The Blog

You can’t possibly teach it. But you can do this. (Black Box)

What if a prominent teacher and researcher told you that you couldn’t possibly teach your students what they need to know in order to understand authentic target language and incorporate what they understand into their own language production?

BlackBox6 ExReading

But don’t lose hope; Waring (and the presenter of this Black Box Videocast, Justin Slocum Bailey) helps you understand why he makes this claim and what you should be doing about it. Watch this videocast to find out what extensive reading is- and then ask your administration if you can go shopping for a comprehensible classroom library!

The Musicuentos Black Box is a collection of media resources designed to bridge the gap between Second Language Acquisition research and teachers in the classroom. The project is co-sponsored by Musicuentos and Indwelling Language. For more information or to find out how you can keep this resource freely available to teachers, visit the Musicuentos Black Box page.

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August 15, 2015 1 Comment

All they need is accurate input… right? Wrong. (Black Box)

We know that students need comprehensible input in order to acquire language. Is that all we need?

Learn more in this Black Box videocast. Here’s the info.

BlackBox 3 Compelling

It is hard to find a research model that has influenced the direction of language more than Stephen Krashen’s five-pronged hypotheses first published in the late 1970′s.  Still, many language teachers may not be aware of what these hypotheses are, or how they play out in language teaching today.  In the third installment of the Black Box videocast series, Albert Fernandez invites us to consider with Krashen how effective input for language acquisition needs to be not only accurate, not only comprehensible, not only interesting, but compelling. What questions will this 10-minute episode have you asking about the way you teach?

Ready to watch?

The Musicuentos Black Box Podcast is a collection of media resources developed to make relevant research in language learning more accessible and understandable for teachers.  The project is cosponsored by Musicuentos and Indwelling Language.  For more information on the team behind this project and to help us keep the resources freely available for all teachers, visit the Black Box resource page.

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July 1, 2015 3 Comments

The M that trumps your method, materials, & madness

Shall we talk labor and delivery a moment?
I suspect I have your attention!  No worries, I’m not going to get gross.  I don’t think so, anyway.  But you will get to know me a little bit better.

Because I wanted to!

Because I wanted to!

When I was pregnant with my third child, some family friends were visiting, a couple and their 17-year-old son.  The subject of the upcoming birth came up and as 17-year-old boys are so knowledgable about this sort of thing, he made an offhand comment about drugs (the pain-relieving kind) and childbirth.  I mentioned that I was planning to have another natural childbirth and well, we had to explain a bit about what “natural” actually means in the context of childbirth.  He asked the burning question that came to his mind:

But, why? Why would you do something like that if you don’t have to?

There are lots of answers to that question but if you really want to discuss it, there are other forums for you to do so.  (Or, you could email me if you really want to.)  Usually, though, the underlying answer is simple: Because I want to.  I told this young man,

People run marathons all the time, and that’s no picnic in the park.  It hurts.  So why do they do it? Because they find the process and the result more rewarding than the pain and effort.

He stopped and thought and acknowledged the point.  People do put themselves through pain or a lot of effort pretty frequently, on purpose, simply because they want something from the process or the result.  It’s all about motivation.

Except, perhaps it’s not.  Someone tweeted a link to me recently, an article in which famed input-hypothesis researcher Stephen Krashen announces “the end of motivation as a relevant factor in language acquisition.”  I was stunned.  I’ll admit that my admiration of Krashen has been steadily declining for years.  On the one hand, no one could overstate his importance as perhaps the single researcher who most forcefully impacted the direction of world language teaching in the past forty years.  The last time I saw him speak in person, he had been wrapping up some important research on pleasure reading and the results and implications were intriguing and enormous.  Between that and his usual demonstration of how he can get you to understand some German in 2 minutes, everyone in the room was spellbound.  But on the other hand, even then, he asked the big question that should have been in everyone’s mind – how can we possibly replicate language acquisition in the classroom when we don’t have the time? – and answered, well, that he didn’t have an answer.

I’ve had the sharpening, thought-provoking privilege of interacting with Krashen a couple of times since then, and each time I thought, no, he truly thinks he can generalize X research (insert a highly specific case study here) that has nothing to do with a language teaching situation and apply it to language teaching.  And then I read what he wrote about motivation and I couldn’t swallow a line of it.  Spectacularly, he repeatedly uses the phrase “our students” while spinning his announcement around two boys who, where I am, do not reflect our students in almost any way.

So my head has been spinning with questions.  I mean, I can’t overstate the influence Krashen had in the total professional revolution that was my graduate school experience.

But what do I do with my other favorite researchers who show that purely extrinsic motivation hinders education but there’s almost no stopping what a kid will do when she is intrinsically motivated through autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

What about the forty years of research on how motivation actually affects language learning, where whether motivation affects language learning is not even a question?

CC-BY-NC-SA Lotus Carroll

Lotus Carroll

Can you hear my stunned disbelief?  The ripples of my shock bouncing off the research from everyone and their brother and sister that says that motivation is perhaps the key factor in predicting L2 success from issues like whether students will ever continue in the language (not a big question that faces us at all, right) down to whether or not their very pronunciation will improve?!

I mean, what does Krashen say when he sits in a room with Dörnyei?  With Gardner?

Who’s right?  Is Krashen right and motivation has no effect on whether people acquire language, it’s all input?  Am I right and motivation is the most important factor in student success, bar none?  I’m certainly nowhere near as educated and experienced as Krashen in the field, right?  How dare I even compare my opinion to his, right?  I mean, doesn’t he have an army of student researchers at his beck and call while the time I used to spend reading research for fun is now spent baking fish sticks and singing ABC’s (also fun)?  Does this seem so very crazy to me because in my shadowed ignorance I’m just completely missing something?  Am I missing some obvious sarcasm since it seems to me that his whole brief essay is really about motivation after all?  I mean, isn’t the claim that we need to make the message more compelling just another message that we need to access motivation?

Perhaps we’re both right.  Perhaps the answer is that Krashen is just narrowly focused on pure acquisition as it can be defined the first time around, and doesn’t actually care how we can access this sort of brain process in a classroom.  Or perhaps it’s that he is talking about motivation and just talking around it at the same time.  Steve wondered with me,

I wonder if the simplicity of his message is what makes it appealing. Is it too “clean”?

(You will learn a lot in a hurry by reading Steve’s post on theory underpinning language and acquisition, the whole series really.)

Yes, perhaps it is the simplicity of Krashen’s message that attracts us, that still has state and regional language teaching associations calling him up as the keynote speaker.  We want an easy answer.  But it is the simplicity of his answers that make them difficult to accept in the mess that is second language learning in the classroom.  Perhaps if I thought we could ever even come close to reproducing first language acquisition in the classroom, the simple message would mean more to me.  But there’s no chance.  We can’t.

In case I haven’t communicated to you a clear enough picture of the muddy mess that motivation in second language acquisition can be, check out Matt’s posts on motivation and the comments on them by his readers.

Whether your methods include grammar drills, vocab lists, or goofy stories; whether your materials include Realidades or Sing, Dance, Laugh & eat Tacos or Kahoot!; whether a particularly disrespectful group of immature freshmen is driving you to madness, let me propose that the m that trumps them all is motivation.  Because while whether or not they actually acquire anything in this week’s lessons is important, whether or not they are doing something communicative with it ten years from now is a much messier question:

Do they want to?


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February 17, 2015 5 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

Best of 2014 #2: Where I depart from classic TPRS

I hope you had a great, worship-filled Christmas Day!  2015 is almost here!

I think it’s kind of unfortunate the #2 post of the year is the one I titled “What I hate about TPRS.”
Sometimes I word things very strongly on the blog because I want to make a point, and my point with this post was that there are many fantastic strategies from many buzz-word teaching methods and philosophies, but no one way is the right way with all the answers for your classroom. So before you read (or read again) my post about where I depart from the classic (think Slavic, Ray) TPRS practices, please read what I love about TPRS (and then you can read Carol Gaab’s rebuttal) whose tenets revolutionized my teaching and turned me into a storytelling (though not a TPRS) teacher.

What I hate about TPRS

The post I started about what I love and hate about TPRS grew to be so long I decided to split it in half.  My husband says people use the word “hate” too freely for things they don’t actually “hate,” and okay, that’s true here.  So, let’s turn to the things that, as my preschooler would say, “crack me nuts” about some of what the most black-and-white TPRS adherents say.

Too black-and-white

TPRS is just too simplistic.  The field of Second Language Acquisition research has long been divided on the question of whether people acquire their second language by the same process by which they acquire their first.  As I wrote in my “what I love” post, Stephen Krashen lands in the “yes” camp.  He thinks that the process the second time around is much the same.  Therefore, if you can reproduce the L1 process you’ll be successful in L2 acquisition.  Personally, I think he’s probably more right than wrong.  That is, I think the process would be the same if we could reproduce the factors involved.  The problem is,we can’t.  There’s no maybe here.  We absolutely can never reproduce the L1 acquisition environment.

Mark Ahlness

All the problems with TPRS stem from this one.  It thinks it can reproduce L1 learning and it just can’t.  And then it figures out it can’t and tries to make up for it in ways that don’t work and don’t make sense.  Learners know what language is supposed to look like.  They have a structure in place in their heads.  They know how to think about language.  And there’s not enough time.  My daughter still says taughten and she’s heard English every day since she was born.  She still says yo tieno and she’s heard Spanish from her primary caregiver every day since she was born.  The fact is that children do not attain an adult grammar of their first language until they are about 8 years old.  EIGHT YEARS it takes.  Even if we could reproduce the L1 process, we simply don’t have the time.

Not enough patterning

When people acquire their first language, there’s not a lot of pattern to it – that is, no one sits and decides to teach their 2-year-old present tense regular verbs.  How to pluralize words.  Objective and nominative case.  So, if it happens the same way the second time, why not just do it randomly?  Ben Slavic, one of the biggest names in TPRS training, advocates this random approach.  I am on a completely different road from Ben here.


I do not spend a lot of time attempting to “integrate” certain words into some kind of pre-arranged list of vocabulary from week to week, but you can if you want. I find that doing so stilts the quality of the stories.

Me: I make fun stories that contain patterned target features I want my students to master (e.g. using quiero and demonstrative adjectives to express which thing they want from a selection of things).  I want them to extract the pattern so they can apply it to other words.


It is easy to see why some of the best TPRS teachers just prefer doing PQA [the practice of asking students highly repetitive questions about themselves] the entire class period, just talking to the kids instead of doing stories.

Me: I cannot convince myself that NOT having a goal other than my communicating language to students is the most effective way to improve my students’  proficiency.  And click the link above and see the example that inspired this comment.  It’s not easy to see.  This would drive my students nuts after 8.5 minutes. (The typical TPRS hardliner response to this is, you’re just not doing it right; if you were doing it right, your students would be wildly engaged 100% of the time.)


Notice that I try to keep the PQA hooked to the original phrases, but that is certainly not at all necessary in PQA. If the discussion strays from the structures, it doesn’t matter. You are interacting with the kids in the target language, which is the entire point.

Me: Hmm. Maybe it’s his entire point.  It’s not mine.  That is perhaps my most important point in the novice classroom, but I have a lot more points than that.

I could go on.  But I won’t.  Summary: I choose patterning over randomness because this isn’t first language acquisition. And there isn’t enough time.

Ignoring metacognitive awareness

Learning language the second time around has one huge difference that has to impact how students approach the learning: metacognitive awareness.  That is, they know how to think about their language.  They can think, wait, I did that wrong, what was that again? why was that word there?

Students know what a subject is (even if they can’t label it-I don’t mean grammatical labels here). They know what a verb is.  They know what order words are in in English.  You can’t pretend they don’t.  Well, you can, but they’re going to transfer this awareness anyway, so you really ought to find a way to take advantage of it.  Why?  You guessed it, there’s not enough time to discount it.

Amy Kearns


Here’s TPRS’s first major departure from the first language acquisition process.  TPRS relies heavily on English translation.  You’re supposed to translate your target features for your students right off the bat.  But this doesn’t mesh with the way research has theorized vocabulary is arranged in our brains.  If researchers are right and vocabulary is more entrenched in the right kind of memory when it’s tied to the concept instead of the English word, why are we using so much translation in the classroom?


I want to buy a butterfly, class!

Butterfly is a new word, so I write butterfly down and give the English. This sentence may lead to a discussion lasting one minute or the entire class period.

Wow, really? Butterfly?  I can understand translating something like take advantage of into English because it takes too much time to get it across another way, but how long does it take to draw a butterfly?

They’re trying to make up for the time problem in the wrong way.  And even as they try to make up for the time problem, TPRS is just…

Too slow

This is absolutely TPRS’s biggest departure from first language acquisition.  The method teaches that input has to be 90% comprehensible, a way to make up for the time problem, I’m assuming.  To do that, TPRS says go slow. Like really, really slow.  One TPRS presenter told me we should imagine every word out of our mouths is a coin dropping into a well, and maybe then we’ll be speaking slowly enough.

The problem is that students constantly fed this type of language do not typically understand authentic language – because this type of language is far from authentic in any natural context at all.  No one talks to children that way. No one talks to anyone that way.  And they know it – I’ve been told and told I shouldn’t be using authentic resources with my novice students simply because they can’t understand 90% of it (and because I’m supposedly overestimating how much students can be engaged by Starbucks Mexico instead of being asked the same question 30 different ways in one class period).  And don’t waste your time telling me about this one student such-and-such TPRS teacher taught who passed the AP exam in the ninth grade (from Ben Slavic’s bio, for example), because I don’t want to hear what one motivated, high-aptitude kid did.  I watch my “advanced” students struggle and fight to understand an authentic speaker tell their age because they never had to listen to authentic language before Spanish 3.

Proficiency standards?

TPRS teachers know that their students cannot be aligned with the ACTFL proficiency standards, claiming that they “skip” the novice level (really, they skip around capable of benchmarks from lots of levels and miss others), and so, according to some, the standards are faulty and should be ignored.  But the ACTFL proficiency standards are not a fly-by-night set of descriptions put together by a bunch of people who don’t know anything about language acquisition.  They acknowledge that language capability is anything but random.  Language learners, especially in the limited time we see them, and the age at which we see them, need to be able to accomplish certain things beginning with survival language and moving up to more advanced tasks, tasks based on communicating meaning.

Though they can be a measure for anyone, the purpose of proficiency standards is not to describe L1 acquisition; they describe L2 learning.  The L2 process may somewhat (or largely) mirror the L1 process but -you guessed it- there isn’t enough time, so it benefits our students more to help them move through a sequence of being able to accomplish necessary tasks in the L2.  So what’s the result for TPRS?  If the teacher ignores proficiency tasks, students end up with large holes in proficiency; they can describe an object, but can’t make plans to attend an event, for example.

Negating the role of output

I’m going to try hard to be professional here.  I’ve had the professionalism practically beaten out of me the past few weeks in discussions on this particular point, but I’m working at it.  Bear with me, please.

I’m guessing few TPRS teachers would agree with the advocate who recently told me that output in the language classroom is irrelevant, but it is a core tenet of TPRS that “forcing output is not only not helpful, but can actually be harmful for students.”  One teacher who recently asked my opinion on TPRS was baffled by this:

I personally love to ‘force output’ and have seen the fruits of those efforts so this seems a little too idealistic to me.  I am all for CI and ‘lowering’ the affective filter, but what I love is pushing students to do things they thought they could not do.  I know that I did not start really speaking Spanish until I started teaching and that was because the circumstances ‘forced my output.’  Therefore I love to recreate that ‘forcing of output’ environment.

See, the thing about babies is that they aren’t talking because they actually can’t.  My toddler doesn’t say “My head hurts. Can I have some Tylenol?” because she is actually not capable of it.  Physically she doesn’t know how to make her mouth make the sounds.  This is not true with second language acquisition.  Students are capable of output of some kind from the very beginning, so the “silent period” concept is very muddy.  Very.  I agree that many teachers push their students too far too fast – you cannot reasonably expect students to manipulate past tenses accurately until they can consistently hit Advanced Low proficiency which cannot be achieved in 2 years except by the most motivated and gifted students – but I do not agree that we can’t push them at all.  One TPRS teacher’s argument was that output was just “motor memory.”

Me to self: Wait, she just said that as if the motor memory doesn’t matter.

Oh, it does.  You know it does.  You’ve watched your students ace an essay and then fought to understand their stilted spoken output because the motor memory really matters.

In trying to defend this point to me, Stephen Krashen argued his research.  What was his research?  He said, “There was this guy, he produced complex language without having produced output before.”  Do you know what kind of language?  Written language. Because he was disabled and physically incapable of speech.

Me: Okay, you’ve got this one guy who can’t talk.
Krashen: There’s this other case too.
Me: Okay, you’ve got two people who could never talk.  Do you have any research based on someone who could actually talk?
<crickets chirping>

Krashen is a good researcher.  But so are Lightbown and Spada.  So are Ellis, Swain, Gass, and Selinker, the most respected voices in causal output theory.  So is Curtain.  So are Doughty and Long.  And some tenets of TPRS completely ignore large bodies of research on interaction in the name of “Krashen said this, Ray does this, Slavic does that.”  Ignored on the sidelines are very smart people saying, “Wait a minute, perhaps it’s not quite so clear-cut as all that.”

Assuming students will output “when they’re ready”

The TPRS defense on the output issue is that no, they don’t force students to produce language (the way I do when, for example, I do a speaking assessment and require interaction on Edmodo in the first unit of Spanish 1).  But the TPRS students can, and do, when it comes naturally.  But – I know, I’m a broken record – if I don’t have to wait until they do (and research says I don’t), and there’s not enough time for them all, then why would I?

The widespread phenomena of passive bilingualism and third-generation shift pose interesting questions here.  In a nutshell, it’s the situation in which an immigrant’s child grows up hearing their parents’ native language and so they can understand it but they can’t speak it.  Then, of course, their children are not bilingual at all.  This is painfully real in my own life.  My preschooler has to be forced to speak Spanish unless she has a lexical gap in English, because she says that “Spanish is too hard” and “I don’t like it” and “I can’t do it” (sound familiar?).  Claim social and cultural factors in play all you want to, but the fact is your students live in the same society that Zoe does.

Spontaneous accurate output may happen in your classroom today with a few students.  Believe all you want to that in a few years students will suddenly blossom into proficient speakers; it’s simply not supported.

Don’t take it or leave it

As TPRS teacher/blogger “MJ” says,

I’m realizing that different parts of CI work in different situations, for different purposes, and with different sets of kids. I was trying to force Movie Talk and TPR and Scaffolding Literacy and TPRS stories and Embedded Reading into every lesson. The down side to pure TPRS is that it can’t work for everything, with every kid in every situation.

Anyone who used to think I’m smart is probably dumbfounded by how obvious that statement is, but I’m a slow learner. CI is king. TPRS was the tool by which I learned (and keep learning) to do CI. TPRS is magical at the beginning levels, but isn’t necessarily the only way to teach the beginning levels.

The main “con” for me is that “TPRS” puts off so many language teachers. I’m sad that people are offended before they even hear the rest of the story, or before asking questions about how TPRS teachers address reading, writing, speaking, or the biggest target, grammar…. people get offended just by the initials, then don’t hear that good TPRS teachers do include grammar (writing, reading, speaking) in their lessons, even if they don’t teach them to the same extent or in the same ways as teachers who use other methods.

Her concern isn’t unfounded.  In a conversation I saw recently on Edmodo, a teacher (“Mrs. Johnson”) asked*,

I have a dilemma.  In my Spanish class, I have a new student who comes to me from a TPRS Spanish class.  I use Avancemos and we are finishing the sports unit and I gave her a quiz to see what level she’s in, and on the test her level is not that of my class.  I don’t know what to do. Suggestions?

Naturally, someone wondered, well, is she “better” or “worse”?

Is it possible to move her to another class?  Should she be in level 1 or 3?

Turns out the girl wasn’t up to par for Mrs. Johnson’s class, but she wasn’t thrilled about moving the student to another class:

She’s in level 1, grr… I wouldn’t like to move her…

So “Mrs. Straub” weighs in, frustrated with how poorly TPRS students supposedly do in grammar:

You’d better move her even if it’s a bother.  In my experience the students who have studied with TPRS are dramatically lacking with verbs and grammar.  Besides, the difference between level 1 and 2 can be a lot. I’m sorry.

The sentiment was somewhat more moderately echoed by “Mr. Frink” who, like I recommend here, incorporates TPRS into a mix (although probably not the mix I would choose):

I agree with Mrs. Straub.  I use TPRS, but I also balance it with exercises with verbs and grammar.  Everything’s better in moderation.

Perhaps you have the idea that you can take TPRS or leave it.  I was told recently that if I’m not adhering to all the tenets of TPRS I cannot claim to use TPRS at all.  Fine.  I’ll just continue to call myself a storytelling teacher.

For what it’s worth, here’s the summary of my advice.

Don’t take TPRS.

Don’t leave TPRS.

Evaluate the practices of what TPRS preaches against what you know to be good language teaching principles, and against your situation, and against your personality, and take from TPRS what works for you, and leave the rest.  And despite what a “this is the only thing that works and you better use all of it or you’re a failure” hard-core TPRS teacher may tell you, finding the blend that works for you is not only okay, it’s the best way.

For more advice

If you’re really interested in how you can integrate the best of TPRS into your situation, you could ask me and I’ll help you all I can.  But honestly, you’ll probably get better help from some amazing teachers I count as friends and some of the best in the business.  I’m sure they’d love to engage in a conversation with you and be professional, helpful, and not at all condescending about it.


*This conversation took place in Spanish; I’m translating here so anyone can benefit from the example.

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December 26, 2014 0 Comments

Best of 2014 #7: What I love about TPRS

Here’s where the missing #7 and #6 posts have been hiding.

The three posts I made about the method known as TPRS in the early part of 2014 caused a bit of a ripple, and all three of them landed somewhere in the top 10.  But they make more sense if you read them in order, and so they’ll appear here in the order in which they were published, first this post about the great strategies in TPRS that were instrumental in making me the teacher I am today (#7), and then the several tenets of TPRS that I disagree with in varying degrees (#2), and then Carol Gaab’s reply to my concerns about the method (#6).

What I love about TPRS

Leandro Suárez

Let me give you a run-down of my teaching career.

After I graduated from high school, I spent four years at a liberal arts college learning a lot about what it means to be a good teacher and almost nothing about how to be a good language teacher.

After graduating from college, I spent three years teaching Spanish to students from sixth through twelfth grades using 90% English grammar explanations and worksheets and homework.

Then I went to graduate school and got a master’s degree in second language acquisition research that blew apart my preconceived notions of how people learn language.

Armed with my M.A, I began teaching Spanish at the high school level.  I played around with using more target language and engaging authentic resources, especially music, which caught on with my students like wildfire.

A month after restarting my teaching career, I went to a conference.  At the conference, I attended a 3-hour workshop on Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS).

The following Monday, I threw my textbook out the window.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly like that, but it was close.  That year, my students continued to take their textbooks home, but we rarely used them.  The next year, the textbooks were on a shelf in my room and came off about once a month for an activity.  The following year, I left them in the closet upstairs.

This method of engaging students with comprehensible input, TPRS, was powerful.  I could tell right away that storytelling was a revolutionary approach that made so much sense in so many ways.  Briefly, TPRS is based heavily on Stephen Krashen’s (and others’) research on second language acquisition and theories of the Natural Approach, or the theory that people learn second and more languages in much the same way they learned their first.  The TPRS approach incorporates highly repetitive storytelling using the most frequently used words in a language, along with engaging reading materials, to deliver very comprehensible input to students.

In that first 3-hour workshop I attended, a woman taught a story in Swedish for about twenty minutes as a demonstration.  For full disclosure, I have to tell you that I have a very high language aptitude, and I have forgotten the story now, but I could have retold the story she told us in Swedish for three or four years following that workshop.  So let me start by telling you that to communicate language in a way that causes acquisition, TPRS absolutely works.  I love it.

But I also hate it.  Well, I don’t hate it, but I part ways with the method in a few areas.  Why? Because no method in any classroom can reproduce the process by which children acquire their native language, and every classroom is different, every teacher is different, and every student is different, so any successful method is going to be a combination of strategies that take all factors into account.  My job is to take into account all the factors in my situation, evaluate the research I’ve seen, and decide what works for my students, and what doesn’t.  Some of TPRS just doesn’t.

You can love TPRS or be wary of it or hate it or just think you couldn’t be good at it, but to help you evaluate it, here’s what I take and leave about the method.

What I love

Comprehensible input

Researchers disagree on all sorts of things, but this is not one of them.  The general consensus is that learners acquire language that is comprehensible to them.  And TPRS, through storytelling and leveled reading, is all about students comprehending the language.  If you see a good TPRS teacher in action, even if you don’t speak much of the language involved, you’ll be stunned at how much you can comprehend.


A TPRS teacher recently disparaged the “communicative” classroom, but I cannot understand why.  Communicative language teaching is about communicating meaning, and TPRS communicates meaning.  It’s not about students learning how to talk about the language; it’s about students comprehending and using language in real-life situations – or in crazy situations in stories, but still, language they can transfer to any situation they need to.


With TPRS you can take content and scaffold it in such a way that your highest to lowest learners understand.  I abandon most storytelling by the time my students reach their fourth year, but I still use it to scaffold authentic resources like news stories and novels and it’s a great way to preview those materials.


If you have children, think about how they’ve acquired language in your family.  Children listen to stories constantly.  Life is a story, and telling stories is a life skill. Storytelling works, period.


TPRS teachers don’t tell stories so much as they ask stories.  In my novice classes, I don’t have to teach question words, ever.  And students rarely confuse them.  We simply use them so much they’re part of us.

After all, questioning is something that happens nonstop. From the time a baby is born (and I have a lot of experience in this the last few years!), everyone is asking him questions: are you hungry? what does a cow say? where is your binky? oh, did you like that?  And all this questioning and storytelling means you can guarantee…

High levels of TL

I do not know how teachers can stay in the TL with novices the ACTFL recommended 90% of the time (or even close) without storytelling.  When I started storytelling I found it incredibly easy to stay in the TL with high comprehensibility.  When you’re not stopping to explain a grammar point every few minutes, but rather telling stories and asking a million questions, you can stay in the TL a whole lot.

Student engagement

The point of stories in TPRS is to get content to students in an engaging way. Aside from something you might be targeting in particular (though that in itself is not a major tenet of TPRS-more later), the content of the stories doesn’t matter.  The best TPRS teachers I have seen incorporate their students into the stories.  I started doing this from the start of my storytelling integration and watched the engagement soar.  My students are always hotter than Justin Bieber, play tennis better than Nadal, play the guitar better than Santana, and so on.  They’re the stars, they’re cool, they’re heroes, and they love it.  More importantly, they pay attention to it.

Lower frustration

Straightforward enough, frustration blocks acquisition and when students understand what you’re doing and it’s engaging, they don’t get so frustrated.

That’s what I love about TPRS.  Check back in a few days for the (very extensive) flip side of this coin.

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December 23, 2014 0 Comments

What we learned at IFLTA ’14: Everyone struggles, Culture leads

Since I had my precious Cottrell-itos on my trip to the annual conference of the Indiana Foreign Language Teacher’s Association, I didn’t get to spend as much time involved in the conference as I would have liked to, but I did greatly enjoy the time I did have.  I reconnected with “old” friends, made new ones, and met face-to-face with some of you in my online PLN.

I don’t like giving handouts (because I don’t usually like getting them) but I always promise to put up my resource on a blog post, so here’s that, with some good takeaways from other sessions as well.

We all struggle

Let me just say it was refreshing to hear Linda Egnatz hear that the ACTFL Teacher of the Year can still have a seventh-period class out of control!  I’m not a failure if I still can’t solve every problem presented by putting a bunch of football players together in a last-period Spanish class!

Also, I heard over and over that teachers recognize there are areas where they need to change, and where the research is driving us to change, and they’re trying.  I apologize if the artifact of microblogging on Twitter or blogging in short bursts gives you the impression that I or any teacher anywhere has all the answers and has changed everything that needs to change.  We’re using the TL all the time in 100% comprehensible ways while teaching every aspect of culture and inspiring every single student to learn language for a lifetime and dedicate themselves to improving the world – NOT!  We’re all growing.  We’re all changing.  And if the fact that it’s hard isn’t keeping us from doing something to improve today, something else or something the same next month and the year after next, then kudos to us and here’s a digital hug from me (here’s an extra one for you, Wendy).

Linda Egnatz: Three types of control

When someone goes so far as to be named the Teacher of the Year by ACTFL, you know you’re going to benefit from sitting in a session (and at lunch!) with her, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Linda talked to us about how ACTFL’s work supports our proficiency-based teaching, what motivates students, integrating the 5 C’s, and more, but what I’m really mulling over is how she explained how she analyzes student performance.

First, her idea of counting parts of an utterance – and having students focus on doing the same – fascinates me.  Push student proficiency by asking them to move beyond one-word responses.  Students can count parts: 1) who did what? 2) with whom? 3) when? 4) why? 5) in what way? 6) in what mood? 7) with what result? and you can see how they’ll get used to producing more complex utterances and pushing themselves to take risks.

Also, Linda looks at the proficiency shown by a performance by looking at what type of control the students are showing, that is, how grammatical accuracy is evident in their performance.  Here are the three:

  • Conceptual control: I know it happens but I don’t do it when I produce language except in memorized chunks.
  • Partial control: I can do it on words that neatly fit a pattern that I have practiced a lot. (In Spanish an example is matching adjectives to the gender of nouns but only when they end in the obvious -o, -a.)
  • Full control: I can apply the concept in general.  It doesn’t mean it’s perfect but the student is aware of the general concept and applies it fairly consistently.

Side note, I knew that students can’t manipulate past tense until Advanced proficiency (which makes me wonder why we do it in Level 2 anyway), but Linda said that speakers can’t handle the aspect of past (such as imperfect vs. preterite in Spanish) until Superior.  I have always assumed that my speaking proficiency was somewhere around Advanced High, but this made me wonder if I may be reaching Superior.  I know the topics I can handle are a factor there, but I wonder.

In another conversation, she talked about using tasks and activities that match student’s cognitive level.  In elementary, we can’t teach numbers by counting money in kindergarten because they actually can’t perform that skill cognitively.  Same with telling time.  But they love to talk about animals in the context of farms and zoos.  Try that with tenth graders and, well, you can imagine.  Linda suggests we use cultural resources that are interesting them on their cognitive level, like using Hungry Planet pictures to talk about food comparisons.

Super Teacher PD: best handout idea ever

A university professor (the IFLTA conference seemed very post-secondary heavy to me) did a session on PD and on his handout, he put a doodle box.  Literally, it was a box for us to doodle in if we wanted to. Whether or not you doodle in a session, you have to admit it shows how down-to-earth the guy is!

This session was set in the context of superheroes (Batman – what “kryptonite” keeps you from doing quality PD; Iron Man – what’s your “arc reactor”?; Avengers – I forget) but I really, really hate superhero movies so the analogy fell flat with me, but I appreciated how he pushed us to…

  1. ask what makes me an effective teacher
  2. set big goals
  3. remember what keeps me teaching
  4. eliminate things holding me back from PD that are within my control (i.e. watching too much Downton Abbey instead of pushing my language/cultural proficiency with a Spanish-language film)
  5. making a few achievable goals with deadlines and someone to report to

What PD goals do you have for this next year?

My session: Reality in IPAs

I really had a great group of teachers attend this session and they gave it energy and great ideas.  To find the links to the resources I offered in this session, see the post from the KWLA conference, and especially check out the Camp Musicuentos wiki (and let me know if you want to be notified when registration for Camp Musicuentos opens).

Here are some of the contributions participants made that resonated with me:

  • Set students in a scenario helping someone, especially a child, as this incorporates real service-learning and lowers anxiety.
  • Could your students potentially get a holiday job being an elf or some other character at a local mall, for example?  What a great opportunity to use language, and a fun scenario (if it’s realistic)!
  • One teacher was in an area where a tornado struck and an apartment building near her was evacuated.  She ended up helping translate for the Red Cross.
  • Remember, novices will not be able to do translation scenarios well.  Get them to picture themselves describing themselves, introducing themselves, and otherwise making friends with someone who lives nearby or whom they meet on the internet.
  • Speaking of the internet, this is a go-to realistic scenario for students in rural areas.
  • Another realistic scenario in a rural area: someone on Craigslist wants to buy [item you love but you got a new one] and is willing to travel from [some city not terribly far away] to get it but doesn’t speak English well.
  • One more: Many students in rural areas not too far from a large city will go there for big shopping trips or to see something in the theatre, for example, and may come across speakers of another language.  What about a sporting event?  Students where I live may travel all the way to Cincinnati for a Reds game.

Another resource we mentioned was Megan’s post over on the Creative Language Class on incorporating heritage speakers into your class.

Commercials in Spanish class

Some professors and teacher candidates over at IUPUI did a presentation on using commercials to teach culture (and language) in Spanish class.  You’ll be able to find their materials on the IFLTA website and in the spirit of don’t reinvent the wheel! I wanted to make sure you also knew about Kara Jacobs’s amazing resources for using commercials (presentation, worksheets, videos) as well as the document dozens of Spanish teachers have worked on for the past four years with a ton of scripts and ideas for using Spanish commercials.

What are you learning lately?  I hope these ideas and resources also inspire you to keep on keeping on!

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November 8, 2014 5 Comments

Communicative teaching in the shadow of [grammar-focused] common assessment

After I get a question repeated to me a certain number of times via Twitter, comments, or emails, I know it’s time for a blog post.

The Great Dilemma

If you have never had to consider how students in your TCI (teaching with comprehensible input) class will fit in a program that forces grammar-heavy common assessments, or transfers students into grammar-translation classes, or asks you to prepare students for standardized college entrance exams, count yourself very lucky.  But I’ve seen and heard this so many times that I know it weighs heavily on the minds of teachers on both sides of the fence, and those straddling the fence: are we preparing them for X?

A not-so-great dilemma

I’d like to offer you some relief, from this burden at least, if you’re a TCI teacher at least.  If you’re a grammar translation teacher who is wondering how your students will do in a TCI class, I don’t have a lot of advice for you, except that you should read and listen to research on how people learn language and then re-evaluate which one of you is teaching more in line with it.  But for you teachers currently teaching or developing a program more focused on teaching with comprehensible input, I do not think this is something you need to worry much about, and here are a few reasons why.

Ubiquitous format

Last year a rather antagonistic teacher at a workshop was unpleasantly shocked that I had not given my students a test -or asked a multiple-choice question outside of AP Spanish- in four years.  Perhaps you’ve heard the comment before:

But if they don’t practice taking them, how will they know how to take them?

I nearly laughed.  How old are kids when they start learning how to take multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests these days, 6? 7?  At least half the students at my high school were in private tutoring to improve their ACT scores.  Let their other classes and their ACT tutors prep them for test formats.  They don’t need one more class to do it, too.

High skills to low skills

When students are used to being assessed by circling which answer is the yo form of hablar, they may (usually) have a lot of trouble moving to a teacher or program where someone simply asks them the question (in TL), what do you do in class?  But when students are used to saying “I like to talk on the phone. I talk on the phone with my friend every day after school” they have little trouble choosing the correct form for I speak, or the translation for friend, and so on.

It hadn’t occurred to me to worry about whether my students would be ready for grammar-translation-heavy exams or programs.  The fact is, many of my students have left my class and taken such exams or ended up in such programs in college.  Not one of them has failed to test out of at least one class, usually two, sometimes four.  Not one student.  As for the ones in grammar-heavy programs in college, they hate it, but they’re excelling there, too.  Because when you’re used to refining your communicative skills, learning to analyze words comes much easier than it happens the other way around.

It's a piece of sweet coffee cake. Priscila Mateini

It’s a piece of sweet coffee cake.
Priscila Mateini

Making it even easier

Still, as you face preparing your students for a common grammar-translation assessment or a move into a grammar-heavy next-level class or college class, there are a couple of things you can do to make this even easier, and watch your students succeed with less frustration.

Patterning grammar questions

TPRS now advocates a technique called “pop-up” grammar and my understanding of it is that when grammar issues come up in the natural process of communicative teaching, we take a few minutes to ask pointed questions like “why is it X and not Y? what if the subject were B?”  I love that technique and when I’m teaching I do it a lot.  But it’s also a huge part of how I introduce content.  When I do storytelling, my target features are far from random.  They are all related to a particular grammatical or vocabulary function I’m trying to get students to be able to use in their communication.  So in my story, I may be targeting the pattern of is _____ing  and in the days after the story students will be using music, games, and activities to work on communicating with this pattern.  When students work on communicating in patterns, identifying them on a grammar-heavy test is a piece of cake.

One-day? crash course

In an attempt to broker peace within a strongly conflicted department of teachers on both sides of this fence, I made this suggestion:  what if the TCI teachers spend a day every so often, or the last day of the quarter, or the last two days of the semester, or whatever they’re willing to do in the time right before they go to another teacher’s class, hitting the grammatical terms of some of the things they’ve looked at?  I’d be willing to spend 2 days at the end of the school year going over terms like conjugation and direct object pronoun if it meant the coffee cake at the faculty meeting -and the company- would seem sweeter.  And if it would mean the grammar teacher would get off my back about preparing them for a test.

Are you struggling in a department that’s asking you as a TCI teacher to focus more on test prep?  How are you handling it successfully?

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October 30, 2014 2 Comments

The First Day Story: Empowering with CI

In trying to tell a French teacher what I do the first day of school, I realized that my explanation of the first 12 days of Musicuentos Spanish 1 was, well, all in Spanish.  So, here’s some English for you.

There are so many, so very many great language learning principles, right?  So much second language acquisition research that shows students need

  • time
  • input they can understand
  • opportunities to use meaningful language
  • lots of time
  • interaction involving negotiating meaning
  • meaningful repetition
  • more time

to be successful in acquiring a new language.

But oh, my teacher friend, if I could figure out the words to communicate how powerful it is to put in practice what is, to me, the most important thing every language teacher needs to realize:


It’s taken me a long time to come to the place where I’m willing to say that if we believe that motivation is a key factor -perhaps the key factor- in language learning success, our practice ought to reflect it – always.  I’m still figuring out what that looks like.  We can give the homework and give the assessments and put the grades in the gradebooks, we can put up fancy posters and duct tape and send home fancy infographic newsletters and syllabi, but if we haven’t accessed what students are motivated by – not how we can motivate them, but what factors within them motivate themselves – we’ll lose them as soon as the requirement is fulfilled, or there’s a schedule conflict, or they move to another city.  And if native speakers can lose proficiency in the language they were born into, our best long-term-memory-building games and techniques aren’t going to stand against the test of years of ignoring the L2.

Okay, /soapbox.  It’s me, and I always have to start with a bit of theory before I apply it.  My application here is pretty simple: in the magic, difficult question of what motivates students, one answer that many teachers have found is that students are motivated to keep learning simply by a little success in the first place.  I’m sure you’ve experienced it before; when you succeed at something, you want to keep doing it.

Students don’t come into your classroom expecting to succeed.  If you’re going to speak to them in the target language, they expect to be lost.  If you can communicate to them on the very first day that they can understand, it’s incredibly empowering.  And it’s fun.  You get to watch their eyes light up as they think

Wait a minute.

She’s speaking Spanish. (or French or whatever)

And I understand her.

And I’m answering her!


In my classroom, my policy is students get their syllabus and they know how to read and they can read on their own time (I refuse to publish grades until parents and students have signed and returned my syllabus).  We can talk about procedures on the second day.  The first day is all about fun, and it’s all about understanding.

So my suggestion is to spend the first day showing students that they will be able to understand you, and I start by explaining this:

Welcome to Spanish class.

It’s Spanish class, so I’m going to speak a whole lot of Spanish.

But whether you understand or not is primarily my responsibility.  Your responsibilities are to 1) listen, 2) watch, and 3) tell me when you don’t understand.  If you do that, and I’m doing my job, you’ll understand.  I promise.  Don’t believe me? Let’s try it.

And then I launch into a story.  Your story will vary depending on your student level and demographic and so on, but basically, it’s just something to show them that because you’re willing to draw, gesture, act, sing, or whatever, it’s going to be fun, and they’re going to understand.  Here’s my first-day story for Spanish 1 (100% in target language):

Let’s draw a boy (girl). [I draw a girl, students do as well.]
What’s the girl’s name? Jane? Emma? Angelina Jolie? (Girl in class)? No.  What’s her name? [Students choose a name-María. Write 'María'.]
Okay, her name is María.  Hi María.  Everybody say hi, María.
What color [emphasize] is her hair? Blue? Red? Brown? Black? [Point to colors or use color cards until students understand and choose a color - this is the pattern through the story. Point, students understand, draw.]
How does she feel? Is she happy? Is she sad? Is she angry? [Students choose, draw facial expression.]
What’s the girl like? Is she fat? Is she thin? [Choose, draw.]
What’s the girl wearing?  A shirt? A dress?  A tutu?  What color?

I know, it’s not really a story, but you get the idea.  We may get into what kind of hair she has (curly, straight), whether she has glasses, how old she is, where she’s from, and so on.  I do this on day 1 with Spanish 1 and students understand the whole thing and answer all the questions and draw everything, because I’m coaching them through it.  Do they acquire the ability to use this language? Of course not!  But that wasn’t my point – my point was to empower them with the knowledge that they can comprehend in this class when it’s all in Spanish, and it will be fun.  In this first class we might also playfully work on learning names (using “his name is…” etc.) and play a song that’s fun and targets some goal (such as Aserejé to simply show them that part of learning language is wrapping your mouth around the words, and to get them having fun using language)  Later, the character they created becomes a character in the first stories (she makes friends with a Martian penguin and then disappears as the penguin and Garfield become our primary Spanish 1 characters).

How will you make the first day of school about helping students find that they will understand, they will have fun, and this motivates future learning?

For more ideas on comprehensible input on the first days of school, check out this great post by Cynthia Hitz and Martina Bex’s First Days tag.

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August 17, 2014 3 Comments

Introducing the past tenses together

Jhon Emmanuel

Jhon Emmanuel


Have you ever stopped to think about why we teach the past tenses separately?

When I first started investigating TPRS as a teaching method, a lot of things clicked with me (and some didn’t) but one of the tips that made the most sense was that it didn’t make sense to teach past tenses one at a time.  I think I know why we do it, because we think that breaking it into two steps will make students be able to do it better.  However, there are several glaring problems with this.

  1. No one uses them that way.
    Speakers do not use them separately; the whole point of how the past tenses (in Spanish, and in French too I think?) work is that how they work together.
  2. They often don’t follow the “rules.”
    You know this is true. As soon as you teach that the sudden past is used for something or other then some student finds some example and says, “But, Señor, why is it descriptive past in this part?”
    “Um…um…” You don’t know. I don’t either.  My standard answer is “Because the choice was all in the speaker’s/writer’s head and we’re not in there.”
  3. Acquisition doesn’t happen that way.
    When children are learning language they (of course) do not acquire one past tense and then the other.  My kindergartener, when telling a story, will use them in equally correct and incorrect ways with the same frequency.
  4. Learners can’t do it one at a time any better anyway.
    We often try to introduce past tense (with Spanish it’s usually the sudden past) at the end of Level 1 through the middle of Level 2, but a lot of students will not even reach Intermediate Low by the end of Level 2 and won’t get out of Intermediate at the end of four levels, which is what it takes to accurately choose and manipulate the past tenses more than half the time.  Isn’t that a relief?  It isn’t just your students who STILL can’t come up with me lastimé after you’ve drilled it and killed it!  So if it turns out we’re not actually gaining anything by separating them, why do it?

After I started approaching the past as a communicative goal, things started to make a lot more sense to all of us.  One of my major goals for Spanish 3 – out of only 3 major goals – was refining the ability to narrate a story, because this is something we all do all day every day.  We approached and practiced the past tenses together and throughout the entire year as part of the communicative function of narrating a story.  It was beautiful. It was so much easier for me to contrast them, and it was so much easier for students to understand their use.  Here are a few tips we learned along the way:

  • Introduce it as a timeline. (This post started out to be all about this timeline, and then I realized we needed some background first, so watch soon for a separate post illustrating this technique of storytelling as a timeline.)  From the first story to the last, draw a horizontal line and mark the beginning of the story and the end.  The sudden events are above.  The descriptive events are below.  This visualization not only divides the concept of the two, but also shows how they tend to cluster in various parts of the story.
  • Instead of dividing by tense, divide by subject.  Work on he/she for a while (it fits well with retelling stories you’re using as comprehensible input).  Then add yo, and the rest, one by one or two at the most.  Students will extract patterns better.
  • Include the irregulars all the time.  Irregular (especially preterit) verbs are some of the most common verbs used in the past.  It’s counterproductive and difficult to keep saying “Don’t use that one, we’re not there yet.”
  • Mark and focus on transitions.  Transitions are a key skill in themselves but also tend to trigger one type of verb or the other (“When I was a little girl….” “And suddenly….”).
  • Ask about it (in TL) the whole year.  The skill of narrating in the past is very slow to develop; if you’ve been teaching any length of time you know this.  Every time you read a story, ask.  Every time you look at a news article, ask.  Every time students tell a story, ask.  Here are questions that come up almost every class period throughout the whole year in Spanish 3 and 4 for us:
    - what time is this in?
    - is it sudden or descriptive?
    - how do you know?
    - what caused it?
    - can you use it in a similar way?
    - why did you pick that way to say that verb?
    - should it be descriptive or sudden?
    - why?
    - can you fix it?
    - who can help [her] fix it?

Work on the past tenses together and make it part of a large focus of an entire level.  You’ll watch it make more sense to students and be easier for you to teach as learners begin to narrate the past faster and with more accuracy.  If your learners have achieved intermediate level and are ready to work on refining verb endings, my free verb pack for Spanish includes both past tenses and the complete verb pack includes eight illustrated charts.  They’re a handy reference that help students visualize the structures that help them grow to be more accurate in their language production.

Go tell a story and have fun doing it!

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June 10, 2014 0 Comments