explicit grammar instruction

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?

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?

So You Think You Know Grammar?

I have always urged readers to join Ben Slavic’s blog ($5/month well-spent).  Ben’s books are also well worth a read, esp T.P.R.S. In A Year (without which I probably could not have started T.P.R.S.). Today I am gonna share part of a post from Ben’s six years ago.  Latin master Robert Harrell– who has won every award you can name, and who has used  T.P.R.S. to triple his school’s Latin enrollment, plus producing kids who speak fluent Latin and who crush the A.P. Latin exam without doing six years of grammar worksheets — has a response to the grammarians.  If a grammarian blathers on about how one must know grammar rules, show them this.  For Harrell’s commentary and the full entry, see Ben’s blog.

Let me suggest the following “experiment”: I have a ten-question quiz. Without preparation, give it to any “non-language” (i.e. not teaching English or a foreign language) person at the school, including administrators and evaluators, and see if they pass it.  

Remember that these are experienced speakers of English with advanced degrees that have included many English classes, so the proctor is not allowed to explain any of the terms used, give examples or otherwise provide hints.

Please give the correct form for each of the following verbs:
1. to drink – 3rd person neuter singular present perfect active
2. to go – 2nd person plural future perfect active
3. to hang – 1st person singular future perfect passive
4. to speak to – 3rd person plural pluperfect passive
5. to equivocate with the idiom “to go” – 3rd person feminine singular future continuous active
6. to hang – 3rd person neuter singular pluperfect passive
7. to hear – 2nd person singular pluperfect passive
8. to lay – 3rd person masculine singular future perfect progressive active
9. to lie (= be in a horizontal position) – 3rd person feminine singular present perfect active
10. to be – 1st person singular pluperfect active subjunctive
Bonus: Use the verb in #10 in a conditional sentence.

For those who don’t want to think this through, here are the answers:
1. It has drunk
2. You will have gone
3. I will have been hanged
4. They had been spoken to.
5. She is going to be equivocating
6. It had been hung
7. You had been heard
8. He will have been laying
9. She has lain
10. I had been

Do we understand?

What does a lover of French think of “communicative” teaching?

I always use the word communicative in quotes cos most of what I see that is labeled “communicative” language teaching is basically grammar and theme-based stuff with a few ask-and-answer activities, as opposed to jump in and find info you actually care about from people who actually want to speak the language.

Anyway, my colleague Leanda (full classic TPRS) and I have been chatting with a student teacher who is doing her French-teacher practicum with another colleague.  This colleague is a grammarian and “communicative” teacher who has seen c.i.– and says she likes it, but won’t try it– and the student teacher wants to “do” TPRS.  Her mentrix won’t let her.  But she has been watching classes and reading and seen some demos.  She saw one of my German T.P.R.S. demos and was intrigued.  So anyway we have chatted about her own experiences in high school learning French (and her experiences student teaching in her mentrix’ classroom) and here are a few things she said:

On being asked to “practise speaking french with her classmates”:  She said that it always feels “fake” to speak ____ with a non-native speaker.  She said that when her teacher asked her to practise in French, she would just speak in English with classmates.  Take note, people…if a kid who loves French doesn’t like speaking it, how do the other 90% of your students feel?

One where she got good comprehensible input: she read as much as she could, and she enjoyed listening to the teacher’s French.

On where she really “got it” with French: when she went and lived near Vimy Ridge in France for nine months.  She mentioned how she lived above a store.  The girl who worked in the store was young and spoke good slangy gutter French but knew that Nicole didn’t know much French slang.  So the girl said “I’ll speak YOUR language” and she would massively simplify– and standardise– her French for when our ST came in.  This was often two-word phrases.  This was a massive help– it made French comprehensible.

On grammar teaching: She said that– for her– grammar was easy to learn via rules.

On how well grammar teaching is working for her own French students (8th graders/level 1): 

The kids have difficulty focusing in class.  Their comprehension is low, and their output terrible (low amounts, bad grammar, terrible pronunciation).  The text provides very little reading, and the homework book a ton of grammar practise.  Today she saw my kids’ 4th “relaxed writes” (retell the most recent story, modified) and was amazed to see kids writing 400 word stories– with generally very good grammar– after only 8 weeks of TPRS.  My kids are also beginners.  T.P.R.S., hands-down, blows traditional teaching away.  Her biggest frustration?  The kids are not enjoying French.  And here, dear readers, is your daily “take-away,” as they say:  just because you like something does not mean other people do, nor that your enthusiasm for it will make others start to like it.

On her University methods professor:  Her methods prof– a French Ph.D.– was tedious, annoying, and, in my view, wrong.  The prof stressed immediate correction of students, grammar work, and lots of output.  The prof was also a total French nazi in class, and would have freak-outs if English was spoken.  What were you supposed to do if the very technical, specialised vocabulary of teaching was something the student teachers– almost none of whom were native speakers– didn’t know?  “Struggle,” she said.

Anyway, there you have it: this is how a lover of the French language, an innovator even as a student teacher, and someone who is going to be a very strong languages teacher, sees her own past.

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

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

1. Languages are learned mainly through imitation  

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

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

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

3. Highly intelligent people are good language learners 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generally.  BUT: conversational success also depends on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. Students learn what they are taught. 

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

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

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

and finally,

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

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

The Research Supporting the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis and C.I. Instruction

Research shows that

  • languages are acquired only when people get aural or written comprehensible input
  • comprehensible reading in the target language improves acquisition a lot
  • grammar practice and explanations, most metacognition, performance feedback, and output are of minimal or no value
  • drills and any other kind of output practice don’t work
  • there are predictable, unavoidable, error-involving stages and sequences of acquisition of grammar which cannot be changed
  • learners’ speaking the target language does not help learners acquire it, and often slows acquisition
  • comprehensible input methods (including T.P.R.S., narrative paraphrase a.k.a. Movietalk, free voluntary reading and Story Listening) do more for acquisition than do legacy methods
  • despite superficial differences, children and adults learn languages in the same way

Here is the evidence supporting what we know about language acquisition.  Thanks to Eric Herman for digging a lot of this up, and thanks to Karen Lichtman, Bill VanPatten, Ray Hull, Stephen D. Krashen, Wynne Wong, Reed Riggs and Paul Nation for sending papers, comments, etc.

Want a live crash course in research?  See Bill VanPatten’s presentation (in 6 parts) here.  His weekly podcast is archived here.  Lance Pantagiani’s condensed Tea With BVP episodes are archived here. Sarah Cottrell’s Musicuentos podcasts are also worth a listen.

1) Should students be taught and practice specific grammar points?  NO.  Truscott reviews research and says that “overall the evidence against grammar
teaching is quite strong.”  Krashen annihilates the grammarians’ arguments here. Wong and VanPatten also dismiss the grammar-practice argument in Wong and Van Patten 2003: “The Evidence Is In: Drills Are Out,” and VanPatten, Keating & Leeser (2012) conclude that “things like person-number endings on verbs must be learnt from the input like anything else; they can’t be taught and practiced in order to build a mental representation of them” (see Wong and Van Patten 2003 the evidence isin drills are out).

VanPatten also notes that “what we call grammar rules are what we end up with, and are not how we learn or what the brain actually does” (MIWLA presentation, 2013), and that “classroom rule learning is not the same as acquisition.” Lightbown writes that “structured input works as well as structured input plus explanation” (in VanPatten, 2004): in other words, explanations don’t aid acquisition (though some students may feel good getting them).

Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as VanPatten and Wong put it, that “learners– again, both in and out of the classroom– have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”

VanPatten (1998) also notes that “[a] reading of the literature on second language acquisition and use suggests that communication is not the result of learning discrete bits of language and then putting them together.

VanPatten (2013) also echoes Susan Gross when he notes that “building up in a learner’s brain [are] simultaneously  lexicon and morphology, syntatic features and constraints, pragmatics and discourse, interfaces between components, communicative discourse [and] skill” and that “these happen all at once.  They are almost impossible to isolate and practice one at a time, because they don’t operate one at a time.

In a fascinating study, Batterink & Neville (2013) found evidence that the “longstanding hypothesis is that syntactic processing occurs outside of conscious awareness, relying upon computational mechanisms that are autonomous and automatic” (what Krashen calls the Monitor model) is, in fact, correct.

2) How much vocabulary, grammar and general language skill do students pick up via free voluntary reading (FVR)? LOTS…and loads more than from direct instruction. There are estimates that readers acquire an average of a word every twenty minutes of FVR, that FVR works about twenty times as quickly as classroom instruction, and that 75% of an adult’s vocabulary comes from reading.  See Lehman (2007), summarised in IJFLTJuly07.  Additional free voluntary reading research is detailed on Krashen’s site and Japanese researcher Beniko Mason has also done a ton of good FVR research.  There is very good research on the Fijian Book Flood experiment detailed here, which shows, among other things, that some “focus on form”– grammar and writing feedback– is useful for second-language acquisition at later and higher levels, even while comprehensible input does 95% of the work and remains the sine qua non of language acquisition.  In a recent study (abstract here), non-native speakers of Spanish who had a Spanish reading habit had much greater vocabulary than native Spanish speakers who did not read.

VanPatten writes that “for maximum vocabulary development, learners need to read all along the way, since most vocabulary development in both L1 and L2 is incidental, meaning that vocabulary is learned as a by-product of some other intention (normally reading).” Warwick Ely here examines free voluntary reading, grammar instruction, etc, and comes to the same conclusions that Krashen, VanPatten, Wong, Lightbown & Spada etc do. Waring (2015) here makes the “inescapable case” for reading.  Mason and Krashen’s look at F.V.R. among Japanese learners of English showed significant positive effects.

Self-selected, comprehensible, interesting reading in the target (or native) language is boosts acquisition for the following reasons:
  • it delivers masses of comprehensible input
  • learners can pause, slow down, go back and seek extra (e.g. online or dictionary) help, which they cannot do nearly as well with a live speaker, and especially not with many native speakers (who often do not adjust vocabulary and speed to non-native-speakers’ needs)
  • readers can (and generally do) select books (input) tailored to their level
  • there is no output pressure, so the affective filter is low
  • for beginners, prosodic features like word differentiation are easier to see than to hear (but others, such as tone and accent, are harder to grasp)
  • the brain’s visual system is acute and, especially for monolinguals, better developed than the hearing processing system.

3) Do people acquire language via comprehensible input? YES. Krashen here summarises the comprehension hypothesis and destroys its rivals. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) state that “comprehensible input remains the foundation of all language acquisition.”  VanPatten and Wong (2003) note that “Acquisition of a linguistic system is input dependent.”  Krashen also takes a look at savants, polyglots and ordinary folk who have learned languages via comprehensible input in this fascinating paper.  In a study of Spanish learners, comprehensible input teaching worked about six times as quickly as traditional instruction.  There is a great short comprehensible input demo by Krashen here, and here (starts at about 12:30) is a longer and more detailed lecture.

Krashen also lists the academic research supporting comprehensible input here.

Ashely Hastings’ “Focal Skills” program (which presents first aural (and video), then written comprehensible input before moving into writing and speaking), was designed for use in Uni classes, and is where what we call “Movietalk” came from.  The research on Focal Skills shows it much more effective than traditional present-and-practice approaches.

Karen Lichtman lists the T.P.R.S.-supportive research here, and another giant literarture review is here.

4) Should we organise curriculum thematically?  NO.  Among other reasons, it turns out that it’s harder to remember clusters of similar vocab than collections of thematically disparate vocab. As Paul Nation writes, “research on learning related vocabulary, such as lexical sets, … shows that learning related words at the same time [e.g. in thematic/semantic units such as “clothes” or “chores”] makes learning them more difficult. This learning difficulty can be avoided if related words are learned separately, as they are when learning from normal language use.” See Paul Nation on lexical sets and Rob Waring’s paper on vocab learning.

5) Should we “shelter” (limit) vocab?  YES. Evidence from children’s language acquisition suggests that we should, while “upping” prosodic variation (“wacky” or differentiated voices), reading rituals, and responses to student output (the paper is forthcoming). There is some processing research (VanPatten) that suggests that the amount of “mental energy” available for comprehension is limited, and that a minimal amount of new vocab be introduced in structured patterns over a broad overlay of well-known vocab, so that “mental energy” can be devoted to acquiring newer items. VanPatten: “any model of L2 input processing [must] consider in some way the impact of capacity issues in working memory on what learners can do at a given point in time.”  In other words, overload = bad.

Children also acquire vocabulary more quickly if it is “framed”: delivered in interactive, structured and limited speech-and-response sets (see chapter 10 of the interesting book Nurture Shock for details). It is estimated (Nation, 2006) that in most languages, the top 1000 most-frequently-used words account for about 85% of all oral language use, and the top 2000 for ~95%.  Best practice is probably to teach “along the frequency list” where the most emphasis is on words that are most used (with variations that cater to student needs and interests).

6) Do learners “learn” grammar that teachers “teach?”  Not on teachers’ or texts’ schedules.  VanPatten (2010) argues in this very comprehensive paper that “some domains [aspects of language acquisition] may be more or less amenable to explicit instruction and practice [e.g.vocabulary], while others are stubborn or resistant to external influences [e.g. grammar].”  VanPatten, echoing Krashen, concludes that there is limited transfer of conscious knowledge “about” language into functional fluency and comprehension, and notes that “[n]ot only does instruction not alter the order of acquisition, neither does practice” (2013).

Ellis (1993) says that “what is learned is controlled by the learner and not the teacher, not the text books, and not the syllabus.”

7) Should we use L1– the “mother tongue”– in class? YES, (albeit as little as possible), as Krashen notes, because this avoids both ambiguity AND incomprehensibility, neither of which  help acquisition. Here are some ideas about why L1 should be used in the languages classroom (Immersion teachers take note…all the _______ in the world won’t help kids who do not understand it).  Nation (2003) notes “There are numerous ways of conveying the meaning of an unknown word […] However, studies comparing the effectiveness of various methods for learning always come up with the result that an L1 translation is the most effective (Lado, Baldwin and Lobo 1967; Mishima 1967; Laufer and Shmueli 1997).”

8) Can we change the order of acquisition? NO. Krashen’s books have examples of order of acquisition. More recently, Lightbown and Spada (2013) reiterate Krashen’s contentions, showing how acquisition order of verb forms (in English-learning children) is fixed. Wong and VanPatten (2003) make the same point.  There is very little we can do to “speed up” acquisition of any “foreign” grammar rule (e.g. English speakers learning the Spanish subjunctive) or vocabulary, other than providing lots of comprehensible input that contains the rule in question.

VanPatten (2013) notes that instruction “does not alter the order of acquisition,” and Long (1997) says that “[t]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.” We also know that L2 mistakes are partially a function of L1, have partly to do with L1-L2 differences, but mostly to do with learners not being mentally ready to produce the new form (which is a result of a lack of input).

For example, L1 German learners of L2 French make mistakes with subject-verb inversion…despite German having exactly the same rule as French for s-v inversion.  Arika Okrent documents children’s L1 acquisition errors; note that errors 5-8 are also classic adult L2 acquisition errors (stages).

Bardovi-Harlig (2000) found, as  VanPatten and Wong (2003)  put it, that “learners […] have demonstrated that acquisition of the tense and aspectual systems (e.g. the use of the preterit/passé composé and the imperfect) is piecemeal and unaffected by instructional intervention.”  In Lightbown (1984), French-speaking students’ English output did not “match” the input they were given.  Students “do not simply learn linguistic elements as they are taught– adding them one after another in neat progession.  Rather, the students process the input in ways which are more “acquisition-like” and not often consistent with what the teacher intends for them to “learn”.”

9) Does correcting or properly re-stating learner mistakes–recasting– improve learner performance? Generally, NO. Lightbrown and Spada (2013) point out that while teachers like recasting (and do it a lot), and while students can and do immediately generate improved output as a result, “these interactions were not associated with improved performance on […] subsequent test[s].”  VanPatten writes “[d]irect error correction by the instructor does not promote linguistic accuracy and the absence of error correction in the early stages of acquisition does not impede the development of linguistic accuracy” (1986 p.212).

Feedback regarding meaning, however, works: a student who points at a picture of a cat and says “dog” can benefit frim being told “no, that’s a cat.” However, feedback directed at the implicit system– eg you should say vengo, not veno— is useless.

My view: if there is a place for recasts in the languages classroom, it is in ensuring that student output– which is also input for other students— is comprehensible and accurate.

10) Is there broad agreement among second-language-acquisition researchers about what constitutes effective practice? YES. In this paper, Ellis lays out the “ten principles” of second languages teaching.  He notes

  • comprehensible input is the sine qua non of second language acquisition
  • we must provide some “focus on form” (grammar explanations) to support meaning
  • there is no transfer from explicit knowledge of grammar to implicit language competence
  • the use of quite a lot of “formulaic” expressions– a.k.a. “lexical chunks”– is essential esp. for beginners
  • curricula organised along grammar sequential lines are probably not brain-friendly
  • instruction must primarily focus on meaning
  • drills don’t work
  • some output is necessary for acquisition in much later stages as this focuses learner attention on some aspects of form

S.L.A. researcher Patsy Lightbown here explains the “known facts” about second language acquisition.  Here is a video of S.L.A. research and what works/does not work by Bill VanPatten.

11) Do “learning styles” or “multiple intelligences” exist?  NO.  In this paper, psychologist Daniel Willingham puts the boots to the idea that teachers need to kill themselves providing nineteen different ways to learn the verb “to run.”  While people often have preferences about learning, and while some people definitely have better skills in some areas than others, there is no evidence to suggest that language acquisition is positively affected by anything other than the presence of masses of comprehensible input, and the absence of counterproductive activities (grammar practice, forced output, grammar lectures, etc).

VanPatten has said that “No research has found a link between learning styles and individual differences on the one hand, and on the other the processes involved in language acquisition.

12) Do students like speaking in a second-language class?  Generally, no.  Krashen first made this point, and Baker and MacIntyre note that “Speaking has been found to be the most anxiety-provoking form of communication,” (references to Maclntyre & Gardner (1991) and McCroskey & Richmond (1987)) and also note that production anxiety in classes is high among non-Immersion students.

Best practice is probably to let those want to, talk, and to delay any output for others while asking them to signal comprehension or lack thereof (as natural approach, A.I.M., Narrative Paraphrase and T.P.R.S. do).

13)  Does speaking improve acquisition?  NO.  Despite (a few) studies which try to make the case for output, there isn’t a strong one. See Krashen’s response to one such study here, and his examination of Swain’s output hypothesis– and the research testing it– here. In another study, English-speaking students were taught Spanish structures (subjunctive and conditional) via various mixes of input and practice output. In this study, students who

  • got input only did very well
  • got input and did limited output (“practise”) did no better than input-only students
  • did more output (“practise”) than getting input did significantly worse than those who got more input.

Wong and VanPatten (2003) note that “[a]cquisition of a linguistic system is input-dependent, meaning that learners must be engaged in comprehension in order to construct that system […] Production is not comprehension and thus produced language is not input for the learner. That input must come from others.” They also note that “drills are unnecessary and in some cases hinder acquisition,” and Van Patten (2013) remarks that “traditional ‘practice’ may result in language-like behaviour, but not acquisition” and that “practice is not a substitute for input.”  He goes on to ask “if input is so important, what does traditional practice do?” and answers “essentially very little, if anything.  It does not help mental representation.  It is not clear it helps skills.

VanPatten also says that when “mechanical drills attempt to get the learner to acquire the thing they are asked to produce, the cart has been put before the horse,” and notes that “research conducted since the early 1990s has shown that traditional approaches to teaching grammar that involve the use of mechanical, meaningful and communicative drills do not foster acquisition in the way that practice [listening/reading] with structured input does.

14) Should we speak s.l.o.w.l.y. in class? YES. Audiologist Ray Hull writes  “[f]or an adolescent, spoken speech at around 135 words per minute is perfect for speech understanding, particularly when the student is learning a new language. So, 130 WPM may be even better. It will seem very slow to you, but the central auditory system of the student will appreciate it.” Adult native-language output is 170-180 words per minute, so slowness is essential (for all teachers, not just those of languages).  Note that there is no way to speed up auditory processing speed.

15) Do learners need many repetitions of vocab items to acquire them? YES.  In this study, scientists concluded that 160 repetitions of an item resulted in new items being “wired in” like older (or L1) items.  However, acquisition rates vary and depends on various factors:  is the word an L1 cognate?  Is it being used comprehensibly?  Is its use meaningful?, etc.

16) Does feedback about performance in a language (e.g. correction, explicit information, etc) help acquisition?  NO.  Sanz and Morgan-Short (2002) replicated with computer-delivered input what VanPatten & Cadierno (1993) did with spoken and written input.  And, as VanPatten & Wong (2003) put it, they found that “neither explicit information nor explicit feedback seemed to be crucial for a change in performance; practice in decoding structured input alone […] was sufficient.”  In other words, explaining to people how a grammar rule in a language works, and/or pointing out, explaining and recasting (correcting) errors has no effect on acquisition.  VanPatten also writes that “Overt correction does little good in the long run” but “indirect correction may be useful,” but notes that the research on indirect feedback is far from clear.

17)  Are some people better language learners than others?  NO.  Older research (as Vanpatten, 2013, watch it here, video 5, says) suggested different people had different aptitudes.  New research (VanPatten 2013b, 2014) suggests, echoing Krashen, that on traditional tests of aptitude that measure conscious learning– e.g. knowing grammar rules– there are “better” and “worse” students.

HOWEVER, in terms of processing (understanding) ability, there is no difference among people.  If they get comprehensible input, they acquire at roughly the same rate, in the same way.  A classroom that foregrounds grammar practice and output should produce a more varied mix of outcomes than one which focuses on input.  VanPatten notes that working memory– roughly, how much “stuff” one can keep in their head consciously at a time– varies between individuals, and that those with greater working memory may find language acquisition easier.

18) Do children and adults learn languages in the same way? Mostly, yes.  Children must develop a linguistic system while simultaneously acquiring a language.  For example, kids need to develop basic competencies (which adults take for granted), such as knowing that words can represent reality, that that there are such things as individual words, etc.  Once this “linguistic foundation” has been laid, kids and adults acquire languages in the same way. We know this because kids and adults make similar errors, have similar sequences of acquiring grammar, etc. As VanPatten notes, “adults and children appear to be constrained by the same mechanisms during language acquisition regardless of context, and the fundamental ingredients of language acquisition are at play in both situations: input (communicatively embedded language that learners hear or see, if sign language); Universal Grammar coupled with general learning architecture; and processing mechanisms that mediate between input and the internal architecture. In short, much of what we observe as differences between adults and children are externally imposed differences; not differences in underlying linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects of acquisition. And some of those externally imposed differences are a direct result of myths about language acquisition.”

 19) Do we have data showing how well comprehensible input methods work in comparison with legacy methods?  YES.  (note:  Nov 14, 2015– this section is being updated; please comment if you have things to add)
  • C.A.L.A. testing shows T.P.R.S.-taught students outperforming other students despite having less in-class time than other students
  • Joe Dziedzic found that T.P.R.S. outperformed “communicative” teaching, with the biggest gains for T.P.R.S.-taught students being in oral and written output, despite T.P.R.S. students not being forced to speak or write outside of evaluation.
  • Ray & Seely’s Fluency Through T.P.R. Storytelling (7th ed.) has a research appendix.  Summary:  T.P.R.S. never works worse than, sometimes performs as well as, but mostly performs better than traditional methods.
  • Ashley Hastings’ “focal skills” C.I. approach– where what we call “Movietalk” comes from– significantly beats traditional teaching.
  • Grant Boulanger has shown that C.I. teaching both works better than the textbook in terms of student outcomesand increases retention of students who typically do not stick around in language classes (people of colour, boys, poor people, etc).
  • There are as of Nov 2018 twenty-nine studies that compare one C.I. approach (TPRS) with other methods. TPRS mostly comes out much better.
  • Beniko Mason’s “Story Listening” C.I. method also beats traditional instruction hands down. See her research here.
There is no evidence suggesting that the following legacy language practices are effective:
  • grammar teaching and practice
  • forced and/or early output
  • any kind of drill
  • error correction and/or recasts
  • minimal reading; “fragmented” one-dimensional reading (e.g. lists, informational text, etc)
  • sequenced grammar instruction

Got a study, paper, etc that needs adding? Email me or add a comment and I’ll update this.

Evaluation is Over-rated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do T.P.R.S. teachers minimize explicit grammar instruction?

I was coaching TPRS to a couple of French teachers at a local high school yesterday and they were telling me about their department-mandated French exam, which includes 1/3 specific grammar questions (e.g. “which is the right form of conjugating avoir in the 3rd person pluperfect” bla bla).  What a load of B.S. but ANYWAY one of them asked me, post me-asking-a-story, why do TPRS teachers minimize grammar instruction?

Well, first, we do teach grammar.  We do our pop-ups– “grammar commercials”– and we explain whatever the kids want to know.

More importantly, however, we mimize grammar teaching because it has very little real return.  If you want to geek out and read How Languages Are Learned (Lightbrown & Spada), or look at Ortega and Lourde (2000) you can wade through the details.

Basically, it’s like this:  There are an unknown– but enormous– number of rules for grammar in any language.  Some are simple (e.g. in English you cannot say I enjoy to run, because– for whatever reason– enjoy does not take an infinitive, but rather a noun, gerund etc).  Some are complex (e.g. I am a handsome employed professional sounds OK; I am an employed handsome professional does not), and not even me, ueber-language-geek, can explain why.  But there are so many that if we spent specific time teaching–as in, demonstrating, modeling, explaining, practicing etc– them, we could spend all our time on them.

We know from forty years of research– and there is no disagreement in the scholarly literature about this– that compelling comrehensible input drives acquisition more than anything else.   While almost everyone wants some explanation of why “___ has to happen with ___”–and the research supports some explicit grammar instruction– the question remains, how much grammar teaching is enough?

I’ll give you a simple example:  In German, articles change depending on whether they are masculine, feminine or neuter, singular or plural…and…whether they are with a noun that’s the subject, direct object, indirect object or possessive of the sentence.  You say “Ein Mann hat eine Frau” (a man has a wife), but “Die Frau hat einen Mann.”   That ein changes to einen because Mann in the second sentence is the direct singular masculine object.

HOLY CRAP, IS THIS EVER COMPLICATED! 

So how do you learn inflection?  You have two options:

a) You do what my high-school teacher, Frau Hedda Thatcher, made us do: memorise a massive table of the endings.  “Vat iss se datif plural off Hund?”  she would ask. “Vat is se plural nominatif masculine form of the woman auf Deutsch?” 

b) You do what kids do, which is get input– in students’ case, with restricted vocab– and you let your brain figure it out.  If you hear “Der Hund ist gross”  (the dog is big) and then “Der Mann hat den Hund,” (the man has the dog) your brain is getting a bit of a pattern– der becomes den with the word Hund after the verb “has.”  You don’t know inflection– you can’t explain it, and you will probably make mistakes using der in sentences– but it’s a start.

You will eventually hear something like “Der Mann geht mit dem Hund” (The man walks with the dog) and your brain (unconsciously) will note that “with mit, the word der becomes dem.”

Now, once…whatever.  A couple of hundred times?  Your brain will– for reasons you won’t be able to articulate or even be aware of– pick the rule up.  German kids do it, and so do visitors who study German and hear lots of comprehensible input.  Krashen managed it and his German is pretty good.  Blaine Ray asks a German story where he says “Das Hotel war in Vancouver,” and then “Das Maedchen war in dem Hotel.”  Here, Blaine changes das to dem.

Now here’s what’s interesting.  In order to figure the rule out, your brain also has to figure out noun gender.  But– and here is the kicker– there is no way to tell what gender a German noun is.  There are a few rules– e.g.-ung nouns are feminine– but mostly it’s totally ambiguous.  So how does the brain do it?

Well, basically, it cross-correlates a zillion data points.  If X in position Y has -en added, then gender likely Z.  If X in position Y has -em added, gender likely A.  Store hypothesis; apply next time data gets input to test validity; if confirmed, rule is more likely true, etc.  The research makes this very clear: language learners, in learning a new language, make many rule-generalisation (and other) mistakes which are not influenced by their native language.  The brain, in other words, has its own built-in sorting and predicting “software” which kicks in. (Yes, learners do also make native-tongue-influenced mistakes, but surprisingly few).  You can read Bill VanPatten’s simplified description of language acquisition here.

It’s a lot like solving Sudoku.  Anyone who does Sudoku knows that every puzzle has an “anchor point:” once you start writing down possibilities in each square, you will find one totally clear, one-option-only blank square, and once you have this, you can start cross-solving.

You solve Sudoku by going through the puzzle and, for each blank square, you write in (in pencil) all the possibilities for that square.  You will at some point– in even the hardest puzzle– come across an “anchor point,” that is, a blank square where there is only one possible answer.  When you find the anchor point, other possibilities start eliminating themselves.  If there is an 8 here, that means there cannot be a 3 there, etc etc.  This BTW is why Sudoku– like studying grammar– is boring.  There is no real thinking, just a mechanical process of elimination.

With a bit of clarity regarding a few simple vocab items– and they don’t even have to be explained– and a ton of structured input, the brain will sort things out.  It will generate and test rule hypotheses, discard some, acquire others, etc.  It will notice something like “OK, der Hund goes at start of sentence, den Hund after hat.  So der becomes den,  and der goes with Hund.  As loads more data comes in, the brain will check the new input against its hypotheses about what goes where, and confirm or discard.  If the brain then hears Der Mann hat den Kaffee getrunken (the man drank the coffee), it gets a cofirmation about its rule hypothesis, and this gets archived.

Eventually it will calculate the patterns for what goes where, and simply apply them.  Now, because we don’t have 4,500 hours like German kids do to listen to Mutti and Vatti, we have to slow down, simplify our vocab, and be more repetitious.  But we let students’ brains do basically what kid brains do.

The beauty of it is is that, while it takes forever to explain these rules, and to practice them (which is boring), we don’t need to!  (When my classmates finished high-school German– and most of them dropped it after Grade 11, because it was tedious and stupid and not necessary for University admission– they could neither speak nor write extemporaneously.  But man, could they ever decline articles and explain pronoun order.)

The reason TPRS teachers don’t over-explain (or make students consciously practice grammar rules) is that there are so many, and they are sooooo complex, that the practicing would take forever.  Instead, we provide comprehensible input, lots of reps, answers to grammar questions, and we let the brain’s (literally) trillions of wired-to-acquire neural connections do their work.

The research supports this.  While grammar teaching does “work” in the sense that people can learn to consciously remember (and apply, and recognise right/wrong uses of grammar rules), the opportunity cost is super high.  Time spent practicing grammar = time not spent getting comprehensible input.  Yes, you get “returns” on the grammar-teaching investment, but these are tiny compared to the returns on interesting comprehensible input.  To make best use of class time, C.I. is the ticket.

Basically, comprehensible input is two birds for one stone:  you are getting your grammar instruction “smuggled in,” so to speak, while students are focusing on the fun stuff– like what happens to the character who wants three boyfriends but is offered seven (and must choose!), what language the horse speaks, etc.

Does Explicit Grammar Teaching “work”?

On Ben’s the other day there was a question from someone who asked does explicit grammar teaching “work?”  Now you all are probably not the geek that I am– for me a lovely Sunday is either rock climbing or reading about language acquisition– so here’s a summary of some recent reading.

This question also dovetails nicely with my daughter reflecting on her French experience in high-school.  She finished French 12 at a prestigious Vancouver mini-school– egg-heads only, s’il vous plait— with 93% and the top French student award.  And she couldn’t speak or write extemporaneously.  My younger daughter, who had been in immersion from grade 5 to 7, and who was a year ahead in classroom French, dropped French at the end of Gr11 in order to do it online, because, as she said “the only difference between a French class in September and in May is what is on the worksheets.”  Her French 11 class was a running joke among the kids: if you were away sick for a day, the answer to the question “what did we do in French yesterday?” was ALWAYS “worksheets.”  (She also got 95% in French 11) You know there is a problem when the the top kids can’t write or speak and when they would rather get through French online than in a class.  Common denominator:  these keen, bright students spent four years in French doing, in their words, “grammar worksheets and stupid projects.”  The exception was their Grade Nine French teacher, Polly Dobie, whose unorthodox methods and self-restraint surrounding the Grammar Grind produced, in my oldest’s words, the ability to “feel what sounds right cos she spoke it a lot in class.”

OK so back to the research.  The questions “does explicitly teaching grammar work?” and “which method of explicit grammar instruction– inductive or deductive– works better?” have been looked at.  The results are thus

Grammar instruction is effective…but only if you want to teach people to consciously manipulate linguistic items.  If so, you are better off teaching them explicitly how to do it. Research also shows that, generally, explicit (deductive– learn rule then apply) works better than inductive (see examples then figure out rule from that). Research also shows that these gains last.  Woo-hoo!  Let’s teach grammar!

OK.  But before we go any further, and TPRSers give up the ghost, let’s look at what “works” means.  Most grammar research studies basically look at teaching people specific rules about a tiny microset of vocab and grammar.  For “works,” they mean that when asked to “do stuff” with this microset, like say sentences, choose options to put in the blank, decide if something is right or wrong, etc.  Almost always, they do statistically significantly better than a control group (who get no “treatment”).

I have read one study (I cannot find re– Eric?  help!) where researchers taught English speakers how to use the Spanish “gustar” (“to be pleasing”) and they found that, yes, teaching them rules and having them practice and then testing them “worked better” than either not teaching them anything (other than what the Spanish reading/listening passages meant) or asking them to figure the rules out from just hearing input.  Basically, every grammar study ever done– even new-wave ones like VanPatten et al‘s processing instruction ones– will show the same thing.  Work on Item ___, and people get better at item ___.

So far so good for the grammarians.  BUT…and it’s a big but…and as Peter Croft says, “nobody likes having a big but”:

The catch? They only looked at one, very specific, very simple, very structured thing to do: use “gustar.” Now if we are teaching people for any length of time outside of a 5-hour Uni study, and we are going to include lots of systematic grammar stuff, we run into a bunch of problems:

A) boredom. Anyone old enough to remember the ¡Díme! Spanish texts knows what I mean: grammar drills blow.  They also don’t work (as VanPatten (2013) notes).

B) the “number of rules” problem. There are a theoretically infinite # of rules in a language (no known language other than computer ones or Esperanto have all the rules mapped out). So if you wanted to practice all the rules it would take forever.

C) the opportunity-cost problem. If all– or some– of your energy goes into grammar drills, you are losing out on other stuff which has demonstrably proven positive effects on acquisition (basically, C.I.).  A typical study only looks at gains re: one rule/item.  A better design would compare acquisition of ____ (via grammar instruction and practice) with acquisition of other stuff at the same time (via comprehensible input) and of course including a control group.

Did increases in ______ acquisition result in lesser gains elsewhere?  If we hammer away at teaching, say, gustar to English speakers, and we thereby lose out on teaching (and therefore acquiring, say, conocer), we are robbing Peter to pay Paul.

D) the question of causes of gains. In a typical study, people get both grammar instruction AND comprehensible input. The instruction is about grammar manipulation but they also know what all the words mean.  So…do they get better at ______ because of grammar instruction and practice? Or is the grammar instruction icing on the C.I. cake? This is a consistent problem with studies that look at grammar instruction’s efficacy. The fallacy here is post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”). In other words, a classic correlation vs causation problem.

(The interesting question raised here is whether or not you could ever really assess the effect of grammar instruction on authentic language without the inevitable boost that comprehensible input gives…since all language is meaningful, and it is absurd to teach people to manipulate language that is not meaningful, how do you separate the effects of C.I. from those of grammar instruction?)

The question, as always, is not “does X work?”, but “how well does X work in comparison with Y?”   To put it another way, “even if X works well, is X worth doing?”  Blaine Ray puts it another way: “it’s not what you get, but what you could get, that matters.”

There is also a REALLY good paper on Susan Gross’ site about grammar acquisition.  This paper shows that it doesn’t really matter what order you teach grammar, because people will not acquire _____ until they are ready for it. This being the case, explicit grammar instruction– other than TPRS-style “pop-ups”– is a waste of time.

Grammar instruction also fails because people– by definition– have either acquired, or not acquired, the grammar rule in question.  If they have, instruction is redundant.  If they havn’t, it’s because they aren’t ready to acquire it, and so, by definition, they will be unable to acquire– i.e. produce– it (although they will be able to understand it).  Grammar instruction is like the worksheets that communicative or grammar teachers love:  if you get the material, you don’t need them; if you don’t get the material, they won’t help you.

Krashen has said of grammar instruction that “I’m not opposed and it doesn’t hurt […]  But it has extremely limited effectiveness compared to comprehensible input and there are severe contraints on how interesting it can be.”

VanPatten has noted that there are so many processes going on during language acquisition– from many kinds of decoding and processing, to output issues, to context and pragmatics questions– that it is functionally impossible to isolate any one aspect of acquisition (grammar…and anything else).

Essentially, it comes down to this: while explicit grammar instruction can teach people to do really small, specific things better, it fails at the real job of language teaching: to enable people to understand and then use real spoken and written language in all its subtle complexity, in real time.  If you want to do that, the research is clear: provide loads of compelling, comprehensible input in oral and written form.