Agen Workshop 2022 is open!

  • Where? Lycée Saint Caprais, Agen, France
  • When? Monday, July 25th, 2022 to 12:00 Saturday, July 30th, 2022
  • Who? Teachers of foreign languages from around the world who use or are interested in Comprehensible Input/Optimal Input methods of language acquisition.
  • How much? Until March 1st the Early Bird Price is 445 euros. After March 1st, the full price of our five day conference is 595 euros.
Working hard

What is CI?

On Facebook Terry Waltz asked for a short, one-minute definition of TPRS/CI to use in a conversation when people are not prepared to listen to a long speech about it. I suggested: We do what people have been doing ever since the Tower of Babel: trying to communicate with others using simple vocabulary and context so that there is comprehension.

When there is comprehension, the unconscious mind acquires the language. That is how living languages are acquired. Dead languages are often taught using legacy strategies that were originally developed to teach Latin, a dead language. Yet there is a large and growing group of Latin teachers who are using TPRS/CI because … it’s more effective.

Krashen’s Comprehensible Input theory is based on a need to communicate. If there is no comprehension, there is no communication. TPRS uses student generated stories to create a need to communicate between a teacher and a class of individuals who may not be convinced that the teacher has anything interesting to communicate. For ages humans have been learning to communicate together by establishing a few comprehensible phrases and bulding on them. With time and repetition the phrases, and the rules governing their use, are acquired unconsciously. With enough high quality input we start to feel what is right and what is unacceptable. We shelter vocabulary in order to remain comprehensible, but we do not shelter grammar because grammatical forms rarely prevent comprehension.

Using stories has several advantages. The human brain remembers stories far more easily than it does lists and rules, which is why stories have been used for teaching in every culture known to man. The story gives context which helps comprehension. When language students remember the story, they remember the context and associations between the words. As a result, they often will be able to guess the correct meaning of words that have not been explained. Another advantage to stories is that they lend themselves to repetition. Children will ask for their favorite story over and over again. Adults will enjoy listening to repetitions if just a few features are changed.

Planned but not targeted: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

I’ve been using the graphic novel The Arrival for quite a few years now. I don’t remember who introduced the book to me, but the charm worked immediately. Shaun Tan’s book is a true graphic novel. It’s a novel without words, a story told uniquely through the artist’s drawings. So it can be used to teach any language to anyone.

In one on one lessons I use my well worn book, but I also project scanned pages in order to use it with groups. The pdf version is available here:

Whenever I meet a new student for the first time, I begin by showing them the book. We discuss the drawing on the cover, then I open the book and we look at the pictures on the flyleaves. I ask them to find someone who is old, young, from Asia, from Africa, from Europe, etc. I point at a picture and ask where they think the person is from. Then we look at the title page and I ask if they can read it. We turn another page and see the picture of a man with a hat who is looking away. I ask them what they think he is looking at.

Then I turn the page and we begin “reading” Chapter One, which means looking at each picture and discussing it. There is a paper bird. Do they know the expression “origami”? There is a clock. Is it old or new? Is it a wooden clock or a plastic clock? What time is it? There is a hat. A man’s hat. It is on the wall. What is beside the hat? Etc., etc. Is the teapot old or new? Is it cracked? Is it empty or full? Is the tea hot? What is beside the chipped teacup? Some students guess that it’s a boat ticket and some money, but many think that it’s a post card. I let them suppose whatever seems logical to them. Is the family poor or rich? Why do you think they are poor?

Then I slip a blank piece of paper into the book so that when I turn the page, they see the images on the left, but not the one on the right. We discuss each picture as above, and when I get to the last picture, I ask if the two hands are the same or different. Most students then realize that the hand on top is smaller than the hand on the bottom, so when I remove the paper hiding the picture on the right, they understand why.

On this third page, the first full page illustration, there are a lot of things to talk about. We find all the objects that were on the first page and say where they are. Do the people look happy or sad? What or who is missing? Is it ten in the morning or ten at night? Where is the little girl?

When we turn the page we see her in her bed, waking up, having a bowl of something, looking at the suitcase. We try to imagine what she’s eating and what she’s thinking.
She lifts the heavy suitcase, but her father carries it. The family goes outside and we see the shadow of a monster’s tail on the wall. The next full page shows us the entire city infested with dragon-like tails.

Some students see this development as heightening the suspense. Others frown and are wary. Is this a science-fiction story? If I see that they are uncomfortable with the idea of fantasy and monsters, I ask what the monsters could represent. Most are able to accept the sinister tails as symbols of a danger. We continue narrating the pictures, one by one, until we reach the last page, showing the mother and daughter returning home alone in the shadow of the threatening tails.

It usually takes about an hour to “read” the first chapter of the story. By this time, I have a very good idea of how well my new student is able to communicate in English, and of how extensive his vocabulary is.

If he is weak, I give him a text written by a former student that is a summary of what we have just seen. I insist on the fact that it was written by a student, not by me or by an author. The structures are simple and the vocabulary familiar because we have just been talking about the same things. If the student is A1 I may read it with them. If they are able to read it without assistance, I’ll ask them to do it at home as a revision.

With stronger students, I open up a document and go through the chapter once again, asking questions about the characters and their story and writing the students’ answers as we go, so that together we produce our own summary of the first chapter. The purpose, of course, is to get repetitive input of the words that may be new or unfamiliar. Many of the objects that appear on the first page turn up again and again as the story goes on, sometimes in different, unexpected forms.

After the first lesson using The Arrival, I decide whether or not to continue “reading” the novel, based on the student’s interest and level. Usually they are curious to know where the father is going and we continue in the same manner. If I sense that they are not engaged, I try something else, perhaps a film that is suited to their abilities.

Many students have been so enchanted by the book and its drawings that they have bought their own copy. The Arrival is a good example of a non-targeted curriculum. I plan to narrate the story with my students, and we use the language that comes up. High frequency verbs and nouns are present because … they are high frequency. So my lessons are planned but the language is not targeted.

Looking Back at Agen 2019 … Looking Forward to 2020 … Ooops! … 2022?

The end of the conference always seems to come too fast, before I’ve had a chance to chat with so many people that I was looking forward to seeing. So, I’m writing this with a bit of nostalgia, wishing you all could have stayed longer, so you and I could sit down somewhere quiet and have a nice talk.

Someone told me my newsletters should have bullet points, so I’ll try to be brief, but I have a lot of important things to say, so please be patient and read all of my meanderings.

– Thank you! Thank you for your immense patience during the horrible heat. I’ve always dreaded having a heat wave during the conference and this year it happened. You were brave and uncomplaining and I appreciate your kindness more than I can ever say. We are planning now to be better prepared for such weather next year. I will probably send out a newsletter for an opinion poll on some of the options. Please note that this week the weather is beautiful with a pleasant breeze and sunshine, the kind of weather I Was hoping for last week.

– Next year. A great many people said they are coming back next year. We will have to limit the number to 120 as I did this year. Our organization could not handle any more without changes that we don’t want to make. So, if you do want to come back, don’t wait too long to register. The dates are July 27th to August 1st.

– Prices. In order to have a sound system, some air coolers and better technology, we will have to raise the price. Since I don’t know any billionaire teachers, I want to keep the conference as affordable as possible, but I will have to increase the price. Not enough to make anyone rich, but it should allow us to make ends meet and to be better equipped.

– Special price for veterans during the month of August: 335 euros. On September 1st the “Early Bird” price will be 445 euros. After March 1st, the price will be 525 euros. The registration form is now posted.

– The “banquet”. I was very disappointed in the way the hotel organized the final lunch. It was much better in other years, as many of you know. I will be exploring other options for next year.

– Feedback. Again, thank you for filling in the feedback forms and getting them to me. Obviously, many of you took time to give thoughtful replies. If you have more to say or didn’t get a form, feel free to e-mail me your ideas.

Finally, please believe that I realized, several years ago, that what makes our conference different and so amazing is the wonderful, generous, delightful, kind and thoughtful teachers from around the world that keep coming back.

Hoping to see you in Agen again in 2022…. Or another year.

Love and hugs,


The Mute Native Speaker

I was asked to work with a group of young girls and I began by explaining to the parents that I would be making up stories with the girls and playing games, doing things that would be different than what they were doing in school. During my brief explanation of the principles of Comprehensible Input, one of the fathers was vigorously nodding his head.

Later he told me his own story. His father was born in Italy, near Venice, came to France as a small child, and grew up bilingual, speaking an Italian dialect at home and French in school and everywhere else. When he wanted to marry, he returned to Italy and brought back a bride who spoke no French. Their first son grew up perfectly bilingual, like his father, speaking Italian at home and French elsewhere.

By the time the second son was born, the mother had begun speaking some French. The family was ambitious and considered their Italian dialect as inferior. They believed that speaking good French was the key to success. When the second son began to speak, his parents and older brother laughed at him, saying he spoke Italian with a French accent. Disliking being laughed at, he started speaking only French, which everyone encouraged.

He returned to Italy on holiday with his parents a few times, but relied on his parents or brother as interpreters. He understood what was said in Italian, having heard his parents and older brother speak Italian all his life, but could not answer. Any efforts he made to speak were laughed at, so he didn’t try.

He was a good student, took English and Spanish as foreign languages in school, where he did well, and finished with a very good degree leading to a good job in management. He married a French girl and decided to take her to Italy for their honeymoon.

Then he found himself in Italy with no interpreters around. At first he found it difficult to make himself understood, then words began to come to him. He told me that, to his own amazement, within three days he was speaking fluent Italian. Today, he said, he has a slight French accent and occasionally makes mistakes in gender, but has no difficulties in communicating and being understood.

Dr. Krashen considered this story as a demonstration of the efficacy of comprehensible input alone, proving that production is not necessary for acquisition. Production is merely a way to show what has been acquired.

The Alibi Game

I didn’t invent this game but found it in a text book I used many years ago. I believe it was Oxford Press material. It would take up an entire hour of class without anyone getting bored and gave students lots of practice listening for details, while giving me an easy day. I think I will try it with my next Zoom class.

I began the class by announcing, in a very serious tone, that someone had stolen the principal’s motorcycle. The original version was that someone had been attacked and money stolen from the safe, but I didn’t want to go down that road. Any crime or incident that would involve the police coming to investigate would do.

I told the class that the police were coming to question them all. They would be asking them where they were at the time of the crime. Then I put the students in pairs. Whenever possible I put a strong student with a weaker one. I told them that they were each other’s alibis. They were to develop an alibi, saying they were together at the time of the crime and preparing to be able to say where they were and what they were doing. I reminded them that the police could ask them for details. Which restaurant? What did they eat? What color was the wallpaper?

Of course some of this pairwork was done in the ML, but they were preparing to give their alibi in the TL, so it was not as monolingual ML as pairwork often is. In a Zoom class, this preparation could be done in breakout rooms.

When everyone had their alibis prepared, I would send one partner out of the room while the class, as the police officers, questioned the other one about where they were and what they were doing, trying to get as many details as possible. Then that student would go out and the other one come in to be interrogated. The class would ask the same questions, trying to find contradictions. It was a lot of fun, as the class tried to think of something the pair had not foreseen, and the suspect tried to find plausible excuses for not remembering a detail. My role was limited to helping occasionally with vocabulary and deciding when the alibi was broken.

When the class broke the alibi, which they almost always did, it would then be the turn of another pair of suspects. The best alibi I ever heard was from one clever guy who told that class that just after the motorcycle had been stolen, he had been walking down the street and he and his partner had seen me ride past on a motorcycle!

Is this comprehensible input? I would say yes because the bulk of the class is listening intently to what is being said. I never corrected grammar and only helped with vocabulary when it was needed to be comprehensible. I only used this in classes where the level was sufficient for some output to be relatively painless. There is a lot of built in repetition, as students are hearing the same questions repeatedly. Weak students could reply yes, no, or give simple and brief answers about where they were and what they were doing, having planned ahead of time what they could say.

If you decide to play the Alibi Game, I’d love to hear how it went for you.

How to Acquire Language

I want to explain the difference between the way I teach and the methods that many other language teachers use. You should know that I have been teaching English as a Foreign Language since 1967 and in over fifty years I have been trained in and have used many different strategies, both as a teacher and as a student of other languages. My current practice is based on my observations, my personal experience and the latest research. One of my guiding lights is Dr. Stephen Krashen. Since the 1970’s he has been articulating the difference between Learning a language and Acquiring a language.

To understand the difference, you need to know that our mind has two different ways of functioning. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize, wrote a book called Thinking: Fast and Slow. Slow thinking is what we do with our conscious mind. It is what we do when we study, when we memorize, when we struggle to understand how something functions, when we try to solve problems. Slow thinking requires effort and burns calories. Fast thinking is automatic and effortless. Remember when you were learning to drive a car (or ride a bicycle). You had to think about your hands and feet, about when to shift gears and which pedal to use and when to signal a turn. After a few years you could drive a car or ride a bike without thinking about the mechanics; you could drive a car while you were planning what to prepare for supper. Driving had become automatic and effortless. That is the difference between slow thinking and fast thinking.

I recently read a story in a book by Patrick Rothfuss called The Wise Man’s Fear which illustrates the two systems. A professor is teaching some of the best students in the university. He shows them a rock and gives them paper and says “In fifteen minutes I will toss this stone. I will stand here, facing thus. I will throw it underhand with about three grip of force behind it. I want you to calculate in what manner it will move through the air so that you can have your hand in the proper place to catch it when the time comes.”

After allowing the students to work on their own for five minutes, he encourages them to work in groups. When the time is up the students confess that they don’t have the answer.

The teacher opens the door and sees a young boy walking by. He calls him. When the boy enters the room, the teacher cries, “Catch!” and tosses the stone to the boy.

“Startled, the boy snatched it out of the air.”

Then the teacher faces the students and says, “In each of us there is a mind we use for all our waking deeds. But there is another mind as well, a sleeping mind. It is so powerful that the sleeping mind of an eight-year-old can accomplish in one second what the waking minds of seven members of the Arcanum could not in fifteen minutes.”

Traditional methods and many “communicative” methods are directed at the waking, conscious mind or “slow thinking”. Any teacher who asks their students to memorize vocabulary, grammar or conjugations expects you to use “slow thinking”. The strategies which I use are directed at the sleeping mind or “fast thinking”.

The question is, how to we reach the “sleeping mind”? How do we acquire language that is spontaneous and automatic without memorizing grammar rules and verb conjugations? Well, how did you acquire your native language? You did not acquire it through studying verbs and memorizing vocabulary. You acquired language by listening to your mother and the people around you.

Dr. Krashen has said that language is acquired through Compelling Comprehensible Input. When you are a very small child, everything your mother says is compelling because she is the most important being in your world. And mothers automatically, instinctively try to be comprehensible. When we don’t understand they repeat, demonstrate and gesture until we do understand.

That Compelling Comprehensible Input is an effective way of acquiring language is becoming very evident today with internet and Netflix. I’m sure you know someone who has acquired a language by listening to their favorite series. My own granddaughter, who took Spanish in school, acquired English by listening to Pirates of the Caribbean and High School Musical, then Gossip Girl. Later, when she did take English in school, she had a near perfect score.

Compelling Comprehensible Input can also be written, which means language can be acquired by reading a good book without ever memorizing a verb conjugation. The more you read, the better your grammar will be.The more you listen, the better your pronunciation will be.

Many teachers require production, both oral and written. The real reason for this is their need to give grades. Some teachers say that students have to speak and have to practice writing. Yet there are many proven cases of people who have acquired language only through listening, without ever practicing. Production, whether oral or written, is a test. It shows us where the student is, the level that they have attained. Speaking and writing in school may be needed for grades, but they are NOT necessary for acquisition. Speaking and writing are not input, but output. Dr. Krashen calls such tests “weighing the pig”. It can be interesting, even necessary, to weigh the pig in order to measure its growth. But weighing the pig does not make it any fatter. It does not matter whether you weigh the pig every day, every week or every month. The pig will not weigh more because you weighed it more often. Students who enjoy speaking may feel more confident, but they are not acquiring language by speaking. The quiet student who never speaks but listens attentively is acquiring just as much, perhaps more.

You may have heard that I don’t teach grammar. It is never on my lesson plan. But if you have a question about grammar, I will be happy to answer it. I have learned that students always remember the answer to their own question, so I never refuse to answer a question. But I don’t waste my time and yours by answering questions that no one has asked.

So, as I see it, my job is to furnish you with compelling, comprehensible input, both written and oral. And your job is very simple. Your job is to let me know what interests you and what does not and your job is to let me know when I am not being comprehensible. Together we can make sure that you receive the compelling, comprehensible input that you need to acquire language.

The Ninth of May – Mayi

The Ninth of May

Europe celebrates the 8th of May as the end of World War II. In a small town in Cameroon the Batanga tribe celebrates the Ninth of May, the day that marks their return from exile at the end of World War I, more than a hundred years ago.

When World War I began, Kamerun was a German colony. The colony was named after the abundant fresh water shrimp, called camarao by the early Portuguese explorers, to be found in its rivers. The Germans had built a big port at Douala and an administrative capital at Yaoundé. Along the southern coast there was a small town called Kribi with a lighthouse, a church and a prison. The Batanga of Kribi were fishermen, living in villages under the tall coconut trees. They went to sea in dugout canoes and sometimes brought back sharks as big or bigger than their canoes. They were proud people who had converted to Christianity early. Some of them were educated and there was even a pastor who had studied in the United States. They looked down on the neighbouring, “pagan” tribes. They were not interested in working in the German coffee plantations because they could satisfy all their needs by fishing. Finding them difficult to govern, the German authorities had had their traditional chief hanged.

One day two large ships flying British flags anchored outside the port of Kribi. They were too large to dock, but began bombarding the German buildings and were preparing to ferry soldiers to shore. The world war had come to Kribi. The German force was too small to resist and decided to retreat into the interior, towards Ebolowa.

When the British marines landed, they were greeted with open arms by the local population, who saw them as liberators. Unfortunately, the Germans had been able to summon more soldiers and were soon returning to retake the town, considering it too strategic to abandon. Kribi controlled the only road that led into southern Kamerun.

Realizing that they were not numerous enough to hold their position against the German reinforcements, the British decided to retreat. When the Batangas learned that their hated masters were returning there was a general panic. Their chief had already been hanged. Everyone was convinced that the German soldiers would massacre the entire population for having welcomed the British to their town so enthusiastically. They pleaded with the British naval officer, Captain Taylor, to let them board the ships. He agreed to carry them to the western part of Cameroon where they would be safe from German reprisals.

The fishermen had their own canoes and were able to paddle their families out to the British ships. Those who didn’t have a canoe swam. Louis Ngandé was about eleven years old and he told of going to the ship astraddle a broken piece of an old canoe, all he could find. The Batanga were using anything that floated to get them to safety. Today when they tell the story, they sing in English, “Taylor, wait for me.” The tradition is that all the Batangas, men, women and children, re-enact the scene every ninth of May, singing “Taylor, wait for me”, as they wade into the sea. They say that if you bathe in the sea on that day, you will not drown during the year.

There are many oral traditions dating from the day the Batangas left their home and were carried into exile. They tell about the pastor who refused to go with the others who were being herded by the sailors into the hold. “I’m a pastor!” he said indignantly in excellent English. Captain Taylor replied, “Today, even if you were Jesus Christ, you would go into the hold.”
The Batanga refugees were taken to what is now West Cameroon and put into a camp. They were in a strange land, surrounded by people who did not speak their language and there was not enough food. They suffered and some died, far from their homeland.

At the end of the war Kamerun was divided into West Cameroon, which became a British colony, and East Cameroun, which became a French colony. Transportation was organized for the Batangas once the Germans had permanently left the area. On the ninth of May, 1916, they landed on the beach they had been forced to abandon. Ever since they celebrate their homecoming each year with a parade, dances, banquets, festivities and an “opera” where they enact the scenes of their exile, remembering many dialogs that their grandparents or great-grandparents told them about word for word, preserving the event in the memory of new generations.

The Left Hand of Darkness

I’m re-re-reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. So much wisdom and foresight and humanity, it should be required reading if anything ever should be. And I come across this passage which seems so pertinent in today’s world:

“His speeches were long and loud. Praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn, vilifications of ‘disloyal factions,’ discussions of the integrity of the kingdom’s borders, lectures in history, ethics and economics, all in a ranting, canting, emotional tone that went shrill with vituperation or adulation. He talked much about pride of country and love of the parent land, ….I decided that he wished to arouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. …He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, although he used the words perpetually. As he used them, they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about truth also, for he was, he said, cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization. It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer or paint or plyofilm or whatever, hiding the noble reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural, that it is the opposite of primitiveness. Of course, there is no veneer. The process is one of growth and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things you have either one or the other. Not both.”