Why Promoting the Seal of Biliteracy is Good for Second Language Programs

I don’t know what things are like in your state, but here in New England, many states have started programs that allow students to earn the Seal of Biliteracy in high school. The Seal of Biliteracy is a program that allows second language students to earn a seal on their diploma recognizing them for being biliterate, meaning that they are proficient in reading, writing, speaking, and comprehending two languages. Qualifications for earning the Seal vary from state to state, but in most states students need to demonstrate that they possess at least  an Intermediate Mid language proficiency as measured by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) proficiency scale. Many states are measuring this with the AAPPL or STAMP tests, which are computerized language proficiency tests. Other measures include at least a 3 on an Advanced Placement exam or at least a four on the International Baccalaureate exam.

If you teach a second language and live in a state that offers the Seal of Biliteracy, you should inquire about the Seal of Biliteracy in your district. And if your district hasn’t implemented this program yet, you should try to convince them that they should. Not only will it give your district something to brag about, but it is good for your language program overall. Here are two reasons why.

First of all, earning a score of Intermediate Mid proficiency is not something that most students can do in a few years. According to this CASLS study, only a small percentage of students enrolled in four years of a second language high school program reach Intermediate Low, and even fewer reach Intermediate Mid. ACTFL reached similar findings, which you can find on this graph. 

This information is the ammunition needed to advocate for the implementation, expansion, and/or retention of out second language programs. If our superintendents want to brag about awarding the Seal of Biliteracy in their school district, they are going to have to put their money where their mouth is and support second language education at the middle school level.

Second, implementing the Seal of Biliteracy can be a great way to highlight and promote comprehensible input teaching approaches. I think students taught using comprehensible input (CI) approaches will develop higher language proficiency overall than students in traditional programs. I have no direct data that supports this, but I did see this, which is a review of studies comparing classed taught with Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), with is one CI approach, and traditional teaching approaches. Overwhelmingly the research finds that students in TPRS classrooms perform at least as well as, if not better than, assessments given to students in traditional classrooms. As far as I know, research has not studied the efficacy of TPRS with a proficiency test, but nonetheless the data does suggest that students in a TPRS program advance more quickly that those in traditional programs.

I also have some anecdotal evidence about the success of CI approaches related to the Seal of Biliteracy. Just last week, I had a conversation with a woman who is the World Language Department Head at a local school. Last year, 28 students earned the Seal of Biliteracy. Of those students, only three studied Spanish. The rest were all French students. In this school, all the French students are taught with a CI approach and all Spanish students have traditional teachers. Last I heard, the school principal was very interested in why so many French students and so few Spanish students earned the Seal of Biliteracy. I am sure this department head will have a lot to say about this.

I predict that it will soon become very fashionable for school districts to offer students the chance to earn the Seal of Biliteracy. If you haven’t already checked out to see if it is offered in your state, reach out to your state language association for more information. Implementing this program could really be beneficial for your school district. 

Classroom Management, Revisited

Last year I went to a TPRS workshop with Mike Coxon and Craig Sheehy. This was the first time I heard about their classroom management system. Blaine Ray, the creator of TPRS, calls it the Party Points System. The Party Points system awards the class points for staying in the target language (TL) for eight minute segments. The teacher uses a timer and resets the timer every time someone talks in English. If the class is successful in staying in the target language for eight minutes, they get a point. After a certain number of points, the class gets a reward (View this post for more on this system).

I came home from the conference and implemented this system. It worked really well. My problem behaviors decreased dramatically. I ignored colleagues who criticized the system and was able to make it to the end of the year with hardly any discipline issues at all. Life was good.

At the National TPRS conference in Boston over the summer, I heard again from Blaine about how awesome the Party Points System was. When the new school year started, I made plans to implement Mike and Craig’s reward system again. As far as I was concerned, it was foolproof, right?

Nope.

I have one class this year that has been difficult since our first week back in August. The class is very large (27 students), which makes classroom management difficult. I also have a large number of boys in the class who don’t take class seriously. I abandoned the Party Points System with them because I got nowhere. They were so bad that they often earned zero points in one 45-minute class. The well-behaved students were frustrated by those who constantly blurted in English and spent class socializing, and the ones who caused the problems stopped caring about a reward. As far as they were concerned, if they were never going to earn any points, why bother trying to behave? It was a lost cause.

So I implemented the “hard reset.” I spoke to the class about their behavior, explained why I was abandoning the point system, and returned to my old-school management system à la Ben Slavic. It’s only been a few days since the switch, but things are a little better. My students aren’t little angels, but the threat of calling home is keeping most of them in line. The moral of the story, then, is that no classroom management system is perfect. Some kids just naturally will misbehave, and it’s up to the teacher to figure out how to manage them in the most effective way possible. And considering that I have been teaching for over 20 years, I should have known that.

A New Year’s Reset

Yay! December Break is finally here! I have been looking forward to a little rest and relaxation. And yet, my teacher brain just cannot turn itself off. All the Christmas presents have been opened and New Year’s Eve is still a few days away, making this the perfect time to start thinking about what I’m going to do once I am back in my classroom next week. I have two changes I plan to make to my Interpersonal Communication Skills Rubric and a great Movie Talk I’m planning to do once I return to work. More details are below.

The rubric I use for self-assessment is similar to ones that are found on Ben Slavic’s website. This rubric asks students to evaluate themselves based on how well they listen with the extent to understand and how well they support the flow of language in class.

Now that I have started Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) in class, I have replaced “Listen with the Extent to Understand” to “Listen AND READ with the Extent to Understand.” I don’t hold students responsible for what they read, which means no book reports, assessments, or projects based on their books, but I do want them to actually read. Most of them do but I still have a few that don’t (I have one student who purposely held her book upside down during our last FVR session, and when I said something to her about it she said, “I just don’t feel like reading.” This is exactly the kind of behavior I hope to address with the altered rubric).

The other adjustment I have made to my rubric involves how well students support the flow of language. Students are required to respond to my whole-class questions, usually only with a word or two. The problem is that I have a lot of students who give themselves full credit on their rubrics for answering my whole-class questions but I usually can only hear a handful of kids. As a result, I have rewritten the rubric so that students will only be able to give themselves full credit on the rubric if their answer is audible. I’m not going to give students full credit if they mumble or whisper anymore.

Along with these two changes, I’ve also planned to do a Movie Talk when I return to school based on the clip Lily and the Snowman. It is the story of a girl who builds a snowman that comes to life. It’s a perfect Movie Talk for the middle of winter, don’t you think?

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.