The Blog

They couldn’t hear the word “no”

The school year is almost over for my students and me- really, this Friday is our last day.  You may know by now that we’ve been working through the movie Canela as the entire foundation of our curriculum this semester, and it’s been fabulous.  It’s been a gold mine of authentic language and culture for my Novice Mid students. And it’s given them lots of fun -or at least interesting- practice in hearing authentic audio.

Last week we were working with the scene where Jocelyn and her friend Regina are in a salon making plans to go to the restaurant together on Friday.  We did comprehensible input on the parts of a city, places, and making plans; we looked at authentic information about three places in Mexico City and students “made plans” with each other to go to the one of their choice in the activity Color Read2Talk.  And as usual, one of the last things we did with the scene was a listening cloze.  One of the words I dropped was the word no.  Specifically, it was in the phrase

A ver si me acompañas, ¿no?

If you speak Spanish and say this out loud, the s on acompañas will run into the no, and it does in the movie as well.  It’s the only word I dropped from the phrase and after listening five times, guess how many of my students understood the word no?

None of them.

Throw up your hands, you say.  Might as well give up, you say. Why aren’t you concentrating on comprehensible input before frustrating authentic resources, you say.

Wait a minute.  For one thing, in my classroom we carefully craft a culture where not understanding is a challenge to be overcome with many strategies, not a reason to get frustrated or give up or do what’s easier.  My students laughed when they figured out (cough, I told them) that she was saying no, and then all but one of them could hear it.  (Creating this culture is easier in our no-grades environment, but that’s a whole other post.)

For another thing, I spent years teaching “advanced” Spanish classes where the kids still couldn’t understand this type of thing. It wasn’t that they couldn’t understand a native speaker describing climate change.  They couldn’t understand a native speaker introducing herself.  The longer I’m the only one they hear saying no, the longer it will be before they can hear that Jocelyn is saying no.  And that’s why we do it.

And so at this point, I want to re-post with some modifications a post I wrote four and a half years ago in the midst of my frustration with inheriting students in level 4 with intermediate vocabulary and intermediate presentational writing skills and novice mid listening proficiency.  It’s called

Dear novice learner teacher – love, an AP teacher.

Originally posted November 2011 – now I am a novice learner teacher, and not an AP teacher, and it rings truer still.

dear novice learner teacherTwice for #langchat we’ve polled the following question:

What activities prepare students for AP from the very beginning?

I confess, I probably wrote this question, maybe with some help from something similar being suggested as a topic. Certainly I’ve voted for it twice. But for whatever reason–perhaps teachers of lower levels don’t think much about AP or the question was polled with others deemed more relevant–this topic has lost both times. So as usual, I’ll take my opinion to the blog. Because I can.

I’m currently in my fourth year teaching AP. I know I’ve learned a lot from it, and I’ve gotten better at it, but my students are also improving considerably, mostly, I think, from what they get before my class, not from what they get from it.  

Now, in all seriousness, I hate the AP. I hate the test, and I hate the College Board, and I hate the idea. I can’t stand that one three-hour exam thinks it can predict how proficient my students are and will be in college in Spanish. That student my first year that scored a 2, he was conversationally fluent, at least an Advanced Low speaker, after 3 years (he’d skipped Spanish 3) and the most motivated learner I have ever met. Of the two students who scored 1′s last year, one is majoring in Middle School Spanish Education and the other is minoring in Spanish.

Really, that’s how I feel about all standardized exams (thank you, Alfie Kohn). But the fact is, most of my students care about it. It is our only fourth-year option, and last year they voted on whether to keep it AP (in which they are required to take the exam) or to call it Spanish 4 (in which they’d have the option to take the test). But all but one voted for AP. They want the weighted grade points, and the AP Advantage study hall, and yes, they want the extra focused preparation for the exam. They want the bragging rights, and they want the college credit. So, I’m about pleasing the students, and here we are again.

After four years of watching students struggle and succeed in their fourth-year AP class, here are my requests for you, the elementary teachers (which I also am) through middle school, Spanish 1, 2, and 3 teachers.

1. Please, PLEASE interact with ALL KINDS of authentic audio.

This is my #1 because it’s my #1 problem with my students. They get to me (in Spanish 3) and can’t understand anything but learner language. The majority of audio on the AP is not learner language. It’s stuff like BBC Mundo and Radio ONU (which I couldn’t understand until, say, 10 years into my journey). More importantly, the majority of audio in life is not learner language.
The common mistake is to think that novices cannot understand authentic media. The truth is that the difficulty is in the question and not in the source. If you’re asking them to hear the word cinco that’s a different question than if you’re asking them to hear the word aprovechándonos.

2. Interact with vocabulary in real contexts.

Almost completely ineffective for language acquisition:

What is the word for black? Good! Red? Great!

Trust me, from day one a novice learner can understand this question:

¿De qué colores es un oso panda? (2)

Context is everything. My current AP students have not had a vocab quiz in four years and their vocabulary is incredible. Yesterday in our novel they were accurately identifying words like solía and lechuza.  One of my Spanish 3 students actually asked for vocab quizzes the other day and we had to have a talk about how cramming does not create long-term memory.  This is connected with the issue of authentic media – get students listening to and reading real materials and the vocabulary will just be there. I promise.

3. Ask questions that require critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a life skill. Prepare your students for life by asking them real questions that make a difference. Stop asking ‘what’ and start asking ‘why’ and ‘how.’ To me, the true test of a critical thinking question is if there’s no clear-cut answer. Instead of stopping with “what foods do you like?” ask “is a guinea pig food? why or why not? would you try it?” (In Ecuador, guinea pig – cuy or as my dad liked to call it, ‘barbecuy’ – is a delicacy.)

4. Do speaking assessments. GET THEM TALKING.

My current Spanish 3 students tell me that last year they had exactly 1 speaking assessment.  Now, kids like to complain about teachers, but if it’s anywhere close to the truth, it’s far too few.  They’re now facing two speaking assessments each in every unit for sixteen in all and they’re dying.  They hate it, except for my one whose aptitude leans toward speaking and away from writing.

The AP has a wicked guided conversation activity in which someone says something, then there’s a beep, and the student has 20 seconds to think up and say what the test says they need to do.  That’s repeated about five times and that’s the interpersonal speaking section.  It’s stressful and intense and unrealistic but there you have it.  My current AP students are so used to talking back and forth in class that this year they were able to do this for practice without much anxiety much sooner than the students I had last year.  Keep students talking -for the AP and for life.

5. Teach and require idiomatic expressions.

It’s a sad fact about general proficiency guidelines and about the AP that the difference between one level and the next can come down to one single phrase – an idiomatic one.  Three years ago the one student who passed said she went in determined to use the phrase “vale la pena.”  Honestly, she was the most proficient student in the class but I wouldn’t be surprised if it made the difference between 2 and 3 for her.  Keep an idiomatic expression on the wall, once a week or every two weeks.  Reward students when they use them.  Do an activity that requires a particular one.  Point them out in authentic texts.  Realize, and help students realize, that language is idiomatic.

6. Ask students to identify and synthesize main points from multiple sources.

This is how I assess interpretive skills in my rubric: can you use it to communicate something?

A couple of years ago I did a KWLA presentation called Prompts with Power. It was about finding authentic sources and asking students to answer a question, orally or written, based on the sources.  Teach students to draw their own conclusions after comparing and contrasting two other opinions.  Or three.  Similar or different, it doesn’t matter, but it’s a life skill -and an important one on the AP- to be able to look critically at what other people think and use those opinions to develop an informed personal one.

More than four years later,

I still stand by everything I wrote in this post.  I’ll boil it down to this: if you’re the only one they ever hear say no, when they get to level 3 or 4, or real life, they’ll owe it to you that they can’t understand native speakers saying no.

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April 26, 2016 1 Comment

Scaffolded reading: Novice Mid #authres “Places to Plans”

Have you seen the movie Canela? This semester I’ve been so grateful that Kara Jacobs and Elena López introduced me – FINALLY – to an authentic Mexican family film that’s appropriate for any classroom and any student anywhere (a rare find in Spanish-language cinema available in the U.S., as I’m sure you know). So grateful, in fact, that the movie has framed our entire semester as I’ve taken the opportunity to mine the film for authentic language and culture that has actually become our curriculum.  I mean MINE like in the depths of the earth’s core: in fourteen 90-minute classes together we have made it through an astounding 21 minutes of the film.

You see, my students are Novice Mid at most and aren’t ready to sit through an authentic film and experience the comprehensible input they need in order to improve their proficiency.  They need some serious scaffolding.  In that process, I typically develop a 4-to-6-page guide to a segment of the film from one to three minutes long.  You can see how I’ve been adapting Kara and Elena’s resource for early novices here.  It’s a bit of a messy work in progress but it’ll give you an idea, and if you like, you can take it and make it your own.

Between aural input and oral output: Color Read2Talk

CR2T Canela1

Click for PDF.

In the process of working through the film with my students, making it comprehensible, mining it for that authentic language and culture they can start using, I have thought and worked long on a variety of ways to interact with both.  I’m calling this most recent strategy Color Read2Talk.  It is a bridge between the aural input and the oral output, a middle piece in that continuum where on one end they’re passively listening to comprehensible input and on the other end they’re accomplishing a performance task in the target language.  Here are the details on this particular piece:

  • Target: I can make plans with someone to go somewhere.
  • Previous knowledge: Activity words, place words, “I’m going to…”, time and day references
  • Vocabulary: Parts of the city
  • Structures:
    A: Voy a (activity) el (day) a las (hour). ¿Me acompañas?
    B: Claro / obvio.
  • Step 1 CI: story in which Jeffrey the Penguin wants to go somewhere (downtown, in a neighborhood, in a suburb) with (X student) at such time on such day but the student doesn’t like to do the things until the third activity. (Side note: this previews our next target: “he/she likes to…”.)
  • Canela clip: In the beauty salon, Jocelyn asks her best friend Regina to accompany her to a restaurant on Friday.

Now I know that I want students to use Jocelyn and Regina’s exact phrases (mining for authentic language!) to make plans, but what to do in between?  How can I expose them to more language and culture and at the same time gauge their comprehension and readiness for our performance objective?  Enter Color Read2Write.  I found three places in D.F. and mined their websites and/or online review sites for authentic language referring to 1) where they are, 2) what they are / what they are like, and 3) their hours.  I copied these into a grid, and I unapologetically “changed” the text by removing irrelevant pieces and copying what I wanted students to focus on.  (I did not actually change any words. Maybe a capital letter.)  Then, I ask students to use different colors and no reference materials to show me what they get:

  • Blue: I get this part 100%.
  • Red: I have a good guess about this.
  • Yellow: This looks familiar but I can’t quite get this.
  • Green: I have no idea, but I think I really need to understand this part in order to get the main idea.

Then, in the box on the left with the name of the place, I ask for students to tell me on a scale from 1 to 5 how much they comprehend.  (They are used to this because we do a “fist-to-five” comprehension check on every presentation slide for Canela.)

Without further ado, I offer you the first Color Read2Write activity in Spanish: “Places to Plans: D.F.”  I did not include our speaking target so that you could use it as a bridge to anything that fits your class.  I hope you find it helpful.

Where can I get more?

For starters, subscribe to the blog in the top right to get posts like this delivered to your email, and check out my Resources page.  Also, subscribe to my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Be a #BraveLittleTailor with us in DFW in July!

Here’s an outro: The work I’ve done on Canela will hopefully be an ebook guide available for purchase by the end of the summer and will provide curriculum for Novice Mid students for up to an entire semester.  If you’d like to be notified in email when this is available, let me know through the contact form.

I hope to present what I’ve learned in this process at the Central States Conference in Chicago next year and the annual conference of the Kentucky World Language Association.  One session is titled “Mining for Gold: Leveraging Authentic Film for Real Language and Culture.”  I hope to also present “Mining for [Elementary] Gold” about a similar process I’ve gone through to use a particularly novice-content episode of Peppa Pig for my younger students.

If the Dallas/Fort Worth area is doable for you this July, and you’d like to explore ideas like this to make your own set of tailor-made comprehensible input strategies that fit you and your classroom, be a #BraveLittleTailor with us.  Everyone at the Brave Little Tailor workshop will receive a free copy of the Canela guide (when it is available).

Also, don’t forget that strategies like this will make up a big part of the third day of my three-day curriculum planning workshop, Camp Musicuentos, in Louisville and Chapel Hill this summer, as well as part of our one-day Camp Musicuentos overview in Rhode Island.

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April 19, 2016 1 Comment

NEW Summer PD: Brave Little Tailor CI strategies workshop

Have you ever felt like as much as you know your students need more comprehensible input than they’ve been getting, the strategies you’ve tried have fallen flat in your classroom? How about we explore what’s up with that together this summer?
Kim Earley and the administration and world languages department at Liberty Christian School in Argyle, Texas (DFW area) want to explore this topic, too. Let’s meet up this July and walk through what effective comprehensible input might look like in your classroom with your students.

Be a Brave Little Tailor

I’m calling this all-new workshop “The Brave Little Tailor,” because sometimes, to get a set of strategies that work for you, you need to see a bunch of them, and then tweak them – that is, tailor them, to fit you and your class.

Click for PDF.

Click for PDF.

There are only 17 spots open for teachers outside LCS at this workshop, so visit their website to register and I’ll see you there!

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April 14, 2016 1 Comment

Dear Everychild: Learn a language

Dear Everyboy,

The other day I saw you at your new cashier job in Kroger – congratulations!  The two women in front of me- wow, that was a situation, wasn’t it?  Buying all those chips and Diet Coke with their food stamp card.  Except their card only had $1.28 left on it.  And their English was just about nonexistent.  ”Yes, please” doesn’t get one very far in understanding that you have to pay cash or give back almost everything you’ve just tried to buy.

money-256319_1920And you, almost finished with Spanish 3 at the Catholic high school.  You were trying!  A word here and there but really, your Spanish 1 and 2 classes were a mess and you’re pretty sure the teacher was fired; it wasn’t that she “needed a change” like she said.

So there everyone was and you know what I found odd?  No one pulled out a cell phone.  There was no Google Translate to be found.  I’m not sure if it didn’t occur to anyone or they’d never tried it before but no communication was happening and there wasn’t a solution in sight.

And there I was.  I must confess to you, young Everyboy, that I was still reeling from finding out what self-employment does to your taxes.  I had started a chat with myself there in my head, about how much I was paying in taxes so these women who couldn’t communicate with the cashier could buy a dozen bags of chips and 72 cans of Diet Coke.

Stop it, I told myself.  You know there’s always more to this story than meets the eye.  Listen to what they’re saying and be the solution.  And I realized what was happening.  They don’t understand they still owe $38.  They think you just need a couple of dollars from them.  I’m sometimes reluctant to jump in like that because I’m not sure if it’s going to be welcome; I know some people are very proud of the English they’ve worked for and want to figure it out themselves.  But someone needed to start communicating and the people behind me were getting antsy.  So I stepped in.

Puedo ayudar si necesitan ayuda.

Do you remember how quiet everything got all of a sudden?  It was 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and every line was getting longer and we had a dozen pairs of eyes on us from every side.  And then, the smiles.

Oh, she speak Spanish! Ay, pues mira, que ella habla español, muy amable, muy amable.

Within a few minutes we had it straightened out.  We found out they were refugees from Cuba who had been here for three months, and we both know that’s not long enough to figure out the difference between you only have $1.28 left on the card and you owe another $1.28.

Every experience like that enriches all of us who were involved.  Keep learning, okay?  You’re well on your way, even if it does take you a minute to remember how to say “bread.”  Because regardless of the path you take in life, one day you’ll be Everyman in the grocery checkout line and the women in front of you have only been here three months and will need you because Google Translate can never be muy amable.


Dear Everygirl,

I came back to Kroger for eggs today and went through your line, the one right next to Everyboy’s.  Interesting story, right, what happened to me and Everyboy the other day?  You’ve been in that situation a few times even in the short time you’ve been doing this job, I can tell; you’ve felt lost trying to help someone find their way in a new place and a new language.


In fact, you told us how it happened just the other day.  There was a Mexican, you said, who couldn’t find what he needed and didn’t speak a word of English.  You heard the call for everyone, anyone, please someone speak Spanish.  Send him to me, you said, because I’ve got the magic: Google voice-to-text.  But it failed you.  You had no idea what it was spinning out but it wasn’t what either of you needed to make communication happen.  So he ended up finally finding what he needed by himself.

Next time, Everygirl, ask Everyboy for help, because I think he might be a little more motivated to keep going in Spanish class now.  And can I ask you to approach the situation knowing that there’s always more to this story than meets the eye?  As I walked out to my car today, can I tell you what thought was running through my mind?

Oh young Everygirl, if you didn’t understand a word he said, how did you know he was Mexican?

Learn a language, Everychild. At least enough to find out if he’s Mexican, enough to find out what she has run from only three months ago, because at worst Google Translate will utterly fail you, but certainly it can never be muy amable.

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April 12, 2016 4 Comments

I am (Shakespeare): A practical, fun TL transition/brain break

In our journey to stay in target language and start to use more phrases, my students and I have stumbled onto a target-language activity we use to transition from one activity to the next.  I share it with you here, and as I knew I couldn’t just put it into words, my kids graciously demonstrated for you as well.  They find it fun (as you may or may not see in the videos!) and it keeps very high-frequency speaking targets continual in our classroom.

"I want..."

“I want…”

Here is the list of the gestures with the “I…” verbs and optional endings:

  • Gesture both hands from side of head straight down: I am (identity / characteristics).
  • Gesture open hands on either side of face: I am (feeling).
  • Snap hands closed close to chest: I have (something).
  • One hand on chest, other hand outstretched up: I want (something / to do some activity).

We are also about to add:

  • Show muscles: I can (activity).

Other options you could add:

  • Thumbs up: I like (thing, activity).
  • Gesture with hands straight ahead: I’m going to (place, do activity).

When we’re moving from one activity to the next or whenever I see their eyes start to glass over, I pull a popsicle stick from a cup full of sticks with their names on them, gesture to that student to stand, and quickly do the gestures myself with just the beginning words: “Soy, estoy, tengo, quiero.”

Ready to see my kids demonstrate? (NOTE: These videos are unlisted. Please do not share privately or embed in any location, but feel free to direct teachers to this blog post. Thanks to the parents and kids who gave me permission to show you our activity this way.)

Here is an unedited version of one student doing the whole sequence. It’s hard to hear what she says at the end, but you’ll notice she “accidentally” uses quiere and then the word she says is libro.

Some logistics info: The younger students you see have class 60 minutes once a week. The older ones have class 90 minutes once a week. All have enrichment activities I post on Edmodo that they may or may not complete (we do not grade “assignments”). The little blonde with the turquoise socks is mine and she’s bilingual at about an Intermediate Low proficiency, if I had to guess, so she doesn’t count, LOL. All the rest began this program in August with no measurable proficiency.

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April 8, 2016 9 Comments

Extra, extra! Special guest at (Base)Camp Musicuentos

Twenty-plus teachers will be getting together in Louisville, Kentucky this June to walk a continuum of curriculum planning, from unit selection and design, to setting daily goals with the long-term in mind, to lesson planning that incorporates comprehensible input that fits you and your students and helps them reach their goals.

IMG_2495I was and am quite excited to team up with Laura Sexton and Bethanie Carlson-Drew for the all-new Camp Musicuentos Southeast this year, and now I’m equally excited to announce a special contributor to the Louisville location: friend, colleague, blogger, and fantastic French teacher Wendy Farabaugh!

You can always catch up with Wendy’s growth mindset on her blog, and now, you can work with her and me in Louisville this summer, too.  As an added benefit, this partnership means we can likely accommodate one or two more teachers than our original 20-participant limit.

For all the information about the Camp Musicuentos workshops in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Rhode Island this year, visit the Camp Musicuentos page. (Base)Camp is already 3/4 full, so register soon.  We’ll see you there!

CM publicity flyer

Click for PDF

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April 7, 2016 4 Comments

Guest Post: What is “unconscious” acquisition in the classroom? (Justin Slocum Bailey)

This post was authored by Justin Slocum Bailey and posted on Indwelling Language in response to my invitation for conversation on the learning vs. acquisition dichotomy, particularly in the context of translation, in the post Better acquisition by altering (not eliminating) translation.”  (Finally! Someone is willing to talk about this!)
Justin and Indwelling Language co-sponsor the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast and I am grateful for all his contributions to that videocast.
I particularly appreciate Justin’s clarification on how he views the term “unconsciously.”  My dilemma here has always stemmed from the fact that in studying SLA I understood the definition of “unconscious” to be that the learner didn’t know the purpose of the interaction was to learn a new language and that “noticing stuff” was the opposite of “unconscious” and therefore ineffective. So I’m feeling more peaceful in this dichotomy now having been exposed to a more nuanced approach to that word- and to whether consciously learned language can be useful at all.  Thanks, Justin!


If you’ve read or heard much about input-based theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA), you’ve probably come across the idea that acquiring another language happens “subconsciously” or “unconsciously” under suitable circumstances. You may also have seen this process of acquisition–basically, the journey from being someone who doesn’t know a particular language to being someone who does–contrasted with other processes in which we consciously learn about a language or practice using some element of the language. (I lamented some of the issues arising from the terminology of this distinction in “The Bummer about ‘Acquisition,’” Part 1 and Part 2.)

My friend Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, the teacher and blogger whose co-sponsors the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast with Indwelling Language, recently issued an open request for conversation about the idea of unconscious acquisition of a second language, and especially about how such a process can take place in a classroom. Because this is a really good question and Sara-Elizabeth can be counted on for insightful, challenging, generous conversation, I’m happy to jump in! Sara-Elizabeth was kind enough to read a draft of this post and ask some follow-up questions that are addressed in this version.

The big question

If you haven’t read Sara-Elizabeth’s recent post “Better acquisition by altering (not eliminating) translation,” do. The title and the bulk of the post are about ways of introducing the meanings of words to students, but the opening sections raise the question of whether [unconscious] acquisition of a language can happen in a classroom. Sara-Elizabeth points out that, if acquisition is the goal and acquisition only happens unconsciously, then we have a problem, because every student who walks into a Spanish class is conscious of the fact that the point is to learn Spanish. Furthermore, we can’t really tell what a student is or isn’t conscious of at any given time, so how can we be sure whether acquisition is happening?

Different researchers and theorists may mean different things by calling acquisition “unconscious,” so I’ll go with what I perceive to be the basic idea, sticking with the example of Spanish. Let’s start with what unconscious acquisition does not mean:

“Acquisition happens unconsciously” does not mean…

  • that the learner doesn’t know she is in a situation whose basic purpose is that she learn a new language.
  • that the learner doesn’t understand that the language he is hearing is a different one than the one he normally speaks.
  • that the learner doesn’t know how the process of acquiring a language works.
  • that the learner isn’t aware that participating in whatever is going on should make her better at Spanish.
  • that the learner doesn’t put any effort into participating in whatever is going on.

“Acquisition happens unconsciously,” as far as I can tell, simply means that the learner does not need to be devoting her attention to the features of the language itself in order to acquire the language. Instead, she devotes her attention to whatever is being talked about in the language. In other words, she participates in communication, which is what language is for.

If the meaning of the language changes when the form of the language changes, and there is a way for the learner to understand what the meaning is, then the learner continues to acquire the language, because the human brain is capable of processing the features of human languages and matching them to meaning. The learner may not be conscious of what she knows now that she didn’t know before–another sense in which acquisition may be unconscious. But we can tell that acquisition is happening as students increasingly show “real-time” understanding–i.e., understanding that doesn’t rely on deciphering or translation–of Spanish that they hear or read, and as students successfully communicate using unrehearsed Spanish in their speech and writing.

It’s okay to notice stuff

“Unconsciousness” isn’t a prerequisite for acquisition; it’s just a usual characteristic of acquisition. If a learner happens to become conscious of a particular feature of Spanish during communication–because someone points it out, because it seems odd, or because the learner is really interested in Spanish or in languages in general–this doesn’t break some sort of spell or doom the acquisition process. Input-based theories would simply emphasize that acquisition does not require the learner to memorize or “practice” the element of the language that she has noticed, only to encounter enough meaningful communication that features that element of the language.

So, it’s no problem that students enter a class with a bunch of Spanish words on the wall during a period when students know they have “Spanish 1” on their schedules. What matters is that students have frequent, extended, meaningful encounters with Spanish that they are given the means to understand, with Spanish that communicates about more than itself.

What about conscious learning?

Nothing wrong with conscious learning!

Nothing wrong with conscious learning!

None of this means that we or our students shouldn’t also learn about Spanish, which we might do because we enjoy it, because it’s something to do with our friends, because it helps us compare languages, because it may help us edit our writing or our planned speech, or because it is a legitimate pursuit for its own sake. Nor does it mean that we can’t use consciously learned language for travel, for formulaic situations such as dining or shopping, or simply to get by until we actually acquire enough of the language to rely on unrehearsed language when we communicate. We just need to realize that when we learn about Spanish, practice producing the features of Spanish, or strategically add connector-words to make our writing look more native-like, we are doing something other than acquiring Spanish. When we do those things, we may be working toward worthwhile goals, but we are not being transformed from people who don’t know Spanish into people who do.

As always, comments and follow-up questions are welcome. I’m eager to keep learning about all this!

See also The Number One Mistake in Language Learning.

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April 5, 2016 0 Comments

I’ll never use authentic resources again

Not for novices, anyway.  It’s too hard for them.  I’m giving up.  They simply cannot navigate them in a meaningful way to provide the comprehensible input necessary for language acquisition, so why even try? I’m buying into what a teacher trainer told me this week: “Authentic language isn’t comprehensible for beginners.”

Take this, for example.  What are my kids on the second day of Spanish 1 going to get out of this newspaper announcement on the TYRANNY that is the RAE?

Check the fecha, estudiantes.

Check the fecha, estudiantes.

They’ll be totally confused by the culture here.  They’ll never understand that 1) there’s an extra letter in the alphabet or 2) there’s a group of people who determine the alphabet in Spanish, which we do not have or 3) the date is written in a different order, and in seeing that date they certainly won’t understand that…





4) April Fool’s is not limited to the U.S.

Authentic or inauthentic, any resource that lights the fire and provides comprehensible input has a place in my classroom.  But the authentic ones showcase the culture the best, because no one manufactured them for that purpose.  They just do.  This picture just sits there and does it for me.

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April 1, 2016 4 Comments

Primacy/Recency Lesson Plan Template

My friend Amy Lenord and I are tired of drawing out our primacy/recency map on paper to keep us focused on planning the right stuff at the right time.

So, a couple of weeks ago Amy emailed me the template she had whipped up to print out and fill in.  It was super simple and just what I needed.  (She’s so good at streamlining stuff I make so complicated!)

Click for a PDF of Amy's version.

Click for a PDF of Amy’s version.

Well, it was almost just what I needed.  I have 60-minute and 90-minute classes I divide into two learning episodes (Amy’s are only 48, tight for two episodes in HS), so I tweaked it a little for my purposes, and then to clarify for you what I use each section for, I added some notes.  We hope you find these as useful as we do in that daily lesson planning process.

Click for a PDF of my version.

Click for a PDF of my version.

You can also access mine in a download-and-edit .docx file (Amy’s too), check out my post “Is your lesson plan out of whack?“, check out resources from our CSCTFL workshop The Best Laid Plans, and definitely check out Chapter 3 in The Keys to Planning for Learning (and join the whole LangCamp crew in discussing it this summer!).  Oh- and don’t forget you can join me (and other collaborative language teachers like Laura Sexton and Bethanie Carlson-Drew!) at one of three Camp Musicuentos curriculum development workshops (KY, NC, and RI), and the third day we’ll focus completely on how to put daily goals into a brain-based lesson plan that moves from comprehensible input to student production of target features.

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March 30, 2016 2 Comments

Better acquisition by altering (not eliminating) translation

I think I’ve come to the end of the acquisition vs. learning distinction for the purposes of language learning in a classroom.

Could there be multiple routes?

Could there be multiple routes?

Rewind.  When I first started investigating second language acquisition research, I was blown away by what I learned about how people really learn languages.  It revolutionized my classroom.  It brought me to incorporate comprehensible input instead of explanations of how language works.  It led me to guide students through experiencing the language instead of dissecting it.

But then the more I read about how language for communication is always acquired and never “learned,” and how “learning” is conscious and “acquisition” is unconscious, a burning, itching, annoying question kept popping up in my head: but how can we know it’s unconscious?  In particular, how can we know it’s unconscious when the sign over my door says SPANISH CLASS? I just can’t reconcile it.  I can’t see how it makes sense to say I can tell whether it’s learning or acquisition.  To go farther, I can’t see how it makes sense to say that it’s unconscious acquisition at all.  (One exception that does make sense to me is in immersion classes, where, for example, a fourth-grader is learning science in Spanish and not knowingly learning the language.)

But it is acquisition, say you, because you can tell.  Because the input is so compelling and compelling input causes acquisition.  You know it’s acquisition because the input is compelling.  And how do you know it’s compelling? Well I know it’s compelling, because they said “yay!” or they perked up or they said “I love Spanish class!.”  (Hmm.)  And because they’re acquiring the language.  It’s obvious in the output, right?  They’ve acquired it.  And acquisition means the input was compelling.  And compelling input means it’s acquisition.

It’s a totally circular argument, is it not?*

But what if it was learned?  And is still useful for communication?  If I can use the language, who cares whether it was learned or acquired?

Blaine-Cook-Northern-Voice-2012-20120616 by roland, on FlickrAnyway, I digress.  You came here to talk about translation.  I started with acquisition vs. learning because I first want to establish that I’m normally using the two terms interchangeably, even in the title of this post.  I do not believe I can be completely sure what I’m looking at is either acquisition or learning.  I do know some things, though, that help me think more clearly about the issue of translation:

  • Kids develop language skills faster when they comprehend what’s going on.
  • Kids develop language skills faster and better when they interact with more target language over any given period of time.
  • Memory gets stronger when learners encounter “desirable difficulties.”
  • My learners do not have enough time for natural acquisition to happen in my classroom.
  • I have lots of tools at my disposal to help me establish meaning and know that students have understood.
  • YOUR LEARNERS DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH TIME FOR NATURAL ACQUISITION TO HAPPEN IN YOUR CLASSROOM. Even if we could present it that way, which is highly doubtful.

Now, as for translation, I know there are two positions:

  • Translation is not useful for language acquisition because it connects the new word to the native-language word instead of connecting the new word to the concept in the brain. (I agree.)
  • Translation is the fastest way to establish clear meaning for new structures, and establishing meaning is vital for acquisition. (I agree.)

When, as in this case, I agree with both poles of the field, I know that the answer for me is going to end up to be somewhere in the middle.  So here I present a couple of ways I both eliminate translation and alter it without eliminating it.

1. Image. Check. Translate.

Image: My friend Carol tells about when she tried to establish the meaning of agua by holding up a water bottle, and sometime later found out that one or more of her students had understood the word as bottle.  To me, this isn’t a reason for offering translation; it’s a reason to give more visual examples.  If I talk about agua and I show a Dasani bottle, water coming from a tap, rain drops, a waterfall, and a puddle, students are far more likely to comprehend the meaning in a way that more effectively cements long-term memory.  Bonus: This approach gives me many more repetitions of the target word/structure.

Check: After a few examples, I ask for a thumbs-up or X sign to check if students believe they comprehend the word or phrase.

Translate: If a few students are still unsure, I will ask someone to guess what it is.  I don’t translate it myself unless I have to.  Someone says “water?” and I nod, high five, thumbs-up, or some other affirmation and move on.  If everyone’s sure they know what’s going on, and the concept wasn’t one I think they would have mixed up, I don’t translate it at all.

2. Example. Example. Example. Example. Check. Translate.

Example: The word is “magazine.”  What’s a magazine, guys?  Let’s see, an example of a magazine (“example” is a very early target for us because we use it so much), Seventeen is a magazine.  GQ is a magazine.  Rolling Stone is a magazine.  Entertainment Weekly is a magazine.

Example: Hey, Amelia, what’s another example of a magazine?  Great, yes, Lucky is a magazine.

Check: Who understands “magazine”? Thumbs up/X?

Translate: Hey, Jack, a couple of people are confused; tell us in English, what’s “magazine”?

And what if they do mix it up?

So what if that one kid did think that agua meant faucet and we don’t find out until two weeks later?  So what?  It happens all the time in language learning.  In my own journey, I find it a desirable difficulty: remembering that I had it a little wonky, and what the real concept was, and what the word is for the thing I thought it was, helps me remember it better and longer, and I got two words for the price of one.

Is translation ever the first course of action?

For me, yes.  If we’ve encountered something in a resource that’s not a target structure and students really want to know what it means, I quickly translate it.  Especially if it will make them laugh.  If it’s a complicated concept like to take advantage of and I know I’ll waste 10 minutes trying to get it across in the target language and half the class still won’t get it, I translate it.  All my vocabulary lists until intermediate are translation-based, though they never see the light of day in class; they are only a pre-class resource.

When in doubt?  There you have my go-to strategies for altering translation without eliminating it: lots of visual and verbal examples, and students doing the translating for me.
*I’m not trying to be trite or dismissive; I’m asking a real question and dying for someone to take up this conversation with me, and no one seems to be willing.  The last time I asked it, no less than Bill Van Patten totally dismissed the question with, “Of course acquisition happens in a classroom.” Because he said so.  So if you’re willing to engage in this conversation with me instead of dismissing it, to help me figure out the real problems here like how we can apply first language acquisition principles to a situation that looks almost nothing like first language learning, and how students can develop lasting proficiency when we don’t have the time they spent doing this the first time around, please!  I want to explore this.

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  roland 

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March 22, 2016 11 Comments