Category Archives: teaching grammar

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

Using the Visual Modality for Directions

Once every chapter or so I do a dictation in my classes. It is a great listening assessment that helps to get in some grammatical practice. There is a bit of a process to learning how to do a dictation and it is somewhat hard to understand from listening or reading instructions. I have found that after the second or third dictation that the students start to realize the process. This is after much pain and explaining the procedure too many times. In the past I just put up with it because I knew they would eventually get it, but I after I had that conversation with our art teacher I started thinking in terms of modalities. I am so glad I did!

I experimented with using pictures for instructions the next time that I did it and it went much better! The students were less confused and could actually see what they needed to do. I first thought about making a video, but soon realized that it would be way easier to just show a picture.

I am starting to see a new way in instruction keeping these modalities in mind. They are not just limited to content, but apply to everything we do in the classroom – even instructions.


Filed under Mixing it Up, Teaching Discoveries, teaching grammar

Frequency words

I have been getting a lot out of Michel Baker’s blog! In the blog below she identifies two really helpful tools by Mark Davies. I was aware of his frequency dictionary, but not the online corpus. What a helpful resource for Spanish teachers! We can now look at the frequency dictionary to target which words [especially verbs] to use and then use the corpus to decide which forms of the verbs have the highest frequency. Click on the picture to go to Michel’s blog post.

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Filed under teaching grammar, TPRS Basics

More Dialogue This Year

One of the many goals that I have for this year is to have more dialogue in the class stories. It’s through dialogue that the students get repeated exposure to the “yo” and “tú” [first and second person] forms as well as repeated practice in the present tense. It is especially important to use dialogue because our students are constantly bombarded with the 3rd person singular.

I used some dialogue last year, but it simply was not enough. I think that this is something that I always need to be conscious of. The goal this year is that through repeated use of dialogue and increasing the amount of Free Voluntary Reading, the students will develop a better feel for multiple points of view in different tenses. I guess we’ll see what happens.

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Filed under Storytelling tips, teaching grammar, TPRS Basics

Lomb Kató

One of the greatest DVD’s I ever saw on second language acquisition was the Krashen Seminar. It was produced by Blaine Ray in the late 90’s and on the DVD Krashen, in a very light and informative manner, outlines how we learn languages. If you want a copy of the DVD let me know and I’ll get one to you.

Anyway, on the DVD Krashen mentions a woman from Hungary by the name of Lomb Kató. [In English her name would be Katherine Lomb] She was a woman that learned 16 languages, mostly by self effort. I find myself asking the question, “What can I learn from Lomb Kató?”

Well, here are a few things that I gathered. She mentions that she drove three autos in World Languages: autolexia [reading for myself], autographia [writing for myself], and autologia [speaking with myself]. When thinking about my own language learning , it makes me feel better to know that she mentioned these three tools because I wasn’t sure if I was normal.

I also think about whether I am providing this for my students. Do we have a time where they can read what they want? This is basically FVR. I wish I did it more often and I think it would be good for the students. I am still getting my act together for a grant for some money.

Do we also have a time where the students have a time where they write for themselves? The closest I come to this is freewrites. I wish that they could do more free journaling in L2 and I wonder if my students are at a level where they can express themselves this way. It is a good thing to think about.

While I am not sure that autologia leads to acquisition, I do think that it leads to feeling like you are part of a club of language learners, which is very important. This is especially important for teenagers who are so locked into social approval. This happens in my room when I give a brain break and have them do mini-retells with each other. To be honest, it could happen more. I also think that this is something that can be encouraged to do on their own.

Other comments that she made was that when learning a language, we focus on the essence of the grammar and the important words. How true this is! I don’t know why so many programs use grammar to teach the language. Grammar will not win over the majority and will deprive the learner of the joy of natural language.

She also mentions that we need to cling to the enjoyable side of language study. Am I really providing this for my students? I really think so because we have stories that are all about their life and we are reading things that bring up real life situations. Reading can be a very enjoyable side of language study if we get kids into good stories and books!

These are just a few things that I learned from Lomb Kató. I find myself asking the question, “What good does all the Spanish I am teaching the students do if they never take charge of their own language learning?” I think that we need to help our students to acquire the language, but also to know how to acquire a language so that when they leave they can continue this language acquisition journey.


Filed under Encouragement for hard days, Reading, Storytelling tips, Teaching Discoveries, teaching grammar

How Well Do They Really Know It?

When I first started using tprs I had the idea that if we used a phrase or structure in class, it was acquired. I have since learned that this may not necessarily be the case. As I work with students more I observe that there are different levels of acquiring a language. I have come to experience that a student may be able to identify a word in print and know its meaning, but not necessarily be able to use the word on demand or have the word freely come up for use when the right time comes. This means that a student needs more repetition on the word.

On the yahoo moretprs list Blaine Ray comments about recently teaching an upper level class. He mentions that although the students were in an upper level class, he found that they all benefited from the repetition that was in the story the class created that day. I found this to be very interesting.

Perhaps we underestimate the amount of repetition that students need and we should keep recycling previous structures all the time. Many teachers already know this, but this is a good thing for me to remember. I need to remember that the students more often than not need more repetition.

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Filed under Storytelling tips, Teaching Discoveries, teaching grammar

Bobby McFerrin demonstrates the basics of teaching

Take a look at this Bobby McFerrin clip. Then if you have time watch it again and think about how he teaches and what makes him a good teacher.

We as language teachers have a lot in common with music because music has many similarities to language. In fact, many would say that music is a language. The interesting thing is that by the end, the whole audience knew which pitches to sing and when. Here are a few other common themes I noticed.

1. There was a sense of play

  • You notice that it was not just the students, but also the teacher and there is a healthy amount of laughter.

2. Minimal grammar

  • At the beginning, he didn’t say, “Okay everyone today we’re going to learn the major pentatonic scale. It consists of scale degrees 1,2,3, 5, and 6. Let’s begin on scale degree one in the key of C. Now we will write out the major pentatonic scale in all 12 keys. Okay, everyone got it? Good. Now you will write some songs that I have created to help you drill the major pentatonic scale. etc. etc.”
  • The grammar was meaning based. The audience experienced the language of the music and it just flowed. It just made sense. Why? Because language makes sense to people when it is meaning based and not grammar based. Meaning-based grammar is the most that students want to know  and are ready for in the beginning.

3. Repetition

  • He went over the notes several times to establish meaning and fluency so that later the students were able to have quick recognition.

4. The students are doing most of the work

  • He runs with them for a little while and then eventually they are doing most of the work. He is just there to make sure they have a plan.

5. It is a story

  • You may be thinking, “What?” It is true, they told a musical story. It went here and there, up and down, there was a direction and eventually it had an ending. In this case the ending made sense, but it still had a noticeable story line. We as humans are story beings and this is what makes sense to us.

6. He kept them focused

  • At times you notice that the people are having so much fun that they start laughing and he keeps them on track by keeping the storyline moving. Water is the same way. If it is stagnate impurities start to find their way into the water. We remains pure by being in a current or a flow. So, we as storyaskers need to keep the plot moving in order to keep them focused. If we focus too much on the details, the story gets stagnate.

7. There was a community

  • As they were playing and laughing there was a sense that people were engaged in what was going on and apart of something special. The audience was willing to come together to play and learn with each other. This is the way it should be in our classrooms. A time where the class comes together and faces  in the same direction toward a common goal.

At the end he makes a comment that everyone gets the pentatonic scale wherever he goes. I think that is because we all get language when it is presented in a meaningful way. We are all made to get language, it is innate. Why would we deny our students of this experience in the language when it can be so powerful? I hope I can strive to have this in my class. The possibilities could be grand.

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Filed under Encouragement for hard days, Storytelling tips, Teaching Discoveries, teaching grammar

Great comment from Norm Veilleux

Here is a great comment from Ben Slavic’s Blog

Don’t remember where I read this, but it was by a biggie in the SLA world (VanPatten I think) who believed that learning styles do not apply to language acquisition. There is only one way to acquire language and that is by comprehending messages. Language acquisition is so specialized and mainly unconcious that learning styles and their accompanying types of activities are not effective. I’ve dug up a few other quotes that I’ve used during workshops that really help explain the importance of input. I’ll paste them underneath and Ben you can use as you wish if you haven’t come across these already.

(From Input to Output, Bill VanPatten, p.25)The concept of input is perhaps the single most important concept of second language acquisition. It is trivial to point out that no individual can learn a second language without input of some sort. In fact, no model of second language acquisition does not avail itself of input in trying to explain how learners create second language grammars.
(Gass, 1997, p.1)

Although SLA as a scientific discipline is only four decades old, one of the most fundamental discoveries that revolutionized the way people thought about how languages are learned involved the concept of input. Although it might be a bit grandiose to imply that the discovery of the role of input is on par with the discovery of the earth’s rotation or the existence of the subconscious, the point here is that in the small work of SLA research, the discovery of the role of input completely altered the way in which scholars conceptualized how languages are acquired. Today, all theories in SLA research accord input an important if not critical role in how learners create linguistic systems.

(VanPatten, 2003, p.28)

Language acquisition happens in only one way and all learners must undergo it. Learners must have exposure to communicative input and they must process it; the brain must organize data. Learners must acquire output procedures, and they need to interact with other speakers.
(VanPatten, 2003, p.96)

Every successful learner of a second language has had substantial exposure to input as part of the process of language learning.

What kind of input is optimal for acquisition? The best input is comprehensible, which sometimes means that it needs to be slower and more carefully articulated, using common vocabulary, less slang, and shorter sentences. Optimal input is interesting and/or relevant and allows the acquirer to focus on the meaning of the message and not on the form of the message. Optimal input is not grammatically sequenced, and a grammatical syllabus should not be used in the language classroom, in part because all students will not be at exactly the same level and because each structure is often only introduced once before moving on to something else. Finally, optimal input must focus on quantity, although most language teachers have to date seriously underestimated how much comprehensible input is actually needed for an acquirer to progress.
A Summary of Stephen Krashen’s “Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition” By Reid Wilson

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Filed under Teaching Discoveries, teaching grammar

To correct or not?

Corrections have been something I have thought about lately. There is this part of me that wonders how much good it really does in terms of language acquisition. In my experience so far, I think that mostly it does little to nothing. The people that it may help are the 4%ers. So what does that mean for us? What do we do with errors, either in class or on tests. Should we kill ourselves over grading.

Well, this may be a little radical, but I am starting to think that the purpose of tests are to let teachers know what has been acquired and what has not been acquired. In other words, tests are for the teacher, not the student. Tests let us know which CI to focus on more. What a different way of looking at it.

This is good news for us as teachers. Even being a TPRS teacher, I still feel weighed down by grading. And I am a minimalist. I do not take papers home or work from home. Also, my testing is online and mostly graded by a computer. You may be thinking, how can this be or wow you must stink at your job? Well, that may be, but I am keeping myself afloat in this overwhelming profession.

You see, if we know that constant error correction does not do much, that means that we do not have to grade that much. It also means that we can relax when we hear our kids speak with terrible grammar. It just means that they need more interesting CI, that’s all. We don’t need to get upset. We just need to listen to our students and adjust our teaching accordingly.

I am find more and more that language class is meant to be the beginning of language learning or a springboard. It provides them with experience in the language so that when they leave they are ready to handle more advanced input. Without the language class, everything would be white noise and it would be much more difficult to acquire a language. The language class is not meant to make them perfect in L2. It is what helps the students to get their foot in the door.

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Filed under Teaching Discoveries, teaching grammar

Teaching multiple tenses

Today I started the road to teaching multiple tenses. It is freeing to me to present the language as a whole and not in segments. The wonderful thing was that the student completely understood the difference. It seems terrible to me that people would say, “Oh, they can’t learn that yet. They are not that advanced.” Who ever came up with that idea.

I think that when people start to view language as a different subject, they will start to see more fluency in their class. Language is not taught like physics. It is a completely different type of knowledge that is acquired through the natural order of acquisition. To teach it as an empirical subject limits the potential of fluency.

Not only that, but teaching with multiple tenses makes the story more fun!

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Filed under Storytelling tips, Teaching Discoveries, teaching grammar