legacy methods

Why is sustained play important for the language classroom?

T.P.R.S. is a kind of creative, collaborative game, really.  Teachers supply the language and story idea; kids supply details and together a story is built.  Sometimes people make fun of us– oh yes, T.P.R.S., talking sharks and flying purple elephants— because, well, a) they’re either stupid or misinformed, or b) they think that the learning world should be– or is– divided into these categories called “serious” and “silly,” and guess where language teaching belongs?  Bottom line: lotsa folks don’t like fun, especially elaborate fun.

Anyway, let’s not hate on the haters, as kids these days say, but rather let’s look at some fascinating research about what Po Bronson and Ashely Merryman call “sustained play” in their great book NurtureShock.  Today’s question:  what does “sustained play” look like, does it help learners, and can we apply it to the T.P.R.S. classroom?

What do kids do when they play?  What did you do when you were a kid?  My friends and I built forts, and dams and rivers when the snow melted, pretended we were cops and robbers, Star Trek characters, bla bla, wrestled, built weird stuff out of Lego, played tag, invented complicated variations on tag, devised wargames… The games were co-ed and the main differences between the guys and the girls was in the toys.  We guys wanted G.I. Joes, Transformers, etc, while the girls liked dolls a bit more…but, interestingly, most of our imaginative play was fully co-ed.  The girls wanted to explore alien planets and have wargame teams as much as the guys did.

What all of this had in common was that, for hours that invariably ended when our Moms called us in for dinner, was that we were in a state of what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow.”  We were unselfconsciously immersed in creative activities that we controlled, activities whose “purpose” was nothing other than having fun.  Now, it turns out that play– which all kids (and loads of adults) all over the world do– has legit developmental purposes.  Kids learn spatio-motor skills, empathy (via role-playing), sharing, etc etc.  There’s a good article about play here. But it turns out that play has other developmental benefits– self-restraint and developing “deep focus”– which can help us in the languages classroom.

In NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman discuss the “Tools of the Mind pre-school and kindergarten curriculum, created by Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong, one of whose central aspects is sustained play.  If the kids are learning about firemen, they make a “play plan” where they write down (as well as they can) what they want to do  and who they want to be for “fireman play” (“I am going to be the guy who needs to be rescued from the second storey of a burning house”). Playplan devised, they go to one of five “stations” in the class– firestation, firetruck, burning house, tree with kitty stuck in it, etc– and they play for 45 min.  If they get “off task,” the teacher asks “is that in your play plan?”

The program does other things too: it asks the kids to “self-talk” (create internal monologues about decisions), play “Simon Says” (listen, WAIT AND THINK, and, only then, act), and do “buddy reading,” where one kid gets a flipbook with pictures, and creates and narrates to his/her partner a story based on those pictures, and the other kid asks questions about the story.

The aim of all this?  To develop internal self-awareness, to develop abstract thought, to develop “executive self-control,” and to develop the capacity to focus.  As the data show,  Tools for the Mind works.  Why?  Because the kids set a purpose– one over which they have lots of control and which is both fun and meaningful– and then they are immersed in a state of “flow” in focused, sustained play, which makes their brains get used to long-term focus on something (playing at a role, listening to others, telling  a story, etc).  Crucially, it also teaches them to reflect and wait before talking and acting.

There is a fascinating aside in this chapter: in a 1975 Russian study, Z. V. Manuilenko asked five year olds to stand still, which they did for an average of two minutes. When the same kids to pretend they were on-duty palace guards, they were able to stand still for eleven minutes. Doesn’t work for younger kids and works less-well for older kids, but still…

Bodrova and Leong note that many of the demonstrated benefits of play are not reducible to isolated, time-specific, snapshot-style measurement. Indeed, they argue that the assumption that “the measurement of isolated skills over discrete intervals of time will accurately reflect the mechanisms of development” is wrong. Like language acquisition, play is complex and long-term. Their article is well worth a read.

So how does this apply to the comprehensible input classroom? 

We want ourselves and the kids to get into a state of “flow”– or close to it– defined by Wikipedia roughly as

  1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. a distortion of temporal experience, [where] one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

a) When we are using a story, we are “playing” in the sense that we are creating something over which we have control.  The byproduct: kids are learning– or having reinforced their capacity– to focus on– and through– imaginative elaboration.  The kids have to remember details, listen, and contribute.

b) We are asking the kids to engage in intrinsically rewarding– autotelic– activity.  They are not “doing stuff” to learn Language ____.  They don’t “do stuff” for the payment reward of marks.   A good story is interesting in its own right.  I have never in fifteen years of teaching met a kid who didn’t like a story.  Hell, I can– and do– read short stories and even novels aloud to Grade 12 students…and they love it!

In education, what you really want is for kids to not know/realise they are learning. What they do should– insofar as possible– be inherently interesting. As a side-product, they learn facts or skills or whatever.

c) We try to ditch self-consciousness as much as possible.  We don’t force the kids to talk if they can’t or don’t want to (other than easy, choral answers– yes, no, one-word).  We make them feel “safe.”  We do P.Q.A. with our superstars, and our actors are kids who want to act.  This allows us to “smuggle” grammar and vocab into the kids’ minds.

d)  When stories rock, we lose track of time.

e) as far as possible, we try to “blend” action and awareness (of at least language) by keeping things comprehensible and interesting– will the boy find his lost cat?  Will Mother Nature punish the chica mala who is littering Starbucks cups in the Amazon?

The side-effect of T.P.R.S.– one which will benefit kids everywhere, as do the Tools of the Mind practices– is going to be an ability to focus.  Rather than providing a “variety” of “activities” which “address core competencies” and “attributes” and other edubabble, we provide one, deep, long creative and interesting activity: a story.  We’re doing via language what Vipassana does via meditation for the brain.

In a world where kids are on-screen– with texts to answer, “likes” to click on, links to follow and shiny chattery games to play– for four hours a daydeep sustained focus is a crucial skill.  Whatever you do in life, you need to be able to tune in to your activity, tune out distractions, and “soak it up.” And if creative play develops that…awesome!

Dumb gatekeeping

OK I’m feeling hyperbolic today, but you gotta agree, this is pretty dumb:

So my former colleague Polly, an innovative French teacher in the communicative tradition, told me about becoming a teacher.  She’d been a languages monitor in Quebec, had read a ton, been to France, yadda yadda– she was fluent in French– and then decided to become a French teacher.  When she applied to the University, she had to take a French “entrance exam” to make sure she was “good enough” at French to teach it.  Il faut pouvoir parler comme un francais and all that. Keep the riff-raff out of the profession etc. 

So she went to the French qualification test and the oral exam was, the examiner showed her a picture of a bicycle.  “Dècrivez la biciclette” said the examiner.  Polly did what she could– it’s red, it has two wheels, it’s a ____ brand, on l’utilise au Tour de France, etc, and then the examiner said “qu’est-ce que sont  ____?” and pointed to the cogs.  Polly had no idea how to say “cogs” in French.  The examiner proceeded to ask her more biciclette questions which she didn’t know the answers for.  Front forks?  Hubs?  Brakes?

She failed the exam and had to qualify as an English teacher.  Of course, when she was applying for work, the Abbotsford board– desperate as always for French teachers– hired her to teach French.  Polly would later go on to write Provincial curricula, mark Provincial exams, sit on a zillion committees, teach French at all levels, pilot texts, sit as a department head, etc.  Yet the University powers-that-be decided that, on the basis of not being able to describe a bicycle’s components, she was unqualified to be a French teacher.

Anyway, that’s the dumbest thing ever.  Bike vocab:  low frequency.  Describe an object not normally given much consideration by people other than roadies, hipsters and bike mechanics: linguistically infrequent.  Assessment of actual relevant skill?  Zero.  Thank God the real world found Polly’s mad French skillz useful, yo, and let’s learn from her experiences by

  • teaching high-frequency vocabulary
  • not asking kids to learn idiotic, seldom-used words
  • keeping assessment authentic

How do we teach “advanced” grammar?

I got a great comment from Jody in México. I argued in a previous post that Blaine Ray (and any other solid comprehensible-input teacher, such as Joe Dziedzic, Susan Gross, Ben Slavic, etc) will use what Jody describes as “complex language (subordinate clauses, subjunctive, mixed tenses, etc.) with lower level students.”

Jody then pointed out that legacy methods (communicative and grammarian) teachers will generally say “How are kids going to be able to do that if we haven’t taught them the the other tenses first? They don’t know enough language to be able to handle those “advanced” tenses and constructions. The idea is ridiculous!”

Jody then asks “How do we respond to those teachers? […] HOW [does] a teacher make[…] complex language comprehensible (orally) so that its complexity and quantity don’t overwhelm the student ? [How does a teacher ] KNOW that this kind of instruction is actually working with her/his students? What if your students are just not getting it? Is it them/Is it me? What do you do?”

So…today’s question: “How do we teach so-called advanced grammar?”

First, there is, technically speaking, no such thing as “advanced” grammar in the sense that some things are “harder” to learn. My definition for “advanced grammar” is “grammar used not as frequently as other grammar.” I say this because the less we hear/read something, the harder it will be to acquire. Now, some sentence structures are more complex than others, true. A sentence such as Blaine Ray’s “the boy wanted a cat who had a blue iPhone” is more complex than “I like cats,” but in terms of grammar, really, they’re all the same…and, in some cases, apparently “simple” grammar is less used than “advanced” grammar. For example, in Spansh, according to word-frequency lists found here

— “used to be” and “was” are used more frequently than “you are.”
— the subjunctive form for “s/he is” and “s/he was” are used more frequently than the word “good”
— the formal future tense for “s/he is” is used more frquently than the word for “three”

Even a University-educated Chinese, Portuguese or Spanish native speaker who has acquired English– like my Mexican friend Emanuel, or my climbing partners Polly and Teresa– will often not acquire the third-peson -s until way after they have acquired much more “complex” structures such as the past conditional. (Polly, from China, has two degrees from English universities, a few million in the bank, has bought and sold a few businesses, has been living and working– and reading– in Canada for twenty years, and still says “I hope he run with me tomorrow.”)

Yet, in a typical textbook the words for you are, good and three are introduced– and practised– WAY before such “advanced” forms as the past subjunctive. So textbooks get it wrong.

But the question remains: how do we teach such supposedly complex structures as the subjunctive?

a) you keep it 100% comprehensible
B) you provide loads of repetitions, and
C) you don’t expect the kids to internalise whatever “advanced grammar” rule you are teaching right away.
D) if it’s aural (listening input), all the above apply, and include written support to boost comprehensibility

For example, the Spanish “quiero que seas mi novio/a” (I want that you be my boy/girlfriend) is– in traditional terms– “complex.” It has a subordinate clause and the subjunctive.

If I am teaching a story, I’ll throw that in there as dialogue. I’ll have “quería que fuera” with translation on the board. I narrate “Rochelle quería que David Beckham fuera su novio” (Rochelle wanted that David Beckham be her boyfriend). I then ask my actress (in present tense) “¿quieres que sea tu novio DB?” (Do you want that DB be your boyfriend?) and have her respond with “Sí, quiero que sea mi novio” (yes, I want that he be my BF). I’ll also include dialogue where Rochelle meets DB and says “David. Eres muy guapo. ¡Quiero que seas mi novio!” (You are very handsome, I want that you be my BF!)

I will also ask the class comprehension questions: “when I say quería que DB fuera su novio, what am I saying?” and I’ll circle the sentence. I’ll also ask my actress lots of questions: “¿quieres que George W. Bush sea tu novio?” etc and when I do this, I’ll ask the class “what am I asking Rochelle?”

Now, note carefully:

A) the kids have NOT acquired the subjunctive even if they can retell the story, or properly use the sea constuction in a sentence. But they have acquired a “piece” of it and feel— somewhere in their heads– a fragment of the rule that “infinitive minus r plus a or e equals desire/possibility.” And they also have something useful— the word sea is in the top 300 or so Spanish words and they can use the word in at least one situation.

B) I am not grammar-geeking out. Hell, I don’t even tell the kids about the subjunctive, the rules, etc. All I say is “sea means ‘might be’.”

C) Once I have used sea in this story, I can re-use it everywhere and anytime. In my next story, maybe Fahim wants a blue cat, and tells the cat “quiero que seas mi gato.” (I want you to be my cat)

D) When I throw imy next subjunctive statement into a story– “¡No me gustas! Quiero que te vayas.” (I don’t like you! I want that you leave)– I also keep it 100% comprehensible and the kids– subconsciously– are getting reinforcement on the subjunctive a/e pattern.

Now, when legacy methods teachers say “they don’t know enough language to be able to handle those advanced tenses” (e.g. the subjunctive), I would ask them about their Level 4s and 5s, to whom the text says “you must now teach the subjunctive”:

— are your students appropriately transfering their sudden new explicit knowledge of the subjunctive– rules, endings, irregular forms, etc– into every part of their speech and writing?

— if you taught the subjunctive as part of a topical/thematic unit (e.g. as part of a unit on work– “el papa quiere que su hijo tenga un buen empleo” (the dad wants his kid to get a good job), do the kids actually use the subjunctive when talking/writing about something other than work?

— do the kids use the subjunctive appropriately and automatically in speedwrites and unrehearsed speech? Or are they mainly “good” at it when they have time to look through their binders and notes, and when they are doing worksheets, or textbook exercises?

I’m gonna bet the answer to all three is “no.” It sure was when I taught “communicatively” from a rigidly-structured text.

So does T.P.R.S. have an advantage, in terms of teaching “advanced” concepts such as the subjunctive? Yes. Mainly because, as Susan Gross argues, people acquire grammar rules on their own schedule, when they are ready for them, and not before. It follows from this that, as Gross says, we should provide rich, interesting, totally comprehensible and multidimensnal language right from the get-go, so that the kids are constantly getting everything, and will pick up what they are ready for when they are ready.

If we hold off on “advanced grammar,” what happens if a student isn’t ready to acquire an allegedly “simple” grammar rule? They will get input that only provides a part of what they need! If you restrict input to X, kids will only only have the chance to acqire X…for which they may not be ready, and what they are ready for, they won’t be getting.

On top of that, there is no way of knowing what kids are or are not ready to acquire. And, even if there were a way to know that, how could you possibly design teaching around 30 different stages of acquisition? You can’t.

So what do you do? You provide rich, interesting and comprehensible language all the time, and you– and the kids– are good.

What are traditional methods, why are my colleagues using them, and should I say anything?

At a department meeting the other day, I was talking to one of our student teachers. She’s doing French and Art, and was telling me about her  University methods professor– the person who teaches student teachers “how to teach French.”

her Uni has a system where the student teachers get a general intro course, then do a short practicum, then get more methods, then do along practicum, then get a mega-methods class. Sometimes, depending on intake, the order is scrambled (e.g. the STs will get long methods then practica, etc). Anyway, she was telling me that her methods professor– a French woman with a Ph.D.– was all about

A) immediate grammar correction
B) explicit grammar teaching and practice
C) grammar homework
D) lots of “oral practice,” etc

I told here “all that stuff is junky, because it’s not supported by the research.

This brings up two good questions:

A) what are “traditional practices”?

B) why do people still do them?

B first. I wrote about traditional practices and why there are so few comprehensible-input teachers here

So what are “traditional practices”?

Traditional practices– a.k.a.”legacy practices” (not my term, and a term I’m no longer using, because it comes off as judgmental) are old methods of doing things. In language teaching, to put it crudely, traditional practices are things that teachers do which are not supported by research. In languages, this (now) means things tried before Krashen began gathering the data that supports the comprehensible input hypothesis. Tradiional  methods include

  • asking for output in the first stages of acquisition
  • using learner-created output with other learners (especially in early stages)
  • explaining grammar rules for any length of time
  • making people copy down grammar notes
  • giving grammar-focused assignments (fill in the blanks, conjugate the verb, etc)
  • assessing grammar knowledge
  • basing assignments around output
  • organising curriculum around themes

We know that talking isn’t necessary for acquisition, that there are limited (and short-term) returns on grammar instruction and practice, that there is no way to ensure that acquisition follows a textbook, etc.

At the early 20th century, Latinists influenced language teaching, and thought, rules plus practice = acquisition (see the scene near the start of  The Dead Poets’ Society where the Latin teacher is having his kids decline agricola, the Latin word for “farmer”). Skinner– drill, baby, drill for rewards– seemed to reinforce this. Chomsky, who is not only the most quoted but the most misunderstood researcher, put the boots to Skinner but seemed to reinforce the “rules plus practice” formula (he didn’t). Grammar, plus audiolingual (listen then talk) was all the rage for awhile, partly because of the U.S. Army’s insistence on audiolingual methods. It was not until the late 1970s that people began experimenting with the communicative-experiential approach (broadly, using realistic language in communication-gap scenarios, plus grammar practice, to develop acquisition).

While the C-E approach must have been a breath of fresh air compared to the grammar grind– it was for me in high-school German–, we now know that forcing people to talk makes many uncomfortable, is unnecessary, and deprives people of the rich, quality L2 comprehensible input that drives acquisition.

So what do you do when your Department either a) just doesn’t like comprehensible input or b) refuses to read the research and change methods, or c) both?

You speak your piece. As Michael Fullan says, without the difficult conversations where people confront their biases, outdated practices, etc, there is no progress in schools. When in our languages department questions come up– we have been “directed” by admin to come up with inquiry questions to guide departmental practice– I will base my conversation around research and fact, and not what “I like” or “what I believe in.”

I was criticised, called “out of line” for my suggestion that some of my colleagues’ use of legacy practices was not appropriate practice.

Well…we teach in a public school, we answer to the public, and we had BETTER be able to justify our methods. I can. I know the research, I have demonstrable results, I’ll share everything I know– and I’ll come and demo in any of my colleagues’ classes, in any language I know. I will not sit there and discuss the question “how can the languages department implement project-based learning?” if the research on acquisition does not support that. I do not want the departmental budget directed toward “the French café” (the crêpe wagon comes and kids can say 3 words in French to buy a crêpe) because this is not helping acquisition. (I wouldn’t support the taco stand or the samosa wagon either, FWIW). I don’t want to waste time on discussing which textbook to buy, because we know– from research– that textbooks don’t follow the acquisitional “brain rules.”

In short, it is the comprehensible input/T.P.R.S. teacher’s job to advocate for activities, policies and materials which reflect current research, and not to go along with legacy practitioners’ outdated practices. Gonna do T.P.R.S.? Get ready to have some tough, but very rewarding, discussions.

As of 2016, I have reflected on this post from two years ago and I have realised one thing: personal bridges come first.  People will generally only listen if you develop a bit of a bond and it generally does not help to start a conversation with arguing.  So I have had to start being/appearing less confrontational.  (interesting side-effect of this: a communicative/grammarian colleague–despite her protestations that TPRS is weird etc– is becoming a C.I. teacher!  She has ditched the worksheets, started doing novel reading, tells stories, etc…)

To someone who has never seen T.P.R.S. in action, and/or who hasn’t (or won’t) read the research, or who refuses to experiment, or who “believes” in his/her legacy method, T.P.R.S. can sound like craziness.  No grammar notes?  No practice dialogues?  No grammar tests?  No vocab lists or discrete-item testing?  Madness, or at least, eccentricity.

But hey!  Remember what Bertrand Russel said: “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”