TPRS

How Do I Start the Year with C.I.?

Craig West asked me, “how do you start your year?”  Good question.  So here is what I do on Day 1.

A) Kids come in, I take attendance, they sit where they want, I make a seating plan. If it turns out they can’t work together, I will move them later.

B) I hand out the COURSE OUTLINE , the INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric (a modified version of Ben Slavic and Jen Schongalla’s jGR) and kids fill out paperwork.

C) I basically tell them two things. First, general expectations (no swearing, sexist or homophobic etc language, don’t make a mess, yadda yadda).  Then, I ask them “if you took another language, and it didn’t work for you, or you didn’t like it, I want to know why” and they tell the class.  Usually they say things like “[language] was boring, hard to understand, bla bla.”

Then, I tell them, “Ok, here we learn through stories and it’s really easy. All you have to do to learn a language is listen to words you understand in it, or read it.” I also tell them, the amount of fun in class depends on how much energy they bring to it (suggestions), I show them the rules poster, and I tell them how to do responses.

Then, I hand out my vocab sheet for my first story–Los Gatos Azules— where the words are written in Spanish.  They write down the English. Then I start asking the story. I write a few of the first sentences on the board.  Había un chico.  Vivía en ________. Se llamaba ________.  I get the kids to suggest funny names etc.  I ask for a volunteer to act, or appoint a native speaker if I have one, and I ask him questions from the PQA chart.  On Day 1, I probably won’t get much further than quieres, eres and tienes– questions.

This (below) is my PQA chart.


So if I narrate Había un chico, I ask my actor ¿eres un chico? and he answers soy un chico by reading off PQA chart.  (If I have a native speaker, I’ll use him/her.) I’ll also ask ¿tienes un perro/gato? and he answers Sí, tengo un gato and/or no tengo un perro, and I’ll ask ¿cómo te llamas? –me llamo _____ and ¿vives en _____? — sí/no, no vivo en. I make sure I do a LOT of comprehension checks with both actor and class. A comp check involves asking either one person or the class “what did I just say?” or “what did I just ask?” and checking if they understand.

I’ll also start with another kid as my first parallel character.  Usually a girl (so we can start in on feminine nouns etc) and my parallel character stays in her seat but I will give her a prop to help be a visual anchor.  So, with Los Gatos Azules, the main character (boy) has a dog (I give him a stuffed dog) but wants 10 blue cats.  The parallel character– a girl, seated– has a cat (and prop) but wants 27 purple dogs.

I have realia– for this story stuffed animals– which are good “meaning anchors.” Anything you say which is comprehensible– and which has any other kind of meaning support, such as realia, props, gestures– will help kids acquire language.  Below, gato and perro are vocab from the story; ratón is an obvious easy cognate that provides easy contrast for circling a pair of sentences.  I could even vary the story…el chico quería tener diez gatos azules…but…el gato quería un ratón blanco

I will stop my story 10 min before the end, and then I’ll do an exit quiz. This sets tone– yes, T.P.R.S. is fun BUT you still have to tune in– and also an exit quiz is easy. The kids “get” Spanish on their first day and that feels good.

For homework for day two, I’ll have the kids make simple desk signs. On one side goes their name (can be fake), a picture/drawing of something they like to do, and another of something they own (or a pet).  On the back goes ¿puedo ir al baño? and ¿puedo ir a tomar agua? and ¿puedo ir a mi armario? This is a Ben Slavic idea.  You can always pick one kid’s sign, write a sentence about it on the board (or write a sentence about another kid’s sign also) and presto!, instant mini-c.i. activity.  Plus, the signs help me learn the kids’ names and get to know them better.

There are a zillion other activities you can do on start-up day/week (Ben Slavic has a whole book called Stepping Stones to Stories where he describes his start-up system). Some teachers have to “norm” their classes, i.e. teach them how to behave.  But I have found that, for me, the best thing is to go straight into stories.  It seems that kids learn best when vocab is “packaged” into stories, and when they have to read embedded versions of stories.  I have basically learned that said in September, forgot by December, so if it gets said, it has to be read if I want the kids to remember it.  I do enjoy scene-spinning and improv though…

On Day 2, I start by circling weather and date (good to put boring stuff in background). I review the story, and we continue on– I’ll be able to introduce vas, te gusta(n) and queria— and this day I start personalised questins and answers.  For me, P.Q.A. is basically asking the class members the same question as the actors.

So, if this was Day 2 PQA, I would do the following before reviewing and then continuing the story.  I would first say “OK, yesterday we started a story, and today, I want to get to know you guys, so I’ll ask you some of the questions I asked [actor and parallel character]. Answer with whatever you are comfortable with: sí/no, a word, or a sentence.” Then I’ll point to the PQA chart, make sure they know what the questions mean– and how to answer them– and off we go.

I pick a random kid and ask ¿eres un chico? and he has to answer , or soy un chico.  I’ll repeat the same with a girl, then I’ll do ¿tienes un gato/perro? This is where personalisation starts.  Little by little, you start to learn about your kids.  Who has a dog? Who likes/hates cats?  I also tell them, if you want, totally lie, as long as it’s not inappropriate (e.g. if you said it to your Mom, would she laugh or perma-ground you?) so some kids will want to say tengo un dinosaurio and that can become part of class culture.  It is also fun to ask a boy ¿eres una chica? etc.

Then, we go back to our story. I’ll review details from Day 1, then ask for more details, introduce the problem, etc. This year, I started changing things a wee bit– I now ask characters in my stories present tense questions about other characters– e.g. Donald Trump, ¿es un chico Barack Obama?–  which gets me present-tense reps.

So there you go– starting the year with t.p.r.s.

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Whaddaya got, grammarians?

My Twitter challenge from a month ago stands: if you can use grammar and output-focused methods, and get better results than me with true beginners, an evening of beer (or wine) tasting is on me.

(Before we discuss results, let’s discuss what really matters: 🍻…Vancouver now has a bunch of crafty breweries. My favorite is Brassneck, who do not bottle, and who have only two beers (and I.P.A. and a northwest pale ale– this very close to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the gold standard for this style) which are always on tap. The other eight or so rotating taps are brewmaster Conrad Gmoser “unleashed” and you never see the same beers twice.  You may find cherry sours, Belgian Trippels, saisons, pilseners, Gmoser’s legendary 11% espresso stout… But Brassneck is not alone: there are a bunch of other great places too and though we are neither Denver nor Portland there is good beer to be had.  My colleague Leanda read this and said “what about 🍷?” so fair enough a wine-guzz–, er I mean, tasting evening is also ip for grabs)

ANYWAY…so far nobody has stepped up for their free beer evening.  Hello, grammarians.  Whaddaya got? “Communicative” teachers– you out there?  American Adminz who think talking, self-reflection, writing, grammar practice and “essential questions” matter– you feelin’ me?

Now allow me to explain the somewhat sarcastic tone here.  There are a bunch of teachers in the U.S. whose idio– err I mean, Administratorz, sorry, are totally unaware of how language acquisition works. These Adminz watch competent c.i. practitioners and then say stupid things like

  • “I want to see more communicative pair activities”
  • “the students aren’t talking enough”
  • “there is too much teacher talk”
  • “TPRS does not teach grammar”
  • “I do not see essential questions on the board”
  • “I do not see students reflecting on their learning”
  • “While stories I am sure are fun, the kids will also need grammar practice.”

The only thing worse than an admin who knows nothing about language acquisition is an admin who points to bad practices and wants to see more of them.  Uninformed Adminz are often two-year-olds: they want to see some shiny, commonsensical obvious “stuff” being “done” by kids “right now” as “evidence” of ________.  Uninformed Adminz love seeing communicative pair activities– “look! The kids are talking!”– and they looooove things with edubabbble– “look! E-learning! Portfolios! Self-assessment! Rigor!”– and they do not like classrooms with kids who appear to be, well, thinking and absorbing.

So these idi– err I mean, educational leaders, make life hard for c.i. practitioners, and point at bad practices for what c.i. people “should” be doing (and generally do not look at the results of c.i. instruction). Anyway, this is a challenge.  My kids do NONE of the following

  • Self assessment
  • Grammar worksheets
  • Speaking Spanish (unless they want to)
  • Communicative pair activities
  • Internet/dictionary word searches
  • Revision of writing
  • Goal setting
  • Portfolios
  • anything online

Challenge: use all the things I don’t, and get better results than me.

Here’s what my beginner kids are doing at 8 weeks of Spanish.  These are examples of story writes (a.k.a. relaxed writes). They have 40 minutes to write a story which is a variation on the most recent story we asked (and read extended versions of) in class.  They are not allowed to use notes, dictionaries, Internet, etc.  What you see here is from memory.

Manisha missed the first week of class and misses about a day a week cos of stress issues.  The grammar mistakes are absolutely minor. Here is page 1. 

Roshini also did amazingly well: 324 words.  Note the French error! Ha! She mixes up dio and dijo.

Manvir also did well. 282 words. She has a few errors– minor spelling and adj agreement. I’ll post her whole thing.

Here’s Manvir’s 2nd page

and here is her conclusion

Standard disclaimer: I am neither smart, hardworking nor good at languages. If I can get these results, anyone can get these results!

And if you think these are good…you should see what Adriana Ramírez’ kids can do.  Ella es mi profesora diosa. 

What should we have on our walls?

I was recently asked “what’s on your walls?” (that’s Spanish-related).  Here it is: everything on my walls to do with Spanish.

First, colour chart.  100% comprehensible with no English.  (Pink is getting faded😞)

Next, the front of the room. I have class rules and PQA chart and question words– that’s it. On the board is vocab from the story we are starting today: Adriana Ramírez’ El Rolls Royce y el Perro Rosado.  I will write a few sentences from the story– the ones with new structures– plus some dialogue once the kids have copied this vocab (and its English equivalents).  There will be WAY less junk on the board.

Finally, here is the PQA chart from above pic, closeup. This is what we use when we start with beginners.  Some kids– the fast processors who I use as actors– pick this up quickly. Others need way more reps. I just point to it.

Here is desk layout.  I like the idea of deskless (Mike Coxon does this) but I need desks for English and Social Justice.  We have a pretty good acting space at the front. It works well.  This is an English 10 class.  In the far back row in the red is Novneet. He was in my Spanish I  class last semester and majorly crushed it– 750-word 3-tense stories, with superb grammar– but he is not as strong a student in English.  My other superstar beginner, Shayla, is also in this class, and is the same: not an analytic English crusher.  Interesting that academically average kids can majorly excel in a language if taught with comprehensible input.

You will also note other teacher essentials: coffee mugs and a mandolin 😉

Even though I also teach English and Social Justice, and I need wall space for projects, I wouldn’t put any more Spanish stuff on the walls. Why? Because visual clutter is annoying and doesn’t help the kids. Maybe it was Ben Slavic who mentiond “the Ikea room.”

Some teachers ask me, “ok, where is your word wall, or where are your number and location-word posters?”

A) I had a word wall, with eveything from connecting phrases– therefore, after, etc– to location words to labeled pictures of verbs, objects, etc, and guess what? The kids copied stuff off the walls (as I hoped they would), trying to beef up their writing, and misused almost everything on the walls. This was I think because stuff that’s not acquired gets manipulated by the conscious mind and so they say ok, how do I say ____? Ok there it is, I’ll toss that into this sentence…yo tengo fui al cine.  With less on walls, what I get in writing is what they actually know.

B) Numbers, location words, time, date, weather etc are boring so I just throw one into each story and the kids pick it up that way. Voilá less junk on walls. I deal with boring stuff this way.

C) The fewer visual distractions, the more mental energy we have for focusing on and processing the essential stuff in stories.  T.P.R.S. is “narrow and deep”-focused.  We want our kids to master essentials– teach for mastery, not presentation, as Blaine Ray puts it.

Ok there we go. One teacher’s room layout.

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.” 

 

 

Marc F.’s questions about “after story” activities.

T.P.R.S. newbie Marc F. has switched over from the grammar grind and has some good questions about what to do after we ask ask a story. I’ll give my answers and maybe others can say their thing too in comments.

Marc writes:

I have been impressed with the re-writes that my students have been doing in the 10 minutes that I give them after we ask the story. I always write down any “out of bounds” words (although I try to keep them to a minimum) on the whiteboard and define them in L1 to establish meaning. Obviously, I also write the three (occasionally four) target structures as well. Do you leave the board as-is when the students do their re-write? I have been leaving everything up, as I believe that them seeing it as they write is just more repetitions and helps them establish meaning even more. Is this a good practice in your opinion?

Hells yea! There are a LOT of reasons why leaving vocab on the board is a great idea

A) the kids are still acquiring— both the retellers and the listeners– and reps = good.

B) you want brainpower going into processing (understanding) the language, not remembering how to say/write it (which is very difficult for beginners).   Output is hard and ideally we want to delay it as long as possible, and support it as much as possible.

C) they are self-conscious, so support will make it easier = happier, less stressed kids.


Second, I know that a part of the story cycle is to re-write the story that the class told, but sometimes with variations and more detail. Is this what is considered the embedded reading?

Sort of. An embedded reading has two basic defining properties:

(a) It is a basic story, and two (or more) progressively more complex versions of the same story  These stories recycle the vocab you used in  the asked version of the story.

(b) Each version contains all of the target structures, and you can add a few new words.

There is an English sample (from my workshops) here: embedded reading 1 page summary. This should more or less clarify it.  The aim is basically “scaffolding:” you want to make people comfy with a simple, short version, then get reps (etc) from 2-3 longer versions.


Also, I have been combining elements from different classes’ stories to create one story that all four of my Spanish 2 sections will read. I’ve done the same with my two sections of Spanish 1. I’ve been doing this so that I am not re-writing four stories per night, and also so that students can be exposed to a slightly different angle to the story (they are all based on the same script however). Is this on point?

I think this is an AMAZING idea. Especially if the kids in the classes know each other, the idea of mixing details (especially ones they come up with) is great. This is personalisation. How cool is it to create cross-class connections and to put kids into stories? It is also a solid mental health strategy: you need to have time for your family, hobbies, sports, etc.  You are also creating novelty, which the brain craves to stay focused.

I personally don’t do this– we invent and ask one story in class, and I give them a reading that contains those structures– but my colleague Leanda does and it rocks. I think this is great. As long as you are repeating restricted amounts of high-frequency vocab in interesting (and, ideally, personal) ways, the kids are learning.

I think you’re doing everything right. You are supporting comprehensibility, making kids feel at ease, personalising vocab, putting a new spin on old vocab, and saving yourself from burnout by not spending 8 hours each night madly pecking away at your keyboard while the wife sulks and the kids act like it’s a country song, wondering who Daddy is.

What should assessment and evaluation look like in the second-language classroom?

Numberz. Kids, parents, Adminz and teachers all want ’em. “What’s my mark?” asks Baninder. “How can Suzy bring her mark up?” asks Mrs Smith. “How do we get marked?” ask the keeners on Day 1.

Well, here we go, here are some ideas about formative assessment (seeing how people are doing during the learning process in order to guide instruction), and summative assessment, (a.k.a. evaluation), where we assign a Number to a kid’s performance. Here’s a picture:

IMG_3353-3

There are a few general principles:

A) we should never use norm-referenced (a.k.a. “curved”) grading, for reasons discussed here.

B) We should be doing criterion-referenced grading– i.e. there should be a rubric, or what have you, which clearly defines what needs to be done to get what mark. There are a bazillion rubrics for evaluating second-languages writing, speaking etc out there, from ACTFL guidelines to various State standards to things in texts– I won’t get into details, except to say that any evaluative tool should be making an attempt to assess language use holistically, and should not include things like “students will use _____ verbs and _____ grammar structures.”

C) we should not mix up evaluation (a.k.a. summative assessment = numbers) and formative assessment (feedback). We need to see where learners are, and tailor teaching to what they can/can not do. This is assessment and we do not “mark” it, as per Rick Wormelli’s (and others’) ideas about “assessment for learning” (start here if you havn’t heard of this, then google away).

D) All evaluation and assessment practices should be explained to students. My kids have criteria in their course outlines, and we “mark” a couple of sample stories a month or so into the course. We do not do this in order to show kids “how to improve their work”– that can’t work for 95% of kids because it’s conscious learning– but rather so they can feel how assessment and eval works, and feel included.

ASSESSMENT (formative evaluation)

Assessment: seeing how people are doing along the learning road in order to steer the class car.

In a comprehensible input classroom, assessment should primarily answer one question: “do the students understand what they are hearing/reading?”

During story asking, a teacher checks choral responses to do this. We can also ask individual kids flat out– “Johnny, what did I just say/ask?”– or we can do P.Q.A. (personalised questions and answers) where we ask students in class the same question we ask the actor. If our story has “the boy owned a horse,” we ask the actor “do you own a horse?” and he has to say “yes, I own a horse.” We might ask a few more questions– “Do you own a dinosaur?” and get an answer like “no, I do not own a dinosaur”– and then we ask our keener kids in class “do YOU, Mandeep, own a crocodile?”

If, as Blaine Ray says, we get strong responses from class, actors or individuals, they are understanding. If we get slow, wrong, weak, or no answers, we have to go back and clarify, because either

1.  they aren’t listening = no input = no acquisition, OR

2. they don’t understand = no comprehensible input = no acquisition

Ben Slavic has advocated using what he calls Jen’s Great Rubric (jGR) which basically evaluates how “tuned in” kids are. The rationale here can feel ambigious. On one hand, it’s the old “if it’s not for marks, kids won’t do the work” thing: instituted by teacher cos the work is so boring/hard that no sane kid would want to/ be able to do it, so marks = carrot and stick.  (But then maybe kids need that if The System prizes Numberz and Markzzz above all else).  On the other hand, if Johnny is failing because he is on his phone, zoned out, or otherwise disengaged, use of jGR is a great tool for the teacher to say to Johnny’s Mom “look– here is how he acts in class, i.e. he is not focused, and that is what his writing, speaking etc are weak.” Jury is out on this one but lotsa folks like it.

In terms of writing assessment, as Leanda Monro, Adriana Ramírez and a zillion others have pointed out, explicit feedback (in terms of grammar) does very little. Leanda told me last year that the best thing she could do with her French kids’ writing was to ask for more detail. I have found the same: I can blather/write at length about verb tenses, adjective agreement, etc, but the kids simply don’t learn from this (Krashen and many others have repeatedly shown that we cannot transfer conscious knowledge into acquisition).  What does work is writing something like ¿Cuántos hermanos tenía la chica?

I have also found that kids make consistent writing errors– e.g. this year it took them awhile to acquire quiero tener (“I want to have”)– and so after each story the top five errors get circled more next story.

For speaking: good input = good output. However, Leanda and a few other French (and Chinese) teachers I’ve met have said that a bit of pronunciation work is necessary. This is because– for English speakers– the sound patterns of these languages are easy enough to screw up that with their output– even if it’s rock-solid– seemingly minor pronunciation errors can totally throw it. Chinese, with its subtle tones, and French, with its various “ay” sounds– é, è, ê etc– are easier than, say Spanish for English speakers to botch.

Another thing we should not be doing is, administering assessment without changes in instruction.  The old pattern– present, practice, produce, quiz on Tues, test on Friday– is useless.  Following a text or test series or a set of DVDs, and dutifully collecting quiz samples, and expecting the kids to look their quizzes over and say “oh my, I clearly need to bone up on pronoun placement and the vocabulary for discusing French art” is a great strategy…for the kids whoa re getting 95% already.

So what should assessment look like?  It should

  • be comprehension-focused
  • be ongoing: during storyasking and reading, we check for comprehension
  • actually cause us to change what we are doing.  If kids don’t understand something, or make repeated errors, they need more input around that thing

EVALUATION (summative assessment)

One problem– err, I mean, opportunity— we have is, students are never at a fixed point in their acquisition. If they are getting a ton of good comprehensible input, they are acquiring (albeit not all at the same rate, or in the same way.  Max may be picking up a few nouns from the most recent story, while Arabella’s brain is soaking up pronouns, or whatever). Students also “acquire” something, forget it, re-learn it, etc, in an ongoing, up-and-down process…so a “snapshot” of their skills is really not very useful or accurate.

For this reason, in my humble opinion, a student’s mark should always be based on their most recent output or skills. . We should not be setting up “units” and assigning a mark per “unit.”

Why? Well, maybe Rorie finishes a “unit” on shopping for clothes, and she gets 60%, so goes back and re-reads dialogues or a story, or studies the grammar. And gets better as a result. Maybe also the teacher uses the shopping vocab for the rest of the year. But how does the teacher now assess Rorie? Say the teacher assesses via units (10% of the year per unit, over 6 units = 60% of year, plus final projects or exam(s) worth 40% of year, marks for everything evenly divided between speaking, listening, reading and writing), and by end of year Rorie rocks at shopping for clothes, do they discard her crappy shopping unit mark and give her only the final exam mark? If so, cool, but why then bother with unit marks in the first place?

If the answer to this is “accountability,” you have a problem: marks are being used as carrot/stick (read: work is boring and/or not worth doing).  I have argued that topical (sometimes called “thematic”) units are a bad idea– they tie grammar sets to vocab rules, they are boring, they are artificial, they overuse low-frequency vocabulary, they can present grammar that students are not ready to acquire– and they present assessment problems too.

Of course, parents, kids, Adminz, Headz will want to get a rough picture of how kids are doing, so it might not be all bad to have some kind of “rough progress” report.  At my school, we are piloting a program where the kids get an interim report that offers feedback– neither numbers, nor just “good, OK, bad”– which teachers can customise.  Mine gets the kids to evaluate themselves (to what extent do you listen for comprehension, ask for help, co-crerate stories, etc) and if I agree with their evaluations then that’s what goes home.

My evaluation system this year was super-simple. After a story was asked, and its extended version read, and we did Movietalk around its structures, the kids had to do two things:

A) a speedwrite (5 mins) where they had to describe either themselves or a picture. Their course goal was 100 good words in 5 min. Their “mark” was 1/2 grammar (on a rubric out of 3) and 1/2 wordcount (out of 100). For the first 6 speedwrites, they got a bonus (40, then 35, then 30 etc), and after that no bonus.

(Note: the grammar rubric is out of 3 but is weighted the same as wordcount. A kid that gets 100 words and a 2/3 for grammar gets 83% (100% + 66% / 2).)

For their first speedwrite, they typically wrote 25 words + 40-word bonus, so average mark was 65% for words and grammar (for the first) was 1/3 but very rapidly climbed to about 2.2-2.5/3.

B) Relaxed write. For this, they had to re-tell (in writing) the most recent story, but they had to change details and include dialogue, etc. I marked these using grammar (/3) and wordcount (starting at 200 and going up by 50 each time) with no bonus. Their wordcount marks also went steadily up and their grammar got better after first 2 stories.

So, they had an “ongoing” mark which they could always improve on. I told them that “this is a rough guide to how well you are doing. You can improve, or you can stop paying attention (or miss a bunch of class), and your mark can drop.”

I entered marks into the spreadsheet every time we did a post-story writing assessment, and I’d post a printout, and I made them keep their relaxed writes and freewrites. They all got better with time and it was cool for them to “see” progress:  grammar marks were low for first 2 stories, then went up, and wordcounts steadily climbed.

For finals– with beginners– it was simple. They had two 5-min speedwrites (/100, and with an /3 grammar mark), one 45-min story (/800, with /3 grammar mark). These were combined. They had one listening assessment– dictation, where they listened, wrote and translated– and their reading assessment was, go back to stories we’d done and answer questions. Final mark: 100% based on final exam = 1/3 writing, 1/3 reading and 1/3 listening. Also, any kid who wants to re-do their exam can do that no problem.

This system was almost as good as it could be. The kids knew what they had to do, the work was easy, there were no surprises, and even the weakest ones were able to do well (writing functional 300-400 word stories in 3 verb tenses including dialogue), while at the top end Shayla, Manpreet, Khubaib and Jaskarn pumped out amazingly good 600-800 word stories. (Interestingly, I had equal numbers of strong (and weak) students of both genders).

(The only things I am going to change next year are

  • I am going to use a more complex rubric for marking final writing. This is mainly because the one I used this year does not adequately distinguish complexity from simplicity. Some kids write a sentence like Juan quería las chicas guapas (“John liked pretty girls),” while others write Juan quería las chicas guapas que tenían perros azules (John liked pretty girls who had blue dogs).  In both cases, good Spanish, but the second kid is clearly a notch up.)
  • I am going to give them one text they have not yet seen (for reading) and get them to answer comprehension questions on that

With my 2nd years, I’ll do a speaking assessment (3-min interview) and I’ll also do a couple of culture projects, plus Adriana’s movie idea.

So…what should evaluation look like? It should be

— holistic
— based on doing what the kids have done and reading what they have read during the course (no “gotcha” surprises).
— focused on interaction with meaningful whole language (no grammar testing)
— a picture of the kids at their best: at the end of the course, when they have had a TON of good comprehensible input

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

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

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

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

So, reading matters a lot. First, principles:

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

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

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

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

So how do we do ping-pong reading?

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

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

c) Set a timer with alarm for 3 min.

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we have a 5-min brain break.

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

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

Test and introducing new vocab takes 1 block.

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

Ok there you have it, what I do.

Thematic & topical units: not so fast…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggestions for avoiding the topic trap:

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

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

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

Here’s an example for a food story:

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

Dialogue:

What would you like?
— I would like…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This brings up two good questions:

A) what are “traditional practices”?

B) why do people still do them?

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

So what are “traditional practices”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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