Stephen D. Krashen

Another Nail in the Grammarian and Communicative Coffin


I was Twarguing recently with a District colleague.  “Grammar feedback and direct instruction in the language classroom are pointless,” I said.
“I don’t believe it,” she said.

This is a pretty classic argument between a T.P.R.S. practitioner and a traditionalist.  Fortunately, science doesn’t care whether or not we “believe” it, so our argument, as we shall see, has been mostly settled for us by VanPatten, Keating and Leeser.

Let’s prep our brains for this.  Here we go:

Sentence A:  “Chris is brewing beer in Vancouver on Saturday.”

Sentence B:  “Chris in Squamish rock-climbing is on Sunday.”

Which took you longer to understand?  Which made you momentaraily go “huh?”  I bet it was B.

Because, as egg-heads and linguists say, “you have acquired a well-developed mental representation of English,” sentence B takes you a half-second more to read than A, and it takes you a couple of microseconds longer to answer Question B than Question A.  You probably noticed your brain going “no, wait, sentence B should be __________” i.e. “re-thinking” the sentence properly.  This is what the brain that has fully acquired English does.

Now here’s another example.  In Hindi, khanna means “food” and he means “there is.”

Sentence C:  Khanna he?

Sentence D: He khanna?

You probably figured out that both questions mean “is there food?”  Did one take you longer to read than the other, or to figure out?  Probably not.  Now, here’s the thing.  Sentence D is wrong.  If you are a native speaker of Hindi, you read D and briefly went “huh?”  You understood it both ways, but your processing speed differed depending on whether or not your Hindi was later-learned or acquired as your/a first language.

This, it turns out, is standard experience with L1.  If the vocabulary and grammar have been acquired, and the sentence makes sense, grammatical errors will make us measurably slow down in our reading and question-answering.  In other words, if we really have the language acquired– wired in– we will slow down slightly when processing errors in the language.  If we have acquired it less thoroughly, we will get the meaning but our processing will not slow when there are word order or  grammatical issues.

This is why you can read Noam Chomsky’s famous sentence “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” and it won’t intuitively “feel” or “sound” weird, despite obviously being nonsensical (like Lewis Carrol’s “’twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe”).

It turns out that measuring processing speed is a pretty good way to figure out how well someone has acquired mental representation of a language.  If we process errors slowly, it shows that we have the language “wired in,” and if we process them quickly (or don’t process them at all), we have not yet acquired mental representation of the part of the language being looked at.

Bill VanPatten and crew asked two interesting questions in an experiment detailed here:

a) Do native (L1) speakers of Spanish “slow down” processing different types of errors?

b) Do non-native (L2) Spanish speakers slow down equally for different types of errors?

They exposed Spanish L1s and L2s to Spanish sentences with three types of errors:  wh- question, adverb placement, and verb conjugation errors.

With verb conjugation, where one should say la chica juega fútbol (the girl plays soccer), subjects read errors such as  *la chica juego fútbol (the girl I play soccer).

With adverb placement, where one should say Juan no viaja más a Francia porque no tiene dinero (Juan no longer goes to France because he has no money), subjects read *Juan no más viaja a Francia porque no tiene dinero.  Note here that the errors follow English word order.

The question-word errors involved sentences like ¿dónde comen tus padres cuando hacen visita a Chicago? (Where do your parents eat when they visit Chicago?) and *¿dónde tus padres comen cuando hacen visita a Chicago?  Again, the error sentences follow English word order.

Note that both correct and incorrect sentences where possible use the same number of words and the same words.

VanPatten, Keating and Leeser showed the subjects sentences (some with errors, some normal) on the computer screen, followed by a question.  The computer timed from when they saw the sentence to when they entered an answer, and then showed them the next question.  The focus here was not getting the right answer (it was basically impossible to get a wrong answer) but rather on seeing how long it took people to process grammatical and ungrammatical sentences.

It had been hypothesised that the L1s would process Spanish errors of any type at the same speed, because their mental representation of Spanish is so solid that any error would stick out.  This turned out to be the case.  L1s– native Spanish speakers– processed  conjugation, question word and adverb placement errors at the same speed.  For the L2s, things were quite different.

Verb conjugation had been (repeatedly) addressed in the college students’ Spanish classes. There had been explicit instruction and explanations, practice, listening, reading etc, all of which used verb conjugation as focus– both direct and implied (implicit)– of instruction.  Using adverbial phrases– e.g. saying “no longer” (no…más)– as well as question formation had been regularly  present in reading & listening, but had not been explicitly dealt with.

What VanPatten, Keating and Leeser found was that there were significant differences in L2s’ processing speed depending on the error type in the sentence.  For the verb conjugation error sentences, the L2 group– despite having been taught, and having read and ‘practiced’ it– did not slow down in their processing.  With the adverb placement and question-word error sentences, the L2 group– despite not having been ‘taught’ or having ‘practiced’ them— slowed down processing markedly.  If they slowed down processing, that meant they had developed a mental representation thereof, and if they did not slow down processing it, they had not (yet) acquired mental representation of the item in question.

In other words, the L2s had acquired a solid mental representation of adverb phrase placement and question word usage despite not having been explicitly taught them, and they had failed to develop a solid mental representation ofverb conjugation despite having been taught it and having practiced it.

You probably want to re-read that last paragraph.  Let’s rephrase: people acquired things from the Spanish input which they weren’t explicitly taught and had not practiced, and they did not acquire other things from the Spanish input which they were taught and had practiced.  As VanPatten wrote me– echoing Krashen of 35 years prior– “the research on effects of instruction consistently fails to show any effect for [on] the implicit system,” and this study shows exactly that.

Let’s rephrase again:  you can teach– and “practice”– all the ______ you want, but people are not going to pick up on ____ if  their brains are not ready for it. 

The implications are staggering, and here they are in no particular order.

First, textbooks are at best irrelevant and at worst an active and expensive impediment to learning.  Sequenced grammar, as I have argued, not only makes language acquisition boring, but is ineffective.   Why?

  • We do not learn grammar as “units” or “skill sets.”  There is no mental “unit” called “the -ar verb” or “indirect object pronouns.”
  • students do not acquire grammar on a teacher or book-dictated schedule
  • As Vanpatten, Long, Krashen etc note, we do not acquire what textbooks present as “rules.”  What we call “rules” are surface descriptions of very complex subconscious processes.
  • as Susan Gross has pointed out, people may well be ready for input that the text does not present, and not ready for what it is showing us.

Second, this study suggests that teaching with fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1 is the way to go.   In other words, all grammatical structures– verb tenses, pronouns, moods, what have you, no matter how “complex” or “advanced” or “un-L1-like” they may appear from the traditionalist’s perspective– should be present in input as soon as learners begin acquiring the language. As Susan Gross has argued, and as Long (1997) says, “[t]he idea that what you teach is what they learn, and when you teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.”  In addition, if there as an un-L1-like feature in the L2 (e.g. the Spanish subjunctive for English L1 speakers), it may require more processing practice– input– than supposedly “L1-like” features…and should therefore be present sooner.

This being the case, using sheltered grammar– what all textbooks do when they leave “advanced stuff” like the subjunctive for later– is wrong, because it

  • denies the brain at least some of the input it needs
  • overemphasises at least some what the brain is not ready for

Eric Herman points out that this is a logical, but not an empirical, argument for unsheltered grammar, noting that we would need to study under what conditions– unsheltered or sheltered input– better mental representation appears.  My gut feeling (and classroom experience) is that unsheltered instruction will develop better mental representation, but more slowly than sheltered, as there is a greater variety of syntax etc to soak up.

Third, this puts a massive hole into any kind of proficiency level system which is tied to specific grammar or vocabulary.  Most assessment systems in traditional textbooks– the typical end-of-chapter reading, listening, writing etc tests– are invalid.  Sure, kids can consciously wrestle with verb conjugations or pronouns or whatever by “studying hard” the night before the test, and on test day they say “hurry let’s do the exam before we forget,” and they are right– they immediately forget whatever they’ve memorised.  However, vocab-and-grammar-specific tests often

  • do not assess proficiency of what kids actually know
  • assess proficiency of things kids may not be ready for

If your State, District, school etc says, for example, “French Level 2s must know how to conjugate verbs using être in the passé composé,” they are flat-out wrong-headed.  Kids should be exposed to verbs using être in the passé composé (if the input is comprehensible and interesting), and it is certainly appropriate to expect them to understand, but forcing them to use these (especially in idiotic discrete-item grammar tests) is wrong.

It is also wrong to ask students to output specific features of language in a test situation.  While the brain can recognise the meaning of things it has not acquired, asking it to output these things properly is asking the impossible.  So a writing or speaking exercise which says “you must use the verb ___, the following nouns, etc, in your dialogue, paragraph etc,” is bad practice.  This is when you get kids writing “yo tener divertido” or “je suis quinze ans.”

Fourth, the most obvious lesson here is that teachers are wasting their time with grammar lessons, explanations and practice.  The brain is going to pick up what it wants only when it wants.  While obviously teachers should answer grammar questions, and explicitly deal with grammar to support meaning (e.g. by saying “in French, the –ons on aimer means ‘we,’ and goes with nous“), anything else is a waste of time.  Ditch those stupid fill-in-the-blank workbooks.

Fifthif grammar lessons– and teaching that organises curriculum around grammar– do not deliver the wanted results, the question of “what should we be teaching?” arises.  The answer, I think, is threefold:

  • multidimensional language (a.k.a. unsheltered grammar) with “everything” in the mix
  • compelling comprehensible input which will keep learners focused (and therefore acquiring)
  • vocabulary beginning with more frequently-used and moving toward lower frequency

I’d urge people to look at Wiktionary’s frequency lists and note that, in terms of the most commonly-used  words, all grammar is present.  It’s not like the subjunctive is seldom (or later)- used in Spanish or French.  Indeed, the typical order of presentation of grammar in textbooks– numbers=> present tense=> past tense=> subjunctive– is backwards to how often these features are used in languages.

Sixth, activities which focus students on input of language– reading and listening– will be more effective than those involving grammar manipulation, output, etc.  If a teacher notes that students have not acquired ____, reading/listening to a ton of input that contains ____ would be the best bet…but, as VanPatten et al show, it’s no guarantee they’ll pick it up when you want them to.  We do know that if they understand, they are acquiring…just not necesarily on the teacher’s schedule.

Seventh, there is news for “communicative” teachers, who like having students use the target language to exchange information: it will be almost impossible to have students generate accurate language either to make questions or to respond to them.  Why?  Because– by definition– what a ‘communicative’ teacher is asking a student to do is the thing they do not know how to do. If the experimental subjects had not developed mental representation of verb conjugation after competent native speaker and textual exposure to it, how can we expect students to acquire (say) verb conjugation by both doing it and getting poor input from other learners?  As Bill VanPatten puts it on his podcast, “asking students to produce what they are trying to acquire is, in a sense, putting the cart before the horse.”

OK, there we go.  People’s brains, not their teachers, set the acquisitional agenda.  Let’s respect that by providing good comprehensible input, not insisting that students master the passé composé by November 27th at 2:43 PM, and not harping about grammar.

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Bad science meets questionable usefulness: Lyster (2004a) on prompting feedback

McGill University professor Roy Lyster gave the British Columbia Language Coordinators’ Association annual conference talk in 2015 about best practices in the French Immersion classroom. He specifically mentioned that form-focused instruction and feedback were essential for acquisition of second languages.  Well, THAT got me wondering so I went and did what a sane guy does of a fine Sunday: I went climbing and then I read his paper.

Lyster has done a very good job in terms of his research, controls, etc etc.  Unlike Orlut and Bowles (2008), Lyster did very good science.  But, as we shall see, there are a lot of problems with his conclusions.  Let’s have a look.

To sum it up, Lyster — following Ellis, DeKeyser et al– argues that there needs to be some “focus on form”– explanations about language (as well as activities that make learners process that language)– in a language classroom in addition to meaningful language itself, because without some “focus on form,” acquisition of some items fossilises or goes wrong.

Lyster noted that English-speaking kids in French immersion were not picking up French noun gender very well.  There are a bunch of reasons for this.  Noun gender is of almost zero communicative significance and so acquirers’ brains pay it little attention, and Immersion students are typically exposed to native-speaker generated/targeted materials which do not foreground grammatical features.  Noun gender acquisition is a classic study question because French has it and English does not. Lyster’s question was, “can form focused instruction (FFI) centered on noun gender improve noun gender acquisition?”  FFI involved a bunch of instruction about noun gender (how to figure out what it is basically based on noun endings, which are in French fairly regular), plus various practice decoding activities.  Lyster set up four groups:

  1. a control group which got regular content teaching.
  2. another group that got (1) plus “focus on forms” (FFI; explanations) only
  3. a second group got (1) plus FFI plus recasts (errors being “properly resaid” by teacher)
  4. a third group got (1) plus FFI (explanations) plus prompts (e.g. the teacher asking un maison ou une maison? after hearing students make noun gender errors); these prompts were designed to get students to reflect on and then output the targeted form

The reasoning for prompts is to “force” the learner to bring “less used” (and improperly or not-yet acquired) stuff into the mental processing loop.  Note that this is a technique for advanced learners– those who have a ton of language skill already built up– and would, as Bill VanPatten has noted, overload any kind of beginner learner.

The results, basically, were that the FFI + prompt group did way better than the others on both immediate and 2-month delayed post-test.  Postests included both choosing the proper form, and producing the proper form.

So, prima facie, Lyster can make the following argument:

“The present study thus contributes to theoretical arguments underpinning FFI by demonstrating its effectiveness when implemented in the context of subject-matter instruction within an iterative process comprising three inter-related pedagogical components:

  1. Learners are led to notice frequent co-occurrences of appropriate gender attribution with selected noun endings, contrived to appear salient by means of typographical enhancement
  2. Learners’ metalinguistic awareness of orthographic and phonological rules governing gender attribution is activated through inductive rule-discovery tasks and metalinguistic explanation
  3. Learners engage in complementary processes of analysis and synthesis (Klein, 1986; Skehan, 1998) through opportunities for practice in associating gender attribution with noun endings.”

Lyster claims that his results contribute to the “theoretical arguments underpinning FFI.”  He is right.  And here is the crux:  the problem with work like this is simple: while he can make theoretical puppets dance on experimental strings, what Lyster does in this paper will never work in a classroom.  Here are the problems:

First. the bandwidth problem, which is that for every acquisitional problem a teacher focuses on “solving,” another problem will receive less attention, because the amount of time/energy we have is limited, and so tradeoffs have to be made.  In this case, Lyster decided that a worthy problem was noun gender acquisition.  So, materials were made for that, time was spent practising that, and teachers focused recasts or prompts on that.  The students got 8-10 hours of FFI.

The question: what did they “de-emphasise” in order to focus on noun gender?  But Lyster does not address this.  Was Lyster’s testing instrument designed to catch changes in other errors that students made?  No– they looked specifically at noun gender. It is possible, indeed, it is almost certain, that the FFI resulted in other grammar or vocab content being downplayed.  Lyster’s testing instrument, in other words, was not holistic: he looked only at one specific aspect of language.

An analogy may be useful here.  A triathlete needs to excel in three sports– swimming, cycling and running– to win.  She may work on the bike until she is a drug-free version of Lance Armstrong. But if she ignores– or undertrains– the swimsuit and the runners, she’ll never podium.  An economist would say there is an opportunity cost: if you invest your money in stocks, you cannot buy the Ferrari, and vice versa.

Second is what Krashen called the constraint on interest problem.  By focusing instruction (or vocab) around a grammar device, we have much less room as teacher to deliver either an interesting variety of traditional “present, practice, produce” lessons or T.P.R.S. or A.I.M.-style stories.   Imagine deciding that since the kids have not acquired the French être avec le passé composé, you must build every activity  around that.  How quickly will the kids get bored?  Je suis allé aux toilettes.  Est-ce que tu est allé à l’ecole? etc. In T.P.R.S. (and in A.I.M.), stuff like this is in every story, but as background, because it’s boring.   It’s like saying, “paint but you only have red and blue.”

Third is the rule choice problem.  Since, as noted above, we can’t deal with every not-yet-acquired rule, we have to choose some items and rules over others. Which will they be? How will we decide?  What if teachers came up with a list of a hundred common errors that 6th grade French immersion kids made.  Which errors should they focus on?  How should materials be built– and paid for– to deal with these?  What if Profeseur Stolz couldn’t give a rat’s ass about French noun gender, but Profeseur Lyster foams at the mouth on hearing “une garçon”?

Fourth, Lyster’s study does not take into account individual learning needs.  OK, all of the subjects in the 4th group got better with noun genders (temporarily, and with prompting) .  But was this the most pressing issue for each person?  What if Max hasn’t acquired the passé composé?  What if Samba is OK with noun gender but terrible with pronouns?  When you use a grammar hammer, everything looks like the same nail.  Noun gender is not very important.  It’s like stripping a car: no brakes and the whole thing crashes; but no hood ornament only looks bad.  Noun gender is the hood ornament of French: looks good but hardly essential.

The problem with a study like Lyster’s– or a legacy-methods program that tries to systematically do what Lyster did– is that it reduces the multidimensionality of both the classroom language and activities and the teacher’s feedback, with the effect of impoverishing input.  If Max needs passé composé and Samba pronom input, and the experiment focuses activities, learning strategy instruction and teacher feedback on noun gender, the experiment’s focus inevitably cuts down on input they need as it plays up noun gender stuff.  As Susan Gross has argued, a comprehensible input classroom is going to solve that problem: by presenting “unsheltered” language– language with no verb tenses, pronouns or other grammatical features edited out– everything learners need is always in the mix.

Fifth, and most seriously, Lyster’s results do not– could not– pass Krashen’s “litmus test” for whether instructional interventions produce legitimate acquisition.  Krashen has said that if you really want to prove that your experimental treatment trying to get language learners to acquire __________ has worked, your results must meet the following criteria:

  • they must be statistically significant not just right after treatment, but three months later
  • they must occur unprompted (what Krashen calls not involving the Monitor)

The three-month delayed post-test is there to show that the intervention was “sticky.”   If it’s been acquired, it will be around for a long time; if it’s consciously learned, it will slowly disappear.  You can check the reasonableness of this by looking at your own experiences– or those of your students– and asking how well does language teaching stick in my or my kids’ heads? (Teachers who use T.P.R.S. know how sticky the results are: we do not need to review.  Legacy-methods teachers have to do review units.)  So what are Lyster’s study’s two most serious problems?

First, Lyster did a two month delayed post-test, so we don’t really know how “sticky” the FFI results were.

Second, Lyster’s assessment of results is largely Monitor-dependent. That is, he tested the students’ acquisition of noun gender when they had time to think about it, and under conditions where the experimenters (or test questions) often explicitly asked whether or not the noun in question was masculine or feminine. Given that the experimental kids had had explicit treatment, explanations etc about what they were learning– noun gender– it is not surprising that they were able to summon conscious knowledge to answer questions when it came assessment time.

At one point in his study, Lyster’s investigators found out that the students being tested had figured out what the investigators were after– noun genders– and had developed a word that sounded like a mix of “un” and “une” specifically to try to “get it right” on the tests. This is not acquisition, but rather conscious learning. 

Indeed, Lyster notes that “it might be argued therefore that […] prompting affects online oral production skills only minimally, serving instead to increase students’ metaliguistic awareness and their ability to draw upon declarative, rule-based representations on tasks where they have sufficient time to monitor their performance ” (425).

Now, why does this matter? Why do Krashen and VanPatten insist that tests of true acquisition be Monitor-free? Simple: because any real-world language use happens in real time, without time to think and self-Monitor.  What VanPatten calls “mental representation of language”– an instinctive, unthinking and proper grasp of the language– kicks in without the speaker being aware.  Real acquisition– knowing a language– as opposed to learning, a.k.a. knowing about a language (being able to consciously manipulate vocab and grammar on tests, and for various kinds of performance)– is what we want students to have.

The marvellous Terry Waltz has called kids who are full of grammar rules, menmonics, games, vocab lists etc “sloshers”: all that stuff has been “put in there” by well-meaning teachers, and the kids have probably “practiced” it through games, role-plays or communicative pair activities, but it hasn’t been presented in meaning-focused, memorable chunks– stories– so it sloshes around.

We also want to avoid teaching with rules, lists, etc, because– as Krashen and Vanpatten note– there is only so much room in the conscious mind to “hold and focus on” rules, and because the brain cannot  build mental representation– wired-in competence– of language without oceans of input.  If we teach with rules and prompts, and when we assess we examine rules and prompts, we are teaching conscious (read: limited) mind stuff.  We’re teaching to the grammar test.

So…to sum up Lyster’s experiment, he

  • took a bunch of time away from meaningful (and linguistically multidimensional) activities & input, and, in so doing,
  • focused on a low-importance grammar rule, and his results
  • do not show that the learners still had it three months post-treatment,
  • do not show that learners could recognise or produce the form without conscious reminders, and
  • did not measure the opportunity cost of the intervention (the question of what the students lost out on while working on noun gender)

Does this matter?  YES.  Lyster, to the best of my knowledge, is giving bad advice when he recommends “focus on form” interventions.  If you teach Immersion (or just regular language class), doing grammar practice and noticing-style activities is probably a waste of time.   Or, to put it another way, we know that input does a ton of good work, but Lyster has not shown that conscious grammar interventions build cost-free, wired-in, long-term unprompted skill.

My questions to Lyster are these:  on what functionally useful evidence do you base your claim that focus on form is essential for SLA, and how would you suggest dealing with rule choice, bandwidth, opportunity cost and individualisation problems, etc?

How does Bill VanPatten describe how we acquire language?

Linguistics is a rabbit-hole second only to Hegelian philosophy in terms of depth and complexity.  You can move down there and spend the rest of your life looking at cross-clause meaning transfers, lexical ambiguities and other odd denizens who like the Cheshire Cat are easy to visualise and often impossible to grasp.

Fortunately, amateur geeks like Eric Herman and I, and a few pros like Bill VanPatten and Mr Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen, are here to make sense of the research so that the rest of us can look at thirty kids and pull off meaningful, acquisition-building activities.

Today, a brief run-through answering the question what actually happens in language acquisition?

Well, to put it simply, we start with linguistic data (words spoken or written).  This just means language with an intent to communicate meaning.  If it is comprehensible, or partly comprehensible, the language gets “scanned” by the aspect of the brain that we could loosely call “the input processor.”  This input “must come from others,” as VanPatten says.

This processor does a bunch of stuff.  It first looks for meaning, and it does that by looking at what Bill VanPatten informally labels “big words” such as nouns and verbs, and then adverbs and adjectives.  While the input processor is Mainly looking for meaning, it is also looking at a bunch of other data.  How do the words in question relate in terms of meaning to other words?  How do they sound?  Where do they go in the sentence?  How do they change when said/written in a sentence?  What are tone and speaker’s intent?  (there are other data the processor looks for too).  It’s important to note that the only thing the input processor can process is language.  It cannot process images, any kind of explicit rules, or incomprehensible input.

This point is absolutely crucial. A teacher can explain, say, verb conjugation or pronouns or whatever up the yin-yang, but this information cannot become part of acquired competence.  As VanPatten argues, echoing Krashen, any kind of conscious awareness of grammar etc rules is only useful if the learner

  1. knows the rule.
  2. knows how to use the rule
  3. has time to recall, apply and use the rule.

The processor kicks sorted data (or, more accurately, information derived from sorted data) upstairs to Chomsky’s “language acquisition device,” which runs “software” called “universal grammar.”  The U.G. does a bunch of stuff to the sorted data, with which it starts building what VanPatten calls “mental representation of language.”  All this big fancy-schmancy term means is, unconsciously getting it, and having an unconscious “language blueprint” or “language software.”  Mental representation is like using the Force: when you have it, things just flow.  Do, or do not– there is no try.  And by “getting it,” we basically mean two things:

a) understanding the language

b) knowing what is grammatically OK and what is not.

You, the reader, have a very well-developed mental representation of English.  You just know–but probably can’t explain why— that you can enjoy running, but that you cannot enjoy to run, and that you can untie your laces, but you cannot unsleep.  You also know that “does John live here?” is OK but “lives John here?” or “lives here John?” is not.

As mental representation develops, output potential emerges.  The more meaningful input we get, the more we process language, build mental representation, and thereby start being able to “spit out” first words, then phrases, and finally progressively more complex sentences.  There is in fact an order of appearance of rules in organic, unforced output (what people can do without any teacher or written prompting).  This is briefly detailed in VanPatten’s 2003 book From Input to Output.

So, recap: comprehensible language comes in, is parsed (sorted) by processor, goes to universal grammar, which only via linguistic input builds a progressively more complex “mental representation” of language, which as it develops will permit first understanding and then output of gradually increasing complexity.

Here is how VanPatten describes it in an email:

“I use the metaphor of a grocery checkout. The cash register computer is the mind/brain.  The bar codes on the product is the input. And the red light scanner is the input processor.

[Note: in this case, the cash register develops a “mental representation” of your grocery bills– scanner codes plus $$ amounts– from the moment it begins scanning]

The scanner can only read bar codes. It cannot read pictures, labels, rings on a can, signs, and so on.  And the computer can only receive what the red scanner delivers to it as data. It cannot read the bar codes but instead the processed information processed by the scanner. 

Language acquisition is the same.  Only input is useful for the input processor, not knowledge about language or practice. And the mind/brain needs the processed input data in order to build a linguistic system. All components in both systems are dedicated to specific activities and act on only certain kinds of info.”

Take a minute and re-read that.  Good.  Now, read it again.

It is also important to note a few other things that VanPatten (and Krashen) have said:

First, there are “working memory” bandwidth limits which come into play during input.  Not everyone can “hold in their head” the same amount of info, and too much info renders the input processor useless.

Second, there is an “order of attention,” so to speak, of what the input processor pays attention to.  At the beginning stages of acquisition, it processes “big words”– nouns, verbs etc– and only once these “make sense” can the brain sort through things like verb endings, articles, gender etc.  Basically, the brain is going to pay attention to the most important aspects of input first.

We know this because, for example, when we teach a relative beginner, say, habla (speaks) in Spanish, the learner will probably be able to tell you quite quickly what habla means (or close to it), but be unable to explain that the -a ending means “he” or “she.”  This does not mean that the brain is not registering that -a, or anything else, but rather that its main focus is on first “big meaning” and only later on inflections etc.

Finally, teachers need to ensure that learners process L2-unique grammar properly.  VanPatten’s work on processing instruction– getting people to not screw up interpretation– looks at things like this sentence in Spanish:  A la mujer vio el hombre  (“the man saw the woman”).  In English, this literally translates as “to the woman saw the man,” and English speakers tend to interpret it as “the woman saw the man.”  Some “focus on form,” as Long calls it, is necessary to make sure that learners don’t develop “bad processing” habits.

The one thing VanPatten’s metaphor does not do is explain how much repetition the brain needs to acquire something.  In the case of the cash register, all it needs is one bit of data from the scanner and its “mental representation” of the pile of groceries– an itemised bill– grows.  In language, however, the U.G. works by hypthesis testing.  Data comes in, partial rules are formed, and the system waits for confirmation or denial of rule.  So the U.G. needs LOADS of data.

Consider this.  Habla means “s/he speaks” in Spanish.  Now, here are a bunch of possible ways to use habla:

1. Juan habla con sus amigos.

2. ¿Habla o quiere hablar con sus amigos Juan? 

3. ¿No habla Juan?  Juan no habla.

4. Cuando se pone enjojado, ¿habla o grita Juan?

5. ¿Quién habla con Martina—Juan o Antonio?

Every time habla is said here, a slightly different set of meanings, grammar rules, positions in sentence, intonations, etc etc, are in play.  It is not enough for the brain to simply know what habla means.  It has to see/hear habla associated with other words and sounds, doing different jobs in different places, etc.  Indeed, a word is not a thing, but a cluster of relational properties which changes in contexts.

Consider this.   ¿Habla con sus amigos Juan?  This means “does Juan talk with his friends?” and literally “talks with his friends Juan?”  The U.G. will build a number of hypotheses here, which will look (to us from the outside– what the brain actually does looks….different) like “where does the subject in a question go?  Hypothesis: the end” and “why does sus have an -s?  Hypothesis: -s is for plural adjectives.”  The next time data comes in, the U.G. will test its hypotheses and if they are confirmed, that bit of neural wiring gets reinforced.

This– among other reasons– is why output, grammar instruction and drills simply do not develop linguistic competence, or mental representation. There are too many rules which are too complex and subtle for the conscious mind, and acquisition can only happen through meaningful, varied input over time.  Grammar instruction– like grapefruits, music and pictures– cannot be processed by the input processor, output is not hypothesis formation (though it may generate input on which the processor and U.G. can operate), and drills of any kind at best offer dull, impoverished input.

The upshot?  VanPatten’s metaphor flat out tells us

  • there will be no meaningful language development without oceans of comprehensible input
  • anything other than comprehensible input– grammar rules and practice, output, ambiguity– does not help develop mental representation
  • if there is a place in the classroom for grammar talk, is is this: we should discuss grammar ONLY insofar as such discussions support accurate meaning. Anything other than, say, “-aste or -iste mean you did ___ in the past” are useless.

Can we “prove” Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis? 

Steve Smith tells me on Twitter that nobody can “prove” Krashen’s hypothesis that languages are acquired by getting lots of comprehensible input. Clearly, as Krashen himself recently said, “we need to talk about science.”  Specifically, today’s question:

Can science prove anything, and can we “prove” the comprehensible input hypothesis?

The answer: science can never prove anything. Truth, technically, is a property of closed symbolic systems (e.g. logic, math).  So, why– how?— is science useful?  It’s pretty simple.  All science does is make testable predictions about causes of phenomena.  Sometimes, scientists will also propose an actual mechanism.

Scientists:

  1. observe a phenomenon (e.g. people acquiring languages)
  2. make a prediction/guess about how this happens (e.g. via comprehensible input). This is called forming a hypothesis
  3. test via experiment your hypothesis to confirm it (e.g. expose people to comprehensible input and see whether or not they learn the language; expose them to grammar lessons and see whether/how well they acquire)
  4. At the end of your experiment, you will know whether  or not X causes Y.
  5. Investigate confounds (potential alternative explanations for phenomenae)
  6. For it to qualify as science, an experiment has to repeatedly generate the same results.

Krashen’s hypothesis is simple: if people are exposed to comprehensible input in the target language, they will acquire the language.  (Technically, Krashen’s hypothesis– which has been tested and confirmed– is now a theory.)

Steve Smith has two objections to Krashen’s hypothesis.  First, he says this:

Strictly speaking, no hypothesis can ever be “proven” true. All you can do is test the hypothesis and see whether data confirms it (aligns with its predictions).  With language acquisition, the research is clear: people who get comprehensible input acquire languages; people who get incomprehensible input, grammar practice, too much output “practice,” or a mix of all acquire no (or very little) language, and always much less than those exposed to comprehensible input.

Is the hypothesis testable? Yes.  Has it been tested, and its predictions confirmed? Yes.  Has anything else come along to provide a better explanation?  No(t yet).  Karl Popper reminds us that good science isn’t true.  He notes that good science has only two properties:

  • it’s just not wrong (yet)
  • it makes accurate, testable predictions.

While Smith is technically correct, he misses the point.  Suppose we hypothesise that an analgesic such as Ibuprofene reduces pain.  On testing our hypothesis, we find that it does indeed reduce pain.  The confirmed hypothesis is thus useful and accurate, but, technically, it’s not “true.” It “does the job” of explaining and predicting.  Hypotheses aren’t true— they work, or they don’t.

Smith’s second claim is this:

This misses the point entirely. First, Krashen does not propose an explanation for language acquisition on the neurological level, nor does he need to.  His hypothesis only involves comprehensible input and acquisition (both of which he defines).

An analogy may be of service here.  Imagine: we bring a preindustrial tribesman into the modern world and he observes cars.  He forms a hypothesis– gas makes cars go– and predicts that, ceteris paribus, a car with a full gas tank will go further than a car with an empty tank, and tests this hypothesis.  The car’s performance obviously substantiates his hypothesis.  Now, the fact that the tribesman doesn’t know anything about internal combustion engines, energy efficiency, math, etc, while true, is irrelevant and does not discredit his hypothesis.

Similarly, the fact that Krashen (and Chomsky, and VanPatten, and Lightbrown, and every other person who investigates S.L.A.) do not propose a neurological explanation for language acquisition is irrelevant.  What counts is whether or not the hypothesis holds up under experimental scrutiny (i.e. whether or not people acquire language through comprehensible input).

Somebody could come along with a better explanation (in which case the comprehension hypothesis, as Krashen notes, gets tossed).  Or, somebody could get right down to the neuronal level and explain the acquisitional mechanism.  If this “neuronal explanation” showed that something other than c.i. accounted for SLA, the hypothesis would again get the boot.  Or, it might simply show us the mechanism by which comprehensible input becomes acquisition.  (This would be something like how Einstein updated Newton: relativity doesn’t invalidate Newtonian mechanics, rather, it just applies on a different level).

Second, Smith is wrong when he says there is no way to say whether or not the use of comprehensible input, focus on form (grammar instruction and/or practice) or a mix of the two are best practice in the language class.  First, we know what works (comprehensible input) from research.  Second, we know– again from research– what has no (or very limited, conscious-mind-only, and short term) effects: grammar teaching and practice, and output. Unless you want to advocate doing something that we know doesn’t work very well, the conclusion is obvious: the more c.i. learners get, the better off they will be, and the best mix is probably as little grammar talk as possible.  VanPatten has also weighed in here, saying that traditional practice and grammar explanations do “very little” for acquisition.

Again, we don’t know for sure how much grammar instruction and how much input learners should be getting. There are a lot of suggestions, though.  In the New Brunswick E.L.L. study (Lightbrown et al), French-speaking students who received only comprehensible input (by reading and listening)  without a teacher did almost as well as students who were taught English and tutored in writing.  In other words, 90+% of the work was done by input.  Beniko Mason (1997) found that Japanese college students who simply read in English far outperformed students who had writing practice and direct grammar instruction in vocabulary recognition.  In both first and second languages, free voluntary reading (teacherless comprehensible input, as it were) has overwhelmingly and repeatedly outperformed any other method of teaching vocabulary, grammar, style, etc (Krashen’s site has all the data).

[real-life digression: Blaine Ray told me the following:  when T.P.R.S. was being developed in the late 1980s, Ray called Krashen– who was then with Tracy Terrell testing the “Natural Approach”– and asked, “how much grammar homework should I be doing?”  Krashen, skeptical of grammar practice from his linguistics research but aware that there were also gaps in said research, told Ray “well, get them to do some grammar practice just for homework.”  So, Ray– whose Bakersfield school district mandated grammar teaching– had his kids do the stupid fill-in-the-blanks stuff that comes with the ¡Díme! program– the cuaderno exercises.  At the end of the year of grammar homework, Ray found the kids writing and saying basic errors like *Yo quiero juego fútbol americano (I want I play football– the sentence should read yo quiero jugar fútbol americano).  Exasperated, thinking “why waste time?”, he ditched all the grammar homework, and next year, in class, while announcements blared and he had to take attendance, Ray had a kid stand at the front of the room, read the  ¡Díme! grammar explanations aloud to fulfill District requirements (nobody listened), assigned reading for homework, and found the kids at the end of the next year making fewer mistakes.

This is an experience that every stick-to-your-guns T.P.R.S. teacher has had or will have.  You will doubt the power of comprehensible input, you will assign grammar homework (or “conversation practice” or whatever legacy method), your kids will dutifully do this, and it won’t work.]

Third, Smith is also wrong when he says that because we cannot “see into [the] brain,” there is no way to decide what language class activities are best.  We don’t need to “see into [the] brain” to know what works.  You probably can’t explain on a chemical level what happens when your car burns gas.  Do you need to in order to drive? I’d say, if you know enough to put the right fuel in, and you do put the right fuel in, you’re all set.  And if you did know a chemical explanation for combustion, would that help you drive?

Smith also says this: 

I didn’t say this, and the research flatly contradicts it.  Krashen (2003) in “Explorations in Language Acquisition” notes that all the research on grammar-focused teaching shows positive effects only when assessment is done under Monitor-use conditions.  

In other words, grammar teaches you…grammar.  VanPatten comments that “what we call grammar rules are what we end up with, and are not how we learn or what the brain actually does” (MIWLA presentation, 2013), and the rest of the research is here.  

Grammar-focused teaching works when

  • grammar items are either elicited and/or “overloaded” in the input
  • learners have time to think of and plan for responses
  • learners know, know how to apply, and have time to apply, the grammar rules

Krashen proposes a much higher standard for testing whether or not grammar teaching becomes implicit (automatic) learning (i.e. whether people have acquired the item in question), with broadly two criteria:

a) a three-months-delayed post-test.  Most of the research will do an immediate treatment post-test (i.e. they will see if people can do/use grammar rule ______ right after the experiment) and a slightly delayed post test (e.g. two weeks later).  However, if we waited three months, and grammar rule ____ was still recognised or put into use, then we would have much stronger evidence that explicit teaching can become implicit knowledge.

b) Monitor-free testing.  This just means that you see whether people have picked up ______ without making them consciously aware that they have learned, should use, etc ____.

Say your treatment was teaching English speakers Spanish pronoun placement.  Pronoun goes before one verb, or before or after verb clause w/ some exceptions, bla bla.  This is a classic S.L.A. research area, because Spanish pronoun location is different from English, so it’s brainwork to acquire this new rule.  Now, when you do your post-test, here are two possible scenarios:

1.  You tell your test subjects “OK, we are gonna ask you some questions.  A question might be ¿Conoces a George Clooney? and you could answer Sí, lo conozco or No, no lo conozco.”  You could also (or instead) tell them “we would like you to answer using pronouns, like lo or la etc.”

2.  You tell your test subjects “OK, we are going to ask you some questions, just answer.”

Under (1), we are modeling specific behaviours, reminding people about expectations and grammar rules, pronouns, etc.  We are bringing grammar knowledge to conscious awareness.  Under (2), we just see what they do.  They might use pronouns, or not, or sometimes, or use them in a mix of properly and not, etc.  Krashen’s point is very simple:  if we do anything like (1), we are not necessarily seeing what people have acquired.  We are seeing what people can do with conscious knowledge and/or modeling.  This is what Krashen calls “Monitor use.”

Why do we want to have Monitor-free assessment of instructional treatment?  Because, in the real world, we simply do not have time to think, rule-remember, edit, etc.  Good language teaching will “wire the language in” below the level of conscious awareness.  If I teach rock climbing, I don’t want you to be able to tell me how to tie a figure 8, or how to do a drop knee and lock-off; I want you to tie a figure 8, and automatically do a drop knee with lock-off when you need it.  When I am at the Paris Metro and a smoking hot Parisienne is flirting with me, I need to be able to spit out, without thinking, right away, j’aimerais vous inviter à manger avec moi, parce-que vous êtes une femme incroyablement interesante or whatever.  If I am standing there going “OK, do I put vous in front of or behind the inviter?” I am not going to have even a shot at the lady’s company.

OK, back to Steve Smith:

Smith also commits a few logical fallacies here.

First, the appeal to authority and mass opinion– that people “feel” something works–  does not qualify as evidence that it does.  I “feel” that the Moon is made of cheese.  Is it?

Second, it’s also post hoc, ergo propter hoc— after this, because of this.  You teach French grammar (and whatever else), and after that, your kids acquire some French.  Was it the grammar, the “whatever else,” or both that got them to learn?  Eric Herman and I have discussed what he calls “incidental learning,”, and we concluded this: even horrible languagen teaching– what I did for the first 12 years of my career– “works” because even if you are doing forced output, grammar worksheets, bla bla bla, the kids are getting comprehensible input.  Boring, impoverished, low quantities, etc, but c.i.  So…do Steve Smith (or whoever)’s kids acquire because of grammar, or because grammar contains some c.i.?

Third, Smith says that “learners” feel “conscious learning” can “become acquired.”  Really?  We’d need some evidence for this– i.e. Smith would have to ask say 100 students how well they felt that grammar teaching and practice was helping them, and then compare those statements with results, and show us that the students who liked their grammar teaching did significantly better (than controls) as a result, etc.  Any T.P.R.S. teacher would respond to this by saying “we don’t spend more than 20 sec/class on grammar, and our kids feel that comprehensible input stories are the most effective way to learn ____.”  Again…we’d need evidence from TPRS kids.

Another problem here: even if you “feel” grammar teaching helps, how do you know it does?  This is much like the “noticing” argument that Swain developed and Truscott dismissed: the fact that you are aware of a form-meaning connection (a grammar point) which you’ve acquired does not mean that you acquired it because of this awareness.  (In my experience, it’s the opposite: I “notice” grammar awareness once I have acquired it– your mileage may vary.)

The question of whether or not one could ever deliver “pure” grammar instruction is up in the air.  I have said this before and I think Smith may be referring to that statement.  Even T.P.R.S. is technically not 100% input– because we do occasionally say “-s means you in Spanish.”

Suppose you have a terrible book– Avancemos, say– where the kids have to conjugate “to go” in Spanish.  So they are writing Yo voy al cine, ella va a la escuela, etc.  Boring & dumb, and output as VanPatten reminds us is useless, etc.  BUT…if the kids actually understand what they are reading, it is still (tedious, two-dimensional, impoverished) input.  So, you could get them to pick up some Spanish that way.  I guess.  If you wanted to totally suck, and make your kids hate Spanish, and make them learn slowly, and check out emotionally…

A Dictionary of Language Acquisition and Teaching Terms

For everyone who gets overwhelmed with jargon. Special thanks to Sam Johnson for the inspiration.


Accent: what every speaker of every language has.  The better ones *obviously* belong to people who are wealthier, whiter, more educated, with nicer clothes, etc.

Accountability: what teachers who provide boring or stupid activities need to make sure students do their work

Acquisition the process of getting to the point where you can speak/write a language without consciously thinking. The opposite of “learning;” what most textbooks don’t get students involved in.

Analytic teaching (Long): language presented “whole” and in context; focus on meaning with grammar focus second. a.k.a. “focus on form.”

Ashley Hastings: professor who developed the “narrative paraphrase” comprehensible-input technique of language teaching, which is now better known as Movietalk.

Authentic documents: things made by and for native speakers.  That they very often have

  • low-frequency vocabulary
  • complex idiom
  • and are therefore neither comprehensible nor useful in a languages classroom

has not stopped the A.C.T.F.L., most State education departments, every Canadian Ministry, etc, from advocating their use.

Autotelic: interesting for its own sake, and not merely suffered through for some future payoff.  The only way to design a language class that will ever reach a majority of students, who will not be quaffing espresso on on the Champs Elysee or dining on tapas in Barcelona, and who therefore have little “real world payoff” incentive to care about their language class experience.

Avancemos: the world’s most ironically-named textbook.

Ben Slavic: French teacher, book author, blogger & passionate advocate for language pedagogy’s reform.  Creator or at least namer of “the Invisibles” and advocate for “untargeted input.”

Blaine Ray American Spanish teacher who developed T.P.R.S. after experiencing failure and frustration with communicative and grammar teaching, and then reading Asher and Krashen.  Properly understood as the Einstein of language pedagogy.

Carol Gaab: Spanish teacher, TPRS teacher trainer, writer, force of nature, novel & textbook author and publisher, San Francisco Giants language coach, grandmother, butt-kicker. Has the highest force-to-height ratio in the comprehensible input Universe.

C.E.F.R.: the Common European Framework for Reference in language proficiency.  A scale that ranks one’s language skill from one to six, thus:

A1: You suck but hey, you’re trying to order coffee

A2:  don’t get any ideas now, even though you can tell somebody you’re from ‘Murrica.

B1: you are approaching un-‘Murricanhood by actually being able to say three things in French

B2: Ok, fine, you are making progress, but not enough to flirt with sexy French people

C1: We’ll let you in on a work visa

C2: Fine.  you’re here.  Now, let’s discuss Sartre.

 

Circling: technique developed by Blaine Ray (named by Susan Gross) where a teacher asks repetitive but varied questions using a target structure in order to repeat a vocab item many times.

Cloze exercise: 1. where people listen to something, and read along to a written version of that speaking, and fill in occasional blanks with what they hear.  2. a clever way for teachers to force students to listen to boring things

Cold Character Reading a technique developed by Terry Waltz to teach reading of ideographic (non-phonetically written) languages.

Communicative-experiential approach: 1. a language teaching method  which asks students to use language to bridge authentic communication gaps to obtain essential information as a way of acquiring the language. 2.  A progression from the audiolingual method. 3.   “The dogma of salvation-and-bliss through chatter” (Erik Gunnemark, who spoke 45 languages).

Communicative pair activity: 1. Learning activity where an information gap is bridged via target-language use, theoretically as a way of acquiring the target language. 2.  The blind leading the blind.  3.  Putting the cart before the horse, as speech is the result of acquisition, not its cause.

Comprehended input: (Terry Waltz) messages that the teacher has checked to make sure people understand.

Comprehensible input: messages in the target language (in reading or writing) that people understand.  Now considered the sine qua non of language acquisition by all researchers.

Comprehensible input hypothesis: the hypothesis that language (vocabulary, pragmatics, semantics, grammar etc) is acquired when learners receive comprehensible input– messages they understand– in the target language.  Research thus far has confirmed the hypothesis’ predictions, and assigned (at best) very minor roles to the role of grammar practice and learning, and output, in developing acquisition.

Culture: 1. anything speakers of another language collectively do which differs from the students’ customs.  2. Clothing, music, food and dress which make excellent colourful textbook pages, fun videos or Instagram accounts. 3. What teachers hope will spice up those ever-so-nutritious but oddly bland grammar exercises.  4. The future goal and real reason one learns a language: so that one faraway day, one can go and enjoy the culture that goes with the language being studied.  E.g. “Johnny, I know learning French verbs is…not your preference….but just imagine how amazing life will be in seven years, when you can go to France and sip wine on the Camps Elysees!”

Dialect: a language without an army

¡Díme!: the stupidest language text ever written.  In order to teach well, do the following:

a) see what ¡Díme! does
b) do the opposite

Drill: as bad an idea in the language classroom as in the Alaskan wilderness, and even less productive.

Edubabble: a scaffolded, self-reflected authentic C.E.F.R. and Common Core peer assessment collaboration which leverages coding genius hour codesign into project-based inquiry proficiency assessment tracked through Google hangouts and Edmodo accounts in order to start the conversation piece and moving forward to provide real-time feedback sociolinguistic competence metacognitive online anus accountability.

Embedded reading: a series of texts, the first of which is short and simple and contains the target vocabulary and structures being acquired.  The next two or three texts contain the same vocabulary, but add increasingly more dialogue, detail, etc. Invented (basically by accident) by Laurie Clarq and Michelle Whaley, embedded (a.k.a. “scaffolded”) reading provides low-stress buildup to reading complex texts, and lots of vocab repetition.

Feedback: something which teachers love giving, and students’ brains find impossible to use to acquire language.

Food cart/truck: when the crepe/taco/samosa truck comes to your school, and students get to “use the target language in culturally authentic communicative ways.”  A.K.A. kids text and chat in L1 for an hour and say/hear ten words in the target language.  Easy on students, and teacher, and a brilliant way to tick boxes while getting nothing done.

Free voluntary reading (FVR): allowing students to read what they want, with no assessment or “accountability” measures. A significant booster of language acquisition (in L1 and L2), and terrifier of control-freak teachers.

Frequency: how often a word is used in speech or writing.  High-frequency vocabulary items are more often used than low-frequency items, and form the basis of communication.  Good languages teaching begins with the highest-frequency words.

Frequency list: rankings of words from most to less used.  The most-used word in Romance and Germanic languages is the definite article: der, el, le, il, the, etc.

Generative grammar: Chomsky’s explanation of how language works.  In response to B.F. Skinner’s behaviourist theory (we learn language because we want stuff; we get “rewarded” for “saying things properly”), generative grammar accounts for the fact that a language’s speaker can generate an infinite number of sentences with the language’s limited vocabulary, and that speakers are able to “figure out” grammar rules without having them explained (or even modeled).

Grammar 1. a set of rules describing how a language’s components interact 2. a tool useful for boring students and reinforcing teacher ego 3. In most of the world salient only in the learning of computer languages, but in too many places fed directly to students of living languages 4. A thing whose mastery– like speech– is the result, not the cause, of language acquisition 5. “Analyzing language is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” — after E.B. White, via Dennis Doyle

Grammarian: someone who believes that explaining the parts will lead to speaking the whole

Green Bible: Ray and Seely’s “how to do T.P.R.S.” book Teaching Fluency Through T.P.R. Storytelling. Written at the suggestion of Susan Gross, who urged Ray to clarify his method and provide a reference for T.P.R.S. practitioners.

James Asher: American psychologist and the rediscoverer of T.P.R.— total physical response– where teachers speak and gesture, and students gesture, as a way of helping recall.

L1: a speaker’s first (native) language.  What they grew up hearing.

L2, L3 etca language learned in some kind instructional or immersion setting.

Language: a dialect with an army

Learning 1. Consciously manipulating language (vocab and grammar) to try to acquire it 2. What one can do with language when one has time to consciously think of vocab, rules, etc.

Lecture: the process whereby the notes of the teacher become the notes of the students without passing through the mind of either (Mencken).  See also “stiff meeting.”

Legacy method: (Waltz & Krashen) any older way of teaching language which does not align with modern research.  Legacy methods include drill, grammar translation, audiolingual etc, as well as individual aspects of practice which slow or do not aid acquisition, such as forcing students to talk, grammar worksheets, multiple-guess listening activities, and what Long calls “synthetic” teaching (present, practice & produce) etc.

Mental representation: (VanPatten) a set of brain patterns developed when comprehensible input is processed by Noam Chomsky’s “language acquisition device,” patterns which allow for first comprehension and then production of language, and a “gut level” awareness of what works or doesn’t in that language.

Monitor: 1. the “voice in the head” which is consciously aware of grammar rules, word meanings, etc.  2. What grammar teaching reaches 3. What a competent speaker of a language does not use except under very specific, reflective and/or time-available conditions.

Myth: 1. a belief, ungrounded in science or history, with alleged explanatory power whose job is to legitimise something.  In language teaching, prominent myths include speaking leading to acquisition, grammar practice being necessary, grammar rules being brain-friendly, themes and topics being effective means for vocabulary organisation, etc. 2. a story which despite factual challenges holds power.  S.L.A. researcher Bill VanPatten writes that “[s]ome of the myths perpetuated in language departments include that

  • explicitly teaching grammar and vocabulary is necessary or even beneficial,
  • correction of learner output is necessary
  • practice makes perfect,
  • learners acquire rules and paradigms
  • learning vocabulary and grammar is a prerequisite to learning to communicate
  • first-language transfer is the source of all learning problems,
  • adults learn languages differently from children, among many, many others.”

Natural method: comprehensible input language teaching method (and book of the same name) developed by Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell in early 1990s.  Influenced Blaine Ray’s T.P.R.S.

Noam Chomsky: 1. The man who invented modern linguistics, largely on the basis of his theory of generative grammar, which explains how the brain’s “language acquisition device” processes linguistic input, infers language-specific rules therefrom, and can use a limited number of rules and vocabulary items to generate an infinite number of sentences.  2. A relentless, fact-focused and principled critic of U.S. power 3. One of the only scientists to have an experimental animal– Nim Chimpsky– named after him.

Noun: a thing in uhh language

Output: any meaningful production of the target language.  The result, not the cause, of acquisition. The Holy Grail of language teaching.

Parallel character: having another character in an asked story whose experiences are roughly similar to the main character’s. Basically an excuse to recycle vocabulary.

Peer-to-peer communication: 1. getting learners to use the language with each other to share ideas and information 2. “The McDonalds of language teaching” (Waltz, Krashen)

Pop-up (a.k.a. “grammar commercial”– Adriana Ramírez): a brief, non-boring in-context explanation of the meaning of a grammar item (e.g. “Class, in Spanish, the  or  end on that word means he or she did it in the past”)

Poverty of stimulus argument: Chomsky’s point that despite not seeing certain kinds of word combinations, language acquirers do in fact “figure out” the rules for using these words, and do not make certain kinds of errors.  One of the main supports in the Universal Grammar theory.

Practice: what helps basketball players and rock climbers, and what in a language classroom only works if it involves processing input.

Results: what matters in language teaching.  The best results will be characterised by fluent, quick, unedited and voluminous output generated by unstressed students who do not have access to books, dictionaries, etc when writing or speaking.

Rule:  something books and teachers love to explain but by which students oddly enough are unable thereby to learn.

P.Q.A.: (personalised questions and answers): using targeted vocabulary to generate student-teacher microconversations in ways that connect vocabulary to students’ experiences.  In T.P.R.S., PQA basically involves the teacher asking students the questions asked of the actors, and “running with” answers– true or invented– which interest the student.

Scaffolding: edubabble for “start with something students know, then guide them from there through something they don’t.”

Sheltered grammar: not using all grammatical devices or rules from the target language during teaching or in the reading.  A characteristic of legacy method teaching.  Most textbooks “shelter” grammar by introducing first one verb tense, then another, etc.  Sheltering grammar comes from the mistaken idea that languages are organised into skill sets that can be acquired one at a time.

Sir Ken Robinson: University type, whose never having taught in an actual primary or secondary classroom (or having developed a useful method of any kind) uniquely qualifies him to discuss teaching in primary and secondary classrooms.

Slosher (Waltz): a student who has been exposed to enough grammar and vocab lists that isolated fragments of language slosh around uselessly in his/her head.

Sociocultural communicative competence: 1. edubabble for “discretion is the better part of valor,” a.k.a. knowing what to say and not say in a different culture and language. 2. The lack of which is the source of Borat’s humour. 3. arguably the least important thing a teacher of languages should focus on.

Speedwrite (a.k.a. “Timed write”).  1.  a writing assignment done with a time limit and no access to notes, dictionaries etc.  The aim is to show what students have unconsciously and automatically acquired, as opposed to learned, by not giving them enough time to plan or reflect on writing. 2. Where students who have had loads of good comprehensible input shine, and grammar/”communicatively”-taught kids freak out.

Standardised test: 1. a way of fairly and impartially assessing how well ALL animals, including fish, giraffes, snakes and Samoyed dogs– and not just monkeys– can climb trees.  2. A way for educational testing companies to get approximately $500,000,000 per year from U.S. taxpayers. 3. A very effective way of ensuring that only what can be measured with numbers is taught.

Stiff meeting: a monthly, Admin-organised chance to catch up on email, own the crap out of Level 49 in Candy Crush Saga, or do some marking.  Verbal irony, people– nobody actually ever does any of these things in meetings.

Stephen D. Krashen U.C.L.A. researcher who developed (and found much of the evidence for) the comprehensible input hypothesis.  Also an expert on the effects of free voluntary reading, a relentless critic of standardised testing in the U.S., major caffeine addict and a former champion weightlifter.

Story: 1. the world’s oldest teaching method 2. a narrated set of events where one or more characters faces a significant challenge and/or conflict which s/he must overcome and/or resolve. 3. the easiest and most enjoyable way to present vocabulary in a new language

Storyasking: the process of story narration and acting, where the teacher supplies the language, and the students the acting and story details.  Also called narrative co-creation. Invented by Blaine Ray.

Strong interface position: the view (DeKeyser) that explicit grammar teaching (e.g. explanations) aids acquisition.

Synthetic teaching: (Long) the “present, practice and produce” model of language teaching, a.k.a. “focus on forms.”  Exemplified by the ¡Díme! Spanish texts.  A discredited legacy method.

Teacher: a lazy, expensive, liberal and Unionized waste of space which would in an ideal world be replaced with a combination of iPads, multiple-guess tests, Bible sermons, worksheets and Khan Academy videos.

Terry Waltz: 1. Mandarin teacher, PhD, presenter, speaker of 13 languages, TPRS in Chinese “how-to” book author, and professional translator 2. The funniest person in the comprehensible input universe 3. someone whose statements will be at least three of the following:  empirically true, funny, thoughtful, applicable

Textbook: 1. An excellent source of corporate profits 2. A great way to physically raise a computer monitor or prop up a desk 3. A poor source of both compelling comprehensible input and brain-friendly activities.  4. “This is not something to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown away with great force.” –Geoff Jordan, after Dorothy Parker.

Thinking: 1. deliberate mental activity which does not help anyone learn a language. 2. What textbook publishers do only when designing textbook marketing.

T.P.R.S. “Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling”– Blaine Ray’s comprehensible input language teaching method which emphasises collaborative narratives, input, and reading fiction over grammar practice, output and reading informational text. Known by green-with-envy detractors as Twitching Purple Reptile Stories.

Universal grammar: what Chomsky describes as built-in “software” that allows the brain to receive linguistic input and “build” a mental representation– automatic functional knowledge– of language.  Evidence for the U.G.’s existence is the formation of mental representation in a predictable set of patterns across ;languages.

Unsheltered grammar: using all the grammatical rules, devices, etc that belong to a language when teaching it and in the readings provided to students.  Many comprehensible input methods teachers use unsheltered grammar either immediately or soon after beginning instruction.

Vocabulary list: what textbooks insist that students memorise, and which brain research says they can’t.

Verb: another thing, err, uhhh, from the language

Weak interface position: the view (Krashen, VanPatten) that grammar explanations beyond clarifying meaning do not aid acquisition.  No evidence has been offered to support this position.

Weighing the pig: short for “weighing the pig won’t make it fatter,” i.e. testing students does nothing to develop their language abilities.  This fact has had very little

Worksheet:

1. Grammar or vocab learning tool that doesn’t help people who don’t understand, and which is unnecessary for those who do

2. What textbook publishers fill low-cost, high-margin student workbooks with

3. What friends don’t let friends hand out

4. The Novocaine of the language teaching profession.

5. A superb way of bringing 19th century ideas into the 21st century classroom.

Are explicit grammar instruction and feedback effective and worthwhile? A look at bad research & wrong conclusions.

I have been discussing research on grammar teaching and feedback for awhile on Twitter with Steve S. and others.  I maintain that there is essentially no value– in terms of acquisitional gains for students– in explicitly teaching grammar or providing corrective feedback.  Steve sent me a paper– Bowles and Montrul (2008)— which seems to suggest the opposite.  This is a classic problem for languages teachers:  somebody does (very bad) research about Grammar Intervention Technique X, “finds” that it “works,” and then textbook publishers and grammarians use this to torture their poor students.  SO…

Today’s question:  is grammar instruction and feedback both effective and worthwhile?

Bowles and Montrul took English speakers learning Spanish, and wanted to see whether appropriate forms of the personal a in Spanish could best be acquired (for recognition) via regular exposure to Spanish, or via exposure to explicit instruction (“this is the personal a, and ____ is how/where you use it”) plus reading sentences containing (and some not containing) the personal a, some of which were grammatical and other which weren’t, plus feedback: if they screwed up, they were told so, and they got an explanation, and they could do the exercise again as often as they wanted.  They were also told to try to get a score of 90% correct.

When the treatment finished, they were tested, and statistical analyses confirm that, yes, the people who got instructional treatment– instruction, sample sentences, and feedback– did better than the others (and by “did better,” we mean “were able to recognise proper/improper uses of the personal a”).

So, Steve S. appears to be right.  Grammar instruction and feedback are prima facie effective.  BUT…but…but… there are so many problems with this study that, frankly, we might as well throw it out.  Here we go:  Stolzie versus the Professors.

First, Bowles and Montrul made several mistakes with their control group.

1.  Their study compared a treatment group with a non-treatment group, with insufficient differentiation of treatment variables.  This raises the question of cause: whether the treatment group’s gains came from instruction and feedback, or from simple exposure to Spanish.  If the treatment group got exposure to comprehensible language containing the instructional target (the personal a), and instruction and feedback, we do not know whether it was simple exposure to the target, or instruction and feedback about the target that made changes in understanding.

To address a concern like this, study design would have to expose a control group to lots of language containing the target, and the treatment group to that same language, as well as instruction plus feedback, so that the only difference between the groups would be the instruction and feedback.  This would allow us to tell what made the difference.

2.  Their study also failed to account for quantity of language exposed to.  They note that both groups got regular course instruction, but only the treatment group got the treatment (outside of class time).  So…if the treatment group got more Spanish than the controls, how do we know that the outcomes were a result of treatment?  Perhaps the treatment group’s gains came about from just simply getting more Spanish.  This is a confound: a potential and untested alternative explanation.

To address this concern, both groups should have received the same amount of exposure to Spanish– ideally only in class.

Second, Bowles and Montrul severely limited themselves with their treatment.  If you want to determine  the best way to improve language acquisition (even of a simple item), you cannot just take one intervention and compare it to a control, and from that make a general statement such as “grammar interventions work.”.  Their experiment does not look at other possibilities.  How about just simple comprehensible input containing the target in class?  Or, how about VanPatten’s processing instruction?  How about free voluntary reading in Spanish?

Lourdes and Ortega (2000) in their massive study of effectiveness of instructional intervention (that’s jargon for “does teaching people languages actually help them acquire languages?”) noted that basically any exposure to the target language– if it is meaningful– will produce some acquisition.  The question is not “does _____ work?”, but “how well— compared to other approaches– does _____ work?”  A grammarian who likes his worksheets and a “communicative” teacher who loves having her first-years do “dialogues” will both say “but they are learning!” and they are right.  The question, however, is how MUCH are they learning compared to other methods?

From the teacher’s point of view– outside of the control-group flaws noted above– this study does not provide us with anything useful.  All it (in my view wrongly) claims is that some “focus on form” (allegedly) worked better than whatever else the students were doing.  But since we have a lot of instructional options, research that doesn’t compare them is useless.

A better design would have looked at different ways of helping people acquire the personal a (other than just having it present in input, as it was for the control group) and compared their effectiveness.

Third, there was no examination of durability of intervention.  OK, a week after intervention, tests found the intervention group picked up the personal a.  How about a year later– did they still have it?  If there is no look at durability of intervention, why bother?  If I have to decide what to do with my students, and I have zero guarantee that Intervention ____ will last, why do it– especially if, as we will see, it’s boring. Krashen proposed a three-months-delayed post-test as one criterion of validity.  This study does not deliver on that.

Fourth, any classroom teacher can see the massive holes in this kind of thing right off the bat.

(A) it’s boring.  Would YOU want to read and listen to two-dimensional writing for days?  Juan vio a Juana.  Juana le dio un regalo a su mamá.  I cannot imagine any set of students paying attention to this.  If you wanted to diversify instruction– i.e. not present just tedious lists of sentences and grammar info– you would also be severely restricted in what you can actually do in the classroom, as you have to build everything around rule ______.  

(B) the “number of rules” problem rears its head.  Bowles and Montrul targeted the personal a because we don’t have that in English.  Spanish also has a ton of other grammar we don’t have in English.  Off the top of my head, umm,

  • subject position in questions
  • differences in use of past tenses with auxiliary verbs
  • major differences in uses of reflexive verbs…e.g. why does a Spanish speaker say comí una pizza, but me comí tres pizzas?

Any Spanish teacher could go on and come up with zillions more “non-Englishy” rules that need to be learned.  If a teacher wants to design teaching around rule-focused input and feedback, the problem is that they will never be able to address all the rules, because the number of rules is not only functionally infinite, but nobody knows them all.

Fifth, the opportunity cost of grammar reinforcement etc is both high and unaddressed in this study.  Basically, what we have is a bandwidth problem.  We have X amount of time per day/course/year to teach Spanish (or whatever).  Any focus on Rule A means– by definition– we will have less time to devote to Rule B.  Even the doddering grammarian with his verb charts and grammar notes can see the problem– oh no!  If we spend too much time on the personal a, I won’t be able to benefit the kids with my mesmerising object pronoun worksheets!— but it’s worse than that.

In terms of input, focus on a grammar rule/item/etc means losing out on two crucial things:

1. Language that is multidimensional in terms of content.  As noted, if the personal a is your target, you are seriously restricted in what you can say, write, etc (it’s boring) but, beyond being boring, students are losing out on whatever could be said without using the personal a.

2.  Language that is grammatically multidimensional.  If I must teach focused on the personal a, the other “rules” will be less present in the input, and so we’re starving Peter to feed Paul.

My guess is that– even if you did this study without all the flaws I note above and got positive results– you would find a cost elsewhere, as the quantity and variety of language students would be exposed to would have dropped and been simplified.  So they might master the personal a, but they acquire less of grammar rule ____ or vocab _____.

(Krashen and many others have looked at almost exactly this question in terms of acquisition of vocab and writing skills in terms of whether or not free voluntary reading (in L1 or L2) or classroom instruction works best.  You can teach people vocab, or phonics, or word-decoding, or writing rules, or you can let them read (or listen) to interesting stuff.  The research is unanaimous and clear: free voluntary reading beats everything in terms of how fast things are picked up, how interesting learning is, and how “multidimensional” the learning– measured in various ways, from word recognition to improved writing– is.)

What we need is a holistic look at acquisition, which one-item studies of this kind cannot show us.  What did these students not acquire while they were doing their personal a grammar work?  What did the students who got multidimensional input pick up?  Language is much more complex than knowing Rule ____ and looking at an instructional intervention that targets .1% of what needs to be learned– while ignoring the other 99.9%– is silly at best.

If you really want to know whether an instructional intervention, or technique, works, you have to look at all aspects of language use, not just whether or not one rule has been acquired.

SO…do grammar-focused instruction, vocab presentation and corrective feedback work to help people acquire the personal a?

  • maybe (but Bowles and Montrul don’t know why)
  • we have no idea for how long
  • sure…for one item at a time
  • in a boring way
  • in a way that sacrifices essential multidimensional input (of grammar and vocab)

So.  Next?

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.” 

 

 

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 I mark writing? Blaine Ray’s ideas, slightly modified

Stephen B.– who after twenty years of traditional grammar teaching jumped headfirst into C.I.; how bad-assed is THAT?; writes

“Anyways, I had a question about grading speed/timed writings. I know Blaine says one point per word and he talked about scaling and not to mark it for accuracy. However, what does one do in this situtation: for example, if after a 5 minute speed write one students writes 85 words but is all over the place and makes several grammatical and spelling errors, and another student only writes 60 words but it is almost perfect, how can I give the former student a higher mark?”

Here is how I do it (with many suggestions from Adriana Ramírez, whose Teaching Spanish Through Comprehensible Input text I am using this year). First, classic TPRS in a story cycle, with movietalk and picturetalk:

A) story cycle: establish meaning, ask story (with a few parallel characters), review, retell, read a couple of versions of story

B) have the kids create a comic of the story. Story must be “complete” but obviously not everything can be put into comic. Story must be coloured, look awesome, etc (clip art fine). Each panel must

  • have at least one Spanish sentence
  • have perfect alignment between Spanish and pictures
  • where there is no dialogue, “thought bubbles” in the first person
  • where appropriate, have dialogue

This will make the kids read, choose sentences, and clarify meaning via illustrating.

C) movietalk and picturetalk to support story structures (e.g. if you taught “wants,” movietalk and picturetalk a video where a person wants something)

Then, for assessment, I am doing the following:

1) when the “story cycle” (A-C above) is done, kids will do a five-minute speedwrite and a forty-minute relaxed write.

Their first speedwrite topic will be “describe yourself.”

The speedwrite is evaluated in 2 ways:

First, wordcount. Kids count the # of words in their composition (tell them no lists, or, if they want a list, they must describe all things in the list). End of year goal: 100 good words in 5 min. For their first speedwrite, they get a 40-word bonus. So if they write 30 words, their wordcount score is 70/100.

Second, they get a grammar mark out of 3, thus:
1– it’s full of mistakes and largely incomprehensible
2– it’s mostly comprehensible but has some “whaaat?” moments and “feels” junky
3– it’s fully comprehensible, has no “whaaat?” moments, and “feels” fluid and solid (but not necessarily perfect)

Multiply their grammar mark by 33.3 and they have a grammar mark /100.

Now, average the two marks and they have a spedwrite percentage.

For the 40-min relaxed write, I tell them “either retell the story, or write your own, and you must have 3 dialogues, but put changes into your version of the story.” The goal for the year: write an 800-word story in 40 min. For their first story, I’ll expect 70-150 words. I will assign a wordcount mark out of, say, 200 and give them a 50-word bonus. I will also give them a grammar mark /3 above.  Every time they write a story, the amount of words expected goes up and the curving bonus goes down. 

We average their grammar mark and wordcount: if Johnny gets 2/3 for grammar, and writes 90 words, his score is 66.6% (grammar) + 140/200 (70%) for wordcount = 69%.

After we do the second story of the year (and until the end of the course), we repeat the procedure, with a few changes

A) the speedwrite bonus drops by 5 words each time
B) the relaxed write bonus drops by 5 words each time and the “benchmark” goes up by 75 words. By end of year kids should be able to write 800 words in 45 min.
C) we use another topic for the speedwrite for the second time: describe a picture that you project onto your screen. This picture should support what was in your story. So, if the story had a girl who wants an elephant, your picture could be a boy who has an elephant.

D) for the third speedwrite, use topic #1 (describe yourself). For the fourth, use a picture. Keep alternating.  I use fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1 (all verb tenses, subjunctive, etc) so the picture describing tests evaluate how well they can use present tense. 

The writing will improve during the year. As I write this after having done only two stories, wordcounts are WAY up and grammar is also improving.

A few notes:

— you MUST carefully restrict vocab. This has been my single-greatest problem with TPRS: adding vocab at random. If you don’t restrict vocab, you get fewer reps on each item…and worse/less acquisition.

— initially, the kids will generate pretty crappy stories. Later, word count goes up and grammar will get better. Some kids will re-write the story; most will start to improvise.

their “mark” at any given time is simply their most recent speedwrite and relaxed write mark, combined.  I also do exit quizzes for listening and reading (1 each/week) so I have a pretty good overall picture of how everyone is doing. 

PQA is super important. Adriana’s book has a list of “personalised questions.” The Blaine Ray books also do. If you are doing your own stories, you make them up. Personalised questions are super-easy: you basically ask the class the questions you ask the actor.

So if you narrate “the boy liked running,” you ask your actor “do you like running?” and he says “yes, I like running.” You then ask “do you like vomiting?” (something contrastive) and he says “no, I do not like vomiting.” Then, starting with your superstar, you ask the class members “do you like vomiting or running?” etc. Simple.

This is important because the kids need to hear the present-tense forms.

— Adriana’s advice was to make sure all the kids do the comic. This is because the comic writing is “deep reading:” it makes the kids re-read, choose, copy and write, etc. For the non-artists, translation also works: copy story, underneath it translate (diff coloured pen), leave a blank line to keep it clear. Here is a pretty good example of “Los Gatos Azules” turned into a comic (one of Adriana’s kids did this one):

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Anyway, this is how I have organised the “units” of TPRS and how I assess. Coments, as always, welcome!

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.