Do Something

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23 thoughts on “Do Something”

  1. Je suis d’accord mon vieux!
    I want to throw out a couple of questions and see if anyone has things to share. These are on my mind as we wind down the year and think of the next.
    Regarding using French/Spanish/German/etc. in class @90% can anyone share some of their successes and/or ideas for making this happen? When I first started teaching I used to use only L2 in the class but didn’t know enough then about making it comprehensible. When I started to get into TPRS I felt that what I saw from those who were experienced was a relaxed approach to using some English to clarify. I tried to model my own style on theirs. Since we have been discussing the 90% goal this year I have been watching myself and hoping to get to that goal, but I struggle. I jump into English to remind them not to use too much English during stories (!), or to explain something, or to make something comprehensible that they don’t have the vocabulary to understand yet. Does anyone have things that are working for them to avoid using English for all of the classroom business etc.? Does anyone have a tried and true system that they use from the beginning of the year to introduce all of those phrases etc. that we need to make things run?
    I would also like to throw this out and see if anyone else can relate. I am the lone TPRS teacher at my school. I am trying to convert them but who knows? Today a colleague was reading a free write that one of my kids wrote and said “me encanta nadar”?, which one of my kids had written, and then he says “but nadar doesn’t come in until chapter X! So you’re teaching outside of the curriculum?” I told him my kids have known that verb since day 2 because Maya loves to swim. That’s the kind of thing I have to try to deal with. Consequently I need to try to be aligned with my colleagues who use the book. I just jump in and use the verbs I think most important (from the book but in a different order) from the get go. But my structures are like; she wants, she has to, she sees. Just random verbs versus what it seems a lot of folks are doing with their embedded readings etc. I write my own readings new every year using the structures/verbs (really) that we played with in class.
    Also my big confession and my question for anyone else is that I don’t think I do enough stories. Does anyone else ever feel this way? Sometimes I am just too tired to jump in again, or feel too weak to juggle the be animated, circle, keep the kids focused and engaged and remember all of the things I try to remember when doing a story. It always takes us days to get through a story, and I am just too obsessive compulsive to not resolve them. Can anyone relate or share ideas?
    I have not been very good at getting PQA going as well as I would like this year, though better than last year. I do it but tend to not be able to really expand and take it to interesting places.
    So, ideas for using 90% L2 in class? Ideas for packing more stories into the year? Ideas for being better at PQA (I know, I need to buy Ben’s book!) Ideas for organization when we have to be aligned with other folks who are not converts?
    Thanks if you read this and if you have anything to share. I have been wanting to bring up these questions for a while.
    Love you all! This blog and group are lifelines for me!

  2. Ben,
    You write |
    “We’re not just talking about a teaching method here, folks. We are talking about employment in a crumbling economy. Those of us who chose to go into the profession did so thinking that we could earn a living from it. But, if the method we use fails us, and our enrollments keep dwindling, and no one is excited about our classes, we become expendible, the administrators swoop down on us with threats or direct action to get rid of us, then what is our part in that – being a victim? It’s the fault of our administrators that we are being let go?”
    In Maine one of our high schools has let all language teachers go and starting next year will hire ed-technicians to monitor students in their use of Rosetta Stone. All language instruction will be done via RS.

  3. This is like a stab in the heart, Skip.
    The only thing I can say is…can someone go interview those kids in OPI and get film permission so that in two years they could return to film kids who’ve had two years of RS (if there are any left) and show the difference? There will certainly be one, if there are any kids who stick it out. Our OPI presenter told us today that there was actually a federally funded research project with RS that bought the program for a bunch of adults who were then going to go through OPI’s after they finished each level, but not one of the adults in the study had the fortitude to finish even one level. If you’d like his information to ask about the study, or if any of the teachers at the school would like it, I will share it off line. Just write to me… Tragic.

  4. Ruth,
    Hmmm sometimes we just need to reword our approach for others. I would suggest that you are not teaching “outside the curriculum”, rather, you are teaching “in anticipation of the curriculum”. Your phrases are part of the curriculum and you are preparing your students for when they get to the “scheduled” arrival of those words/phrases.
    Remember…there is no “bullseye” lesson in TPRS. Just when you think that you are on target, the entire philosophy behind TPRS opens your mind to the inner bullseye hiding within the one you have landed in. Just as we are always looking at where our students are and where we want to take them with the language, our brains begin to look at our teaching in exactly the same way. Every day becomes a quest. Where am I? Where would I like to go? It is one of the things I love most about teaching this way.
    Skip..that is horrifying for those kids. And demoralizing for all teachers, not just language folks.
    Michele, I am soooo glad that you brought up that study. I need to get more familiar with the entire OPI deal. Whether we like it or not, much of the value of our teaching is evaluated by output…and I’d like to examine it under a serious microscope. When we can find a way to bridge this expectation with our knowledge of the power of input, we will be unstoppable.
    with love,

  5. Regarding using French/Spanish/German/etc. in class @90% can anyone share some of their successes and/or ideas for making this happen?
    Ruth, I will address just this question.
    If we accept that, at least in the early stages, language is primarily acoustic, then “using the target language” means speaking the language. This year I have made a very conscious effort to write English on the board but not speak it. I also discourage students from throwing out English translations except when we are doing comprehension checks/translation of a text. A version of Ben’s “Classroom Conduct/Rules” poster hangs in my room, along with a few other posters about behavior (e.g. The Golden Rule, the “Dumbledore quote” from “Harry Potter”, etc.). I use the laser pointer to draw attention to the one that I perceive as being broken at the moment. I also conduct as much classroom business as possible in German (Give me your papers, take out a piece of paper, open the book [reader] to page #__, put everything away, who is missing today, what day is it, what’s the date, etc.). That results in a very high percentage of oral/aural German in my room. At my last formal evaluation, the Assistant Principal noted 99% target language during the class period – even though I had written some English on the board for comprehension. (In addition to her regular evaluation material I had given her Susan Gross’s “Checklist for Administrators”.)
    Hope this helps.

  6. “We suddenly see that teaching a foreign language can be a real job with real results, with kids excited about coming back next year and learning more, and laughing more, and kicking more ass with French. It’s not a joke anymore. We like our jobs. People actually read our blogs and say cool things back that make us better teachers-that never happened before!-and we have real friend colleagues …”
    If for no other reasons than the ones above … do something! YES!
    I feel immense gratitude to every single teacher and student (no administrators yet) who has taught me along the path that I walk today. It is truly miraculous. I so wish it had happened earlier, but I am very happy it occurred at all.
    Yes, it depresses me to hear things like what the school in Maine is doing–much money about nothing. They will see–if they want to see. Sad.

  7. Ben and all,
    A heartfelt thank you. One of the things I most love about this blog, and the TPRS community, is that no matter how down I get about my own teaching, about my students, about the system, etc. I can come here and a. get a dose of reality, b. get inspiration, c. get inspired to tackle it all over again.
    (btw, does writing my thesis about TPRS as an effective methodology for GT students count? I wish I could do the other things this summer… but no time for both!)

  8. I made the shift to TPRS (Comprehensible imput) instruction about 7 years ago after attending my first NTPRS Conference in Las Vegas. After a couple years I realized that trying to convince teachers who are not open to change was an effort in futility. I then decided to focus 100% of my efforts to improving my TPRS Skills and let the results speak for themselves. Better yet, I let my students become TPRS advocates through their ability to speak the target language at a superior level than students coming from “traditional” classrooms.
    Since 2003, the current and former principals of my school have become TPRS advocates and I am now Department Chair. All this was accomplished not through talking about TPRS, but by focusing my efforts in improving my skills as a TPRS teacher.
    As for your question about staying in the target language. What has worked for me is pretending not to understand a word of English. For example, when a student tries to speak fake Spanish (i.e. door o), I just give that student a blank stare like a deer caught in the headlights. The key for this to work is believability and consistency. My students seem to enjoy my act.
    Hope this helps.

  9. Jen I have taught Theory of Knowledge in a magnet high school (Charleston, SC) and GT middle school classes (CO) for years and years. My conclusion is that manipulation of thought is best left to those kids of high I.Q, but the decoding and manipulation of language can be done by just about anybody, and is much more of an E.Q. thing, as long as the E is there in the classroom.
    That’s what we do, isn’t it, we bring in the emotion, which is the root of language acquisition, and it all works. So, in a sense, I would ask what you mean by GT. I have some great TPRS kids who do not shine in more mental/left brain/linear classes. But they are GT kids in language, for certain, by district wide test scores (their parents were thrilled that their merely average child scored at the highest end of the district assessment in French). Of course none of this needs to be shared with your committee – they still think that being gifted means you’re smart.
    Just a little fodder for your research, which if you allow we can post a link on this site – I am sure it will be a good read for all of us. I think they are all GT if you get to them early enough and teach them how to play, that is to say, before they think in their minds that learning languages is about conjugation of verbs, which nukes their language DNA, as sure as putting food in a microwave destroys the cellular integrity. I have seen with my inherited fours this year that something happened to them on a cell level to prevent them from being able to play, and it lasted all year – they got nuked.
    Skip, my brother. Maybe the mass firing in that school was a sign of frustration. Where there any competent TPRS teachers in that group? Maybe those teachers deserved to go. The language requirement was dropped in Denver Public Schools this past year and there was a massive outcry. But the teachers protesting had, as a general rule, nothing to show for their work. I’m just being honest here.
    So they are trying RS. By the way, my deep belief on the RS thing is that it will implode within months, if not minutes. Rosetta Stone is a tremendously ineffective way to teach a language. They should be applauded for one of the great sales jobs in the history of mass media.
    So we can forgive the knothead administrator who thought that one up. For me, turning to the positive, what Ruth said is, to me, really positive. She describes those issues that are the flashpoints for change in all of our classrooms. So honest. She describes an internal, very brave, process.
    When we figure out how to help each other bring good answers to her questions, it will bring the victory, which will be a function of time. The changes will come – they will definitely come – into our classrooms – but it will not be an overnight “Ah Ha!” moment type of thing. We will try something, and it won’t work, and then we will try something and it will work, and we will observe somebody like Jody or Robert, and something will click, and slowly, the car will be built.
    We will get better at it, and one day we will wake up and find ourselves running across the parking lot to get to our first class to see if that new CI idea will work. I kid you not, that happened to me once. Of course I caught myself and started walking, but it did happen. It is not about whether it will happen, this gaining mastery of comprehensible input, but when it will happen.
    And great point, Orlando. If I can just stop wanting to say cool things in English before or after or even during class (this year was my breakthrough year of 90% TL but I still slipped 10% English), I may next year be able to give the deer in the headlights thing to them. Dude it might work!

  10. Ruth, I had great success with getting lots of stories in my Spanish 2 class this year. At the beginning of the year, I had the kids bring in a “summer prop”. Most of the kids brought something in. I would spend at least 2 days with each kid and their prop. As this was a 45 minute class, there wasn’t much time and we rarely “finished” the story.
    We started out with some simple PQA about the student’s summer relating to their prop, and what it really was all about (Where did you go? When? With whom? Why? etc.). Usually it was a souvenir from a trip they took that summer. It was really low-stress PQA because it was THEIR prop, not something I picked out.
    After some straight-up PQA, (usually with an abrupt change in tone, as I made it clear based on my facial expression that we were no longer talking real life), I would start asking a story. I didn’t have to arbitrarily target much if anything, because the nature of the prop and topic usually brought in enough new stuff on its own. (I started the year with a review of structures from the previous year, but soon realized that was unnecessary.)
    Then, I typed up the story and we read it together. Now I have a whole book full of stories that the students illustrated, and that class’ stories are great because each one MUST include the student in some way. We ended up spending almost the entire semester of 45 min. classes in this way.
    I will definitely do this again next year.

  11. I am definitely going to copy that summer prop idea, Jim! What a great way to get kids connected from the beginning. Grown-up show-and-tell.
    Back to the RS disaster…our presenter this week said that the RS claim that you will “Speak like a diplomat,” is true, as long as you want to speak like an American diplomat. The problem is obviously that Americans don’t realize that our diplomats generally don’t know the languages where they work. Their kids might–because they’re out on the playground getting comprehensible input.
    In an unrelated bounce…does someone here know where an Anchorage teacher can get some info (the actual schedule, and a contact address who will respond) for the California conference? I think there might be five Anchorage area teachers there this summer, but only if they can get someone to answer questions. The web page is a bit scant on updates, and I gather that no one is answering mail sent to that address.

  12. Thanks for the prop idea Jim. I’m going with Anne’s questionairres for my German I classes, but I know my IIs, IIIs and IVs too well for that work at the beginning of the school year. I’ll try that one out and see how far it flys as a means of both transitioning from the summer to reinforcing expectations in a good setting.

  13. Yeah we can’t use the questionnaire or Circling with Balls, really, past level one, can we? I never thought of that since this is my first level 2 in awhile. Cool – now, Jim, make yourself a note to remind us about the summer props in August. Sounds like a wiener. That’s not one I want to forget.

  14. Michelle, send your questions to me. I’ll make sure they get to the right people for an answer. There have been some glitches with the website not noting inquiries properly. You can contact me at harrellrl at a(merica)o(n)l(ine) dot com.

  15. I used Circling with Pictures with my upper levels last year, and had them do a drawing of where they went, and where they would have liked to have gone, but while it worked okay, they had already exchanged that information by the time they got to class, and it fell a bit hard by October, when we were still spinning stories. I like the prop idea for that reason. Everyone will be trying to outdo everyone else. And this time, I’m going to try to stick to the schedule so that we’re “done” if we want to be in three weeks.

  16. Laurie said:
    “Whether we like it or not, much of the value of our teaching is evaluated by output…and I’d like to examine it under a serious microscope. When we can find a way to bridge this expectation with our knowledge of the power of input, we will be unstoppable.”
    Laurie I’ve been knocking what you said around for a few days now and I just can’t get to any agreement that we need to bridge any expectations. Those less trained in language instruction think that output can occur earlier than what I think Krashen has shown. I may be wrong about that and I will ask him about it this summer. To me, it just takes years of input and then writing and speaking are there, and not before. We are so foolish on this point, in my opinion.
    The stink in the thinking is that since they can understand it, they ought to be able to say it. Since they can read it, then they ought to be able to write it. Don’t we have enough proof over the last 100 years of failure in getting people to fluency in other, failed ways of focusing too early on writing and speech?
    Here is CO Content Standard 1 (it is also on my class website at
    “Students communicate in a foreign language while demonstrating literacy in all four essential skills – listening, speaking, reading, and writing.”
    Yes, I agree. But when do writing and speaking emerge – they don’t say that. That means that they hold us to our kids being able to do that in level one. And yet they can’t do that anymore than they can play the violin – they aren’t ready. All four of those skills don’t just emerge at the same time. The flower is the result of the work of the roots and the soil and the stem all working together to push up the beauty. The beauty doesn’t happen first.
    Another thing, corollary, to that, is that when we assess kids at the end of the year on stuff we have taught them, it is no indication of acquisition. They have learned and parrotted information, that is all. We have been over this – over and over. Acquisition is a much more complex thing than repeating learned facts to a teacher for a grade.
    We have such a little idea of what really goes on in language acquisition. And yet we claim to be teachers. Do we teach for acquisition, or are we in the middle of a big game – a big lie – so that we can keep our jobs and insurance and standing in the community?

  17. I’m just about to share a random grouping of thoughts, because I haven’t totally processed a week’s worth of recent information, and I don’t believe that I could scrunch a week’s worth of information into a blog response. So please excuse any chaotic thoughts, but I feel as though some of this may be worth sharing.
    I have just finished an OPI “assessing for planning” workshop (called something like that). I mentioned in an earlier response that one of our language school directors said the same thing about standards and output that Ben says our standards require, at every level. Our OPI presenter mentioned that children don’t do output in their own language until 2-3 years of CI. I think he was pointing out that we really can’t expect it so soon. He also said that many high school programs never get kids beyond the novice level of speaking. He wasn’t making a judgment call, just a statement.
    The novice level is characterized by the inability to communicate autonomously. Yet when he tested my eighth-graders, he said they were ready to make the jump to intermediate low level, because they could string sentences together on at least a couple topics. They needed to be able to do that on at least four or five topics, without leading questions or suggestions. I have not required speaking of these kids very much at all, except at our state competition, and in that situation, they were able to speak in ways that they engineered. I didn’t really get to hear what they said, but they did well.
    Here they had to answer rapid-fire questions, almost none of which were “yes/no, either/or.” They could ask questions themselves, a requirement of the intermediate level and probably a result of TPRS training. They could understand most of the questions. They couldn’t sustain independent communication. They depended on the interviewer’s running the show. I was still very proud of them, and realized that what I need to do is have more internal dialogues in stories whenever possible.
    An interesting facet of this week’s education was one point about criteria at the different levels. The presenter said that if we ask students to complete a function too high above where students are currently operating, we will note linguistic breakdown. Supporting arguments and hypotheses (in paragraph-length discourse) are criteria for the Superior level. That gave me a clue about why my kids were stymied last year when I asked them to tell me what they would have done, had they been able to go to the places they wished for during vacation. Linguistic breakdown means that they can’t operate on their own level to answer the question, and indeed, my fourth-year kids were floundering with first-year grammar after their second sentence. They simply couldn’t sustain a paragraph. Speaking in complete paragraphs, which is criteria for the Advanced level, requires a beginning, middle, and end, a key topic, and a broad variety of elements of cohesion that give the paragraph “interior organization.” The elements of cohesion are emerging at the Intermediate Mid level. (Since every one of my first-year kids can at least start a phrase with “because,” I would argue that TPRS novice-level students are reaching for that Intermediate-level skill starting in the first semester of school.)
    What I know about TPRS is that we are always developing that Advanced-level (on the ACTFL criteria) skill. We are also developing the ability to narrate and describe. For a moment, I was thinking that it’s too much to be pushing Novice-level kids to do that. But we don’t. We ask them to respond in phrases or single words to help narrate and describe (lists and discreet words are the markers of the Novice level). They are operating at their level, but *hearing* us repeat at the Advanced level, or at least at the Intermediate level.
    What got me so excited was that we are unconsciously practicing what we already know about grammar acquisition in the area of level criteria. (That doesn’t make sense possibly…I’m going to try to explain…) For instance, we use the subjunctive starting in level one to speak to the kids, though we don’t expect them to really get it until much later. (The subjunctive, by the way, is criteria for Advanced High and Superior-level tasks.) We don’t shelter grammar. Parents don’t shelter grammar. Parents also don’t really shelter their proficiency, except for adapting it to the cognitive level of the children. As we know, many adult native speakers are not themselves Superior-level speakers of their own language. But, barring cognitive challenges, every native speaker is an Advanced-high level speaker of her own language. Advanced high means that the speaker is capable of the Superior level more than 50 percent of the time, given appropriate prompts. But it is unlikely that the Advanced or Superior-level parent is going to be doing a lot of hypothesizing with a five-year old in extended paragraph discourse. On the other hand, once a child reaches teenagerhood, that teen will certainly be trying to support arguments, while the parent will be supporting hypotheses. I was involved in just such a discussion yesterday, as I explained all the reasons that my 18-year-old is not allowed to drive our new car. She is not yet a superior speaker of English (I flatter myself that I am), and therefore she could not sustain her argument long enough to convince me. But we are practicing!
    And we do practice those skills in our TPRS language classes. We get the whole class to work together to develop arguments. We give them examples of cohesive elements. And this practice is part of the reason that our language classes improve native-language abilities, leading our students to be better able to debate and write papers in history. They are practicing the fundamental skills that will lead them up the level of proficiency.
    So to rephrase my point, because I doubt it’s clear to anyone else by now, I believe that TPRS leads to faster true acquisition of language because we are not sheltering the skills by which speakers demonstrate the criteria demanded by the upper levels of the proficiency guidelines. If all TPRS teachers were conversant with the criteria of the OPI assessment guidelines, we would also have a better understanding of how what we are doing is what every language teacher should be doing. In the meantime, I can say Krashen is right. TPRS is the bomb!

  18. Yes we don’t shelter grammar. In more traditional classrooms, they smash grammar out of the picture, instead substituting in hogwash about the fake grammar, labeling terms and such. Real grammar is properly spoken speech and it cannot occur enough in our classrooms. That said, Michele, it wasn’t all that confusing – it was well written. I am intrigued by the OPI people because if they agree that output occurs later, about year three, which is what I have always thought, then I won’t feel so alone on that point. It just seems so boneheaded to try to teach a language without speaking it to the students all the time for a few years first. What do we think will happen? They’ll start speaking magically if they do enough fake grammar, book work, without really hearing the language? Come on! They’ll speak and write and read once they have heard it enough. Already.

  19. I’m not sure that all the OPI folks would say that we shouldn’t force output. One presenter did say that it was worth considering the lag time between initial hearing of language and the ability to speak. He said that it is not productive to assign students to speak at levels above their current levels unless we do it in a structured way that will give them the tools so they will be able to grow into that next level. All assignments need to be proficiency oriented. I personally feel that proficiency-oriented activities are not necessarily productive. We TPRS teachers probably all know how to make an activity proficiency-oriented, but it may not yet be comprehensible, compelling and repetitive enough to help students acquire language. I am probably breaking some big rule here about teaching languages, but what I know about giving kids an article and asking them to skim for the information on the theme of the week is that part-way through the explanation, I have lost half the class. Kids will learn language if it is directed at them, personalized, and made compelling. Yes, I can throw articles at them, but only after they have developed “personal relationships” with the high-frequency vocabulary used before they attempt to read the articles.

  20. Michele said:
    “…I personally feel that proficiency-oriented activities are not necessarily productive…”.
    “,,,kids will learn language if it is directed at them, personalized, and made compelling…”.
    Michele I totally agree at the risk of being heretical also. It’s like we don’t trust in the power of the unconscious process that alone brings true fluency. We like to control. But, by controlling, we activate more and more of the conscious mind, which DOES NOT acquire languages. By making it some proficiency oriented (read conscious manipulation of language), all we do is de-activate the huge machine in the deeper mind, which is constantly revving up and ready to ACQUIRE, while we screw around with analytical junk. What I just wrote actually makes sense to me, by the way….

  21. Thank you, Ben! You made me understand! I couldn’t figure out why all that work on arranging sources to be proficiency-oriented didn’t achieve the results. I used to put in hours and hours on those assignments and activities. I’m still going for an eventual result of students’ being able to read something specific–an article, a story, a novel–but all the preceding materials are directed at their level, their interest.
    But it’s control. And whenever I try to strictly control what I do in class, the lesson reverts back to the 4%-ers being the only ones who are interested.

  22. chill,
    They are two different quotes.
    The Golden Rule, of course, is “Do to others as you would have others do to you.” – Jesus of Nazareth. (The Silver Rule, often ascribed to Confucius, is, “Do not do to others what you would not have others do to you.”)
    The Dumbledore quote is, “It is our choices . . . that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” (The elision is simply the removal of the name “Harry”. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets)

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