Grading Practices in a CI Classroom

Making the switch from teaching traditionally to teaching with comprehensible input (CI) is causing me to rethink everything I have been doing in my classroom, and particularly my grading practices.

In my department, we have the following grading categories: Tests 40%, Quizzes 25%, Participation 20%, and Homework 15%. This has started to cause problems for me. First of all, I have not really been giving any tests. In a traditional textbook-driven classroom, tests are given at the end of a chapter and/or at the end of a unit. A test is something that a student needs to go home and study for by memorizing lists of vocabulary words and verb paradigms. This is just not how things work in my comprehensible input (CI) classroom. So no big, comprehensive tests means I’m not using this category at all.

While I haven’t been giving big huge tests, I have been giving quizzes constantly. Unfortunately, I am still required to assess grammar, which I try to do as painlessly as possible and in a format that requires students to show that they know meaning of what they’re writing. I don’t give these types of quizzes very often. Most of the quizzes I give are unannounced and are a review of whatever CI activity we have recently completed (a Movie Talk, a Señor Wooly video, a reading, a chapter in a novel). They aren’t the kind of quizzes students need to study for. They just need to listen and pay attention in class and they will do fine. I think 25% is way too low for this, but this is what we as a department has decided to do, so I have to play along.

Participation has also been an issue for me. In my mind, participation rewards students who volunteer to answer questions. These are usually the outgoing kids. This sort of participation system is really not fair to my very quiet students, many of whom never volunteer to answer questions in class but do absolutely everything else I ask of them. In some instances, participation also artificially inflates or deflates grades. Am I not setting up a student for failure at the next level if the only reason he passed is because a strong participation grade turned his F into a D? Alternatively, is it really fair to give a student with an A average a B+ because of her fear to speak in class? Am I really grading for proficiency in these cases?

I have voiced my concerns about this but my words have fallen on deaf ears. My department head feels that this is a necessary category because she says that since we teach a second language we have to assess their speaking. I don’t agree with this, and research such as this article explains why.

I have two issues with homework. The first is the ease with which most of it can be copied. This morning I had to walk from one side of the school building to the other, and en route I saw at least seven kids coping homework. Why should I waste my time giving a homework assignment that someone can just copy from a friend? And why should I reward someone with a good grade when I know there is a good chance that the homework was copied? The second issue I have with homework is that so many traditional assignments are not based in meaning. They are assignments like this:

Image result for spanish grammar worksheets

Of course students see work like this as a complete waste of time.

Here are the changes I plan to make to my grading practices for next year:

1. Rename the “Test” category. Instead, I will call it “Summative Assessment” to include any sort of assessment, no matter how informal or formal, that I give after students have mastered whatever material we’re working on at the time. The nice thing about the grading program we use is that we can weight assessments differently, so if I give one assessment with ten questions and another with twenty I can make the one with twenty worth twice as much as the one with ten if I want to. I will probably have this count for 40% of a student’s average.

2. Ditch the “Quiz” category. They will now be part of the “Summative Assessment” category.

3. Ditch the “Participation” category. I’ve already talked about why that category is not a valid measurement of student performance. I am thinking about possibly using this as extra credit for rewards such as being able to bring coffee to class and NOT for points. I’m still thinking about how I will set up my reward system and I’ll write another post about it when I have figured out what I want to do exactly.

4. Rename the “Homework” category. This I will call “Formative Assessment” and will include grades given for any homework, timed writings, completing Señor Wooly Nuggets, and anything else my students do that doesn’t fall under the “Summative Assessment” category. This will count for 60% of a student’s average. And just like the “Summative Assessment” category, I can change weights of assignments as I see fit.

I have a whole summer to refine and readjust this system as needed, and will update my blog if I change anything. But for right now I feel comfortable with this system because it uses categories that the principal wants to see and because it is broad enough to (I hope) be used effectively in a CI classroom. I’ll let you know how it goes.




Independent Reading in a Comprehensible Input Class

I heard Dr. Stephen Krashen talk at the ACTFL convention last year in Boston about reading is instrumental in helping people acquire language. He told the story of a woman that he had met who could speak over twenty languages, most of which she had initially acquired through reading texts in that language. I was absolutely floored by this story and it convinced me to go back to my classroom and incorporate an independent reading component in my second language classes.

Some people refer to independent reading in a second language classroom as FVR (free voluntary reading) and others may refer to it as SSR (silent sustained reading), but no matter what you call it, the procedure is the same. Students read books, comics, children’s books, or magazines in the target language for a set period of time. In my classroom, my students read every Monday at the beginning of class. We have been doing this since December, and now that the school year is coming to an end my students have reported that they are reading both faster and more fluently than they were at the beginning of the year. They are also starting to pick up new words from their reading, and if I happen to introduce one of those words in another class activity they will comment that they already know that word from a book they’ve read.

Dr. Krashen’s website has a whole page with links to research about acquiring language through reading. It may convince you that you too would like to incorporate independent reading into your classroom routine. Here are some tips to get you started.

1. Gather a collection of compelling reading material in your target language. I recommend that you start by purchasing books through either TPRS books or Fluency Matters. Their materials are written specifically for language students, are categorized by ability level, and come with a glossary. These are the best books to start out with because they are very student friendly. If you start with the books like these first, students will be more likely to buy into the idea of reading in a second language because they will be able to read them easily. Unfortunately most titles are only currently available in Spanish or French. Mike Peto showcases books in other languages on his blog but many teachers of other languages have gotten resourceful and have started to write some stories and/or books themselves once they’ve exhausted the supply of books available for purchase.

I also have children’s picture books in my classroom library, but I find these books to be either hit or miss depending on how complex the language is. I have reviewed the ones I have and have made sure that my students would be familiar with a majority of the vocabulary words in each book and/or will be able to infer meaning by context. I recently learned that Scholastic publishing has been releasing children’s nonfiction books in Spanish and may soon be adding some of those to my offerings.

I have purchased almost all the books in my library with personal funds. This way I can take them with me if I ever change jobs. Some teachers are lucky enough to get money from their school to purchase books and others raise funds through other means (One teacher I know funds her library through profits from selling Pop-Tarts). Very few of us have the means to create a full library overnight. Be patient but persistent and eventually you will have enough titles to create a healthy classroom library.

2. Explain to your students why you think it is important for them to read in the second language. They will be more likely to buy into it if they know why they are being asked to read.

3. Start with a small increment of time and gradually increase the amount of time as the year goes on. We started with five minute increments and are currently at twenty minutes.

4. Lead by example. Read with your students. They are less likely to disrupt the class reading time if you are reading also. You may also want to comment on your book to generate interest in it, and you will be better equipped to make suggestions when students are looking for a new book to read.

5. Do not hold them accountable for what they read. Having them fill out a reading log, answering comprehension questions, or having them write book reports sucks all the joy out of the process and turns it into a chore. We don’t want the reading to be a chore. We want it to be something students are willing to do.

6. Do not monitor students during reading time. I do not walk around the room and “proctor” the way I do when I’m giving a test. By all means, I make sure that students are not sleeping, playing on their phones, talking, or doing homework during reading time, but if certain students just want to open up a book and stare, I don’t make a big issue of it. Even my laziest students have started to realize that looking at the same page for twenty minutes is really, really boring, and have eventually come around.

The added bonus of independent reading in my second language classroom is the improvement in my own language skills. Over the summer I am planning on brushing up on my Italian through independent reading. I’ll let you know how it goes.




How I’ve Acquired Language By Watching TV

I started watching the Spanish drama”El Internado” on Netflix after reading many comments about it on the iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching Facebook page. “El Internado” tells the story of the adults that work and the students that study at a boarding school called Laguna Negra in an isolated part of Spain. Some teachers, like Kristy Palacio and Mike Peto, show it in school as part of a comprehensible input (CI) classroom. I have been toying around with the idea of doing this, but haven’t summoned up the courage to do so just yet. In preparation, however, I decided to start watching it just to see if it was any good. I was hooked before I even finished the first episode.

“El Internado” has seven seasons, and I have watched almost all Seasons 1 through 3 with subtitles in English. I’m almost ashamed to admit that part about the subtitles, guys. As a Spanish teacher you would think I would want to challenge myself and watch it with Spanish subtitles or no subtitles at all, but the truth is that sometimes I just don’t want to work that hard, especially since I watch about 80% of it on an exercise machine at the gym. Also, I really like listening to the Spanish and trying to match it up with the English subtitles.

I’ve been watching the show now for about four months, and just very recently I have noticed improvement in my own ability to speak and understand Spanish. My vocabulary has improved, as has my ability to produce various structures that were a struggle for me previously. For example, I was a bit nervous at the beginning of the school year about teaching present perfect structures in my Spanish 3 class. I didn’t feel very confident about my ability to produce this structure spontaneously because it is not a structure that I have been exposed to often. But due to the fact that “El Internado” is chock full of dialogue with present perfect, I can now produce it on the fly with ease.

The best part of the whole experience is that I am so caught up in the story and the characters (Paula and Evelyn are my favorites) that I don’t even realize that I am acquiring language. This is exactly what I want to happen in my classroom. I want my students to be so caught up in compelling, comprehensible input that they don’t even realize they’re acquiring language. That should be the goal for all of us who teach using CI.


Movie Talks

Movie Talks are something new that I tried this year. The idea behind a Movie Talk is to tell a story using a short clip to deliver comprehensible input. I learned about Movie Talks from Blaine Ray at the 2016 ACTFL conference. Dr. Ashley Hastings developed the strategy to use in ESL classrooms and Michelle Whaley is credited for developing Movie Talks for second language comprehensible input (CI) driven classrooms. Here are a few pieces of advice from my experience doing Movie Talks this year:

1. Make sure your clip is short, and try to choose one that has a surprise ending. I made the mistake of showing a great Mr. Bean video this year that was almost nine minutes long. My students were very, very sick of Mr. Bean by the time we got to the end.

2. Plan on showing segments of the video multiple times but don’t give away the ending until the end. I usually spend about 15 minutes per class doing Movie Talks and try to spend at the most 4 days of class doing activities related to the video. A typical Movie Talk for me goes something like this:

Day One: Tell the first section of the Movie Talk in story form with questions to ensure comprehension. Sometimes I show a slideshow with stills while I’m telling the story, but sometimes I just draw as I’m speaking.

Day Two: Do a class reading that both summarizes the first part of the Movie Talk discussed the previous day and also includes a little more information from the video.

Day Three: Watch the video in class in its entirety.

Day Four: Review the video, usually in the form of a game (Keith Toda has a great list of games to play, such as this one and this one) and/or assess students on it with a short quiz or timed writing.

3. Try not to show videos that your students may have already seen. Pixar is well-known for their shorts at he beginning of their films, and they are perfect for Movie Talks. Many videos that go “viral” also make good Movie Talk fodder. The problem is that so many of our students have already seen them, which can affect engagement and may spoil the ending. But since video production is a passion of many talented artists these days, finding suitable, more obscure videos to show is not that difficult. On the iFLT/NTPRS/ CI Teaching Facebook page someone posted a link to a Movie Talk database, which is where I usually start when I’m looking to do a Movie Talk, but you may just want to search YouTube or Vimeo and see what you find.

If you are interested in trying a Movie Talk, you may want to start by purchasing the “Look I Can Movie Talk” resource from TPRS Publishing. It comes in either Spanish (downloadable or on CD-ROM) or French (CD-Rom). The introduction of both versions gives step-by-step instructions on how to do a Movie Talk in class. Then the authors chose ten videos and created resources such as readings, puzzles, and comprehension questions for each video that teachers can copy and use in their classrooms. Unfortunately, this resource is not available in other languages, so if you don’t teach Spanish or French, you may want to start by reading more about Movie Talks from other blogs, such as this one and this one, or watch some demos of Movie Talks done by other teachers such as this one or this one. And then once you feel relatively comfortable with the mechanics of the process, just go for it! And if you are unhappy with your results at first, you will see better results as you get more comfortable with the process. And besides, poorly executed CI is still better than traditional instruction any day!


But What About Grammar?

This year I am teaching Spanish 3 for the first time. During the summer of 2016 I brought home the textbook for some preliminary planning. What I quickly found was that I absolutely hated the vocabulary introduced in the book. It was pretty impractical and, in some cases, downright ridiculous (Who really needs to know how to say “to foment,” even if it is a cognate?). I explained my feelings about the vocabulary to my department head, who agreed with me that my students should be learning other, more practical and timely words and expressions. After I promised to generate a list of vocabulary words that I taught in class for next year’s Spanish 4 teacher (but I recently found out that I will be next year’s Spanish 4 teacher, so I don’t have to do it), she gave me permission to use any vocabulary that I deemed appropriate or important for my students if I made sure to cover all grammar topics. “As long as you teach the grammar, I don’t care what kind of vocabulary you teach,” my department head said.

For many traditional teachers (of which my department head is one), teaching grammar is essential. It is seen as being the essential building blocks of the language. And while that is true, after over twenty years of teaching I have found that, if the goal is for students to acquire language, my students have benefited very little from explicit grammar instruction (except maybe for those freaky geniuses who are going to grow up to be second language teachers). Personally, I would rather spend my limited classroom time providing my students with comprehensible input (CI) than teaching them grammar rules (most of which my students tend to forget once they’ve taken their final assessment on that grammar rule). But since my boss told me that I had to teach the grammar, that is what I will do.

And yet, she didn’t tell me how to teach the grammar. And since I would rather spend my time delivering CI, I have been using a variety of techniques to make sure that students are getting grammar instruction in the most painless and least time-consuming way possible. Below are some techniques I have been using this year, often in combination.

1. The “flipped” classroom model. The idea behind this model is to have students teach themselves a certain grammar topic at home and then come to class prepared to use what they have learned in a variety of activities. I use this model often with verb paradigms. For example, in my French 2 curriculum each lesson has at least one new irregular verb conjugation that my students need to learn (I like to joke that we should rename the course “Verbs Are Us”). Often their homework is to review the conjugation at home and do some preliminary work with it, like writing original sentences or doing an exercise or two from the textbook using the new verb (but -and this is very important- only if students need to negotiate MEANING in those exercises). Then they come to class and we do a quick review of the new verb and any exercises students did for homework. This usually takes no more than 15 minutes of class time (but often much less). Then we move on to either communicative activities using the new verb or a reading containing multiple examples of the new verb in different contexts (By the way, I never give an assessment whose main goal is to have students produce memorized verb forms, but that’s a conversation for another time).

2. Pop-up Grammar. I first learned about this from Blaine Ray at a TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through reading and Storytelling) workshop. The idea is to teach grammar as needed when it pops up in context. For example, my French 1 class learned about gender of nouns because I had to explain to them why French has two words for a/an: “un” garçon (a boy) and “une” fille (a girl) after they saw those words in a story. And in my Spanish 1 class, students learned that any verb that describes what two people do always ends in the letter -n and any verb that describes was we do ends in -mos. These are concepts I taught when they came up in context in class.

3. See first, form later. I am sure that I am not the first person to follow this model, but I bet I am the first person to call it the “See First, Form Later” approach! When employing this method, my students see a certain form in written context multiple times. Finally, after seeing the form in different settings for weeks on end, students are presented with the “official” lesson (most likely in a flipped format), which students find relatively easy to understand and remember if they have been regularly paying attention in class throughout the year. For example, I always write a “Plan de la Clase” in my Spanish 3 class so students know what we will be doing that day. Since our first day of class in August I have been writing out our plan using verbs in simple future tense. In addition, since the beginning of the year my students have seen verbs in future in videos and readings (Thanks, Señor Wooly!) and in input processing activities (more on that in another blog post). When I finally presented the future tense formally in February my students had practically no problems with it since they had been exposed to it for so long. (By the way, this is not the only structure that I have been introducing this way. In Spanish 3 alone this is also how I exposed my students to both present and imperfect subjunctive, double object pronouns, por and para and more).

4. Skip it. Yes, you read that correctly. It is absolutely, positively a waste of time for any teacher to treat a concept as a grammar rule if it its fundamental structure is different from what we do in English, because students’ will inevitably revert to using English language structure when they try to create original speech. In both French and Spanish you find soooo many examples of structures that are fundamentally different from English, such as placement of direct and indirect objects, personal in Spanish, using a definite article to talk about likes, dislikes, and before days of the week, forming sentences with verbs like gustar/plaire, expressions with avoir/tener, indefinite articles in negative sentences in French, and many more. I treat those concepts as lexical items that my students will only internalize through multiple repetitions.

Those of us who were taught to teach our target language through explicit means may have trouble letting grammar take a back seat in our language classes, especially if that’s how we learned the language, but pretty much all the second language acquisition (SLA) research out there tells us that we can find a better way to help our students acquire language than by using traditional grammar instruction. After all, when is the last time you have been in one of your target language’s countries and someone has asked you to conjugate a verb on demand?


Interested in Making the Switch to Teaching with CI? Here’s How to Begin

Are you a teacher who is interested in teaching with comprehensible input (CI) but are unsure where to start? You’ve come to the right place. Here are my suggestions, in no particular order, of the best ways to begin your own CI journey.

1. Find a CI conference or workshop. If at all possible, start with a TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling) workshop. Blaine Ray and friends from TPRS publishing travel throughout North America every year offering  2 or 3-day training workshops. Chances are you can find one near you. At these workshops you can expect to receive an overview of second language acquisition (SLA) research on comprehensible input (CI), training on how to implement TPRS techniques in your classroom, and an opportunity to practice TPRS techniques yourself. Your presenter will demonstrate TPRS strategies by teaching workshop attendees an unknown language, so you’ll walk out of the conference knowing a small amount of German or Russian or Chinese. You’ll also receive a book of TPRS stories that you can use in your classroom and will have the opportunity to purchase novels for your students or even the TPRS Green Bible, which is a great resource for teachers looking to learn more about TPRS.

If you can’t find a TPRS conference, look for any conference in your area that has “CI” in its title. Many state language conferences may also have workshops showcasing CI topics, and so will the annual ACTFL conference. And if you plan to travel this summer, maybe you can choose your vacation destination based on whether or nor it is near a CI conference. You can visit one of my previous posts if you’d like to know about conferences for summer 2017.

2. Can’t afford a conference or workshop? Invest in books about TPRS/CI. Find some print resources that you can use to teach yourself. I’ve already mentioned the Green Bible, which is a great place to start. I also recommend Ben Slavic’s Big CI Book, which is available through Teacher’s Discovery, James Lee and Bill Van Patten’s book Making Communicative Language Teaching Happpen, and Terry Waltz’s book TPRS with Chinese Characteristics (even if you aren’t a Chinese teacher).

3. Need to see CI teaching in action? Explore YouTube where you can watch some of the “experts” give lessons. Just type “TPRS” into the YouTube search bar and you will find tons of examples of teachers using TPRS/CI to teach language. After a while you’ll start recognizing names of teachers who uploaded those videos and you can look for their names elsewhere. Which brings me to #4:

4. Read some TPRS/CI blogs. You can look for blogs written by teachers that have videos on YouTube or you can follow the links on the right hand side of my blog to some of the blogs that I refer to regularly. Blogs posted by others are a gold mine of ideas for your classroom. Some may have lesson plans or insight about a new technique to try. When I’m out of ideas for lessons these blogs are the first place I look.

5. Find a community. Some people wishing to start teaching with CI may be lucky enough to teach in departments with other CI teachers who can mentor and guide them as they make their journey. Others may find themselves being the only language teacher in the department embracing such methods. If you find that you are alone in your journey it is essential that you find your community somewhere. Conferences are a great place to meet experienced CI teachers, and I have yet to meet one who isn’t willing to help out a novice CI teacher. If going to a conference isn’t in your budget, the easiest and probably most rewarding way to connect and network is by joining a TPRS/CI community on Facebook. Currently I belong to five, and the support and advice I have gotten there has been so valuable to me and that fuels me to keep traveling on this CI journey.

6. Tune into Tea with BVP. Bill Van Patten is one of the leading SLA experts today. During the university academic year he broadcasts a podcast called Tea with BVP every Thursday at 3:00 EST. It is a call-in radio show discussing important and timely topics related to SLA research and practices. The podcast also has a web page with links to resources that is very helpful.

In closing, if you are a new teacher interested in making the switch to CI, don’t hesitate to ask me for anything. I can’t promise that I will know the answer to every question you have, but I can promise that I will help you find someone who will. And I promise that while your CI journey may not be painless, once you see the way your students respond to it you will be hooked!

The Staying Power of Comprehensible Input

Today I was walking down the hall at school with a cup of coffee in my hand (my third of the day and it was not yet noon. It had been a late night). One of my former students of French walked by and said, in near perfect French: 

“Bonjour Madame ! Oh, j’adore le cafe ! Je suis triste parce que je n’ai pas de cafe. Tu as de la chance !” (Hi Madame ! Oh, I love coffee! I’m sad because I don’t have coffee. You are lucky!)

Now this particular student is not taking French this year. He took it last year with another teacher who teaches explicitly and had me for two years in classes where I taught with comprehensible input (CI). These sentences in French that he shared with me are pretty simple, but they still impressed me greatly. Here’s why:

1. He remembered that in French one has to use an article when talking about things we hate, love, like, or prefer, even though  in English the article is omitted.

2. He remembered that indefinite articles become de in a negative sentence.

3. He remembered that being lucky in French is an idiomatic expression where we say that one has luck.

Now to be precise, he should have addressed me formally with vous instead of tu but that is a pretty common mistake with all my students. As they would say, “No big.” I was absolutely floored by his spontaneous speech and how correct it was, and since I know that he did very little speaking in his French class with the traditional teacher last year, I am going to take most of, if not all of, the credit for his language production. I believe that the reason this student was able to produce those sentences is because they were lodged in his long-term memory after two years of stories in my class where we talked about people who loved certain things but were sad because they did not have them. Moreover, I do not believe for a second that this student was consciously thinking about those three rules of grammar when he spoke to me in the hallway. His language was 100% spontaneous.

At a TPRS workshop I attended, Blaine Ray referenced research saying that the average language student needs to hear things in the target language anywhere between 50-70 times before s/he can add it to his or her mental representation of language. It’s all about the reps, or repetitions. The goal of those of us who teach with CI is to repeat high frequency words and expressions as many times as possible, which greatly increases the likelihood that students wil be able to retain them. In this case, I was especially impressed that his student was able to come up with these sentences after not being in a French classroom since last June, and not in a CI classroom for almost two years. That language is still there and the student can access it!

It’s times like this that I am just floored by the power of CI. CI helps students acquire and retain language more efficiently than any other approach out there. In short, it works! 

Using the Textbook as a Doorstop

When parents come to hear about my class at Open House in September, one of the things I always tell them is not to be too concerned if their precious child doesn’t bring their second language textbook home too often. “In my class, the textbook is more of a guide book than a road map,” I tell them. What that means is that I use the textbook sparingly, and usually only if I can use it as a way to create comprehensible input in the classroom. The rest of the time when I am not using the textbook I am doing comprehensible input (CI) activities such as free voluntary reading, movie talks, and class stories.

The reason why I shy away from using the textbook is because practically every one I’ve ever used in the twenty-two years I’ve been teaching has been designed to teach language explicitly instead of helping students acquire language implicitly. A typical chapter will have introductory vocabulary, often  presented with a video and/or audio component, followed by activities to reinforce those words. Then grammatical concepts are presented with activities to reinforce them, and then the chapter ends with readings using the grammar concepts and vocabulary presented in the chapter. A cultural topic is usually introduced as well, usually revolving around a certain country where the target language is spoken (at least, that’s how it is for Spanish textbooks. For French textbooks, it’s almost always all France or Quebec until third year).

All textbooks come with ancillary activities in a workbook, but usually the majority of exercises in the book do not focus on meaning. Students can complete many of those activities without having to understand the sentences’ message. Moreover, many of the workbook exercises do not require students to do any original work, which means it is easy for students to complete workbook exercises dishonestly.

Then at the end of the chapter students take a test on material in the chapter. Most of the time, students just need to memorize words and grammar rules for the test. On tests, students are tested on their explicit knowledge, showing that they can name objects pictured on the page or conjugate verbs to complete a sentence. But then once the test is over, most students will forget at least 75% of what they were tested on.

When I taught with a textbook, I was continuously unhappy with it. Sometimes the stuff that I was supposed to teach was really, really boring. It was also really frustrating to teach a grammar rule, have the kids practice it, have them all take a test where they applied the rule correctly, but then completely forget that rule a week later. Now that I know more about second language acquisition (SLA), it is obvious to me why that would happen (according to SLA theory, explicit information never becomes implicit knowledge), but at the time I was very frustrated and blamed it on my students’ lack of effort.

Since I’ve ditched the textbook and have started teaching with CI, most of my frustrations have disappeared. It is nice to be able to teach vocabulary that is not grouped by theme. It is also good to let grammar instruction take a back seat to the message I am trying to convey and to let students acquire language more naturally. It has done wonders for my morale and I think my students are happier too as a result.

Observations from my School Year So Far

As I have mentioned in previous posts, after I attended the ACTFL conference this past November I abandoned most traditional second language teaching methods and have spent most of the last four months teaching using comprehensible input (CI) (prior to this I did some CI activities here and there but I usually abandoned them and went back to traditional methods, mainly due to lack of training). Here are my thoughts on what I have noticed so far.

1. The overwhelmingly majority of my students report having an easier time reading in the second language than they did at the beginning of the year. While this is partially due to the many stories that we read together in class, the main reason why I think they feel that it is easier to read in the target language now is because we do independent reading. Every Monday students read a book in their target language for about 10-15 minutes. I also read with them during this time to set a positive example. I do not obligate students to keep a log, I do not force them to read, and they do not have to write a report or take a test on what they read (although I am thinking of having them do a final project or presentation on their favorite book that they have read this year just for fun as an end-of-the-year wrap up activity). We are at the point now where we have been doing so much reading that students are recommending books to each other, but unfortunately we are also at the point where students are running out of books to read, especially in French, which has fewer books to choose than Spanish.

2. Grammar topics that once were troublesome are not anymore now that I use CI. In my French 2 classes, students historically have had trouble with the passé composé when I taught it traditionally. This year I taught it using CI methods and I have been very pleased with the results. I started with readings written in the past to get students used to seeing the structure. Then we completed tasks based in the passé composé, did movie talks in the past, and played Mafia (if you are not familiar with Mafia, visit the blog written by Martina Bex and learn how to play it. My students love it and they hear lots of verbs in the past). I have also noticed that my students of Spanish are also starting to pick up some tricky things as well, like the personal a. And while I have never formally taught the formation of passive voice using se, my students have seen it so many times that they just figured it out on their own. The end result has been that my students feel very comfortable expressing themselves, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

3. My first-year French students are comfortable enough in class and have been exposed to enough language that they have started to speak it just for fun. The technical term for this is “spontaneous output,” and I love it. We start every day with a chat about the date, weather, or any other activity I feel the need to discuss, and as time goes on, more and more students have started to produce some simple French. Usually they are insulting each other, but it’s all in good fun. One student has declared himself the class emperor, and came into class the other day proclaiming, “Je suis (I am) Emperor Louis Philippe! Je suis emperor de la classe! L’état, c’est moi (This is the only 15 year old boy I know who is obsessed with the musical Camelot)!” So of course now we have all started calling him “Votre Majesté” and will be creating a story about him very soon.

4. Due to the amount of writing my students have been doing, they can write more, write faster, and write more accurately. All my classes do timed writings where they have to write as much as possible in five minutes. They also write stories in groups as an introduction to new words. As time goes on, I am finding that my students are making incredible advances in their writing. Students who could barely give me 50 words in September are easily writing over 100 in five minutes. In addition, the group story writing has been taking up less and less class time and the writing has gotten more and more accurate as time goes by.

5. As the year has progressed, students have an easier time understanding me when I speak in the target language. I know that, according to what ACTFL says, the ultimate language class  goal is to spend 90% of class in the target language, but I have not been able to do that. Nevertheless, I spend so much more time speaking in the target language than I did when I taught traditionally (mainly due to the fact that I don’t have to explain grammar extensively) and the students understand me more and more as time goes on. 

I am looking forward to the end of the year to see what kind of growth I see in June, but for now I have seen enough to be convinced that teaching with comprehensible input is the way to acquire a new language, and I’m not planning on going back to my old traditional ways ever! I hope to be able to spread the word about how drastically teaching using CI has affected my teaching and the acquisition of my students.

Yes, You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

My yoga friend Jen asked my opinion about whether or not she could learn to speak  Spanish. She had gone to Costa Rica the previous summer and felt very embarrassed that she could not communicate even at the most basic level. “I’m too stupid to learn Spanish, right?”

I absolutely hate when people say that they aren’t smart enough to learn a second language. As I have mentioned previously, we all acquired our first language, so it stands to reason that we should be able to acquire a second, or even a third or a fourth for that matter. Where does this belief that you have to be a genius to acquire a second language come from? I think part of it may be a side effect of being stuck in a traditional, grammar-driven classroom as a high school student. In this atmosphere teachers can (perhaps unintentionally) make language instruction very difficult, especially if they demand perfection from their students in all areas. In addition, since so many students leave a second language class unable to speak that language, they come to the conclusion that the language is too difficult for them to learn and blame it on their presumed lack of intellect (if they don’t blame the teacher, that is).

In Jen’s case, another reason why she feels too stupid to learn Spanish is because she has been studying with Duolingo and has been unable to answer any of the grammar questions on it correctly, which means that she is unable to move up to the next level. Now, I can only report on what Jen showed me and have never used Duolingo myself, but from what I saw, it appeared that the app was asking her to make grammatical connections without providing any grammar instruction. In this case, the app was asking her to type “We write” in Spanish but had not provided any lessons about -ir verb conjugations. This made her very frustrated and reinforced the idea that she wasn’t intelligent enough to learn how to speak Spanish (by the way, I absolutely don’t believe that mastering these conjugations will help her acquire Spanish, and I told Jen as such).

Once I had reassured Jen that her difficulties in acquiring Spanish were not because of her lack of intellect, she then asked, “Okay, I may not be too stupid, but I’m probably too old to learn Spanish.” This is a common myth shared by many, and was something that I believed myself until I went to a talk given by Stephen Krashen at ACTFL last November. What I learned there and what I shared with Jen is that research (like this paper and this one too) shows that adults and teens actually acquire language faster than children because they have knowledge of learning strategies that children do not have that help them acquire language more easily. The one exception to this is in pronunciation. Many of us are familiar with families where the children speak a language with no accent while the parents have accented language, and it may be possible that this leads people to assume that children acquire language faster in all areas.

So now that Jen’s mind is at ease and I have reassured her that she is not too stupid or too old to learn Spanish, she is much more at ease. She is going to continue to use Duolingo but knows that she can contact me if she needs help with the (totally useless) grammar questions. Additionally, I convinced her to purchase two elementary Spanish readers and their audio versions that she can read and listen to on her own to help her acquire language. I am hoping that her success at reading these books will give her the confidence she needs to convince her that, with the right method, anyone can start acquiring a second language. In other words, it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks!