A Conversation with Contee

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28 thoughts on “A Conversation with Contee”

  1. Here is a response from me.

    First, we need to define our terms. What does “focusing on form” mean? There are several possibilities:
    1. It is the most important element in the design of instruction; we would rather have correct form than meaningful content
    2. It involves studying form over an extended period of time (class period, multiple class periods) and setting content aside for that time but with the purpose of ultimately attending to meaning
    3. It means momentarily looking at form as it intersects with meaning
    There are probably more possibilities, but these shall suffice for my comments.

    Parents regularly “focus on form” in the third sense and never in the first sense. I doubt that most parents focus on form in the second sense much either. An example of this is when a child says, “Yesterday we goed to the store”, and the parent says, “went to the store”. Most parents will be even more subtle than that and say, “Yes, that’s right, yesterday we went to the store” with a slight stress on “went”. That is a momentary focus on form, but the parent is focusing on form while the child is still focusing on meaning.

    As I understand TPRS, this is what “pop-up grammar” does as well. We do not consciously avoid talking about form, but we do so as it relates to meaning rather than to a system. (BTW, if we “focus on form” in this limited way in the target language, we are still providing Comprehensible Input for our students. I wonder if Krashen’s comments about focusing on form relate to talking about the language in L1 rather than L2?)

    Ben is correct that CI is different in schools because of our “clientele” and our environment. Our students come with different needs, desires and abilities. Some are in our classes only because they “have to” be because of parental demands, graduation requirements or to meet college entrance standards. Some are in the class because their friends are in the class. Some want to speak with relatives. I am reminded of the comparison I did between schools and the Defense Language Institute. The number of “class hours” needed to achieve “General Professional Proficiency” are based on their experience with students who
    – are mature (average about 40)
    – are motivated
    – are known to be adept at learning languages
    – already speak at least one foreign language
    – are focused only on learning the language
    – learn in small classes of no more than six students
    – spend three to four hours per day in self-directed study
    This sounds like no high school that I know. Our students
    – are immature (average about 17)
    – are often unmotivated
    – may or may not be “adept” at learning languages
    – may or may not know another language
    – are distracted (by hormones, by friends, by other classes, by sports, etc.)
    – learn in large classes that may number over 40
    – spend little or no time in self-directed study

    BTW, the way most people use the numbers from DLI are incorrect. Those are “class hours”, not “contact hours”. The three to four hours per day of self-directed study add substantially to the contact time. Rather than 600 hours for French and Spanish, the real total is over 1,000 hours. Four years of high school language class still give less than half the contact time needed. As has already been mentioned, school is a completely different setting from the DLI and real life, so even the idea of being halfway there in four years of high school language class is unrealistic, not to say absurd.

    In my experience, “focusing on form” in the sense of #2 above may be useful and appropriate in years 3 and 4 of instruction at a high school. By that time students have sufficient background to be ready to understand the systemic nature of language. More importantly, they are starting to become inquisitive about form in the language. Last week I explained a grammar point in my level 4/AP class because a question arose. One of my students said, “That makes so much sense now.” Earlier, she would not have been able to understand what I was explaining. In addition, note that my explanation came in response to a question. Recently I read (sorry I don’t remember the source) that a study indicated people remember the answer to questions they themselves ask and quickly forget answers to the questions of others. Why? Because they are interested in the answer to their own questions. But those explanations should be in the target language. After all, when students begin to learn English grammar in a formal setting, they learn it in English not another language.

    I further agree with Ben that there can never be a prescriptive “right amount” of CI because it all depends on the needs of the individual and group, and those are constantly changing. Some days my classes can sustain focus on CI for an entire period. Other days they can’t last 10 minutes without a brain break. Last week I sensed in one of my classes a real need to work off energy, so we went out to the field and played soccer for half an hour. Not much in the way of language acquisition occurred during that time, but I doubt much would have occurred inside the classroom either. That was a judgment call, and an outsider may question my judgment – but no one else was there, so how could they know?

    Contrary to what Ben was thinking or feeling when he answered, I do believe that CI can work in schools. However, I don’t believe it works ideally because we lack the necessary time and are expected to conform to certain demands made by administrators and the system as a whole. If Krashen is correct, it is all about “time on task”, and the task is processing the target language rather than processing information about the target language.

    Just my random thoughts on the matter.

  2. …“focusing on form” in the sense of #2 above may be useful and appropriate in years 3 and 4 of instruction at a high school. By that time students have sufficient background to be ready to understand the systemic nature of language. More importantly, they are starting to become inquisitive about form in the language….

    That is my belief as well. Precious time is lost focusing on grammatical form too early. I asked Krashen if he thought it would be such a ridiculous thing to do nothing but speak to them for the first year, with no reading even, and he said it wouldn’t be that crazy. In my opinion, even reading, which is input and therefore desirable, is best loaded up on in second year. By loaded up on I mean 50% of the time or slightly more in that second year. I think the first year should be 70% auditory CI.

    I think what Contee meant by focusing on form, Robert, is about at about the 2.7 mark on your scale above. He hasn’t responded yet so I don’t yet know. We are going to try to find time to talk this through and I will have your comments in front of me and will credit you when I quote you.

    I find the whole thing interesting but I sure hope Contee doesn’t influence Krashen to change anything in the book to account for how the school piece is different, just bc Krashen didn’t take the school piece into account when he wrote it. That book is a jewel as is and can be elegantly applied to our work in schools as is.

    What the more advanced student said to you here:

    …that makes so much sense now….

    is what we want, and by delaying any real focus on form for a few years we will get lots of questions like that and we can take the shackles off of our own grammar alter egos then as well.

    Thank you for your thoughtful response Robert and have a great week.

  3. I agree a lot with what both Ben and Robert have written, though I too believe that CI CAN work in schools (I have to believe that, as a new teacher). I think we have to have realistic expectations for the amount of hours or CI exposure that our students will get and how well they will be on task. I remember reading around this blog in some other place about how a goal of a CI-based language program should be to: (1) teach students HOW they truly acquire language so as to make them discerning/’smart’ language learners and (2) give them all the CI that we can in order to get them started down the road of acquisition. So, though it is important to maximize time on ask (i.e. amount of exposure to comprehensible input), it is much more important to stick to CI in the language classroom (unless we want to get rid of foreign language education in schools, which I don’t think we do, haha).

    Where our efforts should then fall is advocating for MUCH earlier language education, figuring out how to get students on task as often as possible (which we have done a lot of that work already!), and maybe try to figure out how to extend our students exposure to comprehensible input outside of the classroom. (This last point is just something I’ve been kicking around lately — is it possible to extend the input from class to outside of class, i.e. through videos / audio / etc? How would we go about doing it? This is just thinking about how we go about beefing up those hours, if at all possible.)

    Just my additional two cents :). Great stuff to think about!

    1. 1. …I remember reading around this blog in some other place about how a goal of a CI-based language program should be to: (1) teach students HOW they truly acquire language so as to make them discerning/’smart’ language learners and (2) give them all the CI that we can in order to get them started down the road of acquisition…..

      That was Robert. I keep a file in my computer called “Sayings of Chairman Robert”. He said that.

      2. extending input outside of class will happen with about 1 of every 500 of your students. There is simply too much going on in their lives, and, more importantly, that is not what they have been taught learning is, doing things bc you want to. They think of school as doing work for that class and that is it. No faults here, it’s the way the system is set up.

      3. And Nathan I didn’t want to imply across the board that TCI can’t work in schools. It can and does and is by far more effective than any other options. My point was that most teachers don’t know that, or don’t want to know, so it will fail in schools on that point. Look what some of our members here are going through in their buildings everyday. Daily root canals.

      1. Eric Spindler

        Extending Input is something I have been really trying to focus on. I have a weekly assignment that students are to read or listen to 30 minutes of German a week. I am not requiring any accountability on this, because a few years ago I required students to log listening, reading and other activities and the vast majority hated it and tuned it out. I am aware that many probably never do it and some have forgotten, but I am hopeful that some are doing this now that it is optional and will try to check with them today. I know that some students have definitely mentioned outside music groups and I had 4% mind you, who watched a movie or two in German with English subtitles.

        Anecdotally it helped me because I probably got an additional contact hour a week, just from interacting with and pestering my German teacher before school with a few buddies.

        So to increase contact, I really focus on staying in German outside of class time with students if possible, bringing in German Exchange students through GAPP, and trying to expose them to different German music groups and programs, so that they might choose to listen to or watch some.

        1. Yes. There are those who bitch and kvetch and don’t to it, but for those who do, as in:

          ….some students have definitely mentioned outside music groups….

          This is huge and something we shouldn’t forget. Some do it and their language gains skyrocket.

          Super important point and thanks Eric.

  4. Ben wrote, My point was that most teachers don’t know that, or don’t want to know, so it will fail in schools on that point.

    Okay, I also misunderstood what you were saying. Yes, the high resistance and animosity within some faculties will stop or cripple TCI. I fear generations of teachers will pass before the change is complete.

  5. It’s not for us to know. But the fact that humans acquire languages in a way that is 100% opposite to the way it is taught (acquisition is an unconscious process; learning is a conscious one – schools only do the latter except for us), then you can see what I was trying to say. Not trying to be negative about it, I just think that when 99% or more of the WL teachers in the entire world and billion dollar book/computer program sales forces do it one way, and the turf for that doing is schools, then, like Robert says, it will be a multi-generational change. They think that humans can study a language to learn it when all they have to do is hear it and want to know what those sounds mean. They don’t get that it’s an unconscious process. They don’t get that the world is indeed round. No blame, no foul. It’s just the way it is. I personally need to accept that and not get so worked up about it. It’s not in my hands. I’m just lucky that the final 3rd of my career was happy. I accept that gracious gift with gratitude. I couldn’t have taught the old way for one more minute up to the point that Dale Crum told me about a Susie Gross workshop in 2001.

  6. I want to encourage everyone in these dog days of April: Don’t worry too much about whether your students will eventually become fluent in the language, the “why are you teaching this subject” question. Just let it roll off your back and do the best you can.

    If you need convincing, look at any 9th grader’s homework assignments from math or science to remind yourself that even you, a 4%er teacher, have forgotten pretty much everything from high school. Honestly. And it doesn’t matter that I’ve forgotten it. I can still be a decent father and citizen.

    I teach Latin, for crying out loud. There must be some reason I’m here besides fluency.

    1. Comment for Contee:

      I have experienced the TPRS difference for myself. Not ever having been a 4%er, I have taught myself Spanish and French with TPRS, on the job. It was so easy for me to pass the tests for getting the credentials. After passing these many teacher credential tests, I knew almost nothing, but was considered equal to a native speaker, in the eyes of the state! That is crazy! Only recently, through the constant repetition of these targeted structures have I learned to speak correctly. In addition, all the structures in French and Spanish that I have not targeted are still a big struggle for me, while the targeted structures present no problems whatsoever.

      My students who have had unstructured CI have complained to me about their extraordinarily slow progress; and, often, handfulls of them do not learn anything. I can tell you that I was busting my hump trying to make something happen, *without* targeted structures and storytelling, for the past 6 years!

      In contrast, this year, my students with targeted, storied, 70 reps minimum-type input do not complain at all. They don’t have perfect recall. But..they remember things that we did in class when they read them in context. They sense their progress. *All* of them are learning something. Currently, I am expending 75% less energy in class to make more learning happen.

      My conclusions — the targeted vocab is necessary for a class of 40 reluctant suburban teens. The targeted vocab was necessary for me to learn the languages that I teach. Bottom line — targeted vocabulary in a World Language class = good.

      Now, ESL is a different animal IMO. And Dr. Krashen focuses on ESL, non?

      Bless his soul — why doesn’t Dr. Krashen try teaching a class or two in a world language with nontargeted vocab and structures and see how it goes?

    2. James, I remember reading this comment last spring and I am so glad I stumbled upon this thread today as I ramp up for September. Sometimes when I begin to take what I do too seriously, I need to remind myself that I am teaching French. It’s French, okay? I am not looking for the cure for cancer, right?

  7. I agree that teaching kids in school is a whole different animal than what Krashen is saying. I believe Krashen. I know and feel that what he says is correct, but what Ben said is correct we just don’t have enough time to really see great results. Don’t get me wrong we see great results from our kids much better than the grammar way or the way all ” the others” do it but it is still limited. It really is all about how the kids feel. I usually train myself by watching Linda Li teach Mandarin a fluency fast Cd I bought. It brings it home. I can go through about an hour or so and then I need a break and that is understanding almost all of what she says. If it was not comrehensible and there were no repetitions it would be torture. But then again if everything was just made comprehensible by the teacher repeating what he said in English that might work but there would be too many interuptions. There is no easy answer. But the main factor is not enough time. Even outside input doesn’t work like Ben said. It doesn’t work because the kids really don’t need to “survive” like an English speaker needs to. When I learned Spanish in Argentina, I “had” to. I was there for 2 years. I “had” to learn it. We don’t have that here. Kids don’t ” have to” learn it for survival. But TPRS is simply the best thing out there, bar none. We need to find ways to make it better and this forum is helping that. Thanks Ben,

  8. …it really is all about how the kids feel….

    Love that one. Major truth in that statement. It goes down many levels.

    …it doesn’t work because the kids really don’t need to “survive” like an English speaker needs to….

    This has never come up in our group as a topic. I take this statement literally. I believe that the reason language acquisition takes place entirely in the unconscious mind, whether most teachers like it or not, is because it is connected to other primal survival needs of food and shelter. I’m in an area I know nothing about here, but I have always felt that language is a survival thing. If we heard as cave men something that meant for us to run, some sound, and we ran, we probably had a better chance at surviving that incident, unless it was some nasty ass saber tooth tiger whom we couldn’t outrun no matter how many fast twitch muscles we had in our legs. The person with no understanding may not have survived. It’s that deep to me. It’s all unconscious. If I had to take this community down but could leave one page with one statement up, it would be this:

    …learning a language is an unconscious process, so don’t teach it like it can be consciously learned. Don’t focus on the words, just get the kids focused on the message via reading and listening. Writing and speaking will follow naturally over time, more time than you think so don’t get all bent out of shape if your students can’t write or speak after 500 hours of reading it and hearing it. Study Krashen. Incorporate Krashen into your teaching. Done….

  9. Other theories (connected to yours) that I’ll explore if I live long enough:

    Languages and emotions are connected in the brain’s wiring. (so positive feelings in the classroom speed up/deepen acquisition AND why so many people have strong memories of language teachers compared to other teachers)

    Brains are “wired” to respond more quickly and more deeply to familiar voices. (so I have my students listen to a number of songs by the same artist)

    with love,

  10. Love the music connection here, Laurie! It’s interesting that you mention this. Yesterday after school I had my first county-wide language teacher meeting since I started TCI. The agenda pushed at these meetings doesn’t sound the same to me anymore! One teacher was talking about having her students do dictées. Our world language supervisor who was facilitating the meeting asked this teacher if she used recordings of different voices for the dictées and the teacher said yes. The WL supervisor said “Good, because it’s absolutely essential that students have practice in hearing different people with different accents in the TL” and several teachers in the room gave vigorous nods of agreement.

    Before starting TCI I sort of used to agree with this. I thought it was important that students understand more accents, vocal timbres, genders, speeds, etc. than just my own. I agree that eventually one has to be able to understand different voices/accents to be able to function well in the language (a survival issue, at least socially), but I’m starting to think that it’s not important at first. Wouldn’t the ability to understand various accents come naturally after a lot of acquisition? Maybe it should be added in at some point in upper levels once kids have acquired a large body of language. Or maybe just thrown in here and there for the sake of novelty at any level (?). But I don’t understand my WL supervisor’s stance that this is absolutely ESSENTIAL. And I definitely don’t understand how it would speed up acquisition.

    I just don’t believe that merely hearing the language through different voices/accents is going to somehow magically help acquisition. In fact at the lower levels I think hearing a different voice/accent would just complicate comprehension and therefore acquisition. Isn’t “difficult” exactly what we’re trying to avoid? Just like you see benefits in playing multiple songs by one artist, Laurie, I would think that the most important thing is for my students to understand the language coming out of my mouth for a long time and understand all of it. I assume if a student solidly acquires a large body of language, they’ll be able to understand that language fairly easily regardless of the accent, timbre, gender, etc. of the speaker. Does anyone know if any research has been done on this? That would be an interesting thing to anonymously post to my district’s WL wiki.

    Back to the music connection: if you know the tune of a song, you’ll recognize it whether it’s played on a piano, steel drum, or hurdy gurdy -even if the instrument isn’t tuned well. And you can even recognize a tune by hearing just the rhythm clapped out without the tune if the rhythm is distinct enough (a fun game to play, incidentally). But if you’re trying to LEARN a complex new tune with lots of jumps and runs, for example, you would not learn it quicker by hearing it played on several instruments with very different timbres. The fastest and easiest way to learn it would be to hear it played clearly on one instrument (in my opinion). Then, AFTER you learn it like that, you should be able to recognize the tune no matter what it’s played on. That is, after you have ACQUIRED the tune the easiest way possible.

    1. Interesting comments, Greg, that make a lot of sense. I don’t have any research to offer, just anecdotal evidence from my own experience.

      I began learning Spanish in third grade. The same teacher, Mr. Casías, taught me in grades three through six. We heard other voices, of course, but the primary voice was that of Mr. Casías. In junior high school I had two different teachers over three years, and in high school one more teacher. Many years later I took a 300 course at CSU Long Beach. In that class I heard a strong Argentine accent for the first time. I still remember thinking on the first night, “I will never understand this lady. Should I even be in this class?” However, my ear adjusted, and by the end of the class I was understanding her; by the second class, there was no problem whatsoever with comprehension.

      That doesn’t mean there will never be issues of misunderstanding, but our ear quickly attunes itself to these differences in sound when meaning is clear. Slightly OT but still somewhat relevant: When I was working on my MA in Spain, one of the very “gringo” students always introduced himself as “José” when the rest of us were using our normal first names. Finally some of us asked him why. He told us that he had lived in Buenos Aires for a while. Every time someone asked him his name, he said, “Joe”. The absolutely consistent reply was “Sí, tú.” (For non-Spanish speakers, the Argentine accent pronounces the “y” and “ll” sound similar to English “j”. When this guy said his name, all of the Argentinians thought he was asking “¿yo?” = “who, me?” and replied, “yes, you.”) So he started using “José” in Spanish-speaking contexts.

  11. That last remark about Joe/yo reminds me of a funny word association story for Spanish teachers in the South. People in other areas might be able to use it, but then it might sound kind of prejudiced, making fun of the south. Ignacio takes his friend Ken to Mexico. Ignacio’s uncle and Ken meet while Ignacio is not around. Ignacio’s uncle says “¿Cómo te llamas?” Ken answers “Ken,” pronounced ‘Keeyen. Ignacio’s uncle answers “Tú. ¿Cómo te llamas?” They go back and forth for a while until Ignacio’s uncle realizes that his name is Ken, and he’s not really answering “Who” in Spanish. When my students forget the word quien, I just pronounce it like a southern Ken.

  12. Re: the 10,000 rule, I just watched a Ted talk about learning new things. The guy said that we have got the 10,o00 hour rule all wrong. It originally applied to the time it takes to become a top professional in a highly competitive field such as professional sports or music. He said we can encourage ourselves to learn new things with the knowledge that it only takes about 20 hours to become pretty good at something. There’s a learning curve with rapid gains in the beginning and in tinier gains as you progress. That 20 hours is critical, because in the beginning you are really bad at the skill and you know it. And since no one likes the typical feelings that go with that, such as feeling stupid or feeling frustrated, it’s easy to give up, or never to get started. He looks at the task of learning ukelele and rather than getting overwhelmed with endless confusing chord charts, he looked at actual songs and found that they mostly used the same patterns. So with 4 chords, he could be pretty good. (I just summarized all but the last 5 min… and those are still worth watching for the demo.)

    I think it is similar with language learning. You can get pretty good with high frequency vocabulary pretty quickly compared to the length of time it takes to get to advanced-superior level in all contexts. I read in a TPR book that students typically start being comfortable making up their own commands after about 12 hours. I learned last week at NTPRS that in movie talk, Ashley Hastings focuses just on listening at the beginning and expects to get students to intermediate high listening within a few months, (the best I can tell by reading his site, 2 months in his program is equivalent to just under one school year). So the 20 hour rule seems reasonable to me. I am going to teach it to my students, and tell them that they can get pretty good at learning a language in 20 hours. Basic components: listening (with comprehension), responding to commands, responding verbally with short answers, asking for help when you don’t understand, using pictures, gestures, que quiere decir, recognizing familiar words when written down. If they know that feeling stupid or being embarrassed is normal at the beginning of learning anything new, and that they will start to get pretty comfortable within 20 hours if they stick with it, it may help some of them who are not as natural at learning new things. Maybe they will feel freer to use the “I don’t understand” signal. Here’s the link to the TED talk: the first 20 hours http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MgBikgcWnY. “If you can dream it, you can achieve it!” (I wish I had gone to that talk at NTPRS!)

    And just for fun, this one goes out to all the unhappy people, (which include 80% of even highly successful people, says the speaker). Here’s a TED talk on how to know your life purpose in 5 min. This one clarified in an instant why I need to do some things differently this year: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVsXO9brK7M.

    1. Focus on those we serve! My personal life purpose? Hmmmm? I help students acquire French in an effort to enrich their lives and broaden their horizons through communicating with others in a different language. Subject to change but a good place to start. Thanks for the link, Carla!

  13. Great post, Carla! It was so nice spending time with you and Brian last week. Thanks for the Texas hospitality. Sounds like you are off to a good year.

    1. Sabrina Sebban-Janczak

      I agree with Carol, thank you for the great post Carla. I don’t know if I met you at the conference, my brain is in a state of shock right now, and I can’t process anything.

      But thank you Carla for the great summary. I really want to watch those ted talks now. I like the 20 hour idea, although we’ll have to see with teachers who can actually implement MT what the the results are.

      Great conversation!

  14. Just back from anniversary weekend! It was good to see you again too, Carol and to hang out with you. Sabrina, I don’t think we met.

    My statement last year, with standardization and “we want everyone teaching the same thing and giving the same tests” was something like… I teach eighth graders for my admin/fellow teachers, who expect me to teach grammar rules to kids. They (admin and coworkers) are not changed by it. But the ones I teach are changed: at best hindered at learning language, and at worst, left believing they are not good at language and feeling stupid. No wonder it was so hard. In an inspired moment at NTPRS, I sent a drastic and detailed email about the terrible state of foreign language curriculum in our school district to everyone above me and now, with a lot of changes in the department (and the friendly dept head gone) I’m afraid all eyes may be on me. The friendly dept head liked TPRS but just didn’t think it fit into our dept. I know I need a drastic change. Not sure what to do. We test every three weeks over long vocabulary lists and discrete grammar rules along with translation from English to Spanish.

    I want to be able to say this: I unlock new worlds to 8th graders by caring about them and teaching them foreign language.

  15. And that is the way to say it. We all will be in some kind of pressure cooker this year, some with the heat turned up higher under them than others. I got this below from a member of our community just today, heavily edited here. It made me realize what kind of opposition we will face. Battle gear ready, y’all, we’re goin’ in.

    “My new school is totally standards-based and I recently had a conversation with the principal in which she told me that I may not use the JGR or my version of it as part of the academic grade. They do have a behavior/work ethic rubric that the whole school uses, and I may use my rubric in conjunction with it.

    “But it does not count toward the grade for the class.

    “I have a decision to make: will I fight this battle? Will I expend energy on this? My grades must be based a little on formative assessments (quizzes, homework) and big time on summative assessments (projects, unit tests.) I have no choice in this.

    “Let them micromanage my grade book. I will figure out a way around it. I am obliged to provide similar assessments to the other seven teachers in my department. I keep waiting for this flavor of the month to yield to the next one, but it is pernicious, this one.

    “I miss the days of being able to do whatever I want, and piling on the CI. Those days are gone for good here.”

    Officers ready… draw sabers.

    1. I’m very curious to hear how the school year went for this teacher who, effectively, couldn’t use jGR because her admin told them not to, but had to use formative and summative assessments instead.

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