Authentic Resources

World languages conferences are traditionally held in the fall, which is why October has been a very busy month for me. Three weeks ago I helped organize and also presented at a small local conference, and a few days ago I attended a larger conference nearby. At both conferences, authentic resources were a popular topic of discussion.

I must confess that I have never been a fan of using authentic resources in my language classes, mainly because I felt that most of them were too complex for my novice students to understand and appreciate. In addition, I felt that most of the language in authentic resources was not very practical, and it was more important that students be exposed to more high-frequency words. But somehow I found myself assigned the task of giving a presentation about authentic resources at my local conference, and I have slightly changed my tune.

The reasons for this change are varied. First of all, due to the advent of the Internet, it is super easy to find many different, appropriate types of authentic resources, ranging from infographics, commercials, and recipes to music videos, short stories, and full length television shows and movies. Many Spanish teachers have written extensively about using Spanish television shows like Gran Hotel or El Internado, and many French teachers enjoy adding lessons based on music videos to their class.

Second, authentic resources are a great way to learn about the culture of the language we teach. Even though I have taught Spanish for years, I didn’t learn about el Ratoncito Pérez (the equivalent to the tooth fairy in Spain) until I watched a TV show where two little girls talked about losing teeth. In addition, it was through the same TV show that I realized that even though “Felicidades” and “Enhorabuena” both translate to “Congratulations” in English, they  aren’t generally used for the same occasions (Traditionally, “Enhorabuena” is for something that only happens once or twice in a lifetime, like a wedding, job promotion, or graduation, and “Felicidades” is for things that happen more often, like a birthday or a good grade on something).

Finally, the third reason I have changed my mind about authentic resources is that I came to the realization that students don’t have to understand every single word of the resource in order to have a meaningful experience with it. In addition, I can use the authentic resources to introduce and reinforce some high frequency vocabulary. Here are the steps I take when I decide to use an authentic resource.

Step 1: I choose an authentic resource that I want to use. I usually choose an authentic resource because it relates to a topic I am talking about in class. So I may find an infographic about eating habits during conversations about food or a commercial about Christmas when I talk about holidays.

Step 2: I ensure that the authentic resource is appropriate for my students. I make sure the language is not too complex and that the resource is both age and culturally appropriate.

Step 3: I determine my main goal for using the authentic resource. As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I used to shy away from using authentic resources was because I thought my students had to understand every word of the resource in order for it to be valuable. I have since realized that students understanding every single word doesn’t have to be the main goal. For example, when I used the Jean de la Fontaine fable “Le Corbeau et le Renard,” my main goal was to use it as a medium to teach some descriptive adjectives and other high frequency words. As far as the fable itself, I wanted students to only be familiar with the general plot and moral of the story.

Step 4: I pick out the necessary structures and/or cultural references my students need to understand the authentic resources. For example, for this Tapsin commerical, I make sure students know about the history of the Ekeko and use it to teach some vocabulary that has to do with being sick (thanks to Kara Jacobs for showing me this commercial in the first place).

Step 5: I preteach those necessary structures and/or cultural references. I always preteach these concepts through context and not as isolated words, because students are more likely to remember the concepts in a context than in isolation. I use Total Physical Response, Movie Talks, and other techniques that are designed to deliver a lot of comprehensible input (CI).

Step 6: I introduce the authentic resource. After preteaching structures in context for this McDonald’s commercial in Spanish (including the use of this infographic about levying taxes on soft drinks in Mexico), I was ready to show students the commercial itself and talk about it.

Step 7 (Optional): Assess or do a final wrap-up activity. I stay away from traditional vocabulary tests, but I might ask students to retell the main idea of the fable/video/story that we just talked about or ask students to create something original with the new structures we used.

The beauty of breaking down the authentic resource step by step is that I have a flexible process that I can follow. Depending on the size and complexity of the resource, each step I take care be very short and quick for a resource like an infographic or an advertisement or take a while for something longer like a video clip or a song. Give it a try!

Special Person Interviews

I have written before about Special Person Interviews (I have mentioned this activity here and also here. Resources for Special Person Interviews can be found here and here.). I love this activity because it puts the spotlight on the students and is because it is so versatile. I plan to incorporate this activity in my first-year class this year.

Here is the procedure I followed last year;

  1. Students filled out a questionnaire about themselves either in class or at home.
  2. One by one, students came to the front of the room and answered the questions on their questionnaire using either the questionnaire or a projected PowerPoint as support. While the student was speaking, a class artist drew a picture representing what the student being interviewed said.
  3. The following day in class, the artist shared the drawing. This was The Big Reveal. I then used this drawing as a way to review what we learned about the student the day before.
  4. After four interviews, I compiled a sheet of sentences about the four interviewed students (such as “This person has two dogs,” or “This person celebrates her birthday in May”) and had students fill in the name of the student being described. Students then took the paper home to study.
  5. I gave a quiz where students had to write five sentences about each student with facts they had learned during the interview (I graded the quiz on content only and took points off for accuracy only if I couldn’t understand the sentence).

This year I have changed my procedure slightly.

  1. I will still give students a questionnaire to fill out about themselves, but it is not as long as the form I used last year (This year’s form is single-sided, where last year’s form was double-sided. The interviews were just getting too long to keep students’ attention.).
  2. Students are still going to come up to the front of the room for their interviews and I will continue to employ a class artist to draw. But I also will have a note taker, who will have to fill in a sheet about the student being interviewed. I am also going to have a data collector, who will be responsible for keeping track of information such as how many students have birthdays in what month, how many students are from out-of-state, and other information on a tally sheet.
  3. Students will take a quick true/false quiz once the interview is over (I didn’t do this last year and I think students tuned out as a result).
  4. The following day, students will read a paragraph about the special person that I will write using information provided by the note taker (Thanks to my friend Rachel for the idea to do this). I will have students read the paragraph with me and then the artist will share the drawing.

Since I have shortened the interview this year, I can reserve the more complicated questions for next year in case I want to do this activity again. I’m not sure if I will, however, because it may not be as compelling the second time as I am hoping it will be the first time. I’ll just have to wait and see. And finally, let me give a shout-out to the original creator of Special Person Interviews, Bryce Hedstrom. This is such an awesome activity! Thanks for everything, Bryce!

Beginning of the Year Reflections

I’ve been back to school for about three weeks now, teaching French and Spanish at the middle school level. Here are some of my reflections so far.

1. Concentrating on classroom management at first was definitely the right thing to do. As I mentioned in a previous post, I decided that getting control of student behavior and establishing routines at the beginning of the school year would be my main goal, which I have done by assigning class jobs and using a classroom management system that is a combination of what Annabelle Allen and Ben Slavic do in their classes.

Implementing class jobs has proven to be a great way to streamline activity in my classroom. My fifth grade class is very well trained, and most students do their job without needing to be prompted. My seventh and eighth grade classes still need reminders, but they are coming along. I have assigned a few jobs and will continue to appoint more helpers in class as the year goes on. As of right now, I have people who keep my water bottle full, people who pass things out, people who collect things, and question word keepers (these are the people who call out an English translation when I say a question word in French or Spanish). Soon I will add absent student helper, who will be responsible for compiling a report of class activity when a student is absent, class artists, and class note taker. As I have mentioned previously, having student jobs generates a feeling of community and keeps wiggly kids busy. If you are interested in adding student jobs to your class, I recommend you visit either Bryce Hedstrom’s blog or purchase Ben Slavic’s Big CI Book for more information and ideas.

I have been keeping a handle on classroom behavior in two ways. First of all, I am keeping score each class. I reward points to students for doing great things and give points to myself for rule infractions. At the end of class, I record who “won” by keeping a running tally. My classes know that they will get a reward like a party or game day when they have amassed a total of ten points. For my younger students, this has proven to be enough incentive to get the class to behave.

My seventh and eighth graders, however, are too cool for school and need more than just the possibility of a reward to get them to behave. So while I still have a party points system like I have with my younger students, I also hold them accountable for their behavior through the use of the Interpersonal Communication Skills rubric, which is available in Ben Slavic and Tina Hargarden’s book, A Natural Approach to the Year.

I periodically ask students to fill out a rubric in which they self-assess their class engagement. I review each student’s rubric and, if necessary, I adjust the score and explain why. I then notify the parent or guardian of any student who scores a C or lower on the rubric and offer suggestions about what the student can do to improve their grade next time. I plan to have students fill out this rubric four times during the semester and will be entered in my grade book as a summative assessment. And while we’re speaking of grades…

2. After a bit of a struggle, I have finally established a grading system. Lance Piantaggini presented about his grading system at the National TPRS conference this summer. You can read about his system here. Students in Lance’s class are graded solely on their classroom engagement, which they self-assess. In my classes, the students’ quarter grade is based on 60% student engagement, which is based on scores on the Interpersonal Communication Skills rubric, and 40% traditional measures like classwork, homework, timed writings, and quick quizzes.

3. I have established an easy and flexible first-year curriculum. This summer, I read an online post that Mike Peto wrote about curriculum and explored some of the curriculum documents that Lance Piantaggini has on his website. These two resources helped me set up a framework for the curriculum in my own class.

Both Mike and Lance talk about building a curriculum based on high-frequency verbs, and I have followed their lead by doing the same in my classes. In my first-year French class, I am starting off the year by focusing on est (is), (has), va (goes), and aime (likes). While at first I will concentrate on third person singular forms, over time I will start to include other conjugations. All the activities I do are designed to reinforce those four verbs, which naturally lend themselves to include common, thematic vocabulary for a first-year classroom such as words to describe family, food, school, descriptive adjectives, and common leisure activities when used in conversation. As the year progresses, I will then add other high-frequency verbs like veut (wants), peut (can) and doit (must). These verbs are also very practical for culture study as well and will be used to talk about topics such as the French-speaking world and school in France.

4. I have established some professional development goals for myself. I truly believe that we as language educators need to continue to develop our skills and grow as teachers in order to be effective in our classrooms. So here are some goals I have set for myself this year.

This year I plan to:

  • continue to read about teaching with comprehensible input (CI) and new CI teaching approaches,
  • start regularly doing Storyasking in class again,
  • attempt to do a lesson based on a One Word Image (OWI),
  • record myself teaching so I can review it and improve my instruction and so I can share it with others.

I hope you are all having a good start to your school year. What goals do you have this year?

Starting Off the Year with Comprehensible Input

It’s August, so many teachers who would like to begin teaching with a comprehensible input (CI) approach have started posting in CI Facebook groups asking about how they should start off the year. That’s a pretty daunting question, because many of them (like me back in the day) are used to having a textbook. As textbook teachers, most of us used to start the year by doing what was on page 1 of our textbook and then just taught whatever came next in the book as the year progressed. But once teachers start teaching with CI, we abandon the textbook, which may leave many of us floundering over what to plan for our classes. So for what it’s worth, I’m going to tell you in this post how I plan to start off my year in my middle school Spanish French, and ESL classes. If you teach another language or another level, don’t stop reading just yet, because nothing I do is language or level specific. I did the same thing when I taught high school, and I have seen other teachers use similar approaches in Mandarin, Russian, and German classes.

At the beginning of the year, the first thing all teachers should do in any discipline is set expectations. I have spent the summer reading a lot of books about education. Every one of them, from Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School, which applies to all levels and all disciplines, to Ben Slavic and Tina Hargarden’s CI language instruction specific A Natural Approach to the Year, agrees that the teacher’s most important job at the beginning of the school year is to establish behavior guidelines and class routines. In other words, you need to train your kids to act in such a way that it creates an atmosphere where you can easily provide them with the input they need to acquire language.

While I do have actual content that I would like to teach in class at the beginning of the year, completing the lessons I have planned is secondary to getting my students to meet these two goals. Without effective control of the classroom, your troublemakers will begin to take over. They will not acquire language because they will be too busy causing disruptions in the class, and the rest of your class will not acquire as much language as they should because they will have heightened negative emotions like frustration and anxiety caused by the classroom disruptions.

If you are interested in reading more about classroom management, read this post, where I summarize three classroom management systems that other CI teachers have spoken and written about and this post, where I talk about other facets of classroom management. You may also want to read this post by Cécile Lainé, who had some classroom management issues with one of her French classes last year and talks about how she adressed them. And finally, you might want to read this post by Bryce Hedstrom, a retired Spanish teacher, who writes about how negative behaviors impede language acquisition and what behaviors he absolutely never allowed in his classrooms.

Helping students adapt to class routine goes hand and hand with managing student behavior. Each classroom is different and has its  own set of routines, but mine involve how students should enter the classroom (with a password, which I describe below), what students should do when they enter the classroom (some of my students have jobs that they must do when they get to class, such as returning corrected papers or writing our class agenda on the board), and what activities they should expect that we will begin class with. I try to have a different activity every day, and over time students can come to expect that we will start class with a certain type of activity for each specific day. For example, on Mondays, I start class with Free Voluntary Reading (Called Leamos los Lunes in Spanish class and Le Lundi On Lit in French class) and on Friday I show a short video (Video Viernes or Vidéo Vendredi). Magister P. takes routines one step further with this two-week routine.

Capture

Other teachers prefer to start class with the same activity every day.  Here is a post by Chris Stolz about what his daily, opening activity is in his Spanish classes. I don’t think having the same or different daily routines is really all that important. All that is important is that the routine is in place. It is comforting to some students to know what to expect when class begins, and if students know what is expected, teachers will be able to spend less time directing students to get to work.

Besides getting classroom management and routines under control, the other goal of the beginning of the year is to begin to establish community. Whatever activities I do in class have the same purpose, which is to help me get to know my students, help them get to know me, and establish a relationship between us. I have three activities that I use to do this, which are Password, Card Talk, and Special Person Interviews. Card Talk is a Ben Slavic activity that used to be called Circling with Balls. He and Tina Hargarden suggest using this activity to start the year in their book A Natural Approach to the Year as well. Password and Special Person Interviews are two activities originated by Bryce Hedstrom.

The Password activity involves the teacher meeting students at the door and engaging with each of them before they enter the classroom. Each student must say a special word or phrase in the target language (TL), which is the password, to enter the room. I post my password outside my front door for student reference and make sure to maintain eye contact and smile during each exchange (I know of male teachers who also require students to shake the teacher’s hand along with saying the password, but I don’t do that because it doesn’t feel natural for me). Last year when I started doing passwords I had my students say a phrase in French before they entered the room, such as “Je n’ai pas de crayon (I don’t have a pencil)” but I didn’t use the password in any activity that we did during class. I think this was a mistake because very few of my students retained the password for very long once we switched to a new password. I will be sure to include our passwords in other class activities to increase the likelihood that students will retain them. If you would like to learn more about Passwords, Bryce has this book available for Spanish teachers that is sale through Teacher’s Discovery or on his website.

What I like about using passwords is that it gives me the chance to connect with each student individually. I have some students who are very shy. Sometimes our password exchange is the only chance I get to talk to them and hear them talk to me. It is my hope that this quick conversation with me will give them the confidence to start speaking in class.

Once students have entered the classroom by saying the password, we will move on to greetings, take care of school business, and move on to Card Talk. To do Card Talk, students draw a picture or pictures on a card that the teacher can then use to ask questions. So, for example, if students are asked to draw something they like to play and any pets they have at home, the teacher can then use that to ask questions about what a student likes (or doesn’t like) to play and what pets s/he has (or doesn’t have) at home. I usually start with Yes-No questions and then progress to Either-Or questions before I move on to questions with an interrogative (You can read this post for more information about questioning in a CI class). This activity takes practically no time to prepare and can be done for multiple classes. I have been known to do Card Talk every day for the first month of school for about five to ten minutes or so (And you don’t have to only do Card Talk at the beginning of the year. Lance Piantaggini writes in this post that Card Talk is also a good activity to do after a vacation as a warm-up to reinforce class routines). If you would like more information about Card Talk or want to see it in action, Ben Slavic has a lot of information about it on his website.

Last year I did Card Talk on and off for about three weeks, but there is no set amount of time that you should do it. If it’s still interesting, keep doing it. If it gets boring, stop and do something else. This year when Card Talk gets boring I plan to ask students to write sentences together with me on a PowerPoint about our class, one student per slide. Then I will let each student choose a picture for his or her slide and print the whole thing out and make a class book. This is a nice extension of Card Talk that helps students make connections between the written and spoken language (BTW, if you teach a language with a different alphabet like Russian or Greek or a language with characters like Mandarin to students whose first language uses a Roman alphabet, I don’t see anything wrong with using the Roman alphabet initially for this activity, because you can then go back and rewrite it with your language’s alphabet or characters later on once you teach them).

Another great activity that can help teachers get to know their students is the Special Person Interview. It involves asking a student a series of questions about him or herself in front of the class. You can read more about it in this post. This activity is similar to Card Talk because it involves learning personal information about students, but the difference is that, unlike Card Talk, you ask only one student questions about him or herself. If you are a Spanish teacher, you can see questionnaire that I used for my Special Person Interviews with my third-year students on my Spanish Resources page. The questionnaire I used with my first-year French students can be found on my French Resources page.

What I like about Special Person Interviews is that it gives each student some positive, personal attention. For some students, this may be the only positive attention they get all day. This activity also helps both the class and me learn new information about each student. I especially like it when students who have known each other since kindergarten learn knew things about their friends.

Last year I did Card Talk in class for a few weeks, where I asked questions about something students liked to play and what pets they had. Then I did this Movie Talk as a change of pace before I started my Special Person Interviews. Since the class and I had spent so much time talking about our pets, doing a Movie Talk about someone else’s pet was a good way to use familiar vocabulary in a new way. The reason why I didn’t want to go right into Special Person Interviews after Card Talk is because I was afraid that these two activities were too similar to do back to back and felt that students would benefit from doing something completely different.

In conclusion, I already have a plan for my first two months or so of class, which is to start each day with a specific warm-up activity for each day of the week to establish class routines and then continue with Card Talk, which I will use as a vehicle to set my behavior expectations. When I feel that students are ready to move on, I will do the Movie Talk I talked about above and then move on to Special Person Interviews. And then what? With any luck, they will be ready to read their first novel. I’ll let you know!

An Eye-Opening Conversation

Recently I had an amazing conversation with my mother that I have to share with you.

Two days ago, I told her that I would be leading a professional development workshop for a local school district. I then proceeded to tell her that I would be talking about second language acquisition (SLA) and how what I know about it has changed the way I teach my language classes (For more about my presentation, click here). I then proceeded to talk to her about Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis (formally called the Input Hypothesis) and what Bill Van Patten says about explicit instruction, which is that it does not lead to implicit knowledge because language is too abstract to be reduced to a set of rules.

When I talk about what I know about SLA, I am usually met with skepticism. The theories do not reflect what happens in our traditional classrooms. Even though few people learn a second language through grammar drills and memorizing vocabulary lists, most people still believe that traditional instruction is the way to learn a second language. So I was expecting my mother to possess the same skepticism when I talked to her about comprehensible input (CI). But instead, she said, “That makes perfect sense to me!” She then went on to tell me about her experiences in her high school German class, in which she, like most people in traditional classes, learned ABOUT the language but did not become proficient IN the language. She then went on to say that the only time she has ever felt that she was “getting” language was when she was in a country where that language was spoken and she was being bombarded with CI.

For my mother, this was a real eye-opening conversation. She is now in her early seventies, and she has spent all those years since high school believing that she couldn’t learn a second language because there was something wrong with her. Now she realizes that she did not become proficient in a second language because her teacher did not use methods based on SLA theory.

We in the United States have intellectualized second language instruction to such an extent that the only people who find any success in traditional classes are the cream of the crop, because those students who are not freaky language geniuses drop out. As a result, there are probably MILLIONS of people in the United States who had or are currently having an experience similar to my mother’s. It makes me really sad to think that so many former and current language students walk around thinking that they are too stupid to be successful in a second language.

One of the great things about teaching with CI is that, since it is based on theories of how people acquire language, any student who pays attention and stays engaged will gain proficiency, even if s/he doesn’t want to. As students are exposed to compelling written and spoken messages that they understand, they will receive input, which helps develop their internal language systems. As their internal language systems develop, students begin to recognize that they have developed some proficiency in the language. As a result, their confidence and motivation will grow and, with any luck, they will never feel that they are too stupid to become proficient in a second language.

This conversation with my mother has made me even more committed to teaching with CI. Not only do I want students to develop proficiency in the language, but I also want them to feel proud of themselves and become confident, motivated language learners. I don’t ever want students in my class to think that they are too stupid for language study and that they just can’t “get” it.

Now that my mother knows a bit about SLA theory and how to acquire a second language, I wonder if she will consider trying to improve her proficiency in a second language? My guess is that she probably won’t. But at the very least it is probably nice that she knows that her lack of proficiency isn’t her fault.

NTPRS 2018 Conference, Days 3 and 4 – Trust the Process

On Wednesday at the NTPRS conference, our workshop presenter, the fabulous Jason Fritze, talked to us about Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA). PQA involves asking students a series of questions to get them to talk about themselves and their interests in the second language (L2).

In many ways, PQA is simply a class discussion. That being said, it is VERY important that the questions being asked don’t require students to create too much output at first. In many comprehensible input (CI) classrooms, PQA relies heavily on Yes-No or Either-Or questions, especially in the beginning levels.

Let’s say, for example, that I want to find out what students like to do in their spare time. Here is how I would do my PQA:

  1. Use Yes-No questions in the L2 to establish maybe 2 or 3 activities that students like to do such as “Do you like to play basketball?” or “Do you like to watch TV?” or “Do you like to do homework?” I also make sure to ask students about themselves and about each other to expose students to first, second, and third person verbs.
  2. Once I have a few activities named, I can then move on to Either-Or questions like “Do you like to watch TV or do homework?” “Do you like to play basketball or watch TV?” I might also add a third or fourth activity to the Either-Or if asking about the previously mentioned activities are getting a bit stale. Once again, I make sure to ask students about themselves and about each other.
  3. Once we’ve done Yes-No and Either-Or questions, I can them start asking open-ended questions with an interrogative such as “What do you like to do?” or “Who likes to watch TV?” In my class, one of my student jobs is the Question Word Translator. After I say a question word in the L2, the Question Word Translator shouts out the English translation before I finish the question, kind of like this:
    1. Me: Qui…
    2. Question Word Translator: Who!
    3. Me: …aime le football?

In one of the workshops I went to on Day 4, presenter Lance Piantaggini mentioned that, after the teacher has gotten used to the PQA progression, s/he may want to vary that progression, because it may get predictable and stale. Lance also said that, in some languages (like Chinese and Latin), Either-Or questions might be easier than Yes-No, so he recommends starting with Either-Or questions in those situations. Lance also said that he may omit the Yes-No and Either-Or questions as the year progresses if he feels that his students are strong enough to skip straight to the interrogatives.

Jason Fritze acknowledged that it can be difficult to come up with good PQA questions spontaneously, so he recommends that teachers script out PQA questions ahead of time to use as reference. Jason said that he often takes five minutes of his planning period to script questions both as a guide to use during class but also to practice creating PQA questions. Lance Piantaggini said that he kept his question words posted in the back of the room so he could refer to them for inspiration if he does spontaneous PQA in class.

In many instances, the goal of the PQA is to use that student information to create a story using Storyasking techniques (Storyasking involves using questions to flesh out the details of a story by having students suggest details for the teacher to include in the narrative). Jason Fritze referred to this as “spinning the story.” So in the above example, finding out about someone who likes to watch TV but doesn’t like to do homework and someone else who likes to play basketball may lead to a story about a student who tried to do his/her homework as quickly as possible so s/he could watch America’s Got Talent, couldn’t find a pencil to do the homework, so s/he had to phone a friend to borrow one, but the friend wasn’t home because he was at a basketball game.

Many presenters acknowledge that being willing to let the story develop naturally involves the teacher being able to relinquish control of the class and trust the PQA-to-Class Story process. Jason Fritze, referencing the movie Frozen, told the class that we had to “…be like Elsa and let it go.” Von Ray, who led a workshop about improvisation in the CI classroom, echoed Jason’s words by telling us that we needed to “trust the process.” Both Jason and Von acknowledge that this may be very difficult for teachers (I have written about my own troubles with Storyasking in this post), so they recommend that teachers always have a back up story that they can use in case the student story falls flat or veers off into a direction that might be either inappropriate or impractical (The teacher can write his/her own backup story or purchase pre-written stories like these and these).

All the presenters who talked about PQA, Storyasking, and improvisation at the NTPRS 2018 conference agree that stories based on the students themselves are very powerful. They are compelling because they are about the students themselves. Since they are highly interesting, students are more likely to be engaged in the process, which ideally should lead to more language acquisition and proficiency gains. I for one plan to include lots of days where I use the PQA-to-Class Story process. I’ll let you know how it goes.

NTPRS 2018 Conference, Day 3 – Five Expressions We Should Stop Using When Talking About Language Instruction

The highlight of the third day of this year’s NTPRS conference was an afternoon keynote speech by Dr. Bill Van Patten. Dr. Van Patten’s nickname, for obvious reasons, is BVP, and he is an expert on second language acquisition (SLA). In his keynote address on Wednesday he talked about five words that he thinks all of us who work and teach in the field of language acquisition should eliminate from our vocabulary when we talk about our language classrooms.

The first expression BVP wants us to eliminate is the word foreign. The word “foreign” has synonyms such as “strange” or “bizarre.” These synonyms cast a negative light on the second language and implies that it is not as good as the first language. As BVP pointed out, it is odd that we use the word “foreign” to describe a language potentially spoken by millions of people as well as something that may get lodged in our eye that we need to go to the emergency to have removed. BVP says that when we talk about another language besides our target language we should use “second” or “another” in place of foreign.

At my last school, our language department had been “Department of Foreign Languages” for many years. The last year I was there, I advocated that we change the name to “Department of World Languages.” BVP takes it one step further and says we should just call our departments “Department of Languages and Culture.” I like that.

The second expression BVP wants us to eliminate is the word error. BVP says that, in second language acquisition, errors don’t technically exist. When learners don’t speak accurately, they are simply manifesting what their internal language systems are capable of at their particular proficiency level. Furthermore, the word “error” suggests that the language speaker has the ability to be correct if s/he just listened to feedback when being corrected, which is not true in language acquisition due to the unconscious nature of the process. Instead, BVP suggests that we use the term “developmental form” instead of “error,” which I really like. It eliminates all negative connotations and accurately represents what those emerging forms really are.

The third expression BVP wants us to eliminate is the word student. This word implies that the person wishing to speak another language can become proficient due to conscious study (of vocabulary lists and explicit grammar explanation), just like s/he can in other subjects like math and history. And while this works if our goal is for the person to learn about the language, it doesn’t work if our goal is for a person to be able to become proficient in actually using the language. BVP suggests that we use the term “learner” or “classroom learner” instead. Personally, I prefer the term “language acquirer,” and while that may be more accurate, it is a bit wordy, so I guess I’ll stick with “learner.”

The fourth expression BVP wants us to eliminate is language teaching. He argues that, if our classroom goal is to advance language proficiency, we are not teaching but facilitating. In a comprehensible input (CI) driven classroom, the goal of the teacher is to provide as much CI as possible. We don’t ever really teach students how to use the language. Instead, we model how to use the language and provide repeated exposure to words and expressions in the language in a comprehensible and compelling way. With any luck, that exposure will eventually become part of our students’ internal language system and will help develop their proficiency.

BVP says that what we are really doing in our classrooms is not language teaching. It is language facilitating. So by extension, I am not a language “teacher” but a language “facilitator.” This comment reminds me of a quote by American poet Robert Frost: “I am not a teacher but an awakener.”

The fifth and final expression BVP wants us to eliminate caused quite a strong audience reaction, because BVP was speaking in front of a room full of teachers dedicated to teaching with CI. The fifth expression BVP wants us to eliminate from our vocabulary is COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT!!! Um, what?!?

BVP says that the term “comprehensible input” is problematic for three reasons. First of all, it can be polarizing, because it divides teachers into two camps – CI teachers versus textbook/legacy teachers. Quite frankly, we have enough division in the US and the world as it is, so we shouldn’t be trying to create animosity in an area where it is not needed. Second, it is being used inappropriately, because it is being used to describe a technique, which is usually the same techniques used in a legacy classroom christened with a new name and maybe some slight adjustments. That’s when you hear teachers say, “I teach grammar with CI” or “I use the textbook with CI.”), which are oxymoronic. Third, the term is seen as being outdated in the larger educational community, who sees it as just another approach that has come and gone much like the old-fashioned Audio-Lingual Method of second language teaching (Just recently, I saw a comment on the CI Liftoff Facebook page where someone was looking for an expression to use instead of using “comprehensible input” because of her administrator’s negative interpretation of the term. This is not uncommon).

BVP wants us to use the term “communicatively-embedded input (CEI)” instead of “comprehensible input (CI).” I don’t think it is going to catch on within the CI community, but that is because all of us in that community know what real comprehensible input should look like. So I suggest that we keep the term “comprehensible input (CI)” for use among ourselves and use “communicatively-embedded input (CEI)” with those outside of the CI community.

Once BVP finished his presentation, he ended the session with a flourish. You’ll have to watch this if you want to know exactly how he did that. And if you don’t want to, let’s just say that people don’t call BVP the “diva of SLA” for nothing.

NTPRS 2018 Conference, Day 2 – TPRS

Hi all! If you haven’t already, read my last post about Day One of the NTPRS conference for my summary of the Advanced track before you continue with this post, which is my summary of Day Two.

On Day Two, our workshop presenter, Jason Fritze, spent most of the day talking about Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). TPRS is a very powerful comprehensible input (CI) based second language teaching method invented by Blaine Ray. TPRS includes these three steps:

  1. Step One: Establish meaning. Usually, a TPRS teacher has certain structures in mind that s/he wishes to teach, so s/he establishes meaning of those target structures first. Using Total Physical Response (TPR), which I wrote about in my last post, is a good way to establish meaning. Teachers can also establish meaning through pictures, gestures, or direct English translation (If you would like to know my opinion about using translation in a second language class, read this post). Once the teacher has established meaning, s/he may start to ask students personal questions containing one of the structures. This technique is called Personalized Question and Answer (PQA). For example, pretend the teacher wishes to teach “likes to play.” With this is mind, the teacher might ask questions about who likes to play certain sports or instruments and compare what different students like to play. The teacher may also use circling techniques that I talked about in my last post along with PQA. Since students love to talk about themselves, PQA is a highly engaging activity. And since teachers and students learn all kids of personal information about each other, it is also a great community builder. Jason and Linda Li make PQA look effortless, but Jason pointed out that PQA questions are much more powerful and entertaining when scripted ahead of time.
  2. Step Two: Ask a story. More experienced TPRS teachers can spin PQA into a story. This is what Linda Li did when she came to do more Mandarin with us. On Day One Linda had spent most of her time teaching us some structures such as “has” and “looks at” and “happy.” Then today she took those structures and wove them into a story about someone who is unhappy because he does not have an iPhone. Since he doesn’t have an iPhone, he can’t look at his pretty friend via FaceTime. Linda had some workshop participants come up and be student actors. At first when they had to say something, Linda stood behind their back and had them move their mouth to make it look as if they were speaking while she said the Mandarin words. Then later on students said the words themselves with some prompting from Linda when they felt more comfortable. Jason Fritze suggests that all teachers keep a “back-up” story in case the story spun as a result of PQA falls flat.
  3. Step Three: Read. Once we finished acting out the story, our next step was to review the story through reading. As we discussed what happened in our story, Linda wrote it down for us so we could see and read it. Reading is an essential step in the TPRS process because it ties everything together, reinforces what we have already heard, and compliments our spoken input by providing written input. Jason Fritze said that it is important to establish class procedures and expectations before the class reads. In Jason’s class, students are expected to look at the page and follow along as Jason reads the story. Students who need extra support are offered Post-Its, bookmarks, or highlighters to help them focus. Sometimes the class does whole group reading and sometimes the students do partner reading. Along with reading the text, checking for comprehension is also important. One way to check reading comprehension is to have the class translate chorally in their native language (L1) after the teacher or a student reads in the second language (L2). Another good strategy to check reading comprehension is for teachers to start reading a sentence in the L2 and have the students finish that sentence in the L2. Teachers can also do a spot check for comprehension by occasionally stopping while reading to ask students to produce a gesture to represent certain words.

TPRS has been around since the 1980’s, so many materials are available to teachers who want to use TPRS in their classrooms but don’t have the desire or improvisational skills to create their own stories. Most textbooks these days include a TPRS reader with their ancillary materials. I have never been a fan of those stories, but they are a decent place to start, especially for teachers who are still expected to teach from a textbook. In addition, TPRS Books has lots of resources available, including entire curriculum packages in multiple languages. Jim Tripp has created a set of TPRS stories that are available on his website, and Anna Matava has a book of story scripts in English that are available through Teacher’s Discovery.

In addition, TPRS Books spends a large part of their year traveling throughout the United States and Canada hosting TPRS workshops. So if the national conference (which will be in the Chicago area next year) is not possible, chances are you can find a smaller, more affordable one closer to home. And in some cases, if you can get a group of more than 30 teachers, the boys at TPRS Books may come out and host a free workshop for you and your colleagues! So what do you have to lose? Give TPRS a try!

NTPRS Conference 2018, Day 1 – Routines, Circling, and Total Physical Response

Hi everybody! Happy summer vacation! I just spent last week at the National Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (NTPRS) conference, and I came home with loads of great ideas to use in my classroom and share on this blog.

I signed up for the Advanced track, which was taught by the fabulous Jason Fritze. To start, Jason had us all get in groups to talk about our successes as language teachers. And boy, did we have wonderful successes! We had teachers who increased enrollment and had healthy language programs where students continued to take upper-level classes due to their own successes and high engagement. We had teachers who had led Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) training sessions, whose attendees had become trainers themselves, and teachers who reported having better relationships with students both in and out of class. Jason said that it is important to remember these successes because so often we focus on the negative. He even keeps old notes and cards from students so he can take them out and look at them when he has a bad day. What a great idea!

After celebrating our successes, Jason talked to us about the important of routines in the language classroom. Routines help the class run smoothly and is an absolutely essential component of any behavior management system. If students come into class knowing exactly what is expected of them, the classroom teacher doesn’t have to waste time explaining what to do and can focus on providing comprehensible input (CI).

From there, we transitioned to talking about circling. Circling is a question technique that is an essential element of teaching with TPRS. When a teacher circles, s/he asks a series of questions. Usually the teacher starts with a yes/no question (Does Susie have a dog?), moves on to an either/or question (Does Susie have a dog or a cat?), and then asks open-ended questions (What does Susie have?). Jason gave us two useful tips about circling. First of all, he recommended that we start with a question where the answer will be “no.” He calls this “The Power of No.” So for example, if Susie has a dog, the first question asks if she has a cat. Starting with a negative question requires you to ask more questions, which gets you more repetitions. Since we need to hear words repeatedly to acquire them, getting more repetitions is very important. The second tip Jason gave us was for teachers to circle in random order once they felt comfortable with the “yes/no,” “either/or,” “open-ended” structure. The main reason for this is that the predictable order may become stale after a while. Since we don’t want our students to get bored, varying the question order should keep them on their toes and keep them more engaged.

Our morning session then included a visit from the absolutely fabulous Linda Li. Linda came in to teach us Mandarin. Being a Mandarin student was awesome for me. It helped me start to acquire a new language, observe a rock star teacher, and remember what it feels like to be a student who knows practically nothing in the language. I had been watching some Mandarin videos on YouTube to expose myself to the language, but not enough to give me any security or comfort in Mandarin class.

As Linda taught, Jason stopped occasionally and commented on Linda’s teaching from time to time. In this morning session, he commented about Linda’s use of Total Physical Response (TPR). TPR is an approach where teachers say things in the target language (TL) and students do an action or gesture representing that action. Action verbs, objects, and adverbs are great words to use when doing TPR in class. Be careful not to use something whose meaning is not clear (For example, if you point to your head that could be either “think” or “believe.” Don’t confuse your kids!).

Linda uses the following TPR steps:

Step One: She establishes meaning of a new word, assigns it a gesture and does the gesture when she uses the word in context. Students mimic her gesture.

Step Two: After multiple repetitions of the word with the gesture, Linda says the word but delays doing the gesture to see if students can do it without her. If they can’t, she goes back to Step One. If they can, she continues at this step for a while.

Step Three: Linda says the word but does not perform the gesture and lets the students do it without her. If they can’t, she goes back to Step Two. If they can, she continues at this step.

Both Linda and Jason divide the class into two groups. They assign each group a country or city name. In Mandarin class, our two groups were Taiwan and Beijing. This added some variety so she could ask only one place to do a certain gesture. So she could say, “Class, look at Jason.” “Beijing, look at Jason.” “Taiwan, look at Jason.” Then she could add even more repetitions by saying, “Taiwan, look at Beijing,” “Beijing, look at Taiwan,” and even “Taiwan, don’t look at Beijing,” and “Beijing, don’t look at Taiwan.” It was pretty amazing how many commands she was able to generate while only concentrating on one Mandarin word (look at = kan).

Jason Fritze is a big fan of TPR. He said that doing good TPR helps us become better TPRS teachers, which I do agree with. TPR forces us to think on our feet and give different commands. It also demands that we practice being creative with very few words. Another reason Jason likes TPR is because it provides a good brain break for our students (If you want to learn more about brain breaks, visit Annabelle Allen’s blog) while still providing CI. He said, “I think of TPR as a brain break where the language keeps flowing.”

Once our session was over for the day, I went to get Starbucks. While I was in line I ran into Gary DiBianca, who was in charge of the coaching. I told him that seeing Linda teach was amazing, but also made me doubt my own teaching abilities. He informed me that Linda teaches the same Mandarin lesson at conferences all the time, and, as result, it comes across as being very polished. That certainly made me feel better, and also made me realize that it doesn’t matter if I’m as good as Linda or any other TPRS teacher out there. All that matters is that I have made it my goal to teach effectively and to improve my classroom practices. And, quite frankly, it doesn’t really matter where I am on my CI journey as long as I continue to travel.

A New Way To Think About Grading

This past Tuesday I got the chance to hear Lance P. give a presentation about his grading system. Lance is a teacher based here in New England who teaches exclusively with comprehensible input (CI). The system he has created is designed to reduce the amount of time teachers spend assessing and grading.

Lance started his presentation by sharing a surprising statistic, namely that teachers in most classrooms spend 20% of their classroom time assessing students. This works out to be about two out of the ten months that classes are in session. In addition, most assessments are obtrusive assessments, meaning that no instruction, and subsequently no language acquisition, is happening while students complete the assessment (even when they’re done early, they either do homework for another class, read, or cause trouble). Considering how much time can be lost due to assessments, Lance said that second language teachers should try to limit the amount of assessing they do so they have more time to deliver input. He continued by saying that constant assessment would do nothing to further student language proficiency. As the saying goes, “Weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter.”

A typical assessment in Lance’s class is a 4-point, true/false quiz given orally based on a reading that is projected in front of the class. For example, if one of the Latin sentences in the reading says that a boy likes coffee, his true/false question might be, “The boy likes tea.” This quiz takes only five minutes or so to administer. When he is done giving the quiz, he has students correct their papers while he reviews the answers to the quiz in the target language (TL), which in his case is Latin. By reviewing answers in the TL, students receive more input and hear more repetitions of high frequency words that Lance wants his students to acquire. Once students are done grading the quizzes, he collects them and puts them in PowerSchool, which is the grading program he uses.

Here is where things get interesting. Lance puts all those assessment scores into his grade book, but they carry ZERO WEIGHT. Let me say that again. They have NO EFFECT on a student’s average. Since they don’t affect a student’s class grade, he does not obligate them to make the quizzes up if they are absent. He marks that student as exempt in PowerSchool for that assessment. Homework assignments also carry zero weight, so instead of chasing students who don’t turn in work, he simply marks the assignment as “Missing” in PowerSchool.

After reading the previous paragraph, you are undoubtedly wondering, “Well then how do students earn grades in his class?” They earn grades by self-assessing using what Lance calls an Input Expectations Rubric. Students self-evaluate their behavior, attitude, class attendance, and work habits in class (I am unclear if he does this once or twice a quarter). Lance then reviews the student evaluations and, if necessary, adjusts the grades based on the homework and assessment scores he has in PowerSchool. So if an exemplary student tries to be humble and give herself a low score on the Input Expectations Rubric, Lance will increase the student’s score and will explain why. That final score on the Input Expectations Rubric, whether adjusted or not, becomes the student’s grade for the quarter (If he has students self-assess twice a quarter, I assume he averages those grades together).

After reading this, you may be wondering, “What about language proficiency? Why isn’t he grading that?” Lance’s answer to this is pretty simple. He says, “students who receive input that they understand (CI) will—WILL—acquire the language.” In other words, we don’t need to measure whether or not students are acquiring language because if they meet classroom expectations, they just naturally are. It’s that simple (He does include an estimated proficiency chart on his Input Expectations Rubric, but that is just to inform the student and parents and does not factor into the student’s grade).

This grading system seems very fair to me. Students who do what they are supposed to do will get a good grade and will acquire language. Those that don’t do what they are supposed to do will not get a good grade and will not acquire language. And by not expecting all students to reach a certain proficiency level or master a certain language component in the same amount of time, the weak processor/slow acquirer will not be penalized for something that s/he has no control over.

Check out Lance’s website for more information about his grading system and his thoughts on CI in general. Could you make this grading system work in your second language classes?