When You Absolutely Have to Teach Grammar

I recently met a Spanish teacher who is new to the area. He teaches at a private middle school and has been attending some interesting professional development this year, including Organic World Language (OWL) training and a proficiency institute organized by a local language association. His comment to me was that, although he has enjoyed learning new ideas at these workshops, he is unable to implement a lot of the new ideas he learns into his classes because the teachers at the high school that his students go on to attend expect that they will have a solid grammar foundation when they reach the second year of the language.

Sigh. I hear this over and over again. So many teachers who want to incorporate more proficiency-based and comprehensible input (CI) approaches in their classroom feel that they are unable to because of the demands placed on them to teach grammar. Of course, these teachers don’t want put their job in jeopardy, so many of them bow down to pressure and teach grammar explicitly, even though it doesn’t result in language acquisition (For further explanation of this, pick up a copy of Bill VanPatten’s book While We’re on The Topic). I am not in a situation like this but I am also not passing judgement, because as I said previously in this post, we all have to do what we need to do to keep our jobs.

That being said, with a little planning and creativity, you can find ways to teach the necessary grammar but still remain primarily CI or proficiency based. Below are a few ways you can do that.

Solution Number 1: Do CI and proficiency-based activities exclusively until the last few weeks of school, then switch and do explicit grammar for the remainder of the year. This is what Alina Filipescu does in her classroom. Read this post to find out more about how she makes sure students get to the next level with plenty of knowledge about verb conjugations in Spanish.

Solution Number 2: Have designated “Language Study Days.” This is something I first heard about from Tina Hargarden. She did a language study day every few weeks to fulfill district requirements (A colleague of mine who teaches Spanish also has days set aside for language study. She jokingly said that she calls them “Dinosaur Days” and wants to wear a Tyrannosaurus Rex costume in class for those lessons).

Solution Number 3: Alternate between CI or proficiency-based lesson weekly, biweekly, or monthly. This is similar to what Alina Filipescu does but breaks up the grammar study throughout the year. I tried this on and off for a few years but found that I preferred waiting until the end of the year to do all the grammar, kind of like what Alina does.

Solution Number 4: Assign students grammar study for homework. If you read this post and this post, you will see that I have written before about flipped classrooms, where teachers obligate students to learn a new concept for homework that the teacher then reviews the following day in class. If you check YouTube, you will find a lot of videos that explain different grammar topics in a second language, especially in Spanish. This year, I found videos on YouTube about different grammar topics and gave students worksheets to fill out while watching them. I kept all the worksheets together in a folder for each student for personal reference and then I shipped a copy up to the high school teacher so she could see the topics they had reviewed.

The bottom line is, you can have the best of both worlds, where you provide your students with plenty of comprehensible input and activities designed to further language proficiency but still squeeze in those necessary grammar topics. If you haven’t already, I hope you will consider giving it a try.

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.

Teaching Level 1 Themes with Comprehensible Input

When I visit the IFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching group on Facebook, I often encounter posts from teachers who would like to teach with comprehensible input (CI) but need help getting started. These teachers inevitably need some guidance on how to provide CI while still teaching certain topics that they are told they must cover.

If you are one of these teachers, my suggestion to you is that you start making the shift from traditional to CI with your Level 1 classes. There are a couple of good reasons for this. First, you will be the students’ first language teacher, which means you will not have students trained by a traditional teacher that you will then have to retrain. Second, themes in first-year modern language classrooms are basic enough that they can be presented easily using CI.

When I decided to embrace CI, I started with some backwards planning. I went through the Level 1 textbook and made a list of topics in the book. Then I listed one or two CI approaches I could use to address many of these topics. Here is the list I compiled for my first-year Spanish and French classes.

When I start out the year, I begin each class with Calendar Talk. Here is a video of how Tina Hargarden does Calendar Talk. In my class, we talk about the day (today, yesterday, tomorrow), any upcoming holidays, the weather, what season in is, and, since we have a rotating schedule, what the time is. This eliminates those isolated lessons on those subjects that are usually at the beginning of a first-year book.

Then, as Ben Slavic and other, more established CI teachers recommend, I do Card Talk. This activity used to be called Circling with Balls. My students draw pictures of something like to play and any pet(s) they may have on a card. Then I use Personalized Question and Answer to introduce the expressions “like(s) + infinitive” and “I/You have” and “S/he has.” Students also hear the names of sports and instruments, most of which are cognates, and some animals (usually “dog” and “cat” but sometimes other things like “guinea pig” and “rabbit.”).

Following that, I do Special Person Interviews. I can introduce SO much vocabulary due to the variety of questions I ask. By the time I finish my interviews, my students have been exposed to expressions like dates and numbers (from questions like “How old are you” and “When is your birthday”), activities (“What do you like to do”), food (“What is your favorite/least favorite food”), family members (“Do you have any brothers or sisters”) and names of school classes (“What is your favorite/least favorite class). If you are a French teacher, visit my French Resources page for my Personne Spéciale documents. Spanish teachers can visit my Spanish Resources page for the Spanish version.

After those first two activities, which can take me through mid-October (or even longer depending on class size), I have no set order in which to do my other activities. I am constantly taking things out and adding new things. One activity that I do one year in September I might not do until December another year. I don’t care about when the topics are addressed as long as they are addressed at some point during the school year.

Finally, I have learned to let go of the compulsion to teach all thematic vocabulary words together and have embraced the idea that they will pick them up in bits and pieces throughout the year (Click here for more about my thoughts about thematic units). Take expressions to describe the weather and seasons, for example. In my class, we learn them as the year progresses. In August when we come back to school students will learn to say that it is hot and sunny because it is still summer. In November they will learn to say that it is cool and windy because it is fall. In January they will be able to talk about snow and cold temperatures because it is winter, and in April they will be able to talk about rain because it is spring. Where is it written that a student has to learn all expressions to describe the weather and seasons, or by extension all clothing, food, or names of family members all at once?

And finally, let’s address the elephant in the room…the explicit grammar that some people feel is necessary to teach. I only do pop-up grammar in my classes, because, based on the research by Stephen Krashen and Bill Van Patten that I have read, I know that explicit grammar lessons do not further language acquisition. And I am lucky because I work in a district that has embraced CI. If you are obligated to teach grammar, I recommend that you read this post, in which I talk about ways to teach grammar in ways that maximize class time for comprehensible input in class.

Once the shift has been made with first-year classes, you can start to alter the second year textbook to CI. But that is a blog post for another day.

I’m Flipping Over Flipgrid

Hey all, have you discovered Flipgrid yet?

Flipgrid is an online video sharing platform. It is very easy to use. Through Flipgrid, teachers and students can create and post videos to a “grid” that are shared with anyone who has the special code giving permission to view them. Flipgrid hopes to create engaged communities where students can discuss a wide variety of topics spanning all disciplines. At the TCI Maine conference I attended last October, the fabulous Laurie Clarcq set up a Flipgrid where comprehensible input (CI) teachers at the conference could comment about the workshops they were attending and what they had learned.

I explored some of the grids on Flipgrid created by world language teachers. Most seem to use Flipgrid for speaking projects. I only teach first year French, and since I teach with CI, I don’t do activities in my class that obligate students to speak or write in the target language. Obligating students to speak is referred to as forced output. I have written before about my issue with output activities. Like many CI teachers, I am not a fan for many reasons. TPRS teacher Chris Stolz sums up quite succinctly what I think about forced activities on his blog, where he wrote, “Forced output is not language– it is drama, recitation, what VanPatten calls ‘language-like behaviour,’ but it’s not language.”

I decided to use Flipgrid as a source of input, and not output (Last year I talked about transforming output activities into input activities in this post). I reached out to the English teacher in France with whom I have an epal exchange. Then I made an introductory video in English on Flipgrid in which I talked about myself and my community. My students all made introductory videos about themselves in English as well. Then I sent the link to the English teacher in France so she and her students can make introductory videos in French for us. As a result, my students are providing CI to her students by recording videos in English and her students are providing CI to my students by recording in French. Since my students are already very excited about having French epals, this is a highly engaging activity for them as they get to know a little bit more about the French students.

Viewers can slow down the speed of the videos to improve comprehension, which is a nice feature, but the absolute coolest thing about the videos made on Flipgrid is that I can download them and save them for future use. I plan to create some comprehension activities that I can use in the upcoming years to go along with the videos this summer. Downloading and saving videos also gives me an opportunity to show the same videos multiple times throughout the year so my students can see the progress they are making in understanding spoken French.

If you are interested in trying something like this but you don’t have an epal exchange, I suggest you visit this epals site to connect with other classes. You can also make connections through Facebook or other social media sites. And if you come up with any other ideas about how to use Flipgrid for providing comprehensible input, let me know so I can try your idea too!






My Thoughts on Student Input

Wow, my comments about the conference I went to last Saturday has generated quite a bit of conversation on Facebook! All week members of the CI Fight Club have been debating the idea of student output, which was the topic of my last blog post, and have also been discussing another claim I heard at the conference in the Facebook iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching group, namely that of all the talking being done in a language classroom (which should be 90% of the time according to ACTFL guidelines), teachers should be doing 20% of the talking and students should be doing a whopping 80% of the talking. This claim comes from this book and is echoed by the use of this model, which is called the Learning Pyramid. But as a professional who teaches with comprehensible input (CI), I was skeptical, to say the least.

The way the presenter responsible for these claims sees it, by designing speaking activities that students can do in pairs or small groups, the teacher experiences the best of both worlds. First of all, collaborative work makes the class student-centered instead of teacher-centered (The presenter compared the photo of a collaborative classroom full of students happily working together with one of a teacher lecturing in front of a class full of sleeping students to illustrate what he sees as typical student-centered and teacher-centered classrooms), thus fulfilling the 80-20 expectations of the Learning Pyramid, and since the students are spending almost the entire class completing speaking activities where they are talking to each other in the target language (TL), they are meeting the ACTFL 90% Guideline AND are providing each other with tons of input! It’s a win-win, right?

Ummm…no. I’ll give the presenter points for trying to base his claims on research, but he missed the point in two very important areas.

First of all, let’s start with the claim that teachers should be doing 20% of the talking and students should be doing a whopping 80% of the talking. If we want to have students do the majority of the talking in class, they theoretically need to be able to communicate on a variety of subjects and in complete sentences. They should also be able to ask and answer questions. Based on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, I would guess that, to do this effectively, a student would need to be at an Intermediate Mid level of speaking proficiency (“Intermediate Mid speakers are able to handle successfully a variety of uncomplicated communicative tasks [related to] personal information related to self, family, home, daily activities, interests and personal preferences, as well as physical and social needs, such as food, shopping, travel, and lodging…they are capable of asking a variety of questions when necessary to obtain simple information.”) or higher. And yet, most students don’t reach the Intermediate Mid level of proficiency until they have had at minimum seven years of classroom instruction. Consider the graphic below.


It is logical to say, therefore, that reaching that 80-20 split isn’t sustainable in beginner language classes, since they are still in the Novice level and are only capable of short messages made up of “isolated words and phrases that have been encountered, memorized, and recalled.”

Bill Van Patten,  independent scholar and the self-proclaimed “Diva of Second Language Acquisition,” agrees that the 80-20 split in beginning classes is not feasible. He  recently did a live Facebook Q and A where he was asked a question about the 80-20 ratio. He said unequivocally that only in upper levels with students of high proficiency was this possible and that teachers of beginning level classes should do most of the talking and then expect more student talking as the student acquire more language.

Furthermore, let me address the idea that a classroom where a teacher does most of the talking is teacher-centered and not student-centered. I have already written about doing activities like the Special Person Interview, which puts attention on students. And in most CI classrooms, the topics of discussion are often about what students want to talk about. For example, this past Monday when I asked in class what people did over the weekend, one girl said she went to go see the movie Black Panther. This led to a discussion about who also had seen the movie, what superheroes were students’ favorites, and whether or not Batman is a superhero since he technically has no superpowers and is just a guy with cool gadgets (This claim caused quite an uproar, by the way). This conversation was valuable and interactive and totally student-centered, since it was about what the students wanted to talk about. In addition, classes taught with Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and One Word Images (OWI) are student-centered because the students help create the story being told in class. Many teachers also have class jobs, which is another way to make a class more student-centered (For more on the topic of student-centered classrooms, visit this post by Carol Gaab).

So now that I have explained why I am skeptical of the 80-20 claim, let me turn to the presenter’s second claim, namely that students can provide each other with input by completing speaking activities where they are talking to each other in the TL. I have an issue with that as well. Why? Well, I’ll tell you.

First of all, let’s look at the definition of comprehensible input, a term that was developed by Dr. Stephen Krashen as part of his Input Hypothesis (which is now called the Comprehension Hypothesis). Comprehensible input is described as input that is understandable to the language learner but slightly about the learner’s current proficiency level. Krashen describes this type of input as “i + 1,” and says that this kind of input helps learners acquire language naturally.

So with this definition in mind, speaking activities designed for students in the same class, who are more or less at the same proficiency level, may provide “i” but probably don’t provide “i + 1,” which means there wouldn’t be any new language to acquire. That is why teacher input is so important at the beginning levels, because teachers are the best people for delivering “i + 1” input due to their higher proficiency level.

Second, I have a feeling that many second language teachers automatically assume that any speaking activity done in a language class delivers “good” input. I am not so sure. Bill Van Patten talks about good input in his book, While We’re On the Topic. He says in the book that besides being comprehensible, good input “must also be engaging and important so the learner has a reason to pay attention to the message (p. 50).”

I will freely admit that, before I started researching CI, I used to plan what I thought were valuable speaking activities for my language classes. I was a big proponent of information gap activities. For example, I would give my students two incomplete maps of South America and have them ask and answer questions about who went to what country so they could complete their maps. The problem with this activity is that all the people on the map were imaginary. It wasn’t really that important to find out where imaginary people went. Moreover, the real goal of this activity was to practice forms of the verb “to go,” and my students knew it. Therefore, while at the time I thought this was a great activity, it turns out that it did not meet the definition of “good” input, so I doubt it helped further my students’ second language acquisition at all.

Unfortunately, many of the speaking activities that were suggested at last Saturday’s conference were similar to the one I mentioned above. They weren’t “good” input.  That being said, I am thinking of reaching out to the presenter and sending him a free copy of Bill Van Patten’s book. He needs to start his own CI journey.


My Thoughts on Student Output

One thing I like about language conferences is the fact that so many generous teachers are willing to share their ideas and activities with other teachers. I also really love the opportunity to network and make connections with others in the field. Unfortunately, I feel that most state organizations haven’t completely embraced or don’t fully understand the idea of teaching with comprehensible input (CI). This was evident at the state conference I went to yesterday, where even though the words “comprehensible input” were in the title of the conference, the focus of the day, at least at the session I attended, was more about student output.

At first I was happy to hear our keynote speaker, a very enthusiastic and motivated teacher, talked about the importance of comprehensible input. I was glad that she quoted Dr. Stephen Krashen’s work on CI, and I was in complete agreement with everything she had to say until she started talking about comprehensible output (CO). In case you are not aware, the Comprehensible Output Hypothesis was developed by Dr. Merrill Swain, who theorized that learner output could be useful in second language acquisition (SLA). The hypothesis states that people acquire language when they attempt to transmit a message but fail and have to try again. Eventually, a learner will arrive at the correct form needed to transmit that message. As a result, the listener will understand and the learner will acquire the new and correctly produced form.

Krashen has disagreed with the Comprehensible Output Hypothesis and has said repeatedly that comprehensible input is enough to acquire language. Furthermore, Krashen says that forcing students to produce output can produce anxiety and raise the Affective Filter, which impedes language acquisition. Bill Van Patten, another SLA expert, has also said that output is not necessary for acquisition but, unlike Krashen, says that it could be useful if the output is part of an interaction that leads to more input.

The speaker at the conference I went to yesterday doesn’t seem to agree with either Krashen or Van Patten’s view about output. She is a big proponent of comprehensible output in language classrooms, because she says that student output is how teachers can tell if students understand. And while this may be true, she failed to mention that students can convey understanding without having to produce output. I have compiled a short list of those ways I check for student comprehension without forcing output below.

1. True/False questions. In my classes, we may often read a story in the target language (TL). Then I can give a quick true/false quiz to ensure that students understood the story. But my quiz doesn’t have to be based on a story. They could be target structures that I use to describe something about the class, students in the class, the weather, the clothes I am wearing, and more.

2. Matching questions. I take target structures, put them in a sentence, and create a quiz where students match those sentences with a picture or expression in the TL to show me that they understand those target structures.

3. Scrambled sentences. I take sentences to a story we have read in class, scramble them, and ask students to put them in chronological order based on the story.

4. Comic strips. I take sentences to a story we have read in class, put them in a comic strip template, and ask students to illustrate them to demonstrate comprehension.

5. English summaries. I take a story that we have read in the TL and ask students to summarize the story in English.

6. Choral translations. I ask the entire class to translate a story sentence by sentence into English as I read the story in the TL.

7. Total Physical Response (TPR). Students use gestures or movement to demonstrate understanding of a variety of utterances in the TL.

In beginner classes, I believe that activities like the ones I just listed should be the primary ways that teachers should check for understanding, because forcing students to produce output before they are ready can create anxiety and quickly turn students off to language study. Furthermore, students don’t really start to develop any oral or written proficiency besides one word answers and practiced, memorized phrases until they are at the Novice High level, and research has shown that it takes an average of a minimum of 120 classroom hours before students get to that level. That means that forcing students to produce more than one word answers or practiced, memorized phrases before they have been in a class that long is unrealistic.

But by far my biggest complaint about the idea of student output is that so many teachers seem to believe that any time a students says something in the TL, s/he is creating comprehensible output, just as there are a number of teachers who believe that any time they speak in the TL in their class, they are creating comprehensible input. As I have said in a previous post, comprehensible input is not speaking for the sake of speaking, but rather the act of conveying a spoken or written message that a student is capable of understanding. So doesn’t it stand to reason that comprehensible output should be defined as the act of a student producing a spoken or written message comprehensibly? And if that is the case, then the very many presentations that I attended at this conference yesterday that talked about speaking activities just for the sake of practicing speaking totally miss the mark.

I suppose that state language conferences aren’t going to get much better until more CI teachers present at them. Looks like I will be creating some proposals for conference presentations this summer. Anyone want to join me?

Turning Output into Input

Friends, have I convinced you yet that input is more important that output? If you aren’t convinced, I urge you to read what Stephen Krashen has to say about it. Or if you have time to read a book, check out BVP’s latest. If you are convinced that language students needs more input than output, then you have to figure out how to provide that input. But you may have a problem doing that if you have been trained to force students to speak in your language class. Here is a list of ways that I have turned output activities into input activities.

1. Provide supports. In my first year classes, I always start by talking about the day, date, time, and weather. Before I switched to CI I would ask students the question and wait for a response. The problem was that it was always the same teacher’s pets who would volunteer to answer questions such as, “What day is it?” “How’s the weather?” and so on. These days I still ask questions like that, but when I am asking those questions I project a PowerPoint with possible answers. My students are not really producing output but are reading possible answers, thus providing themselves and their classmates with additional input. The main goal is that eventually the students will be able to produce answers to my questions without the supports (but I am not planning on removing them down any time soon for the benefit of my slow processors).

2. Turn open-ended questions into yes-no or either-or. Many textbooks I have used have one activity per chapter where students are asked to answer open-ended questions. In French books that activity is often called “Questions Personelles,” or “Preguntas Personales” in Spanish textbooks. I have gotten really good at turning those questions into either-or or yes-no questions. For example:

The original question is, A quelle heure est-ce que tu te couches? (What time do you go to bed?)

I ask: Tu te couches à 9 heures? à 10 heures? à 11 heures? (Do you go to bed at 9:00? At 10:00? at 11:00?)? Sometimes I ask these questions on a Google Form or just a plain piece of paper with places for students to put a (potential) check mark.

I have found that most students are not able or or willing to answer the open-ended question. Turning it into a less threatening yes-no or either-or means that more students will be willing to speak in class.

An extension of this is the activity Four Corners. I put up four possible answers in the four corners of my room (Usually “Yes, a lot” “Yes, a little”, “No,” and “I don’t know” in the target language). Then I ask a question. Students have to move to the corner of their room based on their response to the question. I did this activity recently with activities students like to do. I asked questions like, ¿Te gusta bailar? (Do you like to dance?), and students would have to move to the appropriate corner based on their personal preference.

Does that mean that I don’t ever do open-ended questions in my classes? No, I still do. I just make sure that I ask them after I have made many opportunities for my students to answer with yes-no or either-or. I have to provide input before they can produce output!

3. Card Talk, aka Circling with Balls (I credit Ben Slavic with this activity). This is an activity where students are given a piece of paper and are asked to draw something representing themselves. Then the teacher can look at the drawing and create sentences in the TL about the student based on what they have on their papers. When I do this activity I have the tendency to say a sentence or two about what my students have drawn and then ask questions as a comprehension check. I have done this activity four times so far: things students like to do, brothers/sisters my students have, pets my students have, and where/when my students were born.

If you are chained to a textbook, you could use this activity at times with new vocabulary that you must present. If the chapter is about leisure activities, have students draw pictures of activities that they like/dislike and ask questions about those activities (You might have questions like this: Classe, Guy n’aime pas nager. Vous aimez nager? Qui aime nager? [Class, Guy doesn’t like to swim. Do you like to swim? Who likes to swim?]) You can also  do this activity with other vocabulary themes, such as family (Classe, Paul a deux soeurs. Vous avez des soeurs? [Class, Paul has two sisters. Do you have sisters? How many?]), jobs (With questions like, Classe, Julien veut être médecin. Vous voulez être médecin? [Class, Julien wants to be a doctor. Do you want to be a doctor?]) and favorite foods (With questions like, Classe, Neha aime la glace. Vous aimez la glace? Qui aime la glace? [Class, Neha likes ice cream. Do you like ice cream? Who likes ice cream?]). Keep in mind, however, that some subjects might not lend themselves to natural, compelling questions. If the questions don’t feel natural, don’t ask them, because otherwise the activity will probably not be very successful.

4. Total Physical Response (TPR). Total Physical Response is a method where students respond to commands in the target language (TL). For the longest time I did TPR with only classroom commands and body parts, but lately I have started branching out and doing this activity with more topics. I have also started adding adverbs to my commands and have begun to tell students the number of times they need to do something, thus giving them a chance to review numbers and add more adverbs to their vocabulary. With visuals of words and expressions, TPR can work with almost any vocabulary list (BTW, I am not big on long, vocabulary lists in textbooks. I aim for depth over breadth, so if you are chained to a textbook I recommend that you pick the most useful words in the vocabulary list to present to your students).

The goal for most CI teachers should be to abandon the traditional textbooks and their curriculum, but in some situations teachers aren’t able to do that. In those cases, the best thing for those people to do is to make those textbook activities output instead of input driven. If anyone has examples of input activities they have created for use with their textbook, let me know!


Input, not Output

This past week has been crazy here in Southern New England, where we are recovering from a brutal storm that left many roads unpassable due to fallen trees and many homes, mine included, without power. School was canceled for two days, which gave me some time to respond to some emails.

Two emails I received were from former colleagues writing to tell me about their journey as they go about transitioning from teaching traditionally to teaching with comprehensible input (CI) approaches. Both of these individuals have been teaching for quite some time, and as excited as they are to start using more CI methods in their classrooms, they can’t wrap their heads around the idea that students don’t have to produce language in class in order to acquire it.

I know that these two lovely ladies are not alone. This is a common idea that many traditional teachers have. It’s the whole idea of “practice makes perfect.” But in this case guys, it just doesn’t. If that were true, we would have a lot more people fluent in a second language in the US thanks to their language study in school. But instead, I end up talking to person after person who wants to tell me how long they studied their second language (usually in a class where the teacher tried to get the kids to produce output) and how little they can actually say today in spite of all those years of language study.

So take a deep breath my friends and repeat after me: Acquisition primarily comes from input, not output. Acquisition comes from understanding the spoken and/or written language that we receive, which helps us form our own internal language systems. Once our internal language system starts to take shape, we can then begin to produce output when ready to do so.

It has taken me a LONG time to come to the realization that it is input that my students need in my classroom to acquire language. When I was a language student, every one of my teachers believed that students had to practice language in order to acquire it. So my classmates and I did substitution drills, repeated after the teacher, and were put on the spot and forced to answer questions that we didn’t always have the language skills to answer. I was also told during my student teaching year by my cooperating teacher that I needed to get students to talk. So I marched into my practice classroom with lessons full of speaking activities. And I put the students on the spot by forcing them to answer questions. Some students were able to answer me, but many students froze and mumbled “I don’t know” in the target language (TL). Even worse, I required students to do paired speaking activities, where 99.9% of the time students would end up speaking in English instead of in the TL after about a minute or two. After doing many activities of this nature, none of my students had furthered their acquisition of the concepts being targeted by the speaking activities I was giving them to do. It was so frustrating, but was absolutely not the students’ fault. It was the fault of bad methodology!

If you have similar occurrences in your classroom, here is my challenge – lay off the output (a bit of output here and there is okay, because according to Bill Van Patten, output can be beneficial if it leads to more input), especially the forced output. At the very least, take one output activity that you might do in your class and turn it into an input activity. Then adapt another and another until you have practically no forced output in your class. You might be surprised how much progress your students make!

But What About Grammar?

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

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

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

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

2. Pop-up Grammar. I first learned about this from Blaine Ray at a TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) workshop. The idea is to teach grammar as needed when it pops up in context. For example, my French 1 class learned about gender of nouns because I had to explain to them why French has two words for a/an: “un” garçon (a boy) and “une” fille (a girl) after they saw those words in a story. And in my Spanish 1 class, students learned that any verb that describes what two people do always ends in the letter -n and any verb that describes was we do ends in -mos. These are concepts I taught when they came up in context in class. Since acquisition is piecemeal, I don’t feel the need to explain every detail about a Pop-Up grammar topic. Students will be exposed to other aspects of that grammar topic over time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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