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.

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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.

 

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Random Thoughts on a Snowy Day

Hi all,

Here in New England I am in the midst of my ninth snow day so far this year. Being stuck in the house all day has given me plenty of time to think about how my school year is going so far. So, in no particular order, here are some of the random thoughts I have had today.

1. Netflix is a great resource for teachers looking to brush up on their language skills. I know that I have posted before about how my language skills have improved by watching TV, and I am so impressed by how much my language has progressed that I just HAD to mention it again. Netflix is THE place to go to find TV shows to watch in almost any language. Now the company has started producing its own TV shows, and the Netflix originals have both audio and subtitles in multiple languages. For example, the Netflix show The Crown is available with audio in English, French, Spanish, and Italian and can be watched with subtitles in French, Spanish, and both traditional and simplified Chinese (this means nothing to me, but it will probably mean something to you if you are a Chinese teacher). And the number of international shows you can find on Netflix is mind-boggling! Unfortunately, many of these shows are not appropriate to show in a K-12 classroom, but they are great for teachers to use to keep up their own personal practice.

2. Special Person Interviews are a great way to help beginning students acquire language. I wrote about Special Person Interviews in this post, but wanted to revisit the topic now that I am done with them in my first year French classes. After listening to seventeen Special Person interviews, my students are now able to do the following:

  • say dates correctly in French
  • talk about people’s likes and dislikes using  a definite article
  • talk about the makeup of people’s families
  • give the names of different classes in French
  • give the names of multiple animals in French
  • give the names of many different foods in French
  • describe people and things using correct French word order (noun followed by adjective)
  • use the verb “avoir” in idiomatic expressions to discuss people’s ages and fears
  • identify French numbers
  • use “de” with negation
  • use the conditional form of “être” and “acheter” to say what people would be or what people would buy
  • use the imperfect form of “être” to talk about what was or were

Obviously, some of my students can do the above list of things better than others, but they are all on their way to acquiring the expressions needed to do the items on this list. And here is the best part – they can do the things on this list even though they have received NO EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION on any of the topics listed above.

3. Lately I have been thinking about teaching vocabulary in novels. In this post I talked about Jason Fritze’s template for planning to teach a novel. The template is fantastic and helps a teacher think about words and expressions that need to be pre-taught before a class reads a novel together. Most teacher’s guides that accompany novels have sections with activities that teachers can use to acquaint students with vocabulary included in a novel before they begin each chapter.

But then I bought the Teacher’s Guide to Brandon Brown Veut un Chien by Carol Gaab. I was surprised that I did not find a large number of activities designed to pre-teach vocabulary. Instead, the guide said two things. First of all, it said that, if the book was level appropriate for the class, students should ALREADY be familiar with most of the necessary vocabulary in the text (and if they weren’t they could look in the glossary). Second, it said that if the teacher started reading the chapter slowly, s/he could just translate any new words while reading (maybe writing them on the board for students to refer to). That way teachers wouldn’t get bogged down in pre-reading activities and could start reading the actual story more quickly. And, since the elementary level books tend to repeat vocabulary, students will naturally acquire most new words later on due to repeated exposure.

In my class, I will be starting Brandon Brown Veut un Chien this upcoming week with my seventh grade and La France en Danger with my eighth grade, and I plan to keep the vocabulary pre-teaching to a minimum. Instead I plan to have my students read along with me, stopping frequently to translate unfamiliar words as they appear in the text. Then I will write an unfamiliar word on the board along with its translation in English and, if it is a high frequency word, I will make sure to include that word in any supplementary activities I do in class (Usually reading the novel is only one of three or four activities that I do in any given class, so I will be sure to incorporate those unfamiliar words in one of my other activities).

4. I still hate thematic units. In this post, I talked about how I find thematic units to be rather restrictive and artificial. I still feel this way and have been moving away from thematic units for some time now. But recently Señor Wooly, aka Jim Woolridge, posted this video about how teachers should go about choosing which of his 25 videos to show in class. The message is simple. Instead of trying to find a video to fit with your unit (based on grammar or vocabulary expressions, for example), Jim urges teachers to pick the video based on the story and let the story dictate what vocabulary and grammar expressions the teacher should present to the class. He argues that, if the story is compelling, students will pick up language without even trying and will make an effort to understand language that might be too complicated for them.

I have been trying this for a while, and I have noticed that, as a result, the conversations I have with my students seem much more natural and much less forced. In addition, students are more engaged in these conversations because they know that I have no hidden agenda. I’m not asking them questions about their favorite season because they have to learn seasons vocabulary but because I am genuinely interested in whether or not some of my students hate summer (and those that have parents who work all the time and end up spending most of the summer home alone or stuck watching younger siblings actually do dislike summer). And if students only can produce words for two out of the four seasons in Spanish at the end of the year? Big deal. They are not high frequency words. And speaking of high frequency words, I have noticed that I naturally end up saying these words all the time, which my students are picking up with little effort due to how often I say them.

I’ve just looked out the window and noticed that the snow has stopped and the sun is out. So I will bid you all adieu as I go shovel. Have a great day and cross your fingers that this is the last of the snowy New England winter!

Using an Online Calendar for Input

OMG, you guys, I am SO excited about this site I found online, www.tuerchen.com. This is a cool site that allows you to create your own FREE online calendar. Since I try to start my class with a little calendar talk, this site provides a very cool visual that you can use along with your conversation. And, since, as Carol Gaab says, “The brain craves novelty,” this constantly changing visual can help keep students interested.

How to Create a Custom Calendar

To being, visit tuerchen.com and click “Create Calendar.” The site then will ask you if you plan to use the calendar for private use, which is free (choose this option) or commercial use, for which there is a fee. You will end up on a page that looks something like this:

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The column at the left is where you customize your calendar. You can change the title, colors, the background image and the font. You can also customize how many days you want your calendar to have and add some special effects. Once you have made all your changes here, you can then add some fun stuff to the calendar itself.

Each numbered block on the calendar is actually a door. When you click on each block, you will get a box like this below.

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This pop-up box lets you put an image, video, or gif behind each door. Make sure once you have inserted media behind the doors that you click save. I do not recommend that you insert your media on a projected screen with your class watching because some of the media that pops up when you search is not school appropriate, even if you put in a perfectly innocent search term (I put in “Joyeux Anniversaire,” which is “Happy Birthday” in French and got a cartoon image of two bears mating in the snow. You REALLY have to be careful!).

Once you have finished inserting your media, it’s time to make your calendar go live. Click on “Save and Share” in the top right corner. Be advised that, once the calendar goes live, the doors are not in order. Maybe it is possible to put them in order, but I haven’t figured out how to and I don’t want to, because I can reinforce numbers this way.

Once your calendar goes live it looks something like this, with your media peeking out from behind each door, as in the image below.

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To open each door, just click on it and your media will appear. I project it on my Smart Board so my wiggly middle school students can come up to the front of the room and open a door with a touch of a finger, which I tell them to do in the target language, of course.

How I Use an Online Calendar in Class

I start every class with a bit of small talk about the date, weather, and important events that are coming up. The calendar is a great addition to this conversation. For example, if it is a really cold day (like today, with temperatures in the single digits), a picture of a snow-covered forest illustrates this very well. If it’s a holiday in the French or Spanish speaking word, media about that is a nice addition to a short culture talk about customs surrounding that celebration. Other things that go up on the calendar include students’ birthdays, my children’s birthdays, my wedding anniversary, a vacation week, a field trip day, a playoff game or any other special day worth mentioning. One thing you can’t do with this calendar is open up a door to a date that is in the future, so keep this in mind as you plan out your events.

The site lets you set up multiple calendars, so this year I set up a special December vacation countdown calendar. Each day on my December calendar had a word or expression behind its door that had to do with Christmas, Hanukkah, or winter. As a result, my students acquired some new vocabulary and could use some previously acquired words as well. Also, talking about getting presents is high interest, compelling input, so my students were very engaged.

I’m super excited about all the cool stuff I can do with this calendar! If you think of any other cool ideas on how to use it, let me know!

 

My Day of the Dead Unit

I can’t believe it has been a whole month since I have posted anything!

During the month of October and November, my Spanish classes were talking about the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead and learning to talk about activities they liked and disliked doing. Here are the activities I did in class for this topic. Please note that I only have 45 minute classes and that I have opening and closing activities that I also do in each class. Each one of the activities mentioned below took anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.

  1. Day 1: To start, I showed them this PowerPoint, which had Spanish sentences describing the steps a Mexican family would take to prepare and celebrate Day of the Dead. I did not pre-teach any vocabulary. Instead, I introduced each new word (I have italicized my new words in the questions below) as I presented it, wrote the Spanish and English on the board, and reinforced the word with some circling. I asked questions in Spanish such as, “Is this an ofrenda? Does the ofrenda have candles? How many candles does the ofrenda have? Does the ofrenda have three candles or four candles?” Then students had to read a series of sentences  in Spanish on a worksheet and had to draw an ofrenda based on what they read.
  2. Day 2: I reviewed the information from the PowerPoint I showed in the previous class with an activity that I learned from Carol Gaab. I don’t know what she calls it, but I call it “Rainbow Sentences.” I divided students into groups and gave them strips of laminated paper, each one a different color of the rainbow. First the students arranged the colored papers in the order that they appear in a rainbow (Do you guys remember ROYGBIV?). I had prepared a Word document with sentences from the previous day’s PowerPoint described the steps a Mexican family would take to prepare and celebrate the holiday, but this time they were not in chronological order. Each sentence was a different color of the rainbow, ranging from red to purple. I told the groups that each colored paper corresponded with a sentence of the same color on the Word document. Then I had the groups work together to put the sentences in order by rearranging the order of the colored strips of paper. Then we reviewed the sentences in chronological order.
  3. Day 3: We started the day by talking about activities students liked to do. I projected a document with different activities on it that I knew most of the students in my class would like. Then we did a round of “Soy yo,” where I would say a sentence in Spanish stating that I liked an activity (For example: A mí me gusta jugar al beisbol), and anyone who liked that activity stood up and said “Soy yo.” (This game is based on the song “Soy yo” by Bomba Estéreo and an activity from Jason Fritze that I adapted). I kept count of how many students liked what. Once I was done with all the expressions on the document we talked as a class about what the most and least popular activities are. Then I had the students guess which activities they thought I liked to do. Some of them were very surprised to find out that I liked to play basketball and video games and that I didn’t like to go shopping!
  4. Day 4: We played a round of Four Corners (see this post for a description of this activity) with the activities from the previous class. I asked in Spanish, “Do you like to dance?” My four corners had signs that said “I like it a lot,” “I like it a little,” “I don’t like it, ” and “I don’t know.” Students moved to the appropriate corner based on their own preferences. Then we talked about calacas, which are skeleton decorations for Day of the Dead. I projected pictures of calacas doing various activities and the students and I talked about what each calaca liked to do. Then I gave each student a plastic skeleton (thank you, Oriental Trading!) which they then used to create a diorama depicting the calaca doing something in a shoe box (Note: I started saving, collecting, and asking students to bring in shoe boxes way back in September for this project).
  5. Day 5: Students brought in their dioramas (Note: I gave this project assignment to my students on Day 1 so that they could get started on it if they wanted to. Also, I don’t have Spanish class on Friday, so when I assigned this project students had three days to work on it, and even more time if they had started on Day 1 when I gave them the sheet describing the assignment) and placed them on their desk. I spent time in class using some circling techniques to ask questions about each student’s diorama (Class, does Trevor’s calaca like to skate? No?  Does he like to ski? No? Does he like to play baseball? Yes, he likes to play baseball.).
  6. Day 6: Students put their diorama on their desk. I had prepared a Word document with a list of “I like” statements based on the dioramas the students had done. I gave a copy to each student and had them walk around the room, look at everyone’s diorama, and write the name of the student whose diorama illustrated one of the sentences on the document. Then we reviewed those sentences as a class.
  7. Day 7: Assessment day. I had students match Spanish sentences to an appropriate illustration. The sentences either stated what people liked to do or were about the Day of the Dead tradition.

Here are a few important things I should mention:

  1. I was obligated to do the diorama and am not normally a teacher who does projects in class.  If you are not into crafts, you could have your students draw or print out a picture representing something they like to do instead of making a diorama.
  2. I did this activity with 5th graders who have had three years of Spanish at the elementary school. That being said, I but would do it as well with any middle school or level 1 class.
  3. In future years, I might include some scenes from the movie The Book of Life or Coco in this plan. For example, I know that the grandmother in Coco has a very realistic ofrenda in her house that I might display after talking about this tradition.

All in all, this was a great unit! Does anyone else do something cool to teach about Day of the Dead?

Don’t Knock What You Don’t Understand

I took a new job this year. I left a high school position as a French and Spanish teacher after fourteen years and am now working in a different school district doing ESL in the elementary school and both French and Spanish in a middle school.

This weekend I talked to a student at my former high school. He told me that his Spanish teacher, who is both traditional and textbook-driven, told the student’s class that she did not like Señor Wooly (BTW if you teach Spanish and have not visited his website, you are missing out). She told them that she thought his music videos were stupid and a waste of class time.

Guys, this made me really, REALLY angry. First of all, she broke what I think is the cardinal rule of teaching, which is that you absolutely DO NOT badmouth other teachers or their methods to students. Not ever. Although I never approved of this teacher’s methods or the ridiculous amount of busywork she made the students do outside of class, I NEVER shared those feelings with my students. Whenever students tried to complain about her to me I would say, “Mrs. So-and-so is an excellent teacher and you will learn a lot in her class (Of course, if you are familiar with the idea of learning a language as opposed to acquiring a language, you understand what I really mean by “You will learn a lot.” My students did not understand this distinction, so I could be truthful and it sounded as if I was complementing the teacher even though I wasn’t really.).” When they complained that she gave a lot of homework I would say, “I’m sorry she gives so much homework. We have different teaching philosophies and she believes that homework is an essential part of her class.” I tried to be as diplomatic as possible, because criticizing another teacher is unbelievably unprofessional, not to mention petty and disrespectful.

But the main reason why I am so angry is because this teacher talked so negatively about Señor Wooly and the amazing work he does. It’s like saying that Adele can’t sing or Usain Bolt is a lousy runner. Using this site has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching career for both me and my students, and here are some of the many reasons why:

1. His videos are compelling. According to Dr. Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis, people acquire language when exposed to compelling, comprehensible input. Furthermore, acquiring a second language should be a subconscious process. When my students are so caught up in the story of whether Billy la Bufanda would ever be reunited with his Botas Queridas or were trying to guess who trapped the “Ganga” shopkeeper in an unending, hellish time loop, students got so caught up in the compelling story that they didn’t even realize they are acquiring language. That was exactly what I wanted.

2. His videos are comprehensible. Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis states that input must be compelling AND comprehensible in order for acquisition to take place. That is why the Señor Wooly site provides downloadable materials to ensure that students understand, such as lyrics sheets in Spanish and English and worksheets that teachers can use to preteach vocabulary. In addition, students can watch his videos with subtitles in either Spanish or English, which aids in comprehension and subsequently leads to acquisition.

3. The songs in the music video are very repetitive. Anyone who has ever tried to remember something has tried repeating it over and over again, whether it be someone’s phone number or a formula needed for a math test. Acquiring new words or expressions in a second language also requires hearing those words and expressions multiple times (Blaine Ray, who created the comprehensible input-based method TPRS, said in one of his workshops that the average student needed to hear a word anywhere between 50 and 70 times before s/he could acquire it, but I have been unable to find the research from which he got those figures). Repetition is the concept upon which Rosetta Stone, DuoLingo, and other computer-based programs have built their (superboring) curricula. When students hear Justin ask in Spanish multiple times if he can go to the bathroom, figuring out what to say when they need to use the bathroom becomes easy. When Victor removes his wig and confesses in Spanish that he is “bald, completely bald,” students will probably never look at the word “calvo” without knowing what the word means.

4. The nuggets provide meaningful homework and even more repetition. I love that I can give homework using the Señor Wooly site. If you have a PRO subscription, it comes with 160 student accounts. Each video has ten “nuggets,” which are activities that students can complete. The task is different in each nugget, but all involve either reading lyrics, looking at stills from the video, or watching small segments of the video. All activities are designed to give students more repetition, which results in more acquisition.

5. Each video comes with teacher “extras,” which is all any teacher needs to plan lessons around the video. Teachers have so much stuff they can use to supplement videos, such as multiple worksheets for use before, during, and after viewing, embedded readings, the above mentioned “nuggets” that students can complete either in or out of class, a slideshow of stills from the video to use for Movie Talks, games students can play, and more.

6. His videos are silly and fun. My students used to get very excited when I told them we were watching a new Señor Wooly video. While I was happy that they liked the videos, the fact that they are silly and fun is also important in language acquisition. According to Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis, negative emotions and stress raise a person’s Affective Filter, which is the “screen” that can prevent input from getting to the brain and thus impede acquisition. When my students are laughing at the male doctor in “Ya Está Muerto” for wanting to put a dead man’s heart in a backpack, I know their affective filters are low and that their brains are open to receiving input.

7. When the teacher is sick, s/he can use Señor Wooly for substitute plans. I was very sick last October and missed three days of school. Watching the “Puedo ir al baño” video, and doing the accompanying worksheets and nuggets were all part of my substitute plans. Even though the substitute spoke no Spanish, my students were still receiving compelling, comprehensible input as they worked quietly on the classroom computers or their phones to complete their work. And the best part was that it took me all of five minutes to pull the lessons together, which meant I could relax and focus on getting better instead of stressing out about what kind of plans to send in or whether my students were behaving.

I know that eventually I will stop seething in anger when I talk about this former colleague of mine and her unnecessary trash talk. In the meantime, I can console myself in knowing that her comments originated out of ignorance. She has no knowledge of second language acquisition theory and, as a result, cannot see how the design of the entire site is based on that theory. She also did not get to witness the incredible progress my students made in my class last year, which was partially due to watching Señor Wooly videos and doing their accompanying activities. And finally, she never accessed the site itself and saw all the awesome teacher extras available (I gave her a coupon with a free trial one day in the Staff Room and she left it on the table. Grrrr.). I guess some people are too stubborn, shortsighted, set in their ways, and close-minded to explore, adapt, and change. As Señor Wooly would say, “¡Qué asco!”

How It All Began

Today when I was on my way to the gym I tried to figure out how long I have been teaching using comprehensible input strategies. I guess that I have been dabbling with CI for about seven or eight years. And while I don’t know exactly when I started, I definitely know how it began.

It all started when a colleague of mine named George had a Spanish 2 class next door to my Spanish 1 class. His class was small and made up almost entirely of students who had barely passed Spanish 1. They were nice kids but hated to study and do homework. In addition, they were very social and loved being the center of attention. A class that was made up entirely of boys, George christened this group “The Tough Customers.” At first, George taught his class using traditional grammar/vocabulary lessons, but the students hated learning Spanish that way and completely tuned out. Some of them began to be disruptive in class, and their relationship with George began to deteriorate. After about a month of being frustrated, George finally threw in the towel one Friday, when that class met last period of the day before a long weekend, and just started talking to them in Spanish and asking them questions about themselves. George was both surprised and pleased that this approach worked so well. He then began using some Total Physical Response and playing a wide variety of games in class. Pretty soon the kids were actually looking forward to coming to class. Shortly after that, he went to his first TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling) conference, and after that he completely changed the way he was teaching in all classes. It was George who gave me my first book about TPRS (a book which in some circles is called The Green Bible) and shortly thereafter I went to my first TPRS conference.

When I went to my first TPRS conference, Blaine Ray, our presenter, taught the conference attendees German. It was amazing how much German I could speak and understand after just one short TPRS lesson! Some of the words and expressions I learned in that conference I still know today. After that conference, I was convinced that TPRS was the best way to help students acquire a second language.

Old habits, however, are hard to break, especially when one’s department head, who was very much a traditionalist, doesn’t approve of your new approach. I was chastised repeatedly for not following our curriculum and not explicitly teaching grammar. So unfortunately, the pressure got to me and I compromised, using a hybrid approach that was part TPRS and part traditional grammar/vocabulary lessons. We would spend a week doing TPRS and then go back to traditional grammar/vocabulary activities the next week. And what I found was that my students made a ton of progress during our TPRS week but would then regress when we switched over to the grammar/vocabulary lessons the following week. And each year, the pressure to follow our curriculum and my desire not to get in hot water with my department head drove me to do less and less TPRS and more and more grammar/vocabulary lessons (although to be fair, my department head didn’t get too critical of my teaching methods. I think my own lack of knowledge and confidence played a role in fueling my anxiety). It was frustrating. I began considering a career outside of the classroom and soon got certified to be a school librarian so I could leave my failed language teacher career behind.

Unable to find a library job, I had no choice but to try to make language teaching work. I looked for some professional development and ended up going to the ACTFL convention in Boston in November of 2016, where I attended a number of great workshops. It was here that I learned that TPRS is not the only method that helps student acquire a second language using comprehensible input (CI), and I was able to explore some other approaches. I also listened to Stephen Krashen talk about his research findings, which demonstrated that teaching using comprehensible input is the best way to help students acquire a second language. I met Carol Gaab and Kristy Palacio from Fluency Matters and learned more about how to use novels in a second language classroom. I met Señor Wooly, whose music videos and activities (all based on CI research) are so popular in Spanish classrooms around the country. I met Jason Fritze and Grant Boulanger, both honored CI teachers who helped me connect with other CI teachers across the country through social media. Those two days in Boston were by far the two most rewarding days of professional development I’ve ever had! After the conference was over, I started reading anything and everything I could get my hands on about comprehensible input. I read a number of articles from Stephen Krashen’s website about second language acquisition (SLA) theory. Then I read this book by Bill Van Patten (more SLA theory) and subscribed to his weekly podcast, Tea With BVP, on which he talks about SLA theory and methods. I joined a TPRS group and a CI group on Facebook, where I learned about Story Listening through the work of Beniko Mason Nanki and The Invisibles through the work of Ben Slavic. And I read a ton of blogs about CI (I highly recommend blogs by Martina Bex, Keith Toda, and Mike Peto).

So, armed with a ton of knowledge about SLA and teaching with CI, I summoned up the courage to throw out those grammar/vocabulary lessons and transition to comprehensible input with all my classes. I feel confident should my department head question my techniques due to the research I have done recently on second language acquisition, and I’m encouraged by the feedback I’m getting from my students. Recently I asked my student Chris O., who was my student last year when I was still doing the hybrid TPRS and grammar/vocabulary lessons about what he thought about the way I have changed my teaching recently. “It’s way better,” he told me. “When I come to class, it doesn’t feel like a traditional school class.” “But are you learning anything?” I asked, “and do you feel that you are acquiring language?” He looked at me like that was the stupidest question ever. “Of course I am,” he said, and then he reported that he felt that it was much easier now to read and write in the second language than it was for him at the beginning of the year (partially due to the fact that we do timed writings and silent sustained reading in class on a regular basis). In another class, I have third-year students who had a traditional teacher for the last two years. While they resisted my lessons at first, they have started to come around. This is partially due to the fact that I give way less homework than their previous teacher but partially due to the fact that they can see that it is possible for them to learn language without doing grammar drills and memorizing vocabulary lists.

That is how I ended up where I am today, although my CI journey is far from over. I should also add that I am really happy that I never found a library job, because I am loving what I am doing in my classroom these days!

 

Brandon Brown Veut un Chien

At the ACTFL convention in Boston this past November, I bought about 20 books from TPRS Books and Fluency Matters. One of the books was a simple reader intended for novice speakers of French called Brandon Brown Veut un Chien (Fluency Matters has this book in French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and Chinese and I think Russian as well) by Carol Gaab. On a lark, my nine-year-old son and I started reading it together. Before opening this book, the only French my son knew were numbers up to ten thanks to my continual playing of the Hamilton soundtrack and how to say “Bonjour” from the many times his sister forced him watch Beauty and the Beast. But other than that, he knew no French.

We’ve been reading the book a little bit each night and just finished Chapter Two. It is really amazing how much French he has picked up in such a short period of time. We went out to dinner with my parents and he spoke to them in French in relatively complete sentences for about three minutes. Everyone at the table was really impressed. What’s more, he is really enjoying reading the book and it doesn’t feel like work to him. And he is so proud of being able to speak in French and understand me when I speak to him. I’ve started speaking to him in French at least once a day in addition to the reading.

This little anecdote to me illustrates the incredible power of using comprehensible input to acquire language. To quote the Monkees, I’m a believer!

Next up – I’m going to try to read the same book translated into Italian to brush up on my own language skills. My Italian is sooooo rusty.