order of acquisition

What are the pros and the cons of A.I.M.?

I was recently chatting with a couple of Vancouver teachers who used to use the Accelerated Integrative Method (A.I.M.) of language teaching.  A.I.M., developed by Wendy Maxwell, is both a method and a program.  It begins  with “total immersion”: the teacher speaks only the target language in class, and uses gestures to support meaning.  Students are expected to speak from Day 1, and to also use the gestures.  There is reading, some grammar instruction (not a ton), and the whole thing is built around a set of stories, which are read, listened to, acted, watched, acted with puppets, etc, as well as responded to.  Oral output is rehearsing a play, which is performed at the end of the year/semester.  They have some reading materials.  The curriculum is super-structured:  you need to “do” all the stories in order to perform the play and they have very detailed lesson plans (and procedures) starting day 1.

Now, I have not used A.I.M.– I found out about it at the same time as T.P.R.S. and the latter intuitively appealed to me more– but I get asked a lot about what I think.  So since I can’t speak for A.I.M., I’ll let Catherine and Natasha explain what they did and didn’t like about it:

Natasha:

  • used AIM for about 2 years for French
  • liked the intense “immersion” it offered– lots of French spoken in class and the T.P.R. (total physical response– words accompanied with gesture) aspect
  • initially appreciated the rigorous structure: it was “easy to start” and there was no need to copy/borrow/adapt “materials” and “resources” from others.

Natasha abandoned A.I.M. and here is why:

  • the TPR was only superficially and initially useful and eventually became a pain in the butt.  Students also generally refused to do it.
  • TPR created problems with ambiguity, and fossilised.  For example, if a gesture accompanied “walks,” Natasha found that they would keep using “walks”in the wrong place with the gesture (e.g. “we walks”).
  • the oral assessment– can the kids recite their lines in the play?– in her view was silly as it wasn’t even close to real language use.  She also noted that the performers didn’t always know what they were saying.
  • she found it very difficult to keep the kids focused on the stories, because they are the same in all their iterations.  E.g. they would listen to it, read it, watch it, act it out, act it out with puppets, etc.  There was, according to Natasha, no variation.  No parallel characters, student-centered improv a la t.p.r.s., etc.

Catherine also used A.I.M. for two years and repeated most of Natasha’s comments (both positive and negative), with a few of her own.  On the upside:

  • if the whole languages department in a school is using A.I.M., the transitions between grades– i.e. “what should they know when they start grade ___?”– is very easy, as the curriculum is majorly locked in.
  • the theatre pieces in which each year or semester culminates are pretty cool to look at (and, if your school has the resources for costumes etc, can be a lot of fun to put on)

On the downside:

  • because the curriculum is so rigid, it inevitably leaves some students out.  If students have not acquired ___, the curriculum marches ahead anyway.
  • there is very little room for improvisation in stories
  • teachers with a creative bent will be severely limited, because the whole A.I.M. package is “unified” and one has to “do” or “cover” everything for the final goal– theatre pieces– to work.  This means that teachers’ ideas will have very limited room for exploration.
  • much of the introductory stuff is boring.  E.g. the class sits in a circle and the teacher says “this is a pen,” and “this is a desk,” etc.

(One of the interesting things for me was oral assessment:  A.I.M. uses “real” language– i.e. student-generated output– right from the get-go, but assesses something other than “real language” in the theatre piece, while T.P.R.S. uses “fake” language– acted-out stories with simple dialogue– but assesses “real” language– teacher interviewing the kids one-on-one.)

T.P.R.S. answers a few of these criticisms:

  1. T.P.R. is only (and optionally) used for awhile, and generally with true beginners
  2. The method is infinitely flexible.  We have Blaine’s “holy trinity” of story asking, PQA and reading…and we now also have Ben Slavic’s PictureTalk, Ashley Hastings’ MovieTalk, dictation…and even when we are using a “text” such as Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk, or Adriana Ramírez’ Teaching Spanish Through Comprehensible Input Storytelling, we– and the KIDS– can change story details, locations, etc etc.
  3. The comprehension checks in T.P.R.S.– if regularly done– will provide super-clear feedback about whether or not students have acquired (on understanding level) whatever they are being taught.  If a teacher gets a weak choral response, or slow/poor responses from the actor(s), we go back, add a character, etc.
  4. There is no “end goal” in T.P.R.S.  If we are in the target language, and the kids understand, and we don’t overload them with vocab, they are acquiring.  Blaine Ray has famously remarked that he spent four months doing ONE story with his grade 9s.  We are not working toward an exam, a play, a portfolio.  All we want to do is tell the kids interesting fun stories with vocab we can repeat zillions of times.
  5. If a story is boring, we add a parallel character, or bail out and start another one, or throw something random in.  While we do want to stick to our structures, we can basically do whatever we want with them.
  6. If there’s ambiguity we just translate.

Another colleague, Katy-Ann, has this to say about A.I.M.:

“I loved using the AIM program!!  It was a lot of work at the beginning to learn all the gestures, but I found that it worked so well. I could speak French for the entire time with my 8’s, and the majority of the kids loved the way the program worked. At the end of the year the students were capable of telling a story (based on the play that we read) in their own words, with a partner. The activity was completely unrehearsed, and as the students alternated back and forth telling the story, they had to listen for details and continue on where their partner left off. Most groups talked bath and forth in this way for a good 10 minutes. They were also capable of writing a massive story. I loved hearing them create more complex sentences and I could help them with the words they were stuck on without actually telling them the word. I could gesture and it would jog their memory. I found that this gave the students confidence. They were actually recalling things and not just repeating words back to me. At the end of the year the feedback from the students was overwhelmingly positive and the parents were very supportive of the method as well.

I’m a fairly animated teacher, so I felt comfortable making a bit of a fool of myself with the gestures, songs and games. My colleague and I collaborated a lot during the process and reworked the songs into raps to make them a little cooler. This style really suited my personality and I loved that I could actually stick to my French only rule in the classroom.  I haven’t used TPRS in the classroom and unfortunately I’m not teaching French this year, so I can’t really compare the methods. If I was teaching French (and I had some pull at my new school) I would totally beg to do the AIM program again with the jr French classes. I’m not sure how the older kids would react to it.

Anyways, I hope that this helps. I think that the program is AMAZING. The kit that my school purchased is called Salut, mon ami. I only got through one kit in the year, because we added in a couple things, but I would recommend two per grade – or if you are just starting, then one.  Of course there are some holes in the program, but the main thing that I noticed is that the kids were speaking in full sentences every day, they were successful and engaged. I could really go on and on about it because I’m a believer. I would totally take the seminar if you can. I did the three day course and by the end I knew it was for me.”

Anyway there you have it, some A.I.M. ideas.  Anyone with experience with A.I.M. please leave some comments.

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?

Easy:
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.

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.

In what order should we teach grammar or vocab?

I have a Mexican tenant who studied 8 years of English and who is now doing his business internship in Vancouver. He can say things like “If I had known about the party I would have gone,” but he regularly says “My friend like running.” Now, for language teachers, this seems odd: the simple rule “add -s to verbs in singular 3rd person” seems a lot easier than “use past imperfect tense (and its conjugation rules) before a conditional past tense (with other conjugation rules) statement.” You’d think that he’d acquire the simple rule before the complex one.

This raises the interesting question in what order should we teach grammar and vocab?

The answer, it seems, is…in no particular order. How can this be? Well, as Susan Gross argues in this paper, this has to do with the “natural order of acquisition” of language items (specifically grammar). Basically, what happens is, kids are exposed to natural language from day one (yes, it is somewhat modified into “babytalk” form, a.k.a. caretaker speech, to make it more comprehensible), which includes all grammatical features e.g. simple present tense, past subjunctive, adjective agreement (or whatever rules there are in whatever language kids are hearing). Yet kids pick up elements of that grammar in a very specific order.

In English, we can broadly say things like

— 3rd-person -s endings are acquired late

— kids overuse new gramamr rules (e.g. when they figure out that -ed is added to make past tense, they say “I goed there.”)

— kids pick up meaning first, then variations on meaning later. E.g. kids will say “giraffe walk” and later “the giraffe walk” and then “the giraffe walks.”

— kids go through a predictable set of “mistakes”– in a set order–when learning negation. E.g. they will say “I not goed there” before they learn to say “I didn’t go there.”

So the thing seems to be, kids make the same “mistakes” in the same order despite quality input. The conclusion that Krashen, Terrell and others have drawn is that, basically, the order of acquisition (of gramamr rules) is fixed. Vocab varies– kids will pick up whatever they hear depending on who talks, where, etc etc– but grammar acquisition is fairly predictable.

The question that then arises is, is there an order in which second-language teachers should present grammar?

I don’t think so. Why?

a) any learners in a group will vary on where they are along the acquisition order. If Juan has acquired the -s rule, Josefina maybe hasn’t. If the teacher is focused on teaching Pepa, Juan is bored, and vice versa. (in truth, both will be bored if the lesson is “about” a grammar point).

b) you cannot get people to acquire things they are not ready for. You can practice till you are blue in the face, but until the brain is ready, adjective agreement– or whatever– will not be picked up. Sure, some kids might dutifully memorise and practice…and they’ll forget a week after the test, which is why your French 11s STILL cannot add those –s to their plural adjectives even though they got As on all their tests.

It follows from (a) and (b) that what you should provide is interesting comprehensible input (which can be repeated) which contains all vocab/grammar necessary to make that input comprehensible, natural etc. If people understand, they are picking the language up slowly, and when their brains are ready, they will acquire ____ grammatical feature. Krashen somewhere calls this “comprehensible input of maximum richness.”

This brings us back to the textbook problem. Grammar is organised (in textbooks) from simplest to more complex…according to linguists and teachers. However, this organisation rarely, if ever, follows anything like the natural order. And even if it did, we would run into the problem of boring some students, and asking others to do things their brains aren’t ready for.

There are other problems with texts (and their lists of rules) also. The number of grammar rules in any language is basically infinite (why can I say I like to run but not I enjoy to run?) so how could you ever “teach” them? Also, grammar is boring, bla bla bla.

Anyway, if it’s interesting, repeatable and 100% comprehensible, your students are learning. So stop worrying about pronoun position and start thinking about why Johnny’s blue girlfriend wants to be yellow!