Observations from my School Year So Far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

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

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

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

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

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




Where I Find My CI Resources

In a previous post I talked about how some teachers may not know much, if anything, about comprehensible input (CI) techniques because of the inability to access academic journals or because the lack of either personal finances or professional development funds makes buying books on the subject or attending CI conferences impossible (Case in point: I would absolutely love to attend the Mitten CI conference this April, but I can’t afford the travel costs).

Not to fear, friends! You can still find CI resources out there that are either relatively cheap or free. Here is a list that I have compiled where any interested parties can find some pretty great resources.

1. Stephen Krashen’s websiteOn this website Dr. Krashen, Professor Emeritus at USC, posts free access to many of his books and academic papers on a variety of topics related to second language acquisition (SLA). The lists is quite extensive and it is updated fairly regularly. Anyone looking for an introduction to the SLA theory behind CI should start here.

2. Beniko Mason’s websiteOn this website Dr. Mason, professor at Shitennoji University Junior College in Osaka, Japan, posts some of her papers about Extensive Reading (ER) and Story Listening (SL), two CI methods. I also love the cute little cartoons on her website.

3. Tea with BVP. This is a call-in podcast put out by Bill Van Patten and two of his colleagues, Walter Hopkins and Angelika Kraemer. Each week they discuss a different topic related to SLA. The Tea with BVP website has a resources page that lists every academic paper mentioned on the podcast (a few of them are open access) and includes a 6-part video called “What Everyone Should Know About Second Language Acquisition.” The podcast airs live on Thursdays during Michigan State’s academic year at 3pm EST on Mixlr and is available for download on both Soundcloud and iTunes free of charge. My two favorite things about the show is the monthly “Ask Us Anything” segment and the weekly challenge questions, one about SLA and another about famous divas (Bill calls himself the diva of SLA, so a diva question is highly appropriate). Callers who answer the challenge questions get free swag like a copy of one of BVP’s books or Tea with BVP tote bags and coasters. But before you ask, no, I have never called in because I am either still working or am at yoga when the show is broadcasting.

4. Teacher Blogs. I am overwhelmed by the number of teachers who blog about CI theory and methods. They are full of great information and ideas. The ones I seem to refer to the most are blogs written by Mike Peto, Martina Bex, Kristy Palacio, and Keith Toda. The best things about teacher blogs is that they will often have links to other teachers’ blogs, so the links to resources are endless. I go to Keith Toda’s blog for reading activities, Martina’s and Kristy’s for lesson planning ideas, and Mike’s for episode guides to Spanish TV shows that I hope to use one day in my own classes and advice about free reading in the second language classroom. I encourage you to visit a few blogs, but be warned that you may end up falling down a figurative rabbit hole that can eat up your entire afternoon as you click on links and discover more and more great resources on more and more blogs.

5. Social Media. My husband gives me a good deal of grief about the amount of time that I spend on Facebook and Twitter. However, a large portion of that time is not spent looking at pictures of people’s new babies or Spring Break vacation photos. Instead I am looking at messages on Twitter and Facebook posted by my CI colleagues. On Facebook I am a member of four CI groups: iFLT/ NTPRS/ CI Teaching, CI Liftoff, CI/TPRS for French Teachers, and Story Listening for Language Acquisition. Once I joined those groups, I started seeing posts by the same people over and over, who I then followed on Twitter. It’s a great way for me to get ideas about what to do in class, get feedback about things in class that failed, and learn about new workshops, webinars, and products (The Facebook groups are all open groups that anyone can join, and feel free to check out my profile to see who I follow if you’re looking to use Twitter for professional development).

6. YouTube. I started using YouTube for professional development by watching videos by Blaine Ray, the creator of TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and found other videos by clicking links on Blaine’s page to the YouTube channels of other TPRS/CI teachers that he follows. Then once I joined my CI groups on Facebook from time to time other group members would post links to YouTube videos. Generally speaking, the videos posted by CI teachers were either videos of them teaching lessons (both demo lessons and lessons with real students) or videos of them giving presentations about something related to SLA or CI.

7. Teachers Pay TeachersThis is a website where you can buy lessons, worksheets, PowerPoints, and more resources that teachers make themselves and then post to this site for other teachers to use. As the name suggests, much of the resources on this site must be purchased, but the prices are pretty low. Some of the resources on this site are free, too. Martina Bex sells a lot of her stuff here, including entire curriculum packets for Spanish 1 and 2. I also really like Cécile Laine’s products. Be careful with this site, however. Many of the stuff on this website may not be CI compatible. Anyone interested in supplementing their classrooms with CI resources from this site needs to make sure to buy from someone who is a known CI teacher.

I hope some of these resources will help any teacher looking to learn more about SLA or CI teaching methods. I hope I haven’t missed any!

Keeping Things in Perspective

Currently I am the only teacher in my department using comprehensible input (CI) methods, and lately I have found myself thinking that I am superior to my colleagues for that reason. I think of them as being ignorant and old-fashioned as they explicitly teach their grammar and vocabulary lessons and picture their students as silent sufferers of grammar drills and listening activities, stuck in language class for 55 minutes four days a week, while my students play CI games, do Movie Talks, and act out stories.

But really friends, I need to get over myself. This line of thinking is pretty conceited. Just who do I think I am, the second coming of Jesus Christ? And why am I so hard on my colleagues? They all work very hard and are still passionate about their subject matter, even if their explicit teaching methods have been shown to be pretty ineffective, especially when compared with CI methods. But it’s not as if my colleagues are showing Disney movies in Spanish all day and calling it a lesson. They mean well but just haven’t been educated about the power of comprehensible input yet.

So perhaps you’re wondering if I’ve tried to educate my colleagues about CI? Well, I have. But when you are the low person on the totem pole of department seniority, you need to be practically an expert (which I am not) on the subject in order to convince colleagues who are significantly older than you to take you seriously, especially when the desired goal is to have the department completely abandon its curriculum and the methods that the teachers have been using for the past 20 years. And even though I have research on my side, we live in an era where people don’t believe what they see in print. So in a nutshell, though I have tried to educate my colleagues, they were very skeptical. Unfortunately, I’m sure this has occurred in countless other second language departments across the country. it can be very hard for some people to break tradition, even if it’s not in the best interest of students.

Even if some teachers have heard of CI, many are so overloaded with their course load and personal responsibilities that they don’t have much time to research CI teaching methods. In my department, we have one woman with an infant at home and another who is taking care of elderly parents. It would be pretty hard for them to find extra time in any given day to devote to research. Even those that do have the time for research may have problems finding suitable resources. Most research is found in academic journals, which are only available for access to university students with an ID card. And yes, it is also possible to find books on the subject, but that can be expensive (Currently I have six TPRS/CI books on my nightstand, all of which I paid for myself. I paid a total of $234.51 for them) and unaffordable for some. And don’t even get me started on the cost of attending conferences! Maybe some teachers are lucky enough to have an administration who pays for this type of professional development, but many others have to pay conference fees out of pocket. This may also be prohibitive to some.

So I guess for now I need to do a better job keeping things in perspective. I am not the Messiah, and my colleagues are not Satan’s helpers. I am doing what I think is best for my students, and I need to remember that my colleagues are doing what they think is best as well. I will try to plant a few seeds about CI in the hope that a few ideas may sprout and lead my colleagues to examine SLA theory and CI more closely; hopefully at some point the scales fall from their eyes and they will see the light. But in the meantime I will close my door and continue to teach.