Does Acquisition require Output?

I had an interesting discussion about language acquisition with the father of one of my younger students. He explained to me how he discovered at the age of twenty-two that he could speak fluent Italian.

He was born and grew up in southwest France, near Agen. His father’s family immigrated from Italy when his father was a very small child, so his father grew up speaking Italian at home and French in school and was perfectly bilingual. He went back to their native village for a bride. When she arrived in France, she spoke only her Italian dialect. The couple spoke Italian at home and the first child, a boy, grew up bilingual. The man I met was the second child. By the time he was born the mother had learned to speak French

Since everyone in the family spoke French and the second son heard only French outside of his home, his first words were in French. As a toddler, he sometimes heard his parents speaking to each other in Italian, but when he tried to speak Italian, they laughed at him, saying he had a French accent. He felt humiliated by their laughter and he stopped making any effort to speak Italian. Because his parents considered their Italian dialect substandard, they did not encourage the children to speak it. He told me, “It wasn’t the Italian they taught in schools.”

He went to Italy a few times as a child with his parents, who acted as interpreters for him when they visited relatives. Having grown up in a home where Italian was spoken, he understood the conversations around him, but, being shy, he never found it necessary to speak for himself. He was convinced he didn’t know how to speak Italian because he had never practiced it.

Years later, he took his French bride to Italy on a honeymoon and found that there was no one in the village who could interpret for him. So, out of necessity, he tried to communicate and quickly found the language “spilling out of his mouth”. Without ever having practiced speaking or studied conjugations, he told me that he was able to speak fluently within about three days. His wife was present and assured me that after the first couple of days he spoke easily without any hesitations. He says now that he has a slight accent and makes a few mistakes with gender but otherwise his language is grammatically correct.

This case study seems to support the view that comprehensible input is sufficient for acquisition.

Tao Te Ching for Language Teachers

January 1st, 2020

“Brim-fill the bowl, it’ll spill over.” Lao Tzu by way of Ursula K. Le Guin

As language teachers, we want to hear our students speak. Yet, we all have seen the results of forced output: students who dread speaking, who hesitate and stumble and the one phrase that comes out is exactly what they know is incorrect. It’s like trying to draw water from a shallow, muddy well. When I asked a university class of eighteen year old English majors to describe a frightening experience, at least a quarter of them wrote about being called on to speak in English in class.

Stephen Krashen tells us to give our students optimal input, rich and varied input, and the output will take care of itself. I’ve often used the image of the glass of water filled to the brim with students who want to practice speaking. When they speak because they can’t help themselves, when they are not practicing but communicating something essential, the language that flows from their mouths will be clear and correct.

Other teachers insist that students need to practice. “You learn to speak by speaking.” Yet Lao Tzu continues with “Keep sharpening the blade, you’ll soon blunt it.” By forcing students to speak before they are ready, before the speech spills out of their mouth, we are blunting their spontaneous desire to speak. One of my adult students told a story about being called to the phone in her office because her colleagues knew she was taking English lessons. The caller was English and spoke no French. My student answered their questions and gave them the information they needed. When she hung up, she was utterly amazed at herself. Telling me about it she said, “I don’t know where the words were coming from. I completely forgot I was speaking in English, I just wanted to help them.”

Fill the bowl to the brim and it will spill over.

Give your students optimal input. When their minds are filled with lovely language, it will spill out of their mouths.

Where in Europe can you learn about Comprehensible Input methods?

The Canal at Agen

The Canal at Agen

What is going on in Agen? Who are these people that you see having lunch in the restaurants downtown, carrying on animated conversations, usually in English but sometimes in French or Spanish or Dutch? They are participants in the annual Agen Workshop, here to learn more about TPR, TPRS, Movie Talk, Story-Listening and Optimal Input. They are language teachers from around the world that want to learn more about Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis and how it can be applied in the classroom.

The Agen Workshop for foreign language teachers will meet for the tenth time in 2022. Once again teachers from around the world will share their ideas and innovations. Last year, in spite of Covid restrictions, over fifty teachers from around the world came to Agen. Today there are already almost fifty inscriptions, some familiar faces and some new, for July 2022.  As usual, Sabrina Sebban-Janczak will be teaching the French Lab, Judith Dubois and Tamara Galvan will run two English Labs, and Daniel Kline Dubois will initiate new-comers to Breton. We are looking forward to presentations by Robert Harrell, Anna Gilcher, Scott Benedict, Karen Rowan, and Janique Vanderstocken, We are currently negotiating with some very exciting people and will soon be announcing other names.

Of course, our secret weapon is Lunch. Everyone who has been to Agen will tell you about how wonderful Lunch is. We are in the heart of a region reputed for its good food and there is almost a surplus of excellent but inexpensive restaurants. We encourage participants to choose one and go to lunch together. Instead of grabbing a sandwich and rushing back, we want them to take their time over lunch, to enjoy the food and process what they have seen and learned, sharing their thoughts and exchanging ideas, asking questions and giving themselves time to absorb a very different way of viewing their profession.

Some past history: Krashen’s research on how languages are acquired dates from the 70’s, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that classroom teachers found ways to put his ideas into practice. For the first time, thanks to the Internet, thousands of teachers were able to collaborate and share their experiences and feedback. Blaine Ray is honored as the original creator of TPR Storytelling, but the method grew and evolved over the years with input from classroom teachers like Susan Gross who were trying it out in the real world. Today “CI” is truly a child that has been raised by an entire community, a grass roots movement that has spread and conquered more and more schools and districts across the United States. In 2018 when ACTFL (the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages) named the five regional winners of the “Foreign Language Teacher of the Year” award, it turned out that three of the five were TPRS teachers.

As the movement grew, more and more teachers began doing things that were not TPRS, but were fully in line with Stephen Krashen’s emphasis on giving students compelling, comprehensible input, what he now calls Optimal Input. At the Agen Workshop we wanted to be open to all strategies that encourage input and do not force output.

At the beginning of the decade there were two major TPRS conferences in the United States: NTPRS and iFLT. They are usually held in July. European teachers who were interested in the method had to organize a trip to the States to learn more about it and meet some of the amazing teachers who had helped it develop. In 2013 I invited Teri Wiechart, who has been a coach at NTPRS since the early days, to help me organize a workshop for teachers in Agen, France. Fifteen people came. The following year we had twenty-five and in 2015 year there were fifty people. In 2019 a hundred and twenty teachers came together in Agen. Something a bit magical happened at these workshops. People from different lands, who taught in schools that were very different, were sharing their ideas and difficulties and experiences and discovering that they had much in common and that Comprehensible Input offered many solutions. People left the workshops excited about the methods and their possibilities, but also excited about the friends they had made and the doors that had been opened. The CI world heard glowing reports about Agen and more and more wanted to come.

I met Stephen Krashen when he was the key-note speaker at TESOL’s Colloquium in Paris in 2014. He then considered TPRS was the most effective means of teaching a language that he had ever observed. He came to Agen in 2016 and again in 2017. He helped convince Beniko Mason Nanki to come. Her research has validated much of the Comprehensible Input hypothesis. Stephen now feels that some TPRS teachers have reverted to using forced output and favors the Story Listening approach. In 2016 we were also very happy to welcome Ben Slavic to Agen.

In 2016 Beniko presented her Story Listening method, which inspired Kathrin Shechtmann, Alice Ayel, Ignacio Alamandoz and many others to try it. Story Listening is brilliantly easy to put into practice and can be adapted to many different types of students. You can now watch videos of Kathrin, Alice, Beniko and others doing Story Listening online. This unique way of giving Optimal Input to students has proven its effectiveness at all levels.

In 2018 Susan Gross, who did so much to develop the TPRS method, came to Agen, along with Jason Fritze, Scott Benedict, Sabrina Sebban-Janczak, Laurie Clarcq, Kelly Ferguson and Robert Harrell. Margarita Perez-Garcia came all the way from New Zealand to demonstrate using OWI in a Spanish class with young learners. Alice Ayel explained how using Story Listening as developed by Beniko Mason had helped her IB students attain excellent scores. Pablo Roman taught Japanese using the Automatic Language Growth method.

So what is different about Agen? Why are so many people coming from so far away to a little town in southwest France? One thing that we have tried to do in Agen is to develop the better aspects of the big American conferences. We have coaching with some of the best coaches around. We also have language labs as developed in iFLT, real classes of students of English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Breton with experienced teachers. Participants can observe the classes for the first part of the morning, then step in and have a turn as Apprentice Teacher, putting into practice basic CI strategies, trying out new techniques. In the final part of the morning, we ask the participants to PQA one of the students in a brief one on one discussion. In this way, we actually engage the participants in the lesson, so they are doing more than just observing a master teacher.

In the afternoon coaches are available for those that want to try out new skills. There are presentations by some well-known figures from the States, but also more and more by some of our European talent, such as Janique Vanderstocken, Philip Smith and Hélène Colinet, teachers who have taught for many years in Europe and understand the conditions here, and how our techniques which encourage Comprehensible Input can be adapted to a public with much different expectations than are found in American schools.

The afternoon sessions end at six o’clock, but there are evening coaching sessions at the Stim’otel.

Since 2018 we have been offering free language classes for members of the participants’ families, as well as guided tours of Agen and free visits of the Agen Museum which enchanted everyone. Our goal is to be “family friendly” so that participants can combine a family holiday with their professional development. A baby-sitter is available during the morning Language Lab sessions. And there is bus service to the largest water park in Europe, just across the river.

*Warning: The Agen Workshop is addictive. Once people come they tend to keep coming back year after year. Some participants are being reimbursed by their schools or professional organizations, but many consider that the week of growing and sharing with kindred souls is well worth their travel expenses. Here is what some of them have said about their stay in Agen:

Maika from the Netherlands: The very nice experience in the previous years and the great atmosphere and the inspiration it gives me. Every year I learn new things and I get inspired again, which is so good to start the new year with.

Seoyoung from Korea: I just loved the 2018 Agen Workshop. I’m returning in 2019 with a friend.

Hélène who teaches French in a IB school in Spain: I would come every year. It is more than teacher training. All the school year I have in mind what I have seen or learned at Agen. It is inspiration and motivation for a successful school year.

I’ve tried to give you a peek at our workshop as it is shaping up. It’s still a bit early to give all the names of our presenters and activities, but we hope you can make it either this year or another year. In the meantime, enjoy life and be kind to others. And don’t forget to be kind to yourself.

The Witch

The Arrival – a graphic novel with endless possibilities

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The Arrival by Shaun Tan is an extraordinary book. It’s a truly graphic novel because it has no words at all. It could be used to teach any language, even Latin. I’ve been using it to teach English as a Foreign Language for years with different levels of students. It’s my “entry test”.  When I have a new student I open the book and we start discussing the pictures. What is that? Where is it? Is it old or new? Is the family poor or rich? Is the teapot full or empty? Very quickly I have a good idea of my student’s level in English and I can decide how I want our lessons to continue.

This year I have a group of “beginner” adults. (I’ve decided that when a French person asks to be put in the beginner group, it means they are not advanced. Most French adults have learned traditionally and feel inadequate in any situation where they might have to speak English.) I knew that I would have mixed levels and that I was free to design the course as I pleased. Another English teacher in the organization is doing “communicative” teaching with grammar explanations, etc. I described my course as learning through stories and reading. I decided that our “course book” would be The Arrival.

I have scanned the book and have it on a flash drive. So I can project the pictures of the pages on a screen while we describe them and talk about them. I have asked past students to write descriptions or summaries about the pictures which I have edited to be able to use as readings for new students.

Shaun Tan is an artist who also writes whimsical stories. Son of an immigrant to Australia, his masterpiece tells the story of a man who leaves his family to go to a new country, hoping to be able to bring them later. The cover of the book shows him carrying a large and battered suitcase and staring at a very strange animal, some kind of cross between a fish, a mouse, a reptile and a dog. Everything is very strange and unexpected in the new country and he has many misadventures because he doesn’t understand the language very well and is not used to the customs and strange machines. Most people consider it a science fiction story, but actually, I suspect Shaun Tan is helping us to better understand the immigrant’s experience in an unfamiliar country.

The first page of the book has nine individual pictures that seem to have little or no relationship. There’s an origami, a paper bird, an old clock, a hat, a cooking pot, a child’s drawing, a teapot, a cup of tea, a suitcase full of clothes and a family picture of a man, his wife and their daughter. I can usually take at least fifteen minutes to discuss these pictures with my students. Then I turn the page, being careful, if I’m using the actual book, not to let them see the third page.  Here is a view of the second page:

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We describe the action in each picture. When we get to the last picture of two hands, I ask if the hands are the same. It’s interesting to see who catches on to the fact that one hand is larger than the other. We understand that one is a woman’s hand and the other is a man’s hand. Then I show them the image of page three where everything comes together.

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We look for the paper bird, the old clock, etc. After we have located all the objects seen on the first page, I ask questions about the scene. Do the people look happy? What time is it? Is it morning or night? Where is the little girl?

Page four shows the little girl waking up, having breakfast and leaving the house with her parents. We see the shadow of a monster’s tail on the building. Then we see that the monster is everywhere in the city. The family goes to the train station where other people are waiting. The father says good-bye and gets on the train alone. Finally we see the mother and daughter returning home in the monster infested town.  It usually takes an hour to “read” the pictures and finish the first chapter. I give the students a text to read or ask them to write their own, depending on their level.

Here is a text which I have “edited”in order to target some typical difficulties that the French have with English, such as his hand/her hand :

“It’s the story of a family with a man, a woman and a little girl.  The man and the woman are preparing a suitcase while the little girl is sleeping.  They are packing the suitcase. The man’s hand is on the suitcase. His big hand is on the suitcase. The woman’s hand is on the suitcase. Her little hand is on the suitcase. In their house we can see a paper bird, an old clock and a teapot on the table.  After a few minutes the little girl wakes up and goes to her parents to drink tea.  She looks at the suitcase. Everybody prepares to leave the house.  The man puts on his hat. The little girl puts on her hat.

“When they leave their house, there is a strange creature which can represent a danger.  This strange creature is everywhere in the city.  When they arrive at the train station, there are other people who are waiting for the train.  The man gives the paper bird to the little girl.  He kisses his wife and talks to her because she is crying. After that, he leaves his family to get on the train.  The train goes away with the man. The woman and the little girl go back home in the night.”

After the first lesson with The Arrival, I decide if I want to continue with the book or if I think the student’s level and interests would be better served by something else. With my group of adult beginners, we went through the book, picture by picture, chapter by chapter. The second chapter is long and usually takes two classes to get through. Each lesson gives us a lot of discussion during the  class followed by a text to read, either at home or in class. I often have more than one text which they can compare. I always ask the students to give their own name to the different characters. In the book as the main character meets other immigrants, they tell him their stories, so there is often a story in the story, which we “read” and discuss before composing our own text.

This worked very well with my beginners because of the built in repetition of key words. First we discussed the image, then either read a text about the episode or composed our own, which the students then reread at home. I love the freedom this gives me to meet my students where they are and adapt what I can say about the images to their particular needs.

P.S. We have now finished the book. I think that we can begin looking at a film such as “The Mighty” or “The Black Stallion” now. In many ways our classes will be similar since I will not be using the sound track at first. We will watch a scene and then discuss it and compose our own text before I let them start reading the subtitles in English.

Stephen Krashen on Error Correction

I stopped correcting my students’ errors a long time ago, while I was still teaching in the lycée. I had come to the conclusion that correcting written errors was an enormous waste of time and energy. I’ve discussed this before in my article about helping students to improve their written production:   Here is another, more scholarly article which should put the last nail in that coffin:

And when my students were speaking, I felt it was better not to correct them simply because it was an interruption. I myself know that when I am speaking French, particularly when I’m talking about something that is vital to me, if someone interrupts me to correct my grammar, I feel that they aren’t really listening to me, that judging my grammar is more important to them than what I have to say. Of course, I feel much differently if my error has made something I’ve said ambiguous or incomprehensible. When the other person is trying to be sure that they are understanding me correctly, I don’t see that as “correction” at all. I feel that they are trying to help me get my message out, and I am grateful. And I am very unlikely to make the same mistake again, because I do want to be understood.

Stephen Krashen has pointed out that studies which seem to support error correction, in various forms, often have two weaknesses. One is that students’ progress is measured by tests in which they are asked to choose the correct form, rather than by examining their written production. Any experienced teacher knows that you can drill students, practice a grammatical structure over and over, and they will be able to pick out the correct form on a test. But they will continue using the incorrect form in their spontaneous production. Another weakness of the studies that seem to support error correction is that any measurable improvement diminishes in time, a sure sign that recognition of the error was learned but not acquired.

Recently one of my former students contacted me on this topic. She is currently studying to be a language teacher and taking university courses. She has attended the Agen Workshop for the last couple of years and has heard Dr. Krashen speak more than once. She was surprised to hear one of her professors, who seems to respect our eminent friend, support error correction. She asked me for articles and references on the topic, and of course I wrote to dear Stephen. This is his reply:

“A lot of people say that mistakes are good and part of the process.

“I think mistakes are inevitable and a natural result of acquisition.  

“When people think they are “good” it means, I think, that we can then correct them, and correction is good.

“But correction has no real effect. It is learning, not acquisition. It encourages you to rethink the conscious rule and make a better rule.  That’s conscious learning. 

“I like Steve Kaufman’s attitude about mistakes … don’t worry about making mistakes, people listening to you don’t care if you make mistakes, they are interested in WHAT you are saying. If you worry about making mistakes you talk less, and you get less CI.

“Notice that you can improve dramatically without talking at all (listening and of course reading), which means making mistakes doesn’t really help.  But they don’t hurt unless they make you hesitant to speak.”

Here, once again, Dr. Krashen makes the point that is so difficult for teachers (and students) to accept. “You can improve dramatically without talking at all (listening and of course reading).”

Then he adds, “Making mistakes doesn’t really help. But they don’t hurt unless they make you hesitant to speak.”  When teachers, and well-intentioned friends, correct our mistakes, what they are actually doing is making us hesitant to speak. When we hesitate to speak, we will get less interaction, so less input, the one vital element that we need in order to progress.

Motivation = CAN = Competence + Autonomy + Network

One of the wonderful things about the Agen Workshop is the amazing people who come, people that I occasionally find time to sit down and talk to. Last year I met Liam Printer for the first time. He is Irish and teaches Spanish in a private school in Switzerland. He is working on a doctorate (among many other activities which also include coaching a girls’ basketball team) and I found his discussion of motivation very interesting. After all, we all know that if you can motivate your students, the battle is won. Liam explained that the three elements needed for motivation are: a feeling of competence (“I can do this.”), a feeling of autonomy (“I have some say in this.”) and a feeling of belonging to a network (“My friends and I are in this together.”)

This makes a lot of sense when applied to a classroom where the teacher is focusing on giving her students the Comprehensible Input they need to acquire language. We make tests and quizzes easy and don’t correct errors so that we can build a feeling of confidence and competence in our students. We give them choices. If we are doing TPRS, they decide what happens in the story. And we work very hard to create a positive and supportive classroom feeling, where everyone feels safe. Most of the presentations in any given conference will be about ways to develop one of the three crucial elements of motivation.

But, I thought, what about me? I tutor students and most of my sessions are one on one. How do I make a student feel that he belongs to a network? Some of my students have already found their network of fellow English speakers. In the days when I was giving oral exams for the French baccalaureate, whenever I encountered a student that was actually at ease carrying on a conversation with me, I almost always discovered that they shared a passion with a network of English speakers. It might be music or on-line games or anglophone neighbors that had motivated them to do more than memorize lists of irregular verbs. In those days, I focused on the passion. Liam helped me see that the feeling of belonging to a community, of being accepted, was as vital as that passion.

I did quite a bit of musing on Liam’s ideas. It helped me realize why I am not as motivated to go horse-riding as I used to be. I’m not spectacularly competent, but I’m much better than I used to be. I’m fairly autonomous, because I have my own horse and can ride when I want to. But … I have no one to ride with me. Two of my granddaughters used to come every school holiday, and we would ride together. None of the others caught the virus and Shanye and Ines are now living their lives of young adults and no longer visit as often. So I find it easier and easier to find reasons not to go riding. I realized that my passion for horse-riding would be hard to maintain if I don’t find others to share it with.

Recently I was contacted by the mother of a student who came to me for emergency lessons last spring. He was obviously not very motivated and I did not expect to see him again. Well, his mother wants his grades to improve and she wants him to continue taking lessons with me. At first I intended to refuse, because when the student is pushed into taking lessons by the parents, it rarely works out. Then I decided to have a discussion with the boy first, in case I had misjudged him. I saw him as the kind of student that could test Liam’s theory. What would it take to motivate him?

Competence? I could acknowledge whatever level he has reached and consider it a foundation to build on. In our discussion it turned out that he likes his new English teacher and is able to follow much of what goes on in class. So he does feel that he has some competence. I will be careful not to diminish that feeling.

Autonomy? To our meeting, I brought a variety of films in order to let him choose the one he’d like to work with. Some easier than others. We discussed them all and he chose Get Out! , a recent film which won the Oscar for the best original screenplay. If I had been choosing, I would have chosen something easier, but, I decided to go with his choice, to allow him some autonomy. I explained to him that there are two endings to the film and the DVD I have has both endings. We did the first scene, in which a black man, lost in a well to do suburb, is kidnapped, as a Movie Talk, then collaborated together to write a summary of the scene. I used his ideas, silently editing the grammar as we went, and projected the final text so that he could read it over again. So he is the author of our text.

Network? Now, here I admit I was a bit stumped. He doesn’t seem to have any passion shared with an on-line community. He is paying a higher price for one-on-one lessons, because he didn’t feel that he had much in common with the other student who came to lessons with him last spring. How do I make him feel part of a network?

Yesterday we had our second lesson. We watched the scene showing Chris in his apartment with Rose. I muted the dialog, so basically we began by talking about the photographs on the wall, what kind of person would live in such an apartment, what could their profession be, man or woman? Then we saw Chris shaving, then Rose choosing pastries for breakfast, and my student was surprised to realize they were a couple. He was able to guess that Chris was packing to go on a visit to her parents, and I let him listen to Chris’ question. “Do they know I’m black?” And Rose’s response. “They are not racist”.

We watched the drive to her parents’ home and the incident when they hit a deer. We discussed the policeman wanting to see Chris’ driver’s license even though he was not driving, his easy compliance and Rose’s defiance. Then we saw them arrive and my student agreed. Her parents were welcoming. They were not racist.

After Dean gives Chris a tour of the house and grounds, we see the parents and the couple having tea, served by Georgina, the black cook. I have prepared the scene as a VNL and we began the exercise, but did not have time to finish. I encouraged him when he heard the missing words and quickly gave them to him when he had problems, agreeing that some of them are hard to hear. A VNL exercise should build a feeling of competence and should never leave students feeling discouraged.

I had left the door open so that I could see when the next student arrived. There was a man with her who I assumed to be her father, but when we stopped, he turned out to be the boy’s father. If I had known, I would have closed the door, so that the boy did not feel he was being spied on. But on second thought it seemed to me that the lesson had ended on a good note and I had been congratulating the boy on what he was able to hear, so he could feel that he had displayed a certain competence for his father’s benefit.

I felt that the session had been positive and that we had progressed. He was very much into the film and obviously enjoying it. And I was enjoying his reactions and comments. Then it hit me. A network doesn’t have to be a lot of people. A network can be two people. Perhaps all networks began with two people connecting and then bringing in others. If I could develop a positive relationship with this boy, so that he can consider me a friend, someone who is on his side, I can be his English network. While I was asking his opinion about the images we saw, I was also saying that I valued and respected his opinion. I don’t expect to get invited to his next birthday party, but I can hope for his respect and trust. And perhaps that is the most important part of a network, being able to respect and trust the other people, the other person in your network. So, yes, I believe my new student will be motivated and able to progress in English. Because we will be building on all three of Liam’s components, competence, autonomy and network. A network of two, because we can be more than teacher and student. We can also be friends.

The Mighty – 4th episode – Their first quest

After the exciting fireworks scene in which Max and Kevin first begin to function as a team, the students are looking forward to seeing what will happen next. The next scene in the film shows Kevin going to wake Max up early in the morning, eager to continue their adventures. Max is not at all interested. Basically I do this scene as a Movie Talk, first without sound or subtitles. At the end of the scene, we cannot know what Max will decide, so I ask the students whether they think he will go with Kevin or stay at home.

Then I put on the sound and the subtitles and we watch the scene again. I usually have to explain the Wizard of Oz reference. Again, I ask the students what Max will decide.

The question is answered when we see the two boys crossing the bridge to Cincinnatti. I don’t exploit the song unless the students are interested. I do point out that we see Max smiling for the first time.

They go into a diner and the boys rescue a girl who is being harassed by a man. We read the subtitles, discuss what is happening, make suppositions. I point out that when Kevin says, “Unhand her, knave,” the man does not understand and Max has to translate: “Take your filthy hands off her!” It is interesting to point out the difference in the language the two boys use.

We see the boys crossing the bridge again on their way home, this time accompanied by a group of knights on horseback. At home there is a scene of the boys eating in Kevin’s home. It reveals Gwen’s concern about Kevin eating too fast. I also like to point out that the food that Max finds so delicious is something a mother would toss together in a hurry, wieners with ordinary bread, which is why she laughs when he says, “Gram never cooks like this.”

Then I give my students the Embedded Reading that summarizes the scenes we have seen. Again I have given them a task with the first reading: choose the right word.

Reading I
Freak went to Max’s door/house/school and woke him up. Max told him to take back his five/seven/ten dollars. He said he didn’t have any money/time/friends and he didn’t need any. Freak said not to talk/think /write of it as a friendship, but as a partnership. So, they went into the city/house/barn and rescued a girl who was being harassed by a dragon/man/knight. It was their first mistake/fireworks/quest.

Freak went on crutches to Max’s house. He knocked on the bedroom window with his crutch to wake Max up. Max was angry. He said, “You almost got me killed last night.” He told Freak to take back his five bucks. He said he didn’t have any friends and he didn’t need any friends. Freak told him not to think of it as a friendship, but as a partnership. Max needed a brain and Freak needed legs. So the two boys went across the bridge to Cincinnatti. When they were hungry they went into a diner to buy candy bars. A man was harassing a girl, so Freak said, “Unhand her, knave.” The man didn’t understand, so Max told him to take his filthy hands off the girl. The man was frightened and confused. He left the diner and the girl said thank you. Max and Freak had rescued a maiden. It was their first quest.

The morning after the fireworks, Freak went on crutches to Max’s house. He knocked on the bedroom window with his crutch to wake Max up. Max opened the window, but he was angry. He said, “You almost got me killed last night.” He told Freak to take back his five bucks. He said he didn’t have any friends and he didn’t need any friends. Freak didn’t take the money. He told Max not to think of it as a friendship, but as a partnership. Max needed a brain and Freak needed legs. So the two boys went across the bridge to Cincinnatti. Freak rode on Max’s shoulders. Freak was happy and he talked to friendly people. Everyone thought Max was kind to carry his friend and no one looked at him like they had just seen his picture on America’s Most Wanted. When the boys were hungry they went into a little diner to buy Babe Ruth candy bars. A man was harassing a girl. He wanted her to give him something and he was hurting her. Freak told Max that a knight proves his worthiness by his deeds. So Max walked over to the man and Freak said, “Unhand her, knave.” The man didn’t understand, so Max told him to take his filthy hands off the girl. The man looked up and he thought he saw a tall knight on a horse. He was frightened and confused. He left the diner and then the girl said thank you. Max and Freak had rescued a maiden. It was their first quest.

The Mighty – Session 3

By the third session with the film the students will have some empathy with the two characters, Max and Kevin. I should explain that from the beginning of the film Max talks about “Freak”, but I always refer to Kevin as his mother would, with his real name. It’s only later that we come to understand why Max calls him Freak.

I begin the third session with the scene in which Kevin offers Max five dollars to take him to see the fireworks. We read the subtitles and briefly discuss the fact that Kevin knows no one else to ask. I point out that the boys are not friends. You don’t pay a friend to go somewhere with you. Max has no friends and Kevin has no friends.

Then we are at the fairgrounds and we continue reading the subtitles and discussing what we learn about Max and Kevin. Kevin’s mother is always worrying about him. Max’s mother is “in heaven”, so it becomes clear that she has died.

Then the boys run into Blade and his gang, and Blade calls them freaks. I explain to my French speaking students that “freak show” is “la foire aux monstres” in French, that it used to be a common circus attraction. I pause so that they can see how Max tries to ignore the gang, showing that he doesn’t want any problems. Then Kevin calls the gang “cretins”. I pause so that they can see how Max, who is supposedly not very bright, quickly manages to get Kevin to safety and why the gang cannot follow. This is a form of Movie Talk. We’re translating the subtitles, but we are also discussing the actions of the characters.

The fireworks scene is a high point of the film. I ask the students why Kevin is frustrated, why he can’t see. And then Max puts him on his shoulders, and the real story starts. Usually the students catch on to Kevin’s calling out the different names of the chemicals that produce the colors of the fireworks, but if they don’t I explain.

Then the boys meet the gang again and there’s an exciting chase scene during which Kevin becomes Max’s brain and Max becomes Kevin’s legs. It’s one of the best scenes in the film. If I’ve taken too much time before the chase begins, I stop when they see the gang and wait for the next class to continue. I want to be able to include the following scene when the police take the boys home and Grim tells Max, “I’m proud of you.” It’s an important scene and I’ve noticed that the word “proud” is often definitely, permanently acquired after viewing it.

When we have finished watching it and discussing it, I give them this Embedded Reading. You will see that the first reading has words in italics and the students are to choose which word fits the scene they saw in the film. (Now I borrowed this idea from someone who posted about it recently, but when I went back I couldn’t find where it came from. If you are the author, please contact me so I can credit you.) This simple exercise of having to choose one of three words gives some variety to the Embedded Reading, and also, I find, takes some of the focus off of the new words in the text. When students are thinking about something else, new vocabulary seems to glide painlessly into their minds. Since the new words are going to come up again in Reading II and III, they will seem familiar when we’ve finished. The third version is written in the first person. If your students are up to it, you could use the original chapter from the book, Freak the Mighty, as a fourth Embedded Reading. The readings I have used are derived from it.

Reading I

After the fireworks, Max carried Kevin on his back/shoulders/head. Kevin was happy. He could see nothing/everything.

Then Kevin saw Blade/his mother/the police. He told Max to go left. There were more Doghouse Boys.

Then something funny happened. Kevin became Max’s stomach/heart/brain and Max became Kevin’s legs/mouth/arms. They ran away.

There was a train. Max ran/walked/jumped across the tracks. The train stopped Blade and his gang.

The fire/police/water stopped Max and Kevin. Blade and his gang were in front of/behind/next to them. Blade had a gun/knife/hamburger. Kevin said, “Go straight. Trust me.”

Max walked into the mud/street/snow. Blade was behind them with his knife. Max had mud up to his stomach/knees/mouth. He was stuck. But Blade could not walk in the mud. He went back.

The police/teacher/dancers came. The Doghouse Boys ran away.

Kevin and Max became like a knight of King Arthur.

Reading II

After the fireworks, Max carried Kevin on his shoulders. They walked through the crowd. Kevin was happy. He was high and he could see everything. “This is better,” he said.

Suddenly Kevin saw Blade and some of the Doghouse Boys. He told Max to go the other way. There were more Doghouse Boys. Kevin told Max to go left, but there were other Doghouse boys on that side.

Then something funny happened. Kevin kicked Max and he went right. Kevin became Max’s brain and Max became Kevin’s legs. They ran away and the Doghouse Boys ran after them.

There was a train coming. Freak said, “Don’t worry.” Max ran across the tracks and the train stopped Blade and his gang.

But the pond stopped Max and Kevin. Blade and his gang were behind them. Blade had a knife. They could hear Blade laugh. Kevin said, “Go straight. Go straight ahead. Trust me.”

Max walked into the mud. There was mud up to his knees. He couldn’t move. Blade was behind them with his knife. Max was stuck. But Blade could not walk in the mud. It was too deep. He went back to the shore.

A police car came. The policemen arrested Blade and his gang. They took Kevin and Max home. Gwen told Gram and Grim that Max had saved Kevin’s life. Grim told Max that he was proud of him.

Kevin and Max became like a knight of King Arthur, walking high, killing dragons and saving maidens.


After the fireworks, I carried Freak on my shoulders. We were walking through the crowd. Freak was happy because he was high and he could see everything. “This is better,” he said. “I’m taller than everyone.”

Suddenly he saw Blade and some of the Doghouse Boys. Freak told me to go the other way. But there were other Doghouse Boys on that side. He told me to go left. Then I saw another Doghouse Boy. I didn’t like his grin.

Then something funny happened. Freak’s foot hit my side and I went right. He became my brain and I became his legs. I ran away and the Doghouse Boys ran after us.

There was a train coming, but Freak said, “Don’t worry. We can beat it.” I ran across the tracks and the train stopped Blade and his gang.

But then we were on the edge of the pond. Blade and his gang were behind us. Blade had a knife. I could hear Blade laugh. Freak said, “Go straight. Go straight ahead. Trust me.”

I walked into the mud. There was mud up to my knees. I couldn’t move. I was stuck in the mud. Blade was behind us with his knife. I took another step. Then I took another one. But the mud was too deep for Blade. He went back to the shore.

A police patrol car came along. The policemen arrested Blade and his gang. They took Freak and me home. Gwen told my grandparents that I had saved her boy’s life. My grandfather gave me a cup of coffee and he told me that he was proud of me.

That is how Freak and I became like one of King Arthur’s knights, walking high above the world, slaying dragons and rescuing fair maidens.