Trapped in a textbook department?

Last week I asked teachers to send in their worst examples of textbook vocabulary lists. Textbooks tend to present thematic units which, in the best cases, theoretically lead to interesting conversations in class. Unfortunately in the real world many busy teachers see these lists and feel pressured to turn their classes into vocabulary drills for fear that their students are not going to ‘learn the vocabulary’. Drilling isolated words does not lead students to acquire language. They need to hear complete messages.

Observation #1:

Regardless of however long the list of words we have been tasked to teach, we must always embed each new vocabulary item that we choose to present within communicative language that the learner is already processing with ease. Researchers tell us that native-like language acquired via the implicit language acquisition system only happens when the learner understands a message. “You should fall asleep before midnight” is a message, whereas “dormirse (ue): to fall asleep” is not a message.

Lengthy vocabulary lists are not the only problem with thematic units. If you are currently stuck in a “daily routines” unit you might be having a hard time getting student buy-in with preachy little phrases about the evils of staying up late watching Netflix. Students acquire best when they think that the class conversation is comprehensible and interestingnot comprehensible and nagging.

Observation #2:

Use the activities in the CI Master Class to embed new vocabulary into activities with compelling language.

For instance, ask a student in a student interview at what time does he/she fall asleep. Don’t mention that it’s a stem-changing verb in Spanish, don’t interrupt to clarify that acostarse (ue) means to go to bed while dormirse (ue) means to fall asleep. Just simply ask in the target language, ¿A qué hora te duermes? (At what time do you fall asleep?). The student will understand because the translation is on the slide projected behind her… review the instructions for conducting student interviews if you need a refresher. Act surprised and interested in her response and– this is crucial– ask follow up questions. “¿Te duermes (point and pause at the phrase te duermes on the slide, which also has the translation you fall asleep written directly below) a las dos (hold up two fingers to indicate “at two”) de la mañana?” When she affirms that this is correct turn to the class and ask, ¿A qué hora se duerme Sarah? (palm of your hand facing up and outstretched toward Sarah so that the class understands you are talking about Sarah, not to Sarah). REQUIRE A CHORAL RESPONSE from all students in class. Repeat the question if necessary. Ask more questions, going up and down your interrogative words poster.

It is always tempting to follow up with ¡¿Por qué?! (WHY!?), but put yourself in the shoes of your students: “why questions are always the hardest to answer and thus often kill the conversation. I try to avoid asking questions beginning with why and instead either offer a choice or ask a yes or no question. ¿No te gusta dormir? (Don’t you like sleeping?) ¿Es difícil (write the word difícil on the board and then write difficultdormir? (Point and pause at te duermes even though you said dormir). (Hold out two hands, palms open and facing up to indicate a choice between two things): ¿Tienes miedo de dormirte o prefieres mirar el Netflix? (Are you afraid of falling asleep, or do you prefer to watch Netflix?)

I rarely spend more than 10 minutes on a student interview. Even a student who does not find Sarah to be compelling can be reasonably asked to follow the conversation for 10 minutes, whereas spending 40 minutes will wear students’ patience thin and make them less open to more student interviews in the future. Short and sweet is always better. However, I will follow-up with a five minute Write & Discuss so that students get to see the words written in full sentences and process the language again.

Other activities that lend themselves well to introducing new vocabulary include calendar talk, which is a natural choice for talking about routines. However you can fit in anything that students do into a calendar talk. Stuck in a sports unit? “Who is playing rugby this week?” (I ask in the target language). “Nobody!?” Then I write on the side of the calendar “Nobody in our class plays rugby”.

Or do a picture talk: find a picture of an exhausted person (or, even better, have your students send you photos of themselves looking exhausted and choose JUST ONE to discuss). Hold out your hands, palms facing up to indicate a choice: “Sí o no: ¿Él se duerme a las nueve?” Follow up by glancing at your question words poster and asking several more questions. ¿Dónde se duerme? Imaginación, chicos… él no se duerme en la cama. ¿Dónde se duerme? Quiere dormirse, pero no puede. ¿Por qué no puede dormirse? Cuántos… hmm… ¿Cuántas horas por noche duerme?

Then try a card talk in which students draw something that represents what they like to do immediately before going to sleep. “Antes de dormirse… clase, ¿qué quiere decir ‘antes de dormirse’? (write on board ‘before falling asleep’)… bueno, antes de dormirse (point and pause at the board again) a Andrea le gusta (pick up her card and show everyone the illustration of a toothbrush) cepillarse los dientes. Andrea, ¿dónde te cepillas los dientes? ¿Dónde te duermes? (Where do you brush your teeth? Where do you fall asleep?) ¡Clase! (I say this to alert everyone that I am asking the entire class a question) ¿Se cepilla los dientes en la cama? (Does she brush her teeth in her bed?) REQUIRE A CHORAL RESPONSE TO QUESTIONS POSED TO THE ENTIRE CLASS. ¿Se duerme en el baño? (Does she fall asleep in the bathroom?)

However, we still have a problem with creating compelling class conversations because textbook thematic units are generally not compelling. When was the last time you had a fifty-five minute conversation in your first language about daily routines? If, by some odd chance, you really did recently chat about brushing your teeth without boring your conversation partner… did you continue having such conversations for 55 minutes a day for two weeks, after which you stopped talking about daily routines and instead dedicated the next two weeks to discussing modes of transport?

I love One Word Images because they are compelling and provide a lot of natural language. If I were stuck in a daily routines unit, I would do some of the activities listed above but also modify a one word image. After the first four characteristics, just after the class decides whether he is happy or sad, I would add one thing. I would tell my students in the target language, “class, I have to add one important detail: he is very, very tired”. Then we would continue the one word image process like normal. The following day instead of asking the class for a problem I would have prepared a prompt to start our story. I present the illustration like normal, then I would say in the target language,

“Class, our very tired and sad box of cereal (or whatever the object is) has a big problem. He falls asleep very late, very very late, and he always wakes up late. Class, he wakes up so late that he does not brush his teeth. He comes to school and he says ‘hi’ to the cute box of cereal that he likes, but that cute box of cereal leaves quickly and does not talk to him. He does not know why. Class, I have a secret: it is because he does not brush his teeth. It is because he falls asleep very, very late and then does not brush his teeth.”

Once the problem has been presented, your class can resolve the story using the normal OWI story template presented in the OWI section of the CI Master Class.

Observation #3:

Not all vocabulary words are equally important.

You might be thinking that you cannot spend so much time on one word when you have a gigantic list of words to cover. Perhaps you are looking for an activity to quickly cover all of these words, so that you can do what linguists tell us should not be done. From a research perspective, it is essential that you focus on a few specific words.

“Well designed programs need to draw on frequency information and also need to have the flexibility for teachers and learners to play a part in choosing the vocabulary to focus on.” – Paul Nation, linguist and expert on vocabulary acquisition

I was shocked when I first started paying attention to a high-frequency word list to guide my curriculum. While I was eager to rid my students of such low-frequency words such as fregadero and algodón in favor of words that they would use spontaneously on their own, I was unaware that even words like azul and octubre are much less frequent than some words that I typically would save until their third or fourth year of language study. I am not arguing that colors and months be altogether dropped from level 1 courses, but if you want your students to quickly become communicatively proficient then you should emphasize the highest frequency vocabulary. I have seen estimates that the most frequent 100 words make up half of the spoken language and the top 1000 words make up 70-80%!

Most textbook vocabulary does not even appear in the top 1000… some not even in the top 10,000. “Encestar“, a Spanish 1 word from the Así se dice textbook, shows up among the top 36,000. Stop the madness!

You are wasting your students’ time if you force feed them mountains of vocabulary. Instead, focus on high frequency words and allow students to suggest the low-frequency words that they want to learn. They don’t need to learn “cereal box”, but will embrace that word if they themselves choose it. Ask them to choose from your word walls of thematic vocabulary if necessary.

Here is my final advice if you are trapped in a textbook department:

Post the Sweet 16 verbs at the beginning of the year and prioritize their acquisition. Even if your school district insists that you follow a certain textbook closely, posting and actively using the the sweet 16 verb posters in class will lead your students to develop an amazing native-like fluency with some of the most commonly used words in the target language.

Place weekly thematic vocabulary that you must cover on a rotating word wall with the English translations visible. Use that wall as inspiration, not as a list that students are required to memorize.

Limit vocabulary. Don’t kill yourself trying to get all of the vocabulary from the textbook into your lessons. If required, assign Quizlet lists for out of class study.

Use your question word posters to help you park on one word or two from the thematic unit that you are focusing on.

Do not strictly follow the textbook order. Textbooks tend to drip out the Sweet 16 verbs over the course of the entire first year, if they even present them all. You can introduce the third person form of those verbs within the first few hours of classes, setting up a much more communicative class far earlier than the textbook anticipates.

Regardless of what you do in class, be sure to end with a Write & Discuss and an exit quiz. It will be effective even if you have to write (in the target language), “today we read the textbook and half the class fell asleep. We talked about rooms of the house and Bobby dreamed about his bed while Tricia wanted to watch TV in her living room…“

“If learners spend time learning low-frequency words… this learning would be largely wasted because it will be a long time before they meet or use these words again.” – Paul Nation, linguist and expert on vocabulary acquisition