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How is that TPRS working out?

Comparing writing samples of level 1 and level 3 students taught entirely through TPRS and TCI

Last Friday, after watching a portion of episode 2 of the Spanish telenovela El Internado, my Spanish 1 students wrote a 10 minute speed write describing what they understood. My level 3 students, on the other hand, passed in their reading journals which they complete after reading in class (they return the reading journals to me every day so that I know they are only writing spontaneously in class and not looking words up after class). Spanish 3 journal entries are also speed writes, roughly fives minutes each time without using resources. Here are some writing samples by non-native, non-heritage speakers only.

I am going to start with the high fliers. The first writing sample is by a level 1 kid, Zach, who would be spectacular regardless of who taught him. Note how complex his sentence structure is… all he has to do is listen to me and he soaks it right up. Interestingly, Zack is a student in my “difficult class”. Difficult keeping them all interested in the story, difficult in the sense that I have to go a lot slower than other classes, difficult asking a story while requiring appropriate responses. That we go slower and do not do as many stories or movie talks as the other sections seems to have no impact on Zack´s development.

Click on photo to get a bigger, more readable version
Click on photo to get a bigger, more readable version

By the time Zach gets to Spanish 3 he will probably be like Alex, who is currently reading the Spanish translation of The Host. My Spanish 3 kids choose their reading freely; there is no reward for choosing a difficult novel and no shame imposed on those that are reading Pobre Ana. It is interesting to see what Alex is acquiring… for instance, I have never focused on the phrase así que (I cannot even remembering consciously using it in class).

Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.
Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.

The next pair are by “silent” students. Nobody in class knows that Kinidee is a superstar because she is so shy, but look at her writing:

Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.
Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.

The Spanish 3 student who wrote the following is not as expressive as Kinidee, but just as quiet in class. I used to worry that I was not giving enough individual feedback to the quiet students (I rarely correct grammar on written work, mostly only if requested by a student). Yet this quiet student has developed quite fine simply by listening to a lot of CI:

Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.
Click on image to get a bigger, more readable version.

The Spanish 1 students who are less-expressive and have more errors in their writing are still comprehensible. What I see in many of the average writing samples are problems with gender and number, confusion over ser and estar, and a heavy reliance on third person verb forms. Here are two examples from the lower end of the spectrum:

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Click for a bigger image

Don´t you love the way she included the reaction of the class in her description? Nobody else thought to include that, but it is true… we all smiled during that scene!

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Click for a bigger image

The interesting thing is that I am fairly certain that these two students would have failed my class prior to TPRS. Or more exactly, I would have failed them. With TPRS both are writing pertinent comments after watching and discussing a clip of an authentic Spanish-speaking telenovela. How crazy is that!!

Here are examples of average work in my Spanish 3 class. Student errors are not as clearly patterned as the Spanish 1 students. On one hand, after three years of hearing a lot of comprehensible input, everyone can rely on their feeling for the language. Trouble happens when they use the conditional or the subjunctive. All of my colleagues still shelter grammar so, with the exception of the few students that had me as a Spanish 1 teacher, they are hearing the subjunctive for the first time when they meet me:

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Click for large image

Click here for a larger image
Click here for a larger image

My take home point is to not worry too much about the mistakes that exist in the Spanish 1 writing samples. Seriously, it works itself out.

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Koi-Zora (movie talk for Span 1)

A video suitable for movie talk and a follow-up reading with comprehension and creative response questions

Koi-Zora 2Coming back from Thanksgiving Break next Monday I am going to start using past tenses regularly with my Spanish 1 students. At the beginning of this school year I had not taught level 1 for a few years and I wanted to limit the amount of new structures. After observing Blaine Ray earlier this month and watching videos of other TPRS teachers I started integrating past tenses into my circling in class and realized that it is much more important that my students hear and comprehend a more natural speech rather than a forced version in the present tense. During the next two weeks between now and midterm exam week I am going to focus on circling the principal foundation verbs that I have posted on the wall of my classroom in both present and past tenses. I am going to maintain the focus on meaning and I will not go out of my way to use conjugations that are lesser frequency (i.e. yo quería is higher frequency than quise, and I am not going to bend stories for the purpose of contrasting preterite and imperfect usage).

Starting on Monday I am going to work through this short video called Koi-Zora , combining the movie talk technique of carefully planned narration with questioning student actors à la Blaine Ray. Today I prepared by pre-watching the video and I wrote a script, which served as the basis for the class reading that follows. Also I am going to explain the process to my students: when I speak to my student actors I will use the present tense ( ¿Quieres ir al campo? ), but then speaking to the class I will speak using past tenses ( Sí clase, ella quería ir al campo ). This is going to be a fun activity for the student actor who plays the role of the fish.

Wanting, having and putting are the main foundational verbs that will be used over and over. I will introduce parallel characters in the middle of the movie to emphasize these three verbs so that quería, tenía, ponía and also puso are circled effectively. I am going to use subió instead of fue when she goes to the roof, because it is more natural and they already know subir, and also because there will be better opportunities to really nail fue later. In fact I am going to avoid mentioning that she goes anywhere so that I can simply focus on the four verbs quería, tenía, ponía and puso.

The video clip is only a minute and a half long. Nonetheless, with all of the student actors, the parallel characters, the new verb tenses and slowly pointing and saying the verb each time we say the new tenses, I suspect I will just barely have enough time to complete viewing that clip with my classes on Monday (we have 55 minute classes). On Tuesday we will read the following reading and students will translate it in pairs before we go over it together. Only after that is done will students be allowed to turn the reading over and complete  the questions on their own (which should be easy at that point). Click here to download the .pdf of the reading or, if you want to change it for your class, click here to download the .docx version (which may be oddly formatted because I used text boxes to position the pictures).

If you look at the reading you´ll see that there is quite a bit of vocabulary that will come up in the video that my students don´t yet know. Without the movie I would rewrite the story to make it more comprehensible, but with the movie I have found that I can include a lot of details into my narration and remain comprehensible, as long as the narration clearly refers back to what is projected on the screen. My objective is to teach those four verbs, so I have provided footnotes and embedded photos for the out-of-bounds words contained in the reading.

Even if it is engaging, is this a good idea to include so many out-of-bounds words? Well, first let me clarify that it is always comprehensible (all out-of-bounds words are written on the side boards). My students also know that the target structures are on the center board, and those are the only ones that I want them to write down. Anything else they might acquire is frosting on the cake… but frosting in large quantities is not really that good for you! As I improve my teaching in the years to come I expect to pair down my stories to the essentials so that there will be less out-of-bounds vocabulary, while improving my storytelling skills so that it remains highly engaging.  

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Great student engagement

Flow is a crucial element for language teachers to consider, but it will never make it into the common core and no one will ever get a billion dollar contract to measure it.

I have been revisiting the concept of flow since Stephen Krashen tweeted about this and Blaine Ray followed up on the moretprs Yahoo group with a simple piece of advice: “internalize this”.

Flow is the kind of high student engagement where we do not even notice time passing. Flow is essential to great teaching, but elusive.

Last Friday I decided to pay close attention to flow in my own lessons. Specifically I wanted to take note of what I was doing when I interrupted flow (clueless!!) and what I may have done to encourage flow in my classroom. How do I even identify flow when I’m hip deep in it?!

Susie Gross´ famous advice to “teach to the eyes” can be as much about identifying flow as it is about measuring comprehension. In this case I am blessed to be working in an urban school where my students make it very clear when they are not engaged. I started my career in a highly competitive suburban school where it was easy to confuse a well-trained rule-follower for an engaged learner. Nonetheless, flow is a difficult variable to measure… and that may not be a bad thing. Pearson Educational will never get a billion dollar contract to measure flow in our classrooms. The real problem, though, is not in the voodoo of measurement.

I´m not going to achieve flow unless every one of my students truly cares about the subject matter. A few years ago I arranged for a meeting of all of the department chairs in my district to decide what exactly are the essentials for each level. Comically enough, one of the “essentials” that made it onto that list were “items found in a bathroom” (chapter 4b of the textbook that I was eager to jettison). Unless your students have an intrinsic interest in bathroom supplies then this joke of a curriculum is an unnecessary obstacle to creating flow.

citation-krashenAs for my own classroom, I found that I was interrupting flow most whenever my grammar pop-ups lasted more than five or so seconds. Five seconds is just enough to tell them what it means and then get back into the story. My twenty second grammar pop-ups derailed the process!  It turns out that twenty seconds is just enough time for me to go beyond the meaning of the phrase and start generalizing about language rules. However a five second pop-up, twenty seconds of story-asking followed by another five second pop-up was, as the Goldilocks in our class story said, “perfecto”.