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Who will be presenting in Agen in 2018?

Every year I try to get the best possible line-up of presenters for the Agen Workshop. This year we have a great team and I want to thank them for their generosity. There are some new faces and some familiar ones and some new faces with familiar names.

Susan Gross, a legend, a guide, a model


First of all, I’m proud to announce that our keynote speaker will be Susan Gross herself. Is it necessary to introduce Susie? She was in on TPRS from the very beginning and was instrumental in helping Blaine Ray develop it into a tool that all teachers could use. So many of the things that we do can be traced back to Susan Gross, but she modestly claims that she just put a name on what other people were doing.

Then we will have sessions with Bill Van Patten, former professor at Michigan State University. Bill has published eight books, written countless articles and book chapters and put on a weekly call in radio show, Tea with BVP, where he answered teachers’ questions about Second Language Acquisition. His latest book, While We’re On the Topic, will be available during the workshop.

I have long hoped to have Jason Fritze in Agen, and this year it worked out. He is a sensational presenter that draws large crowds and lots of laughter. He works with primary students and knows exactly how to win their hearts. Jason is also known for his skill at Readers’ Theater and I have asked him to present on that.

Laurie Clarq will be back for the third year in Agen. I admired her kindness and fair interventions on the moretprs list serve long before I met her. She will be presenting on Embedded Readings, Movie Talk and will be coaching in the Advanced English class.

Another familiar face is Diane Neubauer who will have a lot to tell us. Her students from last year wanted to continue their Mandarin adventure on-line, so she will be able to report on that. Diane is currently working on her Ph.d in Iowa and will share her insights in how students acquire a second language.

Sabrina Sebban-Janczak is back! Colorado’s Teacher of the Year 2016 will be teaching French in the morning and presenting on her Special Person Interviews.

Robert Harrell is another familiar face. He will be helping with coaching and sharing his vast knowledge of second language acquisition, but we will also hear from him about writing easy reader novels and developing empathy with students, parents and colleagues.

Jayne Cooke will once again explain how to reach and share with students who are different, who learn differently, helping us to realize that different is not necessarily a handicap, that it can be a gift.

Scott Benedict has been around the TPRS universe some time. I’m delighted to welcome him to Agen where he will be presenting on classroom management and helping with coaching.

Margarita Perez Garcia taught our morning Spanish class before moving to New Zealand and was replaced last year by Rosana Navarro. Together they have written an easy reader in Spanish, Juliana. Margarita will again be teaching Spanish and will participate in Robert’s presentation on writing easy readers.

I myself, Judy Dubois, will be teaching Advanced English for adults. And I will present on Fluency Writing and Very Narrow Listening.

There will be morning classes in Breton, Spanish, French, English I (A2) and English II (B2), Mandarin and Japanese. Teachers may choose to be students in one of the classes or may observe. Observers can stay with one teacher or move around during the week.

There will be afternoon and evening coaching sessions run by Laurie Clarcq, Trish Moller, Robert Harrell, Kirstin Plante and Scott Benedict.

From Gibberish to … Wow!

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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.)

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.

Registration for the Agen Workshop 2018

Register here for the Agen Workshop 2018. It will be held in the Lycée Saint Caprais, Agen, France. The dates are July 23rd to July 28th. The price is 475 euros.

In order to register, answer the questions on the form below. If you wish to benefit from the special offer to those living outside the eurozone of Two for One, mention your friend’s name in the last line. Then when they register, they should put your name in response to the question about payment.

You may pay through Paypal by clicking on the button. If you do not use Paypal you may contact Judy Dubois (judyldubois@aol.com) for information about a bank transfer. Those who live in France may pay by check. We are looking forward to seeing you in July.





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Agreeing to Disagree

Whose side are you on? Targeted 1, Targeted 2 or Non-targeted?

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.”

Using Proverbs

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.

 

  1. A countryman between two lawyers …
  2. All would live long …
  3. An investment in knowledge ….
  4. Be slow in choosing a friend,
  5. Early to bed and early to rise…
    1.  but none would be old.
    2. … makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
    3. … always pays the best interest.
    4. ….. is like a fish between two cats.
    5. …. slower in changing.

Why should you go to Agen, France to learn about TPRS?

The Canal at Agen

The Canal at Agen

The Agen Workshop for foreign language teachers is six years old. Once again teachers from around the world will meet in Agen and share their ideas and innovations. Last year there were eighty teachers from twenty-four different countries, including Japan and Australia.

To teachers in France it’s amazing to see teachers willing to pay for professional training out of their own pockets, including airline tickets, hotel and restaurant costs. A few participants are being reimbursed by their schools, but most of the people who come to Agen are making a personal sacrifice. Yet it’s a choice they seem to accept with joy, looking forward to a week of growing and sharing with kindred souls.

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 TPRS and Comprehensible 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 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 Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling 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. This year, as 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.

Every year there are 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 have 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 TPRS 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 and TPRS offered many solutions. People left the workshops excited about the method and its possibilities, but also excited about the friends they had made and the doors that had been opened. The TPRS world heard glowing reports about Agen and more and more wanted to come.

Stephen Krashen was the key-note speaker at TESOL’s Colloquium in Paris in 2014. He repeatedly told the 400 assembled teachers that 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. In 2017 they were joined by Blaine Ray, the inventor of the TPRS method.

In 2017 Susan Gross, who did much to develop the method, will join us, along with Jason Fritze, Scott Benedict, Sabrina Sebban-Janczak, Laurie Clarcq and Robert Harrell. They will be joined by Margarita Perez-Garcia, from New Zealand.

So what is different about Agen? Why are so many people coming from so far away to a little town in southwest France? And why do they keep coming back?
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, that is 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 Teacher, putting into practice basic TPRS 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 will be available for those that want to try out new skills. There are also presentations by well-known figures from the States, but also by some of our local, European talent. As TPRS becomes 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, Stephanie Benson and Carol Bausor as well as myself have taught for many years in Europe and understand the conditions here, and how TPRS 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. Stephanie will describe her Tip Tongue project, published by Harraps, putting easy readers in the hands of young students. 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 will end at six o’clock, but there will be evening coaching sessions at the Stim’otel.

Something new this year will be a playroom for participants’ children who are too young to benefit from the language labs. We are also offering free language classes for member of the participants’ families. There will be a guided tour of Agen and a list of activities in the the town and surrounding area. Our goal is to be more “family friendly” so that participants can bring their loved ones to enjoy a family holiday while they get professional development.

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.

How to Get More Grammar with Less

 

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.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Agen Workshop

Here are some frequently asked questions about the Agen Workshop :

  1. Who is presenting?

Some of our presenters are well known in the States. This year Bill VanPatten, Susan Gross, Jason Fritze, Laurie Clarcq, Kelly Ferguason, Robert Harrell, Sabrina Sebban-Janczak, Diane Neubauer and Adriana Ramirez will be presenting sessions. But we are also counting on local talents such as Jayne Cooke, Liam Printer, Margarita Perez Garcia and Tamara Galvan. I myself will be presenting sessions on Very Narrow Listening and preparing students for written exams

  1. What is the program?

Mornings are given over to demonstration classes in French, English, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese and Breton. Participants can observe experienced teachers working with real students, but they may also be invited to step in and take over the class for a short time. Every afternoon will begin with a plenary session, followed by workshops on a wide variety of topics. There will be coaching sessions during the afternoons and also during the evenings.

  1. Who will be there?

Our participants come from around the world. Last year twenty-three different countries were represented. The international friendships that develop in Agen are an essential part of our ambition.

  1. Where is the conference?

Agen is in southwest France, between Bordeaux and Toulouse. The conference is held in the Lycée Saint Caprais, a former cloister situated near the train station and in the heart of the downtown area.

  1. Where can I stay?

The Stim’otel is offering a special price to Agen Workshop participants who register directly with them rather than through an online booking service. Appart’City Agen is five minutes from the train station. Ibis Agen is also centrally located. There are also numerous possibilities with Airbnb. The nearest camping ground is “Le Moulin de Mellet” at nine kilometers from Agen.

 

  1. How can I get there?

By car Agen is located on the A62 motorway, halfway between Bordeaux and Toulouse, about an hour’s drive either way. By TGV (high speed train) it can easily be reached with few stops. If you are flying, you may fly into Paris, Bordeaux or Toulouse and take the train from there. Or you can get a local flight from Orly in Paris to Agen with Hop!

  1. How much does food cost?

Agen is known for its good food and there are numerous restaurants that will serve an excellent meal for prices ranging between 9 euros and 16. If you want to buy your food and do your own cooking, you’ll find the local produce of good quality and reasonably priced. Of course, there are also McDonalds, KFC, Quick and Subway outlets.

The Magic of the Agen Workshop

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Every summer for the last five years something magic has happened in Agen, France. Teachers from around the world have gathered in a friendly little town in southwest France and particpated in what many of them have called a life-changing experience. They come together because they have heard of a different way of teaching languages, a way of creating stories with their students and building a different kind of classroom. They come with open hearts and open minds and they leave with smiles and warm memories and many new friends. That is the magic of Agen.

An important part of the magic spell is the site, our little town built in the middle ages .. for pedestrians. You can walk from one end of the heart of Agen to the other in less than half an hour, but it takes much longer because there are so many quaint and lovely churches, parks, squares, archways, towers, markets, cafés and shops on the way. The Agenais are warm and open-hearted, proud to tell you of their history and about their passion for rugby, for gastronomy and for the local wines. Don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation. No one is too busy to answer your questions. You can stroll along the Garonne or walk on the suspended pedestrian bridge over the river, or jog beside the amazing canal bridge. Take your time. You are in a place where people know how to take their time, where it’s considered polite to give the hostess an extra quarter of an hour before you show up.

Another reason the Agen Workshop is magic is its size. It’s a teachers’ conference that is still small enough to let everyone get to know each other. We want you to make new friends while you process what you have seen and heard and experienced. A time for sharing and exchanging is built into the timetable and a lot of it takes place during lunch or supper in one of the charming little restaurants that serve you a wonderful meal without draining your budget. In the evening coachng sessions you will get expert advice from kind and generous coaches. If you have a problem, our assistants will find a solution, trust us.

Of course, part of the magic is our program of presenters from around the world. This year we are being honored by the presence of Susan Gross, who helped develop TPRS from the beginning, Bill Van Patten, who will explain the research behind Comprehensilbie Input strategies, Diane Neubauer from the United States, Kristin Plane from the Netherlands, Jayne Cooke from Great Britain, Botond Boros from Hungary, Ignacio Almandoz from Spain. Participants are coming form Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, Norway, Germany, Belgiup, etc Agen is the truly international conference where people from around the world come together to share their ideas, talk over their difficulties and leave with renewed faith in human nature.

Let’s not forget the magic of coaching, led by Laurie Clarcq, Robert Harrell and Scott Benedict. This year we are offering a special Coaching for Coaches session on Sunday, July 22nd, so that more teachers will feel empowered to help their colleagues advance on the journey to Comprehensible Input classes.

As in the past, the mornings will be given over to demonstration classes in French, English, Spanish, Mandarin and Breton. Participants can observe experienced teachers working with real students, but they may also be invited to step in and take over the class for a short time. Every afternoon will begin with a plenary session, followed by workshops on a wide variety of topics. There will be coaching sessions during the afternoons and also during the evenings.

Saturday morning Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki will discuss and demonstrate Story Listening. Then we will close with a banquet for everyone at the Stim’otel. It is a joyful, magical  moment, but there are always tears as people say good-bye to old and new friends. That, of course, is the most powerful ingredient in the magic that is Agen: the friendship between those who come from far away with their curiosity, their enthusiasm and their open minds.

I hope to see you in Agen this summer.

Judy Dubois