish teacher I know who teaches Level One (intro) Spanish via pure T.P.R.S.  Her kids are staggeringly good when she finishes with them (most are 14 years old).  They can write a 500-word story in 3 verb tenses in 30 minutes at the end of the course and they can fluently have basic conversations where they aren’t pausing and going “uhhh”while their eyes roll up and right.

When they get to level 2, they are taught by traditional grammar and communicative teachers, and they get worse at Spanish.  Students report that it “feels hard” to write (or speak) in a traditional, communicative classroom.  My guess is this because (a) the teacher is explaining and having them practice grammar and (b) making them consciously focus on the language when they speak and write (corrective feedback etc).  They can now often explain gramamr rules…but they speak and write less. 

c)   Brad West finally learned Thai after ditching dictionaries and just starting to listen, and after enrolling in a program where he basically got a lot of comprehensible input.  He knew he was learning when he heard an announcement in a Thai mall and couldn’t remember if it had been in English or Thai.