grammar teaching is retarded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Comment: “TPRS is too teacher-centered.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Power of Reading

On my way back from El Salvador, I ran into a Vancouver couple and we got to talking about language acquisition.  Jackie is a grade 3 & 4 split French Immersion teacher, and her husband Jaques (originally from Quebec) is a paramedic.  Here is what they had to say about the sheer power of what Stephen Krashen calls “free voluntary reading” (FVR).

Jackie said:  Reading is as important as anything else she can do as a teacher.  She has sets of readers in French.  There are 15 “levels” (1 easiest, 15 hardest) and there are about 10 books/level.  The kids pick their book, and every day they get 30 min to read.  Initially, the kids have trouble picking appropriate books, but Jackie asks them questions about what they are reading.  If a kid can’t explain what they are reading (i.e. the basics of plot and characters), she gets them to pick books from a level down.  Once the kids generally know their reading level, they can pick books that work for them.  Typically, they read most of the books from a level before they move on to the next level.  Do they like FVR?  Hell yeah!  Jackie reports that the kids want to read, do read, and report liking reading.

Jackie interviews two kids/day about their reading.  She asks them questions in French, and they can answers in as much French or English as they want (nice– no pressure to use the language).  There are no marks assigned to FVR.  There is no “accountability piece” or other edubabble/admin babble.  The only things she expects are that the kids read, and understand.

Jackie also notes tremendous improvement in both writing and speaking French– generally within two months of the school year starting– as a result of the FVR program.  I asked her how she knew the improved fluency, greater vocab, etc, came from reading, and she said “the kids are using words I havn’t taught them and they are using them appropriately.”

Jackie also commented that comic books– e.g. Garfield translated into French– were probably the best reading tools.  Comics, in Jackie’s opinion, do not— as Ujiie and Krashen have shown— replace other reading.  (In my view, comics are the future of second-language reading.  With visual support for text, story format, Q&A in present tense and narration in past, how could comics not work?)

I looked at Krashen’s summary of FVR benefits, issues, questions & research, etc, and I concluded that, in terms of FVR,  Jackie is doing everything right.

The bottom line?  Give kids lots of choice surrounding, and time to engage in, interesting free voluntary reading, and everyone will benefit.  We should also note that the benefits of reading work in both first and second languages.

Now, Jackie’s husband, Jaques, also had a bunch of interesting things to say about learning English:

— He got English for an hour a day from grade 1 to grade 10 in Quebec, but still couldn’t speak or write it.  There was generally very heavy emphasis on grammar and writing, which he found both boring and useless.

— His favorite English teacher used music cloze exercises (listen to a song, read along, and fill in the occasional blank with what you hear), which Jaques liked.

— When he moved to B.C. at age 17, he had little $$ and spoke basically no English.  So he taught himself by getting kids’ books from the Salvation Army (at first).  Twenty-five cents got you a pile of books.  As he got better at English, he read young adult/youth fiction, and eventually graduated to stuff like “Game of Thrones.”  He was able to do his paramedic training in English with no problems.  He also very much liked comics and read as many as he could. He said that comics were easy to understand (because of the visuals), and a great way to learn slang.

— He does easy crosswords but says that the cultural in-jokes of English make any harder puzzles (e.g. Globe and Mail) impossible.

— He said “When you read a new word in a book, you don’t get it, but if you know the words around it, you can guess what it means.  And if you read it a hundred more times, you get a better idea about it.  Then the next day you hear it on the street, and you get it, and then you have it in your head.”

In other news, we have a short blog summary of veteran and master T.P.R.S. teacher Joe Neilson being observed. This guy has been using T.P.R.S. thirty years and was the guy who pioneered fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1.  Joe is probably the greatest living TPRS practitioner, and certainly among the very best languages teachers in the world.  Anyway, of note here is what Joe does with novels: with very advanced (i.e. 4th and 5th year) students, he is doing “basic” novels like Pobre Ana— to provide a super-easy “input base”– but throwing in very high-level discussion.  Read it here.

My own recent experience with reading:  when I went to El Salvador, it quickly became obvious that I was rusty, very rusty, with Spanish.  As my Mexican friend Mauricio put it in one of our trash-talking text convos, hablas como un pinche gringo maleducado.  So I put myself to work:  I read as much as I could of the newspaper every day (especially comics– I love comics), and I spent a LOT of time in markets, chatting in Spanish.  My brain strained, and new words–guínda, guanaco, púchica– came online.

On my second-last day in the country, I ran into Lucio “Chiyo” Vásquez, 43, a guy who  at age 9 (yes, you read that correctly) joined the F.M.L.N. guerrillas in the fight against an American-backed right-wing asshole government which used voter suppression, poverty, death-squads, media manupulation, military aid, etc, and the usual bag of tricks to maintain a landed aristocracy in wealth and the other 95% of people in horrible poverty.  Chiyo joined the guerrillas after American-trained death squads raped and killed his mother and sister, and tortured and killed three of his brothers and literally hundreds of his neighbours.  As his Dad– still alive today at age 90– put it, “they killed those women like dogs.  But they aren’t going to kill us like dogs.  They’re going to kill us fighting.”

Chiyo became a soldier, then a radio operator for the F.M.L.N.  Anyway, Chiyo had a guitar– a magnificent miked Fender classical given him by a German friend– and no case. My heart went out to that guitar, so I gave him $30 to buy a case, and he gave me a copy of his riveting autobiography, Siete Gorriones, which I started reading on the plane home.  There’s an interview with him about the book here

You could not make up the stuff in that book.  From the insane battle scenes (a guerrilla loses both legs to machinegun fire, begs to be killed, but none of his compas can do it), to the horrifying details (e.g. women giving birth during the middle of mortar attacks), to the heartbreak (losing friends, or having to kill all of the dogs because they could not be trusted to be quiet when the guerrillas were evading military patrols) to the surrealism (Chiyo has always been fascinated with music, and had always wanted to play harmonica, and was delighted when a harmonica player joined his guerrilla brigade…but unfortunately, this guy played harmonica with his nose and so Chiyo understandably never got to try the guy’s harp…), this book is amazing.

So I’m 100 pages into the first book I have ever read in Spanish and it’s been an interesting experience.  This is what I note:

— it works (i.e. is interesting) because it is story-driven.  There is a protagonist, there are clear problems, and there is very little “literary trickery” like interior monologues, multiple points of view, etc etc.  I want to know what happens next and that’s what he shows me.  It’s good writing– Hemingwayesque in its simplicity but not merely lists of facts and events.

I know the context  so I can follow along (background knowledge activated).  A book like this would be impossible for someone who did not know the social and political context of the Salvadorean wars of liberation.

I am not getting all the vocab but I can still follow the story.  When he discusses plants, birds and animals (very important to farmers and guerrillas), I am often a bit lost.  However, the stuff comes back often enough that I am starting to pick it up. E.g.  zopilotes I think must mean “vultures.”  I am also picking up other vocab steadily.  Ponerle la queja de ____ a ____ means “to complain about ___ to ____.”  If I am wrong, big deal…with enough reading most of this sorts itself out.

grammar acquisition is scaffolding off of what I know.  For example, I know that tomate and maíz mean “tomato” and corn.”  My guess: the -al ending in Spanish I think means “a place of,” so a tomatal is a tomato plantation, and a maícetal is a cornfield.  How did I learn this?  Simple– and it illustrates the power that comprehensible input has to “teach” us grammar:

a) he writes fuimos al tomatal.  “we went to tomato-something

b) he writes ibamos al maícetal y regresábamos con elotes: “we would go to corn-something and come back with cobs of corn”

c) -al gets used when the narrator goes somewhere, and where he goes seems to have edible/useful stuff growing there, so– enter hypothesis– -al means “place of growing ____.”

Also I am slowly picking up the Salvadorean vos which has a few weird tweaks– you say vos hablás and vos tenés where others would say tú hablas  and tú tienes (I think– it’s acquisitional early days and I could be wrong, but, again, whatever, I’ll pick it up eventually).  What’s interesting is that this is easy.

there is grammar which I have had explained to me which I still cannot use, or explain, but which I understand.  I don’t get why they say things like se me salió la babita cuando había comida (“I drooled/my mouth watered when there was food”).  I get that salirse means “to come out of” but why do you need the se?  Why can’t you just say  me salió la babita?  Whatever– I will eventually pick it up.

Ok people, there you go, the power of reading.

How do we do “ping pong” (a.k.a. “volleyball”) reading?

We know from Krashen and many others that reading is crucial to acquisition of first and other languages.  Reading gives us repetitions on vocab, “fuses” the visual with the auditory, and, crucially, allows us to slow down, pause, and go back, which we can’t do as much when getting oral input.

Also, crucially, reading shows us the zillions of subtle ‘rules’ that make up language use, rules which we could teach but which would be tedious.  For example, which sounds better: “I am a hard-working, employed professional” or “I am an employed, hard-working professional”?  The first.  Why?  I dunno.  I could work it out, probably, but who cares– I’d rather read a good story and soak it up that way than have to hack through a set of rules.  In Spanish, this is another tricky thing: you can say “es un gran hombre” and “es un hombre grande.”  The first means “he is a great man” and the second means “he is a [physically] large man.”  You could teach people the rules about literal vs figurative adjective placement, bla bla, or you could let them read.  For what it’s worth, as an English teacher, I can tell you with 100% certainty, the best writers are– always— readers.  There are no good writers who don’t read a ton. (I often joke with friends that the exception here are the Irish, and in the case of the Irish what we have are a culture that seems above all to value verbal dexterity and storytelling.)

(By the way, in my view, one of the biggest problems in the so-called “communicative” classrooms I see is that they don’t read.  No matter how good your teaching is, if you don’t make the kids read, you are shooting yourself in the foot).

So, reading matters a lot. First, principles:

a) reading should be 95%+ comprehensible.  If it isn’t, the kids stop or majorly slow acquisition, screw around, get annoyed, etc.

b) reading should be easy, and not intimidating/embarrassing, etc.

c) reading should be interesting— and what is interesting usually involves people, suspense, and a bit of humour (and surrealism sure doesn’t hurt either).

The best non-teacher-centered reading strategy I have yet seen I learned from Von Ray, and it’s called “ping-pong” reading, also known as “volleyball” reading:  the kids take a text, sentence at a time, and “volley” the target language and the English back and forth at each other.

So how do we do ping-pong reading?

a) Get kids into pairs.  I do pairs of rows (5 kids per row, two rows beside each other, three “pairs” of rows = 30 kids).  They can “be with their friends” because they will be moving soon.  You can also do Socratic circles.  Any system where kids can easily move to a new partner works.

b) Make sure each kid has a copy of whatever you are reading (versions of asked stories best– novels tend to have WAY too much new vocab).

c) Set a timer with alarm for 3 min.

d) One kid per pair reads the first sentence aloud in the target language.

e) The other kid translates that into English, then reads the second sentence in the TL.

f) The first kid translates that into English and reads the third sentence aloud, etc.

g) When your timer goes, they switch partners.  In my room, the left-hand kid moves one back; kid at back moves to front.

h)  They figure out where each was, and start from the least-far-along kid’s last spot.  E.g. if Max and his partner read to the 19th sentence in the story, while Samba and her partner read to the 15th, when Max and Samba sit together, they will start reading where Samba got to: the 15th sentence.  That way Samba doesn’t get lost, and Max gets reps.

i) Reset phone and start timer again.  Repeat until they are done the story.  Then of course review the crap out of it!  You can ask t/f questions, or get your superstars to give one-sentence answers (and have the slower processors translate) etc.

NOTES:

  • I don’t do this a lot– typically once per story, and it will last about 15 min– but I have not yet seen a better way to keep kids reading and focused.  I also tell them “if you disagree about what something means, check your vocab sheet or ask me.”
  • Another REALLY good idea thanks to Laurie Clarq is to use embedded readings for this (Blaine Ray is also big on embedded readings).  For this, the teacher reads the first version– the simplest one which contains the target structures– aloud and the kids chorally translate.  For the second, more complex version, the teacher reads aloud, the kids translate, and you can throw in a few questions.  You must make sure they understand everything, because if they don’t, they will screw up/misunderstand when they are reading on their own.  For the third and longest version, the kids go into full ping-pong on their own and the teacher just sets timer and keeps them on track.
  • the kids seem to see this as almost a game, which is cool.  Also the get-up-and-move thing is really helpful and they like that they can sit even for a few minutes with their friends.
  • I have found that my kids really do stay on task for this, provided it doesn’t go on too long and provided that the reading is comprehensible.
  • One of the reasons the kids like this– other than the “I get to sit with my friend” thing– is that, like choral output, this is non-intimidating.  You know the words so you probably won’t screw up either the reading or the translation, and if you do screw up, only one person gets to hear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we have a 5-min brain break.

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

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

Test and introducing new vocab takes 1 block.

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

Ok there you have it, what I do.

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.

What do grammar-taught kids say about their language-class experiences? (❤️ and one heartwarming TPRS story ❤️)

Every year when I start with beginners, I ask the kids, how come you chose Spanish, as opposed to Punjabi, French or any of the online options?    The responses are revealing. Note:  at our school, I get Spanish kids as beginners (level 1) who are generally in 10th or 11th grade.  Before that, they have done one of the following (some at our school and some elsewhere):

  • Core French (regular classroom French– 75 minutes/day for a five-month semester-long course) in 8th & 9th grade
  • Core French in 8th grade, then they dropped it and didn’t take a language in 9th grade
  • no language, because they are/were E.S.L. from another country originally
  • no language because they had learning support
  • Punjabi or Hindi as a heritage language (they already speak it, so basically learn reading & writing)
  • they come from another school, and I have no idea what they took there but most likely a bit of French

Today’s question: what do grammar-taught kids say about their language-class experiences?  

  • “We learned a lot of rules but they were hard to remember.”
  • “I could remember the rules but not what they meant.”  I asked this kid more and she said “like you can remember to [conjugate a verb] but you don’t know what it means when you do it.”
  • “It was boring”
  • “I liked the language but I couldn’t speak it.”
  • “I liked speaking it but I couldn’t write it.”
  • “I didn’t like talking.”
  • “It was confusing.”
  • (from a very bright kid I have in English 11, who still takes French): “In grade 8, I could speak a bit of French after like two months.  But they just keep adding rules.  You have to remember all these rules when you talk and write. Now in Grade 11 I am constantly thinking how I should talk.  So I can only talk when I practice with my partner.  But then she [the teacher] puts us with a different partner and you have to rewrite your dialogue.”

We have to also remember that the kids I get are the ones for whom grammar or traditional communicative teaching doesn’t work.  A lot of kids keep on with French, Punjabi, German, Chinese etc and the teaching works well enough for them.  We also need to remember that teachers (at least all of the ones I know and work with) are incredibly hard-working and caring.  I spent 11 years going to workshops, often with my colleagues, and I can tell you that 95% of teachers (and all of my colleagues) work their butts off.  My colleagues are constantly revising, fiddling, etc.  These are not phone-it-in teachers using twenty-five year old lessons.  So we must conclude that methods don’t always work even if the teachers are working super-hard.

Now TPRS won’t solve all the problems, but it will address some of them.  How?

a) we don’t force kids to remember and regurgitate rules.

b) we focus on meaning, not grammar; we discuss grammar only to clarify meaning

c) We use stories– which have suspense and weirdness– and personalisation to keep things interesting

d) we don’t expect speech from beginners, or from those who are self-conscious.  Speech from kids is like, you’re on your way to buy an nice espresso in the morning, and you find a $2 coin on the sidewalk: it’s great, we love it, but we we don’t expect it and we’re grateful when it happens.

e) we immediately clarify all ambiguities, because we know, from forty years of research (and that awful feeling we get in our get when we are confused) that acquisition stops when we don’t understand.

f) we restrict writing (and speaking) to only what we have taught (a.k.a. sheltering subject matter).

Now, I’m definitely the world’s worst T.P.R.S. teacher.  I totally suck.  I mean, on a scale of “sucks a bit” to “sucks a lot,” I’m so far off the scale I can’t even see it.  I have screwed up PLENTY.  I have introduced too much vocab.  I have assigned grammar-based homework.  I got reluctant beginners to talk during P.Q.A. (personalised questions and answers).  I have sometimes not stopped to clarify meaning.  I have built stories around grammar.  If a T.P.R.S. mistake can be made, I have made it.

That said, for me, T.P.R.S. is working better than Juntos (communicative) or ¡Díme!(grammar-grind) teaching, because I am slowly bringing my work into line with research and the classroom practices that Blaine Ray, Ben Slavic, Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab, Susan Gross and others have developed, and I am sucking slightly less every year.  I get increased enrolment, zero management issues, happier kids, MUCH better output of all kinds, plus class is fun, all marks are higher, and the weakest kids can succeed.  Mostly, I attribute this to what T.P.R.S. lets us do:  stay in the target language most of the time.  The kids hear probably 20x the Spanish they used to– and they listen and read more.

❤️ Now, here is something heartwarming.  ❤️ When I finished teaching my first semester of TPRS, my student Jack K.came and thanked me for switching from the grammar grind to TPRS.  Jack had my awful trad teaching in Level 1, and TPRS for level 2.

I told him, thank Blaine Ray, not me.  So, Jack wrote to Blaine.  Here is their conversation:

“My name is Jack K., I am a 17 year old student at Tamanawis. And for the last two years I’ve been taking Spanish classes, I’m glad to say I did quite well because of your program.

The first year I arrived to Surrey from my native Quebec, I was offered to take Spanish class (because French was too easy) which I accepted. The class was very different but i enjoyed it thoroughly because I love languages. The only problem is that it didnt feel natural, it felt like a struggle, regardless of my teachers efforts, I found it hard to approach as did everyone else in my class, Mr Stolz had been teaching languages for years, but hes approach seemed rough edged, so the first year I did average getting around 70% , when I totally knew I could do better, because French is very similar to Spanish and I really wanted to progress.

The next year I took Spanish class again, but this time something was very different, Mr Stolz’s whole approach on the subject was different, it felt natural, and as the semester progressed I learnt way more then I ever thought I would, to the point where I was forgetting basic things in both French and English. So the second time around was just great, it went very smoothly, I did very well In the end, which sparked interests in languages I didn’t know I had. and literally on the last day of school, I spoke with Mr Stolz for a while and the topic of your program came up, (he spoke about your program quite often) and I told him how easy it felt the second time around, and I was really grateful, because I now want to get a minor degree in Spanish later on (which I didn’t want to do at first). Mr Stolz insisted on me thanking you personally for your program, because it actually helped a lot of people including me. So thank you so very much dude.”   — sincerely, Jack K.

Then Blaine wrote back:

“Thanks for your wonderful email. What a great response. I am so grateful that you were able to learn this way. What a great thing that you are now planning to minor in Spanish. Thanks so much for sharing.” — Blaine Ray

So I hope that when I hand my kids off to their college or Uni Spanish profs, they are happy with what I tried to give them.

Thematic & topical units: not so fast…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggestions for avoiding the topic trap:

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

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

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

Here’s an example for a food story:

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

Dialogue:

What would you like?
— I would like…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluation is Over-rated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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