Category Archives: Grammar

Not news: Boxes aren’t compelling

Yesterday we found a boxed Spanish course in a closet. I thought it would be worth my time because it has transcripts of conversations, and I don’t get enough comprehensible spoken Spanish in this ongoing experiment.

I decided I would start rolling through the mini lessons (I did 55 of them last evening). I wasn’t sticking to the transcripts alone, thus breaking a rule I’d set for myself: no focused grammar study. I laughed about 30 lessons in, when the tip on the side said, “You have learned how to conjugate ar verbs. Now learn er verbs.” I didn’t know what one of the verbs meant, but I could fill in the blanks because I’ve been hearing and reading the correct forms. I don’t know how anyone would have “learned” ar conjugation by then from the box.

When I finally rejoined my family for the evening, I was exhausted. It was nothing like the prior evening, when the same room decluttering process had yielded Mira Canion’s Agentes Secretos. I read that book in about 40 minutes, and was jazzed because it was so easy to read, and I immediately wanted another one because it was so compelling (yes, I have contacted Mira). This morning, I came to the breakfast table and saw that box. I felt my heart drop. And yet, I’m the one who set myself this task.

The box has an ongoing story about a Mexican student who is moving into an apartment with two others in Spain. It’s not very engaging, partly because the authors are moving thematically, rather than trying to tell a story, and partly because grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary notes keep interrupting the story. There’s also too much English on the pages.

I finally understand with my body why a grammatical-thematic approach is less effective than a CI method. Real communication does not stick to themes, and we don’t usually interrupt conversations to correct pronunciation or to practice grammar (only Moms do that). We can shelter vocabulary and still communicate. But we have to go to weird lengths to communicate while concentrating on an imposed theme, and it doesn’t feel right.

Back to my rule. No more focused grammar study, unless it’s to answer a question.* I’m going to listen to everything I can, even the box CDs. Searching for (free) materials at my level is time consuming, but there are still a few TPRS teacher videos out there that I haven’t watched. Muchas gracias to those valiant souls who are editing my writing, and thanks to all who have posted their videos. I hang on your words!

*My fabulous teacher editors provide occasional pop-up style grammar to explain their edits. And sometimes I ask a question. My current one is why there are accent marks on words like río, even though those follow the pronunciation rules that I finally looked up. (And why is there not such a simple rule in English or Russian???)

Terry Waltz, again, and Grammar

I know that I’ve posted this, but another site just mentioned this video of Terry’s, which lays out TPRS in such beautiful fashion that I feel I have to remind myself of it. I just watched the first half, and I want to channel Terry next week.

Now I’ll go back and watch the second half. Terry makes the whole process very smooth, and she talks about her way of doing the curriculum. I asked Susie recently about grammar for curriculum-mapping purposes (again, I may have mentioned this…sorry…) and she said that one way to “cover” grammar would be to make a list of all the topics you want to cover. Then at the end of class each day, you check off the ones that you did pop-ups on. That way you’ll know what you’ve covered and what you need to still include. I like that a lot. I’m not really sure about how to do Terry’s method, though I like the concept, and I think that Susie’s basically combines Terry’s idea with what is manageable in class for me. I would love it if someone had an idea for a little pop-up program for my class that would ask me at the end of each day what I did…maybe a survey on Google docs or something like that??? I could put sections for beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels.

Martina, would this work?

Vocabulary Picture book

It all started a couple months ago when I told people they could doodle on the backs of their vocab tests for extra credit.  Some people always finish up before the other people, so I told them for one extra credit point they could use a word from the vocab test in a sentence and illustrate it.  They LOVED it!  After everybody was done with the test, I showed their creations on the document camera and we had a great time playing with the language.

Then I decided that this made actually a pretty fun idea to review for my tests, so about a week before the test, we did the same thing in the class using mini whiteboards.  Again, this was a big hit and several people said that it helped them.  This not only got up a bunch of reps on words, but it introduced a visual element that helped people process it.

So finally, it finally occurred to me that this would be a good way to not only study for the test, but could make an excellent FVR resource as well.  I started out by writing down each vocab word (this last list had 30) on my board and underlined it.  As each class came in, I asked them to sign their name under two of the words so as to make sure that everything was covered.  When I had smaller classes or started getting saturation on a few words, I would put a big X under that word so the others got more coverage.

I took the papers, scanned them and then created a book out of the following collection of pictures.  The picture on the right is for “nobody.”  The captions read “Nobody likes the test”; “There is nobody in this picture” and “Nobody likes me.”

The beauty of this is that the creativity and ownership of these is off the charts.  The “test” picture is nowhere near as technically good as the “likes me” picture, but they both do the trick just fine.

If a grammar point comes up like the difference between “neimand” and “niemanden” I will answer anybody who asks, but mostly they just need to see and process language in context.  If I have a verb as the target vocab structure, I often will try to create sentences that conjugate the verb according to different subject positions “I try, he tries, we try, etc.”  It’s so easy to leave everything in the third person that they need to see the different forms, especially for irregular verbs.

Another area where these vocab lists are useful is in modelling the past tense forms as well.  In this set of pictures for the verb “belongs to” the captions are “The cow belongs to me” “Hey, that belongs to me” and “Flowers belong to girls!”  Notice underneath the flowers caption I rewrote the sentence in the past tense, and put it into italics in order to make it stand out. In this way my students get to see the past tense forms.

In short, I like this approach because it allows me to create compelling texts that target the structures on our vocab list while making something worth reading.

Overall it took me about 45 minutes to scan and crop everything and another hour and a half to plug everything into the template I created.  That’s a pretty good time outlay, but because I would only be doing once per quarter (which is how often I rotate my verb lists) it’s worth the investment to me.

On teaching grammar

I had an interesting talk with Susie last night. I wrote her a note about my whole “what grammar to present” quandary. Do I focus on one grammar case (adjective/noun endings) in Russian and rotate as the kids seem to get it as she suggests for verbs in languages like Spanish and French, or do I stay with just the verbs. She said that I should stay with just the verbs, and do the retelling from perspective, asking the 4%ers every so often about changes in cases.

But here’s the crux of our conversation: none of that is helping kids acquire language. What is helping them acquire the language is the compelling CI. TPRS helps make it more compelling in many cases. The verb practice only helps quiet the left side of the brain (in both students and teachers) to make us all feel like we’re learning/teaching stuff. When the kids have heard/read and comprehended it enough times, it will fall out of their mouths correctly.


Reading blues

Lesson structure today for advanced Russian: sing, find a quote in a song, fast-write using the quote, read, re-tell stories in first person.

The reading group I was leading was dead to the world. I could not get them excited. I knew they were wishing one of the advanced students was leading their group, because the other groups were laughing. Then, as though I had a coach in the room with me, two things occurred to me. First, if they aren’t responding, it is probably because they don’t get it. Second, do Susie’s “appreciation” technique. “Wow, that was a very complex sentence, and you got it.” Keep catching them at what they’re doing right. Do high fives. Be excited.

It turned out to be absolutely true that they hadn’t understood a word of the part where the thesis of the story was laid down. Not a word! That made it pretty hard to follow the rest of the story. We went back and circled and circled that first bit, and all of a sudden, when I was also congratulating them, they got it. Hurrah!! Of course now, after the fact, I can think of lots of other things I could have asked them to make the whole thing more interesting.

About the re-telling…we first re-read the stories that we’d written the other day. Then we re-told them, putting essential vocabulary words on the board. Then we retold them as a group in first person, putting the guide words up. Finally, kids re-told them in pairs and threes. What I liked was that this way, we were able to repeat the essential vocabulary again and again and again, without having it look as though we were doing so. The one thing that I needed to have done but didn’t was to have asked a lot of circling questions, pointing to the necessary guide words: “Who came up to me (point at to me)?” “What did I do?” “When I woke up, whom did I see?” “Did the trolls kill me or us?”

I also forgot to ask for a volunteer to do it with guide words and another to do it without guide words. Oh well. There’s always more to do. The period ended.

Sliding scale quiz update

We did the second round of sliding-scale quizzes yesterday, but I got frustrated by the point system, which awarded points for both meaning and structure, which are obviously overlapping, but then I didn’t know where to put the scores. Today for my first-year class, I gave them the list with two extra blank columns: one entitled “Vocabulary” and one “Structure.” Then when we graded the quiz, kids put a point down for the meaning and a point or two down if they got aspects of the structure right. An example:

pashol: (he) went (by foot)…if the kids put down anything about going or walking, they got a point in the vocabulary column. If they put “he” and a past tense form, they could get two points in the structure column. That way I can tease out the structure and the vocabulary difference. Some words just had vocabulary points (“family,” for instance).

Next I tried the real form of horizontal conjugation with another group. We drew pictures for an old story, retold it in pairs, and then we told it from a new perspective, writing in just the new forms as guide words. One advanced student retold it as a model for the whole class. Then the group told it in pairs, and then volunteers told it to the class. I didn’t get to the step yet of erasing the guide words completely, but I was stunned to hear that this way of retelling, which sounds so simple, is so effective. I got a later e-mail from Susie, and she said that at the end of a month of doing re-tells from perspective (third-person singular and plural into first person), the kids had to do a POV change in writing. I don’t think I have this as organized as Susie did.

What IS it about this TPRS stuff? Every time I think I have the basics down, I realize there’s another piece I have to learn. And then of course I forget the basics again. There are a lot of balls to keep juggling. (If anyone from Fairbanks is reading, maybe you’ll think twice about asking me to come talk to you!)


Note: where I mention horizontal conjugation in the following post, I am not presenting it correctly! I’m going to leave this up like this for a couple of days, and then I’ll edit it to take out the references that are incorrect. But if you read the comments right now, you’ll get confused unless I leave the wrong stuff in. (You’re probably confused now, and it is probably important only to me to do it like this!)

Here’s the original post:

Figuring out what vocabulary words to use when students are reading different books is a bit of a challenge, but I think we nailed it today. I asked the upper-level kids (5/AP in the 2-AP class) to offer three words they felt they needed to repeat, then did my two-minute-write-a-story-in-English-on-a-tiny-square-of-paper-using-these-words activity (man! are they fast at this by now) and then we told two of the stories. That worked out really well.

One level 5 said that she can never remember the word “remembers.” She’s offered this up before, but no one commented; we all have those words we just can’t get. Instead of giving “remembers,” I gave the form that means “having remembered” for their story-writing, and then as other forms came up in the story, I put them up in horizontal conjugation form (thanks, Susie!) with their meanings. I checked whether they got them all as they came up in the story. It was a very satisfying day.

I’m also pleased with myself because in the first story, I remembered to use the rewind button idea twice. (We inserted a flashback into the story.) We also assigned one girl to say “Bing” in a high pitch every time we used a form of “remember.”

In the three of the four Russian classes that met, I also gave Laurie’s sliding-scale quizzes again, except this time I didn’t write whole sentences. Instead, I did this:

1. goes home 2. (she) went to the store 3. (the girl) who was going to school 4. in the town, 5. will come up to me 6. (she) had been talking with you 7. sees me (but it looks like “me sees”) 8. having seen him

Now the kids are watching those forms closely when they come up in reading. This quiz gave me a chance to find out whether the advanced kids are catching the structures, and whether the beginners are getting the gist. Everyone is still getting more right than I expect them to get. I like how sliding-scale quizzes let me quickly discuss other ways to say things so that meaning changes (in not quite the same subtle way that Susie leads contrastive grammar). It’s a grammar teacher’s resting spot, but the kids really care because they’re trying to get as many points out of each phrase as possible. They seem to love this kind of quiz…it’s almost a game. Following that short quiz with story-telling worked out very well.

Poor Anna

A couple of kids in my first-year class are lagging, so I am trying to make sure they have certain phrases down cold, as well as varying the activities so that our 85-minute periods don’t drag. I forgot that we’d started to talk about everyone’s NY resolutions and their superpower wishes. So we started with a dictation, brought people to the front of the room to talk about their powers and resolutions, took a quiz on the information,  read from Poor Anna, and played a game. That’s about 17 minutes average per activity, just about right if you add in transition time. It keeps kids moving. I can start doing something in class, forget that the kids need to move and stick with a given activity way too long.

What I’m proud of is that I managed to work common phrases into every activity, to compare the kids who came to sit up in front of the class with one another and with Anna, that we reused “wants” a lot (to control people’s minds, to teleport–honest, there’s a Russian word!), and that when we did the eyes-closed, thumbs-up/down T/F quiz, only two kids missed any of the answers. Then, when we did the reading, because we were doing a game afterward, kids were very focused. The game was simple…Scott’s adaptation of “Around the World” –I gave them words and phrases from Poor Anna to translate. It’s really easy to differentiate by giving kids different words that I expect they’ll know.

Now I’ve just finished with my advanced class, in which I had superstars leading one group, a native speaker in another, a university grad in a third and myself in a fourth. I gave everyone about 25 minutes of reading and talking. I could hear the university guy talking with the kids about the “necessary” form of subjunctive, while the native speaker discovered she didn’t really know how to translate a lot of things that the kids figured out, and the superstars in the third group did an awesome job of reading together. In my group, I was taking baby-easy reading, and making the kids re-read it from different perspective because otherwise they could have just read on their own. I read in Russian out loud until we hit a word or phrase that needed to change, and the student would say that one correctly. It was fun! It’s highly comprehensible and they like the success. I could take that same reading passage and make the more advanced group put it into past tense, and with the most advanced groups, I could ask them to change it to subjunctive.

Everyone was nicely focused and reading happily the whole time. Lovely! I gave them all five minutes to draw a six-picture storystrip of what they’d read, and after that they did a ten-minute fastwrite. Then I had a song with some blanks for them to fill in for the last five minutes of class. Whoo hoo! It doesn’t feel like I taught at all–just facilitated acquisition!


And later…I went to Laurie’s blog to ask a question, and she had explained why she does TPRS, starting with a link to this page.

Grammar in songs

We’re singing the Russian New Year songs. In level 1, we make a gesture for every word, and occasionally I check that they know the difference between “she” and “to her.” I also ask a lot of translation questions to make sure that the gestures have meaning, as well as asking kids to translate whole lines, since otherwise they could be nonsense. “In the forest was born a fir tree” is pretty clear. But “From the forest brought we the tree home” is not unless you’re a language teacher.

In the next levels, I do pop-up grammar. Who brought? How can you tell? How would you say “he brought”? How would you say “He brings”? Whom did we bring home? What makes it “her”? How would you say “him”? I end up doing one grammar pop-up on each pass through a verse.

Sometimes I get off on a tangent of circling and storytelling, but we interrupt to sing. It’s really nice by the most advanced levels, because the kids are ready to play with the vocabulary and make crazy stories out of the song.

I just realized something. Susie said that in order to teach new grammar, we can bring out a story kids from last year and retell it with all the new grammar. I never have the same stories from year to year because my level ones feed into two mixed-level classes. But they do all learn and repeat the same familiar songs year to year, so we can build stories around them. It’s sort of like the Toni experiment of giving the stories that level 1 told to the upper levels for a re-write. They do well because they’re not trying to do too much new at once.

Toni Kellen 2

Here’s the follow-up on yesterday, when two sets of mostly Russian 1’s did the Toni Kellen story. I followed the suggestions from the Ben blog entry, making a little chart of about fifteen words upper level kids could add to the story after the fact, and printed it out with space for writing. I required that they create some sentences with complex clauses. Oh, my goodness…what a great result! They just flew! I am always trying to get them to use those “in order that,” “that, which,” “therefore” and other similar constructions, and sometimes they succeed, but nothing like today. I realized that it was because they were taking something that was simple to begin with, totally comprehensible to them, and making it higher level. I’ve been asking them to take high-level structures that are a bit new to them and use those in their own stories while also using more complex sentences. It’s analogous to my “ah-ha” yesterday: if they’re writing on a higher level, I can’t expect them to do that and use new vocabulary at the same time, just as I can’t expect the lower-level kids to remember and re-tell long stories in a new language.

I hope this makes sense. It’s exciting to figure out some of the things I can do right from now on, as long as I remember them.