comprehensible input

Should I Use Word Clouds?

Word-clouds look really cool. Here’s one in Spanish:

Somebody asked, should I use word clouds in Spanish? My answer: it depends. Here are bits of the conversation and comments.

First, it seems to me that if you need “support” to write, you havn’t fully acquired the language you are using. This raises the question of what exactly one is assessing. Second, using written prompts for oral output…this won’t help acquisition, but— for the kids who actually bother doing it instead of chatting in L1 to their friends— it might boost confidence. Third, for the music, there is no meaning processing going on, which means no acquisition.

If somebody gives me the Blablabian word “gerfzl,” gets me to listen to a song by Blablabian singer Zpfl, and I hear Zpfl sing 🎶 gerfzl 🎶, I have completed a task that I could do without knowing the meaning of what I am hearing. And not only am I not necessarily processing the individual words, but I am almost certainly not processing Zpfl’s meaning at the sentence & verse level.

I pointed this out, and got the following response:

I’m not sure what is meant here by “recognition.” I do think demonstrating comprehension is a good idea though. The second writer’s comment again raises the problem: this activity can be done without processing meaning.

Another person chimed in with the following:

If you didn’t take more than a minute to show the kids how many words from the cloud they know, great. But again…processing isolated words means students are not processing grammar, or sentence-level meaning.

The final comment— using word-clouds to see what ppl know and don’t— is mayyybeeee not a bad idea. But it raises the question, why in a c.i. class are people processing or working with non-comprehended vocab? As somebody who follows TPRS dictae— comprehended, or stop and circle/review until comprehended— I wouldn’t use anything non-comprehended.

Another question here is, what will you do with the info regarding which words are comprehended or not? If we find students know most of the vocab, great. If they don’t? Well, you have to “review,” and we know how poorly the “hear it once and try to remember” approach works.

I think a much better way to show kids vocabulary that you want them to use would be…in a story. There, they get “whole” language where the words are used in context.

We should remember one thing: acquisition occurs when comprehended input is processed for a purpose in a communicative context. And “communicative” means meaning-based. An activity that has students “recognizing” words, or putting words into blanks (cloze), or reviewing meaning (basically a test) is not communicative. And if the purpose is “learning” or “reviewing” vocab, this is also not meaning-based in an interesting way.

How interesting would you find it if your _____ language teacher said “ok here is a lis— er, cloud— of words. Tell me which ones you don’t know, and I’ll tell you their meanings”? 😉

There Are No Shortcuts

It has been oft-observed that no matter what your first language is, your brain acquires additional languages in the same way (ie via comprehended input, in stages, following a set order, etc).

One study looked at L1 German and English speakers acquiring L2 French. It was found that both Germans and English made the same mistakes with subject-verb inversion during question formation, despite German having the same “rule” as French.

This should be comforting to language teachers, who often see “errors” persisting seemingly forever. Why can’t the kids just use plural verbs?, ask Spanish teachers. What is so difficult about the fartitive arricle? whine our French-teaching colleagues. Well, here is a story that may shed some light.

I’m a native German speaker who learned English starting in kindergarten, French in grade seven, and Spanish at age twenty-two. I acquired a lot of Cantonese from neighbourhood kids around age three, but I forgot it.

In Spanish, when you say I wash my hands, you don’t say lavo mis manos. You actually say me lavo las manos, which literally means something like “for myself I wash the hands.” The me makes it clear that these are my and not somebody else’s hands.

This “rule” took me forever to acquire. Like, years. And then it hit me.

In German, we have exactly the same “rule” as Spanish. To say I wash my hands, you don’t say ich wasche meine Hände. You say ich wasche mir die Hände, or “I wash for me the hands.” (The only difference between Spanish and German is where the reflexive pronoun me/mir goes.)

I had to acquire the same “rule” in Spanish that I had already acquired in German, and I had to acquire it the same way that I— and anyone else— acquires it: from the input.

So if your kids are taking forever to say eg estoy bien instead of soy bien, or whatever, relax. Even if their L1 “rule” is like the L2 “rule” they are acquiring— and equally so if there is no similarity— they still have to work through ordered development.

And if there is one lesson here, it might be, resist the urge for grammatical explanations, or cleverly-disguised “practice”, or God help you worksheets, when your kids’ emergent grammars raises your teacherly hackles. Patience, my good sir and madame— there are no shortcuts.

How Not To Start The Year

It’s August, which means I’m going climbing and my poor American colleagues are thinking about The First Day of School, the poor things, and writing about How To Start The Year.

Well here at tprsquestionsandanswers, we take a different tack. We here provide a list of what not to do, and why.

1. Don’t discuss proficiency levels. Nobody benefits. Nobody cares. Nobody will remember. And omfg is this ever boring. The time to do this is roughly mid-year, when people have enough language in their heads that rubrics and descriptors and giant farting sounds make sense.

2. Do not assign target-language names. Do you even know your kids’ actual names yet? Do you think it might be, uh, stereotypical to provide a list of French (or whatever) names? Do your kids want Spanish names? What actually is a “Spanish name,” anyway? I know Spaniards named Desirée, Pedro, Mandeep and Ahmed.

3. Do not show a video/play a soundclip in the target language that your kids don’t understand. Teachers who do this say this shows students how it is going to feel during the beginning of class and while traveling to the country where ____ is spoken. Well, DUH, Johnny signed up for Intro Blablabian because he doesn’t know any Blablabian, and believe me, he knows what he doesn’t know. I cannot see the point of this. And if it’s a C.I. class, they are supposed to understand when you teach, because you make it comprehensible.

4. Do not do icebreakers, or “get to know,” or “find someone who ____”- type activities. Dunno if you know this, but most people of all ages haaaate icebreakers. If you are doing a “find someone who ___” activity in the target language, a lot of L1 is going to be used, most adolescents don’t really want to talk to strangers, and people find these activities silly (especially people who have spent years in school together, and who know each other).

5. Do not do “goal setting.” This is one of those stupid ideas that comes from the mix of psychobabble and corporate wankguage that is common to North American workplaces. There can only be one goal in a language class: learn the language (and hopefully a bit about the peoples who speak it). What are you going to do if a kid has a silly goal? What if a kid has been put into your class and hates it already? And, above all, does goal setting have anything to do with acquiring the language?

If you must do goal setting, the proper time for this is about 1/4 of the way through the course, when people have some language in their heads, some ideas about how acquisition works, and hopefully an interest in the language and its attendant cultures.

6. Do not play a game on Day 1. Especially with pure beginners, they have basically zero language in their heads, and games typically involve things like name-guessing/remembering, or one-word answers. This is impoverished input. Also, we want people to see what class is actually like, and if you don’t play a lot of games…

7. Do not “go over the syllabus” on Day 1. It’s boring. Nobody cares. Nobody will remember. You probably won’t even look at it again 😂😂. The way to “go over the syllabus” is when you need to address a specific point, eg marking, management bla bla. As teacher Wendy-Ann Alisa says, “just dive in and show them what a true lesson in the class looks like. Then, you can go back and do the necessary things to get everything set up in the days/weeks to come.”

I mean, Day 1 is First Impressions Day, and you better show kids what is going to happen and how much they can easily learn.

8. Do not administer a “placement test.” Placement/“level” tests might show you that a kid is placed way above/below their level…and so? If you can’t move the kid into a more appropriate section, what are you gonna do with the info?

Placement tests (for 80% of students) feel like a judgement, serve no purpose (unless the kid can get moved), and waste time. If you have a split/multilevel class, don’t stress, we gotcha.

9. Do not make people learn and orally repeat the alphabet, numbers, or anything else. Chanting & repetition can be done without knowing what one is saying, and therefore isn’t teaching anyone anything (it’s not communicative). And it’s silly. Yes, students will eventually have to learn boring crap…here is how to make that process less painful.

10. Do not avoid using the target language on Day 1. We need to get kids processing easy input ASAP, because we only have 100 or so hours. Card talk works. So does a TPRS story. Whatever you do, get them processing a limited number of words (in sentence form) which deal with an interesting idea and which can be repeated over and over.

11. Do not discuss metacognition. It’s boring, nobody cares, nobody will remember, and you cannot really reflect on the implicit linguistic system. After a few weeks, sure, ask your class what is going on in our class to make Blablabian easy to learn? and discuss from there.

So, what should we do on Day 1? Here’s my routine:

  • collect phones into the Hoteléfono when kids come in
  • make a seating chart, hand out the syllabus, & take attendance
  • tell them I’m Sr Stolz. To acquire Spanish, pay attention, ask questions, and don’t interfere with me or other kids.
  • Grab a kid and start asking a TPRS-style story.
  • Do a simple exit quiz

Happy teaching! I’m headed to the Valhallas.

What Is Learning Chinese With Terry Waltz Like?

I took a three hr/day, five-day Mandarin workshop via Zoom with Terry Waltz. The tl;dr: CI works; Terry is a badass; I learned some stuff.

She has a setup where there is a picture in the middle of the screen, question words on top, and new/current vocab (Chinese word written with Roman letters and translation) on the sides and bottom. When she talks, she points the cursor at the word, and it gets highlighted = easy to follow.

Class was daily the following:

A. Some focused talk around a topic, eg Day 1: who is cool/not cool. Day 4: days and numbers.

B. A story with an ocean of repetitions (circling questions)

C. Terry re-telling the story whilst pointing and clicking on words.

D. On the 4th day, some reading.

It’s three weeks later and I still have Chinese ricocheting around my head, which I cannot say about the language I took two years earlier at a conference which focused on “non-targeted” input, where there was so much vocab and so little repetition that I only remember how to say “I like beer.”

So…what did I learn? In no particular order:

1. Some shi— er, stuff— is too boring to ever make even a 5-min lesson around. Numbers, days, dates, weather.

2. Anything in a story is easy to remember. Anything randomly talked about, not so much.

3. Chinese is easy the way Terry taught it: with very focused C.I. and a lot of repetition. I’m gonna make a claim here: there is no way to effectively teach a language such as Chinese without narrowly-focused C.I. The language is a joke in terms of “grammar rules”: no genders, tenses, cases, articles etc. The barrier is, no cognates, and a weird writing system.

4. The “cold character” reading method works. They write an English word eg a name, then you read the Chinese character for it, then they put in another English word. Eg “Chris 他爬進去 Squamish” = Chris climbs in Squamish. You read that middle bit enough and presto! you’ve acquired it. You need a LOT of reading to remember them so the readers feature an ocean of repetition.

5. Zoom blows.

6. Any suggestions from teacher or other students about “how I remembered the meaning of ____ was by thinking ____” does not work (for me). Like in math, metacognition works best (or only?) when you do it your way.

7. Only two things worked to acquire the language: comprehended input, and clarification of meaning. Eg when I heard wo shi ku (“I am cool”) I thought shi meant “am” or “is”. But no— Chinese (like Russian) doesn’t have “to be”— Terry clarified and said it means something like “equals.”

8. Gestures work. Terry had gestures for the four tones of Chinese, as well as for meaning. If the gesture looks like the word, awesome.

9. There is a lot of stuff that you do not need to have explained to you that you can acquire easily just from input. Eg the “rules” for bu (no, not) and der (roughly, the ‘s in English or German): the way Terry said them, all I knew was what they meant. They got used in different ways (ie where they were in sentences, IIRC), but I didn’t worry about it: I realised that I would eventually “get” them.

The tones was another thing: Terry started off exaggerating them. On Day 4 a Chinese guy was in the lesson and when he talked— normally— I could hear the tones. No need to “practice”— just give us a good simple story.

In Spanish: I literally never teach the kids the alphabet, rules about ____, why Spanish has the ¡!, ¿? and accents bla bla bla…and yet the kids acquire them.

10. You can get a lot of mileage out of simple word games. Eg Terry’s characters visited McRonalds, Burger Duke, Taco Buzzer, etc.

Anyway, these are the same lessons I learned in my first two weeks of C.I. back in Jan 2012, but hey, good to learn them from the student’s point of view. And if you wanna acquire Chinese…Terry Waltz is your go-to 😁😁.

Nothing But Stories

How well should students be able to write in the L2+ after 300 hrs of class? It depends what they do. The more time they spend listening to and reading comprehensible input, the better a grasp of the L2+ they will have, and that, depending on the individual, will enable them to write and speak a bunch.

If, on the other hand, they do practice dialogues, grammar worksheets and so on, they won’t do as well as kids who get lots of C.I.

Today, I’m sharing my 3rd year Spanish student Gursher’s final story. He did this in 50 min, without notes or dictionary. He has never seen a worksheet and he couldn’t tell you what a verb conjugation or boot verbs are. He has never “reflected on his learning,” or done “goal setting” for Spanish, or revised a Spanish portfolio, or any other conscious-learning blather. All he has ever gotten was lots of C.I.

Most interestingly, although he was in Spanish 3, I never gave him any Spanish-3specific work. He just hung out, did PQA and stories and Movietalks and whatever random babbling I managed, along with the 2s. So what, exactly, did he “learn”?

What he learned was, he got way better at Spanish. You will note teacher-geek qualities such as subj-verb and adjective agreement etc. And he got better at it just by being in class. This is something Blaine and Von Ray noticed some years ago: the greatest beneficiaries of mixed-level classes are the advanced kids, who seem to soak up “better grammar” (and some vocab from whatever they are reading that the lower-level kids aren’t reading).

This is the final writing assignment. Kids had 50 min. No notes, no dictionary. We will let the evidence for C.I.’s effectiveness speak for itself.

The Rule of Three: Simpler Evaluation

Teachers are uhhhh obsessive, especially about marking. We write and rewrite assessment instruments, when we could be hitting a bachata class, ripping up the Grand Wall after work, or kicking back with our five-year-old.

^ wanna be overloaded like her? ^ 😞😞

We spend too much time thinking about grading. Luckily for us, I’m gonna make the rest of your teaching career waaaaaay simpler by showing you how to make marking simple.

Various assessment gurus will tell you something fairly similar regarding attaching Numberz to Performancez: there are only three, (or maybe four), real levels of skill that one can accurately describe.  These are basically,
1. not yet proficient
2. functionally proficient
3. fully proficient

Breaking things down further is complicated, and therefore makes marking slower (and rubrics more complex and therefore harder for students to understand). The more you refine descriptors and levels, the harder it is to distinguish between them. 

Yes, sometimes more complex rubrics are called for, but not in a language class. And why not? Because the only teacher action which makes a difference for language learners is the amount and quality of input

So…imagine if you got marked on partying. They give you a Number for how well you party.
Q: what would the rubric look like?
A: like this…

1 You are on your way to the party.
2 You are standing in the doorway, chatting with the host, eyeing a nice martini.
3 You are shaking it on the dancefloor with thirty others, with your second drink, and the sexiest person at the party is checking you out.

Works? Sure! It’s simple, quick and accurate. Your Party Mark will be 34%, 66% or 100%. Now, say we also wanted to grade outfits. So we add this:

1 Sweats and slides are kinda basic…but hey, you got out of bed!
2 Business casual? You look good and respectable but no eyeballs/mentions for you.
3 Oh yeah! What’s yr Insta, gorgeous? 😁

If we mark our partiers on both behaviour and dress, we could get from 1/6 to 6/6, or 16%, 33%, 50%, 66%, 83%, 100%. This is pretty good.  We could add another criterion– say, flirting skills– and then our marks would range from 3/9 to 9/09, or 33%, 44%, 55%, 66%, 77%, 88% and 100%.

So here is our Rule of Three for Evaluation:

1. We focus on three levels of skill (not yet, just got it, fully proficient).
2. There is a clear difference between each level.
3. We do not mark more than three criteria.

Now, I’ma show y’all how this works for a language class. Here’s our oral interaction rubric (end of year, zero prep, totally 100% spontaneous & unplanned Q&A with a student, Level 2 and up in any language).

Here is the rubric. We are evaluating comprehension, functional accuracy and quantity of speech. 

3. I understand everything said. My errors have minimal impact on how understandable I am. I ask and answer questions, and keep conversation going, appropriately.

2. I understand much of what is said with some obvious gaps. My errors occasionally make me impossible to understand. I try to keep conversation going but sometimes have problems adding to/elaborating on what has been said.

1. I don’t understand much of what is said. My errors often make me hard to understand. I have consistent problems keeping the convo going.

This rubric is a 3×3 and generates marks between 3 and 9 out of 9 (ie 33%-100% in 11% intervals). It’s a nice mix of detail, fast, and simple. You basically never want a rubric more complex than 3×3 cos it gets too texty for kids to read.

There you go. Use it if you want it.

Anyway, a few notes to go with this (and with marking writing, or anything else):

A. You can mark via selective sample. Eg, for writing, say your kids pump out 300-word stories (mid Level 1). I’ll bet you dinner and a movie that marking any three sentences will show you their proficiency as accurately as reading the entire thing. Same goes for answering questions about a reading, or listening. Pick a small sample and go.

B. You will generally see marks “clustering.” The kid who understands all the questions/comments in an oral interview will probably also be able to speak well. This is cos most “skills” develop in concert. With our partying rubric, it is likely that Mr Dressed To Kill is also quite sociable, a good and enthusiastic dancer, etc. Yes, there will be the odd kid who understands everything but can’t say much, but this is uncommon.

Now would somebody please make rubrics for spontaneous written output and reading comp also? Create & share.

Let’s be DONE with marking questions and focus on what matters: finding cool input for kids, and making our grading quick & simple, so that we can relax after work & show up energised. Remember, one of C.I.’s greatest innovators at one point said that their method was developed to boost their golf score. The logic? Well-rested, happy teacher = good teacher 😁😁.



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 any C.I. program, 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 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, textbook unit, etc.  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 while pointing and pausing (see pic above), and ask questions about the picture and about the things you’ve said about the picture.  You ask questions.  Students answer (as a class, or get your superstars to answer). You restate what students say in proper language.

Here is an example with questions:


Teacher: ¿Qué hay en la foto?  What’s in the photo?
Class: a guy, a dog
Teacher: Hay un hombre, y hay un perro. No hay gato el la foto.

T: ¿Hay un hombre o una mujer?  ¿Cómo se llama?  Is there a man or a woman?  What is their name?
C: a man, Dave
T: Hay un hombre.  No hay una mujer. Se llama Dave.

T: ¿Qué tiene el hombre?  What does the man have?
C: a dog,
T: Tiene un perro grande. No tiene gato.

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.

Another recent trick: use yourself as an example, or use a hand/sock puppet. In my class, we have two sock puppets:  Sock, who is obnoxious, and his slave sock Calci.  I can wear one and talk to him/her (or have  him/her talk to students). So…The man in the picture has a dog, but Sock has Calci, etc.

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? (Is it good to live in the street, or not?  Why?)

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.

You want to circle your new vocab.  If you make a statement and you get a fast and correct answer, the item does not need more circling.

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.

Here’s a fourth idea: 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).

Remember Purpose

Remember always: language is acquired by processing comprehended communicative input. “Language practice” or “vocab review” or “working on the past tense” are not communicative. “Communicative” means two things:
1. having meaning for speaker/writer & listener/reader
2. having a non-linguistic purpose (eg entertaining, sorting, deciding, ranking)

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 C.I.?

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.