An Eye-Opening Conversation

Recently I had an amazing conversation with my mother that I have to share with you.

Two days ago, I told her that I would be leading a professional development workshop for a local school district. I then proceeded to tell her that I would be talking about second language acquisition (SLA) and how what I know about it has changed the way I teach my language classes (For more about my presentation, click here). I then proceeded to talk to her about Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis (formally called the Input Hypothesis) and what Bill Van Patten says about explicit instruction, which is that it does not lead to implicit knowledge because language is too abstract to be reduced to a set of rules.

When I talk about what I know about SLA, I am usually met with skepticism. The theories do not reflect what happens in our traditional classrooms. Even though few people learn a second language through grammar drills and memorizing vocabulary lists, most people still believe that traditional instruction is the way to learn a second language. So I was expecting my mother to possess the same skepticism when I talked to her about comprehensible input (CI). But instead, she said, “That makes perfect sense to me!” She then went on to tell me about her experiences in her high school German class, in which she, like most people in traditional classes, learned ABOUT the language but did not become proficient IN the language. She then went on to say that the only time she has ever felt that she was “getting” language was when she was in a country where that language was spoken and she was being bombarded with CI.

For my mother, this was a real eye-opening conversation. She is now in her early seventies, and she has spent all those years since high school believing that she couldn’t learn a second language because there was something wrong with her. Now she realizes that she did not become proficient in a second language because her teacher did not use methods based on SLA theory.

We in the United States have intellectualized second language instruction to such an extent that the only people who find any success in traditional classes are the cream of the crop, because those students who are not freaky language geniuses drop out. As a result, there are probably MILLIONS of people in the United States who had or are currently having an experience similar to my mother’s. It makes me really sad to think that so many former and current language students walk around thinking that they are too stupid to be successful in a second language.

One of the great things about teaching with CI is that, since it is based on theories of how people acquire language, any student who pays attention and stays engaged will gain proficiency, even if s/he doesn’t want to. As students are exposed to compelling written and spoken messages that they understand, they will receive input, which helps develop their internal language systems. As their internal language systems develop, students begin to recognize that they have developed some proficiency in the language. As a result, their confidence and motivation will grow and, with any luck, they will never feel that they are too stupid to become proficient in a second language.

This conversation with my mother has made me even more committed to teaching with CI. Not only do I want students to develop proficiency in the language, but I also want them to feel proud of themselves and become confident, motivated language learners. I don’t ever want students in my class to think that they are too stupid for language study and that they just can’t “get” it.

Now that my mother knows a bit about SLA theory and how to acquire a second language, I wonder if she will consider trying to improve her proficiency in a second language? My guess is that she probably won’t. But at the very least it is probably nice that she knows that her lack of proficiency isn’t her fault.


What I’ve Been Thinking About This Past Week

This past week I became a member of the Board of Directors of an organization of local language teachers. We had a dinner this past Thursday and I had two interesting interactions that I have been thinking about a lot this weekend.

My first interaction was with a fellow teacher trying to embrace comprehensible input (CI) in her classroom. She told me she was struggling a bit so I asked her to tell me what was going on in her classes in the hopes that I could help troubleshoot.

The first issue she is having is that she does not have control over her students’ behavior. As a result, she finds it hard to get through a CI lesson because she cannot get her students to settle down, pay attention, and contribute to the lesson. So I told her about the rewards system that Craig and Mike from TPRS Books talked about when I went to a training this past March. When they taught in a language classroom, they had a points system set up where the amount of time students spent behaving well and staying in the target language resulted in the class earning points. After a certain number of points, the students got a prize (For more information about this system, read this post.).

I implemented this system after I came back from the workshop and I have noticed three major differences. First of all, the number of discipline problems I have experienced has decreased dramatically. Second, since more students are staying on task and paying closer attention to the target language, they have made some impressive language gains in the past two months. And finally, student morale is up because my students are more motivated and excited about earning a prize.

Some teachers might take a look at this system and criticize it because, technically, I am bribing students to get them to behave with the promise of candy, a movie, or a similar privilege. But I am absolutely fine with that because of how much easier it has been for me to teach and because of the amount the progress my students have made since I implemented this system. In addition, this year I have noticed that I have more of my sanity intact than I usually do in the fourth quarter of the school year. I’m not as easily aggravated or mentally tired the way I normally am from dealing with bad behavior for the previous eight months, and it is all thanks to this system. Do I wish that my students were all so intrinsically motivated to acquire language that I didn’t need to entice them with a reward? Yes, of course. But I will gladly give candy bars or movie days if that’s what I need to do to get my class to behave well enough so I can keep my sanity, maintain control over the classroom, and, most importantly, facilitate my students’ acquisition of language.

The second issue this teacher told me about what that she has to deal with a lot of student anger. She said that her students are often mad at her because she refuses to translate any words into English for them. I know some teachers who do not translate for their students, and while I think they do this with the best intentions, I also believe that it is a practice that can be a substantial roadblock to second language acquisition. It can also kill motivation and create a negative atmosphere in the classroom.

Teachers who refuse to translate expressions for their students tell me that they do this to obligate students to develop the deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills that are involved in determining meaning in the target language (TL). They also say that this practice makes second language acquisition a more natural process because it mimics the way people acquired their first language. But the amount of frustration this creates for some of our students can lead to a scenario like the one the above mentioned teacher is experiencing in her classroom. This practice can cause students anxiety, which can raise the Affective Filter and impede language acquisition overall. Moreover, any teachers who are providing input in their classroom must make sure that the input is comprehensible. The problem with never translating is that sometimes we cannot be sure that are students are understanding us otherwise. As Mike said at our March TPRS conference, the problem with immersion is that it sometimes become submersion, which is what I think is happening in this teacher’s class.

Does that mean that I think teachers should translate every single word and expression they use in the classroom? No, of course not. Teachers should not have to translate concrete words and expressions if they can convey meaning with a picture or gesture. For example, I have never told my French students that the word “chat” means “cat” in English, because whenever I use this word I show a picture of a cat or make cat noises. But if a student ever asked me to tell them what “chat” meant in English I would gladly translate it for them to make my input comprehensible and decrease any anxiety that student may be feeling about not understanding.

My second interaction at the dinner was with a veteran language teacher who is extremely active in a number of language organizations. I told her that I taught with CI, and her response was, “Of course, because you’re a middle school teacher.” I must confess that I got a bit annoyed by this comment, because it stems from some common misconceptions about the CI teaching approach.

One implication here is that CI teaching is not serious enough language instruction for high school level classes. This perception may partially be due to this teacher’s limited knowledge of Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). Teachers who use this approach tell and create stories in their classrooms, some of which are quite ridiculous (In one of my classes, for example, we are working on a story about Beyoncé, who works at Walmart selling elephants). What teachers are missing, however, is the fact that TPRS isn’t just about telling silly stories. Moreover, there are plenty of other ways to provide CI besides TPRS, all of which are listed in the picture below and don’t revolve around silly stories.


Another implication made by this comment is that CI teaching is not rigorous enough for high school classes. Without emphasis on explicit grammar and long vocabulary lists, CI teachers generally have better grades than traditional teachers do. For the life of me, I can’t understand why this is bad. We should not want our students to be unsuccessful in our classes. We should not want a classroom where only the strong survive. We should not want dwindling class sizes in the upper levels because of how difficult our classes are. We should not want to teach only to the elite few who “get” grammar. Teaching with CI creates an equitable environment where all students have the opportunity to be successful, and I for one am very proud of that. Many teachers across North America use CI in their high school classes, even at the advanced placement level, with very good results.

The second interaction I had at the dinner was with a friend of mine who said, “Even though I am a TPRS teacher, I don’t tell people I am. I just say that I teach with comprehension in mind.” Unfortunately, the myth that teaching with CI is not serious or rigorous instruction has given it a bad reputation in some areas, so much so that some teachers don’t even admit that they use this approach for fear that they will alienate other teachers. The last thing we should want as teachers is create an environment of us (CI teachers) versus them (textbook teachers), because ultimately all teachers want what is best for their students. But I also know that traditional teachers can get intimidated and defensive when CI teachers start talking about what they do and do not do in their classrooms. It’s actually pretty prudent for CI teachers to tread lightly when interacting with non-CI teachers, and is something that I might start doing myself.

At the end of the dinner, the president of the organization asked me if I would get involved in planning and promoting professional development for the language organization. Based on the interactions I had at this dinner, it sounds as if this will be more of a challenge than I thought. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Random Thoughts on a Snowy Day

Hi all,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proficiency Based Grade Reporting

Guys, can I just tell you how much I LOVE my new school district? I have the absolute freedom to teach however I want and have colleagues that also teach with comprehensible input (CI) or are interested in learning more about it so they can implement CI techniques into their classrooms. Now our totally awesome superintendent has given our department freedom to blow up our grade reporting systems and completely reinvent them, about which I am SO excited!

Currently the district uses a traditional A, B, C reporting system for the middle school (we are a K-8 district). This creates an issue because an A in my class might be different than an A in another class. In addition, some teachers in our department consistently give homework. In that class, therefore, a student may have a good grade because she does all the homework and a student with a poor grade may never do homework and end up with multiple zeroes, which brings his grade down. In this case, the grade is not at all based on their ability in the language but on work habits. In contrast, I give almost no homework, so the majority of students in my class have good grades that are based more on their language ability than their work habits. In a nutshell, we lack consistency as a department when it comes to grading, specifically because a letter grade can mean very different things based on whose class a student happens to be enrolled in.

At the elementary level, the second language teachers there assess each student on four criteria on a 1-4 scale. Their criteria include participation, behavior, cultural competence, and language ability. The teachers have over 200 students apiece and they also have to give comments, so this system is very cumbersome for them. So while consistent grading is the goal of the middle school grading practices, at the elementary level it is about creating a system that is less cumbersome for them.

For the middle school, we have decided to create a system based on ACTFL Proficiency Standards, which you can access here if you are not familiar with them. We have five categories: Interpretive Listening, Interpretive Reading, Presentational Writing, Interpersonal Speaking, and Interpersonal Writing. The first three we plan to assess formally and the last two we will assess informally. We will use ACTFL terminology (Novice Low, Novice Mid, etc.) for all categories. We will also report a grade (Not yet, Emerging, Meets, Exceeds) for Active Engagement. So we will have six categories to assess all together. At first I was a little wary of having to report so many different categories, but a colleague pointed out that it really isn’t all that much since there’s no grade calculation involved. Moreover, some students may not progress from quarter to quarter, so we can just copy and paste from one quarter to the next. And finally, if we can’t assess in a certain category, we may leave it blank or define it as being “Not Yet Observable.”

For the elementary school, we have reduced their four categories to two: Active Engagement and Interpretive Listening. We will use the same terminology for Active Engagement at the elementary school that we will use at the middle school but decided as a group not to use ACTFL Proficiency Standards terminology with the elementary students because we do not want parents and students to feel that they are doing poorly in the class when they see the term “Novice Low,” even though, due to the limited time our elementary teachers have, that is where they are SUPPOSED to be, at least at first. Instead, we will use the same category names for Active Listening at the elementary school that we will use for Active Engagement. Then if teachers want to they can keep their own personal records with ACTFL terminology if they desire.

Let me say a few words about that Active Engagement category. This is absolutely NOT a participation grade, for two main reasons. First of all, teaching with CI is all about input and not about output (especially not the forced kind). Second, grading participation is unfair to quiet, reserved students who may be listening and doing everything they need to do in order to be successful in class but will most likely never raise their hand to speak. Our Active Engagement have not been finalized jet, but will most likely be based on the following criteria listen below.

1. Listening with the intent to understand

2. Signaling to the teacher when something is not understood

3. No side conversations or blurting out in English

4. Good posture and eye contact with the teacher

5. A positive, respectful attitude

So now that we have decided to use a proficiency-based grading system, we now have to start testing for proficiency. Specifically, we as a department will have to make sure that we know how to assess writing, reading, listening, and speaking effectively so we can say something like, “This is a Novice Mid writing sample” or “Based on the number of questions this student answered correctly on this assessment, she is at an Intermediate Mid level for Interpretive Reading.” So our department will be researching this and seeking out professional development on this topic. Maybe in the future it will become one of my blog posts! You all will just have to wait and see.

My Thoughts on Thematic Units

I belong to a number of teaching groups on Facebook and I come across a lot of posts that are similar to these:

Does anyone have a good Movie Talk for a unit about shopping?

Does anyone have any good stories to use to talk about sports? Preferably one with command forms?

Posts like this make me cringe. Guys, I am so over planning units based on a theme with a body of knowledge that I need to cover, and the reason why is pretty simple. Teachers who “do” a unit on a specific theme, like eating out in a restaurant or protecting the environment or whatever, are almost always just talking about these themes to “cover” vocabulary expressions and grammatical structures about that theme and are hardly ever really communicating with their students about the topic. And when this happens, little language acquisition is actually taking place. If I try to steer a conversation to make sure that I cover a certain group of vocabulary words or grammatical structures, my kids will very quickly realize that my main objective is to “cover” those vocabulary words or grammatical structures. They will quickly tune me out, because the actual message is not important.

And come on, guys, you have to agree that when you attempt to talk about a certain theme while making sure that you “cover” certain structures, the sentences you end up saying are artificial and often don’t resemble normal conversations. Here, just off the top of my head, is a list of questions that I have asked in a language class that I have never, ever said in a real conversation.

Do you wear pants in the summer when it’s hot out?

Do you use a spoon when you eat ice cream?

Do you get dressed for school before or after you eat breakfast?

Do you reuse or recycle to help the environment?

In case you’re interested, the answer to every one of these questions is the same. Who cares? Not my students.

My goal in my classroom is to talk with my students in a way that feels like a natural, normal conversation. I want them so caught up in what I am saying that they don’t even realize that they are acquiring language. When I think about what to talk about with my students, I choose things that I think my students will find interesting. In addition, I allow the conversation to develop naturally. And while I limit the number of new vocabulary expressions I use with my students, I use whatever grammar I need to make my message comprehensible and interesting. Subjunctive in first year? Yes, if it’s needed. Do I teach the word for sweater without teaching twenty other clothing words? Yes, if what I need to do is tell a student who is cold to put on a sweater or tell one who is hot to take off a sweater. Have I taught all numbers? No, not yet. I have covered 1-31 and the number 2018 because we need them to tell the date. I have taught my French students 55 because it is my favorite number, and I have taught my Spanish students the number 87 because that is how old I tell them that I am.

So I imagine the question you are asking yourself is, “Well, if she doesn’t do thematic units, what does she do?” The short answer is that I do whatever I think my students will find interesting that I can talk about with compelling, comprehensible input. Here is a short list of items that fit this criteria.

  1. Movie Talks. I find a short, compelling video clip, preferably one with a twist at the end, and I talk about it with my students. Sometimes I have additional activities that I do along with the video (If you don’t know how to “do” a Movie Talk, you can read this post and this post).
  2. Calendar Talks. At the beginning of each class, we talk about what is going on that day. We talk about the weather, but mainly only as a springboard to talk about other things. For example, one day last April when it was raining for the tenth or eleventh day in a row I used our weather talk to lament that it had been raining for over a week straight. I got lots of past tense practice by saying, “Saturday it rained,” followed by “Sunday it rained,” and so on. This is when I also talk about any upcoming events, like birthdays or holidays or school functions, and any other event my students might want to mention, such as if they are taking a trip anywhere or playing in an important championship game. I posted recently about using this online calendar as a visual for my Calendar Talks, which my students liked.
  3. Student Interviews.Bryce Hedstrom blogged about this activity here. Basically it involves the teacher interviewing students about themselves in the target language. It is a great activity to use to acquire personal information. I have been doing student interviews for the past few months (I only see my students 3 days a week, so it has taken a while to get through the whole class), but because of this practice my students have acquired language they need to talk about their family, pets, favorite activities, favorite foods, and more.
  4. Personal Anecdotes. My students love it when I tell them stories about my life and my family, and this is one way that I give my students a lot of exposure to the past tense. Sometimes I show my students pictures from my weekend on Monday mornings, which gives us the opportunity to use the past tense. In other instances, I tell my students about interesting events that have happened in my life recently. For example, last year I lost my wedding ring. This turned into a great lesson in class during which I told them that I had lost it, where I looked for it, where it could possibly be, and where I ultimately found it (although I found it a week before I told my class that I had found it, because our conversation about the missing ring was so compelling).

Once I moved away from doing thematic units, two things happened. First of all, I felt liberated. Forcing myself to “cover” a set list of words or grammar structures was making me feel trapped. I didn’t want to have those artificial conversations to make sure that I used all the vocabulary and grammar structures in the unit. Second, student interest increased when we started talking in a more natural way about things they really cared about, which, based on data from their reading quizzes and writing samples, is helping them acquire language. My students are happier and so am I.

How I used Alice Ayel’s French Videos in Class (Otherwise Known as the Ongoing Saga of Martine and her Dog-Zebra)

Last year I discovered Alice Ayel’s YouTube channel. She creates videos in which she tells simple stories in French that are designed to help French students acquire language naturally. The first video I saw was called Marie L’artiste. In this video, an artiste named Marie wants a giraffe, but since she can’t have one she ends up painting her dog Médor to look like a giraffe. Alice also recorded a follow-up video called Marie Veut un Vrai Girafe. In this video, Marie, who was previously happy with her dog painted to look like a giraffe, grows tired of not having a real giraffe. When she can’t find one at the nearby pet store, she steals one from the nearby zoo and ends up in prison.

I showed both of these videos last year to my high school students and wrote stories to go along with them. They were fairly well received. This year I decided to use these videos in class once again (this time with Grade 6 students), but I turned these two videos into a mini unit. I’d like to say that I carefully planned everything, but the truth is that this unit took on a life of its own because my students kept asking for more! Here is what I did:

Day 1: The Story of Martine, the artist who wanted a zebra.  On the very first day of this unit, I told my students the story of a woman named Martine, who was an artist with a dog (inspired by Alice’s first video). She wanted a zebra, but since she couldn’t have one she ended up painting her dog to look like a zebra. I told the story in French and included drawings and French-to-English translations to make the story comprehensible. Then I asked my students to do a story re-tell in English to make sure they understood the story.

Day 2: The Story of Marie L’artiste. After a review of the story about Martine, I showed them Alice Ayel’s first video, Marie L’artiste (see above for the link). Then I asked them to create a list of similarities and differences found in my story and Alice’s video.

Day 3: Storyboard. I created a comic strip with a story about Martine. In this story she goes to a pet store in search of a zebra but when she can’t find one she buys a tiger instead. My students and I read the comic strip together and then they illustrated it.

Day 4: PowerPoint. I created a PowerPoint in which Martine tries to steal a zebra from the zoo but is arrested and sent to prison (By the way, you can actually find images of dogs that are painted look like zebras on the Internet. Who knew?) My students and I read this together in French and then they did a story re-tell as a comprehension check.

Day 5: Marie Veut un Vrai Girafe. After reviewing the PowerPoint from the previous day, I showed Alice Ayel’s second video, Marie Veut Un Vrai Girafe (see above for link). Once again, I asked them to create a list of similarities and differences found in my story and Alice’s video.

(Friends, this was where the unit was supposed to end. My students, however, had other ideas. They begged me for a Part Three to the story of Martine in which she would break out of prison. There was no way I could say no. This led me to add the following  three days of Martine activities.)

Day 6: Storyasking. The class and I created an Act Three to our Martine story using Storyasking techniques. I had two classes creating stories, and although they both had their differences, both involved Martine escaping from prison and a love story between Médor the dog-zebra and the real zebra at the zoo. Once we finished our stories, students did a story re-tell as a comprehension check.

Day 7: Student Actors. My students and I acted out a story about Martine escaping from prison and Médor’s love story.

Day 8: Storyboard. I created a comic strip about Martine escaping from prison and ending up in Africa with Médor and the zebra from the zoo. My students and I read the comic strip together and then they illustrated it.

It is important for me to mention that this is not the only thing I did in class on those days. The above activities took up roughly 25 minutes. The rest of the time we were doing our daily review of the day, date, and weather and doing some Total Physical Response (TPR) activities. But a combination of all three activities made for very enjoyable classes so far this year. Now I have to find some more videos that I can use to create a second unit!

Why I’m Not Ready For 90%

As many of you know, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) recommends that teachers should use the target language (TL) in their language classroom 90% of the time. As I start a new school year with new students, I have been thinking about this goal quite often. For the next few weeks, I will not be achieving this goal, and I will not be achieving it intentionally.

At the beginning of the school year, creating a sense of community in my classroom is my primary goal. I believe that a supportive, respectful atmosphere is what helps students feel comfortable in the classroom, and it is only then that students will feel brave enough to take risks, create with the language, and learn to trust me as the teacher and feel that I will help them be successful language students. And I can’t do that in the TL, at least not in the first few weeks of class.

So I plan on spending my first month of class getting to know my students and making sure that they are at ease in my classroom. As time goes on, I will speak less and less English and more and more TL, until eventually I reach that 90% goal. And I won’t worry about how long it takes me to get there, because building our community is what is most important for us right now.

Not Everybody Likes Teaching With Comprehensible Input

I was first exposed to teaching with comprehensible input (CI) at a Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) workshop led by Blaine Ray, the creator of TPRS and the founder of TPRS Books. As my friend Melanie says, I was “Blaine-washed,” meaning that I totally bought into the theory and practice behind TPRS and wanted to jump in and try it in my classroom right away. I couldn’t contain my excitement and eagerly went back to my school overflowing with enthusiasm to implement the methods I had learned. My department head, however, said, “Whoa, not so fast.” This was quickly followed up by, “Stick to the program we already use.” I was absolutely deflated, but I learned a valuable lesson, which was that not everyone would be so quick to buy into the idea of teaching with CI.

Then last month, Stephen Krashen, the creator of the Comprehension Hypothesis (formerly called he Input Hypothesis), gave a presentation at the annual International Forum on Language Teaching (IFLT) conference in Denver in which he discussed why more people don’t support teaching with CI. At another workshop, Carrie Toth touched on the topic as well. Below is the list that I have created based on what they said and my own ideas about why some people may not share your enthusiasm for all things CI. Just who are these people?

1. Textbook and computer software company representatives. In Denver, Stephen Krashen referred to this as the “greedy capitalist argument” (BTW, I follow Dr. Krashen on Twitter and have discovered that he is both very funny and very liberal).

People who work for these companies want schools to purchase their textbooks and software and, as many of you know, they are not cheap. Schools spend thousands of dollars every year on new textbooks and even more on software licenses. However, most CI teachers do not use these products, simply because they are not usually a source of compelling, comprehensible input. Teaching with CI hurts these companies’ bottom line, which is to make a profit, so you will find that, when speaking with their company representatives, they will either tell you that they have lots of CI activities (I’d like to believe that they say this because they don’t know what CI is and not that they are lying to you outright, but who knows?) or downplay the awesomeness of CI by telling you what the textbook or computer software can do that is better than CI. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just bells and whistles, because by and large these products are still based on traditional methods.

2. Grammarians. When teaching with CI, grammar takes a back seat to the message, which students who like grammar will find problematic. In my experience, those students who truly like grammar are usually the ones at the top of their class or are those who want to be second language teachers someday. My response is, what about everybody else? What about those kids whose brains just aren’t wired for grammar? I don’t know about you, but I want to teach a class where the C student feels that s/he is making progress by having success in the classroom. Those successes don’t come all that often in a grammar-based classroom for anyone except the freaky grammar geniuses. Besides, catering to this small population in a second language class is the exact opposite of what we’re told to do in our classroom by our administrators (“Teach to all students!” “Differentiate!” “Reach all learners!”). Which brings me to point #3…

3. Administrators. A second language classroom is different from other classrooms. As Bill Van Patten says all the time, “Language is not subject matter.” Unfortunately, most administrators don’t know this. They erroneously think that the methods a math or history teacher uses should be the same methods they see in a second language classroom. Administrators come in to evaluate us with their little checklist that they use for classrooms of all subject matter, even if those methods may not be appropriate for a CI language classroom.

At the school where I work, for example, the two buzz words being used these days are “student-driven instruction” and “project-based learning.” Both of these are fine and appropriate for subject matter, but not necessarily if the end product is language acquisition. There are some days where I speak for the majority of class, which is a huge no-no these days in public education. But what my administrators don’t understand is that when I am spending the majority of class talking to my students I am doing my main job, which is delivering comprehensible input.

4. Veteran language teachers. As Carrie Toth pointed out in Denver, one must be vvveeeerrryyyy careful about criticizing traditional methods in front of teachers who use these methods in their classroom. In many cases, those veteran teachers will interpret those comments as personal attacks on them and may become very defensive. My friend Melanie, for example, will be attending a CI conference this October in Maine. She teaches in a six-person department, and all but one of those teachers will be attending. That one who is not going has the attitude of “This is what I’ve always done in my class and it has always worked fine for me.” When this teacher was asked if she wanted to attend this conference, she got angry, because she took the invitation as criticism.

Veteran teachers may also be overwhelmed by how much they will have to change in order to teach with CI. It is not easy and it is not an overnight process. It takes a lot of work and trial and error to convert to teaching with CI. For some teachers, it is just too much. They may be too intimidated or too busy outside of school to commit to the change. They may not have the financial means to attend workshops and conferences. And some, unfortunately, just might be too lazy and may just be riding out their remaining years until they can retire.

Friends, it certainly is disappointing and deflating to be unable to share your enthusiasm and knowledge with others. There will always be some people you will not be able to convince. Don’t sweat it. Your main concern should be that you do not end up with your job in jeopardy because of lack of information or willingness to learn about CI. So with that in mind, I would take the following steps.

1. If applying for a new job, ask if the department is CI friendly. If you can help it, don’t get stuck in a department that will expect you to teach traditionally.

2. If you are switching methods in a current teaching position, be proactive. At the beginning of the year, schedule a meeting with your direct supervisor and principal and explain what you would like to do and why. Find out what they will allow you to do in your classroom. You may have to compromise and only do limited CI at first, but hopefully over time you can make adjustments or learn how to “teach” required material via CI. Before an evaluation, schedule a meeting to educate your evaluator on what to look for in a CI classroom. Bryce Hedstrom has this Administrator Checklist on his blog and Ben Slavic has an evaluation form in The Big CI Book that you may wish to consult and share with your evaluator. If your evaluator needs to use a traditional rubric, you should discuss that rubric with him or her about what areas might not be relevant in your classroom (And as an absolutely last resort, if it is a scheduled visit, I wouldn’t blame you at all if you veered from your normal teaching style to teach in a manner that gave your evaluator what s/he needed to see).

3. Appease your grammarians. Explain your teaching philosophy and methods to your students. Explain that you won’t be teaching grammar explicitly in class but tell them that you will be willing to answer any grammar questions they might have (Just make sure that when you do you do so as succinctly as possible). I had a couple of grammarians this past year who had questions from time to time. I would usually answer their questions quickly and then offer to explain more after class. When they stayed after class, I would them direct them to explanations in the textbook.

Nevertheless, in spite of the skepticism and outright rejection of CI, I would still plan on talking about it and sharing your thoughts about it, because not everybody will respond negatively to the idea of teaching with CI. And helping other teachers discover how much fun and how effective teaching it is to teach with CI  is very rewarding.

More Anecdotal Evidence about the Power of Comprehensible Input

My oldest child is home for a month from college, and she brought with her an affinity for Korean music and television. Korean music became popular a few years back after the release of the song “Gangnam Style” by Psy. It turns out that there is a whole genre of music, aptly called K-Pop, and television shows, which my daughter says are called K-Dramas, that we in the US can listen to and watch. 

After a few months of watching and listening to Korean in songs and television shows, my daughter is reporting that she has started picking up some Korean by watching K-Dramas and music videoswith English subtitles. She has not done any formal language instruction, although she has downloaded an app to help her learn the Korean writing system, which is called Hangeul (By the way, I have done a bit of research on the writing system and it is surprisingly not as complicated as it looks. If you’ve ever been interested in learning Korean, don’t let the writing system scare you off). “I’m at the point where, when I’m watching a K-Drama, I can sometimes tell when the English translation is wrong or missing part of the dialogue, and I can recognize common expressions,” she says. All this from exposure to compelling, comprehensible input.

In other news, my husband has decided to brush up on his Spanish, which he is doing by reading La Clase de Confesiones by A.C. Quintero. It is a reader designed for students of Spanish. It took him about four hours to get through the first chapter, but as he has read more and more he is getting through the chapters more quickly and reports that he doesn’t need to look up as many words as he did when he was working through Chapter 1. 

My husband is not completely convinced that comprehensible input is the way to go. He is the product of traditional language classes and isn’t so quick to discount that instruction, even though I am quick to quote Bill Van Patten, who says, “Explict instruction does not lead to implicit knowledge.” And also, in typical husband fashion, since he only hears about comprehensible input from me, he needs to hear it from other people to whom he is not married before he will buy into it fully. Nevertheless, he is enjoying the book and is looking forward to reading Mira Canion’s El Escape Cubano next. With enough reading and acquiring of language, I’m sure that eventually he will see the light!

Using L1 in an L2 Classroom

I woke up this morning thinking about using L1 (one’s first language, which is English in my case) in an L2 (second language) classroom.  The American Council on the Teachng of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has guidelines stating that L2 teachers should spend 90% of their classroom time in the target language (TL, or L2).

Back when I was a traditional teacher, I absolutely did not even come close to reaching this goal. First of all, I taught a lot of grammar, and only in my very advanced classes was I able to teach grammar in the L2. Even then, however, its use was limited to concrete concepts such as a new verb conjugation. I absolutely could not have explained more complex topics like when to use subjunctive or the difference between the preterit and imperfect in the L2. During this time I also did a good number of exercises from the textbook, which usually needed at least some explanation in English so my students would know how to do them.

Another reason why I used to use English in my L2 classroom is because of another ACTFL guideline, which states that students in the L2 classroom needed to work with authentic materials. The message I received as a result of this guideline was that, as a non-native speaker, my language and any materials I created with my language was inferior and possibly detrimental (I don’t think this was ACTFL’s intention but my interpretation). As a result I found myself speaking very little in the L2 and exposed my students to it using the audio and video activities that went along with the textbook and things that I found online produced by native speakers (I am very thankful to Señor Wooly, who gave a presentation in Denver at the IFLT conference this summer that helped make me feel much better about whether or not my language could be authentic. You can read more about that here.)

One of the benefits of teaching with comprehensible input is that I spend much less time speaking in the L1 in my classroom. I am aiming for that 90% and have taught classes where I have reached that but I haven’t been able to do it consistently. And I have given myself permission to speak English in my classroom in a some situations, which I have listed below.

1. To discipline. 

The fabulous presenter Jason Fritze said in a workshop this summer that one of the first words he teaches his elementary students in the L2 is “stop,” which allows him to discipline in the TL. I teach my students some similar expressions in order to handle small discipline issues in the TL, such as asking students to stop talking or to put away their cell phones, but when big issues arise (which are rare, thankfully) I use English. In some cases it is an matter of student safety, and I do not want a student to get hurt because s/he doesn’t understand what I am saying (Like the day I had a student hang out a window from my second floor classroom. What was he thinking?). In other cases, hearing me discipline in English has awesome shock value. I have created an environment in my classroom where students know that when I discipline in English, I mean business and/or am really angry. I do this when I hear students use derogatory or inappropriate language, suspect that a student is getting harassed by a classmate, or see disrespectful behavior. It’s similar to those situations where a parent uses a child’s whole name when said child has done something very wrong.

2. To explain procedure.

This year I used a lot of comprehensible input (CI) games in class (You can read more about some of those games here). We played each game multiple times, but the first time we played I always explained the rules in English, simply because I didn’t want to waste time explaining in the TL, which would take at least twice as much time. Any other procedural issues (such as what to do during an evacuation drill, how to make up work after an absence, or where to put a completed quiz or test) I also did in English the first few times until students got comfortable with the language. Nevertheless, in all classes, I was talking about procedure in the TL by the end of the first quarter of the school year.

3. To explain grammar.

Yup, I still teach grammar, even though I don’t do it in a traditional way. I don’t do comprehensive grammar lessons anymore. Instead, I point out grammatical structures as needed. For example, I may say, “Look class, this French verb ends in -ons. That means “we” are the people doing this action.” That would be the extent of my grammar “lesson” about this topic, but it would be something I would point out multiple times to make sure students remembered it. Similarly, if a grammar question comes up in class (because some students just feel that they need to know why certain things are the way they are), I explain as quickly and as concisely as possible in English and move on.

4. To introduce vocabulary. 

Some concrete words and expressions can be taught quickly using visuals or gestures, but the easiest and quickest way to teach more abstract vocabulary is to translate it from the L2 to the L1. I usually just translate these on the board and leave them up during class (Jason Fritze writes the L1 and L2 in different colors and underlines the L2. I will start doing that this year.).

5. To check comprehension. 

This year I started using videos I found on YouTube to provide comprehensible, authentic input in class (French teachers, check out Alice Ayel’s YouTube channel, where you will find videos like this one. Spanish teachers, check out Pablo Pankun Roman’s YouTube channel, where you can find videos like this one.). Then to check comprehension I ask students to write a summary in English (I suppose if I really wanted to I could have students answer a prepared quiz in the TL about the video they see, but that tends to be stressful for my students and raises their Affectve Filter, thus limiting their intake. Moreover, I don’t use these videos as summative assessments. And finally, making up quizzes can be time consuming, and with four preparations, I just don’t always have the time).

To check comprehension of abstract vocabulary, I may ask a student to translate a word into English. When we are going over a reading, I may ask students to translate as a group, which is called choral translation.

I may also ask students to summarize a reading in English. Traditional textbooks usually check for comprehension of reading passages by asking questions in the T2 for students to answer in the T2. But in my experience, students usually don’t read a passage when asked to answer questions about it. They look for words from the question in the text and either read that small section to find the answer or, even worse, copy the sentence from the text containing those words from the question without even reading the sentence at all. Having students summarize in English requires them to read the whole passage (BTW, I don’t advise asking them to summarize in the TL, because that may lead to direct copying as well).

I think many second language teachers go through their teacher training being told that they should try to make students use the TL as much as possible. According to the Dr. Krashen’s theories of Language Acquisition, however, it is input and not output that leads to language acquisition. That means we should not feel guilty when we check our students’ comprehension through use of the L1.

6. Connections.

Yes, my main job is to teach French and Spanish, but my secondary job is to form connections with my students. Grant Boulanger, a 2016 ACTFL Teacher of the Year finalist, said in a presentation at the 2016 ACTFL annual convention that he tends to only use the L2 around 70% of the time at first and tries to establish connections and create a classroom community, which requires use of the L1, especially in elementary levels. Sometimes I feel that, by using the L2 and insisting that our students use it, we teachers create a wall between us and our students and prevents our students from getting to know us and feel comfortable in our classroom. This is not the kind of relationship I want with my students, because besides helping them acquire language, I also want them to feel comfortable coming to me if they are having issues and need someone to talk to.

Friends, I don’t want all of you to read this and think that I talk in English all the time in my class. As I stated at the beginning of this post, my goal is to use the TL in my classroom at least 90% of the time. But what I am saying is that sometimes the use of the L1 is quicker, clearer, more efficient, and necessary to create a safe, supportive, and productive classroom community. We do not need to feel guilty for using English in our class appropriately!

Nevertheless, I still want to create an environment where use of the L1 is not encouraged, so I plan to borrow two more tricks from that Jason Fritze presentation (I really can’t stress enough how fabulously practical and informative his presentations are! If he is at a conference in your area you should totally go!). Trick #1 is establishing a procedure where students must ask permission before using English (except for comprehension checks) and SO DOES THE TEACHER! I envision that students will take this rule much more seriously if even the teacher has to ask permission to speak English. I also envision me asking the class for permission to speak English but being told no. Trick #2 is called “The Toad of Shame.” Jason has a plastic toad that he bought at a pet store. When a student speaks English without permission, he gives the toad to him/her. The student with the toad must then try to get rid of it by during giving it to another student who speaks in the L1 without permission because, at the end of class, the student with the toad must stay after for a few minutes with the teacher. The consequence in this case is not punitive. I will probably have the student erase my board and have a small conversation with me in the L2.

I am very much looking forward to trying these two tricks in clas this year! But in the meantime I will be enjoying my last few weeks of vacation. Off to the beach!