Bryce On The Use Of English

Since we talked last weekend I have been taking up your and Diana Noonan’s (DPS World Languages Coordinator) challenge/mandate of using less English in the classroom.  It seemed like an odd idea, after all, I LOVE speaking in Spanish with my students!  There is such a sweet smell that fills the class when we are operating completely in Spanish.  I am always reluctant to break the spell.  I thought I wasn’t using much English at all.  But I was using more than I had imagined.
For me, making the 90% to 99% jump is like going from Shawn White in Turin fours years ago to Shawn White in Vancouver this year.  It was a quantum jump in the degree of difficulty.
Over three days I had a bright student in each class count the number of English words I used during the period each day.  Here are the results:
Spanish I:  43, 24, 20 words
Spanish II:  66, 50, 64 words (What?!  Behavior problem)
Spanish II:  21, 17, 12 words
Spanish I:  12, 26, 13 words
AP Spanish classes:  Did not check
Are these results typical?  Has anyone else tried this?  I found it to be tougher than I had thought.
Using English to quickly make meaning clear makes sense to me.  That is the beauty of Blaine Ray’s approach – we want to be comprehensible at all times, so we say a word in English quickly or write it on the board to help kids get it, and we move on.  We occasionally check for meaning with English, but we do not want students to have to guess.  But I found myself inserting little words and commands in English involuntarily in every class.
I am cautious about reverting to the complete use of Spanish like I did in the old days–operating in lock step, straight-jacket Spanish at all times, making kids guess.  I do not want to have something like this redevelop.  Blaine has mentioned this snippet from the teen novel  Speak, by Laurie Anderson, in his workshops.  It is a good example of the problem with playing the game of using ONLY Spanish and trying to get students to guess the meanings of words, like I used to do.
In one memorable passage of the book, the author describes a high school Spanish class.  I love how the narrator says that it was “easier to ignore” the teacher because she never translated into English:
“My Spanish teacher is going to try to get through the entire year without speaking English to us.  This is both amusing and useful–makes it easier to ignore her.  She communicates through exaggerated gestures and play acting.  It’s like taking a class in charades.  She says a sentence in Spanish and puts the back of her hand to her forehead. “You have a fever!” someone from the class calls out. “You feel faint!”  No. She goes out to the hall, then bursts through the door, looking busy and distracted. She turns to us, acts surprised to see us, and then does the bit with the back of the hand on the forehead. “You’re lost!”  “You’re angry!” “You’re in the wrong school!”  “You’re in the wrong country!” “You’re on the wrong planet!”
“She tries one more time and smacks herself so hard on the forehead she staggers a bit.  Her forehead is as pink as her lipstick.  The guesses continue.  “You can’t believe how many kids are in this class!”  “You forgot how to speak Spanish!”  “You have a migraine!”  “You’re going to have a migraine if we don’t figure it out!”
“In desperation, she writes a sentence in Spanish on the board: Me sorprende que estoy tan cansada hoy.  No one knows what it says. We don’t understand Spanish–that’s why we’re here. Finally, some brain gets out the Spanish-English dictionary. We spend the rest of the period trying to translate the sentence.  When the bell rings, we have gotten as far as ‘To exhaust the day to surprise.’”
I do not want to go back to that, but I am going to consciously cut back on the English and use it only to establish meaning.  Thanks for the challenge, Diana.



12 thoughts on “Bryce On The Use Of English”

  1. Bryce thanks for this. It would be amusing if not so true. Poor teacher. I have no doubt that there was fear in her sweat. She probably woke up at night after classes like that, wondering what she would do the next day. We have all been there. This is such an emotional job! But it seems like we never get to say that to anyone. Bless that teacher, even if she was fictitious.
    I have learned a lot about English lately. English may be the true key to the entire problem for many of us. I think it was for me. It may be about what we don’t do rather than what we do! The method is much easier than it looks. I guess there are people who never think that they could ride a bicycle either – it’s like that.
    I doubt that Krashen ever said anything like, “Oh, and by the way, just throw in whatever English you need into the CI to keep things going.”
    Rather, those little English openings are really pathways to chaos. They invite and allow way more English from the kids than is good for the overall acquisition/CI process. I am not alone in thinking that I was doing TPRS when really I was doing highly watered down TPRS when I allowed those little bits of English in. Great. It’s only taken me nine years to learn this.
    Have you ever taken a straw envelope and scrunched it up like a closed slinky and then put a few drops of water on it and then it expands like into a worm? That is what a few drops of English do in our classrooms.
    I’m done with it. I’m going up to about 97% L2. The rules on my classroom wall now look, therefore, like this:
    1. Listen with the intent to understand.
    2. Use notebooks to suggest cute answers.
    3. Use no English.
    4. Sit up…Squared shoulders….Clear eyes.
    5. Do your 50%.
    6. Actors – synchronize actions with my words.
    On rule two I won’t give them little whiteboards because they will certainly be abused. Instead, I ask them to write whatever English sideways on one of the pages in their composition books (in which they take various notes during class) and hold it up. There have been two very positive results on that. First, it cuts down on the two word English suggestions, which eliminates any English, obviously. Second, the kids who really have the best cute suggestions are the only ones who actually make the effort to write them down. Therefore, the quality of the suggestions goes way up. It really worked this past week.
    In what specific circumstances, then, have I been allowing English? Well, first, there are some brilliant kids who really want to know certain things. I let them ask in English. The big mistake there is to let any kid do that. Most of the time, if you let anyone ask such questions, if they know that they can do that anytime, you end up with way too many such English interruptions. A disaster, really. I am getting good at allowing about one or less of such English interruptions – I know when the requests for clarification are real. The other time I let them use English is when I ask them “What did I just say?” And the third is after “What does such and such mean”, as I do single word comprehension checks. I am really really limiting pop up grammar as well.
    That’s because in my past life I was a grammar head and I tend to overexplain. (No! Ben! You don’t say! You? Overexplain? ) Last night a bunch of us were having dinner and me and Diane got into a shouting match over the pluperfect subjunctive and some other dumb ass thing while Paul Kirshling sat there and in his flawless French just spoke it all, rising above the grammar like the King of French he is. Then Little Joey Krashen pointed out to Amy Teran (Teran Principle of Slowality) that the three of us were modeling the entire point for CI right there.
    So those changes in what I am doing, Bryce, are all in the spirit of what you say above, of going well above 90% if we are to honor Krashen’s original and undisputable premises and to, for me perhaps, begin to do TPRS properly.
    In addition, I am done with the Word List bullshit. All of this takes us back to Blaine’s original design. He tells us to do some vocabulary building for about six weeks using the (100, 200?) highest frequency words, but then I got stupid and tried to take the beginning of class all year to get five words in, thinking it would expand their vocabularies. But, really, unless the words are embedded in meaningful and interesting comprehensible input, they don’t stick. They have to be high frequency or highly repeated low frequency words to stick. Duh!
    Other teachers tell me that the two words of English really work for them, and they do those five words a day, as well, and that is great because TPRS is exactly what works best for and there is no magic formula for any one person, but, for me now, I am making these changes.
    A third thing that I can do without is the SSR at the beginning of class for ten minutes. I think it is great that they read silently, indeed, it is one of the pillars of Krashen’s design. But, the reason I was doing it was to count tardies academically and it just got to be too much of a pain in the ass to keep up with.
    Your classroom is so much more regimented than mine and I mean that in a good way. For me I am just going to go ahead and start class with the CI right away. East High has kick ass deans who will deal with the tardies – all I have to do is ask.
    Yesterday in one class on a beautiful snowy Denver day our windows were open and we heard some sirens and I asked, as if very concerned, if those were firemen? Or the police? Pointed and paused, got some good reps on firemen, almost got a chant going – CI straight with no chaser.
    CI bell to bell. I’m learning.

  2. This is a good goal. I admire your resolve and think it will be something I will shoot for as well, but I am definitely not there yet! (and I surely don’t need to add stress to my life at this point in the year!)
    I have never seen this modeled by anyone. I have DVD’s of several people who I consider expert and/or gifted teachers using TPRS. I have also attended workshops or classes by almost all of the experienced and well known names in TPRS. Everyone uses English. I haven’t measured the percentage, but everyone uses English.
    I am in awe of your resolve, discipline, organization and talent. But I know I am going to have to give myself some slack and just keep working on getting better with pqa and story telling and work toward those other goals with patience. I take comfort in the knowledge that even if I speak English in class my students are still learning more language, more easily than they ever did before TPRS.
    Sorry if that seems weak but I just needed to voice my perspective.

  3. It’s not a weak perspective at all. It’s a strong one. Most people smell but never drink the coffee.
    It’s just that after nine years these are the things are popping up in front of me that I must deal with, or risk not changing and growing. Yes, my resolve is great. The pool of TPRS water is vast, and every one takes what they want and what is best for them at any given time. It is a very fluid thing, and we each have our own relationship with it.
    Those who want to think that acquiring languages is different from what Krashen says, and there are a lot of people like that, probably put both hands into the water, but, when the water is brought to the lips, it spills or they try snorting it up their nose or something, and they totally miss the point of the water. They can’t get the water into their mouths. They don’t want that water, they want something else. They want to eat and digest something else. The problem about that is that what they want to eat and digest has proven to cause mental gas and emotional constipation in generations of language learners, for a fact.
    We who have tasted the freshness of the water want to drink more and more and more. That’s all. No blame. We all are in various places with it and it will always be that way. For me, my passion for this stuff is born from a quarter century of insanity teaching, in which I reached few kids, and even those didn’t know that much after four years. Try that sometime. I hated my job for that long. So this is the payback on those years.
    I do really dislike it when those who haven’t had a big gulp of that water, who have maybe never dipped into it, claim that it doesn’t taste good. How the hell do they know?

  4. Dear Anonymous,
    I am not there yet either. I do not consider you weak. I consider you courageous. That is something that I love about so many in the TPRS world–we are all working together trying to improve our instruction for our students.
    I am not trying to put undo pressure on anyone with this limited English thing. I intend to keep on using English to establish meaning and to quickly check for understanding, but I have noticed how scores of little comments in English keep creeping into class every day. I think it is a bad habit and it spoils the magic of my class somehow.
    I like your comments– I agree that we should keep that balance of giving ourselves slack while at the same time trying new twists on how to implement interesting, comprehensible input in our classes. That’s what we are all trying to do.

  5. I started my own little back to basics experiment this week. I focused mainly on going super SLOW, which I never get right. But, there I was mid-class and I heard myself going on a tirade, in English, explaining something *I* thought was funny… and mid-sentence this entire thread jumped out and smacked me in the forehead. I looked out at my students and realized they didn’t think it was funny. They didn’t care. And there I was blathering away in English. *Poof*. I wrapped up what I was saying, and retreated to the story.

  6. I teach two level one German classes, first and sixth periods, so I get to compare what happens in each. What came across this week is that a superfluity of English has consequences beyond the day on which it occurs.
    On Thursday I spoke essentially no English to period 1 (probably about 90%). In period six, somehow a subject came up that I thought sufficiently important to speak some English. Students were interested – about 10% of them. That let me override the voice of reason that was trying to get my attention: 90% of my students weren’t interested and were off task and feeling justified in speaking English to their friends.
    On Friday we had reading day. First period settled in and began reading. We stayed in German and got a lot done in spite of having an “Up the Down Staircase” kind of day. (3 students arrived 5, 10 and 30 minutes late, respectively; 4 messengers came in with call slips; I got two telephone calls; the principal made a school-wide announcement over the PA – you get the idea.) Period six was a struggle; fewer interruptions but still less got done because I was constantly nipping English conversations in the bud. I was inconsistent between the two days, so my students didn’t know which set of parameters was operative. The parade of outside interruptions was ultimately less detrimental to CI than my having allowed the all-enveloping “blob” (remember the old Steve McQueen movie?) of English to invade and swallow up German.
    I am once again reminded of the study that was published in Foreign Language Annals that studied the use of English by the teacher in the classroom. The most effective teacher in the study was the one who used English for ca. 5 minutes total at the start and end of class to preview and summarize learning goals and clarify remaining questions but remained completely in L2 (Spanish) for the rest of the class period.

  7. I love this discussion! Bottom line is we need English to establish meaning and the rest of class time is spent teaching in the language which is comprehensible to the students because we have established meaning. When students don’t understand, we need English. 90% of the time in L2 is not that difficult when CI is the goal. Don’t think about the number of English words but rather how much time you are using English in a 60 minute class period. Ideally, no more than 6 minutes, which is a long time. But the other part of this is that we don’t want our students using English because as Ben said, “those little English openings are really pathways to chaos”. Truly. I’ve been in classrooms where the teacher stays in the target language 95% but students are speaking out all the time in English. This mixture of English and TL works against CI. Students need to focus on understanding the teacher not on ‘outdoing’ one another on funny English answers.
    Ben, you have given up FVR? We seriously have to have a talk about this one.

  8. O.K. but let’s have the discussion here. A lot of us have never fully wrapped our minds around FVR, so just write it below. What’s the deal with free voluntary reading? I’d rather be talking to them in French. By the way, it wasn’t FVR it was SSR to start class, and it was all in the Blaine novel we were reading that week.

  9. Ben,
    I appreciate your idea of having kids write their ideas, rather than speaking them out loud. Not sure if I’m ready to try it yet, but it is definitely something to strive for in the future. Thanks!

  10. One of the deals with reading is that it is a fast and thorough way to acquiring vocabulary:
    • Picking up word meanings by reading is 10 times faster than intensive vocabulary instruction.
    ?Stephen Krashen, the Power of Reading, 1993, p. 15
    • Teaching vocabulary lists is inefficient—the time is better spent reading alone.
    ?Stephen Krashen, The Power of Reading, 2nd edition, 2004, p. 19
    • Only a fraction [of the words that students need to know] are likely to be acquired through formal study, leaving the pedagogical implication that any others have to be acquired through simple exposure to the language or not acquired at all. This puts a premium on nonteaching activities that can bolster exposure to a language, with reading being an especially important source.
    ?Norbert Schmitt, Vocabulary in Language Teaching, 2000, p. 3
    • Incidental learning of words during reading may be the easiest and single most powerful means of promoting large-scale vocabulary growth.
    ?W.E. Nagy & P.A. Herdman, The Nature of Vocabulary Acquisition, 1987, p. 27
    • Less frequent words… may best be learned by reading extensively, because there is just not enough time to learn them all through conscious study.
    ?Norbert Schmitt, Vocabulary in Language Teaching, 2000, p. 137

  11. I have to say that FVR has been a real benefit for my classes, and they look forward to it whenever we do it. Everyone has their own wrinkles on it, but the following have really helped me out:
    1. I keep a stack of small carpet samples (leftovers from a local carpet store) that I allow the students to pull out and sit on during FVR. I only allow their use during FVR and Kindergarten-style reading (when they can sit on the floor up at the front of the class if they wish), so the reading becomes a special event. Krashen mentioned having a comfortable place to read, and I took him up on it; they have been a huge hit.
    2. In addition to readers, I use German cartoons (from that my students are genuinely interested in, and that provide a visual help to just the words. Not everybody uses them, but most everybody starts with them, and they are useful for creating momentum for people having a bad day.
    3. I’ve found that doing FVR right after a free-write works very well for my group because I then sell it as a chance to go “vocab mining” for words they can use in their next free-write. I don’t do it this way every time, but utilizing FVR as a time to relax after some intense output has often been what my students have needed.

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