Random Notes from Conferences

I’ve decided that it’s time to get rid of some of the clutter in my home à la Marie Kondo. I came across a large number of notebooks in which I took notes at various conferences I attended in the past four years. Before I toss them, I decided to save some of the most important takeaways here in this blog post. In no particular order, here are some of the big takeaways I have from those events.

Notes from a TPRS workshop with Craig Sheehy and Mike Coxon

  • Authentic texts are not necessarily good sources of comprehensible input if they have too many unfamiliar words, especially for Novice students (read more about this here).
  • The best comprehensible input is RICH (Repetitive, Interesting, Comprehensible and full of High-frequency words).
  • Language is only input if it is used to communicate a message. Language used as practice is NOT input so it does not lead to gains in acquisition (research on that can be found here).
  • Dr. Bill VanPatten says that in language acquisition, there are no language errors, just different stages of language development (see more about this here).
  • Dr. Bill VanPatten also says that explicit correction of so-called student “errors” will not accelerate acquisition or increase accuracy (see more about this here).
  • For teachers, delivering input is like a friendly game of catch. Teachers should use nice, easy language with no fastballs (talking too fast) and no curveballs (using too much unfamiliar language).
  • Teachers who teach gestures along with high-frequency words can then use those gestures as non-verbal prompting when students try to produce language.
  • If it’s at all possible, teach students, not curriculum, meaning that it’s inappropriate to move on if students haven’t mastered current material.

Notes from a Classroom Management Workshop with Jon Cowart

  • Students need explicit instructions about when they’re expected to use the target language, when they can use English, and what to do if they don’t understand. These instructions will most likely need to be repeated frequently.
  • For accountability, have students self-assess their engagement and behavior.
  • If you give students directions but some are slow to comply, praising and/or thanking the students who have already followed the direction may be the catalyst needed for other students to comply, thus eliminating the need to repeat the direction or singling out students who haven’t followed it yet.
  • If the majority of a class is not following a certain rule, do a whole class reset. Stop teaching, review class rules, practice the correct behavior, discuss why the class follows rules, and try again to get back to the lesson.
  • If one or only a few students are not following a certain rule, try norming the error. Stop teaching, explain what went wrong, state what should have happened, and give the students a chance to redeem themselves once you start teaching again.
  • When praising students for good behavior, be SPECIFIC with your praise. Name the desirable action the student is doing.

Notes from a Classroom Jobs Workshop with John Sifert

  • Classroom jobs create a better sense of community, relieve and reduce teacher stress, and can improve classroom management.
  • Jobs in a CI language class fall into three categories: classroom management, story jobs, and language management jobs.
  • Classroom management jobs include: materials distributors/collectors; people in charge of the door, phone, and lights; attendance takers; nurse (in charge of Band-Aids and Kleenex); and boss (reminds people to do their job, recommends firing or promoting people).
  • Story jobs include: actors, quiz writers, illustrators, colorists, and Professor #2 (the person who gets to decide things when the teacher doesn’t).
  • Language jobs include: timekeepers (tracks how many minutes can the class stay in the target language), English police (politely reminds students speaking in English to try to talk in the Target language if possible).
  • Make sure to post jobs (preferably in the target language) so it’s easier for people to remember what they have to do.
  • Take volunteers for jobs first and try only to assign them if you don’t have enough volunteers.

Backwards Planning with Jessica Haxhi

  • Backwards Planning refers to creating units starting with the end goal in mind.
  • The first step in Backwards Planning is to identify the goals students should meet. Teachers should set realistic goals based on the students’ proficiency level and they should be able to write 2-3 Can-Do Statements based on the goal.
  • The second step in Backwards Planning is to create an assessment to measure how well students can meet the goal set in Step 1. Jessica suggests that students have a choice in how they wish to be assessed and the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency in all three modes (Interpretive, Interpersonal, and Presentational).
  • The third step in Backwards Planning is to determine what vocabulary and language structures students need to demonstrate proficiency and reach the desired end goal.

Unit Planning with Arianne Dowd

  • When planning a unit, choose the topic based on your passions or interests.
  • If you can’t think of a topic, visit other teachers’ blog posts or Pinterest accounts, such as Leslie Grahn’s Pinterest page, grahn for Lang.
  • Base your unit on an authentic resource you love. Then determine what vocabulary students will need in order to make the resource accessible to students.
  • If possible, include a cultural comparison in your unit, where students compare what they see in the resource with their own cultural products, practices, or perspectives.

Teaching With Comprehensible Input with Gary DiBianca

  • Students are prepped for success if they feel that they are in a safe environment (Safe environment = low affective filter = greater chance of acquisition)
  • If you teach with comprehensible input, its important to talk to students about second language acquisition and how the way you teach facilitates it.
  • Set expectations quickly and be consistent in enforcing them.
  • Show students that you care about them and their success.
  • Check often to see that students understand.
  • Gestures, word walls, visuals, and props can all aide in comprehension.
  • Levels of chunking language: single word, word pairs, word with prepositions, full sentences.
  • Try to change activities every ten minutes to keep students engaged.
  • Steps for Total Physical Response: Say and model, Say but don’t model, Say two commands in a row, Say two commands in a row with students’ eyes closed, Say three commands in a row, Say and add details.
  • A TPRS story only needs 5-6 sentences.
  • Classic TPRS story frame: A character has a problem and tries to solve it in three ways.
  • Follow up a TPRS story with a pre-written text of with a Write and Discuss activity.
  • Novel ways to reuse language: Songs, Picture Talk, videos, fairy tales, simple biographies, legends, and games.
  • Rereading activities: Choral translation, pair reading, drawing comics from a reading, true/false questions in English, comprehension questions about the text.
  • 5 ways to assess: Simple translation, listening comprehension, dictation, story retells, and timed writing.
  • Before starting a novel, plan prereading and post reading activities ahead of time for each chapter.
  • If you do Calendar Talk, lead students in conversation at the beginning of the month and fill out a calendar for the month based on what students say (one calendar for each class).

Equity and Social Justice in Lesson Planning with Dr. José Medina

  • Everyone has unconscious biases which find their way into lesson planning if teachers are not careful.
  • Whether teachers acknowledge it or not, lesson planning is a political act based on what teachers choose to amplify or ignore in their units.
  • Teachers need to examine their practices through a social justice and equity lens.
  • When lessons planning, plan with a content, language, and culture target in mind.
  • Try to connect the culture learning target to self, community, and the real world
  • The language target is the most important target.

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.

A Valuable Learning Experience

Even though I have been teaching French and Spanish for over twenty years, I still have those days when my lesson plan blows up in my face. I had a day like that this week, which turned into a valuable learning experience for me. But before I tell you what happened, let me give you a little background.

When I first started teaching French and Spanish, one of the issues I had was that I was constantly overestimating my students’ ability in the target language (TL). Many times I gave my students an assignment or an assessment that I thought they could handle only to watch them struggle unsuccessfully and become frustrated.

It was only after I had been teaching for a while that I learned about how much time it takes to advance in language proficiency and what students are capable of doing at their current proficiency level. I found this chart below to be very valuable.


Once I saw this chart, I realized that the language in some of the assignments and assessments I was giving was way too advanced for my students’ proficiency level. For example, students at the end of a first-year class usually end up at a Novice Mid level of proficiency. According to the performance indicators created by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL), language learners at this level have a very limited vocabulary. That vocabulary is made up of mostly high frequency and memorized expressions. In addition, they can understand single, isolated phrases, especially if those phrases include cognates and borrowed words. It is only when students reach an Intermediate level that they start understanding paragraph-length text (for more about what learners can do at different language proficiency levels, click here).

Armed with this new insight, I went back to my first-year class and adjusted my expectations. I began telling stories in isolated sentences. And while I still gave students paragraphs to read, I made sure that those paragraphs were full of high frequency words that my students had already seen multiple times in class, and even then I never gave them a paragraph that had more than three or four sentences in it. I also learned to adjust my assessments so students could be successful and not become frustrated my language that was too complex.

So now that you have a little background on how I try to make sure that I give my students activities that they are capable of doing at their proficiency level, let me go back and tell you what happened last week.

My fifth grade Spanish class recently watched the movie Coco. When the movie was over, I gave them a worksheet to complete. Students had to identify the names of members in the family of the protagonist, a boy names Miguel, based on one-sentence descriptions in Spanish. For copyright reasons, I cannot post that worksheet here, so I will do my best to describe it.

The worksheet has two pictures, one of the living members of Miguel’s family and one of the deceased members. Then the page has seventeen clues to the identity of a character in one of the pictures that the students had to match to a person in one of the pictures. With the sentence-length clues and abundance of family vocabulary that they already knew (but which was translated on the Smart Board in case they forgot essential family words), I figured that my students would breeze through that worksheet. Boy, was I wrong.

So what happened? Why did so many students struggle so much on this assignment even though I made sure the language was right at their assumed proficiency level? After speaking with a colleague and doing some reflection on my own, I have a few ideas about what happened.

First, the worksheet asked students to remember the names of all the major characters, whose names we heard many times, as well as minor characters, who only appeared in one or two scenes and whose names were only said once or twice, if at all. I didn’t have a problem filling out the worksheet because I have already seen the movie four or five times. I failed to put myself in the shoes of my students, who were seeing the movie for the first time over a period of three, non-consecutive days and were not as familiar as I was with the details of the film.

Second, I failed to take into account how overwhelming it would be for my fifth graders to read seventeen sentences in Spanish. It overwhelmed many of them, who started to shut down after the tenth sentence, if not earlier. I probably could have given high schoolers seventeen sentences, but not ten-year-olds.

Third, although I translated some unfamiliar words for students on the board, many of them forgot those words were there. So much incomprehensible language caused them to panic, which raised their Affective Filter and impeded acquisition. In addition, I had over twenty words translated on the board. Just seeing the length of that list was probably enough to freak out some of my students. In retrospect, I should have known that having to translate that many words would make the worksheet problematic.

And finally, I lost sight of what I really wanted to do with the worksheet. My main goal was not to see if they remembered the name of Miguel’s great-great-grandmother. The goal was for them to read sentences in Spanish that would, with any luck, provide the comprehensible input they needed to advance their own language proficiency. If I had remembered this, I would have been able to recognize that the worksheet I had for them was not going to do that.

After some reflection, I came up with a set of guidelines I plan to use in the future to assess whether or not texts are too difficult for my students.

1. Make sure the text is at an appropriate proficiency level for students. I will continue to refrain from giving my Novice students paragraph-length texts unless it has simple, predictable language and, when appropriate, visual support.

2. Make sure the text is not too long. If I give my Novice students sentence-length text, I will limit the number of sentences I give them so they don’t become overwhelmed and I will take into account my students’ age and maturity too.

3. Limit the number of words that need to be translated and put those translations near the text so they are easy to see. Having multiple words translated along with a text doesn’t automatically make a text comprehensible.

4. Don’t lose sight of the real reason students are interacting with the text. The main goal of the text is to facilitate language acquisition and check comprehension, and it’s not worth using if it is too long or complex to do that.

I’m going to alter this Coco worksheet for use next year. I plan to eliminate clues about the minor characters in the movie.  That should reduce the number of sentences students need to read and, with any luck, not overwhelm them. Second, I plan to rewrite some of the clues so the language is more comprehensible to my students. And finally, I may split up clues and separate them into a group about the living members of the family and another group about the deceased members of the family.  Since I will be creating the new worksheet(s) myself, I won’t have to worry about copyright infringement. You can expect to see my altered version(s) on my Spanish Resources page.

My Awesome News

As I have said previously in posts in this blog, I started a new job this year. As I mentioned in this post, my current students are making excellent progress. I continue to be pleasantly surprised when I hear the language my students are starting to produce, and am even more impressed by how much they understand. My four evaluations have all been fantastic due to the high level of student engagement in my classes. And I recently received some awesome news that I wanted to share with all of you.

At my new school, sixth graders take a quarter of each of the four languages we offer (French, Spanish, Latin, or German). Then in the late spring they choose which language they wish to pursue as seventh graders. I’m happy to report that French (which I teach) was the most popular choice this year, with almost 40% of sixth graders choosing to take French in the seventh grade next year.

This result took me completely by surprise, for two main reasons. First of all, French is NEVER the most popular language choice. In my area, Spanish is thought to be the most useful language to study. And in my school, Latin is very popular because it is taught by an engaging teacher who doesn’t assign homework. If you had asked me which language would be the most popular choice among our sixth graders this year, I would have guessed that it would be Spanish, for how practical most people think it is today, or Latin, for its popularity among students who don’t like to do schoolwork outside of class.

The second reason why I was so surprised that French was the most popular choice of language is because I underestimated how positively students would respond to a class taught with CI, most likely due to the fact that the world language department at my previous school disapproved of CI methods. Over the ten years that I taught using a CI approach there I never had anyone I worked with complement me or support what I did in my classroom (For example, on one occasion I proudly showed my department head a set of beautiful free writes. She picked up one and started criticizing all the grammar mistakes the student had made and asked why I hadn’t corrected them. As you may already know, second language acquisition theory states that error correction doesn’t help students improve their language skills).

I was the misfit of the world language department, and even though I knew that teaching with CI was better for my students, I think subconsciously a part of me wondered if maybe the traditional teachers in my department were right. After all, they had the respect of the school administration and students, who believed that a traditional textbook approach was the only effective way to study a second language, and support from the entire textbook industry, who continued creating traditional materials for their use in the world language classroom. I guess a part of me always felt that, if so many people seemed to think that a traditional textbook approach was the best approach to language study, maybe they were right and it was my approach that was wrong.

Learning that French was the most popular choice at my new school for the upcoming year has erased all those doubts I had about teaching with CI. It has given me a sense of validation I didn’t have at my last job. I am so excited for next year, and I can’t wait to see what my students are able to do with the language at the end of the academic year. And by the end of eighth grade, they are going to be amazing!

I didn’t share my news with you because I want to brag about how awesome I am. I’m not the sort of person who toots her own horn. I wrote this because I hoped that it would encourage all you lone CI teachers in a traditional, textbook-driven department to persevere and stay the course. Having to work in an environment with little support from fellow language teachers and superiors can be difficult and depressing. It can make any CI teacher second guess what they do in their classrooms. I hope you can get some strength from my story and recent success. And if you can’t find the support that you need in your world language department, reach out and find that support online in the wonderful online CI community that supported me when I was struggling at my last job. Hang in there and don’t doubt yourself or the awesome power of teaching with CI.


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?

Rethinking Curriculum in a CI Classroom

A Hebrew teacher recently posted this question on the Facebook CI Liftoff page:

“If you were involved in a shift [of] a group of teachers to CI from traditional language teaching and they repeatedly expressed a need for materials and a scope and sequence, how would you guide them?

Then on the Facebook IFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching page, a Spanish teacher said this:

“As I make the transition from traditional teaching methodologies to CI I still find myself struggling with the WHAT TO TEACH…I feel like there should be some sort of grammatical checklist for each level.”

In both cases, teachers who have made the shift from traditional teaching to teaching with comprehensible input (CI) are struggling with what their curriculum should look like. This made me think about my own struggles surrounding the idea of what a curriculum looks like in a CI classroom.

When I was a traditional teacher, I had a textbook with a scope and sequence that listed vocabulary words, grammar structures, and cultural topics that I needed to cover. Then when I made the switch to teaching with CI, I tried at first to use a traditional scope and sequence, meaning that I was still thinking about what I had to “cover.” I did this partially because my department required me to present certain material to my students depending on what level they were in and partially because I hadn’t had much training yet in teaching with CI. At the time, I was teaching at a high school that followed a pretty standard curriculum. I was required to include certain grammar topics and vocabulary lists in each level. I was not satisfied with this approach, however, because I found that being required to include certain material was counterproductive to my main goal, which was to help my students become more proficient in the language.

Then I was lucky enough to get a new job at a middle school, where I was given complete freedom over what and how I planned to teach. The Latin teacher at my new school is very well-read about teaching with CI, and the two of us started having a preliminary discussion about converting our traditional grading practices into a report about student proficiency levels. We plan to base those levels on the proficiency levels provided the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). ACTFL assesses language proficiency based on the following levels: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished. Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced are also divided into Low, Mid, and High based on what students can do with the language. As we started talking more about converting our grading practices, I realized that if I was going to grade students based on proficiency levels, then I needed to plan my instruction to help students reach that desired level (I only do Level 1 split up over two years, grades 7 and 8, so my goal was to help students reach Novice High by the end of Grade 8).

ACTFL proficiency levels do NOT specify topics that teachers are supposed to cover. For example, you can reach an advanced level of proficiency without being able to name all the parts of an automobile or every fruit and vegetable in existence (both of which I have had to teach at some point). Instead, ACTFL describes TYPES of topics that language students should be able to communicate about. These topics are “familiar and everyday ” at the Novice and Intermediate levels, “familiar as well as unfamiliar” at the Advanced level, “abstract and hypothetical” at the Superior level, and “highly abstract concepts” at the Distinguished level (You can read more about the ACTFL proficiency levels here and here). So in regards to the question posted by the Hebrew teacher that I referenced at the beginning of this post, I would say that, when forming a scope and sequence, focus on topics based on the level of your students. So for students at the Novice level, plan instruction in familiar topics such as family, school, the weather, and student interests. At the Intermediate level, branch out to include other familiar and everyday topics such as dining, popular sports, and shopping. At the Advanced level, start adding lessons about unfamiliar topics like cultural or historical topics of significance (Generally speaking, however, unless language instruction begins early, most students do not reach the Advanced level. According to this study, most students in a traditional four-year language program reach a Novice High or, at best, an Intermediate Low level of proficiency, which means it might not be necessary to plan an Advanced level scope and sequence unless instruction starts at the early elementary level).

Equally important to mention is that fact that not until the Advanced level do the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines mention anything even remotely grammatical in nature. At this level, language students are supposed to be able to communicate consistently “across major time frames.” So in classes where the overwhelming majority of my students were at Novice levels (and again, according to this study, these were not just first-year students), why was I trying to make them memorize things like conditional verb forms, relative pronouns, and si clauses when, according to their proficiency level, they could only communicate in or understand simple sentences? Wasn’t it a waste of time to try to force them to say “If you had a million dollars, would you buy a very expensive Italian car?” when, based on their proficiency level, they were only able to say “Do you want a Ferrari?” That’s like making students run a marathon after they have only ever run a 5K! So in response to the question posted by the Spanish teacher that I referenced at the beginning of this post, I would say no, you absolutely do NOT need a grammar checklist for each level. What you need to do is provide input in all major time frames (past, present, and future) and concentrate on improving their proficiency level by exposing them to language about familiar topics at the Novice level and familiar and everyday topics at the Intermediate level.

So here is the big takeaway from this long post, my friends. To rethink curriculum for a CI class, don’t think about what topics you need to cover. Instead, focus on what your students can do at their proficiency level and what you want them to be able to do so that they maintain and/or advance proficiency levels. For what it’s worth, free voluntary reading (FVR) is a great component to any language class and will definitely help your students become more proficient in their target language. If you would like to learn more about FVR, click here.

Have a great end of 2017 guys!

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!

My First Language Presentation

This Saturday I am going to the annual Rhode Island Foreign Language Association (RIFLA) conference. While I have been to this conference many times, for the first time ever I will be leading a workshop. My workshop is about second language acquisition (SLA) theory and comprehensible input (CI) methods. It is a pretty basic presentation that I designed for teachers with little knowledge of either SLA theory or teaching with CI. To be honest, I am pretty nervous. Although I am a fairly good presenter, I have never presented to a group of teachers before. Teachers can, unfortunately, be a tough audience.

What I have tried very, very hard to do in my presentation is steer clear of criticizing traditional methods too harshly, even though I find that so many of the things done in traditional classrooms do not lead to language acquisition. Instead, I have chosen to discuss methods that DO lead to language acquisition.

If anyone is interested in seeing my presentation, it is available below. I give anyone permission to use it as inspiration as long as I am credited.

Second Language Theory Put Into Practice

Wish me luck guys!

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!”