Blocks of Ice Crashing Together

This is taken from a response in comment form to Kevin a little while ago. I think it was a comment but I wanted to make it a post. It is just more discussion about a fact that I must keep trying to remember if the method is to work for me – that learning language is almost an entirely unconscious process:

It’s not possible to consciously analyze and reduce a spoken or written text into pieces in an effort to understand how the parts of the clock work together. Doing so entirely prevents us from experiencing the expansive nature of the unconscious process that reading really is. What does that mean?

What we used to do was to take a reading and, since the kids couldn’t understand it, use the obvious tools we had – our conscious minds which we as humans have learned to solve problems with – and go to work.

That is reductionist picking apart of a reading in an effort to “understand” it. Unfortunately it works with building rocket ships and understanding math but not with languages, because all of the things that have to do with language acquisition happen out of reach of the conscious mind. Oops!

And so the fact that we can’t “understand” and acquire languages in that way – using our conscious minds – even in reading, has overturned the apple cart on everybody, especially the traditional teachers but also the book companies and a whole lot of people who are just standing there scratching their heads and reacting to this new truth like babies, crying and moaning and saying it isn’t true.

But it is true. In both listening and reading, we focus on the message and not the words. We have to do that for thousands of hours before the speaking and writing can fully emerge in the real way.

That deeply complex process, more complex than anything the conscious mind can ever dream of handling (not that the conscious mind dreams) kicks the conscious mind out the back door, since it is totally ill-equipped for such a complex activity as listening to or reading words in fast moving blocks of sound.

Think how many words we process in very short amounts of time when people speak to us or how many words we process when reading a text like this (352 so far) without ever once thinking about the grammar or how the words are put together. That’s pretty nice work and your mind read them all without once breaking this text down into little pieces to figure out what they mean.

This is Krashen 101 and it is at the core of the shift we are in. People just don’t want to let go of control of the language – which is a magnificent thing full of wonder that they want mental control over – and just trust that it will work if we just speak to the kids or give them a text that they can read (emphasis on the “they can read” part).

So the fact that it is all unconscious and yet we try to make it all conscious explains the difficulty, in my opinion. You can’t serve two masters and the master in this case, as Krashen has shown so convincingly, is the unconscious deeper mind and not the conscious parser of details that is so limiting in so many aspects of life and is made of straw.   That’s how big this shift is – we can’t even understand it by analyzing it and reducing it and breaking it down into pieces.

I was speaking at the writing scoring with my DPS WL colleagues about a week ago and there were two new teachers among the twenty new hires into the district this year (traditional teachers are heading fast for the exits).

One was from Denver University and the other from Middlebury. Both are clearly wonderful superstar 4%ers. The first had never heard of Krashen. The second told me honestly that Krashen had been dismissed by most of her instructors in her entire training both in undergrad and in grad school. What an indictment of university level language training!

Both are now in pretty tough schools and about to have their asses handed to them on a plate. Their only hope is to escape to the suburbs where they can find some nice 4%ers so that their worlds don’t crumble under the new truth that we can’t teach most kids in the 4% way.

Look at both the university and suburban clientele – both are very much about being in charge (conscious mind), “getting it done”, watching the weak fail, stepping up to the plate, taking the bull by the horns. It is an illness visible everywhere now.   Those two teachers are toast. It’s over before it starts.

That same destructive “I want my kids to learn more!” block of ice – the belief that the conscious mind can be used in language acquisition, is starting to melt, and more than a few people don’t like that. I didn’t like it either. But get over it. That was then, and this is now.*

We learn languages because our students are made to understand by us in an artful, elegant way that is characterized by:

  • SLOW
  • Staying in Bounds
  • Checking for Understanding

while insisting on strong choral responses in short one word y/n or single word answers from the group   We do these three things or we fail. We have split into two camps (no big deal) in the world of TPRS/CI instruction because some of us like me totally accept the Net Hypothesis** and some of us believe in front loading vocabulary first. It doesn’t matter.

We can do both because TPRS/CI instruction is so strong – it gets the job done. That debate is for later but it doesn’t matter – the big bad boy of TPRS/CI is on the field now and scattering the old wringwraiths (those who want to still teach using the conscious analytical faculty) all asunder.

It’s gotten ugly here in DPS where 20 of us do it well and 60 want to do it well and are flocking to Diana’s trainings and learning labs and the other 20 – I observed them yesterday – are just standing there looking a bit foolish, honestly.

So Kevin let go a bit on this one. You want them to have their Caeser salad and eat it too. They’re not ready for the salad yet. They need a big full course meal first, made up of plenty of big plates of comprehensible input in the form of listening and reading. The Caesar salad can come later. And cut the cheese out – it’s not good for you.   The data bank of vocabulary will slowly build as your students acquire more and more words through discussing and reading more simple texts and then, at the right time, you can all dive into the salad.

The new way, just letting go and enjoying being with the kids and doing lots and lots of input first with them in the form of fun listening and reading, waiting for all the complex wiring to magically but over long periods of time emerge naturally, is very much a complex thing made simple.

That’s the short answer, Kevin. Another way to say this is just relax and don’t try to force flowers to bloom.

*for more on the shift see:

**for more on the Net Hypothesis see:



18 thoughts on “Blocks of Ice Crashing Together”

  1. I did something in class yesterday that I had never done before. We just finished the third week of school, so I asked my two first-year classes to tell me words they have “learned” so far while I wrote them on the board. We have being doing CWB and norming the class, so no major emphasis on acquiring structures (lots of emphasis on “plays” though), yet we filled one-and-a-half white boards with words in different classes. The purpose of this exercise was simply to show my students how much they have acquired through Interpersonal Communication in the classroom. They were impressed with themselves, and of course period 4 wanted to know if they had “learned” more than period 2. :-0

    Interestingly enough, while there was some variation in words acquired because of different interests in the two classes, the overwhelming majority of the words and structures was identical – because those were the high-frequency words for high school teenagers. (As Ben has noted before, sports are huge for high school. In my classes, music is also big, so we had “plays guitar”, “sings” and “dances” as well as the sports.)

    Last night I went to the high school’s football game and sat with parents of some of my students. One set of parents have a son in German 3 and another son in German 1; they were very enthusiastic about how well both sons are doing. They were talking about watching movies that had German writing or speech in them. Their son in German 3 translates for them because he understands. (BTW, while he is a good student, he is not a superstar.) They are planning a trip to Europe for summer 2014 and have added Germany to the itinerary because they know their son can handle any language issues. Another parent said that her son in German 1 speaks German “all the time” at home and then laughs because he knows she has no idea what he’s saying. I also hear beginning students repeating in German things we have talked about in class that day as they leave – unforced output. I’ll take results like these over standardized testing any day. And yes, these reports from parents and other outside-of-class language use will have a positive impact on these students’ grades. You do realize that one of the Standards is using the language outside of class; it’s called “Communities”. I just need a better spy network so I hear from more students. 😉

  2. You remind me, Robert, of those rare teachers who, by involving himself so much in the community and of having such genuine concern for the quality of the education of your students – which is clear to everyone in this group who have known you over the years – are known not just for their teaching but for a hard to describe quality of “representing” knowledge and the search for it just by being one who “is” it, whose knowledge is so deep that it becomes a kind of automatic model for this kind of mentoring. Very hard to describe and that is the best I can do. I think that there have been such teachers starting, of course, with the Greeks, but you bring more than just instruction is what I am trying to say. The parents sit with you at the football game, and that familiarity is just such a rare thing I wanted to comment on it. You are an integral part of the community. How many teachers really are?

    Also, I really like this sentence:

    …I’ll take results like these over standardized testing any day….

    I feel the same. Iin the end, when our careers are over, all data about our kids will be gone, but the intrinsic lessons that we were able to share with them about such a wide gamut of things from soccer to virtual trips to Germany to German poetry will continue in various ways to live in your students’ lives as they get older. Compare that to the fake book teaching that leaves a kind of wound in the psyche of people who, now as adults, still are convinced that they, as opposed to other people, just can’t learn languages.

    When a child can see what has been created in the arts and in literature by so many great souls who have come before us, it is just such an enriching thing. Isn’t that what has driven us from the beginning, that quality of “I wanna learn this just because I wanna learn it because there is something in it that draws me and is just cool and I need the language for it and my German teacher gave me that thing that I need – the language – to go through that German culture now with the one tool I need – the language – so that I can have a richer life”. I figure if I rock the French now, they have a whole lifetime to learn the French culture, but if I don’t deliver the language, they really won’t do much more than remember what the Eiffel Tower is. The study of the culture of a country is something that can only happen when the language is fully in place, is my opinion. And you are a kind of walking version of Germany, not to mention about five or six other cultures. What a gift to your community!

  3. Thank you for your kind words, Ben. Years ago I made the decision that I teach students, not just German. That means I have to teach the whole student. That means being involved in their lives outside the classroom, so I make it a point to go to sports, drama, choir, dance, etc. events even when I am not doing adjunct duty.

    On Friday one of my football players in period 5 (yes, the same period 5 again – just with a few key people no longer in the class) asked me if I was going to the game. He is not ADD or ADHD but has difficulty in fifth period with paying attention. (Right after lunch, end of the day since football practice is next), but it was somehow very important to him to know that I was going to watch his game. Since he recovered a fumble by the other team, I’ll be able to tell him on Monday that I saw his great play.

    This past week one of my students came to ask my about the US Congress-German Parliament Exchange program. He is planning to spend his senior year in Germany just because he enjoys the language and culture so much. He speaks Spanish at home, so German is his third language. I told him that he is going to be so impressive when he gets back with fluency in three languages – but he already is impressive. I can’t help but smirk when I think about the district office; I’m already notorious there for sending exchange students and creating challenges for the district as far as graduation and transcripts are concerned. My current student will be the fifth German student to do an exchange in the past 10 years – and the district does not participate in any exchange programs, so these are all on the initiative of the students. In addition, I have several students who either have done or are doing a year in Germany as part of their college studies. The reports that I get back from them are that the students from other programs are envious of the ease with which they navigate the language and culture. And, increasing numbers of students and families are taking trips to Germany because the students feel confident in handling things. (Part of that I attribute to the virtual move project; they know how the transportation and other systems work, they’ve had virtual experience in navigating challenges, they have become acquainted with aspects of the culture and history.)

    Sorry if that sounds like I’m bragging. Perhaps I am, but I really am simply rejoicing in having found the key to unlock shackles and open doors for my students. It is just so cool to watch them realize the world is a wonderful place to explore rather than something to fear.

    1. That’s actually humility Robert, if seen in the light I am perceiving it. To me, humility is just saying who you are and what you do. Ain’t it great? We’re talking about citizenship and community in a time when both seem to be hiding under rocks in our society. Keep on sending in reports like this. The fact is, the best possible thing that you can do to reach a kid is to have seen him in what may have been one of the great moments of his life. It will transmute into oceans of good will in class. The tragedy is when the teacher sends the message to the class, “I want you to be interested in my stuff but I’m not really interested in your stuff.” Recovering a fumble in a high school football game is not something everybody gets to do. It’s a big deal. What impresses me most Robert is that you’re not out there to get points with the kids – you are genuinely in for the community. And in Los Angeles! That’s as an impersonal place as New Jack City!

  4. I am totally in the Net Hypothesis camp, but as a newbie CI-er and fundamentally insecure person, I think I override my gut too much on this, because I attach too much to the perceived external pressure to have a list, to “prove” that we are “learning something.”

    I love what Robert did. I think someone else mentioned doing a similar thing–one of the Latin teachers I think??? John??? Where in the first few weeks of class you just focus on the kids, norming the class, learning the rules by example. And the “language learning” part is just a by-product. What a powerful thing to do this brainstorm with students and let them see that in fact by focusing on the message, they “learn” without realizing they are “learning!”

    I wish I had done this. I wonder if there is a level 2 version of this type of thing? I don’t currently teach any “pure beginners” so it seems harder to do this. BUT now I know and it is a great reminder of the power of the message.

    This week I observed what I will call “the Net Hypothesis in action.” We had done the Matava story about the backpack where someone is carrying a heavy backpack and something (or someone) falls out of the backpack. It was the very first time this group had ever co-created a story. So, (sidetreacking a bit here!) during the part where I had the actors up and the writer writing and the artist drawing, the computer teacher came in to troubleshoot bc I have not been able to connect to the internet from my classroom. When he saw that we were in the middle of this super active class, he just hung around and watched, and we included him a bit, with some simple y/n questions, etc. Later in the day he was like “WOW! Everyone should see this! Amazing!”

    Ok, back to my point. When we did the reading, I was adding a few other details and stuff. One of the lines was “Can I carry your backpack?” In the oral version I think we did a pretty literal version of this “Puedo llevar la mochila?” But since in real life, it would be more likely to hear a “Quieres que te lleve la mochila?” (Do you want me to carry your backpack for you?) I threw that in the reading. Ooohhh! The subjunctive! Of course everyone got it from the context. That is not the amazing part. The amazing part was that I did not call it the subjunctive or even stop to analyze it. I would have done the grammar pop-up had someone asked “why isn’t it lleva,” but since nobody did, I just moved on with the story. I even felt myself on the verge of pointing it out and then something came over me. I realized that nobody was focusing on whether it was “lleva” or “lleve” so why go there? I think this is kind of “net” – ish, right? They are tuned into the message, what happened in the story with the excessively strong girl who discovers her friend hitching a ride in Taylor Lautner’s big heavy backpack.

    Another interesting thing that happened in a different group with the same story: I gave this group a pop translation quiz. This is a more CI-trained group since I had them last year. In this version I threw in “Quelle surprise!” and dontcha know that a couple of the uptight “we’re not learning anything” kids wrote “Which surprise” because they saw “quelle” on the question words poster! And the barometer girl who is a “weak” student wrote “What a surprise!” And the uptight kids still write things like “the big backpack heavy of Taylor Lautner” And the “weak” kids write “Taylor Lautner’s big heavy backpack.” So who is focused on the message? Hmmm….

    1. …I am totally in the Net Hypothesis camp, but as a newbie CI-er and fundamentally insecure person, I think I override my gut too much on this, because I attach too much to the perceived external pressure to have a list, to “prove” that we are “learning something.”….

      This is so huge. I honestly don’t do that. I am certainly also fundamentally insecure, but my laziness overides that. But I just want to copy and paste what your wrote in here for all of us to read and not miss it. It is a huge gorilla in our PLC and honestly we have to make our own decisions on it.

      I am so glad that you see and have articulated the issue. You’ve been taught all your life to be a good student and as a 4%er you want to do right by everyone so you think in terms that are contrary to Krashen’s research.

      However, it’s not so simple, really. Krashen’s research (Jody correct me on this if I am wrong) was not done in a 50 minute daily setting. If that is true, then there may be some justification for targeting frequency lists, like Jim and Jody were talking about on that thread here yesterday and today.

      I honestly don’t know, and since I am at the end of my career and lazy, I don’t care. But I can see where if I were just beginning my career this would be a topic of some concern to me.

      For those who want more on the Net Hypothesis:

    2. I love your post! It also made me think of something that happened with my classes. One Friday, I gave my Advanced Chinese kids little Chinese composition books. They were to do a free-write while I called individual students up to the board for a quiz on character stroke order. They had about 30 minutes to write. When I went through the comp books, I was disappointed to see that some of them had only written three sentences. I realized I need to better scaffold this activity and give them someone better guidelines about expectations.

      Meanwhile, over in Chinese 1 class, we spent a whole class period doing a modified version of Ben’s dictation. We had about 10 minutes left at the end of the period so I told the students to go ahead and write their own stories with the vocabulary the have learned so far. When I sat down to look these over, I couldn’t believe what these little beginners had accomplished; compositions of 5 sentences like this one: “Hello my name is Madison. My name is not Jess. I love music and I love to dance. I am not a twin.” (Our first lesson after CWA was about identical twins who classmates call by each others’ names because I have these twins, one in each Chinese 1 class). Anyway, the whole thing just reinforced that CI is the way to go and I have some serious catching up to do with my Advanced kids.

  5. Dear Jen,

    Just look at what you wrote here!!!! You have students reading “beyond” their acquisition level. You have students listening and reading for meaning. You have students able to understand complete scenarios and conversations!!!

    Compare this to what you might have seen after 5 weeks in a more traditional curriculum. What would they have been able to do? Pass a vocab test? Fill in blanks in a written dialogue (and in real life who ever writes a dialogue???) Put a few endings on a verb?

    Totally different world, and although you may not think so, you and your students are rockin’ it!!!

    Here is a thought for your second year kids. And an offer. Type up a story that they have done in class and email it to me and I’ll read it with my kids. We’ll add some details and mail it back….it will give them a purpose that they can see and enjoy. What do you think?

    with love,

  6. YAY! That will be fun! Another superdeluxe jumbo can of whoop ass!!! Can you send me your email address?

    I think this will help me (and my my students) to learn the fine art of creating embedded readings, right? Isn’t that what this process is? This will show up in their writing down the line I betcha.

    Thank you 🙂

  7. Here is my school email: My thought is not to put pressure on the kids to create a good class story. Let the stories come. When you get one that has a good base, type it up and send it along. :o) It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t even have to be interesting!! It just needs to make sense to kids who haven’t seen it acted out.

    with love,

    1. This is a powerful idea! I’ve told my students about this blog and how I get my ideas from it–if there was a way I could be in on this story-sharing, I’d love it! I teach Spanish II students, but they are really more like Spanish I since they had projects/grammar all of last year.

      So, not to be presumptuous, but my school email (I’m from Indiana) is:

  8. We need someone to organize this. I vote not me. But somehow we need to have people get in pairs for this emailing of stories back and forth, anybody who wants to do this. It’s another reason for bios so we can know what language is involved. How do we do this, or should we just kind of set up shared readings (Shared Readings) as a category and work from there?

    If we can get these things going, it will add a lot to our instruction. Laurie this is genius. To casually announce on Wed. that you are going to send the story we created so far that week to a class in another state and you expect a story back with embedded material from that class for them to read is just a very cool idea.

    I’ll go set up the category.

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