Why the Sweet 16 posters should be on your wall

Regardless of your teaching situation, these posters will help you focus on the highest frequency building blocks of the Spanish language


The idea of the sweet 16 verbs grew out of Terry Waltz´s super 7 verbs, which provide an anchor for meaningful communication within the first few hours of class. I expanded those verbs to the sweet 16 in order to form an essential curriculum for an entire first year. In practice, this is the common core that my department has agreed on to guide us through an entire four year curriculum. Of course we do not have a sixteen word curriculum, but we 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.

If you are part of a non-CI department

It is crucial that your students are noticeably communicative to the teacher next year. A strictly grammar-oriented teacher may have a hard time detecting the communicative abilities of any student, but most teachers nowadays are no longer strictly grammarians. It is my impression that most teachers are deeply impressed by output, even imperfect output… but they use output activities in the mistaken belief that output leads to output. That is why TPRS/CI teachers often brag about the quick writes that their first year students complete: it is the hook that gets non-CI teachers to look at comprehensible input.

You want your students speaking with a naturalness that astounds the teacher next year. I have heard legendary CI teachers claim that truly easy, unforced output only begins to happen in the 4th semester of language instruction, but in my experience it is possible if you have a focused curriculum. No worries if you are in a CI department that understands the long game, but if you are in a pressure cooker then you need to focus on the highest-frequency structures. This is how I imagine it playing out: next year students will be in a paired role-playing activity and the prompt that one reads will be something like “¿Qué vas a hacer durante el fin de semana?” The output-trained students might say something like “playa” while your students who have had a daily experience with the sweet 16 verbs will calmly respond, “No puedo ir a la playa, voy a la casa de mi abuela porque ella está enferma“. These sweet 16 posters play a vital role in assuring that the highest-frequency structures are recycled daily in class so that, by the end of the year, they have been acquired to the point that they simply drop out of the mouths of your students.

The other option is to try to serve both masters and assign vocabulary lists that neither your students nor the students in traditional classes will remember next year. My advice: don´t fill your class with ineffective activities to please your colleagues, but do focus your instruction time on the highest-frequency words that teachers next year will notice have been acquired. You can do this regardless of whether you are reading TPRS novels, following a highly-structured TPRS curriculum like Cuéntame más or Look I can Talk!, or even if you are following a highly-personalized approach like Ben Slavic´s Invisibles. Next year´s teachers may not even notice your students awesome reading and listening abilities, but they will take notice of student´s mastery of the sweet 16 high-frequency verbs.

If you are part of a CI/TPRS department

I am a little concerned with the way CI/TPRS is more and more becoming institutionalized within curriculum documents. Let me describe what I am hearing from the field: lone wolf TPRS teachers tend to be anxious about what their colleagues think or the influence they can exert, but full-fledged CI/TPRS departments often express anxiety about keeping everyone on track and developing pacing guides. The irony is that departments with particularly “strong” leadership are recreating the onerous conditions of traditional departments, substituting vocabulary lists for lists of required structures and even finding the need to place grammar acquisition on a timeline so that the level 3 classes can read particular books at a particular time.

This approach can work given that structures are limited and recycled frequently, given that the content is highly-compelling and given that the teachers all have the amazing ability to truly own any story, script or set of structures that they are forced to use. The barns are not burning. Yet I do marvel at the resilience of the urge to control the classroom, to control the students, to impose a uniform experience with complete disregard for the diversity of interests that exist in any classroom. Let´s call that the Kanye West approach to CI/TPRS: “I am going to let you talk, but first I want to use today´s target structures at least 70 times each”. Who has the hand counter?

There are dissenting voices. Bryce Hedstrom may or may not appreciate that I characterize him as a rebel, but his popular persona especial interview activity is a wonderful example of emergent language targets rather than backward planned targets. There is no doubt in my mind that the activity is an extremely efficient source of comprehensible input precisely because the students are at the center, not a teacher or district agenda. The most exciting thing currently happening in my classroom world is the revelation through a persona especial interview that one of my freshman Spanish 1 students is going to get a tattoo the moment she turns 18. It turns out that her mother has a whole arm covered in tattoos, but won´t let her daughter get even one. If you try telling that as a story to your class it may fall flat or be greeted with a mild “meh”, but in my classroom this is unbelievably compelling because it is outrageously real. Not planned, not on any vocabulary list. PQA with a target structure will never be as personalized as a real conversation. Our students may never become bitter with us like Taylor Swift when Kanye stole the show, but that does not mean we are creating the best conditions for language acquisition when we constantly steal the show with our target structures.

Ben Slavic is pushing the idea of emergent targets further than anyone I know. Not incidentally, he is not a fan of either the Super Seven or Sweet Sixteen verb lists. He told me such as he stood in my classroom looking up at the posters! I suspect that for Ben even those 16 verbs are too much of an agenda, a classroom that cares more about teacher expectations than fostering the innate creativity of children. I truly admire his approach; Ben respects the imagination of children and wants their ideas to guide the curriculum. Personally, however, I find the sweet 16 posters liberating. They enable young minds to imagine possibilities in the target language. I am not simply talking about glancing up and finding a word for a quick write; this is not a word wall. As these most essential verbs are deeply acquired then their thoughts, their ideas, their quirky, unique imaginations flow in the target language. These Sweet 16 posters are useful whether you teach within the context of a strict pre-programmed curriculum and seek a little freedom, or you teach in a highly idiosyncratic, personalized context and need an anchor to provide a little structure. I am not claiming to have created the set of posters that saved Western Civilization. This is banking on a balanced approach that I suspect has always been a part of the practice of the truly great TPRS teachers.

An essay on how to use these posters

I wrote a four page essay with concrete examples of how to use these posters each day in class. A one page version is packaged with the posters, but you can read the full essay for free by clicking on this link.

The contest

This is the paragraph that everyone will read. You can buy your own set of posters by following this link. They are beautifully designed. My entire department is replacing our hand-drawn posters with these beauties. But wait! I am also giving away free sets to three lucky winners. All you have to do is leave your name in the comments below— your email address will be recorded by wordpress but don´t leave it in the comments (unless you want spambots to collect it). In one week, on Saturday September 10th (Sorry, the contest is now closed), I will announce the names of the lucky winners. If you do not win on the 10th, there will also be three sets of posters given away at the Comprehensible Midwest Conference in Milwaukee, WI on September 24. These are all courtesy of Teacher´s Discovery, which is expanding their selection of TPRS and CI materials to reach out to teachers who have not heard of these effective techniques.

The contest is now closed and the winners have been contacted. Congratulations to Carin Misseldine and Jenny Rogers, both in Arkansas, and Kari Curtis in Ohio!


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