The Unconscious Piece – the Missing Link

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57 thoughts on “The Unconscious Piece – the Missing Link”

  1. Beautiful. Makes deep-down-in-your-gut sense.

    The eternal challenge for me, however, in addition to the daunting task of controlling my own use of English, is stopping the kids from using it… it’s one of the constant daily dances we do. But you are so right to remind us that it’s a worthy, essential dance that we must engage in vigilantly every class period. Thank you.

    1. And Kelly it IS a dance and we get to lead them. I have found a way to not have that constant struggle with them about who is going to lead. I mentioned it above. I have the timer set up the ipad right there and I tell them in no uncertain terms that we will be doing CI with NO English for ten or fifteen minutes. THEN we can take a short three minute break after the burst and speak all the English, or in my case Spanish, they want. They buy into that. For me doing this is much easier than trying to stretch the CI out until the end of class. I highly suggest that others at least try these intense “bursts”, to avoid the constant struggle about English, but I don’t think any one else has.

      1. I have done some of these but I have a student time the session because I don’t have a timer or an ipad. If someone talks in English then we reset the timer. I need to do more of these because they work well.
        I also am giving the job of police in my classes. If I speak Spanish and it is not necessary, for comprehension sake, then they can blow a whistle. I outlined the 3 times that English is necessary. 1. Explain grammar but only for 30 seconds (what does the -o mean on this verb). 2. To clarify the meaning of a word or phrase. 3. During translation.
        I think that I need to add one more. 4. For complicated instructions that would take a good part of the hour to get across. For example, today we did a puzzle with the song Billy y las Botas. We had never done one before and the instructions were very difficult to do by staying in bounds.
        I have to admit that when I read this post I thought “Ouch!” I believe that it is a great reminder to all of us. It is important not to get lazy and speak English when it is not necessary but this post was heartbreaking to me in some ways because I love CI and believe in it but am still making lots of mistakes. Sometimes I Speak English when I shouldn’t because I’m tired or I want to hurry up and start a story. I thought about this post a lot last night and made a great effort today not to speak English. This post does help me reach a higher goal in CI and I am grateful for it.

        1. I use a student timer to keep track of how long we stay in the target language with a group of apprentices that are hard to keep on track. For every ten minutes that we stick to English (my TL) they get to leave a minute early. Since some of them need to leave early to catch a train, I was already letting them out ahead of time, but now it’s a privilege they have to earn. To limit my own interventions in French, I have trained myself to make a timeout sign and to say “I’m going to say this in French.” It simply means that I don’t just switch languages. It’s a conscious decision on my part. Before I started doing this I’d find myself making a speech when I hadn’t really thought about whether or not it was necessary.

        2. Dont beat yourself up Melissa. I wrote that for me. I am the first to point out how important it is to stay in the TL and the last to actually do it. If you only knew. I am frighteningly bad at staying in the TL. Without that ten minute thing I thought of this year, I would have just given up on the ACTFL 90% position statement and accepted my own shortcomings in that area and done the best I could anyway.

          (Of course, none of it matters now because I just fist-bumped my last – and all time favorite – class as they filed out of my classroom just now at the end of their and my last exam. Just a few minutes ago was the last time I will ever be with students. I’m done. Stick a fork in me.)

          But back to the point. Melissa we are all just learning this. I wrote that article above from a deep passion that many more of us than we know are doing it wrong because we interrupt ourselves so much with English. But the fact is, there are (a very few) CI teachers who don’t use English at all in their classes. They are the heroes, and not coincidentally, the ones with the highest scores on our district assessments, by the way.

          Look, it’s gonna take some time. This vehicle we have is a Mercedes of the highest classification. I tried and failed with the English thing, but you, who have learned so much so fast this year, will not fail at it. I like that you humbled yourself to accept this and feel it and then try better today in class. That is how we learn, one class at a time. And thank you for hearing me – this is a grossly ignored topic in our communty, the gorilla in the room if there ever was one.

          I think that this topic of sneaking in English during the class is the true Achilles heal for most of us, to slam one metaphor on top of another. When we learn to stay in the TL 97% of the time in class, because we are disciplined, we will see things from our students that we never imagined.

          1. And another thing Melissa don’t give yourself 30 seconds on the pop-ups. You don’t need that long to say “this means that”, which is the very definition of pop-up grammar in the CI classroom. You say, literally, “this means that” and it takes only four seconds and you go on.

    2. Long ago, I learned a technique from Ben, just when pause and point was starting to be used. He had what he needed in English on the board and would simply point to it and not say it aloud. It worked beautifully. My students would hear a lot less English from my lips, but still had comprehensibility.

      1. Yes, it seems entirely different to see the English than to say it aloud. Saying it aloud in English (in my own experience in an adult Chinese class) really grated on me, but seeing it in English, gave me clear understanding without disrupting my Chinese thinking, it seemed like. I don’t know why that is.

  2. This is why compelling is so important. . . when something is compelling we get lost in the input. In those moments we’re so focused on the message we forget the input is in a foreign language and the unconscious powers take over.

    What an awesome definition by Wikipedia!

    In my class, English does get used in the transitions between activities and I give instructions in English, but then we go on those 10-15 minute bursts.

    When I hear a kid speak English and it’s not a 2-word response to a question I’ve asked, then I just reference the jGR/ICSR and say that when you speak English your grade is a B and if it continues to happen, then the grade continues to drop. A lot of the English offenders in my class really care about their grade, so this has definitely helped. And I tell them that if anyone is getting a C in my class then I am obligated to call home.

    Is there any important distinction between subconscious and unconscious? Or do these words get used interchangeably when talking about SLA?

    Here’s an example that makes it clear to me that the process is unconscious. When I was acquiring Spanish, I used to put my conscious mind into overdrive, aka I was trying to monitor the input. I was listening for every little word and applying the grammar rules in my head, mostly those for verbs, in order to comprehend. It’s like spontaneous code-cracking – impossible, except for perhaps mathematical geniuses. It’s impossible to keep up with a steady flow of input. And trying to do so is exhausting! . . . Still true today. If I try to pick out every word and simultaneously think about verb endings, then I can’t keep up with the message of the input. I still remember those break-through moments in my acquisition of Spanish, when I was understanding all the input: when I was relaxed (drinking or by myself watching tv). And it wasn’t until moments later that I realized I had just understood everything. Unconscious!!!

  3. I do the timed CI bursts, especially in PQA/PVA. I have less trouble keeping English out in stories and MT and can go for longer, un-timed CI. I take the 90%+ ACTFL recommendation to mean that 90%+ of my scheduled class time has to be in the target language. With only 54 minute periods, I have only 5 minutes of English, 3 of which often get lost at the start of class to settle in. Then, I can have 2-3 activities and give only 1 minute of English between. I tell my classes that we can save up the 5 minutes of English until the end to watch a Señor Wooly video or we can break up the English. I’ve shown my kids the ACTFL position statement.

  4. In my understanding (and the reason I prefer it), the word unconscious was used by Jung all the time and then others used the term subconscious. To me, the term subconscious conveys the idea of layers, or that the unconscious mind is “just there” below the surface, almost interacting with the conscious mind. But in language acquisition, as you so entertainingly describe in that last paragraph above, Eric, there can be NO contact with the surface. We must trust that the turbines of the deeper mind are going to get the job done no matter what if it just gets enough auditory and reading input and if it is left alone to do its thing without meddling by us. So the word unconcious to me is DEEP. It means we can’t go there. I once wrote a post about that, how the really important stuff in life, like the formation of a child in the mother’s belly, is kept away from the meddling hands of humans FOR A REASON, and that is the way it should be. Whoever wrote the first grammar book to help teach languages to people was just way off. Way off. But now we can get the train back on the tracks.

  5. Fluency has to be based on unconscious knowledge, since there is just TOO MUCH to consciously know and apply.

    As an example, I share with parents/admin that Spanish present tense verbs can be separated into 16 different categories (3 regular categories, 6 irregular in the first person categories, 5 stem-changer categories, 1 irregular category, and 1 category of verbs that use indirect objects) and some of these categories have subcategories. Traditional teaching would try to cover all these categories and give you mnemonics (“go in the yo” and “shoe verbs”). BUT this is just the present tense!!! There are at least 13 categories of preterite verbs, 3 categories of imperfect verbs, etc. It should be obvious that this is too much for the conscious mind to handle.

    As in my example in an earlier comment, the conscious mind can’t successfully monitor spontaneous listening and attempts to do so impede understanding. The same is true of output, but I think older acquirers, esp. adults, will try to rely on their conscious knowledge in order to output. Often that is because they have received little CI and thus have acquired very little. Even when acquired, I think there is an adult tendency to rely on their conscious monitors, be it for fear of mistakes/desire for accuracy or simply because of the nature of adults being used to consciously thinking things through and distrusting their instincts. Even for someone fluent, when they perceive they are being evaluated, there is a tendency to try to monitor one’s output for fear of mistakes. And once the monitor takes over, fluency drops and there are more mistakes!

    So I tend to conclude that conscious knowledge isn’t just unhelpful, but can be harmful. When we know the rules and care about accuracy, then we are in for trouble, because it just can’t help most of us in real-life communicative tasks. That is a big reason I think students have so much fear of speaking in a grammar-oriented class. They know the rules, or better yet, know there are rules but have forgotten them, but now they’re afraid and hesitate to speak since they know their output is inaccurate. Add to that teachers who correct student output and focus on accuracy and you’ve amplified the hesitation factor. In my classes, my students are so proud to say something in Spanish and there are errors, but what they say is comprehensible. Many times they don’t know any better, because I haven’t done much pop-up grammar, and I don’t correct,* rather they get praised. I think pop-up grammar, although free of grammar terminology and in context, it is rapidly forgotten and can be harmful for the aforementioned reasons.

    *I do correct actors, but only because their speech really isn’t spontaneous. Their responses are written and laser-pointed on the board behind them. My goal isn’t for actors to output, rather to get them to provide quality first person input to the class.

  6. This is also why output-focused classes, the communicative approach (CA), fails. There’s been so little CI that there is scarce unconscious knowledge. The CA students then have no other option but to rely on their conscious knowledge for absence of unconscious knowledge. And how are they ever supposed to figure out how the foreign language works without sufficient samples (CI)?!

    Krashen has written papers that tear apart the idea of comprehensible output (CO), Swain’s hypothesis that we eventually say something correctly that our conversational partner understands and we then acquire what we correctly said. Instances of CO are rare, acquisition has been shown to happen without output, and Krashen shows that studies claiming to support CO are weak. In the case of students in CA classes practicing output, esp. when done in groups, CO is even less likely. Rather, students will likely affirm incorrect utterances and the students may acquire flawed structures!

    It’s February break . . . that’s why I’ve been so active on this PLC in the past week 🙂

    1. I disagree with Eric when he says: and the students may acquire flawed structures! There is no “may” about it. Students DO acquire flawed structures and I mean truly acquire. My situation is different in that most of you are starting with students who are blank slates. My students come to me with years, often many years, of grammar rules and forced output in communicative activities. The result of listening to other students’ low quality output is horrible. I find it easier to work with failing students who just switched their brains off in English class, than the eager beavers who were really trying to learn and managed to acquire a garbled idiom that I can rarely understand.

  7. I’m so happy you disagree! I was between “may” and “will” and I went with the more conservative choice 🙂

    Likewise, I wonder if this is why foreign language teachers, who are often more successful monitors, have been able to give themselves better quality auto-input contributing to acquisition, and since it worked for them, it must work for everyone else.

    Judy’s example of preferring students who “switched their brains off,” is more support that instruction for learning is not just unhelpful, but harmful.

    Too often, foreign language teachers teach in a way that is familiar (how they were taught) and based on personal conclusions (a biased case study). This is probably more prevalent in our field, since many foreign language teachers are in this profession just because they speak the language, not because they have a foreign language teaching degree. Even with that degree, it sounds like universities don’t give students much exposure to TCI methods.

    1. Unfortunately, what Krashen (1982) wrote more than thirty years ago is still relevant and prevalent today. “What is perhaps most evident is that teachers and materials developers pay little attention to research and theorizing of any sort” (p. 5).

  8. One of the big things I’m thinking about for next school year is how much to feed principles of language acquisition to my students directly. I’ve considered something brief with the older classes (Chinese 2, 3, 4) because they’ll be moving from a textbook-based class to full CI with me. I want them to understand it’ll feel different (it’s unconscious and feels much more nebulous) and that’s just as it should be.

    This year, I used some of the quotes that Eric has collected (there’s a post in the forum, SLA is in the title I think). I’d show a quote on screen as a bellringer, then have a student read it aloud, and ask the class, “What does that mean?” After a few comments, I’d clarify if they didn’t missed something. Simple and short.

    I was training the oldest class to understand that I am operating by principles that are tested and proven, not my own whims. For the younger kids I figured it was good to have back-up, and I would have used that information with any parents if I had had questions.

    Side note – I’ve had Chinese people ask me, “How many words do you know in Chinese?” Talk about conscious learning expectations!!

    1. I love this topic (obviously – just look at all those comments, haha).

      I’m really trying to better understand this missing link and test this.

      Establishing meaning is our moment of instruction to the conscious. Pop-ups are also L1 interruptions and I do think they are efficient means of improving processing once the kids have had at least 1 semester of CI. I’m not convinced that quick translation (given mid-sentence as a whisper or a quick aside) is a bad idea. I think it’s even a good idea if we continue to repeat and recycle that word. In this way, we can perhaps consolidate the problem of breadth vs. depth.

      One thing I struggle to cope with is the extent to which I un-target structures and let the unconscious net pick up the pieces. The problem is one of breadth vs. depth. Traditional methods choose the former: large word lists and superficial knowledge. We choose the latter: narrow and deep implicit meaning via extensive listening and reading. When we say we teach for mastery it’s because we give much more depth to the structures for them to actually become implicit. If we establish meaning and then ONLY stick to known words, then we are certainly building depth, but at the cost of breadth. Breadth without depth is fragile knowledge and definitely not sufficient for communication. Depth without breadth is longer-term knowledge and sufficient to communicate the basics, but far from helping someone interact in the real world. I think we need a balance. We could sneak in new, unfamiliar, less rep’d words every 1 in 20 words and let incidental acquisition do it’s thing, but why not also quickly translate, thereby ensuring the word is properly processed, bypassing those 20 or so reps it would take for the word to be acquired incidentally?

      Students need at least 2,000 word families (I think and average of 6-7 derivatives per word family) in their fluent listening vocabulary to enable them to understand 95% of speech and have a fighting chance of understanding the outside world. I wonder if TPRS can be improved upon by including more breadth (coverage). Here lies the fundamental value of SSR, especially if accompanied by the book-on-tape. The depth can be efficiently satisfied with extensive reading/listening, perhaps allowing the teacher to provide more breadth. An obvious methodological solution, one which I’m certain has been tested and I need to investigate, is for meaning to be established and then multiple contexts planned for each vocabulary item.

      I think the learning-acquisition (L/A) distinction is important and questions the old assumption that knowledge meant competency, but I wonder if it’s more complex than that. I have an easier time seeing grammar as following this L/A distinction, but not vocabulary. I think some “learning by doing” (conscious output) can help us store vocabulary in our long-term memory and will be accessible (acquired). I also feel like I need to consciously point out (focus attention and translate) some of the function words and meanings 0f words that contribute marginal meaning to comprehension. An example is the question: “Qué es?” and “Qué son?” My kids can all answer, but when it comes time to output “it is” and “they are” they’ll be stumped. And these are high-frequency words that they need to know to communicate. If I only teach things in context and via incidental means (not intentional), then some of the essential language for communication gets glazed over since it doesn’t really affect comprehension and then the student won’t have acquired that language so their output will have holes. Now I’m rambling . . .

      While my own experiences support the L-A hypothesis and I love Krashen’s work, we should be wary to alienate our colleagues. I don’t think there is enough SLA researcher consensus for us to honestly tell our colleagues that it is “right.” Though, it should be explained to get teachers to reflect and question what they may have assumed to be truth. I don’t think researchers use the words “learn” and “acquire” the same way Krashen does. Maybe someday that’ll change.

      1. Here lies the fundamental value of SSR, especially if accompanied by the book-on-tape. The depth can be efficiently satisfied with extensive reading/listening, perhaps allowing the teacher to provide more breadth.

        Among many, here is one idea of yours, Eric, that got the wheels spinning in my head. With the technology we have, I could probably record my voice reading the novels and have students read and listen at the same time. I had done away with FVR earlier this year, but listening and reading I can see putting into place next year (of course, I’d have to figure out the technology).

        1. Check out moretprs. They just had this question of a teacher reading the book and taping themselves for the students to use. Several people gave some advice about copyright.

        2. Yeah, I saw that copyright discussion. If you want to be on the safe side, then only record your class stories and other such materials that aren’t copyrighted (embedded readings from laurie clarcqs website, Bryan Kandel class stories, Michael Miller embedded readings, etc.).

          Check out what Mike Peto is trying to do:

          I’m piloting an extensive reading and listening program for EFL this summer in Honduras and right now I’m in the process of purchasing mp3 players and books. It’s exciting and I would like to do something similar for my students next year! I think such programs maximize student contact (CI) with the language 🙂

          1. Sabrina Sebban_Janczak


            I just checked it. It is a fabulous idea, one that Krashen has been advocating for a while now!

            Who is this teacher? Do you know him? Where does he teach?

          2. Good stuff! His idea for novel sharing is *kind of* like what we were trying to do here with readings from story scripts. (See “Readings Based on Matava/Tripp Scripts” in the categories link here, we never really got it going, but perhaps his will…)

        3. Rebecca Lynch

          Last year during FVR I would work with one or two students talking about how to decode words and pull meaning from a tex.. We would read together, as a kindergarden teacher would with her students. We did FVR twice a week (this is 7th & 8th grade that met every day) so in a a couple months I was able to hit all of my students. I also modeled free reading using a document camera. I know it’s supposed to be FREE reading, but pulling meaning from a text is not innate to all students. It was very effective in engaging them…

          In terms of balancing all that Eric said, I think I’m in the middle.. Sometimes I front load with lists, sometimes give pop-ups, always translate (when necessary) but I also have started timing to see how long the class, and myself, can stay in that target language.. A kitchen timer works just fine.. Fun!

          1. Hi Rebecca,

            It sounds like you’ve found excellent ways to engage all your students in reading. Can I ask how you modeled free reading? Showed what you were reading on the document camera and…?

          2. Rebecca Lynch

            I read aloud and showed my thought process.. when I did’t know a word (suffixes, prefixes, word roots, textual clues, how I used inference or generalized, shared connections I made in my mind to the text or questions I had.. Stickies are a great tool for interacting with a text and to see what students are thinking.. lower student “make a list of cognates as you read” etc..
            Also, if reading a novel, what is the movie picture look like in their/my head while reading..

            I forgot to mention that after meeting with every student I might restart at the beginning of the class list to meet with students, or at least those I feel are having trouble extracting meaning.

            By the way.. the whole translating into English after you read, seems important, but sometimes it seems like it interferes with fluidity, and subtle comprehension. We don’t read that way.. Does that mean a text is too hard.. ?? Or is it just training…? When I read in Spanish I certainly don’t translate into English and would find it extremely arduous if I had to… thoughts…?

          3. Rebecca, this very point is one of the topics on the “Ted Talk” post/thread … the guys giving the talk calls it “direct-connect”. I think it was Carla who pointed this out and suggested this is what he meant by this.

          4. This is interesting. I know sometimes when I read a book and try to translate to English, I can’t remember the English word but I understand what it means. I always am giddy when that happens with my students because it’s in there at a deep level. I see this a lot with native speakers as well.

            So this takes me back to R and D. I am having trouble with how to go about it. Do I have the students translate or just read and when there is a word that they don’t know then they ask. When doing translation with upper levels they get bored but without translation some would not understand. I think that I am choosing books that are too difficult.

            Has anyone tried reading 2 novels in one class by seperating the students in 2 different level books? Then you could do the discuss part and ping pong back and forth. This way seems full of problems to me. I have not tried it before but have heard that other teachers do this. If this is a bad idea then do you go with the lower level book for the whole class. My gut tells me to go with the lower level and for the more advanced students differentiate questions and let the concepts go deep for those students without losing the rest.

          5. You go with the lower level book for the whole class. You chorally translate a line or two or a full paragraph so that it starts to look like a movie in their minds (Gross). Then you look at what you just translated and discuss it using slow circling. When you discuss you keep in your mind certain key words, words that they may not be sure about, and you target them as you then ask spinoff questions about their own lives, comparing them to characters in the book. Your students are always better and smarter and funnier. Then you return to the book and translate some more chorally and repeat the read and discuss process. There are articles on R and D in that category to the right of this page. You probably are choosing books that are too difficult. In my opinion it is crucial that they can read with ease.

          6. “You go with the lower level book for the whole class.”

            Thanks for this affirmation, Ben.

            Someone question my use of Pobre Ana in the 3rd year. But these kids came out of traditional classes where they talked about L2 in L1. A senior recently in the class told me that for the first month this year it was like being in a state of shock. They had never heard so much Spanish (even with going slow and writing Sp/Eng on the board).

            We have to start where they are and with two-three years of textbooks they are pretty close to the beginning of year one for output. They are not total beginners since they have a vocabulary base. But there is so much difference in individual vocabulary base even that is not predictable.

            To top it off, there are so many words basic to communication that are not learned from textbooks. One grammar teacher pointed out that to do TPRS you have to do the vocabulary from the back of the book. (And that is true: the book has it backwards.)

            The textbooks put kids on a plane and try to zoom them nowhere fast. They just fly right over language. The language kids are on a train, going slower but looking out the window and interacting with the language. When I get the airplane kids I can’t just toss them on the train. We have to get back to the train station, get on the train, and start over.

          7. So, Ben, it seems that you are saying that you often start a R&D of a novel by chorally translating. This is interesting because even though you mention that the choral translating allows for students to create a movie in their mind (Gross articulated that, huh?), doesn’t it distract from the ability of the class to tap into and let flow their unconscious learning?

          8. Melissa, I’ve had to recently be sure not to R&D for more than 10-15 min, just like any other CI burst. I’m struggling to let go of my interest in reading to the end of the chapter with the class. I really burnt my class out yesterday by extending the R&D past what they could handle. Consequently, I burnt myself out.

          9. …doesn’t it distract from the ability of the class to tap into and let flow their unconscious learning?….

            I’m not sure what you mean by this question, Sean. Please clarify. Choral reading is a big time part of R and D for me and the flow and practice of reading with the group leads to gains, as I see it. It allows slower readers, especially, to be brought along by other voices.

          10. Sean,

            There shouldn’t be a disruption of the flow the students know 75% or better of the vocabulary (Blaine, Fluency, 114-15). They do get tripped up on vocabulary because they know enough that a new word can be easily processed. They do not get tripped up on pronunciation of L2 because we are pronouncing it for them. They do not get tripped on output because they are able to easily (unconsciously?) do output in L1. So the only focus is on meaning. They get constant feedback in the process. It is such an amazing process.

            One day, while doing R/D with a class of juniors in Spanish III (we had been doing R/D for about a month), a girl shouted “I get it.” Since it seemed like the least relevant thing to say at that point, I asked, You get what?” “I get the difference between the preterit and imperfect.” And she explained herself well. What had been troublesome for her in the explicit grammar approach became clear during a moment of R/D. We were not talking pret/imp, we were just keeping our English consistent with our Spanish (did = ó/ió, was doing = aba/ía).

          11. Rebecca, your thoughts on translating after your read takes me to Stephen Krashen’s most recent article:


            In this article Krashen describes a number of case studies of various people attempting to learn a foreign language, some learning by memorizing, others by forcing output, and others by just soaking up the input… (interesting story of a Mexican migrant working in the kitchen of an Israeli restaurant. He picked up Hebrew in a couple of years and now speaks fluently, all from listening to his coworkers in the kitchen.)

            One case study is of this multilinguist, a Hungarian who has a working fluency in something like a dozen languages. She reads easier works of literature in the TL to improve her fluency. She also recommends that people don’t fuss about looking up words in a dictionary when they are reading in the TL. Dictionaries distract from the flow, and if it’s an important expression then it will appear again or be explained using different words.

            I’m gonna take the plunge and say that translating causes a disruption in the fluency flow, just like looking up words in a dictionary would. I think that if we can read to understand without translating, exercising an internal discipline not to translate but instead, if needed, create mental representations (thanks Eric, Ben, & Susan Gross) of the expressions, then we keep that fluency train puffing along.

          12. I’ve never liked translation and don’t do more than 1-3 paragraphs in an entire class as in R&D. Too much English. Too easy to just listen to the English and create mental images using the L1 and not the L2 language. When I stop to circle and parallel, etc. I think that can suck up the pleasure of reading.

            My Novel Reading days are more like teacher read-alouds. My kids stomp when they don’t know a word or else I stomp and the kids shout out what it means or I quickly utter the translation. But I want the language to flow and I don’t want them going from L2 to L1 when they read. I want them to read fluently the L2 and to be able to get meaning without going to L1. That requires I choose books way below level. Even the easiest TPRS Readers will likely have plenty of unacquired words (not be 98% comprehensible for the entire class).

          13. I agree with you, Eric, about just doing read-alouds, or storytime, with the novels. I do some intense reading activities when we read the class stories (ROA) and like to relax on the novel more. If kids are awake and following along, instead of falling-out, during the storytime, then I say, don’t stop reading! In fact, I think I’ll spend the second to last class of the semester doing as much read-aloud from our novel as possible until students start to fall-out.

          14. Robert Harrell

            I also do a lot of read-aloud with novels. When I do it, I make certain that I use plenty of vocal (and visual) interpretation: read with emotion, some gesturing, etc. I also re-read, pause, and clarify if necessary. Many students tell me that it makes the text much more comprehensible and interesting to them. I think this is akin to Ben’s “sacred reading” of a text.

          15. This is all very encouraging to read – a bunch of teachers I really respect just described something very similar to my first year using readers in class. My youngest classes had very short, easy readers (one or two days in class required to read slowly with translation when confusing, and occasional discussion about a few paragraphs). I tried even to use different voices for different characters. Those earliest level books had illustrations on every page, so I had the kids up close and pointed at the words while I read (I read upside down) and then to the pictures after a sentence or so, affirming meaning that way.

            With my older class that had a 13-short-chapter book, we did up through ch. 5 (which was a great stopping point). When we read aloud they followed in a copy of the book. I was concerned that they might feel an urge to struggle through reading it aloud themselves, so I explained that I wanted them just to focus on the meaning, not to have to do the work of anything but watching the text, hearing it, and understanding it. That class of kids was great, and I could almost see the improvement in comprehension in my 2 barometer kids in that class. I’d asked the class to stop me whenever they needed clarification and often I could anticipate where that would be.

          16. I think these ideas are exactly what I needed. I do this a lot with individual readings. I read with inflection and the majority understand the overall meaning. Now I can do this with novels and see how it works. I love reading so much that I want this to be enjoyable for my students. Also I have been reading Mike Peto’s site and he has a lot of upper level readings.
            He has created some readings from news stories that are interesting. This summer I have to create a map for my 3rd year class so that I feel more comfortable with where we are going. Thank y’all for the advice.

            How do y’all assess with novels? My students this last year told me that they just wanted to keep reading and not stop to do activities. Some needed the activities to totally comprehend the reading, probably because it was too hard. The only activity that they liked was some basic questions and drawing important scenes. I think that I can drop the activities if I discuss, as in R and D, after several important sections per chapter. We were reading La Casa Embrujada. Have any of y’all read this book. It is a series of mystery books with a detective called Pepino.

    2. “How many words do you know in Chinese?”

      Dude that is just so perfectly descriptive of the quantity based mindset of today in just about everything. It’s that passage from Le Petit Prince I quoted here a few weeks ago where the narrator talks about how people only think they know someone when they know how much money they make, without asking what their voice sounds like.

      “How many words do you know in Chinese?” indeed.

      I would rather know about 50 words, but really know them, and be able to sit happily in class and hear just those words over and over in context (they are my friends when I know them and I like my teacher when I know them and I like my class when I know them). I would love it if my teacher used just those words, with a few extra to make me want to learn more, and repeat them over and over in ways that I could understand easily. That would show me that my teacher respects me and how hard it is for me to learn. Then in each subsequent class if I learn one or two more, then I can feel motivated and my confidence builds as opposed to when I memorize like 1000 words in Chinese. How else would I enjoy learning the language? How else would I actually want to go on to the next level?

      “How many words do you know in Chinese?” – I’ll tell you.

      The fewer the better! And no characters please! I’ve got my ears full with the sound aspect of that language.

      But you wouldn’t get that, would you, Mr. Jones. You think it’s all about how much your students know (read memorize). Bless your 20th century heart!

      1. Like a person can even quantify number of words known in a language. Are we really that aware? And known in what way? To hand-write from memory? To read and understand? To hear and understand?

        Yep, it was not easy to answer because his starting point was so different. But that man was Chinese, had probably never met an American who knew Chinese, much less a group of 8th graders who were in my class in school.

        1. I love the video you posted for us to watch, where you explain so well how to gently lower the affective filter with beginner students in Chinese class.

          It takes a teacher of your caliber to make Chinese seem easy, and make the students feel successful.

          I even wonder if Chinese could be taught successfully any other way?

          1. Bingo! That’s it! Chinese is only going to be successfully taught either to native speakers (because they have the time and reps) or through TCI to students who will listen and respond. This is why I think what seems like a regular stream of Chinese teachers are looking into TPRS. Sadly, it sounds like not too many signed up for the Chinese track this summer, but so many Chinese teachers use the summer to travel to their home towns overseas.

          2. 75% of the graduate students in Bob Patrick’s graduate course on TPRS at the University of Georgia last fall were from China. But Diane the shift for them must be extreme.

  9. Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking a ton about the unconscious element lately.

    Whenever I make the mistake of focusing too much on the conscious part, which I still catch myself doing if I’m being really honest, I get really nit-picky with the students. I even have found myself getting a little angry in my head.

    But when I let go of it and go into that unconscious place… That’s when the gains happen. That’s when the relationship and trust building happens.

    1. …I get really nit-picky with the students. I even have found myself getting a little angry in my head…but when I let go of it and go into that unconscious place… that’s when the gains happen. That’s when the relationship and trust building happens….

      Hello! This is so beautifully said. It expresses everything, really. Don’t feel bad, Andrew. My sorry-ass AP teacher self used to get pissed at my students just about every class period for 24 years before hearing about this work. How dare they not be able to remember that those three verbs in the negative and in the interrogative take the subjunctive!

      Really, I’m better now. Thank you.

    2. Sorry about the above article not being edited properly. We had graduation today. They gave me a plaque. Anyway, the article is now edited and updated. Might make a little more sense. Maybe I should erase every single article on this site but keep all those expressing this one idea. It’s the big one, the one that causes TPRS/CI from being properly understood. If you resonate with this, go read the many articles on this topic under the “Unconscious” category on the right hand side of this page.

  10. The single most useful item I picked up from my education courses (years ago) was a list of 16 useful expressions in Spanish to teach and use with the students. The key is taking the time to properly introduce them and then to consistently use them and insist that the students use them. (This is tough for the textbook teachers, because it is not germane to any textbook. It is a bone to mollify language teachers–this is an allusion to Robert’s that language is a better tool than a textbook for teaching a language. It is also tough because there is so much important stuff to cover that there isn’t time to insist on using the expressions.)

    There is nothing new or ground-shaking about this. But I know that compared to my colleagues I been able to more consistently stay in the target language. It fills in a lot of gaps between TPRS/CI activities.

    They can only go so far, but they cut out a lot of useless English. (Useless because it is used to communicate rather than clarify).

    Our department goal is hold ourselves and our students responsible for a list of classroom expressions which increases at each level. They are to be assessed with pop-quizzes throughout the year. Pop-quizzes. Target language. A long way to go but big steps forward in some classes.

      1. Not exactly. I been modifying it. But I believe it included the following:

        1. ¿Cómo se escribe ___? – How do you spell ___?
        2. se escribe __. — ___ is spelled __.
        3. ¿Cómo se dice ___en español?– How do you say ___ in Spanish?
        4. Se dice ___. — you say ____.
        5. ¿Qué quiere decir? — What does it mean?
        6. quiere decir monkey. — It means ___.
        7. Tengo una pregunta. —I have a question.
        8. ¿Puedo hablar en inglés, por favor? — May I speak in English, please?
        9. no lo sé – I don’t know
        10. no comprendo – I don’t understand
        11. no entiendo – I don’t understand
        12. más despacio – more slowly
        13. más lento – more slowly
        14. Repita, por favor – repeat, please (this is for the student to use with teacher)

        It may also have included stand up/sit down or take out/put away.

        But the expressions listed above are all about negotiation of meaning.

        Even the spelling is about clarification. For traditional teachers I find that the alphabet is a topic, to be rote-learned or song-learned or chant-learned (which are fine in their place) and then forgotten about as they move onto the next topic. But it is no way connected to a communicative task called spelling. For me, the purpose of the alphabet is to stay in the target language. Spelling in the language is just what I do and what I expect kids to do. English letter names are not allowed. Will I let go of it as I improve my input skills? I don’t know. I remember Susie talking about spelling words out as she wrote them on the board. Her kids learned the names of the letters that way. I find that kids will start to spell along with you. It does not take much prompting. It is an easy group task. It is a brain break. It is impressive to outsiders. It’s a way to focus on word and process it. It is a small thing that weaves in and out of most classes in some way.

  11. Leigh Anne Munoz

    This is a great thread and I’ve only just skimmed it. I hope to read it carefully soon.

    FYI — I am putting together a notebook full of university-level research on implicit learning and second-language learning, which TPRS foments.

    I hope to show it to my boss.

    This notebook project started because someone on this blog posted something very interesting. Whoever posted the link to the article on the ‘Journal of Cognitive Science’ article on the native-speaker-like brainwave patterns of people exposed to implicit techniques, ‘Thank you!”

    1. It should be fairly obvious to EVERYONE that the process of first language acquisition is unconscious. Babies do not study, sequence, and practice.

      I’m thinking that the whole ability of someone to accept that second language acquisition is unconscious depends on their degree of acceptance that the SLA process is the same as the first, i.e. that the mechanisms for first language acquisition are still available to us as we get older. This is widely disputed and known as the Critical Period Hypothesis. While older acquirers have less of a chance at native-like competence, there doesn’t appear to be a definite window of opportunity after which acquisition wouldn’t be possible.

      1. Eric, this is super important to consider for when we teach students with limited literacy skills. This Critical Period that you refer to, I take it, points to the ability of a young kid’s brain to soak in and acquire language. It’s this need to talk to your baby and young child as much as you can. If a parent or guardian doesn’t talk to their young child then that child will forever lose out on some critically formative brain-development and, I’ll go ahead and postulate, faces glaring limitations on their levels of language acquisition.

        So, we teach these kids. I know that numerous kids in my classroom didn’t get talked to much by a parent, or if they did, the language used did not have a range of vocabulary, nor a complexity in syntax, nor a clarity in semantics.

        I’m left thinking that, perhaps, one of the best things we can do as FL teachers with these students with limited literacy skills is to help them create mental representations of new L2 vocabulary structures. That is certainly something I can say during a job interview!

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