Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Need for Establishing Meaning

A few months ago, a college student in a language education program asked me about TPR, since she was having to lead a lesson in Latin for elementary school students. As she had never worked with any type of oral Latin before, I explained the basics of TPR and how one could do it in Latin. I then told her, "Be sure to write the Latin word and the English meaning on the board or if the students cannot read yet, define the word aloud in English in order to establish meaning." She immediately responded, "We are not allowed to use any type of English. It has to be full immersion." 

We world language teachers are very familiar with the ACTFL guideline of 90% classtime in the target language, and in our methodology classes in college, we heard all about the necessity of an immersion classroom. But we also must be mindful of the following: immersion can turn very quickly into submersion for students. To quote Carol Gaab, "In an immersion environment, students cannot control the comprehensibilty or the amount of language thrown at them." The 4%rs may be able to keep up, but they are the exception. An incomprehensible immersion environment is simply just noise to students.

In order to avoid the use of English, many times, we rely on props, pictures or gestures to convey meaning. The problem with that is what seems obvious to us as meaning is not always obvious to students. Lauren Watson, a fellow CI teacher in my district and co-CI presenter/facilitator, uses the example of showing a picture of a swimming pool for the word piscine. To Lauren, it seems obvious that she is trying to communicate the word swimming pool, but students can interpret the picture in other ways: water, to swim, swimmer; and if she were to gesture the act of swimming in a pool, some could interpret that as to dance!

Once with Latin 1 students, I was demonstrating the word carry in Latin via TPR. To me, since the action matched the meaning of the word, I did not feel the need to establish meaning. At the end of class, after doing lots of repetitions via TPR of the word, I asked in English, "What does porta mean?" One student answered "To hold something and to walk with it at the same time." I was a bit dumbfonded and responded, "Do you mean carry?" He replied with a smile, "...Oh yeah..." While we all had a nice chuckle, I realized, "Oh my gosh, I just wasted that student's classtime by not establishing meaning. If I had just told him the meaning right away, he could have acquired that word SO MUCH sooner."

So what is the best way to convey the meaning of a word so that everyone understands? Quite simply: write the word and its English meaning on the board. So many times, we will try to define the word in the language, to draw a picture, to use props, to use synonyms, etc. In my language learning experiences where it has been an immersive situation, my attitude is "Just tell me what the word means in English so that I can move on! You are wasting my time by trying to do everything else, because I do not understand what you are saying!!"

Already, I can hear folks saying, "Hey, that is translation!" My answer is "No, it is not - it is establishing meaning. If you are going to hold 90% of classtime in the target language, then consider this as part of your 10% classtime in English."

Writing the word on the board with the English meaning allows the following:
  • immediate comprehension of the word for all
  • a opportunity for me to "point and pause" whenever I use the word
  • a reference for students whenever I use that word again in the lesson
If I get in the necessary repetitions, then students will no longer need to use the written words as a reference. They will no longer be focusing on the written English translation whenever they hear that word, because after time, they become very familiar with it and begin to internalize it. At my first TPRS workshop with Blaine Ray, where he demonstrated this in German, and at NTPRS with Betsy Paskvan, where she taught us Japanese, each of them had the target words written in the language and in English. Whenever the word was used, both of them "pointed and paused" for us and then continued on. I so appreciated this, because in the beginning, I was clinging to those cues. After awhile, though, due to the massive amount of repetitions and of interactions with the language, I noticed that I was no longer having to look at the English meanings. I was now comprehending what they were saying!

You can also conduct comprehension checks in English to ensure that meaning has been established for everyone. Take a 1-2 minute timeout, where you ask, "When I said 'X,' what was I saying?", "What does 'X' mean again in English?" "What word means 'X'?", etc. If you receive incorrect responses, then that tells you that you need to re-establish meaning again.

Whenever I introduce a reading for the first time (assuming that I have done pre-reading activities), I will have the class do a choral reading in order to establish meaning of the story for all. To me, this is a necessary step, since I plan to do 4-5 post-reading activities of that reading; if I do not establish meaning right away, then it becomes much more difficult for students.

So try establishing meaning right away - your students will thank you for it!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Read and Draw

Here is a very easy post-reading activity to implement in class. It is called Read and Draw, and the objective is exactly how it sounds - students read a short story and illustrate it. I usually have students do a Read and Draw after we have gone over a story for at least two days in various ways. What I love most about doing this activity is how low-key but effective it is.

There is some setup on your end:
  • A short COMPREHENSIBLE story (around 10-15 sentences) which the class has been going over a number of days in various ways. I would not use a story which students have not seen.
  • Paper with cartoon frames on them. I usually print them out for students so they know how many frames they are to illustrate.
  1. Tell students that they are illustrate each sentence from the story using the cartoon frames
  2. In addition to illustrating, students are to label the parts of their cartoon with the corresponding Latin word. Students are NOT to write the sentence itself but to label their picture
  3. I usually give students 20-25 minutes to complete this at one sitting, but there are others who will have students do a Read and Draw as part of telling a story. After each sentence which the teacher tells as part of a story, students have 2 minutes to do a Read and Draw of that particular sentence.The Read and Draw then becomes incorporated as part of the storytelling.

Optional post Read and Draw activities
  1. Ask students comprehension questions in Latin about the story. Students can use the Read and Draw as a reference.
  2. Using the Read and Draw, in partners, students retell the story to each other. 
  3. Using the Read and Draw, students rewrite the story as a Timed Write.
  1. This is another way to get students to interact with the language using different modalities. They are demonstrating comprehension through drawing the sentence but are writing the Latin which corresponds to each part of the picture.
  2. Because students themselves are drawing visual representations of the words, they are creating a personal association with the vocabulary in a meaningful context.
  3. Tell students not to get caught up in their drawings too much. To quote the great Sally Davis, "Everyone can draw stick figures!" Some students will complain that they cannot draw at all, while others will spend 20 minutes on just one frame. 
  4. It is a student-centered activity. As the teacher, I simply facilitate!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Deep and Simple

When I was growing up, I was never a Mr. Rogers fan. For some reason, I never felt a strong connection to him or to his show - according to my mom, I was more of a Sesame Street/Electric Company kind of kid, and she swears that it is because of those shows that I know my letters, numbers, and can read. Now as an adult, I am in awe of Mr Rogers due to his gentle spirit, his wisdom and his unconditional display of grace to others. 

One of my absolute favorite quotes is by Mr. Rogers. In the late 1990's, when talking with an MTV producer about the flashy, quick-paced, sound-byte media era in which we live, Mr. Rogers simply said: 
I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.
When I look at education today, I strongly believe that we are focusing on the shallow and complex by covering too much material too quickly on a superficial level (hello, AP syllabus?!). Should not we be striving for the opposite? 

I feel that CI/TPRS teachers have a good understanding of deep and simpleIs that not what we as CI/TPRS teachers are trying to establish in our classrooms? A deep and simple approach to teaching language? We strive to accomplish this through:
  • delivering understandable, comprehensible messages in the target language - when students understand what we are saying, they are engaged and "with us" in the moment. Their affective filters lower, hence subconscious acquisition can occur. Strategies like embedded readings help scaffold a lengthy passage into readable, bite-sized chunks but yet keep adding new details to the reading.
  • limiting vocabulary... - Yes, students need to know vocabulary, because we are teaching a language, but gosh, we have traditionally overloaded them with WAY too much vocabulary WAY too quickly. Students' affective filters rise when we show them a list of 30 vocabulary words and tell them that there will be a quiz over these words at the end of the week. Students need time to "absorb" the words through repetitions in meaningful contexts. CI/TPRS focus on teaching high frequency words first in order to build that foundation early. We use limited target vocabulary in our stories, and the truth is that limited vocabulary can actually go a LONG way.
  • ...but not sheltering grammar - When teachers limit vocabulary, as a result, they can easily spingboard into "complex" language structures. Just because the textbook (and we ourselves) say that students are not supposed to learn the subjunctive until the upper levels, that does not mean it cannot be used in level 1. If it is used with known vocabulary in meaningful context, students understand what you said. Now can they replicate the subjunctive themselves at that level? Probably not, but should that dissuade us from using those structures with them if comprehension is our goal? 
  • personalizing stories and implementing Personalized Questions and Answers (PQAs) - Including students as part of a story plotline or asking them PQAs is one way to say to students "I see you, and I value you." We establish connections between students, and as a result, a relationship and trust develops - one's classroom becomes a community.
Deep and simple does not mean that we have "dumbed down" the curriculum or that we have taken away rigor. On the contrary, we have actually focused the curriculum in such a way that all students can succeed in acquiring a language. 

How deep and simple is your classroom?

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Same Coversation, part 3 - Morning Routine

This is the last post of a series.

I have found that students very much want routine in their lives. To a degree, routine brings comfort, and to deviate from it can bring stress. In between class periods, I can usually be found standing outside of my classroom, greeting students as they enter - heaven forbid, if I am not there! A few times, I have been neglectful of being out in front of my classroom, and i have had students "panic," thinking that I was sick and that they had a substitute instead!

Establishing a short 5-minute morning routine of target language activities can be a very easy way to enact Same Conversation. Something as simple as greeting the class in the target language on a daily basis can go a long way. Examples of activities which you can do as part of a morning routine:
  1. greeting/salutation
  2. the day of the week/date - this can be kind of tricky depending on how your target language handles dates. I tend to stick with just the day of the week.
  3. weather report - this can be something as simple as hodie nubilosum est, hodie sol lucet, hodie pluit, hodie ventilosum est. One day, i am going to add props for this!
  4. "word of the day" - my school has a "word of the day" which we are supposed to go over with students. Why not tell them in Latin? "vocabulum hodiernum est (English word), et significat (English meaning)."
As long as you establish meaning early and are delivering understandable messages in the target language, then students will have no problem understanding what you are saying. Because this is all a daily morning routine, you have a natural built-in way to get in repetitions needed for subconscious acquisition. 

A morning routine is also a great way to introduce those topics which may not appear in your textbook. Or if your textbook spends an entire chapter on weather (this seems rather unnecessary), this is a way to "cover" that topic so that you can devote time to other topics. 

Variation: After a few months of doing this, assign students to do some of these tasks. Due to the sheer daily repetitions, it really is not that difficult for them to do. I stumbled upon this, as one day I forgot to say salvete to the class as soon as the bell rang. A student called me out on it, and immediately, I said, "You know, I am not the only one who can do the greeting. Why don't you greet the class for me today?" At once, she did, and soon, other students began to ask if they could do the greeting the next day.