Blaine Ray

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 results does T.P.R.S. get? Amazing ones…and here’s the proof.

Do T.P.R.S., Movietalk, Look and Discuss, and other comprehensible input methods work?

Yes.  And not only do they work, they work much better than anything else out there.

What began as a friendly Twitter challenge– beat my beginner kids’ output using old-school methods or textbook, and I’ll take you crafty beer-drinking, hashtag #showumine– now has a bunch of T.P.R.S. teachers showing what their kids can do.

The rules are simple: show what your kids can do in writing (or speech) without dictionaries, rehearsal, Internet, notes or advance warning, with limited time and no preparation.  In other words, show what’s wired in, i.e. acquired, and not “learned.”

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.  So, without any further ado, here are results.  This entry, constantly updated, provides links to various teachers’ kids’ written and oral output.

We need more French samples, and all other languages are welcome.  Know something that needs adding?  Lemme know and I’ll add it.

SPANISH  

Eric Herman‘s oral assessment of beginners is here.  Eric notes that “these are unfamiliar tasks and functions, but I challenge non-c.i. teachers to give the same test and get the same results.”

Chris Stolz has Spring semester 2015 beginner writing samples from 7 weeks in8 weeks in, stories from 8 weeks in and 11 weeks in.  This post compares two top students– one taught with legacy methods, one with C.I.

Grant Boulanger has 8th graders doing oral output here.  Here is one of Grant’s beginners– using three verb tenses and other so-called “advanced” grammar– to retell a story.  Grant also showcases his 8th graders (Level 1 Spanish) doing an impromptu story retell here.

Mike Coxon‘s kids are recorded here.

Mike Peto has some writing samples here.

Crsytal Barragan here shows first-day-back-to-school writing samples. Here, the student who was taught with T.P.R.S. writes rings around the student from the legacy-methods class.

Adriana Ramírez’ Level 1 Spanish results are here.

Jim Tripp has some Level 2 examples (with discussion) here.

Darcy Pippins’ AP results are here.  

LATIN

Magister Lance Piantaggini shows what beginner kids can do in Latin.

CHINESE

Terry Waltz‘s site has writing samples plus oral stuff.  Her kids can throw down with charactersCheck it.

Hai Yun Lu has a level 1 Mandarin student storytelling here.

GERMAN

Brigitte Kahn‘s kids do 5-min speedwrites here.

FRENCH

Bess Hayles shows first day back from vacation writing samples here.

A traditionalist and Kim A. (comprehensible input) here have writing samples.  The reader can decide if the Level 2 (traditional) or Level 1 (C.I.) Kim A vs Traditojnalist exemplars.

A Dictionary of Language Acquisition and Teaching Terms

For everyone who gets overwhelmed with jargon. Special thanks to Sam Johnson for the inspiration.


Accent: what every speaker of every language has.  The better ones *obviously* belong to people who are wealthier, whiter, more educated, with nicer clothes, etc.

Accountability: what teachers who provide boring or stupid activities need to make sure students do their work

Acquisition the process of getting to the point where you can speak/write a language without consciously thinking. The opposite of “learning;” what most textbooks don’t get students involved in.

Analytic teaching (Long): language presented “whole” and in context; focus on meaning with grammar focus second. a.k.a. “focus on form.”

Ashley Hastings: professor who developed the “narrative paraphrase” comprehensible-input technique of language teaching, which is now better known as Movietalk.

Authentic documents: things made by and for native speakers.  That they very often have

  • low-frequency vocabulary
  • complex idiom
  • and are therefore neither comprehensible nor useful in a languages classroom

has not stopped the A.C.T.F.L., most State education departments, every Canadian Ministry, etc, from advocating their use.

Autotelic: interesting for its own sake, and not merely suffered through for some future payoff.  The only way to design a language class that will ever reach a majority of students, who will not be quaffing espresso on on the Champs Elysee or dining on tapas in Barcelona, and who therefore have little “real world payoff” incentive to care about their language class experience.

Avancemos: the world’s most ironically-named textbook.

Ben Slavic: French teacher, book author, blogger & passionate advocate for language pedagogy’s reform.  Creator or at least namer of “the Invisibles” and advocate for “untargeted input.”

Blaine Ray American Spanish teacher who developed T.P.R.S. after experiencing failure and frustration with communicative and grammar teaching, and then reading Asher and Krashen.  Properly understood as the Einstein of language pedagogy.

Carol Gaab: Spanish teacher, TPRS teacher trainer, writer, force of nature, novel & textbook author and publisher, San Francisco Giants language coach, grandmother (in alleged age, not appearance), butt-kicker. Has the highest force-to-height ratio in the comprehensible input Universe.

C.E.F.R.: the Common European Framework for Reference in language proficiency.  A scale that ranks one’s language skill from one to six, thus:

A1: You suck but hey, you’re trying to order coffee

A2:  Don’t get any ideas now, even though you can tell somebody you’re from ‘Murrica.

B1: You are approaching un-‘Murricanhood by actually being able to say three things in French

B2: Ok, fine, you are making progress, but not enough to flirt with sexy French people

C1: We’ll let you in on a work visa

C2: Fine.  you’re here.  Now, let’s discuss Sartre.

 

Circling: technique developed by Blaine Ray (named by Susan Gross) where a teacher asks repetitive but varied questions using a target structure in order to repeat a vocab item many times.

Cloze exercise: 1. where people listen to something, and read along to a written version of that speaking, and fill in occasional blanks with what they hear.  2. a clever way for teachers to force students to listen to boring things

Cold Character Reading a technique developed by Terry Waltz to teach reading of ideographic (non-phonetically written) languages.

Communicative-experiential approach: 1. a language teaching method  which asks students to use language to bridge authentic communication gaps to obtain essential information as a way of acquiring the language. 2.  A progression from the audiolingual method. 3.   “The dogma of salvation-and-bliss through chatter” (Erik Gunnemark, who spoke 45 languages).

Communicative pair activity: 1. Learning activity where an information gap is bridged via target-language use, theoretically as a way of acquiring the target language. 2.  The blind leading the blind.  3.  Putting the cart before the horse, as speech is the result of acquisition, not its cause.

Comprehended input: (Terry Waltz) messages that the teacher has checked to make sure people understand.

Comprehensible input: messages in the target language (in reading or writing) that people understand.  Now considered the sine qua non of language acquisition by all researchers.

Comprehensible input hypothesis: the hypothesis that language (vocabulary, pragmatics, semantics, grammar etc) is acquired when learners receive comprehensible input– messages they understand– in the target language.  Research thus far has confirmed the hypothesis’ predictions, and assigned (at best) very minor roles to the role of grammar practice and learning, and output, in developing acquisition.

Culture: 1. anything speakers of another language collectively do which differs from the students’ customs.  2. Clothing, music, food and dress which make excellent colourful textbook pages, fun videos or Instagram accounts. 3. What teachers hope will spice up those ever-so-nutritious but oddly bland grammar exercises.  4. The future goal and real reason one learns a language: so that one faraway day, one can go and enjoy the culture that goes with the language being studied.  E.g. “Johnny, I know learning French verbs is…not your preference….but just imagine how amazing life will be in seven years, when you can go to France and sip wine on the Camps Elysees!”

Dialect: a language without an army

¡Díme!: the stupidest language text ever written.  In order to teach well, do the following:

a) see what ¡Díme! does
b) do the opposite

Drill: as bad an idea in the language classroom as in the Alaskan wilderness, and even less productive.

Edubabble: a scaffolded, self-reflected authentic C.E.F.R. and Common Core peer assessment collaboration which leverages coding genius hour codesign into project-based inquiry proficiency assessment tracked through Google hangouts and Edmodo accounts in order to start the conversation piece and moving forward to provide real-time feedback sociolinguistic competence metacognitive online anus accountability.

Embedded reading: a series of texts, the first of which is short and simple and contains the target vocabulary and structures being acquired.  The next two or three texts contain the same vocabulary, but add increasingly more dialogue, detail, etc. Invented (basically by accident) by Laurie Clarq and Michelle Whaley, embedded (a.k.a. “scaffolded”) reading provides low-stress buildup to reading complex texts, and lots of vocab repetition.

Feedback: something which teachers love giving, and students’ brains find impossible to use to acquire language.

Food cart/truck: when the crepe/taco/samosa truck comes to your school, and students get to “use the target language in culturally authentic communicative ways.”  A.K.A. kids text and chat in L1 for an hour and say/hear ten words in the target language.  Easy on students, and teacher, and a brilliant way to tick boxes while getting nothing done.

Free voluntary reading (FVR): allowing students to read what they want, with no assessment or “accountability” measures. A significant booster of language acquisition (in L1 and L2), and terrifier of control-freak teachers.

Frequency: how often a word is used in speech or writing.  High-frequency vocabulary items are more often used than low-frequency items, and form the basis of communication.  Good language teaching begins with the highest-frequency words.

Frequency list: rankings of words from most to less used.  The most-used word in Romance and Germanic languages is the definite article: der, el, le, il, the, etc.

Generative grammar: Chomsky’s explanation of how language works.  In response to B.F. Skinner’s behaviourist theory (we learn language because we want stuff; we get “rewarded” for “saying things properly”), generative grammar accounts for the fact that a language’s speaker can generate an infinite number of sentences with the language’s limited vocabulary, and that speakers are able to “figure out” grammar rules without having them explained (or even modeled).

Grammar 1. a set of rules describing how a language’s components interact 2. a tool useful for boring students and reinforcing teacher ego 3. In most of the world salient only in the learning of computer languages, but in too many places fed directly to students of living languages 4. A thing whose mastery– like speech– is the result, not the cause, of language acquisition 5. “Analyzing language is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” — after E.B. White, via Dennis Doyle

Grammarian: someone who believes that explaining the parts will lead to speaking the whole

Green Bible: Ray and Seely’s “how to do T.P.R.S.” book Teaching Fluency Through T.P.R. Storytelling. Written at the suggestion of Susan Gross, who urged Ray to clarify his method and provide a reference for T.P.R.S. practitioners.

James Asher: American psychologist and the rediscoverer of T.P.R.— total physical response– where teachers speak and gesture, and students gesture, as a way of helping recall.

L1: a speaker’s first (native) language.  What they grew up hearing.

L2, L3 etca language learned in some kind instructional or immersion setting.

Language: a dialect with an army

Learning 1. Consciously manipulating language (vocab and grammar) to try to acquire it 2. What one can do with language when one has time to consciously think of vocab, rules, etc.

Lecture: the process whereby the notes of the teacher become the notes of the students without passing through the mind of either (Mencken).  See also “stiff meeting.”

Legacy method: (Waltz & Krashen) any older way of teaching language which does not align with modern research.  Legacy methods include drill, grammar translation, audiolingual etc, as well as individual aspects of practice which slow or do not aid acquisition, such as forcing students to talk, grammar worksheets, multiple-guess listening activities, and what Long calls “synthetic” teaching (present, practice & produce) etc.

Mental representation: (VanPatten) a set of brain patterns developed when comprehensible input is processed by Noam Chomsky’s “language acquisition device,” patterns which allow for first comprehension and then production of language, and a “gut level” awareness of what works or doesn’t in that language.

Monitor: 1. the “voice in the head” which is consciously aware of grammar rules, word meanings, etc.  2. What grammar teaching reaches 3. What a competent speaker of a language does not use except under very specific, reflective and/or time-available conditions.

Myth: 1. a belief, ungrounded in science or history, with alleged explanatory power whose job is to legitimise something.  In language teaching, prominent myths include speaking leading to acquisition, grammar practice being necessary, grammar rules being brain-friendly, themes and topics being effective means for vocabulary organisation, etc. 2. a story which despite factual challenges holds power.  S.L.A. researcher Bill VanPatten writes that “[s]ome of the myths perpetuated in language departments include that

  • explicitly teaching grammar and vocabulary is necessary or even beneficial,
  • correction of learner output is necessary
  • practice makes perfect,
  • learners acquire rules and paradigms
  • learning vocabulary and grammar is a prerequisite to learning to communicate
  • first-language transfer is the source of all learning problems,
  • adults learn languages differently from children, among many, many others.”

Natural method: comprehensible input language teaching method (and book of the same name) developed by Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell in early 1990s.  Influenced Blaine Ray’s T.P.R.S.

Noam Chomsky: 1. The man who invented modern linguistics, largely on the basis of his theory of generative grammar, which explains how the brain’s “language acquisition device” processes linguistic input, infers language-specific rules therefrom, and can use a limited number of rules and vocabulary items to generate an infinite number of sentences.  2. A relentless, fact-focused and principled critic of U.S. power 3. One of the only scientists to have an experimental animal– Nim Chimpsky– named after him.

Noun: a thing in uhh language

Output: any meaningful production of the target language.  The result, not the cause, of acquisition. The Holy Grail of language teaching.

Parallel character: having another character in an asked story whose experiences are roughly similar to the main character’s. Basically an excuse to recycle vocabulary.

Peer-to-peer communication: 1. getting learners to use the language with each other to share ideas and information 2. “The McDonalds of language teaching” (Waltz, Krashen)

Pop-up (a.k.a. “grammar commercial”– Adriana Ramírez): a brief, non-boring in-context explanation of the meaning of a grammar item (e.g. “Class, in Spanish, the  or  end on that word means he or she did it in the past”)

Poverty of stimulus argument: Chomsky’s point that despite not seeing certain kinds of word combinations, language acquirers do in fact “figure out” the rules for using these words, and do not make certain kinds of errors.  One of the main supports in the Universal Grammar theory.

Practice: what helps basketball players and rock climbers, and what in a language classroom only works if it involves processing input.

Proficiency: a word that means whatever you want it to.  For example, being able to list five rooms and five furniture items in a house is, in one well-known Spanish teacher’s view, an example of proficiency.

Results: what matters in language teaching.  The best results will be characterised by fluent, quick, unedited and voluminous output generated by unstressed students who do not have access to books, dictionaries, etc when writing or speaking.

Rule:  something books and teachers love to explain but by which students oddly enough are unable thereby to learn.

P.Q.A.: (personalised questions and answers): using targeted vocabulary to generate student-teacher microconversations in ways that connect vocabulary to students’ experiences.  In T.P.R.S., PQA basically involves the teacher asking students the questions asked of the actors, and “running with” answers– true or invented– which interest the student.

Scaffolding: edubabble for “start with something students know, then guide them from there through something they don’t.”

Sheltered grammar: not using all grammatical devices or rules from the target language during teaching or in the reading.  A characteristic of legacy method teaching.  Most textbooks “shelter” grammar by introducing first one verb tense, then another, etc.  Sheltering grammar comes from the mistaken idea that languages are organised into skill sets that can be acquired one at a time.

Sir Ken Robinson: University type, whose never having taught in an actual primary or secondary classroom (or having developed a useful method of any kind) uniquely qualifies him to discuss teaching in primary and secondary classrooms.

Slosher (Waltz): a student who has been exposed to enough grammar rules and vocab lists that isolated fragments of language slosh around uselessly in his/her head.

Sociocultural communicative competence: 1. edubabble for “discretion is the better part of valor,” a.k.a. knowing what to say and not say in a different culture and language. 2. The lack of which is the source of Borat’s humour. 3. arguably the least important thing a teacher of languages should focus on.

Speedwrite (a.k.a. “Timed write”).  1.  a writing assignment done with a time limit and no access to notes, dictionaries etc.  The aim is to show what students have unconsciously and automatically acquired, as opposed to learned, by not giving them enough time to plan or reflect on writing. 2. Where students who have had loads of good comprehensible input shine, and grammar/”communicatively”-taught kids freak out.

Standardised test: 1. a way of fairly and impartially assessing how well ALL animals, including fish, giraffes, snakes and Samoyed dogs– and not just monkeys– can climb trees.  2. A way for educational testing companies to get approximately $500,000,000 per year from U.S. taxpayers. 3. A very effective way of ensuring that only what can be measured with numbers is taught.

Stiff meeting: a monthly, Admin-organised chance to catch up on email, own the crap out of Level 49 in Candy Crush Saga, or do some marking.  Verbal irony, people– nobody actually ever does any of these things in meetings.

Stephen D. Krashen U.C.L.A. researcher who developed (and found much of the evidence for) the comprehensible input hypothesis.  Also an expert on the effects of free voluntary reading, a relentless critic of standardised testing in the U.S., major caffeine addict and a former champion weightlifter.

Story: 1. the world’s oldest teaching method 2. a narrated set of events where one or more characters faces a significant challenge and/or conflict which s/he must overcome and/or resolve. 3. the easiest and most enjoyable way to present vocabulary in a new language

Storyasking: the process of story narration and acting, where the teacher supplies the language, and the students the acting and story details.  Also called narrative co-creation. Invented by Blaine Ray.

Strong interface position: the view (DeKeyser) that explicit grammar teaching (e.g. explanations) aids acquisition.

Synthetic teaching: (Long) the “present, practice and produce” model of language teaching, a.k.a. “focus on forms.”  Exemplified by the ¡Díme! Spanish texts.  A discredited legacy method.

Teacher: a lazy, expensive, liberal and Unionized waste of space which would in an ideal world be replaced with a combination of iPads, multiple-guess tests, Bible sermons, worksheets and Khan Academy videos.

Terry Waltz: 1. Mandarin teacher, PhD, presenter, speaker of 13 languages, TPRS in Chinese “how-to” book author, and professional translator 2. The funniest person in the comprehensible input universe 3. someone whose statements will be at least three of the following:  empirically true, funny, thoughtful, applicable

Textbook: 1. An excellent source of corporate profits 2. A great way to physically raise a computer monitor or prop up a desk 3. A poor source of both compelling comprehensible input and brain-friendly activities.  4. “This is not something to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown away with great force.” –Geoff Jordan, after Dorothy Parker.

Thinking: 1. deliberate mental activity which does not help anyone learn a language. 2. What textbook publishers do only when designing textbook marketing.

T.P.R.S. “Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling”– Blaine Ray’s comprehensible input language teaching method which emphasises collaborative narratives, input, and reading fiction over grammar practice, output and reading informational text. Known by green-with-envy detractors as Twitching Purple Reptile Stories.

Universal grammar: what Chomsky describes as built-in “software” that allows the brain to receive linguistic input and “build” a mental representation– automatic functional knowledge– of language.  Evidence for the U.G.’s existence is the formation of mental representation in a predictable set of patterns across ;languages.

Unsheltered grammar: using all the grammatical rules, devices, etc that belong to a language when teaching it and in the readings provided to students.  Many comprehensible input methods teachers use unsheltered grammar either immediately or soon after beginning instruction.

Vocabulary list: what textbooks insist that students memorise, and which brain research says they can’t.

Verb: another thing, err, uhhh, from the language

Weak interface position: the view (Krashen, VanPatten) that grammar explanations beyond clarifying meaning do not aid acquisition.

Weighing the pig: short for “weighing the pig won’t make it fatter,” i.e. testing students does nothing to develop their language abilities.  This fact has had very little

Worksheet:

1. Grammar or vocab learning tool that doesn’t help people who don’t understand, and which is unnecessary for those who do

2. What textbook publishers fill low-cost, high-margin student workbooks with

3. What friends don’t let friends hand out

4. The Novocaine of the language teaching profession.

5. A superb way of bringing 19th century ideas into the 21st century classroom.

Results: Beginner Speedwrites Week 8 (Spring 2015)

Today was our fourth story test.  The class had a speedwrite assignment: in five minutes, describe this picture in as many words as possible. Note: we are unsheltered (i.e. we use all necessary grammar and do not restrict ourselves to any one verb tense, mood, etc).  Also we are a split class: beginners, 2s and three native speakers.

This picture works well: we just did the “Cambio de Pelo” story and the kids know words for hair, eyes, colours, dog, cat, guitar.

 

So here are what the beginners did.

First, Marya.  Note spelling mistake– “guitare”– this kid had French last year and it shows.  Also note tense & person confusion.  I have started doing ¿qué hiciste anoche?  PQA at the start of every class and the beginners are mixing these up.  My theory is that if it’s not also in structured writing (i.e. story form) they mix it up more.

Manvir has some problems with verbs. She is missing hay and es which may have to do with not enough present-tense PQA and/or reading.  Also adjective agreement errors.  The thing is entirely comprehensible, but the errors at times make you go huh?

  Minali’s was interesting. It hit me that the beginners have problems with the definite article!  I had assumed, my God, this goes without saying…but…most of our kids being L1 Punjabi or Hindi (which do not have articles) perhaps I can’t assume that English crossover grammar will kick in.  Again here hay and es and está are missing.  Also note jugar guitar a classic French/English cognate mistake, one that comes from the conscious mind.

Manisha’s is basically perfect but she did not write in 3rd person.

Roshini’s is also perfect basically and very high wordcount.  But she did not write in present– I am wondering if these guys actually can consciously think about verb tenses. Also note classic on-the-way error: Saturn gustaba instead of A Saturn le gustaba.  She hasn’t added the a and le because these are of low importance: the beginner language brain is focusing on gustaba, which has all the essential info. Interesting also how she used plural adjective form azules for pelo.

Wordcounts are lower than last time. This is (I think) because when we do story-related PQA, all of the answers are in first person, so it’s easy to describe yourself.  We simply do a whole lot less talk in 3rd person present.

What did I learn? 

  • Do MUCH more present tense PQA (or ask actors about each other)
  • do pop-ups for everything including articles!
  • put more present-tense commentary in written versions of unsheltered stories, OR do way more Picturetalk  (look and discuss) in present tense.
  • the kids don’t make mistakes unless I don’t provide enough input

What should we have on our walls?

I was recently asked “what’s on your walls?” (that’s Spanish-related).  Here it is: everything on my walls to do with Spanish.

First, colour chart.  100% comprehensible with no English.  (Pink is getting faded😞)

Next, the front of the room. I have class rules and PQA chart and question words– that’s it. On the board is vocab from the story we are starting today: Adriana Ramírez’ El Rolls Royce y el Perro Rosado.  I will write a few sentences from the story– the ones with new structures– plus some dialogue once the kids have copied this vocab (and its English equivalents).  There will be WAY less junk on the board.

Finally, here is the PQA chart from above pic, closeup. This is what we use when we start with beginners.  Some kids– the fast processors who I use as actors– pick this up quickly. Others need way more reps. I just point to it.

Here is desk layout.  I like the idea of deskless (Mike Coxon does this) but I need desks for English and Social Justice.  We have a pretty good acting space at the front. It works well.  This is an English 10 class.  In the far back row in the red is Novneet. He was in my Spanish I  class last semester and majorly crushed it– 750-word 3-tense stories, with superb grammar– but he is not as strong a student in English.  My other superstar beginner, Shayla, is also in this class, and is the same: not an analytic English crusher.  Interesting that academically average kids can majorly excel in a language if taught with comprehensible input.

You will also note other teacher essentials: coffee mugs and a mandolin 😉

Even though I also teach English and Social Justice, and I need wall space for projects, I wouldn’t put any more Spanish stuff on the walls. Why? Because visual clutter is annoying and doesn’t help the kids. Maybe it was Ben Slavic who mentiond “the Ikea room.”

Some teachers ask me, “ok, where is your word wall, or where are your number and location-word posters?”

A) I had a word wall, with eveything from connecting phrases– therefore, after, etc– to location words to labeled pictures of verbs, objects, etc, and guess what? The kids copied stuff off the walls (as I hoped they would), trying to beef up their writing, and misused almost everything on the walls. This was I think because stuff that’s not acquired gets manipulated by the conscious mind and so they say ok, how do I say ____? Ok there it is, I’ll toss that into this sentence…yo tengo fui al cine.  With less on walls, what I get in writing is what they actually know.

B) Numbers, location words, time, date, weather etc are boring so I just throw one into each story and the kids pick it up that way. Voilá less junk on walls. I deal with boring stuff this way.

C) The fewer visual distractions, the more mental energy we have for focusing on and processing the essential stuff in stories.  T.P.R.S. is “narrow and deep”-focused.  We want our kids to master essentials– teach for mastery, not presentation, as Blaine Ray puts it.

Ok there we go. One teacher’s room layout.

What Results Am I Getting? Beginner Speedwrites week 7 (Spring 2015)

I have a split class right now– Spanish 1 and 2.  We are doing our third assessment now after our third story.  These are what my beginners did today. They have five minutes to describe themselves.  (The other topic we sometimes do is, describe a picture that is projected on the overhead.) They do this from memory– no notes or dictionaries etc.   The idea is, write as much as you can asquickly as you can, so we see acquisition– what’s “wired in”– as opposed to what the conscious, rule-focused mind can do.

These kids have had 6.5 weeks of unsheltered, comprehensible input stories.  Narration: past tenses.  Dialogue and PQA: present tense.  They knew zero Spanish when they started.  On the sheets, the larger number is wordcount and the smaller (1, 2 or 3) is their grammar mark.

First, Minali’s. There is some verb tense confusion but otherwise solid.

Next, Manvir. She’s got some problems with remembering son and es and I am wondering if this comes from the unsheltered input. She also doesn’t yet have gusta/gustan. High wordcount though!

Here is Marya’s work.   What’s interesting here is that saludables made it into this speedwrite.  She has it in the plural because that is how we see it in the story. So she has acquired meaning but she hasn’t got the grammar rule of adj agreement/placement yet.  Still, this is rock-solid writing.

Next,  Roshini.  Note tense confusion.  But also interesting: she used yo tener fue a London.  It’s wrong but she knows that something like fu- means go (past tense). I think this is rule overgeneralisation.  This kid BTW has missed one entire week of class.

This is Eric’s.  He was put into Spanish 2 weeks after course started, and has a writing output challenge (he has an I.E.P.). Only this week has he been starting to speak whole sentences aloud. I mercy-passed him with a 2/3 for grammar.

Finally, here is Manisha’s. Again, she has not yet acquired gusta/gustan but otherwise this is impeccable beginner writing. She missed the first 6 days of class so this to me is doubly impressive.

Anyway, neat, hey?  These guys are sure doing better than my kids used to do under “communicative” or grammar-focused teaching.  Would be cool to see others’ results and I’ll post more as we progress.

How Badly Did I Fail Teaching Languages? (1)

I have been reflecting on my teaching and I thought I would share my many screw-ups, and offer some better alternatives (which might be useful for teachers who use textbook programs and are getting frustrated).  So here we go– today’s question–

Q: How– and how badly– did I screw up teaching languages?

A: Pretty badly– and here is how 

 1. I used grammar worksheets and explicit grammar practice to “teach grammar.” The programs I used– first ¡Díme! and then Juntos— had a lot of these.  Fill in the blanks with the correct verbform, pronoun, or word, etc. The research about this is clear: a grammar item is acquired when the learner has heard loads of comprehensible input containing the item/rule in question, AND when their brain is “ready” to pick it up.   If a learner hasn’t acquired it, they aren’t ready for it.  If they have, there’s little point in practicing. Truscott writes that “no meaningful support has been provided for the […] position that grammar should be taught” (and practiced) and VanPatten says that “tenses are not acquired as “units” and the brain doesn’t store grammar as a textbook-stated rule.”

“Conscious awareness” of grammar rules (as Krashen points out) only helps us if ALL of the following conditions are met:

1.  we know the rule

2. we know how to apply the rule

3.  we have time to consciously reflect on and apply the rule

So, if students have worksheets or whatever where they are “practising the passé composé” or whatever, they’ll do well.  They’ll beaver away, slowly, filling in the blanks.  Of course, in real life, they won’t have time to go “hmm, is that a DR AND MRS VANDERTRAMP verb?  Oh, it is, so, let’s see, how do we conjugate that?” Or, as Yogi Berra said, “you can’t think and hit at the same time.” Worksheets cannot help those who havn’t acquired a grammar rule; they are unnecessary for those who have. And they’re boring.

Doing it betterI would have kids read a ton of stuff which has the grammar item, etc, they are learning.  If I had worksheets, a better way to use them would be to give the kids the worksheets with the blanks filled in and have them translate:  this is quality (if boring) input.

 

2.  I used to do projects in the target language.   One typical one:  the ____ report.  Research ___, write up what you learned about ____ on a poster and add some pictures and lines connecting different elements.  Oh, and do it in Spanish.  Then read it aloud to the class.  Variations: use the Interwebz and add things that talk, move, have colours, etc.  The only problems were…

  • the kids had to look up a ton of vocab (read: Google translate)
  • almost none of this vocab got repeated for the rest of the year (read: little acquisition)
  • most of the writing had to be “edited” (read: totally re-written) by me before the final product was assembled.
  • most of the audience focused on pictures and missed most of the target language during the presentation because the presenters are the only ones who know the vocab, and the audience wanted to understand, and pictures were easier to understand.
  • if done in poster form, nobody except me, the teacher, ever read the Spanish, and a week after it was done, not even the kids who wrote the poster typically what it meant because all they did was copy it down
  • most of the Spanish on these was low-frequency vocab.  How often is somebody going to need to say “principal exports of ___ are petroleum and fried dog” or “The Cathedral of was built in ____”?

Now, kids did pick up a bit of vocab– and culture knowledge– but at the cost of good input.

Doing it better: I now do culture, etc, projects in English.  I can  get higher-order thinking, more learning-via-sharing, and less energy wasted on poor target language use.  Plus, the kids can easily understand each others’ work.

 

3.  I “used games” to “make grammar and learning fun.  From class soccer leagues to Hangman to cross-4, games got the kids focused and they found them fun.  Too bad, however, that

  • most of their output was flawed and/or English, and that therefore
  • they got little accurate input, and
  • the language they were exposed to was fragmented (ie generally not sentences which were part of bigger meaningful “whole” passages or conversations
  • they got low-frequency vocab.  E.g. the class soccer/hockey/baseball game.  Lots of fun, shouting, etc…but words like “scores” and “goal” and “foul” are not much-used.

 

4.  I didn’t know what I was doing with assessment.

a) I screwed up listening assessment.  In every languages program I have ever seen, the listening test at the end of each unit has something like, it  plays a native speaker saying something, or a conversation.  Then, there are multiple-guess questions  Why was this a problem for my kids?

  • the kids had to “hold” quite a lot of vocab in their heads while listening to (say) 60 seconds of language.  This is very hard to do.
  • The pattern was clear:  if the speaker(s) said it, the kids picked that as the answer.  If the statement was more complex– eg John was not tired– and the question was How did John feel? a) tired b) awake c) energetic, the kids would pick a, because thinking about “not” and the meaning of the word tired is cognitive overload for a lot of them.

Doing it better:  Give them WAY more time, restrict vocab to only what they know, and provide aural input much more slowly.  I would also now suggest using aural input as listen, copy and translate.

b) I screwed up writing assessment.  Yes, I had a marking rubric (thanks, Julia Macrae), which worked fine for paragraphs.  However, what do you do with single-sentence questions?  For example, a question would be ¿Te gustan los perros? (Do you like dogs?).  If a kid wrote me gusta los perros, or yo gusto las gatos (both of which demonstrate understanding of meaning, but which have basic grammar errors), how do you mark it?  Half a mark off for the mistake?  1/4?  How do you do holistic assessment for a sentence?  Impossible.

Doing it better: Now, I make them write only paragraphs and stories and assess holistically.  I check for understanding when I am asking stories, or while we are reading.

 

5.  I used to expect oral output from Day 1.  I used to do a lot of “communicative pair” or “information gap” activities.  The problems here were many:

  • the kids would always make output mistakes– e.g. they would have a list of things or activities, and they would have to ask their partner about them.  So, dogs.  A kid would say  ¿Te gusta el perros?  and get the answer No yo gusto perros— which was meaningful, but very low-quality input for their partners.  If this is where their language modeling came from, I realised eventually that there would be huge problems.  They would not acquire articles, verb endings etc properly.
  • I felt like a cop, cruising around the class to ensure Spanish compliance.  As one person I talked to said, “speaking ____ with other people who are also learning it feels fake.”  Kids simply felt funny using the language.
  • the logical thing to do is to get the info as easily and quickly as possible, i.e. L1, whose use was a constant problem.
  • the activities in books were dull:  ask your partner if s/he a) went to the beach b) played soccer, c) had a BBQ last summer.  I dunno about you but I and the kids don’t find that compelling.

Doing it better:   I don’t do any forced oral activities and end-of-course assessment with beginners.  I do one totally random three-minute oral interview with 2nd and up level kids at the end of level 2.  The kids do have to chorally answer story questions, and I will ask superstars personalised questions in the PQA (personalised questions and answers) process (basically, asking the superstars the questions I ask the actors).  This has allowed me to deliver much more– and better– input, partly because I am not spending 6-8 blocks/year assessing output, and because the output they do– acting in stories, and superstar PQA– is super high quality (and so is good input) for other learners.

Now, when I have kids who are reluctant to talk, I ask them yes/no or one-word PQA questions.  If we are doing a story and I say a la chica, le gustaban los gatos, I’ll first circle that, and then I’ll ask the actress ¿te gustan los gatos?  and a few other questions involving gustan and los gatos, los perros, los dinosaurios, etc.  Then, I ask my superstar or a native speaker ¿te gustan los gatos?  and they can answer with a complete sentence.  Then, I go to the slower processors (or shyer kids) and ask the same question.  They can say sí/no and that’s fine, or they can say a complete sentence.  The point now is to deliver input, not to force output, and to use output to signal understanding.

I also no longer do communicative pair activities.  Kids now pick up Q&A (first and second person) forms (and everything else) through PQA and stories.

 

6.  I used to do kid-created target-language movie projects.   Typically, I said “make a short film of ___,” ___ being either some thematic vocab (e.g. the food or shopping unit) or this plus some specific grammar requirements (e.g. use the imparfait).  Now, these are fun.  My daughters also did them, and when they did, I’ve never at my house seen five teenagers spend so much intense time rehearsing, giggling, planning, etc.  However…

  • the target language output was bad.  They’re learners.
  • most of the time spent making a film was in English.
  • most of the energy, mental and otherwise, spent in making the film was fixed on visuals, acting, bloopers, editing, etc
  • when they watched each others’ films in class, mostly they could not hear or understand the Spanish…because most of the Spanish had been special-occasion looked-up just for the film, and because the sound was bad
  • because the kids KNEW that the story must be primarily visually told, and they would film/edit for visual comprehension, viewers didn’t really need to pay attention to target language.
  • even the understood good target language was often not repeated much throughout the year (low frequency).

In retrospect, movie projects did get the kids talking, and they were fun.  But they didn’t deliver the sine qua non of good languages teaching: delivering compelling comprehensible input.

Doing it better:  Thanks to Adriana Ramírez, I now do this.  Provide the kids a script of 100% comprehensible vocab– including dialogue, with errors edited out– and have them film it.  They will have a blast filming (picking costumes, editing, hanging out with their buddies, adding music etc).  When you show it in class, they will be intrigued to see their friends acting, and they will not even notice that they are hearing and understanding the target language.

7. I used to give grammar tests.  Read the sentence and fill in the blanks with the right ____.  Conjugate the verb.  Show me where the pronoun goes. The research is clear:  grammar instruction works wonders if you want your students to become manipulators of grammar.  However, the part of the brain that stores “metalinguistic awareness” stuff like grammar rules is at best tangentially connected to the subconscious part that actually processes language.  The researchers all say the same thing: the brain does not acquire grammar by practicing grammar, and what we teachers call “grammar rules” is not how the brain “does” grammar.  So, making kids study for tests that ask them to consciously manipulate words and apply grammar rules took away from real, deep processing that happens when they hear or read stories or other meaningful language.

 

Doing it better: assess whole-language use (read, listening to and writing real meaningful stuff) and just, well, don’t give grammar tests.  If you really want to ensure that the kids learn to conjugate, use pronouns, etc, make them do a lot of reading.

8. I used to do the portfolio.  Kids take evidence of what they do– writing, reports, videos or oral presentations, tests and quizzzes, etc, and stick them in a folder called a “portfolio.”  Modern versions include online collections (e.g. you video your restaurant unit dialogue and put it on Youtube).  The rationale for portfolios is a) kids can “reflect on their learning, document  areas of growth and areas that need work” or some such edubabble, and b) kids can go and revise stuff and c) they can see what they did and learn from their mistakes.

First, (b) I agree with– you learned more, go fix it, good.  But, second, we run into a problem with A and C, because, basically, most adolescents simply cannot reflect on something as (1) complex and (2) innate as grammar etc.  Most of them can’t do it in English with essays/paragraphs etc, so how can we expect them to do it in a second language?  As an English teacher who teaches lit and composition to English speakers in English, I know that kids cannot meaningfully self-edit.  They also mostly cannot peer edit.  Yes, you can give them checklists…and they will look for– and sometimes even find– things on the checklists…and miss everything else.  And this is in English, their first language.  I used to provide Spanish grammatical feedback, the kids would dutifully re-copy their paragraphs and “improve them” and then they would make exactly the same mistakes on tests.

You can talk about ____ till you are blue in the face, but most kids just can’t do it.  They also don’t care– I mean, what student in their right mind would care how many of the 19 irregular passé composé verbs they don’t know or whatever?  That’s boring.  Also, I would give kids their writing back, correct the hell out of it, and they would look for how much red ink was on it, and what Number they got on it.  This is because they quite correctly understood that Numberz are what Matterz to Teacherz and Parentz.

Portfolios however look cool– especially if the student is a girl; girls in my experience are more into neatness and colouring and nice pictures than boys– and Thingz That Look Cool (extra Pointz if its online!  E-learningz!  Cross-platform sharingz!) get attention, Adminz and Headz love them, etc etc.  The only problem is, they don’t provide the acquisitional effects we expect.  The only thing a portfolio can do is show growth.  Kids will have 4-sentence paragraphs at start and 20 at end of a class.  Great, a teacher’s markbook should reflect that, throw the quiz in the kid’s binder, why waste time on packages and prettiness and empty self-analyses?

 

So…how has eliminating the screw-ups helped my kids?

My epiphany came thanks to Michelle Metcalfe’s demo workshop, and my results now blow the old results out of the water.  I have abandoned grammar practice and testing, communicative gap activities, oral output and most oral assessment, games, movie and culture projects in Spanish, and portfolios.

My Level 1 kids now write 600-1,00 word stories, in good Spanish, in multiple verb tenses, in an hour at the end of the course.  They understand everything they hear.  They feel great when they head somewhere Spanish-speaking.  I have no management issues. I have every kid who attends and pays attention passing.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary.  Mainly I am happy that I can experience more success with second languages and I hope I can inspire others to get there also (though not necessarily by doing what I do).  And I mean honestly people, I am neither smart nor talented so if I can do OK with T.P.R.S., anyone can do well.

Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab and Bill VanPatten respond to criticism of and questions about T.P.R.S.

We T.P.R.S. teachers often get slammed by the misinformed.  T.P.R.S.– and comprehensible input generally– often looks so weird to a traditional teacher that mental fuses blow and an irresistible urge to break out the grammar worksheets and communicative pair tasks takes over.  They aren’t talking?  They don’t practise grammar?  You don’t have a communicative objective?  Quel horreur!

So, today’s question:  how do Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab and Bill VanPatten respond to questions about and criticisms of T.P.R.S.?

First, blogger Sara Cottrell writes about what she doesn’t like about T.P.R.S. here, to which Carol Gaab responds here, and neatly dispenses with most of Cottrell’s criticism.

Next, we have Blaine Ray– the nicest guy in the world and the man who invented T.P.R.S.– who is at age 65 or so still teaching a class weekly (and refining his methods– Clarq and Whaley’s embedded readings, and his own teacher-as-parallel character are two newer fave tweaks), training teachers through his excellent N.T.P.R.S. convention and workshops, and often posts in Yahoo’s MORETPRS listserv.  I just found one such post on my hard drive.   Here is Blaine answering some questions about T.P.R.S. (edits for clarity)

Q:  Does TPRS reach all types of learners in the classroom, in particular special education students?

A:  Everyone can learn a language who has learned his/her first language. So in a sense TPRS might work with all learners. It does not work with unmotivated learners. We aren’t there to save everyone.

Q:  Does TPRS really engage all students in the class?

A:  Do grammar lessons engage all students? That really isn’t the right question. Does TPRS engage students better than other types of language teaching?  I would say yes. There is something about live theater that is very engaging. I have seen students that seem to be disengaged tell me what is going on in the story over and over. It is been my experience that virtually all students follow the story line.

Q:  Can´t weaker students just copy what other students say when answering questions?

A: At the end of a story we have students rewrite the story. I don’t observe copying. It is the writing of the story that tells me whether students have been engaged or not. I walk around the class and pick up all of their writings. There is definitely a difference between top and bottom students. I had one of the “self proclaimed” weakest students be the horse in my story this week. She had a much better ability to answer my questions than students I have seen in classes that have had no TPRS experience.

Timed writings show what weaker students can do. The difference is that when I have had students from grammar classes write a timed writing they can’t produce very much. What they do produce are memorized sentences. There is very little difference between the top and the bottom because they are all bad (meaning they can produce very little.) TPRS students can generally write well over 70 words on a topic in 5 minutes in my experience.

CommentStudents don´t really get any practice on their own in communicating with the language.

Response: You must understand the input hypothesis to understand TPRS. Students get constant practice in the only way possible to learn a language and that is through listening.

Comment: It is so teacher centered, where the teacher is talking most of the time, so students are learning so much less of the language.

Response: I believe the best thing a department can do to show who is learning the language and who is not is to share timed writings. If departments required teachers to bring all timed writings from their classes, then it would show who is teaching well and who is not. Teachers wouldn’t be able to pronounce that their students are learning. They would show what their students have learned by bringing in writing samples of all of their students.

Q:  Can you do TPRS one day a week and still see the benefits?

A:  Compared to what? I actually teach a class once a week and they don’t do TPRS the rest of the time. (I volunteer to teach the class.) I can see tremendous benefits in what I am doing. I talked to a girl yesterday about her Spanish and she told me how confident she was in her speaking. Students can’t fake speaking. They either know it or they don’t. I certainly think they would do better with more input though.

Q:  How do you keep up the energy and enthusiasm for all of your classes everyday?

A:  A better question would be “How do you keep up the energy and enthusiasm teaching out of a text book?”  I taught exclusively out of a text for 5 years. I went home most nights looking in the newspaper for another job. Teaching with stories is energizing. I don’t see teachers using TPRS complain about maintaining enthusiasm.

Q:  When you´ve got a classroom full of students that have a hard time staying in their seats, how do you reach them and manage the classroom so that they are not bored?

 A:  I can’t see any way of teaching that would work with students who won’t stay in their seats. In fact, TPRS does not work if a teacher allows social talking. Classroom management is easy. Most of my classes were over 40 and some were over 48. Boredom was not a problem. Students did not get tired of playing the TPRS game even after years.

Q:  Are you giving students a toolkit of methods and grammatical structures to use?

A:  Students are not aware of the structures. They are focused on the story.  The teacher needs to be aware of the structures. But more importantly the teacher needs to see where the students break down in their speech and practice where the students need it most.

(Note: the idea of T.P.R.S. is to make language acquisition a byproduct of listening to (and reading) the target language.  We don’t teach French, or Chinese– we teach stories but we teach them in French or in Chinese.)

Comment:  The stories are monotonous and all have a specific makeup.

Response:  This is probably a statement by a teacher who doesn’t understand TPRS. TPRS is all about surprises. Yesterday my story had a horse who was going to celebrate his 10th birthday at Chuck E Cheese. He was a good horse who goes to school and studies Math, Spanish and Horse. He got an A in Math, A minus in Spanish and a B plus in Horse. I had a girl who played the horse. Katie (the owner) had to go to the restaurant to arrange the party, went to someone to get the money and then got the money.

This was all dramatized. All along the way I kept asking the girl what she was doing. These details came from the students. Every story is a new adventure. If they are monotonous, it just means you haven’t taught your students how to play the game.

Comment:  The stories all involve animals in some way, or getting an animal.

Response: That is not necessary. A story can be about anything.

 

Finally, a few choice quotes from linguist Bill VanPatten, given at the IFLT 2017 conference. Thanks to Michelle Kindt and Karen Rowan for putting these online.

On how languages should be taught: “Language is too abstract to teach explicitly. Stop treating language teaching like other subject matter.”

Comment: T.P.R.S. is passive– the teacher does everything.

BVP: “Nothing could be more active in a classroom than co-constructing stories with your students.”

Comment: “TPRS is too teacher-centered.”

BVP: ” The TPRS classroom is NOT teacher-centered. It is teacher-led.”

Comment: “TPRS is too much about fun, and not enough about real communication.”

BVP: “Entertainment is a valid form of communication.”

Comment: “TPRS is too much about stories and characters, and not enough about exchanging information.”

BVP: “TPRS is communicative, since it has an expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning.”

Comment: “Teachers who use TPRS [and other comprehensible input strategies] do not teach enough explicit grammar.”

BVP: “What’s on page 32 in the textbook will not be the language that winds up in a student’s head.”

Comment: in a C.I. class, there is very little interaction with input, because students are listening to stories and questions, not engaging in conversations. 

BVP: “Interaction with input simply means indicating comprehension. Students can do this in many ways.” 

 

 

How should I teach SER and ESTAR?

Spanish teacher conundrum, recently brought up on the Yahoo moretprs listserv by teacher Marji:

How do I teach the difference between ser and estar? Marji is asking this question because the kids are making errors, and also she only sees them infrequently, so they seem “slow” in picking this up.

Ser = to be, for permament, inherent qualities
Estar = to be, for location and feelings

The essence of the question– like the French teachers’ eternal How do I get them to remember the difference between être and avoir passé composé verbs?— is this: how do I teach a “non-English” grammatical structure to English speakers?. The answer is simple! I’ve written about this before, so here is a Spanish and French-focused refresher.

First, I translate only meaning. So on the board, I write

era = was
estaba = felt, was located in _____

es = is
está = feels, is located in ______

Now, note here.  The kids do not get an explanation of the inherwnt essential aspects and differences of/between these verbs.  All they get is the meaning.

They also have the I/you forms in my simple PQA/direct questions chart:

IMG_0172

I narrate our first story– Adriana Ramírez’ Los Gatos Azules— in past tense but I question actors and do PQA (personalised questions and answers) in present tense.

Second, I keep it all comprehensible. I say el chico estaba en Watts and ask “what did I just say?” to make sure the students understand. I then say something like el chico era alto, going slowly, pointing and pausing, doing comprehension checks.

Now, they have not had the grammatical difference between ser and estar explained, but I will keep on using these appropriately. All they need to do is

A) clearly hear the difference
B) understand the meaning(s)

Because, as Blaine Ray points out, ser and estar are the most-used verbs in Spanish, we want to start using them on Day 1 and keep using them always.

Third, I will use these expressions in both past and present. For past tense, as noted above, I narrate (and ask class questions about the narration) in past tense. For present tense, I will direct-question the actors. ¿Eres un chico? — Sí, soy un chico. ¿Estás en California? — Sí, estoy en California. Then, I will do PQA by asking class members the same question(s) I have just asked the actors. If they can answer, great; if not, they can read off the PQA/direct questions chart.

(New trick: this year, to get more reps on 3rd person present, I ask the actors about each other in the present tense. So if I narrate había un chico en Brooklyn and circle that, I still want some present-tense reps on hay, so I will ask my main character about another character in the story. E.g. I introduce my parallel character by saying Había una chica en San Francisco. Then, I ask my boy in Brooklyn ¿Hay una chica en San Francisco? and he says Sí, hay una chica en S.F.)

The aim is for them to hear it a zillion times in proper context, in all necessary tenses, and slowly their “language acquisition devices,” as Chomsky calls them, will start developing subconscious pattern awareness and then performative competence.

Fourth, I will not lecture about grammar. As Laurie Clarq and Susan Gross have said (I am paraphrasing), “if they ask for an explanation, they can have a five-second one.”

I taught French last year for a colleague for two periods and we did a story where I used il est arrivé, il a oublié, and il/elle etait faché (this is two different passé composé verbs, and two past tenses).

The kids did not need to know that there are “Dr and Mrs Vandertramp” verbs, or the house-movement mnemonic, or the camera/video metaphors for p-c and imparfait, bla bla. All they needed to know was the meaning. Now, I suck at French, but the teacher was impressed because these Level 2s were getting “fourth year grammar,” and understanding it. The method generally works even when a hack like me uses it 😉.

BTW the story idea, improvised by student teacher Nicole Kunkel and I, was
— Jean est arrivé en retard à la classe
— La prof etait trés fachée avec lui.
— Il a cherché dans son sac pour ses devoirs.

— Dans son sac, il n’y avait pas ses devoirs!  Mais, il y’avait des autres choses…
— C’etait dommage– il a oublié ses devors! Madame Prof etait trés fachée!

(Jean had a backpack which we put random things into, and every time Jean looked in it for his hwk, a pencil, etc, he’d pull out something funny and Madame Prof would get more mad (and we got a zillion reps on both present and past forms of all 3 structures).

We also wrote up embedded (progressively more complex) readings of our story, and then did the usual with that, for even more reps.

It doesn’t matter what first or second language people have. We know that everyone can– and does– learn at least one language without any formal instuction at all. Any baby of any race or either gender can learn any language. We teachers can use this amazing potential. All we have to do is

— restrict vocab (to not confuse and overload people)
— use all grammar (so people can “pick up” what they’re ready for)
— keep it all 100% comprehensible
— provide a ton of listening and reading repetitions

In Hindi, we have “postpositions” as opposed to prepositions. Chinese has tones, and no verb “to be.” German has complex word-order rules invented by a sadistic language demon. Try explaining the difference between “some” and “any” questions to a non-native speaker of English. French and German have two past tense auxiliaries. Russian has cases. But whatever it is, people can pick it up.

The point? They don’t need to know anything other than meaning, and the brain– given enough input– will take over and start figuring the patterns out.

What should teachers tell kids about language learning methods?

Mark Koopman, an E.S.L. teacher and school organiser in Japan, asked about what we T.P.R.S. teachers tell our students when they come into our classroom.  Today’s question:

What should languages teachers tell their students about language learning?

My overall answer to this is, you tell them how people learn languages, and you lay out class expectations.

a)  My course outline (for Spanish) has this in it.  I read it to the kids and briefly talk about it

“People can only learn languages by getting comprehensible input—that means, they hear language they can understand (with translation, gestures, etc). They need to hear that language over and over, with variations, so they can pick it up and not be bored by it. They also need to read the language in comprehensible form.

 There will be no grammar worksheets, grammar notes, vocab quizzes or games built around grammar devices in this class. Contribute, pay attention, and learn!”

I don’t blather on at any length about this.  I want the kids to know they can easily learn, and don’t have to worry.  I also quote Blaine Ray: “I teach stories, and my stories always have a surprise.”  This year we started our first story 30 min after I first met the kids.

When I hear from Americans, a lot of teachers say their kids looooove worksheets and other legacy methods, and that it is a challenge getting “buy-in” from kids. I have not had this problem, partly because Canada is less insane than the U.S. (less poverty and classism affecting kids’ schooling, way less standardised testing, and much greater teacher autonomy), but mostly because if you run your class rigorously– what Ben Slavic calls “norming their behaviour”– they will succeed, and people who succeed are generally happy.

When I do get asked questions about methods, I refer people to the research. I also ask the kids “are you understanding everything?” They always say “yes,” and then I say “the more you hear and read it, the more you’ll remember, and eventually you’ll just automatically be able to say and write things.”

I also ask them “if you took another language before you started Spanish, how was it?” and I get a few responses, detailed here, and I then tell them “if you listen and read, and ask when you don’t understand, you will pick this up.”  Again I don’t spend a ton of time on this, as it’s mostly for my own interest.

b) Any teacher has to lay out some ground rules.  Mine are the classic T.P.R.S. rules, which I learned from the amazing Michelle Metcalfe:

— English only for places and names

— no blurting: only one person talks

— humour!

— ask for help

— eyes on teacher, sit up straight, no distractions

Buenas palabras — good words– “would you say it to Mom?”

c) I have had a few parents ask me about T.P.R.S., as their kids’ experiences with languages are so totally different in a comprehensible-input classroom than in others. I always ask them “does Johnny find it easy, and feel like he is learning?” I have never had a “no” answer. I also say “while this seems weird sometimes, it seems to keep the kids engaged,” and I also tell the parents to look at their kids’ writing assessments. This last always lets the kids impress their Mom and Dad.

As Robert Harrell (I think) said on Ben’s, “if you feel like you have to criticise me, look at my results, and if you wonder about my results, look at my methods.” I have never had to do this: kids getting T.P.R.S. find it easy, develop massive and very visible skills, and feel safe and capable in class.

There have obviously been some public arguments (e.g. recently on the A.C.T.F.L. forum) about what constitutes best practices. One thing is clear: people who teach with c.i. need to make sure they explain their methods– and the brain research behind them– to students, parents, colleagues and others.

But the bottom line, as always, is the kids. In a T.P.R.S. class, they can learn, and they generally like learning, another language.