High-frequency verb posters are an equity issue!

Last week I mentioned that new vocabulary should be ’embedded’ within language that students are already processing fluently. Rather than present “dormirse (ue): to fall asleep“, I ask my students questions and make statements using my posters to scaffold the conversation. This week I want to describe this key element of my approach: using high-frequency verb posters and the interrogative word posters to scaffold a relatively spontaneous class conversation.

Use the verb posters to introduce new vocabulary

After I posted the question words in a spot that I frequently look at during instruction I noticed that I was asking many more questions in class. In fact, I asked a greater variety of questions. Suddenly interrogatives like ¿cuál? were popping up everywhere. My students acquired these words rapidly because I frequently used the poster as a crutch to help me generate questions on the spot.

In the same way, the sweet sixteen verb posters are as much a crutch for the teacher as the student. After a few weeks students will occasionally glance over at the posters (which is valuable for me to recognize what has not been fully acquired), but for the most part posters become invisible if they are not an active part of the class. To prevent these verbs from becoming buried, I recycle them whenever I introduce new vocabulary. The posters really help me come up with questions during the heat of the moment, unscripted but perfectly comprehensible.

Here is an example: one day in November a level 1 class was imagining a situation in which a man, allergic to Pepsi, wants a Coke. However there is no Coke in the restaurant, so the employees keep coming up with excuses to give him a Pepsi. At the time I used to teach with target phrases (that day we were targeting “pide” and “le ofrecen”), but even today I might spontaneously go through this process when some crucial new vocabulary expression is introduced into class conversation.

¿Puede beber un pepsi el hombre? No, él no puede beber pepsi, por eso pide una coca-cola. ¿Los empleados salen para comprar coca-cola? No, le ofrecen un pepsi porque ellos no quieren salir. ¿Por qué no quieren salir? Porque quieren ver su programa favorito en la tele. Entonces, ¿qué ve el hombre en las manos de los empleados? El ve latas de pepsi, pero no ve una lata de coca-cola. ¿Le ofrecen una lata de coca-cola? ¡Qué va! ¡Le ofrecen una lata de pepsi! ¿El hombre pone el pepsi en la boca? ¡Claro que no! Él puede morir si bebe Pepsi. El hombre pide una coca-cola. ¿Los empleados saben que el hombre quiere coca-cola? Sí, ellos saben. Saben muy bien, pero son flojos y quieren ver la tele…

Even if you are not creating stories in your classroom, you can embed new vocabulary into sweet sixteen verb phrases so that students develop an ability to handle the highest frequency verbs with ease. Suppose, for example, your district requires that students learn thirty words related to camping. Rather than spend an equal amount of class time on words that are extremely low-frequency I might create a conversation centered around one of the low frequency words.

(Holding up a can of beans) Aquí tengo una lata de frijoles y necesito (holding up a can opener) un abrelatas para abrir la lata. Pero… (placing a can opener discreetly on a student´s desk) ¿dónde está el abrelatas? ¿Quién sabe dónde está el abrelatas? Ay Dios mío, no puedo comer (pointing and pausing at the verb puede) sin el abrelatas. (A student answers correctly that Susan has it). ¿Susan? No es posible que Susan tenga (point and pause at “tiene”—they´ll get it) el abrelatas. Ella es una chica buena. (Turning to class) Clase, what did I just say in English? Class says in English: she is a good girl. (Turning to the Brian) Brian, what would I say if I wanted to say she is a bad girl? Brian: es una chica mala. (Turning back towards class) Susan es una chica buena, ¡ella no tiene mi abrelatas! Clase, ¿cuál es el problema? (They might not know how to articulate an answer to my question, or someone might rudely say “¡usted!”, so I rephrase my question as an either/or question): Clase: ¿quiero saber dónde está la lata de frijoles, o quiero saber dónde está el abrelatas? (Hopefully they respond abrelatas, but if the response is not strong I simply ask the question again slowly, pointing and pausing). Clase, ¿quién quiere abrir la lata? (They answer “el profe”). Sí, correcto, yo quiero abrir la lata con el abrelatas. (Turning towards Sally) Sally, what does the –o on the end of quiero mean? (Sally says “I”). Y clase, ¿qué necesitamos para abrir la lata? (If they can´t say the answer then I write the word on the board and ask them an either/or question).

As you can see in the above description, the questioning is a bit plodding as I am trying to find something interesting to say about a can opener. More importantly however, the students are now processing the present tense fairly quickly if I were now able to speak like that without too much pointing and pausing. Yet they understand the message at all times as they can answer my questions, and hopefully we will soon move on from can openers to a more interesting conversation topic.

Once the high frequency verbs have been acquired there is no reason to not continually sow them into your classes. It really should be part of your daily routine throughout the year. Students will gain more experience with a variety of conjugations. If your focus is limited enough, by the end of the year they will be using these verbs fluently in multiple conjugations because they have heard them many times in meaningful contexts.

Will students actually acquire the Spanish if I leave the English translations visible?

That is a very interesting question that I had to answer for myself through a little action research in my own classroom.

My initial belief was that, if I left the English available, students would never memorize the words but simply glance up whenever they need the word. However, over the course of the semester I noticed students glancing up at the posters less and less. They still would look during a quick write, for example, but I was never sure if they were seeking a translation (“what is the word for to leave?”) or if they were seeking inspiration (“what else could I write… ah, salir, I could mention that he left!).

So I designed a little experiment. During midterm exams I let two of my level 1 classes take the exam in my classroom with posters visible. The other two sections of level 1 were brought to a French classroom where there was no textual support in Spanish. They were not informed previously that they would be brought to the French room, nor were the other sections that stayed in my classroom specifically instructed to not look at the posters. On the midterm exam I feature the sweet 16 verbs heavily because I think this is the bedrock foundation of level 1. I want to know if these verbs have been acquired so that, if necessary, I will dedicate the rest of the year to really nailing down these verbs. To my surprise, there was absolutely no difference between any of the sections. I blogged about those classes that took the test in the French classroom on my website.

So, what is happening here? I think the key to understanding my students’ retention is to look at the difference between (1) teaching students to memorize vocabulary and (2) guiding them to process the vocabulary quicker.

I try not to ask questions that my students cannot answer; instead I am giving them so many meaningful repetitions that their minds eventually move faster than their eyes. The first time they hear the word tiene, their eyes will dart up to the posters. If I keep using the word tiene repetitively, they will stop even thinking “tiene means has”. Tiene will just mean tiene. The next day I will have to repeat the process and some students will process it very quickly while others will need more time. Eventually, they will all be processing at the speed of native speakers.

I recommend that you do your own action research. If you are a travelling teacher who uses more than one classroom, try covering the English part with post-it notes in one of the classrooms after introducing the verb. See if there is a difference between your classes. Or try covering the English after two weeks, or two months. In any case, actively use the posters in your teaching every day so that students are seeing, and hearing, many meaningful repetitions of these high-frequency words.

Are the “Sweet 16 verbs” just a bigger “Super 7” list?

I often see people misunderstand how these two concepts are different. Someone recently let me see a presentation she was giving and she said that the “Sweet 16” are just more verbs. As I responded, I realized that the concept of the Sweet 16 verbs is deeply rooted in a non-targeted approach.

The idea of Terry Waltz’s “Super 7” verbs was to quickly get your class to a point in which you can tell simple stories, rather than spending months learning thematic vocabulary lists. That was a gigantic leap forward. However, the idea behind the “Sweet 16” verbs is not simply some more verbs tacked on to Terry´s list. When I first proposed the sweet 16, Terry was describing her Super 7 as an anchor for meaningful communication within the first few hours of class. My contribution was to take an expanded list of sixteen high-frequency words and describe them as a full four year curriculum.

Many people miss how this point is a dramatic step forward. In fact, teachers who want a highly-controlled curriculum (i.e., “every teacher does the same exact lesson”) often totally misunderstand this contribution. As a department chair trying to design a common experience for students in different classes, with a half dozen different teachers on staff, I could have sought to limit the creativity of students and teachers by insisting that every teacher follow the same collection of story scripts, movie talks, and novels. That is, “all Spanish 1 students will read X novel and discuss Z movie talk. All Spanish 2 students will acquire this list of target structures so that they will be “ready” for Spanish 3″.

On the other hand, the Sweet 16 verbs represent a different path towards creating a common experience between classes. Of course we do not simply repeat sixteen words for four years, but we do agree that structures with these verbs are the ones that are recycled and given priority at every step in the journey. The only other guideline we follow is to simply strive to provide compelling CI, for four years.

We recognized that in any classroom there will be many different interests, and that when students are following their own interests then they perceive the input as more compelling, which leads to faster acquisition.

That is the funny thing about those studies which try to count how many times a student needs to hear a word to fully acquire it… teachers know that swears might be fully acquired the very first time they are understood whereas an abstract transition word that the student never uses in their own L1 could be uttered comprehensibly 500 times and not be fully acquired. The Sweet 16 gives a department the flexibility to allow their teachers and students to pursue different interests in class, to use different language, but guarantees that there will be a common communicative foundation throughout the entire program.

For example, the Sweet 16 verbs allow one teacher to develop an independent reading program for her students in which students are all reading different books (and thus developing their own idiosyncratic vocabularies), while another teacher develops his CI skills by using an authentic Spanish TV show as an anchor text for his class.

There is another major advantage to running a department this way. When any of my teachers get students at the beginning of the year, we do not have a list of target structures in our minds that we assume our students have acquired. We do not get angry if our level 3 kids do not understand X phrase; instead we are trained to start the conversation assuming nothing and paying close attention to their eyes.

At all levels, as we think about how to phrase our language so that it will be comprehensible, we all return to the Sweet 16 verbs and posters. It is a common experience in all classes, even though I spend a week talking about whales and my colleague spends weeks talking about football (what would you expect from a football coach!).

This is necessary because students move into our district at every level, and we cannot just leave them behind because they did not start with us. We need to provide a comprehensible experience at all levels, even if students missed the first 3 years of our CI program because they were learning thematic vocab in another district.