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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the following scenes Max learns that they have new neighbors and then he sees Kevin for the first time.
If we begin when Max is lying under his bed, I ask the class “Where is he?” At first, if they’re not paying attention, they think he is on the bed. I rewind and let them follow the camera, so that they realize his refuge is under the bed. I’ve never had anyone laugh or scoff at this. They seem to realize how miserable he is, even though his face shows no emotion. We read/decode the subtitles together. I furnish the words they don’t know as soon as they hesitate. Then I go back and replay the scene. (I use the VLC program because it lets me replay as often as I wish, at the speed I want and I can choose the exact second I want to stop at. Other programs that I’ve tried are not as easy to manipulate.)
On the second replay I don’t stop or question or intervene at all. I just let the input, which is now comprehensible, soak in. It won’t all be acquired of course, but it’s a beginning.
Then we hear Gram chatting about going to the market and the price of pot roast. She mentions there are new neighbors. I usually translate this myself for the students because it’s mostly low frequency vocabulary. When she says “Her name is Gwendolyn,” I ask if Gwendolyn is a girl or a boy. This is not obvious to most of my students, so I point out that “her name” means “son nom à elle”. I do this tiny pop-up to help them with the difference between His and Her which gives them a lot of trouble. If I have more advanced students, I might ask what we can understand when she says “She’d be just about your mother’s age.” I do NOT ask the trick question “Is it “She had” or “She would”. I tell them that it means “She would be just about your mother’s age” and I translate “Elle serait un peu près l’age de ta mère.” Then I ask what this tells us about the boy’s mother and help them to realize that the boy’s mother is probably dead. My intention is to help them grasp the meaningful difference between “She is” and “She would be”. Grammar is only relevant when it gives us information about the characters and their situation.
Then we see the boy in his backyard and we see Kevin for the first time. The boy does what most people are tempted to do when they see a person who is handicapped. He stares. Gwen, played by Sharon Stone, appears and talks to her son. We learn immediately that Kevin is very intelligent. We see him fly his “ornithopter”, which his mother says is a big word for a mechanical bird. Kevin explains that he’s trying to take advantage of what looks like ideal flight conditions this evening. The subtitles shrink his statement, so I ask the students if they hear the missing words. We listen again and again, until they do hear that he’s saying more than is written on the screen and are proud when they can hear “this evening”. I use the “what’s missing” technique with students often. It gives them confidence and gets them to really listen to the audio rather than relying completely on the subtitles. Often they are the ones who point out that there are missing words.
Kevin realizes that he is being watched and confronts the boy. “What’s the matter? Have you never seen a robot before?” Sometimes I ask, “where is the robot? Is it the mechanical bird? Or is it Kevin?”
Then we go to the boy’s gym class. We meet his gym teacher and see that he is not above making fun of the boy in order to get a laugh from the other students. It’s rather sad to see that my students are never shocked by his behavior. We skim through the scene, until Blade says that Max threw the ball at Kevin. The students have no trouble understanding what is happening. I ask about Kevin’s feelings and we agree that he is angry.
Then we see the boy on the weekend, helping Grim repair the house and going to LD Reading class. Again, we translate the subtitles to get the idea, but we don’t linger. We do learn the boy’s name when the teacher calls him Max.
The scene between Max and his new tutor, who turns out to be Kevin, sets the tone for much of the film. I like to stop the film when on Kevin’s expression and ask, “What is he thinking? Is he remembering that Max threw a ball at him?” “Why is he so upset? Has he ever been in a special school ‘Where kids can’t even say their own names’?” Kevin is teaching Max to read, and since Max didn’t bring a book, Kevin uses his, King Arthur and his Knights. Kevin explains that “Every word is part of a picture, and every sentence is a picture.” I tell my students that this is true in English too. That when they read a sentence in English, they should be able to see a picture.
We usually end with “Freak was patient. He told me that dinosaurs had brains the size of walnuts. And they ruled the earth for sixty million years.” And we can talk about the name of the chapter: Dinosaur brain.
Finally I give them a summary of the beginning of the film. I use Comic sans MS to print the documents I give to students because it is said to be easier to read for dyslexic students. You may notice that in the readings I repeatedly contrast “tell” with “say”. My francophone students have problems with these words because they are both translated as dire.
The summary is presented as an Embedded Reading, but I sometimes tell weaker students to read only the first version, or the first and second version. Of course, they usually return and let me know that they read all three versions. And I give them my “cat who got in the cream” smile.
Max Kane lives with his grandparents, Gram and Grim. He is in the seventh grade but he is thirteen years old because he is not a good student.
The Doghouse Boys are Blade’s gang. They make fun of Max because he looks like Godzilla. They sing “Killer Kane, Killer Kane, had a son who got no brain.” Blade wants to be friends with Max, because he could use his muscles. Max has no friends.
Kevin Dillon lives next to Max. He is handicapped and he looks like a robot. His mother’s name is Gwen. Kevin is very intelligent. He built a mechanical bird. Max watched Kevin with his bird, but Kevin saw Max. He asked, “Have you never seen a robot before?” Max ran away.
In gym class Blade threw a basketball at Kevin. He fell down. Blade told the teacher it was Max. He said, “It was Kane, sir.” The teacher told Max to help Kevin up. Kevin was angry and refused Max’s help.
On Saturdays Max went to Reading Class. Kevin was his new tutor. Kevin told Max to close his eyes and listen to the story. He said, “Every sentence is a picture.” He told Max to read “King Arthur and his knights”. Max told Kevin that he didn’t throw the ball at him. He said, “It was Blade, not me.”
Kevin asked, “What’s the matter with you?” Max said, “I don’t like to cause trouble.”
There is a boy named Max Kane. He lives with his grandparents that he calls Gram and Grim. He is in the seventh grade but he is thirteen years old because he failed the seventh grade.
The Doghouse Boys are Blade’s gang. They make fun of Max because he doesn’t get good grades in school and he looks like Godzilla. They laugh and sing “Killer Kane, Killer Kane, had a son who got no brain.” Blade tells Max he wants to be friends with him, because he could use his muscles. Max doesn’t answer. Max doesn’t talk to anyone at school.
Kevin Dillon is a new boy in the neighborhood. He lives next to Max. He is handicapped and he needs crutches to walk. He looks like a robot. His mother’s name is Gwen. She is proud of Kevin because he is very intelligent. He built a mechanical bird. Max watched Kevin with his bird, but Kevin saw Max. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Have you never seen a robot before?” Max ran away.
In gym class Blade saw Kevin and threw a basketball at him. Kevin fell down. The teacher asked who was responsible and Blade told the teacher it was Max. He said, “It was Kane, sir.” The teacher told Max to help Kevin up. Kevin was angry and refused Max’s help.
On Saturdays Max went to Learning Disabled Reading Class. Kevin was his new tutor. Kevin told Max to close his eyes and listen to the story. He said, “Every sentence is a picture.” He told Max to read chapter one of “King Arthur and his knights”. Max told Kevin that he didn’t throw the ball at him. He said, “It was Blade, not me.” Kevin didn’t understand why Max didn’t say anything in gym class. He asked, “What’s the matter with you?”
There was a boy named Max Kane. He lived with his grandparents that he called Gram and Grim. Although he was thirteen years old, he was in the seventh grade because he had failed the seventh grade.
Blade was a punk who had been in Juvenile Hall for three months. The Doghouse Boys were his gang. They made fun of Max because he was learning disabled and he looked like Godzilla. They laughed and sang “Killer Kane, Killer Kane, had a son who got no brain.” Blade told Max he wanted to be friends with him, because he could use his muscles. Max didn’t answer. Max didn’t talk to anyone at school because he didn’t have any friends.
Kevin Dillon was a new boy in the neighborhood. He and his mother Gwen lived next to Max. He was handicapped and he needed crutches to walk. He looked like a robot. Gwen was proud of Kevin because he was very intelligent. He built a mechanical bird. Max watched Kevin fly his bird, but Kevin saw Max. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Have you never seen a robot before?” Max ran away.
In gym class Blade saw Kevin and threw a basketball at him. Kevin fell down and the Doghouse Boys laughed. The teacher asked who was responsible and Blade told the teacher it was Max. He said, “It was Kane, sir.” The teacher told Max to help Kevin up. Max said nothing and went to help Kevin get up, but Kevin was angry and refused Max’s help.
On Saturdays Max went to Learning Disabled Reading Class. Kevin was his new tutor. Kevin told Max to close his eyes and listen to the story. He said, “Every sentence is a picture.” He told Max to read “King Arthur and his knights”. Max said he couldn’t.
Kevin told Max that if he didn’t learn to read he would go to a special school. Max told Kevin that he didn’t throw the ball at him. He said, “It was Blade, not me.” Kevin didn’t understand why Max didn’t say anything in gym class. He asked, “What’s the matter?”
Max said he didn’t like to cause trouble. “So you’re a pacifist,” said Kevin.
I want to share with you the documents that I use to exploit the film The Mighty. But before I begin I want to tell you the story of the boy who introduced me to the film. I don’t know where he is today or what he has become, but I think of him often, with gratitude. I think he was not very happy when I knew him, but he gave me a precious gift, and I suspect that for him coming to English class was a bright spot in a lot of grey days.
Over ten years ago I was in the process of discovering TPRS, mostly by long distance, reading posts on the moretprs list and the Green Bible. At the time I was teaching in a French lycée with a Première class of very good students. They were sixteen years old and taking the Science track which is considered responsible for France’s worldwide lead in mathematics. It’s a selective track; only the best students are allowed to take it. The students are usually bright, competitive over-achievers. And the only student that I clearly remember from the class was an under-achiever.
He was certainly bright, but not very competitive. He just didn’t seem to care about grades. I learned that his parents lived in Africa, so he was a boarder at the international lycée, the only local school that accepted boarders on weekends and during the holidays. I saw some of his misery, being away from his family for so long, with kids that he had very little in common with. My own children had known similar boarding schools.
On the day I tried my first TPRS story, we created a purple chimpanzee and the boy volunteered to be the chimpanzee. When I asked what the chimpanzee’s name was, someone said “Darwin” and we had a good laugh. The story didn’t really go too well since I was trying to work in too much low frequency vocabulary. But the kids played along, humoring me, and we muddled through. Being an American teacher in France has the advantage that the kids expected me to be a bit strange.
From then on, the boy signed all his papers “Darwin”. The story had given him a new identity in the class. He began hanging around at the end of class to talk to me. We were doing Shawshank Redemption and he liked the fact that we weren’t following the textbook. One day he asked me if I had seen the film The Mighty. I said no and he told me that it was the best film ever made. The next day he brought in a DVD so that I could see it.
I saw that it starred Sharon Stone and doubted that it was something I could use in school. But during the holidays I took time to watch it, so that I could honestly tell him I had looked at it.
Big surprise. It was a wonderful, very moving film that left me in tears. Sharon Stone had a relatively minor role and I’m convinced that the only reason she is in the film is because she believed in the story. Sting did the music, much for the same reason, I’m sure. The real stars are two young boys who should have won a joint Oscar for their acting in the film. Especially Eldon Henson who was always spot on. I ordered the book, Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. It was even better than the film, but written with too many colloquial expressions to be easily comprehensible for my students. I learned that the story was inspired by a boy, a neighbor of Philbrick’s, who had Morquio Syndrome.
You can get a taste of the film by watching this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aL54-EZtv9Q
I began using the film and soon realized it was a sure fire thing. Who could help but identify with the two boys who “had no friends, had nobody”? The greatest fear of all teenagers, even the most popular ones in the class, is that of having no friends. I realized why “Darwin,” an intelligent misfit, considered it the best film ever made, There are scenes that could have been left out, the knights on horseback fail to capture the wonder of a boy’s imagination. They are just a bunch of men dressed up as knights. But the story comes across, we know that Max and Kevin are seeing real knights, and the magic works every time. It has become an indispensable tool in my teacher’s kit. I use it with groups and individual students, with all ages, including my classes of retired adults, and it always moves and touches them. When a class or group is not used to working with films, I like to use it as a starter. It seems accessible to all levels,
Over the years I’ve developed quite a few documents in order to exploit it as efficiently as possible. Today I want to share them with you.
First class: I show the class/student a picture of the painting, American Gothic. We describe the scene and the people in it. I give them the vocabulary they may need, such a pitchfork, and I tell them the painter’s name if they are interested. I explain that it’s in a museum in Chicago, that I’ve seen it and that it is very well-known. And I ask them if the people in the painting look happy.
When we have nothing more to say about the painting, I show them a few parodies of the painting. If you Google American Gothic parodies, you will find loads of them. Choose three or four that will make your students laugh, remembering that they may not share all your cultural references. There’s one that shows Donald Trump standing in front of the White House, holding a rather surprised Hilary Clinton on a pitchfork.
I don’t explain why I wanted them to look at the pictures. We then start watching the film with no other introduction. The opening scenes show the Ohio River, its bridges and the city of Cincinnatti. We simply talk about the images. At this point there’s no dialog, so I use Movie Talk techniques. I ask how many bridges there are, and most people say two and then I point out a third one in the background. These scenes simply set the when and where of the film. I ask my students if the river is bigger than the Garonne, and show them on a map where the Ohio River is.
Then a boy’s voice begins narrating the story. I point out that no mother would name her child Freak, that it is a nickname and not a very kind nickname. I tell them that it means “monster”. I pause all the time as we decode the subtitles and discuss the scene. Then we come to the first sight of Max’s grandparents and the students recognize the allusion to the American Gothic painting. And I ask them, “Do they look like they are happy?”
Soon we see Max in the school hallways and he’s saying “When you’re in the seventh grade and you look like Godzilla…” I explain that seventh grade corresponds to Cinquième in France and I ask them if they know who Godzilla is. In this way we continue watching the film, discussing the scenes, decoding the subtitles. I usually stop when Max is under his bed, talking about the place in his head where he goes sometimes, where he is nothing, nobody. Then I give the students an Embedded Reading* which is the summary of what we have seen. The first two versions are written in the third person and the last version is written in the first person, like the film narration.
How I use the Embedded Readings depends on the time I have and the level of the students. I may simply ask them to read them, or I may read the texts with the students, or read the first two together and ask them to read the last one at home on their own. Or, after having read the first couple of reading together, I ask them to read the last one silently and to ask if there are words that need explaining.
Here are the Embedded Readings which I use. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.
The speaker is a boy. Freak told him about King Arthur. Freak told him everything. He lives with his grandparents. He calls them Gram and Grim. They do not look like they are happy.
He is in the 7th grade. He looks like Godzilla. He gets the looks. He gets the whispers. People look like they have seen him on the TV program, “America’s Most Wanted Criminals.”
Blade is the leader of a gang. They like to make trouble. Blade was in juvenile hall for three months.
The speaker is a boy. Freak told him about King Arthur and his knights. Freak told him everything. He lives with his grandparents in a poor neighborhood of Cincinnatti, Ohio. He calls his mother’s parents Gram and Grim. They do not look happy. He lives in the basement of their house.
He is in the 7th grade. He looks like Godzilla. He is very big. He gets the looks. He gets the whispers. People look like they have seen him on the TV program, “America’s Most Wanted Criminals.” He wears headphones and he doesn’t talk to anyone.
Blade is the leader of a gang. They like to make trouble. Blade was in juvenile hall for three months. Blade sits next to the boy. He says he wants to be friends because they could use his muscle. Blade’s gang makes fun of the boy. They sing, “Killer Kane, Killer Kane, had a son who got no brain.” They think the boy is stupid.
I am a boy. Freak told me about King Arthur and his knights. Freak told me everything. I live with my grandparents in a poor neighborhood of Cincinnatti, Ohio. They are my mother’s people. I call them Gram and Grim. They do not look happy because they are stuck with me. I live in the basement of their house.
I am in the 7th grade. I look like Godzilla. I am very big and ugly. I get the looks. I get the whispers. People look at me like they have seen me on the TV program, “America’s Most Wanted Criminals.” I always wear headphones and I don’t talk to anyone. People look at me and laugh, or they run the other way.
Blade is the leader of a gang, the Doghouse Boys. They like to make trouble. Blade was in juvenile hall for three months. Blade sat next to me on the bus. He said he and his gang wanted to be friends because they could use my muscle. Blade’s gang made fun of me. They sang, “Killer Kane, Killer Kane, had a son who got no brain.” Killer Kane is my dad. I am the son who has no brain.
Roberto Guzman is an English professor who has figured out that more and more grammar does not lead to acquisition. Here is his Ted Talk, which all politicians should be required to watch. Maybe all voters should be required to watch it too.
We all agree that students need comprehensible input but how do you make oral input comprehensible? I believe this is a challenge that many teachers prefer to ignore. Being able to understand spoken language is the foundation of all language acquisition, yet it seems to be the one we focus on the least.
Why? You may have found a great video but when you put it on, your students complain that the speakers don’t articulate, they speak too fast and their accents are frightful! It’s gibberish to them. I always tell them that they’re listening too slowly, which gets a laugh, but is the actual truth. Our students are trying to decode what they hear and while they’re figuring out one word, the speaker has uttered twenty more. They have the same problem with native speakers who are not teachers. We teachers of English know that in order to be comprehensible, we need to speak slowly and articulate and use high frequency vocabulary. Few non-teachers know how to make themselves understood and many end up shouting, as if language learners were deaf.
Making oral input comprehensible is the elephant in the CI room. Teachers who try to use Comprehensible Input methods know the importance of reading and of encouraging their students to read. We give them class stories to read. We have developed easy readers for A2 and even A1 levels. Our students can and do read. But what do we do to help them to understand the spoken language?
Well, duh, we speak to them. If TPRS has had the success it’s known since the 1990’s, we must have been doing something right. Actually we have been giving our studets oral comprehensible input throughout the lessons as we co-create a story with them. Even when administrators complained about “too much teacher talk” and “sage on a stage”, we went on talking to our students. And it showed when language started “falling out of their mouths”. By carrying on a genuine conversation with them while doing everything possible to be comprehensible, we help our students to acquire language.
And I think it’s important to note that we speak to them in a particular way. We help our students understand by using the (much abused) technique called Circling. Yes, I know, it is now the fashion to denigrate circling, but I’m afraid some people are throwing the baby out with the bath. True, some teachers never learned to do it correctly and as a result their students were bored and resistant to the technique. Yet, when it is done well, it can be what it has always been in the hands of good teachers, an engaging conversation with students.
Circling is the art of asking more than one question about something that has been established. It’s actually something that we all do all the time, when we want to be sure we’ve understood.
“Trump said what?” “When did Trump say that?” “Where was he?” “Did he really say that?” “Who was he talking to?” “Do you have any idea why he said that?”
That’s circling. Is it boring? It only becomes boring when teachers forget that they are having a conversation with their students and start counting repetitions.
How does Circling make oral input more comprehensible? How does it help students to hear and understand spoken English? By giving them more than one chance to grasp what is being said. Let me say that again. Students get a second, even a third or fourth chance to comprehend. The initial statement that is being circled gets repeated, so students who didn’t get it the first time may get it the next time and be reassured that they have understood correctly. I believe that it is vital that teachers help beginners gain confidence in their ability to comprehend the spoken language by circling tricky new structures. Don’t circle everything. Don’t circle if you’re sure that your students have perfectly understood what is being said. But if you see a glimmer of doubt in their eyes, give them another chance to hear the phrase and to show that they have understood it. Laurie Clarcq compared Circling to sanding a piece of wood. A good workman gently sands the rough spots and moves on. If he stays in one place too long, he’ll create a dent in the surface. I truly believe that skilled circling is one of a teacher’s greatest assets when working with beginners. Of course, teachers who are just starting to use it will need some practice, but it’s not a difficult skill to learn as long as teachers remember that the real conversation is more important than counting repetitions.
Another way of developing beginner students’ ability to hear and understand the target language is Story Listening as it has been developed by Beniko Mason Nanki. It is very effective and is now being used by many CI teachers. I’ve discussed it before on this blog. If you are interested in learning more, go to Dr. Mason’s website at http://beniko-mason.net/.
When students have moved beyond the A2 level, they will need less circling and should be listening to other speakers than their teacher. They need to get used to hearing a variety of competent speakers. Films are a rather inexpensive way to let them hear many different voices and accents. A good film can be very compelling. The question is how to make film dialog comprehensible when our students are hearing “gibberish”.
I do this in several steps. First I let them watch a short scene, no more than four minutes long, with no subtitles. Most of them will say they don’t understand what’s being said. “They’re talking too fast, etc.” But we can talk about the actions, the setting, the situation, what we think is being said, the characters’ emotions and thoughts.
Then I put on the English subtitles. (I teach English.) I use the pause button and we decode the subtitles, shot by shot. That is, we read and translate them. I let them know that I’m not asking for a literary translation, simply comprehension of what is being said. Once the students have grasped what the actors are saying, I go back and play the scene to them again, without stopping. At this point they are hearing the dialog and they understand what is being said, even though they may be focusing more on what they see written than on the spoken words. Have no fear, the oral comprehensible input is being processed in the back of their brains.
Now, sometimes you may notice that the written subtitles don’t exactly match what you can hear. This is a great opportunity. Point it out to the students and ask them if they can hear what is not written. Don’t tell them what the extra word or words are, or where they occur. Play the bit for them several times until they can hear it too. (You can explain that for technical reasons the subtitles have to fit into a certain number of characters, so the subtitle writers have to shorten the dialog where they can.) Your students will soon be able to pick out the shortcuts with little help from you.
When I have an interesting scene that is mostly discussion I transform it into a Very Narrow Listening exercise. This means typing up the script and putting in blanks every line or two. The words that become blanks are high frequency words that I’m absolutely sure my students have acquired. (There are manuals that use this type of exercise to review new vocabulary. We shouldn’t expect our students to recognize words they have not yet acquired.)
Here is an example of a Very Narrow Listening exercise. It is the opening monologue in The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.
Carter : Edward Perriman Cole died in May. It was a Sunday _____________________ and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It’s difficult to _______________ the sum of a person’s life. Some ____________ will tell you it’s measured by the ones left behind. Some _______________ it can be measured in faith. Some say by ______________. Other folks say __________ has no meaning at all. Me? I believe that you measure ___________ by the people who measured themselves by you. What I can tell you for sure is that, by any _______________, Edward Cole lived more in his last ______________ on Earth than most people manage to wring out of a _____________. I know that when he died, his _________ were closed and his heart was ______________.
When I have prepared my Very Narrow Listening exercise, I show the scene to my students without the subtitles. We talk about what they have understood about the situation. Then I hand out the script and we listen while following the dialog. I insist on them following with a finger. No pens are allowed at this point. If they start trying to write in words while the scene is playing, they won’t be able to hear what is being said.
They have now heard the scene twice. I ask if there are any vocabulary words they don’t understand. They read through the script, identifying words that are unfamiliar and I explain them, letting them write in definitions in the margins. I do not hold them responsible for learning these words. If they are high frequency, they’ll pop up again and again and be acquired. If they are low frequency, why waste time on them?
We then listen to the first few lines of the scene. Again, I do not allow them to hold their pens. They cannot be writing and listening at the same time. At this point I want them to concentrate on what they are hearing. After a line or two, I stop the film and give them an opportunity to write in the missing word. If no one has grasped it, we go back and listen again, as many times as necessary. While I have chosen words that I expect them to be able to hear, often they will have more difficulty than I anticipated. They will ask me to play the bit of dialog again and again. (I feel as smug as Tom Sawyer getting his fence painted. They are asking me to play it again.) We gradually move through the scene until they have filled in all the blanks. This may take most of an hour. It’s an hour of attentive, fully engaged listening to comprehensible input.
When all the blanks have been filled in, I play the entire scene again and they follow with their scripts. Then I ask them to turn over their pages and I play the scene again, so they are hearing it with no written support. This is when they realize that they can now understand most of what is being said. I’ve had students exclaim, “Wow! It’s magic!”
Very Narrow Listening exercises enable students to hear and understand authentic resources which can be challenging even for advanced students. Do them often and your students will be amazed by the progress they make, not only in oral comprehension, but also in reading, speaking and writing. Oral comprehension is the foundation for everything else we do.
I don’t handle anger well. Some people thrive on it and some people, like my husband, know how to turn it into laughter. I can get upset and dwell on it and feel bad for days. Perhaps it comes from being the oldest of eight children. I was not supposed to get angry; I was supposed to be the peacemaker. Whenever I do get angry, it feels like a defeat, a major failure. Yet, I realize that many people feel that getting things out in the open frees the discussion and clears the air. As I said at the beginning, some people thrive on anger and find it energizing. I’m not one of them.
Recently I was talking to a colleague, a fellow CI teacher, about some of the discussions currently going on in the TPRS/CI world about Story-Listening, about circling, about targeted and non targeted. She said that she was worried because she has been working hard on a presentation to a group of important teacher trainers here in France. She wants to introduce them to the many different approaches used by CI teachers and furnish links to sites where they can learn more about TPR, TPRS, Movie Talk, Story-Listening, Embedded Reading, etc., etc. “If they are curious and look it up and then see all this in-fighting,” she said, “they won’t take it seriously.”
Chris Stoltz and Tina Hargaden have started a Facebook group called CI Fight Club. The starting point was an argument that had been going on elsewhere and had been closed down by moderators in the name of public peace. Chris and Tina wanted to create a space without censorship, where CI people could unload their thoughts and shout at each other if they felt like it.
I was rather surprised to be invited to join, and lurked cautiously at first. Soon some excellent discussions got going that were frank and passionate, and sometimes snarky, but never boring. People were forced to develop their ideas and to defend their ideas and be more explicit. Very often it seems that they agree on the fundamental ingredients and disagree on their dosages. I soon noticed that left to their own devices, the fighters didn’t hit below the belt, as if it was enough to treat them like adults for them to act like the responsible adults they all are.
Some of the discussions are about Story-Listening, a strategy for delivering Compelling Comprehensible Input to students that was developed by Beniko Mason Nanki and presented to teachers from around the world at the Agen Workshop 2016. Kathrin Shechtman has been using it in Germany, Ignacio Almandoz in Spain and Claire Walter has promoted it in the States, and they all are very happy with the results. Beniko has done workshops and demonstrations in the States and in Europe and the Stories First Foundation is promoting collections of stories that teachers can use with the method, along with videos that demonstrate Story-Listening.
Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki is a recognized expert in Comprehensible Input, one of Stephen Krashen’s most faithful disciples. She has an impressive collection of studies that validate his theories. Story-Listening is the method she has adopted to furnish her own students with Compelling Comprehensible Input. She has studies showing that her students progress and score higher on tests than students who have followed traditional methods. I have written a post on this blog describing Story-Listening, a post which Dr. Mason read and approved and which I included in the Agen Workshop Handbook 2017.
Personally, I enjoy telling my students stories. This is something that I have done whenever I felt that my students were able to understand and follow the narrative. I do not use Story-Listening exclusively so I don’t say that I do Story-Listening. But that doesn’t stop me from watching the videos and borrowing things that are helpful. I often use a story to prepare my students for a scene in a film or a text that I want them to read. Or I simply tell them a joke. I’m talking, telling a story, and they are listening and understanding. They are getting compelling comprehensible input. (Jokes are great because you don’t need to do comprehension checks. They either laugh or they don’t.)
Some teachers got excited about Story-Listening, saying that it was easier to do than TPRS story asking. Others felt defensive and began to criticize it. The discussion on the moretprs list got very heated. Unfortunately both sides felt attacked and thus felt justified in attacking the advocates of the other method.
Is there really a conflict here? We are all looking for ways to engage our students with rich Compelling Comprehensible Input. In the past the discussions were between TPRS teachers, 90% of whom lived and taught in the United States. As methods for giving students Compelling Comprehensible Input become better known around the world, the group of teachers becomes more varied as do the situations in which they teach and the students they work with. Any particular method may work very well with a certain teacher in a certain place with a certain public, and may need a not of adapting elsewhere.
Craig Sheehy posted this on the CI Fight Club Facebook Page :
“In order for acquisition to occur, the input must be comprehensible, repetitive and interesting.” I have to assume that he is quoting Dr. Stephen Krashen here. (see footnote) Craig goes on to say, “If it is comprehensible and repetitive but not interesting, no one is listening. If it is repetitive and interesting but not comprehensible, then no intake is occurring. And, if it is comprehensible and interesting but not repeated, then the neuroconnections in the brain are not made and reinforced. Targeted or non-targeted, the input must meet these three criteria and if it does then it is good input!”
I don’t think it is possible to argue with Craig. These three requirements must be met for acquisition to occur. “The input must be comprehensible, repetitive and interesting.” Our strategies may vary in that some are more repetitive, some are more interesting and some are more comprehensible, but all three qualities must be present in varying degrees. Teachers may prefer one strategy over another because of their students’ needs, or because of their own personalities, preferences and abilities, yet we can agree that these three requirements must be met.
My own position is not to judge other teachers’ decisions. An experienced teacher knows her students, their culture and their needs and her own personality and possibilities better than anyone else. No one can make her decisions for her. If what she is doing is working, if her students are acquiring language, no one can criticize it. In her classroom, she is the only expert. If it’s not working, she knows it before anyone else. We may have the remedy, but a wise doctor waits for the patient to ask for help. We cannot force teachers to use any method, no matter how effective it may be. And I am sure no one on any of the Facebook groups or anywhere else would want to oblige teachers to use any method, no matter how effective it might be. Too many TPRS teachers have suffered from not being allowed to teach as they wanted to, from being forced to use outdated textbooks and methods. Could we even imagine requiring someone to use Comprehensible Input strategies if that person was not convinced that CI was the only way to acquire language?
I’m sure that the people on the CI Fight Club will find other subjects to debate, and I hope that their discussions will be as passionate and as honest and as uncensored as they have been. Yet, I would like to remind them that there are ways of arguing, that we can disagree with people we respect. I try to follow these rules, borrowed from Megan Phelps-Roper, when I want to present my own point of view.
1) Don’t assume bad intent. The other person sincerely believes they are doing the right thing. (When I hear someone accusing their opponent of ulterior motives, I tend to suspect the accuser of having similar ideas.)
2) Ask questions. We can’t present effective arguments if we don’t understand where the other side is coming from. And it signals to someone that they are being heard. By asking honest questions, we permit them to ask their own questions.
3) Stay calm. If you feel yourself getting angry, take time to pause, breathe and walk away. This is a question of your own sanity and respect for the other person.
4) Make your argument. Don’t assume that your position is so automatically, obviously right that it doesn’t need to be explained. Present your point of view and justify it with facts and logic. Again, this will encourage your opponents to present their own arguments in a calm and rational manner.
I guess what I am trying to say with this very long post is that discussions and disagreements can be healthy. They can force us to examine our positions carefully and honestly. Sometimes they can be eye-openers. As long as we respect the other person enough to listen to them carefully, as we hope they will listen to us, a good argument can sort the chaff from the wheat and strengthen our team. So yes, let’s fight and strengthen our ideas. But don’t forget that we are all on the same team, the team that believes that “in order for acquisition to occur, the input must be comprehensible, repetitive and interesting.”
Well, I feel better now. I’ll continue listening in on CI Fight Club, but if I feel a strong disagreement coming on, I will try to apply these rules to my posts. Does anyone want to fight about them?
PS Stephen very kindly answered my query about what I thought was a quote from him : “I have said “comprehensible and interesting.” never mentioned repetitive. If there is enuf input, and especially if it is narrow, repetition takes care of itself.”
Proverbs are an important part of our culture. I was surprised while I was working at the university that sometimes professors would come to me to ask about something that didn’t make sense to them. These were people with degrees in English literature, but a passing reference to “the early bird” or “snatching the brand out of the fire” could trouble them. Since then I have tried to use proverbs so that they would be familiar to my students.
When I was a legacy teacher, this meant a proverb of the day that students copied into a notebook. We would discuss its meaning and they were held accountable for them on quizzes.
Now that I use Comprehensible Input methods, I go about it differently. I like to make a list of proverbs that I then divide into two parts. I give one student the list with the beginning of the proverb. Then I mix up the endings and give that list to another student. They can work in pairs, trying to match the sentences that go together. With lower level classes I let them work a while on their own, and then we all work together to find the right phrases.
Doing the exercise involves establishing meaning for new words, but it also requires students to recognize which grammatical structures could go together. I found it very interesting that they were looking for verbs that matched the subjects, etc. Through acquisition they were sufficiently aware of which structures were possible and which were not, without having had any explicite grammar training. There was a lot of built in repetition as they tried putting various pairs together. It was perhaps better to do it as a whole class activity because I was able to keep the discussion in English.
Teachers could do the matching exercise first, then use the proverbs as passwords. Upper levels could work with longer lists.
Here is an example of proverbs from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard Almanac. I’ve also used quotations from Mark Twain.
- A countryman between two lawyers …
- All would live long …
- An investment in knowledge ….
- Be slow in choosing a friend,
- Early to bed and early to rise…
- but none would be old.
- … makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
- … always pays the best interest.
- ….. is like a fish between two cats.
- …. slower in changing.
Many colleagues who have seen demonstrations of TPRS, Story Listening, Movie Talk and other forms of Comprehensible Input, who have read the research and are convinced of the effectiveness of such methods, nevertheless feel constrained to teach grammar because their school administration and/or department insists on students being able to manipulate grammatical structures. They feel trapped in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” dilemma.
I want to tell them my own story, how I became convinced over ten years ago that the best way to teach grammar is not to teach it. You don’t believe me? Now, just imagine that someone told you that you have invisible wings that will enable you to fly. You’ll never know until you jump off the roof, will you?
In 2005 I was teaching English as a Foreign Language in a French lycée. Technically we were not required to teach grammar since there were no longer explicit grammar exercises on the baccalaureate exam, but the textbooks we used contained grammar explanations and exercises and students were graded on how grammatically correct they were, both in written and oral production. So everyone taught grammar, including me. I prided myself on my clear, easily comprehensible explanations, and my colleagues copied my diagrams and mandalas. I was the queen of the passive voice.
That was the year I was given an exceptional class to teach. They were fifteen year olds that had chosen to major in science because they wanted to be doctors or engineers or simply because the “S” track in France is the most elite, “la voie royale”. They were intelligent, bright, well-brought up and almost without exception good students used to getting good grades. It was really a fluke that they happened to all end up in the same class. Of course I enjoyed working with them and we had a lot of fun together. We studied Lord of the Rings and with the Prologue I gave them my Passive Voice explanation and I gave them the diagram and lots of exercises to do. They got it. They did the exercises, we corrected them in class, I gave them a test and they aced it. Passive Voice, check. We moved on to the differences between may have, could have, might have, should have.
However, I was a bit put out when I noticed that a month after having aced the Passive Voice test, my best students were not using it in their written work. Or when someone did try to use it, they got it wrong. I realized that these kids were very good at taking tests, but they were not storing the information they had studied. It was as if the day after the test they erased everything to make room for what they would need for the next test. So I reviewed the passive voice and gave them another test, but again I saw few signs in the following months that it had gone into their long term memory. I could only hope that their future English teachers would review the passive voice again and again, until it finally sank in.
Fast forward a few years. I had discovered TPRS and started trying to use it in my classes. (I liked the results I was seeing, but I had to go to the administration and apologize for the fact that my overall class average had shot up. In France that’s the sign of a teacher who is overly lenient. The administrator I talked to replied that he wasn’t too worried about it since there were plenty of overly strict teachers to make up for my too generous grades.)
Then it was my last year in the lycée before my retirement and for unfathomable reasons I was not given any classes. In theory I was to hang around and wait for someone to be sick so I could replace them. But my colleagues were a very healthy bunch and I didn’t want to die of boredom before I retired. So I asked my colleagues to give me the students that were either failing their classes and/ or that had behavior problems. Thus I found myself with some small groups of students that were almost the exact opposite of my wonderful “S” class of a few years before.
After a semester of doing TPRS, I thought they were ready for a change and we started on Lord of the Rings. We did the Prologue and I circled the information. How many rings were given to the elves? How many rings were given to men? Where was the master ring made? Who was deceived?
I did not explain that we were using the passive voice. I did not show them the diagram of how the passive voice is formed. I did not even talk about the difference between direct objects and subjects. We only talked about the story.
Then we moved on with the film, watching each scene, decoding it, talking about it, doing some VNL. A couple months later we were still studying the film and one day we got into a debate about the ring’s powers, and I wanted to remind them that Sauron was behind the ring. I started to ask “Who was the ring made by?” but the grammar ghost spoke up in my mind, sneering They’ll never understand if you use the passive voice. They haven’t seen it for two months. So I asked “Who made the ring?” And immediately, spontaneously, one of the boys replied, “The ring was made by Sauron.”
I was floored. This boy was failing English when his teacher sent him to me. But he was using the passive voice spontaneously and correctly and appropriately. Something the excellent students from my “S” class had never quite managed, in spite of the tests on the passive voice that they had aced.
Of course, Stephen Krashen could have told me that my former students had learned about the passive voice and their monitors knew how to use it when they had the time and when they remembered the rule, whereas my current students had acquired the structure. They didn’t know the grammar rules but they were able to spontaneously produce the grammatically correct form.
And I have a confession to make. When, in the fifth grade, I was given English grammar rules to learn and exercises to do, I was a bit too lazy to spend a lot of time on learning rules. I soon realized that I got almost perfect scores on the exercises and tests just by going by what “sounded right”. As a voracious reader, what “sounded right” got me all the way through high school and college. I only learned about English grammar and its labels when we had to diagram sentences. Until then what I had acquired as a reader was all I needed to be an A student.
So, my advice to colleagues who feel torn between teaching with Comprehensible Input and teaching grammar is to trust their wings, the wings of Acquisition, and jump off the roof. If they teach with Comprehensible Input their students will acquire the grammatical structures they need. They can use pop-up grammar to teach the names of the structures their students have acquired, but it’s much easier to label things that have already been acquired than it is to learn formulas that can enable the Monitor to deduce the correct form needed. Teach your students to trust the voice in their heads and to go with what “sounds right”. The more time you spend giving your students compelling comprehensible input, the better their production will be and the better marks they will get on tests designed to test their knowledge of grammatical rules.
It may seem paradoxical, but the less time you spend explaining grammar, the better able your students will be to produce grammatically correct language. When you are teaching explicit grammar, you are either using the native language or being incomprehensible to students who do not find grammar compelling. Instead, use that time to give them compelling comprehensible input, and they will acquire the correct structures and be able to produce them spontaneously. Less is more. You already have the wings. All it takes is courage.