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It’s a myth, #11: Assessing communication without communication

For the original myths post, click here.  You can also view all of the myths posts.

This, my eleventh post on myths I believe make us ineffective in the world language classroom, is about saying we’re assessing something without actually asking students to do it.

11. A multiple-choice question counts as a valid assessment of proficiency (or, “I can actually assess communication without asking students to communicate”).

Where's the communication? Josué Goge

Where’s the communication?
Josué Goge

I don’t want to pretend that good assessment is easy.  Exploring these questions-

  • what is valid assessment?
  • how can I make all my assessment valid?
  • how can I do this without spending my life grading?

has been a long, difficult, worthwhile, amazing journey for me.  From the days in my tests and measurements classes when I was required to write the very best Scantron test I could generate – whatever was easiest to grade –  to now, when my philosophy is that students don’t answer a multiple choice question unless they’re doing AP prep, I have been on a mission to figure out what was wrong in the way I was treating assessment and fixing it.  I’m not there yet, but I’m a lot farther than I was when I started, and as always, the journey itself is a lesson.

What’s wrong with non-communicative assessment

The answer to this comes down to two issues: goals and certainty.

If you’re going to use assessment that does not ask students to communicate, that may be fine, if communication is not your goal.  That is, if you’re trying to motivate or ‘hook’ students using something like PollEverywhere at the beginning of class, or you want students to reflect on how they feel about what they learned in class in a type of reflective exit ticket, there can be a lot of value in that.  The value evaporates when we try to say that we’re doing such an assessment to, say, assess whether students have learned to tell their name by choosing among
a) yo llamo
b) se llama
c) me llamo

The other issue is with certainty, and this is my primary issue with the multiple choice question.  When a student selects C in the above question, the answer is correct, but that does not tell you anything about why the student chose it.  It cannot tell you this:

letter C

So you cannot be certain that the student actually knows the answer.  You can only be certain that the student wrote C.  And what does that tell you?

What communicative assessment looks like

Communicative assessment doesn’t have to be hard or extraordinarily time-consuming.  It doesn’t have to look like a detailed IPA every other week.  It simply has to ask students to communicate something.  So, in the above example, instead of asking a multiple choice question, you’re asking students the question, “What’s your name?”  If they can answer, you’ve assessed whether they can communicate that information… today, anyway.


Interpretive tasks are the ones most prone to lack communication.  And yes, I call it communication, because receiving a message is communication; it’s not a one-way street.  There are so many muddy questions here.  If I ask interpretive questions in English, is that appropriate assessment?  I used to say no.  I’ve changed my mind.  Because on the other hand, if I ask the question in the TL, I’ve lost my certainty again.  If the student gets the question wrong, is it that he misunderstood the message, or that he misunderstood the question/answers?  I can’t tell.  I watched this frustrate my AP students time and time again.  They knew that the article was talking about people cooking a dish with pork, but because the comprehension question offered choices of extraordinarily low-frequency alternative words for goat, pig, and calf, they couldn’t select the right answer.  So we assumed that the College Board cared more about whether they could comprehend these random alternative terms than actually comprehend the authentic text.

All that to say, my go-to way to incorporate interpretive tasks in a communicative program is to ask students to incorporate them into a production task.  On the lower levels, I ask students to simply retell me what’s going on, or perhaps recreate with their own content (look at a ‘lost dog poster’ and change the information to their own pet, for example).  For higher levels, they need to use the content to make a comparison or defend an opinion.


There’s an easy aspect and a hard aspect to interpersonal tasks.  Easy:  Ask students to have a conversation (in writing, maybe a Twitter exchange).  If I’m assessing it, the conversation is with me.  If it’s simply practice, the conversation can be with each other.  Hard: don’t do skits and call it interpersonal.  If students have a chance to draft and/or practice a conversation before performing it, this is not interpersonal.  It can be valid, if you call it presentational, but it’s not interpersonal.


This is my primary method of acquiring test grades.  I usually alternate or allow students to choose (but they must alternate choices): one presentational speaking or one presentational writing assessment per unit (that I grade).  They may do lots of other presentational communication, even in every class period, as the definition is simply communication they have time to plan and edit.  Their weekly blogs are a form of presentational writing.  Bottom line, I’m asking them to communicate something in writing or speaking that we’ve been working on.
Novice example: Write a short review of your favorite restaurant for someone who is coming to visit our city.
Intermediate example: Compare the McDonald’s menu in Argentina with the McDonald’s menu here and tell what you like best and why.  What would you eat at McDonald’s in Buenos Aires?  Post your video presentation on YouTube (if allowed) and tweet it at McDonald’s Argentina.

More reading

Here are some previous Musicuentos posts that I think may help further with this issue:

Consider this: what current practices are making our assessments invalid, and how can we change them (and maintain our sanity)?


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January 30, 2015 4 Comments

My favorite authentic resource combining culture & calendar

If you love to incorporate authentic resources into all levels, you know that there are two major problems with doing so.  1) It takes a lot of time to find the right resource. 2) Using many resources in novice classes can be problematic because of how much scaffolding you may have to do to make it more comprehensible, lest the level of confusion demotivate your students.

Once in a while, though, there comes along a particular resource that shines, and when you find it, you’d better download it and bookmark it, because once you’ve found it, why search for something else, right?  So even if it slowly goes out of date, it’s still useful for students.  But what if you find one of those resources that is actually updated every year?

I know this is the wrong time of year to post about this, but you’ll want to get this one saved on your computer or in the cloud.  One of the best authentic resources for novices (or any level) I have ever seen is the program and schedule of the Xcaret Festival de Vida y Muerte.  It’s packed with deep cultural references that beg to be explored, and it’s brimming with novice skills: making plans, days of the week, calendar, times, interests.

Regardless of when you’re reading this post, this year’s information should be available here.  The 2014 program is still downloadable here, and download it – they’ll remove it a couple of months before the new one comes out.  Then check back and download the new one – they’re always very different, and they’re always #authres gold.  And if it’s too late and you’ve missed the 2014 version, no worries – I have it on my Google Drive here (I wish I had the 2013 version for you; it was equally well done).  Really, it’s stunning- tons of context, tons of cognates, tons of culture.  The activities are even organized by interest, so ask your students – what interests you?  What would you see?

Here are some extension suggestions:

  • Have students explore the Twitter hashtag: #festivalvidaymuerte
  • Explore the website of the Xcaret park: how much to get there?  where would you stay? what would you eat?
  • Check out the park’s Facebook page.
  • They also have a YouTube channel.
  • Do a simple Google Image search of “Xcaret festival”; students can describe their favorite Catrina or altar and vote.
  • Have students group together by similar interests to plan their trip to the festival.  What will they choose to attend?
  • Students can research cultural groups that interest them- where are they from? what else do they perform at?

Enjoy this amazing resource.  Have you found something similarly so easily adapted to multiple levels and already so rich with culture?

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January 27, 2015 0 Comments

#Teach2Teach Question 1: The Great Balancing Act

What’s the number one problem in world language teaching?

I’d be super interested to hear your answer.  After careful thought, here’s mine:

Teacher Training Programs

I have the great privilege of communicating with a lot of world language teachers, which is a huge change from where I was just ten years ago, where I’m not sure I could have named another language teacher outside my school.  I love teachers, and I love hearing about their passions, struggles, problems, ideas, and solutions.  I love hearing the excitement of young (and middle! and old!) teachers ready to take on the world and change it together with their students.

But you know what I get tired of hearing about?  I get tired of hearing about how much they want to change.  Don’t get me wrong – I love identifying areas I need to improve and finding a workable approach to accomplish that change, and I love helping teachers do the same.  No, the reason I tire of this problem is that it’s always accompanied with how overwhelmed teachers are and a short journey into the causes reveals such a disappointing source.  I wish I could say it’s just because some of us are perfectionists who always feel like we need to be better and we need to just be satisfied with who we are.  But most of the time, that’s just not true.  The fact is that many of these teachers need to change and they know it and it simply overwhelms them.  The truth is, they are going to have to find a baby-step approach to change and determine to be content with it or they’re going to keep being overwhelmed and burn out.  But the truth also is, the change needs to happen.  And many times the glaring truth is, it’s not their fault.

pcc second edI thought my own undergraduate training was an anomaly until I started mentoring new teachers.  I started introducing them to sound principles in language teaching – effective planning, student engagement, comprehensible input, using the target language in the classroom, and so on.  And they were amazed.  They were excited.  They were overwhelmed.  Why?  Because they hadn’t heard or seen it before.

Me neither.  I’ll try to dance through some confession time here.  I had a very… interesting undergraduate experience.  How shall I describe my school: um, private.  Inexpensive due to underwriting by a lucrative K-12 curriculum business.  Isolationist.  Fundamentalist on the far, far right.  Secretive.  Oppressive, controlling?  Yeah, a lot of us would describe it that way.  Free speech, or much freedom at all for that matter, was not exactly celebrated there (I know, my friend was in charge of using a Sharpie to censor the cover of Fitness magazine).  Okay, enough about that. But on many counts, the education wasn’t bad.  The nursing and criminal justice programs were top-notch (and, unlike my program, accredited).  The school turns out a lot of high-quality elementary teachers in high demand in many private faith-based schools.  But in the Spanish education program, which in my senior year graduated four teachers, and which does not seem to exist as a major anymore, I will say ACTFL wouldn’t have been impressed.  We had two professors in the department, one energetic Spaniard and an elegant Puerto Rican, and I adored them both.  I kept in contact with them for years after college.  But I’m not sure they knew what ACTFL was, or Krashen, Lightbown, Spada, Doughty, Long, Curtain, any of the researchers who later shaped my graduate school experience.  I can’t even tell you I refined my Spanish ability much while I was there – really, it was the two summers I spent in South Texas that I credit for my conversational Spanish ability now.  I suppose I can sum up my experience by saying that I learned how to make a fantastic 3-D bulletin board, write on a whiteboard in amazing cursive in a straight line, put layovers on a full-color overhead transparency, chalk visual aids, and handle myself professionally in a classroom.  What I did not learn was how to teach comprehensibly in Spanish, get kids using the language communicatively, or motivate students to want to know more about Spanish and the cultures of the Spanish-speaking peoples.

Fast forward, after three years of teaching I went back to graduate school, where I learned about all these researchers and the principles their research spawned, but I was in a heavily theoretical program that was designed to produce researchers, not effective language teachers – they sort of pawned me off on the TESOL people because of my applied interest (I don’t mean that negatively- I loved my graduate experience and owe a whole lot to “THE USC“).  But when I graduated and resumed teaching, it really was a few important conference workshops that finally showed me how I could use sound Second Language Acquisition principles to foster real proficiency in my students.  And since then I’ve met so many teachers with similar stories, almost regardless of where they went to school – well, except for the business with the Sharpie.

So what am I getting at?


To briefly explain #Teach2Teach, Amy Lenord has partnered with a professor at North Carolina State University on a mission to answer the burning questions in the minds of preservice teachers.  Through social media, they (and whoever wants to partner with them) are on a worthwhile journey to help preservice teachers learn more of the right stuff before they wear that mortarboard.  Change will never be so easy for them as now, when they’re just forming their philosophies and exploring methods, so let’s help them out, shall we?

The first question from these preservice teachers at NCSU is from Garrett:

How do all these teachers balance the workload between teaching and planning?  Now that I am getting ready to perform all this work, I am beginning to wonder how anyone manages it at all.

It’s a question that still plagues us ten, twenty years in to the journey, does it not?  For Garrett and anyone else with this question making you wonder if you’ll make it in this profession, I simply want to offer a series of blog posts I did in 2013 on burnout.  If my email, blog comments, and Twitter feed are any indication, the planning and grading aspects of communicative, proficiency-based language teaching are the top sources of the feeling that we just can’t handle our workload.  So here are the links and outlines of those posts:

1. “Burning out or burning bright“:

  • Put your sanity first.

2. “More tips on avoiding burnout“:

  • Abandon perfectionism.
  • Let time and experience work their wonders.

3. “Still more tips on avoiding burnout“:

  • Develop a strong personal learning community.
  • Map out your activities.

4. “Even more tips on avoiding burnout“:

  • Organize your bookmarks.
  • Stop grading everything.

5. “Last tips on avoiding burnout“:

  • Stop looking when you’ve found something that will work.
  • Stop over-planning so much.

I hope this helps you and Garrett contemplate our great profession without being overwhelmed.  What can you add to this discussion?  Blog or tweet your comments using the term #Teach2Teach.

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January 22, 2015 6 Comments

All new resource: Battleship for es / está

It’s always exciting for me to announce a resource release!  Today on the blog and on my Teachers Pay Teachers store I’m releasing a new FREE resource as I explore developing communicative games.
Jeffrey battleship copyrightMy students enjoyed using a Battleship game format to practice accurate repetitions of forms of ser and estar, so I decided to develop the game into a prettied-up Battleship gameboard starring none other than Jeffrey the Musicuentos penguin as Captain and Commander of the World (or at least of his own battleship).

Please note that this game is not intended to teach ser vs. estar but rather to practice accuracy with when they are normally used.  Students do not choose which one is appropriate for a particular situation in this game.  Here’s how it works:

  1. Students choose four squares in the top “battle grid” and mark them with an X or a battleship sketch, if they’re feeling artsy.
  2. Next they draw a small (really small?) illustration of what it means, to demonstrate comprehension.  Explore other ways for students to demonstrate comprehension – have them act out all the squares before you begin playing, perhaps in a sort of round of “charades,” for example.
  3. Pairs of students play together, and each uses the questions in the bottom grid to try to guess where the partner’s buques de guerra are.  If the asker “hit” a buque de guerra, the partner answers, “Claro que sí.”  If the asker missed, the partner answers, “Claro que no.”

Here’s an example:

Morgan: Tu amigo Luis, ¿está triste?
Stephen: ¡Claro que no! Tu amigo Luis, ¿es rubio?
Morgan: ¡Claro que sí!

This takes a bit of explaining the first time, but after the first time students have the hang of it and enjoy a game without realizing how many times they’re hearing accurate pairings of es and está.  Try it out and let me know how it goes.  The game is easily adaptable to almost any concept – vocabulary, actions, likes and dislikes, and so on.  Try making your own.  Meanwhile, I’ll be working on developing a ser vs. estar pack that includes this game and also a buque de guerra pack that has several variations of the game.

Download it now

and it will always be available on the handouts page.

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January 19, 2015 2 Comments

2015 Resolution #3, Expand your learning network: New blogs to watch

My first two suggestions for resolutions for 2015 were intended to push for a more positive note in world language teaching in 2015: for us to stop beating ourselves up when things don’t go exactly according to plan, and for us to act like we’re on the same team with the same goals, instead of my-way-is-the-right-way.  This third and final suggestion is something I like to do at the beginning of a year – let you know what blogs I watched appear (or become more established) in the previous year, to suggest reading material for your new year.  Here are the four (edit -five!) new blogs I loved in 2014.

Allison’s Mis Clases Locas

Mis_Clases_LocasOn Mis Clases LocasAllison Weinhold blogs about what she does as “department of one” in a small private school in Iowa.  I know I speak for all of those who have been around this field for a little while when I say how very energizing it is to see young new teachers explode on the scene with bright ideas, lots of hope, determination to stick out the rough spots, and a commitment to collaborate and contribute at every turn.  I especially appreciate Allison’s perspective on what it’s like to teach without a face-to-face PLN, her “quick tips,” and her beginning-of-class activities, especially Baile Viernes (we are so doing this when I go back to teaching) and Lista Lunes.


Bethanie’s Aventuras Nuevas

Aventuras_NuevasBethanie Carlson-Drew is one of those people in my PLN that I suppose I really haven’t known that long, but I feel like I’ve known her forever.  We were immediate kindred spirits and I’ve been blessed to meet her in person twice.  She was also one of my guest bloggers – so I had her before she had a blog, ha ha.  (She also contributed an activity adapting authentic restaurant reviews for a food unit activity here.)  And she and the rest of the world realized how much she had to contribute to our profession’s conversations and she started blogging at Aventuras Nuevas.  I love Bethanie, I loved presenting with her (and Laura Sexton) on choice in homework at ACTFL ’14, I love her blog, and you will, too.

Andrea’s Lugar para pensar

Lugar_para_pensarAndrea Brown started blogging at Lugar para pensar last year and I look forward to every post that lands in my inbox.  She writes, “I was born in Illinois to Yankee parents, but I’m a Georgia girl at heart,” and as for me, I was born in Montana to Yankee parents, but I’m a Georgia girl at heart – and we’re Spanish teachers – how could we not be kindred spirits?!  I think you’ll especially appreciate her perspective on incorporating Realidades into a communicative program, developing communicative activities from authentic resources, and improving assessment methods like quizzes and stamp sheets.




Wendy’s En français, SVP!

En_français__SVPWendy Farabaugh will remind you a whole lot of Allison – young, energetic, full of ideas, tenacious, determined to learn and have fun doing it.  And she will remind you a lot of Andrea – exploring using authentic resources while teaching with comprehensible input.  The one big difference here is that Wendy teaches French.  I enjoyed learning with Wendy at the inaugural Camp Musicuentos last summer, and I’ve loved hearing on her blog about her successes and struggles on one of my favorite journeys in world language teaching – storytelling.




**edit 1/16**

I KNEW there were actually five blogs I’d planned to list!  I figured out which one I left out!

Las_clases_de_StilsonMelanie’s Las clases de Stilson

You’ll really enjoy Melanie’s honest perspective from the trenches of language teaching, and her creative innovations as well as her personalization and improvements on some of the great creative ideas bouncing around the internet.  Best of all, you’ll benefit from her dedication to the big principles: communicative activities, comprehensible input, and proficiency-based everything.



Other blogs to keep an eye on

Here are a couple of other blogs you’ll want to watch this year.  From Emily over at Mi clase es su clase, I save a lot of her suggestions for “Canción de la semana.”  Also, I had the great privilege of finally meeting Shelli this year at ACTFL ’14 and we talked her into starting a blog – she just started blogging over at Risky Business.  I’ve enjoyed being on the #langchat moderating team with Kris Climer (aka Nicholas Cage’s doppleganger) for a while, and I got to meet him at ACTFL ’14 as well.  He is extraordinarily thoughtful and eloquent and started blogging his French teaching journey last year at Monsieur Le Prof 2.0.  I have been blogging at Musicuentos for more than six years, and I will tell you that life often gets in the way of sharing our thoughts on our blogs, and with good reason.  We want to keep up the conversation with you, but sometimes, frankly, we have a lot of other important things going on right now, too.  It’s like your class- sometimes there’s a lot to say, but no time to say it (RING, that’s the bell).  But if blogging continues to fit on these star teachers’ plates, you’ll see great things from them, I’d wager.

Did you spot a star blog I missed in 2014?  Let me know about it!  Also, consider starting your own blog to share your journey.  Selfishly, I’d ask you to consider WordPress because they make it a lot easier for me to get your new posts in my email; otherwise I usually miss them.

Got another great resolution for 2015?  Share it with us!

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January 14, 2015 3 Comments

2015 Resolutions #2: Act like we’re on the same team

Here’s another trend I’d like us all to resolve to change this year (the first was to stop beating ourselves up thinking our students’ learning is entirely up to us).

If you don’t participate in a listserv (which is like being on an email list with a bunch of other teachers) or a Twitter chat (WHY NOT?!?!) then you probably won’t know what I’m talking about, but whoa, this past year some online (and at-conference) teacher communities really showed me that our pride and prejudice is sometimes getting in the way of acting like we believe this important principle:

We are on the same team.

Go Team! Chema Concellón

Go Team!
Chema Concellón

Do you want kids to own their learning and have fun doing it?

Do you want students to succeed in life?

Do you want students to actually be able to accomplish something in the language you teach?

Are you committed to find and use the methods and materials that fit your personality and your class and accomplish these goals?

Welcome to the club.

Really.  It’s a very inclusive club.  (Now, I know not all of us are on the same team, and sometimes disagreements sharpen our own teaching- I have a post drafted about how, though I will always be grateful for Stephen Krashen’s research on what factors really contribute to language acquisition, and I was a huge fan of his for a long time, my opinion right now is that he has almost completely lost touch with the classroom teacher.)  But for the most part, we’re teachers, we’ve got great goals, we’re committed to improvement, and we’re committed to our profession.

So why aren’t we acting like it?  Or perhaps a better question is, how can we act like it?

Use labels that mean something

A very smart friend recently asked me, “Why do we always feel like we have to label ourselves?  Why can’t we just talk like we all want the same thing?”  The question resonates with me as I think about the time a TPRS presenter told me I couldn’t say I use TPRS unless I ascribe to all of its tenets.  That’s the point I determined to label my teaching with words that tell people more meaningfully what I do: I’m a storytelling teacher.  I’m dedicated to comprehensible input.  I like to incorporate technology in ways that train students to use it responsibly for life.  I think classroom management is a heart issue and a self-control training issue.  Let’s talk to each other about what we do in the classroom without having to resort to labels that are getting fuzzier by the year.

Believe in teachers

I recently told my friend Thomas Sauer how much it impacted me one evening on #langchat when someone (it very well could have been me) tweeted something that could cast a negative light on a teacher who engaged in a particular practice.  Thomas rephrased it in a way that removed the negative light from the teacher and he ended the tweet with #Ibelieveinteachers.  In the new paradigm a lot of us are now saying how much we believe in students, but sometimes our determination that the way we’re doing it is the only way that will produce proficiency doesn’t sound much like, “We believe in teachers.”  None of us is perfect.  But so many of us are working very hard for the very best for our students, and just because you’re not doing it the way I would doesn’t mean your way isn’t going to work.  Speaking of which…

Resist sounding like a pet method is the only right way

Back when I taught using very little target-language input, lots of translation, lots of textbook, lots of verb tenses, and so on, I didn’t see a lot of proficiency development in my students.  But I did in some of them.  Some of those students sat in that class, ended up with measurable proficiency in Spanish, and thought I was the greatest teacher ever (with what I know now, that really makes me laugh).  We know that there are general principles that work well in language teaching, like speaking more target language in class, making sure it’s comprehensible–you know what a lot of them are.  And we should strive to find what works for the majority of our students. But nothing works for everyone, and almost anything works for someone.  Let’s tone down the message that AIM, TPRS, PBL, inquiry-based whatever, TBI, all the alphabet soup of modern language teaching, is the magic pill and if you don’t use it, you’re dooming your students to failure.

Teachers, I believe in you!  What principles are working for your students?  This year, anyway – we all know next year’s class will be another story, right?

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January 10, 2015 3 Comments

2015 resolution #1: Stop being so hard on yourself

Jaime Pérez Don't beat yourself up - and don't let the kids do it either.

Jaime Pérez
Don’t beat yourself up – and don’t let the kids do it either.

Happy New Year, Musicuentos readers and language teachers everywhere!

It’s that time of year we all like to step back and think about areas we can change or improve in the year ahead.  I’ve been enjoying the #oneword posts I’ve seen (especially Laura’s one on less) from teachers choosing a word to guide their 2015.  To be honest with you, I have a weight of difficult or simply consuming decisions and tasks facing me this year, and they are making me feel far too scattered to be able to select a “focus word,” so you will probably not see a Musicuentos #oneword.  But usually I take this time to blog a few suggestions, based on my own experience, my own resolutions, or trends I’ve seen.  This year I offer you three in a series.

This first one is based on a sad trend I’ve watched for some time.

Exciting changes in the industry

I love exploring how to be a progressive educator.  I love thinking about and reading about and writing about what it might mean to be training up the 21st century students who are experiencing a world that’s changing at the speed of thought.

This past year I’ve loved watching great new and veteran teachers take a leap into sharing their journey via new teaching blogs.  (Watch for resolution post #3 on my blog recommendations for 2015.)  But as I read books and Twitter feeds and watch video talks that encourage me to approach learning more creatively to raise up language speakers with real skills and the innovators this century will demand, I’m afraid that we’ve bought into some dangerous myths.  My frustration started with this a couple of years ago when I was mentoring a new Spanish teacher at my school and she had this one class (I know, you have it too) that refused to engage or respect her regardless of anything she did, and when the students talked to me, they used every excuse under the sun about how she was or wasn’t teaching in order to explain this, but for sure it wasn’t their fault.  I’m appalled at all sorts of ways our society tries to remove personal responsibility for someone’s actions (and blame you for it).  And this past year or so I’ve been watching dedicated, creative teachers on Twitter, in blogs, and in my own email inbox beat themselves up because of these lies that beat us down and try to keep us there.

It’s a myth: Perfect environment = results guaranteed

Disclaimer:  Don’t misunderstand me, the following are all important principles that will contribute to student success in your classroom.  But I want to be a voice encouraging you not to take it farther than intended when someone tweets “If you provide comprehensible input, students will acquire language.”  I want to be the voice in your ear when the book tells you, “This wildly successful innovator attributes all his success to X teacher [who worked 70 hours a week for no extra pay].”  I want you to hear me when your principal tells you, “You just need to have better classroom management skills.”

We cannot use enough comprehensible input to guarantee language acquisition.
Truth: High levels of comprehensible input facilitate language acquisition, but sometimes your students are too angry at a parent to listen to you.

We cannot be creative enough to guarantee student engagement.
Truth: Only the most motivated students get anything out of boring lecture classes that are the stuff of all the classic school horror stories and the butt of many jokes, but sometimes your students are simply too lazy to put in the work that creativity requires.

We cannot plan enough to prevent class mishaps.
Truth: I had an inspiring college professor who used to say, “If you don’t have a plan, the students will.”  And it’s true that over-planning a class period will help ensure you and the students are engaged in meaningful learning for more of the time you have.  But sometimes the fire alarm will sound, the wireless will go down, the computer will crash, the pencils will break, the class clown will crack a stupid joke, or someone will have drawn some toilet humor on the wall.  Or it may be something as simple as a task you thought would be very effective doesn’t go over well with your student population, and you couldn’t have anticipated it.  That is okay.

Yes, we should plan well.

Yes, we should speak as much comprehensible TL as possible in class.

Yes, we should craft realistic, effective assessment tools.

Yes, we should give students more outlets for creative, self-directed learning.

But the next time you’re tempted to break down in tears, throw something at the wall, eat a pint of ice cream, or whatever your frustration tempts you to do, come read this post, take a deep breath, and hear me tell you,

In the end, your students are 100% responsible for their own behavior – and for their own learning.

(Thanks Thomas Sauer for your suggested edits!)




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January 5, 2015 9 Comments

Book Club ’14: George Müller & Bruchko

And so we end the 2014 Musicuentos Book Club with a biography and an autobiography, both carrying a challenge: What do you believe, and what will you do with it?

George Müller: Delighted in God

We throw around phrases like “my prayers are with you” and “you’re in my thoughts and prayers.”  What are your thoughts and prayers actually doing?  Do you know?  Do you believe?  If you are a Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or atheist or agnostic or don’t know what you believe, I encourage you to read this biography of George Müller, a man who cared for thousands of orphans and funded the operation without ever asking anyone for a penny, and make some decisions about who God is and what He can do when His people ask believing.

As the Liverpool Mercury wrote in Müller’s obituary well over 100 years ago, after acknowledging that Mr. Müller had told the world his orphan work had operated completely by prayer,

The rationalism of the day will sneer at this declaration; but the facts remain, and remain to be explained.  It would be unscientific to belittle historical occurrences when they are difficult to explain, and much juggling would be needed to make the Orphanages on Ashley Down vanish from view.

In your rationalism, how much juggling are you willing to do to make the orphanages on Ashley Down vanish from view?

More takeaways:

He had an appointment and needed to be in Quebec by a certain day, but there was a very dense fog on the sea.  He prayed with the captain that it would be lifted, and the captain was about to pray but Müller said,

Do not pray. First, you do not believe He will answer, and second, I believe He has and there is no need whatever for you to pray about it.

When they left the cabin, the fog was gone.

In sermons,

Asking aright has three elements:
1. Desiring God’s glory.
2. Confessing our unworthiness and pleading the merits of Jesus.
3. Believing that we do receive the things for which we ask.

[to strengthen your faith,]
First, read the Bible carefully and thoughtfully.
Second, try to keep your conscience clear.
Third, don’t try to avoid situations where your faith may be tested.
Finally, remember that God won’t test you more than you are able to bear.

His answer to the question, “You have always found the Lord faithful to His promise?”

Always. He has never failed me! For nearly seventy years every need in connection with the work has been supplied.  The orphans from the first until now , have numbered nine thousand five hundred, but they have never wanted a meal. Never! Hundreds of times we have commenced the day without a penny in hand, but our Heavenly Father has sent supplies by the moment they were actually required.  THere never was a time when there was no wholesome meal.  During all these years I have been enabled to trust in God, in the living God, and in Him alone.  One million four hundred thousand pounds have been sent to me in answer to prayer.  We have wanted as much as fifty thousand pounds in one year, and it has all come by the time it has been really needed.

And this isn’t a man who was preaching God’s best life for you on the front page of the Times while cruising down the road in his state-of-the-art carriage and top hat.  Müller died with almost no possessions.  He knew he was leaving it all behind, and he’d rather leave behind something else, I’d wager.

Learning itself gives no happiness – no real, true happiness.  Christ, and Christ alone, gives real, true happiness.  I know seven languages, and with all this I should have gone to hell if it had not been that I knew Christ, Christ, Christ. Oh! The blessedness of being a disciple of the Lord Jesus!


Before you dismiss this as another tale of a man who killed a culture in the name of Christ, please read on.

Summary: From the back,

What happens when a teenage boy leaves home and heads into the jungles to evangelize a murderous tribe of South American Indians?

For Bruce Olson it meant capture, disease, terror, loneliness, kidnapping, and torture.  But what he discovered by trial and error has revolutionized the world of missions.  Living with the Motilone Indians since 1961, Olson’s efforts have sent a spiritual ripple around the world that reaches deep into the hearts of mission-minded Christians and anthropologists as well as the government of Colombia.

Bruce Olson, born in Minnesota and now a citizen of Colombia, is a linguist and a graduate of sociology from a South American university.  he has won the friendship of four Colombian presidents and appeared before the United Nations.  he lives in the jungle on the border of Colombia and Venezuela.

My take on it: Here’s a man who walks a line few are willing to approach, and has done it for many decades.

Superficially I must say this read was inherently interesting to me with my background in linguistics.  Olson is a linguist who documented a language never before written or analyzed, in fact, the first tonal language “discovered” among South America’s indigenous.  And his descriptions of how they began to translate the Bible into Motilone fascinated me.  How do you translate faith when a community has no word for it?

Deeply, it’s a far-reaching lesson for all of us that civilization encroaches on the indigenous whether anyone likes it or not, barbarianism is wrong whether anyone likes it or not, and Christianity can share its message among the unreached peoples of the world while beautifully preserving amazing cultures and without believing that American culture is the only or best way to live.

It was very difficult for Bruce to help the Motilones improve their society with scientific advances in medicine and agriculture for a few reasons.  One was that he didn’t want to splinter their culture as had happened to so many other tribes with the introduction of Western practices, and faith too.  But how to accept these advances within their cultural framework?  The other reason was that the Motilone culture discouraged feeling or showing any emotion at all.  Not pain, grief, or caring about each other.  To Bruce it seemed the Motilones “did not care for each other in any deep way.”  But he credits two reasons his work among them is “considered by many to be the fastest example of development that has ever occurred in a primitive tribe.”  The first is that he figured out how to help them within their culture, instead of imposing his own:

Over a period of time [the witch doctor] introduced disinfectants into the normal ceremonies of the Motilones.  For instance, there was a cleansing ceremony when a new communal home was built.  All the Motilones who are going to live in the home gather, sing chants, and strike the walls with sticks to make any evil spirits leave.  At my suggestion, the witch doctor had them use disinfectants with the ceremony, and people noticed that health measurably improved.  She also had the midwives use disinfectants when mothers gave birth, and the mortality rate declined….

Vaccination was introduced by the witch doctor as a new form of the traditional blood-letting that the Motilones practiced when someone was sick, because, like blood-letting, it gave a pain that overcame the greater pain of disease or death.  Explained in that way and administered by the witch doctor, who was known and trusted, it quickly was accepted and spread through the tribe as soon as needles and vaccine could be provided.

The second reason?  In short, the Holy Spirit.

Read this powerful description of a Motilone warrior’s death:

Bruchko, I heard a voice like the spirits that talk when they try to kill you… but this voice called me by my secret name, by my real name. No one alive knows my real name, but this spirit called me by my real name.  So I called to it and said, ‘Who are you?’ and it said, ‘I am Jesus, who has walked with you on the trail…. God is here, and He wants to take me on the path we couldn’t ever find on our hunts, the path that goes beyond the horizon to his home…. Not alone.  Not alone.  I won’t walk it by myself.  There’s a Friend who wants to take me.  And He knows my name, my real name.

And from the epilogue:

[Motilone students sponsored for advanced studies] have learned how to weave the benefits of science with their traditional roots and values.  The Motilones have prepared agronomists; nurses for their twenty-eight health stations; business administrators for their eight cooperatives (which now underwrite more than 86 percent of the Motilone/Barí jungle community expenses); bilingual educators; forest rangers; and other professionals.  The Motilones have also trained lawyers, vital for litigation and legal protection of the indigenous traditional habitat.

Even since the latest publication of this book, Bruce Olson has been kidnapped again, this time by the ELN, but he’s continued his work in the jungle (according to the latest report I could find), at times accused by the government of aiding the guerrillas, often targeted for assassination by cartels for his work with the government.

One last thought, if you’re baffled at how mumbling about spirits and using the witch doctor could possibly be part of evangelization, I ask you to simply read the book.  Here’s Bruce’s testimony to you:

I have spoken before the United Nations.  I have spoken to the Organization of American States.  I have been a personal friend of the last four presidents of Colombia.  My experience with the Motilone Indians has taught me how to deal with other cultures and how to promote positive change without tearing social structures apart at the seams.  I try to share these things.  But the most important thing that I can say to those who want to help primitive people is this: they will not be helped very much unless they find purpose in life through Jesus Christ.  without Him, whatever development takes place always will be twisted or corrupted.  It will embitter those who try to hold it together, and those who don’t care about it will be ruined by apathy and alienation.

Happy new year, everyone.

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December 31, 2014 0 Comments

Best of 2014 #1: Every language teacher’s biggest mistake

It wasn’t even close. My post on the biggest mistake we make (and are pushed in so many ways to make) as language teachers was hit more than 40% more than the #2 post. We know we’re covering too much content, and we’re tired of being told that’s the right thing to do.

Oh- and HAPPY 2015 to you all!

Every language teacher’s biggest mistake


Last year I blogged a post about the top 3 mistakes teachers of novices make.  It made a big splash, in the cyber world anyway.  Something about that post resonated with teachers.  But it didn’t address the biggest mistake all of us make – the cancer that plagues world language teaching and makes programs far and wide almost completely ineffective in the long term.  What is it we’re doing wrong?

Too much content

When I first started teaching, I came into a program that had a set textbook.  It was a college textbook called Puntos de partida and the program used half of it for Spanish 1 and half for Spanish 2 (there was no Spanish 3 until I got there).  So can you guess what I did?  Well, I did what any other grammarian fresh out of college would do. I taught it. All of it.  Every last page and every exercise.

Every verb tense.

Every verb tense.

Yes, my Spanish 1 students “learned” present tense and preterite tense and ended the year by dabbling with imperfect tense.  My Spanish 2 students learned the rest. All the rest.  Future, conditional, subjunctive. All the compounds.  In two years of Spanish my students studied and were assessed on 14 verb tenses.  And the personal a.  Passive voice.  Every form of pronoun.  Superlatives.  Can you imagine how proud I was?  I was world’s greatest Spanish teacher.  I couldn’t believe how students would transfer into Spanish 2 and hadn’t seen the past tenses yet.  What kind of teacher did they have anyway?

I say this so you know I was there.  Often, I still am there, but ten years ago, I was the queen of do-it-all-or-die-trying.  And do you know how many students I taught could actually do anything in Spanish after they left my class?  A handful.  Five years later? Probably three, and that’s because one of them moved to Spain to cycle professionally.  Why? Because I was so focused on teaching all of it that I forgot to care if they were learning any of it.

If you’re a new teacher and you’re beaming with pride over how much more content you’re covering than other teachers you know, hear me tell you don’t be.

If you’re a lone communicative teacher surrounded by colleagues and administration telling you to just finish the book, hear me tell you don’t despair. Don’t drink the Kool-aid.

If you’ve been teaching for decades and you’re an advanced speaker of the language you teach and you’ve forgotten just how insanely much time it takes to develop that proficiency, hear me tell you please remember.

On the practical side, here’s some advice to keep in mind to help prevent you from committing this widespread, crippling mistake.

  • Pause for a brain-based reality check.

If you could talk to the students I taught ten years ago, they’d tell you what the vast majority of people who have ever sat in a U.S. world language class (and many researchers) would echo: unless there is some memory-enhancing event like intense emotionthat which is learned fast is rarely learned well.

  • Eat, sleep, live proficiency standards.

It will help you get a handle on what your students are really capable of in the time you have them when you become very familiar with a quality proficiency standards document, like the one published by ACTFL.  Keep in mind what realistic goals are (check out what veteran Carrie Toth learned about that).   A somewhat realistic goal for the average high school student in a very communicative language program is to achieve novice high in the first year and intermediate low in the second year.*  Guess when a speaker can accurately manipulate multiple time frames?  Not until they achieve advanced proficiency, which is very difficult to do in high school for the average person.

  • Keep your goals proficiency-oriented.

Once you know what realistic proficiency goals look like, make those goals match your curriculum goals.  As an example, instead of “accurately manipulating the stem-changing verbs in the present tense,” your goals should look more like “making plans with a friend to attend an upcoming event.”

  • Keep your assessments proficiency-oriented.

When you have proficiency-oriented goals, it doesn’t make sense to disconnect your assessments from them.  If you want students to show they can make plans with a friend to go somewhere, make that your assessment.  Want to see some sample assessments?  You can find many of my Spanish 3 proficiency assessments here.

  • Stop believing in the Bell curve.

The idea that some students in language class should be excelling while others should be failing and the majority should be 20-30 percentage points below the top performers is completely unrealistic in a language class.  Whether or not it’s true in other classes, it’s not true for us.  People learn language differently from any other subject.  And unless your students have some kind of brain defect, they are capable of learning language regardless of how they do in other classes.  Especially when I was teaching lower elementary, before students were brainwashed by what school was “supposed” to be like, I was baffled by teachers who would ask me how this or that student was in my class.  They’re all great, I said.  I couldn’t tell you who was good at math or history or music.  I knew they could all do it, and so did they.  When you believe that 100% of your students are capable of acquiring language (some won’t because they simply refuse to be engaged by anything, but they can), this confidence will affect how much content you attempt in your class.

  • Keep your eyes on the long-term.

Finally, and most importantly, we’ve got to stop teaching like the grade on the test makes any difference.  If you teach asking yourself, “Will my students be able to use this a year from now?” instead of “Will my students be able to match these vocabulary words on my test next week?” you’ll stop teaching so much content and buy into the sweetest spot in language teaching: teaching less content, better.

Ignore those naysayers.  Educate your administration.  Believe in all your students. Choose to teach better by teaching less and you’ll all be better off in the long run.



*Even achieving IL after 2 years is not typical, but the proficiency-focused cohort of teachers from the Jefferson County (KY) Public Schools showed it could be done with a significant percentage of students. I bet you’re familiar with a couple of them- Kara and Megan of the Creative Language Class blog.

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December 30, 2014 3 Comments

Best of 2014 #6: Carol Gaab’s rebuttal to my TPRS critique

Still going out of order, here’s the final installment in the TPRS trilogy that forms three of the top ten posts of 2014.  After this post you’ll see the top post of 2014 and that will wrap up the year for Musicuentos.  This one hit at #6, but was the last of the three TPRS posts to be published.  In it, Carol Gaab writes her replies to my concerns about TPRS.  Please be sure to read my note at the end.  I especially appreciate her comment that

It is impossible to say that one way of teaching is what is best for ALL students.

Guest post: A TPRS rebuttal by Carol Gaab

This guest post is a response to last week’s “What I hate about TPRS.”

First, I would like to thank Sara-Elizabeth for writing such thought-provoking posts. You gave us a great deal to consider and challenged our thinking. THAT is always GOOD! And many thanks for the opportunity to be a guest blogger. I won’t begin to compete with Sara-Elizabeth’s blogging ability, but I wanted to address her concerns and her “HATES,” nevertheless.

“Too black-and-white”

There are some who have a narrow view of TPRS, and that is why the term TCI (Teaching with Comprehensible Input) was invented. There are so many factors that influence acquisition–whether it’s first, second or third language– that it is impossible to say that one way of teaching is what is best for ALL students. There are aspects of many approaches that are beneficial to a variety of learners.

I don’t think that anyone really believes or purports that second language acquisition is or could be exactly like first language acquisition. Krashen, among others, simply claims that the process by which we acquire second language is similar to how we acquire our first language.

We absolutely can never reproduce the L1 acquisition environment.

Logic tells you it could not be the same, because there are so many external forces/factors that make it different, including but not limited to: life experience and perception of the world, an L1 vocabulary base, increased cognitive capacity, development of conscious learning strategies, new learning that is impacted by previous learning, LITERACY SKILLS!, etc.

As Sara-Elizabeth points out, L1 acquisition takes a LONG TIME! Why would we want to replicate it?! I surely do NOT! I know my students will become proficient much more quickly if I focus on the powerful components of the Natural Approach and of immersion.

Comprehensible Input
Input that sustains emotional engagement and which distracts the learner from consciously trying to memorize or learn
Using literacy skills to enhance the rate of acquisition
Acquiring natural language structures (vs. units of grammar that must be mechanically manipulated in order to communicate)
My goal is NOT to do TPRS every day. Rather, my goal is provide compelling, contextualized, comprehensible input (CCCI) every day, using a myriad of activities and strategies. My goal is to create a “Hybrid Immersion” experience that capitalizes on the “Best of” tenets of the Natural Approach and immersion, using a variety of strategies:

personalized questions
scaffolded questions, using content and culture to deliver language and using language to deliver content and culture
story-asking, story-based instruction, using a variety of stories, from news articles to fairy tales
a variety of video-based techniques, using movie shorts, movie clips, movie trailers, classroom video-exchanges, commercials, etc.
a variety of songs (ie: invented songs based on familiar tunes, pop music, traditional music, oldies, etc.)
reading a wide variety of texts (ie: leveled readers (novels), news articles, #authres, song lyrics, invented stories, technology-based stories
etc. etc. etc.
Could someone learn/acquire second language when taught exclusively through TPRS strategies? YES, absolutely! The real question is can teachers sustain TPRS (strictly vocabulary, story, read) and keep input compelling and novel enough to maintain the level of student engagement that is necessary for acquisition to occur?

The answer is… it’s not black-and-white. Is it possible? YES. Is it probable? NO. Is it what’s best for students? … It’s not black-and-white.

To identify what is best for students, I would have to ask scads of questions:

What is your goal for your students? What do you want them to be able to do?
What learning styles are prevalent in your classroom?
Are your students literate learners?
Are your students highly/intrinsically motivated learners?
Can you think on your feet and spontaneously guide students through a comprehensible conversation?
Based on your answers, I would take specific components of TPRS and TCI and develop an instructional approach that best suits YOU and your students. The issue is not that TPRS does not work; it does! The issue is that other activities (that may or may not be considered to be “TPRS”) can work too… as long as you are providing cognitively possible lessons based on CCCI. TPRS provides teachers with a “recipe” to help them provide CCCI. My suggestion is to take the ‘TPRS recipe’ and enhance it with a variety of TCI activities to make it even more powerful.

“Not enough patterning”

It’s not black-and-white… LOL… Really, it’s not.

To say that TPRS practitioners do not believe in helping students see and connect patterns is… well… not true…and probably based on a sample that is too small to be indicative or representative of the majority of us… or least many of us.

I love to point out the patterns and generally do it through pop-up grammar. Pop-up grammar checks generally sound like this: “Which word means X?” What is the difference in meaning between X & Y? If Y means —, then what would Z mean? Why is there an‘S’ on that verb? Why did I say les and not le? etc.) We point out grammatical structures as they impact meaning. That [the impact that grammar has on MEANING] is the key! We point out patterns, but only as patterns impact meaning and only in a way that will help you communicate more accurately.

Grammar, itself, does not help one to communicate, but it can help you to communicate MORE ACCURATELY. Here’s an example of pop-up grammar patterns that came up in this week’s Spanish class:
Teacher (Me): “llamo” = I call. If “llamo” means “I call,” how would you say I take or carry?
Student: Llevo?
Teacher: Yes! Great! How did you know?
Student: Because you said if you want to say “I” do it, you change the ending (the ‘a’) to an ‘o’.
Teacher: Great!! Do you see the pattern? It’s not always exactly like that, but 90% of the time it works that way.
CLASS CONTINUES ON… 10 minutes later…
Teacher PQA: Katie, ¿Tienes un Ski-Doo?
Student (Katie): PAUSE… THINKING…Yo tieno un Ski-Doo.
Teacher: Great, Katie! You remembered the pattern. Unfortunately, this is one of the 10% that is a little different.
Teacher: [Writes on board “tengo”]
Student (Katie): “Oh, yo tengo un Ski-Doo.”

This conscious OUTput is not critical and is not the point. The point is that students who are ready for i+1, (+1 being the first person form of verbs), are developing receptive language skills. In other words, they are learning how first-person conjugation of verbs (adding an ‘o’) impacts the meaning of verbs and this helps them to eventually communicate more accurately.

I want to emphasize here that my goal is NOT grammatical accuracy. It is to develop comprehension and when they are ready, verbal proficiency. I most definitely have specific structures that I focus on, but if something comes up during class or in the news or in my students’ lives that warrants a change of plans, I have NO problem deviating from my original plan. Other structures may be more conducive to such a discussion, and I’m not about to squelch a learning opportunity, because I did not plan suitable vocabulary.

Ben Slavic, one of the biggest names in TPRS training, advocates this random approach.

However, this change of plans is not even REMOTELY random! I conscientiously make note of my lesson change and make sure I teach the “skipped” vocabulary another day. (Keep in mind that I am responsible for making sure that ‘big-money’ athletes are able to communicate on and off the field (using specialized vocabulary that is not necessarily high-frequency); I am in a high-stakes teaching environment, so I absolutely can not be ‘random!’)

I think that what Ben is alluding to is that he seriously considers Krashen’s Non-targeted Input Hypothesis, which states that teachers really do not have to plan a lesson with specific words/structures, IF they are focusing on high-frequency structures. Since high-frequency structures naturally come up in everyday conversation–even if it is random–over the course of time, you will provide the necessary reps, and students will acquire them without rigidly adhering to a schedule or vocabulary list. (Find more information at

Honestly, Krashen is right… in theory. Given enough time, with NO necessary assessments, no accountability or necessity to adhere to a curriculum, no pressure to teach what everyone else is teaching, NO Common Core, plus an amazing talent for sustaining a conversation on the fly and for keeping everything you say completely comprehensible, he’s right…although not realistic for most classroom teachers.

“Ignoring Metacognitive Awareness”

The individual development of personal learning strategies is an asset. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe this, unless of course, the learner is someone like me– someone who is so neurotic about knowing the pattern and knowing the WHY’s that it truly does interfere with developing proficiency. Krashen has never said that learning strategies are bad (except in my case– LOL). He only says they are not necessary for language acquisition. He’s right; they aren’t.

Overuse of conscious learning strategies can impede learning/acquisition, but they can also come in handy. Have you ever helped students remember how to pronounce a word or the meaning of a word with a mnemonic device? Learning Strategy in action! How about pop-up grammar to identify patterns? Learning Strategy in action! How about gestures that help students link meaning? Learning Strategy in action! How about reading strategies to aid comprehension? Learning Strategy in action!

It’s a matter of semantics. What IS conscious learning and what is a conscious learning strategy? The caveat is that historically we have focused heavily on conscious learning of language, and this has proven to be unsuccessful for the majority of language learners. Conscious learning strategies will NOT help learners develop proficiency! They MAY help you remember certain words and certain patterns that might in turn help you communicate more accurately, but they, when used in isolation of providing CCCI, will NOT help students develop proficiency. Thus, the ‘perceived’ disdain for conscious learning strategies.


I do not consider ‘establishing meaning’ to be equivalent to ‘translation’. First, when a textbook provides a list of vocabulary words, aren’t the meanings listed alongside of the word? I don’t think most people consider that to be “translation.”

In my opinion, establishing meaning is not translation! Why would we leave students in a state of confusion (as they are during L1 acquisition) when we know that we can’t replicate first language acquisition or immersion anyway? Why NOT simply tell students what structures specifically mean?

Believe me, I asked myself this question many times during the early years of TPRS (early 90’s). I’ve tried teaching vocabulary structures both ways by providing meanings and by playing charades and ‘getting the gist.’ What I found is this: I save a great deal of precious time if I start by establishing meaning. My students avoid a great deal of frustration and anxiety if they are given a fair opportunity to make meaning of a message. Giving the meaning not only helps me move to providing CCCI more quickly, it actually helps me STAY in the Target Language. My TL goal is 98%, (not 90%). Establishing meaning also helps students stay engaged. Reducing anxiety, confusion and stress not only lowers the Affective Filter (calms the Reticular Activation System), it also helps to keep students engaged…and MOTIVATED!

As students move up in level, we spend less and less time on establishing meaning or confirming meaning. As they become more confident and capable in the language and have a broader vocabulary base from which to draw, they can determine word meanings on their own, just from the context of the words they know. That doesn’t mean I don’t confirm meaning at times, it only means we do NOT translate every single word… not even in level 1.

Also, remember, what you consider to be obvious may not be so obvious to students! [but how long does it take to draw a butterfly?] If you show a picture of a butterfly, one student might think ‘moth’, another ‘Monarch’, and another ‘butterfly’. I don’t think it does any harm to tell students what ‘butterfly’ means. In fact, I’ve learned that it can be quite helpful! I used to point to my water bottle to ‘show’ “water.” Weeks later, several students said, “Oh, agua doesn’t mean bottle?” I have a “wolf” prop. Invariably, that prop is interpreted as a fox, a coyote and a Husky. (Literally.) I used to make a name tag and put it on my shirt. I would say “Me llamo Sra. G.” while pointing to the nametag. It took several weeks for me to realize that students thought I was saying “My name tag, Carol.” (Yes, literally.)

I spent years in the early 90’s wrestling with whether to use a common language to establish meaning of new vocabulary structures. In the end, I have decided that it what is best for learners, based on MY classroom, MY students, and MY learning objectives for students. I can teach a great deal more, more efficiently, if I establish meaning first. (I refer to the 3 steps as Show, Tell, Read. When you read the following, you will have a better understanding why I describe the first step as “Show.”)

When I establish meaning for students, my general practice is as follows:

Write the word/structure. Write the meaning. (Show the word and the meaning.)
Say the word/structure.
Attach (show) a gesture that visually conveys the meaning of the word/structure.
Post (show) a picture of illustration and/or show a prop.
Tell students what the word means, and then spend the next 59 minutes in the TARGET LANGUAGE, providing CCCI which revolves around the Target Vocabulary Structures.

I encourage all teachers to experiment. Try establishing meaning in this (multiple) way(s). Provide CCCI using the structure. Wait two to three days. Now tell students you want them to visualize the word/structure. Give them 15 seconds to recall the meaning, then ask each one to write down what they “saw” when you said the word/structure. You’ll be surprised by the variety of answers. Learners respond to different cues, whether verbal, visual, in writing or physical in nature. Some will see the picture, others the gesture, the written word, and some will say, “I saw you…” [whatever I did to establish meaning/build context]

Now, in reading as we VERIFY COMPREHENSION, (referred to by some as ‘translating’), we only confirm comprehension of NEW vocabulary structures. Once students have internalized words/structures, we do not continue to convey meaning every time we encounter that word/structure. We may spot-check recycled words, but we do not perpetually translate every word! In terms of reading, I want to point out that we are not doing anything that the brain doesn’t naturally do on it’s own. It’s called ‘linking meaning’, and L2 brains naturally revert to L1 when searching for the meaning of written words. We are NOT translating! We are linking meaning, and we only do it as a temporary measure when teaching NEW vocabulary.

“Too Slow”

The problem is that students constantly fed this type of language do not typically understand authentic language.

Who says that students are constantly fed this type of unnaturally slow language? Mine certainly are not! We START slowly so that students understand, and we gradually speed up to native-speaker rate of speech. For example, I’ll ask my (ESL) students in the beginning: Where…where…are… you..going? After a fair number of reps, I’ll ask Where-where-are-you-going? Until ultimately they understand Whereyagoin? We speak unnaturally slow while we teach and progressively speak faster and faster, the same way we do with a toddler. It doesn’t mean we perpetually speak like we are speech impaired for the rest of their lives. LOL (And just for the record, I did speak more slowly to my own children, and I sheltered vocabulary when they were toddlers. Right or wrong, they have attained high levels of oral competency later in life in spite of the way I raised them…by the grace of God.)

I am a Ben fan, but I don’t agree with EVERYTHING he believes or says. In fact, Ben is a lot like Krashen in that many times they make claims or statements as a means of thinking out loud and as a means of getting others to think out loud with them. They may come across as intense or ‘harsh’, but it’s really their passion being construed in a threatening way. (I get it. They can be intimidating! LOL) With that said, there are other TPRS/TCI bloggers out there who have a totally different perspective (ie: Kristy Placido; Carrie Toth; Martina Bex; Michele Whaley [just to name a few!]), but I only see references to Ben.

Proficiency Standards

If you really study the proficiency standards novice-low description, the claim that we skip novice-low is true– almost. We start novice-low, but progress beyond it in zero to 60. The caveat is that we are only able to do it within the realm of the vocabulary taught, which could be 100 high-frequency words. The proficiency guidelines do not mention what an average (or minimum number ) of vocabulary words/structures should be at any given level.

As far as IGNORING the proficiency standards, WHO DOES THAT?! If you say Ben, then I would repeat what Sara-Elizabeth wrote about someone else:

Okay, you’ve got this one guy who…

Maybe Ben doesn’t focus on the proficiency standards. Maybe he doesn’t HAVE TO. Maybe he really does help his students develop a high level of proficiency in spite of not focusing on them. Maybe what he does coincidentally and consequentially facilitates instruction that teaches to the Standards, whether it’s intentional or not.

I’m not saying the Standards are not useful or needed; I, myself, refer to them often as a point of reference and to contemplate what my students can do and what I want them to do. However, it could be possible that there are some teachers who inherently have these standards in mind without articulating them, and they subconsciously teach to them without knowing it. (Yes, I think Ben is one of them.)

As far as other researchers, I encourage you to read my article on TPRS and look at the experts I referenced in that article. There were many. The bibliography published was only a partial bibliography. I can send you the bibliography in its entirety. Another point to consider is that Krashen bases his research on studies conducted by others. He compiles research and sorts out what is valid and significant. With that said, much of what he reports is not his findings, but the findings of other experts in the field.


Finally, output… is not black-and-white. ;}

Although OUTput does not lead to language acquisition, INTERACTION in the Target Language does! Let’s first distinguish between forced output and presentational output. The most unnatural output is Presentational. That’s why so many people hate public speaking or giving presentations, even in their first language. It is stressful and unnatural. The most natural mode of language is INTERpersonal, and this is where TPRS/TCI has the edge in the classroom. We naturally interact with students every day. We don’t allow them to check out, avoid answering or remain silent until they feel comfortable enough to interact. Rather, we start by making them feel comfortable (and confident) enough to interact by scaffolding input and providing the support they need to begin interacting successfully in the Target Language from day one!

Of course we believe in the Silent Period. That just means we understand that although students understand a vocabulary structure, they may not be able to spontaneously produce it or pronounce it correctly. Anyone who has sat through a Mandarin or French class with me understands this perfectly! Just because I initially slaughter the language doesn’t mean that my teachers don’t/didn’t’ encourage me to produce or support me by providing more repetition… just as I do for my own students. I, along with many other TPRS colleagues, coax, encourage, motivate, and inspire students to speak, but we never FORCE them. Forced output is stressful, unnatural and not conducive to language acquisition.

If you are STILL reading my ramble, then stop right now and hear my words: THANK YOU! Thank you for giving me an opportunity to clarify a few points and to share a new perspective on a method that is both powerful and effective… especially when you broaden your vision and consider how much more powerful it can become when you implement TCI strategies as well.

IMG_0746Carol Gaab has been providing teacher training in TPRS and other CI-based strategies since 1996 and has been teaching second language since 1990. She is the Director of the U.S.-based San Francisco Giants Language Academy and Director of the Dominican Education Program. Carol is the author of numerous Spanish and ESL curricula and leveled readers for elementary through upper level Spanish. She is president of TPRS Publishing, Inc. and the founder and president of Fluency Matters. Find out more at

A note from Sara-Elizabeth:
I consider Carol a friend and a leader in excellence in world language teaching. If you ever get the chance to hang out with her you should grab it! I appreciate the time she took to address my concerns about some of the tenets of TPRS and I suspect you can tell that we really disagree on very little. Her description of pop-up grammar is very similar to how I approach grammar in my own classroom, and I likely use about as much “translation” (clarifying meaning) as she does in a class period, though probably not on the same things or at the same timing. I still highly doubt you need English to get across the word ‘butterfly’ (though the ‘water/bottle’ concern is a legitimate one!) and I prefer to use “translation” to check students’ thought process after I’ve used the TL or visual means to convey meaning. Our biggest disagreement would continue to be on the issue of output, where after years of exposure to TPRS and the research it’s based on, and to principles of proficiency-based, performance-based teaching, I maintain my opinion that there are no good arguments against requiring output from the beginning of (secondary) language instruction, and indeed, many compelling arguments for it.
Concerning Ben Slavic’s approach to proficiency standards, I do not know what he would think about them. I was told by three separate TPRS teachers in the past month that the ACTFL proficiency standards are faulty because they do not apply to TPRS students.
I echo Carol’s endorsement of Martina Bex – I am pretty sure she and I are basically the same person! – and I am also glad to have recently found Michelle Whaley’s blog.
Finally, let me encourage you to keep your eyes, ears, brain, and heart open. I want to always be learning! When we stop listening to each other, we’ve come to a point where we think we’ve arrived and we know all the answers, and then we stop learning, and that, my friends, is a very sad place to be.

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December 28, 2014 0 Comments