“How do you “catch up” the students who show up at random intervals throughout the year? How can students “recover credit” from absences?”

These two questions were recently voiced by CI teachers struggling with transient student populations. One reported that her former CI department gave up on CI because they could not catch up the students who enter the program late. I suspect that what was happening was that the students who remained in class acquired language, and kept on acquiring language, which made the students who were often absent or entering midyear appear even further behind. That the teachers decided to drop CI because some of their students were actually learning too much speaks to the problem of a fixed unit by unit curriculum. Let me describe what they should be doing instead.

I am known for creating the Sweet 16 verbs. The idea came from Terry Waltz’s fantastic “Super 7” verbs. Terry’s idea 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. The Sweet Sixteen, as my department used them, is the essential structure that guides our non-targeted approach to language acquisition. Let me be clear: at the time I taught in a Title I school with a fairly transient population. We enjoyed a 100% pass rate on our AP and IB exams. CI works, even if the student comes in late, even if the student misses a lot of school, even if the students are coming to school high and oblivious (I am thinking about two former students who failed every IB exam except for Spanish… because CI works).

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″. That is the approach that leads teachers to frustration because they conclude that their transient population is missing too much.

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 guiding his students through an authentic telenovela.

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.

If you are interested, a succinct but complete description of my non-targeted approach to CI is available in my book My Perfect Year: A Practical Guide For Language Teachers. I will also be in many locations giving workshops this summer and next Autumn, check my schedule here.


  1. Interesting approach! I experience a similar problem where students show up midway through the school year, or perhaps are frequently absent. Sometimes it can be a challenge keeping everyone up to speed. I think I will try out this strategy with my French students! If you are interested, in my blog, I discuss a variety of activities and strategies that I like to use to meet the needs of a variety of learners (especially in a situation where we have some students who are present more than others). Much of this can be helpful for addressing these types of situations. I definitely plan on sharing your idea with my colleagues. I can see our students benefiting from this in upcoming school years! Thank you for sharing!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.