Saturday, February 22, 2014

Vocabulary Acquistion and Flashcards, part 1

(The following is taken from a presentation which I gave at the 2012 American Classical League Summer Institute, as well as the 2013 Northeastern Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language conference. This is part 1 of a series of postings on vocabulary and flashcards)

When we were learning Latin, we all probably made flashcards of some kind in order to learn vocabulary. We wrote the Latin on one side with all of its parts (nominative, genitive and gender for nouns, while all four principal parts for verbs), and on the other side, we wrote the English meaning. We drilled ourselves faithfully with these flashcards, looking at the Latin in order to produce the English. And for the most part, they worked for us.

Or did they?

In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with flashcards, because they do work depending on the task, but there are a number of reasons why they do not always benefit students.
  1. Flashcards only work for a certain type of learner - the visual kinesthetic learner. Yet many Latn teachers require all of their students to create flashcards and to turn them in as a grade. Why do we insist that students do this when it only benefits a small percentage of students?
  2. Flashcards only present words as isolated forms. We know that language does not operate as individual words set in isolation.
  3. Flashcards only offer temporary memorization, not long term internalization. This is why many times, students will immediately forget vocabulary following a quiz, even though they "studied" using flashcards. I call this the "cram and flush" syndrome - they "cram" for a quiz, and they "flush" it from their minds as soon as the quiz is over.
According to Krashen's Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theory, flashcards illustrate the difference between learning and acquiring.
  • Learning refers to the processes by which people actively and strenuously BUT temporarily internalize information. This is what is called conscious learning.
  • Acquiring refers to the relatively effortless, subconsious and permanent internalization of new information. This is what is called subconscious learning.
In her book When Kids Can't Read, What Teachers Can Do, Kylene Beers writes of an experiement demonstrating subconscious learning done with some particular low-performing middle school Language Arts classes. Weekly, students took vocabulary quizzes over a list of 20 words which the teacher gave to them to learn on their own at the beginning of the week (does this sound familiar? I feel like instead of Language Arts, insert the word Latin). The results were atrocious, and even those student who did perform well immediately forgot the words. So the experiment was as follows:
  1. Two weeks before the quiz, the teachers themselves were to learn the 20 vocabulary words
  2. A week before the quiz, the teachers themselves were to incorporate and to use these 20 words in their everday instruction as a way to preview the words for students in a context.
  3. The week of the quiz, the teachers were to give the list of 20 words to students, who by now should be familiar with the words
On paper, this sounded like a great exercise, as one would expect students' scores to rise due to the constant exposure to the vocabulary. But the problem in this experiment actually was not with the students but with the teachers. The issues were:
  1. 20 words a week was too much for the teachers to handle. They could not keep track of the words. In other words, if the teachers could not do it, then how did they expect students to do it?
  2. The 20 words themselves were too difficult and random for teachers to preview for students in a natural way.
So the teachers decided to cut the list in half to 10 words and to choose words which could easily be used naturally in their instruction. When the teachers made those changes to the experiment, they saw the scores on students' vocabulary quizzes rise, and even better, retention of these words improved as these words began to appear in students' writings and in their everyday conversation.

So what were the conclusions from this experiment? In order to acquire and to internalize vocabulary:
  1. It must be limited
  2. It must be meaningful
  3. It must be contextual and not isolated
  4. It must be constantly repeated in a meaningful and contextual way
Does this not sound very familiar to the ears of CI users? How interesting that this aspect of Krashen's SLA theory was independently verified by a middle school Language Arts class!

My next posting will be part 2 in the series and will deal with how I myself have been experimenting though with "flashcards" in a CI kind of way this school year.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Four Word Vocabulary Picture

I've always said that students love any activity involving whiteboards and dry-erase markers. Here is a fun vocabulary activity:
  1. Write four known random vocabulary words on the board.
  2. Students have one minute to draw a picture on their whiteboards which incorporates/depicts all of the words (not four separate pictures, but one)
  3. Tell students if they do not know a word, then they should focus on what words they do know.
  4. When the minute is up, students show their whiteboards to each other, pointing out each word in Latin.
  5. Ask students to show their whiteboards to you, while you walk around and check them.
  6. Pick 2-3 boards to show the class, and using a document camera, project student pictures onto the screen
  7. Describe these pictures in Latin to the class, using the vocabulary words
  8. You can also circle questions about words in the picture
  9. Added variation - if you have time, draw a picture yourself beforehand involving the four words and show your version to students.
  10. If you are able, try now to Ask a Story from one of the pictures projected. Ask the student who did the drawing for details. He/she will usually be able to come up with a great story since it is his/her picture.
  1. Drawing a visual depiction of the vocabulary word gives students another way to acquire vocabulary.
  2. Since students are drawing the vocabulary words themselves, it personalizes the acquisition process
  3. Even though everyone is drawing a picture using the same four words, I am always surprised by how many different interpretations there are. Students are too and enjoy seeing each other's pictures. 
  4. I will usually do 2-3 rounds of this activity in a period, lasting a total of 15 minutes (if I do not do an Ask a Story from one of the pictures)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Readers Theater

This is an activity which sounds exactly like it is: students acting out a reading. I have always wanted to do this with my students, but I have been a bit apprehensive, because there are so many variables and unknowns, e.g., what if my students do not want to act it out, what if it bombs. In her blog, my friend Miriam Patrick wrote about her same misgivings about doing Readers Theater with her classes but saw some good things come out of it.

In November, at ACTFL, I had wanted to attend Carol Gaab's presentation on Readers Theater, but it was right after the main general assembly and by the time I finally found where her presentation was, the room was overflowing. Last semester, I attended a TPRS workshop led by Karen Rowan, and as the workshop was held at a school during actual school hours, we registrants got the chance to see her demonstrate it with an actual Spanish class. And she did a WONDERFUL job with Readers Theater with a group of students whom she had just met, and these students had never done this before. Bolstered by what I saw, this past week, I decided to give it a try with two of my Latin 2 classes.

Here are a few things which I knew going in:
  1. The reading needs to be comprehensible
  2. The reading needs to be compelling
  3. There needs to be ACTION in the reading. Yes, there can be dialogue, but as students will be acting this out, ACTION is what will get students' attention and keep them engaged
  4. Props, props, props!!
So I wrote up the following short story about two students in my class, using stage 22 vocabulary and language structures:

Gianni in Starbucks cum barbara (barbaric) puella sedebat, bibentes caffeam et ridentes. Gianni clamavit, “mea cor (heart) est plenum amoris!” subito Henry intravit; barbara puella et Henry erant hostes (enemies). ingressus (having entered) Starbucks, Henry barbarm puellam conspexit. barbara puella erat irata, deiciens Henryem in pavimento (floor). Gianni erat iratus, deiciens barbaram puellam in pavimento (floor). subito mater barbarae puellae intravit; Gianni et mater erant hostes (enemies). ingressa (having entered) Starbucks, mater clamavit, “mea cor est plena irae!”

Here is how I did Readers Theater for the story:
  1. Like I do with any reading, before I handed students the actual text, I read the story aloud to the class, as I myself acted it out. The job of the class purely was to listen and to watch me. Any word which they did not know (shown by the words in parentheses), I had writen on the board with English meanings and pointed to them during the story.
  2. I then handed out the story for the class to read silently, as I read it again. This time, I asked if there were any words which they did not know, and then I gave them the meaning.
  3. We did a bit of basic comprehension questions. I did not want to tire students of the story just yet by doing too much circling.
  4. I then told the class that we would be doing Readers Theater and to tell me who they thought in the class would be good actors. This way, the burden was on the class and not on me. We needed four actors. The class was VERY willing to volunteer each other. If a student did not want to act it out, then he/she did not have to.
  5. My props were 2 desks, 2 coffee mugs; a beard and helmet for the barbara puella; a plastic sword and beret for the mater
  6. Once I established who was playing what character, I simply had the actors listen to the story and act it out as I read it aloud slowly in Latin.
  7. If I did not feel like the actors were "emoting" enough, I would call "cut" and give them new stage directions in English for "motivation," i.e., the point was for the play to become incredibly melodramatic so that the audience would be engaged. An example was anytime anyone entered, they had to open a pretend door, walk through it and then slam it (complete with the person saying "SLAM"). 
  8. Following 10-15 minutes of Readers Theater, I did some comprehension questions in Latin, asking "qui erant in Starbucks? quid agebant? quis intravit?" and then I had the class do a timed write of the story.
Observations of Readers Theater
  1. One of my classes absolutely loved it and could not get enough of it. The other class, although they "enjoyed" it, did not seem as engaged, and I actually had a difficult time finding willing participants. This does not mean that it was not a success with that particular class; I just feel like that class was more self-conscious and introverted.
  2. Calling "cut" and asking for students to act out a sentence again lent itself for a natural repetition of the Latin sentence.
  3. In both of the classes, if the students were not pleased with the acting which they were watching, they themselves actually called out "cut" and gave suggestions for what the actor should do.
  4. The props were wonderful and really got the actors engaged.
  5. The visual acting out of the story gave students another level of comprehensibility, as they were able to associate what they heard with a visual representation.
  6. Students were definitely engaged in the activity, as they were watching their peers act out an "over-the-top" story.
  7. It is amazing how 10-15 minutes of Readers Theater can go a LONG way in student language acquisition.
I am definitely doing Readers Theater again!!