Activities that need to be left behind

When I started my career 20 years ago I was taught to immerse my students in an eclectic grab bag of language games and activities, ready to use so that my classes never lost their novelty.

Over time I have shed many of these activities from my repertoire.

The issue is not whether they work; most often there is something valuable. The issue frequently comes down to whether the activity is an efficient as well as effective use of class time. Language acquisition takes place on the scale of thousands of hours; the average high school language program offers students a total of between 400 and 650 contact hours spread over four years.

We have to optimize our class time, choosing the most efficient activities so that students leave our programs prepared to continue the process of acquisition without us.

This essay lists nine activities that I once understood as part of a common sense approach to language acquisition which I later re-evaluated with a critical eye. If you are transitioning towards CI teaching but have a hard time adding more to your already packed classes, this list might help you simplify your teaching life.

(1) Conjugation games: Conjugation races, games with verb ending manipulatives, and all sorts of other activities in which kids had to conjugate verbs were a staple of my classes when I first started my career, but they were dropped when I discovered that my students learn to conjugate just fine by being exposed repeatedly to rich, comprehensible language in class. The key is to write full sentences on the board, such as in a W&D activity, and to occasionally draw their attention to the verb endings so that they associate the endings with changes in meaning. If you let students always infer the meaning, they will get the gist of the reading but not pick up on the subtle differences between “he runs” and “they ran”. It is incredibly powerful to insert an occasional pop-up comment, such as, “Why does ‘corro’ end in an o? What does the o mean?” A pop-up grammar comment should not last more than 10-15 seconds. It is sufficient to do it 5 times per class period (a total of 50-75 seconds per class spent on grammar). Point out the same grammar point each time so that students are screaming the answer back in exasperation.

However, the huge game-changing advantage of teaching conjugation in context is that students unconsciously observe all of the minor grammar points that would otherwise eat up your entire curriculum if you were to explain it all explicitly. I have not even mentioned “the personal a” in years, in any class, yet my level 3 students naturally use it fairly consistently. Never mind all of the prepositional constructions that accompany specific verbs, or the myriad rules governing the usage of por and para. Linguists Stephen Krashen and Bill Van Patten both argue that even a grammar pop-up is not needed, so don’t feel bad if you forget to interrupt your class conversation with grammar pop-ups. In fact, feel great about it.

(2) Correcting writing samples: On a practical level, can we take a moment to mourn all of that precious time spent marking up papers that kids do not even glance at?! Surely the “efficient use of time” argument can eliminate this practice.

But if you need research, take a look at John Truscott’s paper indicating that correction is not only a waste of time, but possibly harmful in many cases. “Waste of time” is good enough for me to throw this practice in the trash bin.

If you must, try gently rephrasing learner language orally. While completing a W&D listen to the learner language and then write it on the board in the correct form. Sometimes after a movie talk I ask students to pose follow-up questions so that we can delve into the story. As they ask questions, but before we start answering them, I write the corrected question on the board. These are productive ways to provide feedback.

Or better yet, simply do not correct your students’ written or spoken output but rather continue to model lots of correct language. Research has found that language learners will go through predictable stages, including some stages (when their output is getting more complex) that may look like students are making even more errors, not less. These stages cannot be avoided.

“Direct error correction by the instructor does not promote linguistic accuracy and the absence of error correction in the early stages of acquisition does not impede the development of linguistic accuracy.” – Bill Van Patten, linguist and expert in Second Language Acquisition

(3) Pair work (for the most part): Krashen’s research indicates that people do not learn to speak by speaking; they speak after much listening and reading (input). For that reason alone it is more efficient to expose students to more input than burn class time on non-input activities.

Listening to partner speech is input but, as Terry Waltz says, “it is the McDonald’s of language acquisition”. It is better to expose students to the correct, rich and comprehensible input provided by the teacher than the error-riddled, simple and at times incomprehensible speech of a learner.

However there are times that I do encourage students to briefly engage in pair work: occasionally as a short 1 minute bail-out move I tell students to summarize our class conversation in pairs so that I have a moment to consider what to do next.

I also believe that it is empowering for students to occasionally speak in small groups without being assessed. They are often amazed at how the language just flows. I might even give students the opportunity to voluntarily choose a speaking activity among a variety of options designed to review a reading or class discussion (it would probably be recorded on their phones and sent to me via email). Occasionally I break for very short paired conversations when students are bubbling with language and want an outlet to enjoy speaking.

Voluntary speaking can lead to positive language experiences, but that is a far cry from routine pair work in class to practice the language.

(4) Readings designed to practice X language (vocabulary, grammar): Students acquire best when they are interested in the message being communicated. Or better yet, the message should be not just interesting, but compelling. While students may judge our class conversations as less interesting than their lunchtime conversations with friends, a text designed to practice “parts of the house” or “usage of the subjunctive” is sure to be a loser.

My rule is if we would not be interested in the conversation (or reading the text) in our first language, don’t bother forcing it in the second language.Life is short, let’s be interesting.

I asked teachers to send me examples of their thematic textbook vocabulary lists. Next week we will look at a few of these lists and brainstorm ways to make teaching in a textbook department more interesting, better aligned to student needs and, as a result, more acquisition-friendly.

(5) Speaking assessments: Give ample opportunities and encouragement for students to speak when they are ready. My class rule that “one person speaks, everyone else listens” motivates students who are capable and eager to actually talk in class, but forcing speech does nothing for language acquisition. Nor is it necessary to run an effective class.

Speaking assessments are also a tremendous time suck for teachers both in and outside of class. That time could have been spent developing more compelling readings and conversation topics.

Please note that I am not against student speaking in class; just squandering time assessing it. From the perspective of efficient use of class time, whatever advantages that students gain from a forced march through a speaking assessment pales compared to the time that could have been spent on an interesting reading.

I do start giving speaking assessments in level 3 because we are preparing for an exam in level 4 (AP/IB), but even then the speaking assessments are recorded in private (much like the exams). That is for the purpose of test prep, not language acquisition.

(6) Studying grammar: Linguist Bill Van Patten has said that our attempts to describe the grammar we have in our minds is like seeing a constellation of stars in the sky; the constellation that looks like a bear is just an illusion of our perspective in space. In the same way, grammar is actually a lot more complicated than our minds consciously grasp, yet when exposed to natural language our unconscious minds soak it all up. Even something like usage of the subjunctive can be taught simply by exposing students to rich, correct input.

In my practical experience, as long as my input is grammatically rich from day one, it is a more efficient path than grammar study. The key is to make sure that your own language as a teacher is both comprehensible and not unnaturally simplified. For a non-native speaker of Spanish I would recommend that you consciously try to use the phrase “para que” in your W&D texts. As long as students thoroughly understand the message, they will eventually acquire the correct form.

However, there is a limited place for explicit discussion of grammar outside of brief grammar pop-ups: during the editing phase of the writing process for advanced students. In my teaching that only shows up in upper level courses for heritage language learners. For my non-native speakers I am more likely to spend class time in our level 4 course discussing, as a whole class, how to use transition words to build a logical argument (once again, part of the editing process as we write AP essays).

Four years of exposure to real language in my school’s program leads the majority of students to develop an intermediate mastery. Explicitly reviewing the imperfect and preterit will help students pass an explicit grammar test, but it will not impact their implicit, instinctive language use. The best way to develop their instinctive language use in upper levels is even more reading, including models of the kinds of essays that you want them to write.

(7) Unit Exams: I don’t even teach units anymore– almost all of our class activities are self-contained within one class period. This is a strategy that I adopted to help my kids with high absenteeism due to the chaos of living in poverty.

Placing my teaching situation to the side, however, the idea of burning a whole day on assessments, and then losing sleep and valuable prep time to correct them all… that is an inefficient use of time. Instead pinpoint exactly what you want to learn about your students, give them a five minute assessment in class to gather that information and then REACT to the assessment.

Many teachers give assessments to get some grade in the grade book. We should be using those assessments to modify instruction. If you are not reacting to the information gathered, why burn the time doing the assessment in the first place? This leads to a more reflective practice on part of the teacher who interrupts the flow of input only when necessary.

You will find that you need to interrupt that flow less and less. As the old farmers saying goes: “weighing the pig frequently does not make it grow any faster”.

(8) Vocabulary games (for the most part): I still occasionally play a word game like Boggle in class because it is a fun bailout move, but that is different from routinely playing vocabulary games as a way to learn vocabulary. Most vocab games focus on one word, whereas what really drives language acquisition is communicating whole messages. It might feel satisfying to cover 30 words in a 10 minute game of Flyswatter, but that game has a frustratingly feeble impact on students’ ability to later use those words.

I used to consistently use these kinds of activities to front-load vocabulary in my Spanish heritage language learners classes before reading stories. As much as my students mastered the vocabulary out of context, it seemed to have little impact when they later read the story. It comes down to efficiency; students need to experience words in many contexts before actually acquiring the word.

The superficial, short-term learning of a list of vocabulary words fools us into believing that those words are well on the way to being acquired, when in fact it would be much more efficient to embed a single new word in a compelling context for 10 minutes. Beniko Mason’s research on vocabulary acquisition related to reading finds that vocabulary games and activities before and after reading actually lead to less long-term acquisition than simply using that time for more reading.

(9) Reading whole class novels: This might get under some teachers’ skin. Reading a whole class novel together is a lot better than a textbook, but I have to include this practice among the ‘inefficient’ activities. Why struggle to push your classes through four novels per year (and that is a lot for enthusiasts of whole class reading) when your students could enjoy reading between 15 to 25 novels on their own with a pleasure reading program?

As I argued in the last newsletter, it is better to stretch their reading skills with short, whole class Write & Discuss texts while you save your library of comprehensible novels for pleasure reading. The irony is that if level 1 students read 20 easy novels on their own, by level three they will be reading the level 3 novels… without the teacher’s interference. Pleasure reading empowers students.