Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Power of the Picture Dictionary

This year, I added another comprehensible input element to my classroom –The Picture Dictionary. I had heard about it for the last few years and considered it a great idea, I just never implemented it. Over the last few weeks, I have seen how useful this can be for acquisition as well as the overall atmosphere of the classroom.


  • Sets the tone that in this class we are here to work
  • The work is not always hard, but can even be therapeutic
  • Practices the expectation of working quietly
  • Promotes sharing, if students need a color that they don’t have


  • Students think about the word multiple times as they are writing it and designing a representation
  • Students get an initial feeling for how the word is spelled
  • Students are personalizing the vocabulary to bind it to their memory
  • The use of color makes the vocabulary come alive


  • Students make a table of contents [This is a list of the words with their definition]
  • Students construct the form of the dictionary [Simply just draw the lines on their paper]
  • Students write in the word and draw a picture

I have seen an improvement in recall as we start to play with the words.  The Picture Dictionary is yet another way to prepare the table for the meal that is to come when we tell the story and the students are blitzed with action and meaningful repetition. It seems that more I prepare them for the story time, the more opportunities there are for the language to be subconsciously imaged into the language acquisition device.  Plus, for many of the students the Picture Dictionary is just fun! They spend all day getting lectured and then they come to Spanish and it is creative and focused.


Filed under Classroom Management, Storytelling tips, Teaching Discoveries, teaching grammar

Teaching French This Year

I have decided to teach a French exploratory class at the Middle School this year. Many people are surprised at this because I don’t speak French. Really, you ought to blame Ben Slavic. I remember a conversation we had one May afternoon when he told me that he was teaching a Spanish exploratory.

“Dude, you should teach a French exploratory,” he said. I remember thinking at the time that he was nuts because the only French I knew was oui.

“Ben, how would I do that? I don’t speak French,” I said.

“You need to think 4th dimensionally on this. Look, I don’t speak Spanish and I’m teaching an exploratory. You just have to learn the words you need and make sure that your pronunciation is good. It’s not that bad, man. You should totally do it.”

That conversation has been on the back burner of my conscience for the last 3 years. I started to think about it. I continued to ponder about how we learn languages and if we truly acquire from understanding messages, then one could actually teach a language without being fluent because you would acquire it with the class a little at a time. In fact, the class will probably acquire faster because you are going so slow. There are a few things you need to be solid on, though.

  1. Your pronunciation needs to be legit. You can’t mess around on this and need to make an effort to be as close to native as possible because you are the source of your students input and you don’t want it to be tainted.
  2. Start with a TPR phase to get command of some basic vocabulary.
  3. Buy a basic grammar handbook to help you understand a few basic grammar concepts.

I went into this year with this little guide and believe it or not, I am actually acquiring French. It’s not as hard as I thought it would be and you know what, the students are acquiring it, too. The hardest part is getting over the fear of learning a new language. It’s kind of like jumping off of a diving board for the first time. This is so monumental because as I see it, there is no limit how many languages we learn.

I remember a conversation that an expert language interpreter, Lomb Kato, had with Stephen Krashen. She said to him, “Stephen, you’re so young. You’re only 53. So many years left, so many languages to acquire.” I am starting to understand what she means.


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The Textbook. Enemy of Acquisition or Useful Tool?

For a long time, I was frustrated with textbook companies and saw them as the enemy of acquisition. I felt that they were useless and didn’t help me to acquire when I was in school. I felt that they were a big waste of time. When I decided to be a Spanish teacher, my disgust for textbooks only got worse as I saw how they provided everything for a teacher causing them to be lazy and engage students in activities that didn’t lead to acquisition.

I was so refreshed when I came upon TPRS® because this allowed me to teach Spanish without using a textbook and gave me a little more credibility. Also I was in contact with several older teachers that were fed up with textbooks and abandoning them. As a young teacher, I thought to myself, “If they have spent all of these years with textbooks and are getting rid of them, why do I need to make a mistake by using them.”

Well, toward the end of last year I started to notice that my students were missing some important skills, such as greetings, thematic vocabulary, and some essential grammar. I had placed them into stories, but somehow it didn’t get acquired. I realized that I was shorting my students by not helping them gain mastery in these skills.

So, I had a few choices.

  1. Continue to insert this thematic vocabulary into the stories, but be more intentional about it.
  2. Use the skills in a textbook and present them to the students using comprehensible input activities.
  3. Use stories and comprehensible input to give the students more exposure to thematic skills commonly found in a textbook.

I chose to do number 3 and for the first time in my teaching career, I actually checked out textbooks to my students.


Now just relax and let me explain. This doesn’t mean that I am going all textbook and making the main focus on learning versus acquiring, but it does mean that I am using the textbook for its thematic vocabulary and activities for bell work exercises. The thematic vocabulary helps me to stay on track with giving them the skills that they should have and the activities provide brief bell work activities that get them focused on the language before class starts.

The great part about it is that I am not bound by the textbook. I can choose what I feel is an important skill versus insignificant vocabulary that I will just skip. I actually had a process that I followed when I was considering a textbook and the skills. First, I skimmed the textbook to see if was broken up by skills or if it was just vocabulary that didn’t relate to each other. Then, I identified each skill and developed criteria for what I want the students to master.

I think that this is important especially for young teachers because we are not walking curriculums. Many teachers can ditch a textbook because they have already been using it for over a decade. They have taught those essentials so many times that they could do it in their sleep. They already have an idea of what a beginning language student should master. Young teachers do not have this experience and need a guide if they want to help their students to be well-rounded in the language.

I finally realized that the textbook does not have to be the enemy. It can be a guide for teachers to help students master some basic language skills. However, if a teacher over-uses a textbook and depends on it for every minute of class, then it can become the enemy of acquisition. It all depends on your understanding of acquisition and how you decide to use it. If you have an understanding of how we acquire languages, then you are not bound by the activities in a book. You are simply just using the book as a pacing guide for introducing meaningful skills through an array of comprehensible input methods. If a teacher focuses on comprehensible input, I believe that the students will acquire the language and be successful.

In the end, we must realize that we do not have a lot of time with the students and we must be as effective and efficient as we can. The gift of language is one of the best skills that we can give students and I don’t want to waste one minute!


Filed under Teaching Discoveries

A Well-Oiled Machine

This summer I had the opportunity to do a lot more farm work. To some of you, that may not seem out of the ordinary since you know that I live in a rural town of about 3,000 people. However, I must share that I grew up in Wheaton, IL, a suburb of Chicago. I am pretty much a city boy. I think that’s why I have enjoyed living in Minden so much. Well this summer I did more work on machinery and I found out how important it is to have a well-greased machine.Without grease, the joints of the machine will get squeaky and wear out much quicker. Without oil, the engine will be ruined. Where am I going with this? I see such a parallel in my classroom. Our classroom is like a machine. There are many unique parts that work together in order to successfully complete a job. Grease and oil are the procedures and routines that keep this many membered machine working. Without procedures and routines, classroom management is much more difficult and the unit will not run efficiently.

In the past I have been a very relaxed teacher when it came to routines and procedures. My classroom had procedures, but my mentality was that I didn’t want to be up tight about every little aspect of the classroom. I was still a good teacher and the students still acquired the language, but I wasn’t efficient. The classroom squeaked and at times I heard the sound of metal rubbing in the wrong way.

If last year was the year of being relaxed, this is the year of efficiency. The funny thing is, I am way more relaxed this year than previous years because the classroom practically runs itself. The first two weeks of school I nailed the class with procedures and routines. We still did some Spanish, but that was mostly in the background. I wanted my students to know that there is way that this classroom is run and I wanted them to be on board. From time to time, I would hear little respectful winces of, “Profe, are we going to tell a story soon?” They want it so bad that they are eagerly awaiting the day.

I am so excited! They have no idea of what is about to hit them this week. The well-oiled machine is what allows us to have fun as a class. I know that we cannot begin to have fun without an orderly environment of respect. Now that this solid foundation is laid, it is time to build an architectural masterpiece of comprehensible input that will forever change their lives. Krashen has said that acquisition is involuntary. When CI breaks through the language acquisition device we have no choice but to acquire the language. That is how powerful language acquisition can be. I believe that structure gives students a comfort and security that will lower the affective filter resulting in the language acquisition device being more exposed to the comprehensible input. What a beautiful thing! The more I learn about it, the more impressed I am with how it works.

Now, I must remember that just because I greased and oiled the machine at the beginning of the season does not mean that it’s fine for the whole season. A machine must be maintained and checked. Some joints may need more attention than others. I must continue to reinforce the procedures and routines as we go and as soon as I notice a student not following a procedure, I need to address it. It doesn’t have to be demeaning or painful. I just simply need to ask, “What’s the procedure for …. or how do we …? They tell me and then I say, “Great! Now show me how it’s done.” I am prepared for this and they need to know that I care enough to keep them in line.

I am greatly looking forward to the condition of this machine by the end of the season. Many times we notice that a machine has been neglected and not treated well. If a machine is taken care of properly, it can last for many years. Our classrooms are the same. If we maintain them, we create a machine that will create memories that last a lifetime.

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Filed under Classroom Management, Teaching Discoveries