metalinguistic competency

How Not To Start The Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy teaching! I’m headed to the Valhallas.

C.E.F.R. and T.P.R.S.

Workshop participant Kristin A. asks “How does T.P.R.S. fit with the current IRP and/or with the Common European Framework for Reference?”

The C.E.F.R. is basically a system of assessing where people are in terms of their linguistic skills.  The system ranks learners from Level A1 (beginner) through A2, B1, B2, C1 and finaly C2 (advanced native speaker).  There are a set of assumptions built into the C.E.F.R. about what constitutes language skill– people must know when/where to use certain kinds of language; people must know how to manage language use (i.e. deal with miscommunication and cultural barriers, etc), etc etc– and there are detailed descriptors of what each skill level means.  In the Wiki entry linked to above, the way C.E.F.R. maps onto various Canadian and U.S. assessment systems is detailed. 

The real question for us comprehensible input teachers, however, is “should the C.E.F.R. affect our practice?”  I would say, no.  The three reasons why we should ignore the C.E.F.R. when teaching languages are a) understanding trumps everything else when we are thinking about what will actually help people manage in a foreign country; b) metalinguistic stuff— knowing what one knows; awareness of social convention, being able to describe one’s language skills, etc– has little or no effect on acquisition; c) there is no point in putting energy into anything other than formative assessment in a language classroom.

(a) The main thing we have to remember is, 99% of what matters in a foreign language classroom is how much the students learn to understand.  The more language you understand, the easier everything else (having to do with the culture(s) of where your target language is spoken) becomes.  While the C.E.F.R. stresses “communicative competencies” and goes into detail about “languages skills,” this is stuff that really matters very little in the overall picture…because these are simple and minor compared to what really matters– understanding.

If you are traveling  or working in the European country of Blablabia, some of the essential skills you need as a non-native speaker of Blablabian are recognising when you don’t understand (and asking for help), clarifying when other don’t understand you, knowing when to say/not say certain things depending on social context, etc etc.  Blablabians, as is well known, do not like it when, in mixed groups of adults and children, adults directly address children and refer to them as “you.”  Blablabian children in the presence of adults are referred to by name, or by she or he.  One does not look at a Blablabian child named JonJon at a party and say “you must put your coat on, for we are leaving soon.”  One says “JonJon must put his coat on.”

Now, here’s the question.  You are preparing your students to go and live, study and/or work in Blablabia.  What will make them best off when they get there?  Should you (a) teach lessons on Blablabian etiquette, or should you (b) teach loads of Blablabian so that, when your students get there, they understand?

I vote for (b)– language.  Etiquette and social skills can be briefly and easily explained in English; Blablabians will understand and forgive if you screw up one of their social conventions; the more Blablabian you understand, the quicker you will figure out what to say/do (or not) with/in Blablabians.

(b) I am still waiting for evidence that metalinguistic self-awareness helps acquisition.  In other words, does getting people to reflect on what they know in/about a language help them acquire it?  Merrill Swain thinks so, but, as I have argued elsewhere, linguistic self-awareness is of limited use for anything other than making a roadmap of where to go– and that only on the level of vocab.  If I know I can’t say “pogue mahoney” in Blablabian, great, this awareness may get me out looking for way to learn it.  But I still need to hear it and understand it a bunch of times to acquire it.

(c)  Suppose– in an ideal world– that you  got the kids to do “linguistic self-inventory” and “socio-cultural inventories” where they reflect on what they know in Blablabian, and about Blablabian.  Suppose– this being an ideal world– that the kids are self-aware right down to grammatical fine points.  (in the real world, they will never be this self-aware)  Johnny writes “I am still not sure how to to conjugate the verb blerfle in the future perfect subjunctive,” while Mandeep writes “I am not sure if I should use the formal pronoun if I meet a Blablabian dog that is large and threatening, or if I should just assume human supremacy and address it in the informal form.”  OK great.  Now you, the wise and self-reflective teacher, know what Mandeep and Johnny need.  Question: how is this information going to turn into meaningful classroom decisions and activities? 

Are you going to make some future perfect subjunctive drills for Johnny only?  If so, you’re probably wasting your time, cos, as noted by every researcher, you cannot “rush” or force specific grammar item acquisition. If not, you’re gonna bore the class that has alrready acquired the FPJ, and puzzle those who aren’t yet ready for it.  You going to make a lesson built around formal vs informal vocatives in Blablabian?  What about kids who don’t care?  What if Johnny and Mandeep are the only ones who have these specific issues?

This is the problem with the endless self-reflection that students are asked to do.  Even if they could do it–and they can’t, generally– the info you get from it is going to be impossible to turn into meaningful teaching decisions.  Too many moving parts.

Now suppose you do your assessment at the end of a unit and you’re figuring out where the kids are in C.E.F.R. terms.  Johnny is A2, Mandeep B1, etc.  Is this info going to provide you with meaningful useful feedback?  If you wanna slow things down to help laggard Johnny, Mandeep will be bored.  Cater to Mandeep and Johnny gets frustrated.  What if both blow it on their unit test?  Are you gonna go back and re-teach?  Do you have that kind of time?  How interesting is doing another “unit” on direct object pronouns, or whatever? 

This is where T.P.R.S. shines.  Our assessment is organic, simple and ongoing.  Weak choral response = they don’t understand = go back/add detail.  Low exit quiz marks– less than 80% of class getting less than 80%? = go back.  We don’t bore kids by going back.  We add another character so we can use the structures again but maintain some novelty.  Because we use all grammar all the time– but we limit vocab– we give the kids ongoing exposure to everything, so that when their brains are ready, they pick up the grammar.  I don’t care that Johnny doesn’t pick up pronouns till 4th year…he’ll get them eventually.

The bottom line is this: if you want to get people ready to function in another culture and language, give them as much language as you can.  They will figure out what they need to learn when they get there; they will learn via comprehensible input and not via self-assessment or grammar lessons; they are better off elsewhere if they know a ton of vocab, so that they can use that knowledge to figure out subtler things like cultural codes, etc.

If you have to assess using C.E.F.R., it’s easy:  ignore it.  Teach your kids tons of language, follow the frequency lists, have them do loads of reading, make it enjoyable and comprehensible, so that when the C.E.F.R. test comes, they’ll know loads of language.