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.

Our Team

Who is coming to Agen this year? I’m so delighted that some very wonderful people have given up part of their summer holiday to join us in Agen. There will be six or seven language labs with some amazing teachers. Linda Li will be teaching Mandarin, Jason Fritze will be teaching Spanish, Sabrina Sebban-Janczak will teach the French lab. Judith Dubois and Tamara Galvan will be teaching English. We are still exploring other possibilities, some new names and some familiar ones. As in the past, we suggest that those who are new to Comprehensible Input methods go to Daniel Kline Dubois to Acquire Breton, a Celtic language that has nothing in common with the Romance languages. Putting yourself in the student’s place is still the best way to grasp the power of Comprehensible Input strategies. I will post updates from time to time on the Agen Workshop Facebook page.

Our coaching team will once again be led by Robert Harrell. He will be assisted by Rosana Navarro, Philip Smith, Janique Vanderstocken, Jayne Cooke, Sally Rose, Scott Benedict and Ariene Bortutski. I’m very proud that more and more of our coaches are native Europeans who are familiar with conditions on this side of the pond.

Some presenters who are already committed to coming to Agen are: Karen Rowan, Hélène Colinet, Kathrin Shechtman, Adriana Ramirez, Anna Gilcher, Rachelle Adams and Kirstin Plante. If you are not familiar with them already, you can find out more about them by googling their names. I will keep you informed as others finalize their plans.

Those of you who were there last year may have noticed that the technology worked great the first part of the week and there were problems towards the end. We had the very competent support of Carey Pohanka during the first few days, then she had to leave. Next year Carey will be with us all week long!

Sabrina’s Immersion Workshop If you teach French and have adult students interested in coming for the week, contact me or Sabrina. If you teach French and want to improve your proficiency, or if you teach another language and want to learn French, you may want to attend Sabrina and Daniel’s two weeks of immersion. A trial run last year was so successful that they are offering two weeks of French immersion this year. Participants will attend the morning lab sessions the first week and have lessons with Daniel and Sabrina the second week. There will be afternoon activities the first week for those who are not teachers and afternoon excursions the second week. More information here:

Bad News and Good News

Registration for the On-Line Agen Workshop 2020

Because of the pandemic, the Agen Workshop 2020 is being moved on-line. Those who have already registered will be able to attend both the on-line 2020 conference and the physical conference in Agen in 2021. We will be opening registration for new-comers to the on-line conference by Wednesday, May 20th and will announce prices shortly. As you can imagine, there is a lot to do, a lot of questions to answer and decisions to be made. Please be patient with us because part of the charm of Agen has always been that we are a small operation and suddenly we are being asked to up-grade in ways we had not foreseen. Just like teachers around the world are doing. To be honest, until last week we were still hoping that it would be possible to see so many old friends back in Agen by the end of July, so we were not really considering the possibility of going on-line. Here is the message which we sent out last week:

Dear Friends,

First of all, I want to thank all of you for your kind patience as I have been struggling to try to understand the current situation and foresee the future decisions of governments, medical experts and transporters. I felt like a fortune teller with a very cloudy crystal ball. I was amazed to receive so few inquiries from you, which I could only interpret as silent support, imagining that you, like me, had your fingers crossed and were praying for a miracle that this conference would happen.

Today I have both bad news and good news. My final decision was based on the fact that if one hundred people came to Agen and only one of them got seriously ill, it would not be acceptable. I do not want to endanger anyone or be responsible for their suffering. Even though Agen has been extremely fortunate compared with other parts of the country, people coming into the area could bring the virus with them without knowing it. So, I feel forced to cancel the conference for this summer.

The good news is that I am now working with Karen Rowan, Scott Benedict, Robert Harrell and others of our team to plan how to go on-line and have a virtual conference. Those of you who have registered and paid for the Agen Workshop 2020 are automatically registered for 2021 and will have access to the on-line conference of 2020 free of charge. Your children and family members can also enroll in the language classes free of charge, as they have done in the past in Agen.

It is still early days, but our goal is to create an on-line conference that has the relaxed and intimate feeling that made Agen so different from other conferences. We also want to feature teachers and presenters that are not often seen elsewhere. Currently we are thinking along the lines of a first week of language classes to model a variety of Comprehensible Input strategies as well as incorporating techniques that can be used in on-line classes. This would be the week of July 20th-July 24th. During the week of July 27th-31st there would be live presentations, coaching and round tables, along with times to chat with colleagues and share thoughts, ideas and questions. Those of you who have already been to Agen know how important the long, relaxed lunch hours with good food and good company were. We want to preserve that as much as we can. This is why the live sessions will be scheduled during half a day so that they can be accessible to everyone at a fairly reasonable hour, whether you are in Europe, the States or Asia. They will also be recorded so that you can watch them at your leisure. We don’t want people sitting in front of a screen for eight hours, five days in a row, or getting up at three in the morning to see a presentation. That wouldn’t do in Agen, would it?

So this is my news. I’m looking forward to your ideas and suggestions. Some of you may have hesitated to make a proposal for a presentation because of the doubtful situation. Please, if you think you have something to present to other teachers, contact me directly and I will send you a proposal form. We are very fluid and the on-line format will allow us to adapt.

I am also in the process of contacting some old favorites and new stars who were, for various reasons, unable to commit to coming to France this year, and may be prepared to do something on-line for us.

Please stay safe,
Virtual hugs for all of you,

Where in Europe can you learn about Comprehensible Input methods?

The Canal at Agen

The Canal at Agen

The Agen Workshop for foreign language teachers is eight years old. In 2020 once again teachers from around the world will meet in Agen to share their ideas and innovations. Last year there were a hundred teachers from twenty-five different countries, including Australia, Korea and South Africa. As of January 1st, 2020, there are already almost fifty inscriptions, some familiar faces and some new. We are delighted to announce that Linda Li will be teaching Mandarin and Jason Fritze will be teaching Spanish this year. The other morning Language Labs will be Sabrina Sebban-Janczak in French, Judith Dubois and Tamara Galvan in English, Daniel Kline Dubois in Breton. Robert Harrell will lead the coaches. We are looking forward to presentations by Anna Gilcher, Rachel Adams, Janique Vanderstocken, Adriana Ramirez, Hélène Colinet, Scott Benedict, Karen Rowan, Kirstin Plante and others.

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.

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. Often in France a method that is the brain child of one influential person is handed down from ministerial authorities and teachers are told to adopt it, or else, and to throw into the trash bin the “exciting new innovation” they had spent the last decade trying to master. 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 2017 eighty 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 its 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.

Of course, our secret weapon is Lunch. Agen is at 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.

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 by some of our local, European talent. As methods that promote Optimal Input become better known on this side of the pond, we want to encourage those who are using it over here.

Some of our other presenters have never presented in the States and it is important to me to develop the “European” angle. Jayne Cooke, Kirstin Plante, Liam Printer and Carol Bausor as well as myself 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. Jayne Cooke will speak “In Praise of Difference”, explaining how some students simply see the world in different ways. I will explain Very Narrow Listening, an extremely effective method of helping students to be able to hear input that thus becomes comprehensible.

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

In 2018 we began offering free language classes for members of the participants’ families, as well as a guided tour of Agen and a free visit 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.

*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

How is the Agen Workshop organized?

 Here is a description of the Agen Workshop that may be useful to those who are applying for grants:



The Agen Workshop

International Professional Development for Language Teachers in Innovative Methods Favoring Second Language Acquisition


Our training is designed for teachers of foreign languages. Presentations are offered in personalization, classroom management, and a variety of techniques and classroom activities, as well as lectures on the principles of second language acquisition. Our staff, participants and presenters come from around the world to learn and share their experiences in a unique setting.



Participants must be a certified foreign language teacher or a university student who is preparing a diploma in foreign languages.


Pedagogical Goals :

Our goal is to help participants better understand the principles of how a second language can be acquired and to understand and experiment with innovative, varied and motivating methods of giving students comprehensible input in order to improve the four skills of listening, reading, speaking and writing.


After finishing the training, the participant will be able to use the techniques of Story-Listening, TPRS, Clip Chats, Readers’ Theater and other assimilated strategies which can enhance the success of their students. A better understanding of the principles of acquisition will permit the teacher to make appropriate choices in how to conduct their classes.

 Training Time :

The conference begins at noon on Monday in the last week of July and finishes at noon on Saturday, a total of five full days. The dates for this year are July 22nd to July 27th, 2019.


The normal cost of the full five day conference is 475 euros. Those who register and pay before March 1st have the benefit of the “Early Bird” price of 395 euros. Family members who are travelling with them can attend the “Language Lab” classes free of charge.

Organization :

During weekday mornings, the participants can observe experienced teachers working with students in Language Labs.  Some participants can volunteer to co-teach the class, working with a Coach who also facilitates the de-briefing after the students leave. In these classes students learn English, Breton, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Latin.

The afternoons and Saturday mornings are given over to lectures, presentations and round tables concerning the principles of  Second Language Acquisition or specific techniques.  Coaching sessions are programmed during the afternoons and also during the evenings when teachers can try out specific techniques with the help of an experienced coach.


Professional  staff :

Mme Judith Logsdon-Dubois, professeur agrégé, has a Diplôme d’Etudes Avancées. She is assisted by Diane Neubauer, currently finishing her doctorate studies at the University of Iowa, Sabrina Sebban-Janczak, who teaches French in Denver, Colorado and was TOY in her State, Magarita Perez Garcia, Spanish teacher in New Zealand, Daniel Dubois, Breton teacher in Lorient, France, Robert Harrell, currently working on a teacher training system in California, Tamara Galvan, a teacher trainer in France, and Scott Benedict of Teach for June and many other well-known figures, such as Susan Gross. All our trainers are certified teachers with many years of experience in training teachers.


Pedagogical documents:

Each trainee receives access to The Agen Workshop Handbook, a seventy page document that explains the basic principles of Second Language Acquisition and describes the various techniques used to apply the principles to a classroom situation In addition, the trainees can choose from a large selection of books and material adapted to the language they teach at a stand presented by The CI Bookshop.


Training evaluation and Certification :

  • Each trainee is required to fill out a feedback questionnaire.
  • There is a debriefing with the staff after the conference.
  • We consider the best proof of our efficiency is the large number of trainees who keep returning to Agen, year after year.
  • Each trainee receives a certificate as proof of attendance.


Graduate Credits: We are currently negotiating with a number of American universities concerning the possibility of graduate credits for our trainees.

The Arrival – a graphic novel with endless possibilities

Download (PDF, 801KB)

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:

Download (PDF, 1.76MB)

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.

Download (PDF, 2.71MB)

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.