I'd Rather Count Snowflakes

Diana Grieman and I were talking about order of acquisition. She said this:
And as you’ve been saying, probably the very most important thing that we can do is to stay as much as possible in the target language.  That, I think, is bigger than order of acquisition and complexity.  From lots of CI, the rest flows.
I agree with that. Staying as much as possible in the target language is more important than fretting about order of acquisition and complexity, and all of those things that we can analyze and get all into but ultimately can’t control anyway, in spite of our best efforts.
I don’t see what’s wrong with just trusting in the natural unfolding of the language in our classrooms. Are we really that fearful that a certain expression may not show up unless we consciously plan for its occurrence in our classes?
To me, languages are just so big, and there are so many possible combinations of words, that, if we but use the language over 90% of the time in our classes, the words we want our students to know will occur and they will learn them.
Yes, we need target expressions, and we need to establish meaning and hinge our lesson on that establishment of meaning, of course. But whatever expressions are in front of us from a story, or a song, or a text, or just happen to be in the air that day, in my view, will serve just fine.
All we have to really do is make the CI that we deliver crystal clear and interesting to our students. We can have the best list of frequent expressions ever designed in a nice TPRS scope and sequence (to me, a contradiction in terms), and it won’t make any difference unless we do good CI.
I, for one, refuse to take on anything as big as figuring out what words to teach my CI students when. I’d rather count snowflakes. O.K. – all you proponents of high frequency lists, deconstruct my argument.



5 thoughts on “I'd Rather Count Snowflakes”

  1. A real big contradiction for me in the past was the way many in the TPRS community were suggesting that we choose structures for our TPRS stories then test for acquisition of these structures the next day, week or the next month. There would be a big chapter test after using 10-15 structures over the month. These were usually unannounced. I agree that unannounced tests do let a teacher see what students have acquired as opposed to memorized the night before. The problem I was seeing in my classes was that no matter how often I tried to use or reuse some structures over that month, some kids got it right away, some got it later on and some never got it. I do think that there is an order of acquisition, but what I was doing was not taking that into consideration with those unannounced quizzes. This year I do use quizzes at the end of the period, but they are less about acquisition and more about keeping kids accountable and focused during the lesson. I think those unannounced vocab/structure translation tests at the end of the “unit” punish the kids who are at the lower end of the order of acquisition time line. There is no way that they are going to get 80% or higher unless they go home and memorize those structures the night before and that is not how we want to teach languages. Expecting all kids to acquire all the structures presented by the same deadline does not align with what we are preaching here and it is unrealistic. It is a bit like counting snowflakes.

  2. So glad that you brought this up Norm. I give Thursday quizzes….and am very clear with the kids that the purpose of them is to help me to know how to plan for the following week. Eighty percent or more of the quiz is comprised of tasks utilizing structures/skills that they having been exposed to for at least two months. They always have the opportunity to utilize newer ones., (I often make these extra credit…) but the focus is on structures and skills that have been allowed to marinate for a while. It gives me a much better idea of where each student is at.
    with love,

  3. …I do think that there is an order of acquisition, but what I was doing was not taking that into consideration with those unannounced quizzes….
    …I think those unannounced vocab/structure translation tests at the end of the “unit” punish the kids who are at the lower end of the order of acquisition time line….

    Yes on both points. It’s not fair. Kids absorb at different rates, but, by the time they are seven or so, they pretty much can speak the language. But, had they been frequently quizzed on vocabulary when they were three through six, with a grade attached to it, those kids you describe may end up not feeling so great about themselves and the language.
    I also agree on the Quick Quizzes at the end of class. They work. They are easy. They build confidence. I increasingly assess in ways that only build confidence. Thank you, as always, Norm.

  4. Diana,
    You make some great points about CI. I think I have been trying to accommodate and convince the CI skeptics and tweek my approach by checking word frequency lists too much. I am trying to be a peace-maker between two absolutely different world views and it does always work. I need to think about this.

  5. I just left a level four class. It’s their first year of CI, however. I don’t know what words in French they heard in their first three years – not too many. They saw a lot but didn’t hear a lot. Some can’t hang with all the auditory but most can.
    So now I just talk to them. Fast. Today they went from discussing Sarah Jessica Parker and the Oscars to what kind of people walk around on beaches in South America. I don’t know how they did that – the CI circling just took us there.
    I don’t care. I just explained stuff they didn’t know (pointing and pausing) and looked in their eyes (they were totally unconscious of being in French) and I kept asking questions and we all kind of floated through class, which seemed to last about ten minutes. It felt really good because I was able to speak in the kind of French I use in France, not the kind I have used all these years in the classroom (there is a pretty big difference if you think about it).
    Lists? What lists? I don’t like lists. They would have handcuffed what was a great 95% class in L2 today.

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