comprehensible input

How Do I Do PictureTalk?

picturetalk demo photo

Profe, working diligently to maintain student interest.

Other than MovieTalk, PictureTalk is the single-best “add-on” to T.P.R.S., and an amazing strategy for non-c.i. teachers.  It reinforces already-taught vocabulary and grammar, and is also a superb way to introduce new vocab pre-story.

Picturetalk– what Ben Slavic calls “Look and Discuss”– is simple, easy, low-prep and effective.   Here are three ways to do Picturetalk.

a)  Find a picture online which contains the “things”– people and actions– in your most recent story.  So, if your story is about a poor Guatemalan kid who wants something to eat, you find a picture of that, or (say) a picture of a homeless person.

b)  If you have never taught the vocab you want to use, write on board (or project it) along with translation.  Make sure the kids know what the words mean.

c)  Project the picture, make statements, and ask questions about the picture and about the things you’ve said about the picture.  Here is an example with questions:


¿Qué hay en la foto?  What’s in the photo?

¿Hay un hombre o una mujer?  ¿Cómo se llama?  Is there a man or a woman?  What is his name?

¿Qué tiene el hombre?  What does the man have?

¿Tiene un perro? ¿Cómo se llama el perro?  Does he have a dog or a cat?  What’s its name?

¿Está feliz el hombre?  ¿Por qué está/no está feliz?  Is the man hapy?  Why or why not?

¿Tiene hambre el hombre?  ¿Tiene hambre el perro?  Is the man hungry?  The dog?

¿Quieren comer?  ¿Qué quieren comer?  Does he want to eat?  What does he want to eat?

¿Dónde están el hombre y su perro?  Where are the man and his dog?

Note here that some of these questions require factual answers, but some can be made up (e.g. the man’s name, what the dog wants to eat, etc).

d)  As well as asking questions about the photo, you should personalise the discussion.  So, we ask the kids do you have a dog?  Are you hungry?  What’s your dog’s name? etc.  This is both interesting and you get first and second person reps.

e) We also want to move into higher-level thinking, so we can ask questions like ¿Es bueno vivir en la calle, o no es bueno?  ¿Por qué?

f)  You can obviously target your most recently-taught structures and vocab, and– like with Movietalk– you can also mention anything that has been previously taught (recycling). But don`t beat older vocab to death.  Also note that we can use different verb forms, etc, no problem.

Now, another brilliant idea that got tweeted out from N.T.P.R.S. 2015 was “double picturetalk.” (Sorry, I have no idea who thought of this).  Here, you put two (or more) photos side by side, so you can do comparison talk.

Photo A                                          Photo B

homeless_man_w_dog40  homeless woman

Here, we have a few other strategies we can use.

  1. We can get kids to look, then make a statement about one picture, then ask them which photo we are describing.  E.g. “There is a woman” and they say “photo B.”
  2. We can ask “what is different between Photo A and Photo B?”  We are also able to get many repetitions: “the man has a dog. The woman does not have a dog,” etc.
  3. We can use plural verbs (they have, we have, etc).
  4. If you pull photos from two cultures (e.g. from you target language culture and from your own), you can do some great cultural comparisons, on everything from dress etc for beginners to justice etc questions for those with more vocab.
  5. If you must teach the alphabet, you can start labeling photos A,B,C,D etc and after 26 the kids will recognise the letters (same goes for numbers– why not randomly call one “Photo 237” and the other “301”?)  By the way, if you want a few tips for teaching boring crap like numbers, weather, etc, see this.

The third neat thing you can do with Picturetalk (which is especially useful if, like me, you are teaching with fully unsheltered grammar even with true beginners) is to review pictures for past-tense practice.  This idea comes from Eric Herman’s views on Movietalk.  Ideally, you have say 2-3 pictures which broadly reflect the vocab of the story you are asking.

a)  You project a picture and do Picturetalk as noted above (before or on Day 1 of asking the story).

b)  The next day (Day 2), you tell the class “OK, yesterday we looked at a photo of _____.  Let’s see what we can remember.  Class, what was in the photo?  That’s right, there was a duck. What was the duck’s name?” etc.  After you have made a few past-tense statements,  you show the same picture, you check and see what the kids remember, and you ask a few more of the same questions in the past tense.

c) Also on Day 2, you introduce another picture which possibly has the same subject matter and/or subject as the first. PictureTalk that, and review on Day 3.

Here is an example.  Say your story uses chases/chased, wants/wanted to grab, doesn’t/didn’t succeed:


Day 1:  “Class, what is in the photo?  Right, a duck.  Class, is it a duck or a dog?  That’s right, it’s a duck.  Class, what’s the duck’s name?  [suggestions come]  That’s right class, the duck is named Napoleon.  Class, what colour is Napoleon’s head?…” etc

Day 2:  Before you re-project the picture, you say, “OK, class, yesterday we saw a photo.  Let’s review.  Class, what was in the photo?  A duck.  That’s right, there was a duck.  Class, do you remember, what was the duck’s name?…” etc.  Then you put the photo up, talk about it, and introduce a second photo:

duck being chased

Now, talk about this photo.  “Class, is there one duck or two here?  That’s right, there are two ducks.  Class, what is the second duck’s name?  (…) That’s right, class, the second duck’s name is Megan Fox.  Class, is Megan Fox chasing Napoleon?  Yes, she is chasing Napoleon. [circle this]  Class, why is she chasing Napoleon?  What does Napoleon have?  That’s right: Napoleon has Megan Fox’s duck wax…” etc.

Day 3: review details, then put the photo up, then review it a bit more.  “Class, why was Megan Fox chasing Napoleon? That’s right: Napoleon had her duck wax.”

If you are careful not to introduce any new vocab, this is an amazing way to get kids used to two (or more) verb tenses (or whatever). They are going to hear the same question, a day apart, in different verb tenses.  If you check for understanding– and one of the kids’ biggest errors in unsheltered grammar is tense mixing initially– you’ll be building a solid foundation of good input.

I was recently in Minneapolis and saw a cool variation on this in Amy and Gisela’s elementary Spanish class.  We could call it PictureStory.  Here is how it works:

a) get 3-6 pics that illustrate your story.  Amy had a book about Sr. Marrero who was always grumpy and didn’t like the weather. Your pics can have everything in them, or just be background. Get the actor(s) you need.

b) Project picture #1 and ask a few questions about it.  Establish that your characters are in the picture.  You could use just background (ie use the picture as a setting) or you can use the picture with characters in it.

c) Your actors can answer direct questions (“are you…, do you want…would you like…” etc) and/or “do” the dialogue.

d) You then switch to your next scene by changing picture and you keep going.

In Amy’s class, the little kids all wanted to act, so most got a turn at different pictures.  (One of them was the man, another his dog…and at one point the man petted his dog!  Very cute).

Anyway.  Picturetalk rocks.  Just remember the usual brain-friendly rules:

  • keep everything 100% comprehensible
  • go s.l.o.w.l.y.
  • don’t overload new vocab
  • personalise
  • accept any output that signals correct understanding; do not force any kind of output

Any more suggestions?  Put ’em in the comments or email.


Bad science meets questionable usefulness: Lyster (2004a) on prompting feedback

McGill University professor Roy Lyster gave the British Columbia Language Coordinators’ Association annual conference talk in 2015 about best practices in the French Immersion classroom. He specifically mentioned that form-focused instruction and feedback were essential for acquisition of second languages.  Well, THAT got me wondering so I went and did what a sane guy does of a fine Sunday: I went climbing and then I read his paper.

Lyster has done a very good job in terms of his research, controls, etc etc.  Unlike Orlut and Bowles (2008), Lyster did very good science.  But, as we shall see, there are a lot of problems with his conclusions.  Let’s have a look.

To sum it up, Lyster — following Ellis, DeKeyser et al– argues that there needs to be some “focus on form”– explanations about language (as well as activities that make learners process that language)– in a language classroom in addition to meaningful language itself, because without some “focus on form,” acquisition of some items fossilises or goes wrong.

Lyster noted that English-speaking kids in French immersion were not picking up French noun gender very well.  There are a bunch of reasons for this.  Noun gender is of almost zero communicative significance and so acquirers’ brains pay it little attention, and Immersion students are typically exposed to native-speaker generated/targeted materials which do not foreground grammatical features.  Noun gender acquisition is a classic study question because French has it and English does not. Lyster’s question was, “can form focused instruction (FFI) centered on noun gender improve noun gender acquisition?”  FFI involved a bunch of instruction about noun gender (how to figure out what it is basically based on noun endings, which are in French fairly regular), plus various practice decoding activities.  Lyster set up four groups:

  1. a control group which got regular content teaching.
  2. another group that got (1) plus “focus on forms” (FFI; explanations) only
  3. a second group got (1) plus FFI plus recasts (errors being “properly resaid” by teacher)
  4. a third group got (1) plus FFI (explanations) plus prompts (e.g. the teacher asking un maison ou une maison? after hearing students make noun gender errors); these prompts were designed to get students to reflect on and then output the targeted form

The reasoning for prompts is to “force” the learner to bring “less used” (and improperly or not-yet acquired) stuff into the mental processing loop.  Note that this is a technique for advanced learners– those who have a ton of language skill already built up– and would, as Bill VanPatten has noted, overload any kind of beginner learner.

The results, basically, were that the FFI + prompt group did way better than the others on both immediate and 2-month delayed post-test.  Postests included both choosing the proper form, and producing the proper form.

So, prima facie, Lyster can make the following argument:

“The present study thus contributes to theoretical arguments underpinning FFI by demonstrating its effectiveness when implemented in the context of subject-matter instruction within an iterative process comprising three inter-related pedagogical components:

  1. Learners are led to notice frequent co-occurrences of appropriate gender attribution with selected noun endings, contrived to appear salient by means of typographical enhancement
  2. Learners’ metalinguistic awareness of orthographic and phonological rules governing gender attribution is activated through inductive rule-discovery tasks and metalinguistic explanation
  3. Learners engage in complementary processes of analysis and synthesis (Klein, 1986; Skehan, 1998) through opportunities for practice in associating gender attribution with noun endings.”

Lyster claims that his results contribute to the “theoretical arguments underpinning FFI.”  He is right.  And here is the crux:  the problem with work like this is simple: while he can make theoretical puppets dance on experimental strings, what Lyster does in this paper will never work in a classroom.  Here are the problems:

First. the bandwidth problem, which is that for every acquisitional problem a teacher focuses on “solving,” another problem will receive less attention, because the amount of time/energy we have is limited, and so tradeoffs have to be made.  In this case, Lyster decided that a worthy problem was noun gender acquisition.  So, materials were made for that, time was spent practising that, and teachers focused recasts or prompts on that.  The students got 8-10 hours of FFI.

The question: what did they “de-emphasise” in order to focus on noun gender?  But Lyster does not address this.  Was Lyster’s testing instrument designed to catch changes in other errors that students made?  No– they looked specifically at noun gender. It is possible, indeed, it is almost certain, that the FFI resulted in other grammar or vocab content being downplayed.  Lyster’s testing instrument, in other words, was not holistic: he looked only at one specific aspect of language.

An analogy may be useful here.  A triathlete needs to excel in three sports– swimming, cycling and running– to win.  She may work on the bike until she is a drug-free version of Lance Armstrong. But if she ignores– or undertrains– the swimsuit and the runners, she’ll never podium.  An economist would say there is an opportunity cost: if you invest your money in stocks, you cannot buy the Ferrari, and vice versa.

Second is what Krashen called the constraint on interest problem.  By focusing instruction (or vocab) around a grammar device, we have much less room as teacher to deliver either an interesting variety of traditional “present, practice, produce” lessons or T.P.R.S. or A.I.M.-style stories.   Imagine deciding that since the kids have not acquired the French être avec le passé composé, you must build every activity  around that.  How quickly will the kids get bored?  Je suis allé aux toilettes.  Est-ce que tu est allé à l’ecole? etc. In T.P.R.S. (and in A.I.M.), stuff like this is in every story, but as background, because it’s boring.   It’s like saying, “paint but you only have red and blue.”

Third is the rule choice problem.  Since, as noted above, we can’t deal with every not-yet-acquired rule, we have to choose some items and rules over others. Which will they be? How will we decide?  What if teachers came up with a list of a hundred common errors that 6th grade French immersion kids made.  Which errors should they focus on?  How should materials be built– and paid for– to deal with these?  What if Profeseur Stolz couldn’t give a rat’s ass about French noun gender, but Profeseur Lyster foams at the mouth on hearing “une garçon”?

Fourth, Lyster’s study does not take into account individual learning needs.  OK, all of the subjects in the 4th group got better with noun genders (temporarily, and with prompting) .  But was this the most pressing issue for each person?  What if Max hasn’t acquired the passé composé?  What if Samba is OK with noun gender but terrible with pronouns?  When you use a grammar hammer, everything looks like the same nail.  Noun gender is not very important.  It’s like stripping a car: no brakes and the whole thing crashes; but no hood ornament only looks bad.  Noun gender is the hood ornament of French: looks good but hardly essential.

The problem with a study like Lyster’s– or a legacy-methods program that tries to systematically do what Lyster did– is that it reduces the multidimensionality of both the classroom language and activities and the teacher’s feedback, with the effect of impoverishing input.  If Max needs passé composé and Samba pronom input, and the experiment focuses activities, learning strategy instruction and teacher feedback on noun gender, the experiment’s focus inevitably cuts down on input they need as it plays up noun gender stuff.  As Susan Gross has argued, a comprehensible input classroom is going to solve that problem: by presenting “unsheltered” language– language with no verb tenses, pronouns or other grammatical features edited out– everything learners need is always in the mix.

Fifth, and most seriously, Lyster’s results do not– could not– pass Krashen’s “litmus test” for whether instructional interventions produce legitimate acquisition.  Krashen has said that if you really want to prove that your experimental treatment trying to get language learners to acquire __________ has worked, your results must meet the following criteria:

  • they must be statistically significant not just right after treatment, but three months later
  • they must occur unprompted (what Krashen calls not involving the Monitor)

The three-month delayed post-test is there to show that the intervention was “sticky.”   If it’s been acquired, it will be around for a long time; if it’s consciously learned, it will slowly disappear.  You can check the reasonableness of this by looking at your own experiences– or those of your students– and asking how well does language teaching stick in my or my kids’ heads? (Teachers who use T.P.R.S. know how sticky the results are: we do not need to review.  Legacy-methods teachers have to do review units.)  So what are Lyster’s study’s two most serious problems?

First, Lyster did a two month delayed post-test, so we don’t really know how “sticky” the FFI results were.

Second, Lyster’s assessment of results is largely Monitor-dependent. That is, he tested the students’ acquisition of noun gender when they had time to think about it, and under conditions where the experimenters (or test questions) often explicitly asked whether or not the noun in question was masculine or feminine. Given that the experimental kids had had explicit treatment, explanations etc about what they were learning– noun gender– it is not surprising that they were able to summon conscious knowledge to answer questions when it came assessment time.

At one point in his study, Lyster’s investigators found out that the students being tested had figured out what the investigators were after– noun genders– and had developed a word that sounded like a mix of “un” and “une” specifically to try to “get it right” on the tests. This is not acquisition, but rather conscious learning. 

Indeed, Lyster notes that “it might be argued therefore that […] prompting affects online oral production skills only minimally, serving instead to increase students’ metaliguistic awareness and their ability to draw upon declarative, rule-based representations on tasks where they have sufficient time to monitor their performance ” (425).

Now, why does this matter? Why do Krashen and VanPatten insist that tests of true acquisition be Monitor-free? Simple: because any real-world language use happens in real time, without time to think and self-Monitor.  What VanPatten calls “mental representation of language”– an instinctive, unthinking and proper grasp of the language– kicks in without the speaker being aware.  Real acquisition– knowing a language– as opposed to learning, a.k.a. knowing about a language (being able to consciously manipulate vocab and grammar on tests, and for various kinds of performance)– is what we want students to have.

The marvellous Terry Waltz has called kids who are full of grammar rules, menmonics, games, vocab lists etc “sloshers”: all that stuff has been “put in there” by well-meaning teachers, and the kids have probably “practiced” it through games, role-plays or communicative pair activities, but it hasn’t been presented in meaning-focused, memorable chunks– stories– so it sloshes around.

We also want to avoid teaching with rules, lists, etc, because– as Krashen and Vanpatten note– there is only so much room in the conscious mind to “hold and focus on” rules, and because the brain cannot  build mental representation– wired-in competence– of language without oceans of input.  If we teach with rules and prompts, and when we assess we examine rules and prompts, we are teaching conscious (read: limited) mind stuff.  We’re teaching to the grammar test.

So…to sum up Lyster’s experiment, he

  • took a bunch of time away from meaningful (and linguistically multidimensional) activities & input, and, in so doing,
  • focused on a low-importance grammar rule, and his results
  • do not show that the learners still had it three months post-treatment,
  • do not show that learners could recognise or produce the form without conscious reminders, and
  • did not measure the opportunity cost of the intervention (the question of what the students lost out on while working on noun gender)

Does this matter?  YES.  Lyster, to the best of my knowledge, is giving bad advice when he recommends “focus on form” interventions.  If you teach Immersion (or just regular language class), doing grammar practice and noticing-style activities is probably a waste of time.   Or, to put it another way, we know that input does a ton of good work, but Lyster has not shown that conscious grammar interventions build cost-free, wired-in, long-term unprompted skill.

My questions to Lyster are these:  on what functionally useful evidence do you base your claim that focus on form is essential for SLA, and how would you suggest dealing with rule choice, bandwidth, opportunity cost and individualisation problems, etc?

How do I start the Year with T.P.R.S.?

Craig West asked me, “how do you start your year?”  Good question.  So here is what I do on Day 1.

A) Kids come in, I take attendance, they sit where they want, I make a seating plan. If it turns out they can’t work together, I will move them later.

B) I hand out the COURSE OUTLINE , the INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric (a modified version of Ben Slavic and Jen Schongalla’s jGR) and kids fill out paperwork.

C) I basically tell them two things. First, general expectations (no swearing, sexist or homophobic etc language, don’t make a mess, yadda yadda).  Then, I ask them “if you took another language, and it didn’t work for you, or you didn’t like it, I want to know why” and they tell the class.  Usually they say things like “[language] was boring, hard to understand, bla bla.”

Then, I tell them, “Ok, here we learn through stories and it’s really easy. All you have to do to learn a language is listen to words you understand in it, or read it.” I also tell them, the amount of fun in class depends on how much energy they bring to it (suggestions), I show them the rules poster, and I tell them how to do responses.

Then, I hand out my vocab sheet for my first story–Los Gatos Azules— where the words are written in Spanish.  They write down the English. Then I start asking the story. I write a few of the first sentences on the board.  Había un chico.  Vivía en ________. Se llamaba ________.  I get the kids to suggest funny names etc.  I ask for a volunteer to act, or appoint a native speaker if I have one, and I ask him questions from the PQA chart.  On Day 1, I probably won’t get much further than quieres, eres and tienes– questions.

This (below) is my PQA chart.

So if I narrate Había un chico, I ask my actor ¿eres un chico? and he answers soy un chico by reading off PQA chart.  (If I have a native speaker, I’ll use him/her.) I’ll also ask ¿tienes un perro/gato? and he answers Sí, tengo un gato and/or no tengo un perro, and I’ll ask ¿cómo te llamas? –me llamo _____ and ¿vives en _____? — sí/no, no vivo en. I make sure I do a LOT of comprehension checks with both actor and class. A comp check involves asking either one person or the class “what did I just say?” or “what did I just ask?” and checking if they understand.

I’ll also start with another kid as my first parallel character.  Usually a girl (so we can start in on feminine nouns etc) and my parallel character stays in her seat but I will give her a prop to help be a visual anchor.  So, with Los Gatos Azules, the main character (boy) has a dog (I give him a stuffed dog) but wants 10 blue cats.  The parallel character– a girl, seated– has a cat (and prop) but wants 27 purple dogs.

I have realia– for this story stuffed animals– which are good “meaning anchors.” Anything you say which is comprehensible– and which has any other kind of meaning support, such as realia, props, gestures– will help kids acquire language.  Below, gato and perro are vocab from the story; ratón is an obvious easy cognate that provides easy contrast for circling a pair of sentences.  I could even vary the story…el chico quería tener diez gatos azules…but…el gato quería un ratón blanco

I will stop my story 10 min before the end, and then I’ll do an exit quiz. This sets tone– yes, T.P.R.S. is fun BUT you still have to tune in– and also an exit quiz is easy. The kids “get” Spanish on their first day and that feels good.

For homework for day two, I’ll have the kids make simple desk signs. On one side goes their name (can be fake), a picture/drawing of something they like to do, and another of something they own (or a pet).  On the back goes ¿puedo ir al baño? and ¿puedo ir a tomar agua? and ¿puedo ir a mi armario? This is a Ben Slavic idea.  You can always pick one kid’s sign, write a sentence about it on the board (or write a sentence about another kid’s sign also) and presto!, instant mini-c.i. activity.  Plus, the signs help me learn the kids’ names and get to know them better.

There are a zillion other activities you can do on start-up day/week (Ben Slavic has a whole book called Stepping Stones to Stories where he describes his start-up system). Some teachers have to “norm” their classes, i.e. teach them how to behave.  But I have found that, for me, the best thing is to go straight into stories.  It seems that kids learn best when vocab is “packaged” into stories, and when they have to read embedded versions of stories.  I have basically learned that said in September, forgot by December, so if it gets said, it has to be read if I want the kids to remember it.  I do enjoy scene-spinning and improv though…

On Day 2, I start by circling weather and date (good to put boring stuff in background). I review the story, and we continue on– I’ll be able to introduce vas, te gusta(n) and queria— and this day I start personalised questins and answers.  For me, P.Q.A. is basically asking the class members the same question as the actors.

So, if this was Day 2 PQA, I would do the following before reviewing and then continuing the story.  I would first say “OK, yesterday we started a story, and today, I want to get to know you guys, so I’ll ask you some of the questions I asked [actor and parallel character]. Answer with whatever you are comfortable with: sí/no, a word, or a sentence.” Then I’ll point to the PQA chart, make sure they know what the questions mean– and how to answer them– and off we go.

I pick a random kid and ask ¿eres un chico? and he has to answer , or soy un chico.  I’ll repeat the same with a girl, then I’ll do ¿tienes un gato/perro? This is where personalisation starts.  Little by little, you start to learn about your kids.  Who has a dog? Who likes/hates cats?  I also tell them, if you want, totally lie, as long as it’s not inappropriate (e.g. if you said it to your Mom, would she laugh or perma-ground you?) so some kids will want to say tengo un dinosaurio and that can become part of class culture.  It is also fun to ask a boy ¿eres una chica? etc.

Then, we go back to our story. I’ll review details from Day 1, then ask for more details, introduce the problem, etc. This year, I started changing things a wee bit– I now ask characters in my stories present tense questions about other characters– e.g. Donald Trump, ¿es un chico Barack Obama?–  which gets me present-tense reps.

So there you go– starting the year with t.p.r.s.

What does good language teaching look like? The Ten Principles for ALL language teachers

Today’s question is “What does good language teaching– regardless of method– look like?”

Here are criteria.  Comments welcome!

1) The class delivers a LOT of aural and written comprehensible input, supported where necessary with translation, images, acting, gestures and whatever makes the input comprehensible.  Input is:

  • always comprehensible
  • quality, and not generated by (error-making) learners
  • compelling (this will vary with class, age, culture etc)
  • delivered via progress along frequency lists (more-frequently used vocab is taught before less frequently used)
  • not impoverished: it does not overfocus on one grammatical/vocabulary rule or grouping, and it does not leave out any elements of the language’s grammar
  • repeated frequently without being boring

2) Both input and class are personalised.  The teacher will make an ongoing effort to get students to understand and respond to vocabulary in ways which reflect students’ interests, identities (real and/or imagined) and views.

3)  Grammar— the rules and conventions of language as traditionally understood by teachers and texts–

  • is briefly mentioned only to clarify meaning
  • does not form the goal, organisational system or focus of instruction
  • is not practiced through drills, worksheets, songs, etc, because research shows these ineffective

4)  Instruction primarily focuses on immersing learners in comprehending compelling meaning in the target language.  This means that portfolio-work-revision, correction, grammar concept explanations and mind-mapping, feedback, focus on teacher-or-text-driven ideas about “cultural relevance,” etc are avoided.

5)  Output has the following characteristics:

  • it is always unrehearsed and unforced
  • it has no goal other than immediately authentic conversation (no role plays, etc; scripted activities such as A.I.M. or T.P.R.S.-style stories provide input for other learners)
  • the learner, and not the teacher, chooses the level of output they are comfortable with, from yes/no answers to essays

6) The classroom is safe and welcoming.  The classroom should not make anyone feel uncomfortable or self-conscious.  The minimum behaviour standards are that students

  • listen and read with the intent to understand, and avoid focus on distractions
  • do not distract anyone in class
  • signal comprehension or a lack thereof

7)  Instruction recognises the unchangeability of (and tremendous variation between students’ progress along) internal linguistic syllabi.  Instruction therefore delivers an always-rich, non-impoverished diet of comprehensible language, so that

  • neural architecture constantly builds
  • learners consistently have exposure to whatever they need
  • learners can acquire new items or rules when they are ready, because “everything is present in the mix” (Susan Gross).

8)  Instruction and assessment avoid

  • explicit goals
  • “I can” or any other kind of language-narrowing statements
  • textbook-style, discrete-item sequencing, presentation and assessment of grammar and vocabulary

9) Evaluation only involves meaningful, multi-dimensional language tasks (reading, writing, listening and speaking) which are in-context authentic and holistic.  Evaluation therefore avoids legacy practices such as grammar-item tests, vocabulary quizzes, “show me you can do this real-world dialogue”-style talking activities, etc.

10) Level-to-level attrition rates, marks variability and failure rates are all low, and special-needs students succeeed int he class.  In other words, people who start taking the language keep on taking it, the difference between higher and lower marks is minimal, and scores are high.

(11)  The teacher  modifies practice if something better comes along, or current practice does not work for students.

OK.  Ça va?  ¿Sirve?  Geht’s?  If these statements describe us, our classes and our students, we are doing everything right.

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.


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.  


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


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.


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


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.

What is “circling” and how do I do it?

Learners need a LOT of meaningful repetition to acquire something, so years ago Susan Gross developed the “circling” technique to allow teachers to make huuuuuuge numbers of repetitions on vocab.  Here’s how you do it, and no, you don’t have to use T.P.R.S. to benefit.  You are also going to circle sentences you find in reading, and things you say in Movietalk.

1.  Start with a sentence– Rochelle quiere jugar fútbol (R. wants to play soccer) & make sure kids understand it.

2. Ask a yes question– ¿clase, Rochelle quiere jugar fútbol?–and class answers sí.  Restate sentence.

3.  Ask a no question–clase, ¿Rochelle quiere jugar basquetbol ?– and class answers no. Restate sentence.

4. Ask an either/or question– clase, ¿quiere Rochelle jugar basquetbol o fútbol?– and class answers fútbol.  Restate sentence.

5.  Ask an “adding detail” question where kids have input– clase, ¿dónde quiere jugar fútbol Rochelle?— and when they suggest something interesting, add that to the sentence, e.g. Sí, clase, ¡Rochelle quiere jugar basquetbol en Barcelona!

6.  Now, circle the new detail, always restating the sentence s.l.o.w.l.y. Clase, ¿quiere Rochelle jugar fútbol en Barcelona? ¿Quiere jugar fútbol en Los Angeles? etc

If you want to add details, “with whom?” and “where?” questions are best, as these add details without adding new vocab.  In T.P.R.S., we want to recycle a small amount of vocab so people really acquire it, rather than swamping students in an ocean of partly-acquired words.

The most important thing I have learned about circling is, don’t overdo it.  If you have a story with, say, 3 parallel characters, you are going to re-use each sentence for each character, so please for the kids’ sake do not beat the sentences to death. If your structure is quería tener (wanted to have) you can ask a yes question about one character, a no question about another, etc. If you are doing Ben Slavic-style “pre-teaching” where you circle and play around with vocab before asking a story, always start with two sentences (more variety).

Goddess Laurie Clarq also weighed in– read her ideas here— and another suggestion (dunno where this came from) is to circle subject, verb then object (or to mix the order up).

E.g. your sentence is Maninder tiene tres novos guapos (M. has three handsome boyfriends).

So, first you circle Maninder.  Clase, ¿tiene tres novios guapos Maninder? ¿Tiene tres novios guapos Anna? ¿Tiene tres novios Anna o Maninder?  Always repeat the sentence.

You next circle the verb.  Clase, ¿,quiere o tiene tres novios guapos Maninder? Clase, ¿quiere tres novios guapos? Etc

Finally, you circle the subject.  Clase, ¿Maninder tiene tres novios guapos? ¿Tiene tres perros? ¿Tiene tres gatos o tres novios?

The circling keys to success are

  • go s.l.o.w.l.y
  • keep it 100% comprehensible
  • go slow enough to be understood, and fast enough to not be boring
  • use parallel characters (or sentences) so you don’t beat your questions to death
  • DO NOT CIRCLE EVERYTHING!  You only need to (mainly) circle new-ish stuff.

What does conversation in a Level 1 & 2 split class look like?

Week 8 of fully unsheltered grammar, Level 1&2 Spanish.  What does PQA (personalised questions and answers) look like? 

I’m posting this to show that– as long as you keep the language 100% comprehensible– you can easily operate with two levels at once.  You can see that the 2s and I are providing input for the 1s and there is no real output pressure.  I check for understanding, I provide a chance for y/n and/or one-word answers, and I let the kids say as much or as little as they want.

Also note what we are doing re: grammar.  The beginners can easily operate in 3 verb tenses.  Traditionally you would see pretérito (passé composé) in level 2 and imperfecto (imparfait) in level 3. Now, a lot of the beginners won’t be able to say everything, but after awhile it will kick in. As Susan Gross points out, if the input has everything we need from Day 1, and it’s comprehensible, kids will pick it up when they have heard it a ton and are ready for it.

The main rule: if it is said or read,nit must be 100% comprehensible.  I also do a lot of gesturing for verbs, nouns and past tense.  Here is what we did for a bit today.

Me: Fahim, ¿qué hiciste anoche?

Fahim (level 2): Fui al gimnasio con Danny.

Me: Class, what did he just say?

Class: I went to the gym with Danny.

Me: ¿Te gustó? ¿Fue divertido?

Fahim: Sí, fue muy divertido. Me gustó mucho.

Me: Clase, ¿adónde fueron Fahim y Danny anoche– al gimnasio, o al cine?

Class: al gimnasio

Me: Sí, clase, los chicos fueron al gimnasio.

Me: Clase, a Fahim y Danny, ¿les gustó o no les gustó el gimnasio?

Class: Les gustó.

Me: Sí, les gustó el gimnasio.  Class, what does that mean?

Class: He likes the gym.

Me: Whoa! Les gustó means “they liked.”  So when I ask ¿les gustó el gimnasio? what am I asking?

Class: Did they like the gym.

Me to Marya (level 1): Marya, ¿fuiste al gimnasio anoche?

Marya: No.

Me: ¿Te gusta ir al gimnasio, o te gusta ir al cine?

Marya: al cine

Me: ¿Tenías mucha tarea anoche?


Me: Class, what did I just ask Marya?

Class: Did you have a lot of homework last night?

Me to Ace (level 2): ¿Qué hiciste anoche tú?

Ace: tenía mucha tarea en inglés, y ví la televisión.

Me: ¿Ves mucha televisión, o ves poca televisión?

Ace: Poca televisión.

Me: ¿Por qué no ves mucha televisión?

Ace: No me gusta mucho la televisión. Es aburrido.

Me: ¿Qué prefieres: ver la televisión o textear con tus amigos?

Ace: Prefiero textear con tus amigos. (“I prefer to text with your friends”– an error)

Me (adding a bunch of emphasis): ¿ prefieres textear con MIS amigos? (I point at Ace then at me)

Ace (laughs): yo prefiero textear con MIS amigos.

Me to class: Class, what did Ace just say?

Class: I prefer texting with my friends.

Me to Manisha (level 1): Manisha, ¿prefieres textear con tus amigas, o hacer la tarea?

Manisha: textear

Me: Hacer la tarea– ¿es interesante o aburrido? 

Manisha: Es aburrido.

Me: Textear con tus amigas: ¿cómo es? ¿Es divertido o es aburrido textear?

Manisha: Divertido.

Whaddaya got, grammarians?

My Twitter challenge from a month ago stands: if you can use grammar and output-focused methods, and get better results than me with true beginners, an evening of beer (or wine) tasting is on me.

(Before we discuss results, let’s discuss what really matters: 🍻…Vancouver now has a bunch of crafty breweries. My favorite is Brassneck, who do not bottle, and who have only two beers (and I.P.A. and a northwest pale ale– this very close to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the gold standard for this style) which are always on tap. The other eight or so rotating taps are brewmaster Conrad Gmoser “unleashed” and you never see the same beers twice.  You may find cherry sours, Belgian Trippels, saisons, pilseners, Gmoser’s legendary 11% espresso stout… But Brassneck is not alone: there are a bunch of other great places too and though we are neither Denver nor Portland there is good beer to be had.  My colleague Leanda read this and said “what about 🍷?” so fair enough a wine-guzz–, er I mean, tasting evening is also ip for grabs)

ANYWAY…so far nobody has stepped up for their free beer evening.  Hello, grammarians.  Whaddaya got? “Communicative” teachers– you out there?  American Adminz who think talking, self-reflection, writing, grammar practice and “essential questions” matter– you feelin’ me?

Now allow me to explain the somewhat sarcastic tone here.  There are a bunch of teachers in the U.S. whose idio– err I mean, Administratorz, sorry, are totally unaware of how language acquisition works. These Adminz watch competent c.i. practitioners and then say stupid things like

  • “I want to see more communicative pair activities”
  • “the students aren’t talking enough”
  • “there is too much teacher talk”
  • “TPRS does not teach grammar”
  • “I do not see essential questions on the board”
  • “I do not see students reflecting on their learning”
  • “While stories I am sure are fun, the kids will also need grammar practice.”

The only thing worse than an admin who knows nothing about language acquisition is an admin who points to bad practices and wants to see more of them.  Uninformed Adminz are often two-year-olds: they want to see some shiny, commonsensical obvious “stuff” being “done” by kids “right now” as “evidence” of ________.  Uninformed Adminz love seeing communicative pair activities– “look! The kids are talking!”– and they looooove things with edubabbble– “look! E-learning! Portfolios! Self-assessment! Rigor!”– and they do not like classrooms with kids who appear to be, well, thinking and absorbing.

So these idi– err I mean, educational leaders, make life hard for c.i. practitioners, and point at bad practices for what c.i. people “should” be doing (and generally do not look at the results of c.i. instruction). Anyway, this is a challenge.  My kids do NONE of the following

  • Self assessment
  • Grammar worksheets
  • Speaking Spanish (unless they want to)
  • Communicative pair activities
  • Internet/dictionary word searches
  • Revision of writing
  • Goal setting
  • Portfolios
  • anything online

Challenge: use all the things I don’t, and get better results than me.

Here’s what my beginner kids are doing at 8 weeks of Spanish.  These are examples of story writes (a.k.a. relaxed writes). They have 40 minutes to write a story which is a variation on the most recent story we asked (and read extended versions of) in class.  They are not allowed to use notes, dictionaries, Internet, etc.  What you see here is from memory.

Manisha missed the first week of class and misses about a day a week cos of stress issues.  The grammar mistakes are absolutely minor. Here is page 1. 

Roshini also did amazingly well: 324 words.  Note the French error! Ha! She mixes up dio and dijo.

Manvir also did well. 282 words. She has a few errors– minor spelling and adj agreement. I’ll post her whole thing.

Here’s Manvir’s 2nd page

and here is her conclusion

Standard disclaimer: I am neither smart, hardworking nor good at languages. If I can get these results, anyone can get these results!

And if you think these are good…you should see what Adriana Ramírez’ kids can do.  Ella es mi profesora diosa. 

Are explicit grammar instruction and feedback effective and worthwhile? A look at bad research & wrong conclusions.

I have been discussing research on grammar teaching and feedback for awhile on Twitter with Steve S. and others.  I maintain that there is essentially no value– in terms of acquisitional gains for students– in explicitly teaching grammar or providing corrective feedback.  Steve sent me a paper– Bowles and Montrul (2008)— which seems to suggest the opposite.  This is a classic problem for languages teachers:  somebody does (very bad) research about Grammar Intervention Technique X, “finds” that it “works,” and then textbook publishers and grammarians use this to torture their poor students.  SO…

Today’s question:  is grammar instruction and feedback both effective and worthwhile?

Bowles and Montrul took English speakers learning Spanish, and wanted to see whether appropriate forms of the personal a in Spanish could best be acquired (for recognition) via regular exposure to Spanish, or via exposure to explicit instruction (“this is the personal a, and ____ is how/where you use it”) plus reading sentences containing (and some not containing) the personal a, some of which were grammatical and other which weren’t, plus feedback: if they screwed up, they were told so, and they got an explanation, and they could do the exercise again as often as they wanted.  They were also told to try to get a score of 90% correct.

When the treatment finished, they were tested, and statistical analyses confirm that, yes, the people who got instructional treatment– instruction, sample sentences, and feedback– did better than the others (and by “did better,” we mean “were able to recognise proper/improper uses of the personal a”).

So, Steve S. appears to be right.  Grammar instruction and feedback are prima facie effective.  BUT…but…but… there are so many problems with this study that, frankly, we might as well throw it out.  Here we go:  Stolzie versus the Professors.

First, Bowles and Montrul made several mistakes with their control group.

1.  Their study compared a treatment group with a non-treatment group, with insufficient differentiation of treatment variables.  This raises the question of cause: whether the treatment group’s gains came from instruction and feedback, or from simple exposure to Spanish.  If the treatment group got exposure to comprehensible language containing the instructional target (the personal a), and instruction and feedback, we do not know whether it was simple exposure to the target, or instruction and feedback about the target that made changes in understanding.

To address a concern like this, study design would have to expose a control group to lots of language containing the target, and the treatment group to that same language, as well as instruction plus feedback, so that the only difference between the groups would be the instruction and feedback.  This would allow us to tell what made the difference.

2.  Their study also failed to account for quantity of language exposed to.  They note that both groups got regular course instruction, but only the treatment group got the treatment (outside of class time).  So…if the treatment group got more Spanish than the controls, how do we know that the outcomes were a result of treatment?  Perhaps the treatment group’s gains came about from just simply getting more Spanish.  This is a confound: a potential and untested alternative explanation.

To address this concern, both groups should have received the same amount of exposure to Spanish– ideally only in class.

Second, Bowles and Montrul severely limited themselves with their treatment.  If you want to determine  the best way to improve language acquisition (even of a simple item), you cannot just take one intervention and compare it to a control, and from that make a general statement such as “grammar interventions work.”.  Their experiment does not look at other possibilities.  How about just simple comprehensible input containing the target in class?  Or, how about VanPatten’s processing instruction?  How about free voluntary reading in Spanish?

Lourdes and Ortega (2000) in their massive study of effectiveness of instructional intervention (that’s jargon for “does teaching people languages actually help them acquire languages?”) noted that basically any exposure to the target language– if it is meaningful– will produce some acquisition.  The question is not “does _____ work?”, but “how well— compared to other approaches– does _____ work?”  A grammarian who likes his worksheets and a “communicative” teacher who loves having her first-years do “dialogues” will both say “but they are learning!” and they are right.  The question, however, is how MUCH are they learning compared to other methods?

From the teacher’s point of view– outside of the control-group flaws noted above– this study does not provide us with anything useful.  All it (in my view wrongly) claims is that some “focus on form” (allegedly) worked better than whatever else the students were doing.  But since we have a lot of instructional options, research that doesn’t compare them is useless.

A better design would have looked at different ways of helping people acquire the personal a (other than just having it present in input, as it was for the control group) and compared their effectiveness.

Third, there was no examination of durability of intervention.  OK, a week after intervention, tests found the intervention group picked up the personal a.  How about a year later– did they still have it?  If there is no look at durability of intervention, why bother?  If I have to decide what to do with my students, and I have zero guarantee that Intervention ____ will last, why do it– especially if, as we will see, it’s boring. Krashen proposed a three-months-delayed post-test as one criterion of validity.  This study does not deliver on that.

Fourth, any classroom teacher can see the massive holes in this kind of thing right off the bat.

(A) it’s boring.  Would YOU want to read and listen to two-dimensional writing for days?  Juan vio a Juana.  Juana le dio un regalo a su mamá.  I cannot imagine any set of students paying attention to this.  If you wanted to diversify instruction– i.e. not present just tedious lists of sentences and grammar info– you would also be severely restricted in what you can actually do in the classroom, as you have to build everything around rule ______.  

(B) the “number of rules” problem rears its head.  Bowles and Montrul targeted the personal a because we don’t have that in English.  Spanish also has a ton of other grammar we don’t have in English.  Off the top of my head, umm,

  • subject position in questions
  • differences in use of past tenses with auxiliary verbs
  • major differences in uses of reflexive verbs…e.g. why does a Spanish speaker say comí una pizza, but me comí tres pizzas?

Any Spanish teacher could go on and come up with zillions more “non-Englishy” rules that need to be learned.  If a teacher wants to design teaching around rule-focused input and feedback, the problem is that they will never be able to address all the rules, because the number of rules is not only functionally infinite, but nobody knows them all.

Fifth, the opportunity cost of grammar reinforcement etc is both high and unaddressed in this study.  Basically, what we have is a bandwidth problem.  We have X amount of time per day/course/year to teach Spanish (or whatever).  Any focus on Rule A means– by definition– we will have less time to devote to Rule B.  Even the doddering grammarian with his verb charts and grammar notes can see the problem– oh no!  If we spend too much time on the personal a, I won’t be able to benefit the kids with my mesmerising object pronoun worksheets!— but it’s worse than that.

In terms of input, focus on a grammar rule/item/etc means losing out on two crucial things:

1. Language that is multidimensional in terms of content.  As noted, if the personal a is your target, you are seriously restricted in what you can say, write, etc (it’s boring) but, beyond being boring, students are losing out on whatever could be said without using the personal a.

2.  Language that is grammatically multidimensional.  If I must teach focused on the personal a, the other “rules” will be less present in the input, and so we’re starving Peter to feed Paul.

My guess is that– even if you did this study without all the flaws I note above and got positive results– you would find a cost elsewhere, as the quantity and variety of language students would be exposed to would have dropped and been simplified.  So they might master the personal a, but they acquire less of grammar rule ____ or vocab _____.

(Krashen and many others have looked at almost exactly this question in terms of acquisition of vocab and writing skills in terms of whether or not free voluntary reading (in L1 or L2) or classroom instruction works best.  You can teach people vocab, or phonics, or word-decoding, or writing rules, or you can let them read (or listen) to interesting stuff.  The research is unanaimous and clear: free voluntary reading beats everything in terms of how fast things are picked up, how interesting learning is, and how “multidimensional” the learning– measured in various ways, from word recognition to improved writing– is.)

What we need is a holistic look at acquisition, which one-item studies of this kind cannot show us.  What did these students not acquire while they were doing their personal a grammar work?  What did the students who got multidimensional input pick up?  Language is much more complex than knowing Rule ____ and looking at an instructional intervention that targets .1% of what needs to be learned– while ignoring the other 99.9%– is silly at best.

If you really want to know whether an instructional intervention, or technique, works, you have to look at all aspects of language use, not just whether or not one rule has been acquired.

SO…do grammar-focused instruction, vocab presentation and corrective feedback work to help people acquire the personal a?

  • maybe (but Bowles and Montrul don’t know why)
  • we have no idea for how long
  • sure…for one item at a time
  • in a boring way
  • in a way that sacrifices essential multidimensional input (of grammar and vocab)

So.  Next?

How do exit quizzes work?

Richmond, B.C. powerhouse teacher Sonya ONeill writes “Exit quizzes…could you post an example?–I’m a bit confused about how to do these well. Do you do translations only? If so, are you starting in Spanish always with all levels? Do you ever use comprehension questions (of the story you just asked) at this time? Are these your main listening assessments?”

OK, today’s question, how can we do exit quizzes?

My system is simple.

  • Based on what we did in class, I read five sentences aloud.  These sentences contain the vocab from the story we are working on, or are sentences directly from that story.  If they are not from the story, they have to be stand-alone meaningful.
  • I tell the kids, “write down what you hear in Spanish, then translate into English.”
  • They write Spanish then translate into English.
  • The kids trade papers and we mark (the Spanish writing doesn’t matter much– it’s comprehension we are after).
  • The kids return the marked papers to each other.
  • I get a show of hands: Put your hand up if you got either 4/5 or 5/5.

If 80% of class got 4 or 5 out of 5, I am happy.  If not, I delivered bad/too little input, or they weren’t listening, and so we need to do more work around those sentences.  Sometimes I collect the marks, sometimes not.

Do I do “comprehension questions”?  By this, Sonya (I think) means, Do I ask the kids comprehension questions based on the story we have read/asked without them looking at/hearing the story at the time of the quiz?  I.e., do they have to remember and then answer?

Never.  Why?  The problems with comprehension questions are as follows

a) especially with beginners, the “mental load” involved in comp questions is super high, because kids have to do three things

  • decode the meaning of the question
  • remember content
  • write answers.

We know output (writing or speaking) does not aid acquisition, so no point with that.  We also know that all we need for acquisition is comprehensible input, so again responses don’t help.  This is a lot of mental work, and Bill VanPatten reminds us that what we might call “mental bandwidth overload” is an inevitable and insurmountable fact.  Basically, the less they have to “do” with a chunk of language, the more processing power they have for each chunk.

b) We also know that comprehension always and massively outpaces production.  Our kids– and we teachers– always  recognise more words in any language than we can produce.  If we ask for output, we may be forcing kids to “do” something they havn’t acquired yet.  

Say I tell my kids five sentences in Spanish, one sentence at a time.  Max (average), Samba (fast processor) and Rorie (insanely fast) all understand the new structures fui and trabajé that were in our story.  But Max hasn’t acquired them (i.e. he can’t say or write them) yet, while Samba and Rorie have.  If we know that acquisition goes at different speeds for different students, does asking for output not penalise Max for something he cannot control?

c) In my view– and I thank James Hosler for this insight– assessment should basically just be another excuse to deliver input to the kids.  I don’t want to play “gotcha” and I want people to succeed, so I’ll focus listening around what they can understand and easily do.

By the way, I think we can totally use questions for exit quizzes, provided we do not ask for output answers.  Just have one sentence be the question and the next the answer.  You say 1. ¿trabajaste anoche? and the kids write it down in Spanish, and then translate it: “did you work last night?”  Your next sentence is 2. “No, no trabajé anoche.  Fui al cine” and the kids write that down, and then they write “No, I didn’t work.  I went to the movies.”  Then you say three more Spanish sentences which they all copy and translate.

Once the quizzes are done and marked, you can also use these for PQA if you have a few minutes at the end of class.  Ask the fast processors some of the questions and have the class listen to what they say.