Teaching Level 1 Themes with Comprehensible Input

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Thoughts on Student Input

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My Thoughts on Student Output

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Output into Input

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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!”

Grading Practices in a CI Classroom

Making the switch from teaching traditionally to teaching with comprehensible input (CI) is causing me to rethink everything I have been doing in my classroom, and particularly my grading practices.

In my department, we have the following grading categories: Tests 40%, Quizzes 25%, Participation 20%, and Homework 15%. This has started to cause problems for me. First of all, I have not really been giving any tests. In a traditional textbook-driven classroom, tests are given at the end of a chapter and/or at the end of a unit. A test is something that a student needs to go home and study for by memorizing lists of vocabulary words and verb paradigms. This is just not how things work in my comprehensible input (CI) classroom. So no big, comprehensive tests means I’m not using this category at all.

While I haven’t been giving big huge tests, I have been giving quizzes constantly. Unfortunately, I am still required to assess grammar, which I try to do as painlessly as possible and in a format that requires students to show that they know meaning of what they’re writing. See this post for more information on grammar instruction in my class. I don’t give these types of quizzes very often. Most of the quizzes I give are unannounced and are a review of whatever CI activity we have recently completed (a Movie Talk, a Señor Wooly video, a reading, a chapter in a novel). They aren’t the kind of quizzes students need to study for. They just need to listen and pay attention in class and they will do fine. I think 25% is way too low for this, but this is what we as a department has decided to do, so I have to play along.

Participation has also been an issue for me. In my mind, participation rewards students who volunteer to answer questions. These are usually the outgoing kids. This sort of participation system is really not fair to my very quiet students, many of whom never volunteer to answer questions in class but do absolutely everything else I ask of them. In some instances, participation also artificially inflates or deflates grades. Am I not setting up a student for failure at the next level if the only reason he passed is because a strong participation grade turned his F into a D? Alternatively, is it really fair to give a student with an A average a B+ because of her fear to speak in class? Am I really grading for proficiency in these cases?

I have voiced my concerns about this but my words have fallen on deaf ears. My department head feels that this is a necessary category because she says that since we teach a second language we have to assess their speaking. I don’t agree with this, and research such as this article explains why.

I have two issues with homework. The first is the ease with which most of it can be copied. This morning I had to walk from one side of the school building to the other, and en route I saw at least seven kids coping homework. Why should I waste my time giving a homework assignment that someone can just copy from a friend? And why should I reward someone with a good grade when I know there is a good chance that the homework was copied? The second issue I have with homework is that so many traditional assignments are not based in meaning. They are assignments like this:

Image result for spanish grammar worksheets

Of course students see work like this as a complete waste of time.

Here are the changes I plan to make to my grading practices for next year:

1. Rename the “Test” category. Instead, I will call it “Summative Assessment” to include any sort of assessment, no matter how informal or formal, that I give after students have mastered whatever material we’re working on at the time. The nice thing about the grading program we use is that we can weight assessments differently, so if I give one assessment with ten questions and another with twenty I can make the one with twenty worth twice as much as the one with ten if I want to. I will probably have this count for 40% of a student’s average.

2. Ditch the “Quiz” category. They will now be part of the “Summative Assessment” category.

3. Ditch the “Participation” category. I’ve already talked about why that category is not a valid measurement of student performance. I am thinking about possibly using this as extra credit for rewards such as being able to bring coffee to class and NOT for points. I’m still thinking about how I will set up my reward system and I’ll write another post about it when I have figured out what I want to do exactly.

4. Rename the “Homework” category. This I will call “Formative Assessment” and will include grades given for any homework, timed writings, completing Señor Wooly Nuggets, and anything else my students do that doesn’t fall under the “Summative Assessment” category. This will count for 60% of a student’s average. And just like the “Summative Assessment” category, I can change weights of assignments as I see fit.

I have a whole summer to refine and readjust this system as needed, and will update my blog if I change anything. But for right now I feel comfortable with this system because it uses categories that the principal wants to see and because it is broad enough to (I hope) be used effectively in a CI classroom. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Independent Reading in a Comprehensible Input Class

I heard Dr. Stephen Krashen talk at the ACTFL convention last year in Boston about reading is instrumental in helping people acquire language. He told the story of a woman that he had met who could speak almost twenty languages, most of which she had initially acquired through reading texts in that language. I was absolutely floored by this story and it convinced me to go back to my classroom and incorporate an independent reading component in my second language classes.

Some people refer to independent reading in a second language classroom as FVR (free voluntary reading) and others may refer to it as SSR (silent sustained reading), but no matter what you call it, the procedure is the same. Students read books, comics, children’s books, or magazines in the target language for a set period of time. In my classroom, my students read every Monday at the beginning of class. We have been doing this since December, and now that the school year is coming to an end my students have reported that they are reading both faster and more fluently than they were when we started this activity in December. They are also starting to pick up new words from their reading, and if I happen to introduce one of those words in another class activity they will comment that they already know that word from a book they’ve read.

Dr. Krashen’s website has a whole page with links to research about acquiring language through reading. It may convince you that you too would like to incorporate independent reading into your classroom routine. Here are some tips to get you started.

1. Gather a collection of compelling reading material in your target language. I recommend that you start by purchasing books through either TPRS books or Fluency Matters. Their materials are written specifically for language students, are categorized by ability level, and come with a glossary. These are the best books to start out with because they are very student friendly. If you start with the books like these first, students will be more likely to buy into the idea of reading in a second language because they will be able to read them easily. Unfortunately most titles are only currently available in Spanish or French. Mike Peto showcases books in other languages on his blog but many teachers of other languages have gotten resourceful and have started to write some stories and/or books themselves once they’ve exhausted the supply of books available for purchase.

I also have children’s picture books in my classroom library, but I find these books to be either hit or miss depending on how complex the language is. I have reviewed the ones I have and have made sure that my students would be familiar with a majority of the vocabulary words in each book and/or will be able to infer meaning by context. I recently learned that Scholastic publishing has been releasing children’s nonfiction books in Spanish and may soon be adding some of those to my offerings.

I have purchased almost all the books in my library with personal funds. This way I can take them with me if I ever change jobs. Some teachers are lucky enough to get money from their school to purchase books and others raise funds through other means (One teacher reported that she funds her library through profits from selling Pop-Tarts). Very few of us have the means to create a full library overnight. Be patient but persistent and eventually you will have enough titles to create a healthy classroom library.

2. Explain to your students why you think it is important for them to read in the second language. They will be more likely to buy into it if they know why they are being asked to read.

3. Start with a small increment of time and gradually increase the amount of time as the year goes on. We started with five minute increments and are currently at twenty minutes.

4. Lead by example. Read with your students. They are less likely to disrupt the class reading time if you are reading also. You may also want to comment on your book to generate interest in it, and you will be better equipped to make suggestions when students are looking for a new book to read.

5. Do not hold them accountable for what they read. Having them fill out a reading log, answering comprehension questions, or having them write book reports sucks all the joy out of the process and turns it into a chore. We don’t want the reading to be a chore. We want it to be something students are willing to do.

6. Do not monitor students during reading time. I do not walk around the room and “proctor” the way I do when I’m giving a test. By all means, I make sure that students are not sleeping, playing on their phones, talking, or doing homework during reading time, but if certain students just want to open up a book and stare, I don’t make a big issue of it. Even my laziest students have started to realize that looking at the same page for twenty minutes is really, really boring, and have eventually come around. I find that not forcing students to read virtually eliminates avoidance behaviors like getting up to blow ones nose, or asking to go to the restroom.

The added bonus of independent reading in my second language classroom is the improvement in my own language skills. Over the summer I am planning on brushing up on my Italian through independent reading. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Yes, You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

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

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

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

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

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




Where I Find My CI Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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