Category Archives: Susie Gross

Contrastive Grammar in Anchorage

At our local TPRS meeting yesterday, Betsy demonstrated the Contrastive Grammar technique. She talked about the three levels of comprehension questions for different levels of learners. Here is one example for each:

Barometer: ask what something means
Mid-level: ask what a particular part of a phrase or sentence with the new grammar means
High-level: ask kids to apply the new grammar, translating from a sentence in English.

Then she went on to show how to do negation in Japanese, meanwhile throwing in “little” words that don’t have equivalents in English. We all practiced the negation of the verbs, but every few statements, Betsy would ask whether we’d heard something new. If we had, she explained it. 

First of all, Contrastive Grammar is a great technique to use–thanks, Susie! It helps those of us who like to talk about grammar. But this new twist, which turned out to be a sort of stealth focus on the little words, while making us think we were practicing the negation, was brilliant. It has taken my brain all night, but now I’m beginning to understand what features I might “stealth-teach” through Contrastive Grammar. One of those is the little “bwi” that signifies the subjunctive. In a way, I realize that I’ve been doing this, but as Martina has said earlier, it’s helpful to have a good practice explained and codified, so that you can identify when and where you can use it to good effect. 

Tam pointed out that, for those of us who would otherwise uselessly obsess over the “little words” (or whatever else you’re stealth-teaching), the focus on something else gives our analytic brain something to do while we’re secretly pounding away on the real topic. 

For more on Contrastive Grammar, check Susie Gross’ website. She is the creator of this technique, but for clear presentation and examples, I’m feeling lucky to live in the same town with Betsy! 


Comprehension checks

Susie offered this advice for what to do when someone new comes into a class on the moreTPRS board. I am personally grateful for the reminder about doing comprehension checks. I’m certain I don’t do one a minute.

“Go ahead and teach whatever you need to teach, but slow it waaaaaaay down, and ask someone to translate every minute or so. Use all forms of comprehension checks:
What did I just say?
What did I just ask?
Which word meant “they have to”?
What does “bailar” mean?

Don’t use all of those questions at the same time, but do at least one of them every minute! As you get an answer to the comprehension check, LOOK at the new kid and repeat the correct answer just as if the student you asked gave the perfect answer. Just make the new kid comprehend what is being said. PERIOD. By slowing down and making your students translate perfectly every single minute, you will discover that all of your students will sharpen their language skills.”

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.


Susie says “be impressed”

I just got in from teaching my adult group. What fun! I had another Russian teacher observing, and she kept shaking her head (the same thing that happened when someone observed me my second month of TPRS). I was a bit unnerved, but then realized that she was shaking her head in amazement. When one rank beginner correctly translated a complex past tense phrase, she even had her thumb up in the air.

I’ve been forgetting to be amazed by what my students can do. Tonight our beginning phrases were: “called (her) son,” “sister will stay,” and “was in his room.” Not one of those would have been on the list of first-year phrases in my past, nor were the verbs of motion that the second group got ever on the list in four years of study before. But here I was, happily running through them, and forgetting the part where I tell them they’re incredible.

So after the visitor raved about them, I sent them all a note. And I’m going to fall upon every bit my kids utter or translate tomorrow in delight.

Not a good day

It’s freezing in my little classroom. There’s a cracked window, so that plus the fact that the wind is howling makes it chilly in this under-insulated relocatable. I moved my first class to the library, where things didn’t go as well as I’d like, and the next class to be in here was cold and not too forthcoming.

What I ended up doing was sharing the story that the first year kids had done, and asked the advanced class to finish it. They did. Maybe I’m just getting used to their talking ability. Need to switch it up a bit for my sake, if not for theirs.

(They loved the Valentine’s Day vocab: as per Nathan, they were pickup lines: Could I have your phone number, What are you doing tonight, and the one that our exchange student said she heard last summer: does your mother need a son-in-law?)

Last night I ran across a video we’d done when Susie skyped with our group. One of her suggestions (planning for a sub day) was to have kids in pairs draw stories (the drawings will help them remember the story line), then choose actors to act out the story as they tell it. That’s what we’ll do the next time they do a speaking assessment. Tomorrow they’re going to get to write this one up, and I’ll do a write-up using as many of their suggestions as possible.

TPRS monthly meeting

I wrote this when I came back last night from our monthly meeting. Yum! TPRS teachers do the best food!

I do love our group for more than the food…we plunked a total newby in front of the group with Susie’s coaching template and made her go for it. She was quite brave and successful, especially given that she had just barely heard of TPRS and since she was facing a room full of nuts who spend three extra hours honing their teaching skills on a Friday.

We worked our way up the steps, and ended up coaching Marcia (who walks on water) through adding details, personalizing between one student and the class, reporting on dialogue, negative/positive assessment, and back-pedaling when someone gets lost…all in one coaching run. I think we broke several rules of coaching, but we were all very enthusiastic.

My major insights from the evening? First, proceed slowly, point and pause. Yeah, I’ve heard that before! And I’ve said that before. I can see where point and pause will help with spelling. And there are ways and ways of going slowly, and they don’t all require stolid repetition. Betsy showed us how we can slide up the speed dial within the period of a coaching session. She’s another water-walker.

Second, Diana passed on something she’d heard that we all liked (credit if you can): instead of asking kids to show a 10 for understanding everything, a 1 for nothing, ask them to show a 10 if I’m going slowly enough for them to understand everything.

Third: Japanese is actually easy when Dimond High teachers are teaching it through TPRS. Miyuki, Atsuko, Victoria, Betsy…kids are lucky to learn from you every day.

Fourth: even a group of mostly “advanced TPRS” teachers benefits from going back to square one to practice.

Sharing videos

Today Marcia came to my room, and I asked her to turn the video on me. I haven’t done this for a while. I shared some video on YouTube with Susie Gross in the last two years. She helped me out with very clear comments and suggestions. A student videotaped me for about a week earlier this year, but I haven’t dared to watch those for some reason. (Mostly I haven’t had time or reason, and need to find out an easy way to share them.) A couple of us watched Nathan teach his German class a couple of months ago, and that was instructive too. Watching videos, sharing them, and observing one another is a great way to learn.

Just having Marcia in the room was very helpful. For one thing, she turned on the video (something I forgot to do the next period, when I’d intended to!) and for another, she provided me the balance that I needed. That’s hard to explain, but when I have another adult in the room, for some reason I think a little more clearly about what could happen next. I used to be fearful when I had people observing me, but now that I have a method that I believe in, one that others also follow, I feel more confident. It makes it easier to discuss what’s happening. Also, if I can make the story fairly comprehensible to the visitors who don’t know Russian, I’m making it pretty comprehensible to the kids.

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.