A CI Technique to Improve Grammatical Accuracy

Are you worried about grammatical accuracy? Focus on the Basic Skills module of the CI Master Class to make your teacher talk as effective as it can be. Most CI presenters will say: “stop worrying about grammatical accuracy because, with time and more input, everything will fall into place.

I say that.

Yet there are CI techniques designed to improve your students’ grammatical accuracy right now. Today I want to present one controversial technique championed by the founder of TPRS and a true maverick, Blaine Ray, and then I will discuss why I think this technique has limited value in the classroom.

Triangling” is a technique to get students responding in the target language automatically with a high degree of precision. It is very powerful both for the student actor as well as the “passive” students observing. From my experience there are three essential steps: (1) the teacher chooses ONE verb and speaks comprehensibly in a ‘triangle’ of forms (I, you, he/she). Often there will be visual scaffolding, such as writing the three verb forms with English translations on the white board. (2) After a short period of delivering input the teacher then asks a student to describe from his/her perspective what has been said thus far, in the target language. (3) The teacher immediately corrects mistakes and explains in English what the student actually said.

If you were ever trained to “circle” (another classic TPRS technique), this should feel somewhat familiar. Triangling is the twin brother of circling. And they both have the same bad reputation among educators who, most likely, did not quite learn to do either correctly. I will add that Blaine’s approach has evolved over the years to include elements that CI-friendly researchers might frown upon: specifically (a) some apparent forced student output and (b) explicit correction of student speech.

Blaine long-ago found peace with being outside of the establishment and, even as his work is now studied by established university professors like Karen Lichtman, Blaine’s approach continues to evolve directed by his teaching observations rather than following academic research. This is exactly what makes Blaine such a charming maverick.

What does it look like in practice?

During ACTFL 2019 in Washington D.C. I invited Blaine to teach a TPRS class in our CI-Posse demo space. Below I have written a script of a part of that demo that highlights how triangling looks in the classroom. There are elements that you may want to rethink, such as the emphasis on binary gender and the comical machismo (in context, among adults, it was actually quite funny). The script is also abbreviated and written from memory, several months later.

Assume everything was actually said in German, except where noted. Blaine referred to a power point slide projected on the white board that had the conjugations of the German verb “I am”, “you are” and “he/she is”. There may have been a few other words and he may have written a word or two on the board, but that was pretty much it.

Blaine (speaking German): Class, I am (pointing and pausing at board) a man.

Class: ohhhhh.

Blaine: Class, am I (point and pause at board) a man?

Class: Yes.

Blaine: Yes class, I am a man! That is obvious!

Class: ohhhhh.

Blaine: Class, I am the number 1 (hand gesture for number 1) man. The number one man? (in English: “that means the number one man”). (In German again): Class, am I the number 2 man (hand gesture for number 2)?

Class: No.

Blaine: No, I am the number one man! And you, (speaking to a woman), are a woman.

Class: Ohhhhh.

Blaine: (to woman) Are you a man?

Woman: No.

Blaine: No, that is obvious. You are not a man. I am a man. I am the number one man. And you are a woman. Class, Linda is a woman.

Class: Ohhhh.

Blaine: (looking at another woman) She is Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga is a woman. Lady Gaga is woman number two.

Class: Ohhh.

Blaine: (looking straight at Linda, the first female student actor) You are woman number one. Lady Gaga is woman number two! You are number one! (raises hands in celebration) Class, Linda is woman number one!

Class: oh.

Blaine: (in English) more enthusiasm please.

Class: OHHHHHH!!

Blaine: Class, who is woman number one?

Class: Linda.

Blaine: Class, is Linda a woman?

Class: Yes.

Blaine: Linda, are you woman number 2?

Linda: No.

Blaine: (in English) Say the whole phrase.

Linda: No, you are woman number 1.

Blaine: (in English) you just said that I am woman number 1 (pointing at the conjugations on the board)

Linda: Oh, I AM woman number 1. (still looking at board) You are man number 1. Lady Gaga am… is woman number 2.

Blaine: That is obvious! You are not woman number 2. You are number 1. Lady Gaga is number 2! (speaking to a student observing in the crowd) Tell us what has happened in our story.

Student: You are man number 1. Lady Gaga is woman number 2. Linda is woman number 1. That is obvious!

Blaine: I am a man. Mike (pointing at me sitting in front row) is a man too. Class, is Mike the number one man?

Class: No!!!

Blaine: That is obvious! Mike is number 2. Mike, are you a man?

Mike: yes.

Blaine: (in English) Say the whole thing.

Mike: Yes… you are a man.

Blaine: (pointing at board, in English) You just told me that I am a man. (in German) That is obvious.

Mike: I am a man.

Blaine: (in German) You are a man! But are you man number one?

Mike: I am… (looking at board) you are man number one. I am man number two.

Blaine: That is obvious!!

Blaine continued in this manner, training his students to respond automatically with the correct verb form, without any hesitation. Notice that he never introduces another verb. There is no action moving us forward, we are parked on the same verb. Even when I responded correctly, if I responded with hesitation Blaine simply asked another question so that I processed the language a little quicker. Ultimately we students stopped looking at the board altogether as we started processing his very basic questions at the speed of a native speaker.

Wait, what about ‘wait time’?

The edu-experts often tell us to build in wait time for students to think before responding to questions… wait, they tell us, up to 30 seconds. That is clearly not what Blaine is doing and, in fact, neither do I in class. What we do in a World Language class is quite different than any other class. Ask students, “What caused the Civil War?” and yes, it makes sense to wait. Let them reflect.

However I am doing something different when I slowly tell students that “my shirt… is… blue”, followed by a question: “Is my shirt green… or blue?”, then “Do I have a blue nose… or a blue shirt?”, then “What color is my shirt?”. I am trying to develop automaticity. The answer to the first question is not the point; that all students are answering without hesitation to the last question is exactly the point.

Many CI teachers improve our students’ processing speed by speaking like this. At first students process the target language very slowly. If we were to continue speaking naturally without restricting our vocabulary then our students would still need a lot of time to process the target language, but when we speak repetitively like this, we manage to train them to think quicker and quicker until they are thinking (processing) the language very quickly indeed.

Blaine argues that triangling is a skill that not only gets our students to process language faster, but we can use it to get them to speak faster as well. And accurately too! I suspect that if your students are comprehending a lot in class but hardly ever speak in the target language, triangling is a technique that may ‘break the dam’ and get some of them comfortable using the language that they have already heard a lot.

On the other hand, conversation surging forth through an interesting game of Mafia or about a compelling movie talk could easily ‘break the dam’ just as effectively.

If you want to try this out in your class

Choose a willing volunteer to be your student actor. When done well students are delighted to speak through this technique, but if you choose a reluctant student this can fall spectacularly flat. Feel good about not forcing every student to speak; it is very powerful both for the student actor as well as the “passive” students observing.

When I triangle, I almost always pair this technique with a card talk so that we have a set of visual cards to guide us. The visuals keep it simple and also prevent it from feeling too much like a grammar drill.

Review how to do a simple card talk and watch a demo video in the Card Talk essay in the CI Master Class.

Unlike Blaine, I do not triangle in class every time a student stutters or responds with a poorly conjugated verb. Sometimes I rephrase. Most often I use the Write & Discuss texts at the end of a session to focus on accuracy and occasionally draw students’ attention to grammar while creating the W&D text.

It is difficult to hold the attention of forty adolescents while triangling, so enter with a sense of fun. Laugh. Not at your students, but at yourself and the process. Help your students relax. Enjoy the card talk illustrations. If you are tense or anxious to ‘do this right’ then your students will sense your anxiety. If you try to triangle (I have, you have, she has) but it just devolves into a simple picture talk, enjoy the moment and try it again with your next period class. These skills take time to develop.

Further Advice for Triangling

  • Choose only one verb
  • Use a card talk so that you can refer to the pictures. Instead of asking students to illustrate something they did last weekend (which will generate many verbs), ask students to illustrate one thing they have in their bedroom, or that they wanted to do over the summer but never did, or something that they lost once and wish they still had. The idea is that you can use the same verb when describing each picture.
  • Stay in one verb tense, at least the first time you try this out.
  • Choose a willing student actor and call on at least one other student to describe what has happened.
  • I like to establish a clear transition between activities so that students do not expect me to triangle in normal class activities. We start the session by illustrating a picture for card talk. Then I ask for a volunteer who does not mind being corrected. We triangle the card talk comparing her card with mine and other students in class. We Write & Discuss. Finally we end the session by transitioning to a music activity.

In my eyes the danger of triangling is that it focuses class attention explicitly on language acquisition rather than getting “lost in the flow of conversation”. When done artlessly, it can feel like a drill. I worry that artless drilling will train students to treat all class activities like a drill. What I truly want students to do is forget that they are hearing a second language and instead fall into the flow of the conversation.

This is a technique that you will probably try and bail out of several times before eventually getting good at it.

There are already elements of my instruction that lead students to grammatical accuracy. They include (a) rephrasing student talk, (b) asking a few artful questions so they can hear the correct usage several times, and (c) writing the correct language in the Write & Discuss text at the end of the session. I never ask students to “describe what has happened”, but perhaps you’ll find that in your own classroom that is exactly what works. Experiment!