Vocabulary Tests

The topic of thematic unit testing and the testing of vocabulary came up in a private email I got today from a colleague. My responses to her questions are in italics:
Q. I recently bought TPRS in a Year! and PQA in a Wink! and they are great! While browsing your blog, I read about how you do thematic vocab tests from the curriculum.
A. I no longer do those. I did them when I needed them, for two reasons: 1) to make the kids and parents who “needed” homework (they exist) to have some, 2) to give the appearance to the school I worked in that I gave homework and tests (not just the quick quizzes that I rely on completely now for grades). Now, happily, I am in a fully TPRS/CI based school, with nobody including admin who even believe that those things help. They simply don’t. Nobody can learn from memorizing lists of words because language learning is an unconscious process and because the mind selects, during sleep, which features it heard that day to keep, the conscious mind does not and cannot do that, so such things as thematic unit memorization and tests on same are useless. So I don’t do them anymore.
Q. Does this imply that you do not do vocab tests on the words/phrases learned in class as well?
A. Correct. The mind cannot operate in rogue fashion to identify, on a test, a single word. That is not language. If we went around and said single words to communicate, maybe it might be a good way to test, but since we don’t, and the wiring of the mind isn’t set up that way, it makes it extremely frustrating for a student to hear or see a single word and be able to identify it. This is all my opinion. Word lists and vocabulary lists is a brutal way to assess kids. Once in a university class I had to assess that way and I just quit, because the department chair was French and didn’t get Krashen. Plus, she made me use French in Action, which was even more confusing to the students. University kids were thereby shamed into thinking that they were stupid by big long lists of words having little to do with anything, and by that million miles an hour video program that simply confused most students and screwed up their GPA’s. They had to memorize words like “the trunk of a car”. Useless and shaming.
Q. Is studying vocabulary the only homework they have?
A. They no longer do that as explained above. It’s a waste of precious CI minutes in class. Instead of talking about homework, as I am fully in Alfie Kohn’s corner on this, let’s talk about making use of the time we have been given with our kids in the classroom. Let’s respect their time with family, after school, etc. I really only have the time I have in class anyway, since kids just hate doing homework and since it doesn’t work at all for 96% of the kids. So, if it takes over 10,000 hours to reach fluency, and I am able in a four year Advanced Placement program to do about 125 hours per year, that is still only 1/20th of the time I need to get my kids fluent. For that reason, I don’t want to waste time doing things that are without any real purpose or show any concrete results in my classroom, just because someone with absolutely no awareness of Krashen or how we actually learn languages tells me I have to give a test. As Robert Harrell says, that would be professionally unethical, to do something in my classroom that I know is wrong for my students.
Q. Do you ask the students for any evidence that they are studying the words at home?
A. Again, that is one of the reasons kids hate languages in our country. I am not going to play a game of Gotcha. I respect my children, and need that respect reciprocated in order for us to take down the wall of mistrust and intimidation that other teachers have built around those kids. I need my students’ good will for PQA and stories to work. I am not going to run them around with a bunch of games that have no value, and when I do that they take down those walls and we start to trust each other and have fun.
Disclaimer: all of what I say above comes from my own classroom experience and what I have read by Krashen. It is through teaching in the classroom that I have come to the above conclusions. There is no way that I can say that my opinions are “the right way” re: testing of vocabulary. It’s just my way. I just need to make that clear.
Related: https://benslavic.com/blog/2008/12/24/the-rassias-methodfrench-in-action-vs-tprs/



9 thoughts on “Vocabulary Tests”

  1. Homework is expected at my school. It’s allusory, but it is called homework nonetheless. Since I am standards based, French 1 gets the following types of assignments A few days per week and never on weekends. Read a story and answer a few true/false questions. Circle unknown vocab. It’s a reading assessment. Translate a story for a parent – parents love this one.Write the French word and draw a picture that represents the word. It’s a structure/vocab assignment – weighted at 5%. Illustrate a story, teach the structures and tell it to a parent. It’s output but after lots of practice in class, some like to try it. ‘s like a speaking assessment. All of these ideas came from Susie Gross. Getting them to read at home is probably the most useful. I have finally set up a lending system for my books.

  2. I think the kids sometimes don’t understand the reasons why we don’t give homework. It would not be helpful for me to go on a rant about the futility of homework. Forget Alfie Kohn. It’s been written about in the ACTFL publications too. Does anyone ever feel that their good will is being abused a bit?

  3. Dear Chill,
    I have found that by occasionally “impressing”students with data that shows that homework does not increase language acquisition and reminding them that I have made this decision in light of my current, updated research and information in the field of education, that they have stopped sliding into the “she is just an easy teacher (or a lazy one lol)” It’s all in the delivery. :o)
    with love,

  4. I’m having an interesting experience this year. One of my students is a definite four-percenter. I have often wondered if I was truly engaging him. Last week he started coming into my room before school each day with a different question about some nuance of the language, in some cases pretty advanced. Then he apologized for bothering me and told me that German was his favorite class.
    Of course I told him it was no bother (and it is no bother). I am thrilled to have a student so interested in the language that he comes in and asks. He gets some very personalized instruction that meets his precise need. Win-win all around.

  5. …I have to prove that it DOES work, cause I ‘feed’ to her….
    When does she get to make the rules? And why is she asking for proof about this way of teaching from one who has barely started? These are unfair requests. Mary Beth you are largely going on intuition – that speaking to the kids in the target language in a way that is meaningful and interesting to them is a superior way to teach them. Give yourself some time to learn. Most of what you address in your questions are addressed in blog posts here over the past six months. They are great questions. Start reading. Maybe someone will address one of the questions above. There are some amazing people in this group. Welcome. Send in a bio so we can put it in the Group Members category. Trust your intuition and watch as you start loving your job, unlike that lady who has an open mind while hating it. You’re not alone in having to work with such people. Many of us do. It is even a leitmotif here, one that prompted me to create a category for “mental health”. It’s not enough that we have to plow the ground and plant the seeds ourselves, we also have to do so while angry people line the fields.

  6. Mary Beth, you wrote: Today in a dept meeting, one of the French teachers and one of the Spanish teachers said that it was important that we give COMMON vocab lists and subsequent tests EACH week. They stress the importance of this saying that kids will “get used to it” and rise to the occasion to learn new vocab each week. To make it “stick” they advocate working into the curriculum each week – OK, makes sense;
    I know you feel that you are in a tenuous situation since you are the “new kid on the block”, but there are some serious questions that probably are not being addressed or even asked. I’m going to ask some of them.
    1. Why is it important? Is this geared to acquisition or control? Sometimes administrations and chairmen/women of departments suggest these things so that they “can be sure that teachers are doing their jobs”. Huh? Whatever happened to casually dropping by to see what’s going on? What about actually talking to one another?
    2. Is this motivated by a desire to “cover the material”? That reflects a mentality that is not geared to acquisition.
    3. What proof do the others have that these weekly tests actually work? They tacitly admit that they do not because “to make it stick” they have to do something else. Why not just do the something else – use the words in context (Comprehensible Input) with lots of repetitions?
    4. Where will the “common vocabulary list” come from? A textbook? If they are going to begin to do this, then they at least owe it to their victims (deliberate choice of words) to give them the highest-frequency words in the language. Have any of them heard of “A Frequency Dictionary of [language name here]”?
    5. Suggest alternatives. Krashen and others have shown the importance of reading. Instead of memorizing a list of vocabulary words out of context – something that does not lead to fluency – why not have students do something that actually helps them? They should do a certain amount of reading each week and give the teacher a list of words they have learned. You could even have a minimum number of words. AND because reading is so important and teachers are supposed to be examples, not just deliverers of instructional services, all of the teachers in the department can share their lists each week with the students. Even native speakers ought to be doing their own reading and improving their own language – non-natives even more so.
    BTW, are these teachers willing to be presented with similar lists of words to memorize each week? If they are not willing to do this, why not? Why are they expecting students to put in work that they are unwilling to do? Any non-native speakers ought to be working on expanding their ability in the language anyway, and native speakers don’t know everything there is to know in their own language.
    To illustrate my last point, I invite you to inquire the following of the English speakers: “In your teleological understanding of salvific history, would you say that your are a supralapsarian or an infralapsarian, and what impact does this have on your attitude toward those who would immanentize the eschaton?”
    Plain-language explanation will come later.
    Furthermore, you should read Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth. He shows that assignments like the one your colleagues are proposing simply don’t do what they’re supposed to do. They are onerous and contribute to the general odium that students feel toward school. What’s the whole deal behind justifying a relatively useless, onerous task by saying, “They’ll get used to it”? People “get used to” a lot of things that are unhealthy for them. I would want positive proof that these weekly vocabulary lists work well enough to justify the burden before agreeing to them. Ben can share his experience with vocabulary lists with you. He used them for years.

    1. I was hoping Robert would address this. There is a lot to talk about here. We acquire languages unconsciously, first of all. Therefore, there is nothing we can do to influence the order of what we learn. It is all up to the realm of the deeper mind, which magically parses out what it heard that day in the language and allows it in or not. Therefore, if that is true, and I believe it is, then the only thing to do is drown the minds of the students in the language, and it will all be taken care of.
      Related posts for further reading:

  7. Mary Beth, I have also had teachers tell me that they were surprised to hear that Krashen approved of translation. I have read a fair bit of Krashen but can’t recall him saying that specifically. The main place where I have heard of the value of translation is from Blaine Ray and other leaders in TPRS. The main thing that Blaine is saying is that translation is a very efficient way to check for comprehension and establish meaning. I teach Spanish and ESL at a high school. With all my Spanish students I share a common language, English. With my ESL students, nearly all of whom are Burmese and Nepali, we definitely do not share another language. Occasionally I have a Spanish speaker in my ESL class. With them I can establish meaning and most importantly check for comprehension in a microsecond while with the Burmese and Nepalis it is done with extreme difficulty and uncertainty as to whether meaning is indeed being established of comprehension being assessed. I view the ability to use translation as a blessing. If I could speak Burmese or Nepali, I could help my students so much more. What should be clarified is that we are not talking about grammar translation methods. This was put to rest many decades ago.

  8. I am interested in sending in a bio. The ideas of TPRS resonate with me. I stumbled across Carol Gaab’s presentation at ACTFL in Colorado 2011 and bought a class set of her Esperanza books. I’ve been experimenting with the ideas of TPRS and PQR and now with the new Semester coming on want to jump in further. I have an obscene of amount of freedom and support as the lead language teacher at a start up charter school for gifted middle school/high school students. I am passionate about making language approachable engaging and developing fluency with or without the recognition of the rules.

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