Archive for January, 2008


January 31, 2008

Today I told my eight superstars in one class to zip their mouths closed. I told them I was going to work with the quieter ones, who then would assume responsibility for driving the story forward, just for the day. Those kids were to just listen to the beauty of the language and take a nice break.

I learned more than I thought I would. I learned that the twenty other kids formed two groups. One group consisted of the quieter kids who get everything but never get their chance to supply cute answers. They were awesome and I bowed to their creativity and their daily patience with the superstars.

The other group – those last seven or eight – made me realize how much I ignore the barometers. They are just so easy to ignore! Their faces showed me today how much they don’t want me to look them right in the eyes to establish some honest communication.

I learned one thing from this experiment in not letting that fastest group speak today. I learned that I need to spend more time with the barometers! I need to get them into the flow of things more and more!

That group of course learned more today then usual, because I worked with them and went slower. The story was not so funny (striking writers in Hollywood kind of thing), but the sense of gratefulness in their eyes reminded me – yet again – that in TPRS we cannot afford to leave kids behind.



January 30, 2008

When Mozart was a kid, his young mind was bathed in music – it is all he heard around him.  His dad didn’t say, “Hey, Wolfgang, this is an eighth note, and this is a half rest. And check out this treble clef over here. I bet you’d like to learn how to draw one of them! Cool, huh! And once you learn all this stuff, in about five years, I am going to let you hear some music by Bach and Buxtehude and Palestrina, and you can see how this all fits together!”

We don’t learn languages by putting off our listening to them. We don’t learn languages by studying pieces of them in written form. We don’t even learn languages by hearing snippets of them in aural form! We learn them by continuously hearing them and understanding them in a relaxed way on a daily basis. We learn them by listening to their music first.

If some day we decide to major in music, we can then study tonal systems and diminished sevenths and all that stuff. Can’t we just enjoy the music that language is first and break it into pieces later, once we understand what it is?

Alchemy II

January 30, 2008

If you feel intimidated about PQA, don’t do it. You don’t have to do PQA, and you don’t even have to do stories. It’s not about PQA and it’s not about stories. It’s about comprehensible input.
Test the waters of TPRS first before worrying about PQA and stories. It’s easy! Just get little scenes of a few minutes of comprehensible input going on first in your classroom. Here’s what you do:

First, teach (translate and gesture) three phrases:

dessine – sketches
un dessin – a drawing
montre – shows

Then connect the phrases to a student in the following simple way:
Class, [a kid in the class] sketches!
THE KEY IS IN THE CIRCLING. It is in the circling that new details emerge. You may wish to start by circling the subject of your sentence:

Class, Jerome sketches! (ohh!)
Class, does Jerome sketch? (yes)
Class, does Micky Mouse sketch? (no)
Correct, class, Mickey Mouse doesn’t sketch, Jerome sketches. (ohh!)
Class, who sketches? (Jerome)
Or you may wish to circle the verb:
Does Jerome sketch? (yes)
Does Jerome sketch or sleep? (sketch)
Does Jerome sleep? (no)
That’s right, class, Jerome doesn’t sleep. Jerome sketches! (ohh!)
Class, does Jerome vomit? (no)
No, class! Jerome doesn’t vomit! He sketches!
Just remember to change up the circling when you sense that the class understands or you will bore the kids with needless circling.
So far, all you did was teach the kids a few words and circle one sentence consisting of a subject and verb. Not that challenging!
Now you could stop here or you could go to the next level – adding another sentence! In so doing, you are not committing yourself to a story and all that that entails. You can bail out at anytime!  Just add any sentence that might naturally follow the one just circled. Example:
Class, Jerome has a drawing!
Blaine has made it clear that every sentence should be circled to some degree, so you circle it, choosing perhaps to circle the subject first:
Class, does Jerome have a drawing? (yes)
Class, does Jerome or Anthony have a drawing? (Jerome)
Class, does Anthony have a drawing? (no)
That’s right, class, Anthony doesn’t have a drawing. Jerome has a drawing! (ohh)
Or you may wish to circle the verb:
Class, does Jerome have a drawing? (yes)
Class, does Jerome have or eat a drawing? (have)
Class, does Jerome eat a drawing? (no)
That’s right, class, Jerome doesn’t eat a drawing. Jerome has a drawing! (ohh)
Or, since this second sentence has an object, you might want to circle it as well:
Class, does Jerome have a drawing? (yes)
Class, does Jerome have a drawing or a pencil? (drawing)
Class, does Jerome have a pencil? (no)
That’s right, class, Jerome doesn’t have a pencil. Jerome has a drawing! (ohh)
Class, what does Jerome have? (drawing)
Who has a drawing? (Jerome)
Again, remember to circle enough to get a lot of repetitions but not so much that you bore the kids.
By this time, if you have circled just two sentences as suggested above, you will have shared a lot of the target language with your kids. They will have understood and responded to twenty five sentences. You will have gotten twenty five sentences from two. 

So, if you are intimidated by the whole idea of doing a story, don’t! If PQA intimidates you, wait and do it later! But you certainly can circle a sentence or two as per the above.

You don’t have to get all bogged down with telling the kids you are using a new method. They don’t care. Just tell the kids that you want them to hear some French and start circling. Then, after the two sentences, go teach some grammar or whatever you used to do.
In time, you will find more and more cute little details merging into and transforming the sentences you started with. Two sentences will become three. The sentences will be cute because that is the domain of kids. It is what they were designed to do – provide cute answers and laugh at how clever they are.

Each time you act astonished at how clever they are, they create more cute answers. In a flash, once they know what their job is in the game, they become masters of transferring your old boring adult questions into marvelous new things.

They can transform Jerome’s drawing into a drawing on the whiteboard of Michael Jackson’s face in seconds! They can do anything! And then you will see the alchemy of TPRS, without even doing any PQA or stories. 

Alchemy I

January 30, 2008

Think of some of the best classes you ever were a part of, as a student or as an instructor. Were they all planned out, or did they kind of direct themselves? What was the feeling in those classes? Was there a serious tone, or one of excitement, with some humor and a certain kind of lightheartedness?

We want our stories to work. We worry about that. We plan. We think that the story has to be a certain way. We want the story to connect to the script. We want it to connect to a set of thematic vocabulary. We want too much.

Wanting a story to turn out in a certain way is like wanting anything in our futures, even the next hour, to turn out in certain way. How often does that work? 
When we quit wanting these things, stories spring to life! We cannot legislate creativity in stories. We must “get out of the way” and let the kids’ cute answers drive things forward.

When we get out of the way, alchemy happens in our classrooms. Turning common elements of language into gold is common in TPRS. Alchemy is common in TPRS. When it happens, it is unbelievable. The unbelievable becomes common in TPRS.
Do have a story script to fall back on. Many days are not home run days. If comprehensible input is happening, nothing else matters.

But if you want the alchemy, let the kids into the classroom and let go a bit. Listen to their cute answers, and then use what they say. You will see magic.

Jessica Biel

January 27, 2008

Note: use circling to replace [information in brackets] with new, class-generated information.

wants to dance

[male heartthrob celebrity] wants to dance.
He goes to school where [female student] is from.  He sees [female student] Jessica Biel. He says, “Do you want to dance with me?” [female student] says, “Yes, [celebrity]. I want to dance with you…. The couple goes to [local club].  He dances like a [ sheep, imbecile, etc.]. Student dances with [other male celebrity] in club. 

Rejected [first male celebrity] goes to school where [another female student] is from. He sees [female student] Eva Longoria. He says, “Do you want to dance with me?” Eva says, “No, Mark. I want to [eat tacos, take a walk, hug, etc.] with you….

Extending PQA into Stories

January 27, 2008

Throughout the year, I like to update the kids’ names. If I give a kid a French name, they are just as boring and de-personalized as American names, and they are hard to recognize in the middle of spoken French.

But outlandish names that are connected to something about the kid, some activity they do, etc. tend to lighten everything up and increase interest.

One of my students went to a Hanna Montana concert here in Denver last month. She came dragging into my classroom in the morning. Her old name was dropped and she became Hanna Colorado.

A kid named Joe snowboards. He went to the Winter X Games in Aspen last weekend. So we changed his previous name to Halfpipe Joe.

Whenever I find out something new about a kid, if they go to a concert or to a boarding competition in the mountains, I PQA it. I don’t forget that I have a story lined up, but, because my class is about the kids first and the language second, I spend some time talking to Joe about his boarding.

“Class, Joe snowboards!”, circled for ten minutes becomes “Class, Joe snowboards fast down the mountain without a shirt on with a big parachute attached to his back and a mini-parachute attached to his board!”

I just talk to Joe and the class about Joe’s snowboarding, fudging it into a weird little scene, extending PQA out into a scene, thinking in the back of my mind that I might later be able to connect this new information to a story at some point.

If that scene about Joe’s snowboarding turns into a full blown story, great – I have a more personalized story. If not, great – PQA, which is at the heart of the method, is occurring. I can always ask my other story on another day. 

What is better than just talking with a kid and with the class about his or her life, with a smile on your face, loving their answers?

If you feel that you can’t reach the kid in such a setting, you probably aren’t going slowly enough, circling enough, and pausing and pointing at every new word that comes up during the PQA.

What have you done so far? You gave Joe a cool name that is important to him. You have talked slowly in the target language about a cool thing that he does. You have created a personalized imagined scene in the classroom about him. You have been laying down some serious comprehensible input.
And Joe has never left his seat. If you want, when the discussion about Joe wanes, you leave him there and do something else with another student. 

Debbie has a large yellow dog named Chance. Talk about Chance! When you do this, you are learning to see beyond mere students sitting in a classroom into a more imagination-filled world. You build on each little detail you get from a student.

In your inner teaching vision, you might see Chance knocking the guy down on the slopes up at Aspen. So you set that up. But it rarely goes where you think. That doesn’t matter. Comprehensible input and personalization matter, and you are doing both.

So you go back to Chance’s owner and you give her a funny name (just circle it with the class, the students come up with the cute answers) and one of them says something like “Chance’s Mom” or something personal which gives her an identity in your class.

How important this is! You are honoring what Joe and Chance’s owner, your students, have chosen to share with the group. Thus you give those students a meaningful place in the class.

You are always alert to where the circling might could go, straight into a collision between Joe and Chance on a mountain slope, or maybe Joe gets stuck in a tree because he gets so much air out of the halfpipe (your students are always the best in the world at what they do) and Chance saves him because he has the loudest bark in the world. Just go easy and see where the circling takes it.
Giving the kids funny names and circling normal information into weird stuff while they sit in their seats in your class is the object of the PQA process.

If these are raw beginners, just extending the PQA may be a good place to stop. But you may want to go on into a story! You have a couple of characters, so why not?

Starting a story is no more complex than having Joe stand up. Describe him again to the group (recycling previous  information). Recycle some more. Keep circling, and getting new details, reminding your students that their only job is to give you cute answers. Just see where it goes!

The story will go on, twisting and turning, and you just keep circling. Always remind the students that they bear 50% of the responsibility for the success of the class. Don’t forget to pause and point each time you use a question word or write a new word on the board, giving the students SLOW time to process.

You don’t need a lot of bizarre details. They confuse everyone. Just a few. In my opinion, the best PQA and stories are usually built around normal every day things with just one or two bizarre details.
Look how a normal person in your class who snowboards has been sparkled into someting a little more than normal, and in some way the circling and the individualized name have lifted their status in the room into a special, more interesting person.

Joe was transformed by your questioning into something more than he was when he came into your class, which is the essence of all great storytelling.

We can call the kind of personalization described above authentic, because it involves real activities acted out in class by the people who actually do them, as opposed to actors becoming animals or fictitious creatures. When the person doing the things in the story is allowed to be who they are in real life, interest in the story can be greater.
Personalizing stories in this way, building from PQA, is an advanced skill. Even stories with no such personalization as described above can be very interesting. Both ways produce success.

Guy in Coffee Shop

January 25, 2008

boit – drinks
fume – smokes
vient de monter – just got into

Guy [male student] in coffee shop. Smokes and drinks coffee. Looks out window into parking lot. Sees beautiful [celebrity] get in his Lamborghini. Says to himself that a beautiful woman just got into his car.

Goes to car. Tells her to get out of his car. Beautiful celebrity tells him, in a romantic voice, to get in the car. He refuses, is very upset.

She drives off or he gets in and they hug or whatever.

I like this script because it is chock full of the really basic elements that make stories work – connections to the daily lives of teens. There is not one sentence in the script that lacks kind of a “forbidden fruit” element to teens.

The opening scene in the coffee shop allows for all sorts of cultural details – the whole thing about coffee in Europe, cigarettes, makes of cars, etc. – all are easily compared and contrasted with U.S.A.

My classes typically produced stories like this one:

There is a kid in a Dunkin’ Donuts smoking four Gauloises cigarettes, drinking un express, casually looking out the huge picture window of the store. He sees, in a parking lot with 7,707 cars in it, a striking woman getting into his extremely small orange Lamborghini.

He smashes through the glass of the coffee shop on a huge horse, itself smoking an incredibly large cigarette in an incredible large mouth. The two take off across the parking lot. The boy angrily confronts the celebrity who responds lovingly in romantic tones, etc. etc. The confrontation between the two makes for extremely rich and humorous dialogue.

We never really ever got past the ensuing love scene in the car, or fistfight, or whatever happened there. You don’t have to “milk” scenes like that – the kids do it for you.

The story teaches at least two grammar points of note: 1) “to have just” done something, and 2) the verbs that describe getting in and out of cars. Moreover, using dialogue in the encounter between the two is great stuff because there is real emotion here, anger from the boy and romance from the celebrity.

It’s just a strong script. I have always agreed with those in TPRS who say that choosing a script or writing one’s own that is relevant to the fears and foibles of American teens makes the asking of the story that much easier. I plan to post other strong scripts on this page. Click on the blog category “story scripts”. They will be useful to you especially if you are not prepared on a certain day with a decent script – all you have to do is just print it and start the story – there is fun in every line.


January 22, 2008

Having focused more heavily than usual on comprehensible input in the form of stories since August, I am now beginning to see the fruits of this work showing up in my reading classes. I am glad I put off serious reading (i.e. a full 40% of the week) until now.

The kids are able to translate easily, of course, because they are using sound, not the left brain, to do so. But the cool thing is that, as soon as we finish translating each paragraph, I am able to engage them in immediate and almost  effortless conversation that connects the facts in the book (Pauvre Anne in this case) to their own lives. I am able to bring in interesting new facts and characters like today’s Italian newcomer Bracco Bama (Anne’s friend) at will.

(By the way, “Bracco” is pronounced in the Italian way, first syllable heaviest, and then the second trailing away as if you were in Brindisi eating spaghetti. But Americans who do not live in NYC do not understand this and insist on saying his name with a “k” sound – Bracco Bama).

Anyway, had I tried this kind of reading earlier, it wouldn’t have worked as well. Now, with the kids’ rich auditory history, the details, true or not, that we add into the discussion (which can be called “Reading PQA” – RPQA) amaze them and me. Confidence is high. They know they are learning.

They are acquiring the French language, pinning it on their knowledge of its sound and, now, what it looks like on paper. The formula works – first they mostly listened, now they are reading and talking.

Writing, another skill I have put off this year in order to  test the value of massive verbal input in the form of stories all the way into January, will also fall to the mighty strength of the kids’ ability to understand the spoken language.

 The only caution here is that when you do reading classes, you must allow no idle commentary. Idle comments in reading classes, indeed, in all TPRS classes, are much more deleterious than they appear. Don’t allow them.

Another caution (my opinion only) is to read and translate yourself. Having the kids translate the text doesn’t work for me.

Traditional Teaching

January 22, 2008

For thousands of years kids learned languages by listening to them. Meaningful, comprehensible input was all they knew, so the languages they heard were easy for them. Adults would say things to them that had meaning, look them in the eyes, tell them stories, pause if they didn’t understand, look for their reaction, smile and laugh, sing them songs, and, on a good day, even chant. Adults would ask them questions repeatedly. They learned because it felt right, because what they heard meant something to them.

Then, for the first time since kids started learning languages, they found out they could be wrong. Unexpectedly, adults started asking kids to learn languages not by listening to them, but by looking at them, how they were constructed, the pieces of language, etc.

Kids were forced into analyzing language, trying to understand what an adverb is, as if that could be understood, and what a stem changing verb is. They saw that their success depended on their ability to grasp these ideas. They stopped listening to the language in a way that had meaning to them, and they started conjugating verbs. This new method had predictable results. Kids learned slowly. Many gave up and put their heads on the desk. It felt wrong to them. But it went on for a hundred years. It is still going on.

Then Blaine Ray came along, and said, “What is going on here?” Blaine suggested that we return to more traditional ways of teaching, ways that convey meaning to the learners. A few embraced his ideas, but many attacked him as being “non-traditional”.

One is prompted to ask, “Who, really, are the traditional teachers?” Blaine and his merry band, or those who espouse the new-fangled notion that the way to learn a language is by breaking it up into little pieces and analyzing them?

Thomas Merton

January 21, 2008

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone with everything is to succumb to violence.  The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace.  It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

Thomas Merton, The Violence of Modern Life