“I don’t understand why I have to follow this textbook”

I don't understand

Teaching from a textbook can be frustrating.  It provides safety and structure but limits creativity and,as we have seen, can’t always be trusted to provide authentic data-driven input.  The above picture is part of a section I am required to teach called the “communication spotlight”.

In the beginning, I really liked this section because it provides so little material that you would be crazy not to produce your own.  If you simply followed the book, you’d just be doing repetition drills.  The teacher’s book sometimes has suggestions, but not always.  When I first began teaching here, I would take these grammar points and just create my own lessons.

Those lessons, of course, were not guaranteed to be worth-while.  I was (am) a new teacher.  And at one point, early on, my co-teacher asked that I “stick to the textbook” a little more closely.

Since then, I’ve had a real struggle trying to teach the “communication spotlight” beyond doing simple repetition.  (Though, I think my co-teacher would be perfectly happy if that’s all I did.. /shrug).

But now that I’ve swung from both sides of the issue, I do a little better at both honoring the book (read: my co-teacher) and actually doing something worthwhile.  That solution usually has three parts  (if I have enough classes).

1. Repetition.  Teacher-directed drills.  This is a fluency activity.  I start slow, start with small chunks, break up the phrases into their syntactic parts, emphasize certain phonological features (like what is known as “linking” words.  Those familiar with phonology know it as resyllabification and the *no coda constraint) and finally work on speeding up fluency.

2. Comprehension. Analyze the words, provide more examples (doing twitter searches is great here.  I had a friend ask if “kickass” meant “cool”; so instead of sending her to a dictionary to see “cool” next to “kickass” somewhere else on the internet, I sent her to twitter).  And find visuals.  Guide students through identifying meaning to making guesses and responding.  I like to do a speaking drill here, like concentric circles.

3. Conversation.  Using the language authentically, within a community of equals, safely and freely.  The textbook usually doesn’t make an appearance in this part.  (Note: at this point, there should probably be a re-visit to “fluency”.  I haven’t quite gotten that part worked in).

If I don’t have time, what gets cut is the repetition/fluency.  Though, in my opinion that is a bigger problem than it sounds.

The textbook also has a reading section, which I don’t teach; that, in part, tries to reinforce the listening/speaking material in the chapter.  At best, it provides manufactured examples of the language structure in an unnoticeable way.  At worst, the texts read like the most false, hammed-up drivel possible.

don't understand

This is the reading from the relevant chapter.  I put this somewhere inbetween pointless and ok.  The title is “I don’t want to fall behind” and is written in dialogue format between a boy and his Mother.  The weird way the mother talks about “falling behind” is ok, because I don’t have to deal with it.

For the language that I do have to be worried about, I think the examples are pretty good.  They are almost invisible. And of all the manufactured examples given in the textbook, this is the most relateable to the students.  (fighting with your parents).  It also provides plenty of context, something the “communication spotlight” does not do.

I might put one of my recent attempts at a pronunciation lesson up here (I kind of liked it, but I am not sure the students were on board).  But for now, I want to share a communication lesson.  Those are the most fun anyway.

In the circle of teachers in my area, a series of photos recently went around of one of our more experienced teachers lessons whose title was, “If you could tell the world one thing, in one sentence, what would it be?”.  I’m not entirely sure what the lesson covered exactly, but the teacher posted a bunch of pictures of their students with their sentences written on pieces of paper.  Sort of like this:


It seemed like a fantastic lesson, in which some of the students were funny, some were superficial and some were extremely poignant.  The students addressed everything from the meaning of life to their favorite k-pop group.  They touched on the Korean education system, the situation with the North and love.

So I, like all good teachers, borrowed the idea and morphed it to my situation.  The grammar structure, “I don’t understand ____.”  easily adapts to this type of thinking discussion.  Here’s how it went:

I don’t understand


Visual preparation in some form.  Collect some pictures that visualize things that you don’t understand (death, computers, foreign languages, cultural phenomenons).  You will also need blank sheets of paper for the students.  Along with any artsy materials you want (makers, paints, pictures).

Performance Objectives:

The students will be able to: use the canned phrase “I don’t understand ___” to express befuddlement, exasperation, genuine curiosity and/or frustration.  This will be done by guiding the students through multiple examples and practice sentences.  Students will organize their thoughts via branching diagrams.

Students will be able to apply the correct “wh-question” word to complete the phrase, “I don’t understand [how/why/what/when/where] _________”.  Using the teacher’s examples as a guide and completing practice examples from the teacher and their own creation.

Students will express their own ignorance/confusion/what-have-you by creating one single sentence that expresses what they “don’t understand” about the world.


The teacher will introduce the topic for the days lesson by presenting a question for the students.  “what is one thing you don’t understand about the world?”  The teacher will check for comprehension, clarifying any words for the students. — My students checked to make sure “world” meant the same thing as “earth” and since I had highlighted “one thing” they asked what “thing” meant.  We spent a few minutes describing all the “things” in the classroom. (which, as you can imagine, was a lot of things.  I emphasized that thoughts and actions can be things too. (i.e. anger, north korea, war).


Before taking their answers, present several things that you don’t understand.  Highlight important words. (wh-words, verbs, etc.)  “I don’t understand how to speak Korean”

“I don’t understand how computers work”

“I don’t understand why bad things happen to good people.”

“I don’t understand why Psy is soooo popular.”

Provide visual explanations and make sure students understand all the words.


Allow the students to produce examples on their own freely, and eventually direct the students to draw a circle on their paper and ask them to give more examples of things they do not understand.  –In my class, most of the examples were related to North Korea, school and, for some reason, drugs– Ask them to produce sentences of the examples they provide.

Give the students 5 minutes to continue thinking of things and working on their brainstorming.  Allow them to work individually, in pairs and groups if you have the time.


Have the students flip over their paper and write one sentence to the world about something they don’t understand.  Provide an example. –Mine was, “I don’t understand why Psy is so popular”–  Some students defended Psy, some agreed with me and others wanted me to defend myself.  At this point, I made it clear that this wasn’t about “making an argument”, but just expressing yourself.– (though, if you’ve got the time, you could go into a discussion mode where students ask each other questions about their statements).

Circulate around the students, answering questions, give advice, ask questions.   Ask questions, ask questions!

Finally, for those that finished more quickly than others, I began photographing them with their paper.  I didn’t manage to get to all of them, and not all of them wanted to be photographed (a real shame, since they did some great work).


The students really liked this lesson.  It didn’t give them as much opportunity to really produce output, and I think there is room for improvement there, but (almost) everyone participated fully in the lesson and they did produce something. So, I’m counting that as a win.

Most impressive about this lesson though, is they seemed to truly grasp the idea that this language structure gets at.  Which is, they saw beyond the idea that “I don’t understand” only means, “please explain”.  But that it goes deeper than that.  Any given student produced work that showed examples of un-answerable questions, criticism of their school culture, frustrations and general pondering.

Which is all more than they might have understood from the book, which makes it sound like the only proper (and expected) response is something like, “oh i’m sorry!”.  When in fact, no response is just as valid to this type of construction.


Sneaky Grammar: Why you’re not in the habit of taking just one tennis lesson


Linguistics, for me, has been something of a drug.  There is something delicious about using the scientific approach to the study of language that I never experienced in my K-12 education.  In the case of linguistics, I think (I’m guessing) that part of it has to do with finally figuring out, or being given an explanation for things that before were given a response like, “oh it just is this way.  You just have to memorize it.  There is no pattern.

These sorts of answers are completely unsatisfactory, for obvious reasons.  And it is the amateur language teacher who relies on intuition alone to decide if something “sounds grammatical” or not.

For me, one of the simply most satisfying explanations had to do with the habitual aspect in Standard English.  I’ve talked about this before, in connection with African American English, but as a simple refresher, the present tense in English (I eat, I drink, I drive, I play, I take.. etc..) does not indicate an action is occurring in the present tense.  Instead, it indicates that the action is something the subject is in the habit of doing.

For example:

“Oh are you a vegetarian?
No, I eat meat.” (meaning, I am in the habit of eating me. Not, ‘I am presently eating meat’)

“I drink soda.”

“I drive a Honda.”

“I play soccer.”

“I take tennis lessons.”

The reason I bolded the last, is that it came up in a lesson with my 7th graders recently.  The textbook-provided power point was having the students work on noun-verb agreement and came up with these two examples:


The meaning of this sentence is something similar to “I am in the habit of taking tennis lessons”.   Instead, the writers abandoned the habitual aspect of the verb and tried to fit a singular event (e.g. a tennis lesson) into it.  Notice the difference in meaning when you say,

“I am taking a tennis lesson (and I’ll be done in one hour/next week/when I get the money).”


“I take tennis lessons (on Fridays/weekly/when I can).”

The perplexing problem for me, is that the 1st question (‘my sister doesn’t go swimming’) gets the habitual perfectly (though, it’s not possible to tell if that was on purpose).  The important part here to make sense of, is that it is impossible to habitually  take one tennis lesson.  Which explains why this sentence, while maybe not crunchingly ungrammatical could be cause for confusion.

But of course, being the professionals we are here, I made sure to check GoogleBattle to make sure my grammatical intuitions panned out.  Here are the results of “I take a tennis lesson” vs. “I take tennis lessons”


Looks like my intuitions were right.  I was a little surprised that “take a tennis lesson” showed up with 27,700 hits though.  Even the most ungrammatical sentences will get some hits on google, but I thought that there might actually be a dialect somewhere that no longer (or never did) use the present habitual.  So I checked out the hits.


This is just the first few, but you’ll notice something very quickly.  First of all, the only phrase that actually fits our example (meaning, ‘take‘ is the tensed verb) is the one that says, “I take a tennis lesson once a week“.  As I’ve mentioned before, the habitual aspect can be inserted in a couple of different ways, one is to add an adverbial phrase.  In this case, ‘once a week’.

The other examples place the tense on another verb, (‘should’, ‘can’).  Not all verbs have the habitual aspect within them.  And with modifier verbs, the habitual aspect can be erased.

“Can I take a tennis lesson?”

“You might be able to take a tennis lesson”.

“They might let you take a tennis lesson.”

Notice, in these (and the sentences in the google search) sentences, we are no longer talking about the “simple present tense”.  It is instead the present infinitive, a different verb construction that does not hold the habitual aspect.

What this shows us, is that even very proficient speakers of English (perhaps even native speakers) have trouble recognizing the habitual aspect.  Even if they are producing materials for teaching grammar.  This example in particular comes from my classroom textbook, which is very well put together and I actually enjoy using it.

Like many languages, the present tense in Korean does not have this habitual meaning in its simple present tense.

점심         먹어요
lunch      eat
(I) eat lunch

This does not mean, “I am in the habit of eating lunch”.  Which can be confusing, because the “present continuous” equivalent in Korean, also means something similar.

점심           먹고            있어요
lunch    eating    (have, am)
(I) am eating lunch

As I expected, when I asked around, most native Koreans could not give me a straight answer as to what the difference is between these two sentences.  Most people said, “they mean the same thing, you’d just use them in different situations.”  It comes as no surprise then, that the habitual would be a difficult grammatical feature for a Korean English learner to identify.  Particularly when their textbook can’t do it either.

The 20/80 Experience: Initial data and analysis

input banner

The 20/80 Experience: part 1 – background

Last post, we introduced the idea of input/output as described by Krashen and Swain; and their importance or relevance in the second language classroom.  Here, we are going to look at the first batch of data I have collected in my classroom and have a little exploratory discussion.

First however, let’s talk shop.


I should first note that I do not have access to materials that would make this all easier.  To collect the data, I used a simply voice recorder on my cell phone.  I then listened to the class over again (a useful exercise, regardless of whatever happens with this project) and counted the amount of class time spent between meaningful input and output.  I also included the amount of class time done in Korean (though, not separated into input/output).

This is very time-intensive.  Classes are 45 minutes long, and it takes at least one-listen-through to estimate the time, and if I’m feeling thorough, I listen and record again.

In addition, because of how time-intensive this kind of data collection is; I only have 8, 45-minute classes in this initial exploratory dataset.  As we keep going, the amount of data I will have will increase.


Let’s start with the goal in mind, how much input/output is ideal for the ESL classroom.  Is the oft-cited 20/80 the ultimate goal? How do specific teaching strategies affect the input/output ratios of the classroom?  Let’s start with the most general numbers.

overall input

Honestly, I was surprised by these first numbers.  I expected much higher levels of Korean and lower Output.  But as it stands, the initial numbers are really quite harmonious.  English input has the largest share of classtime, but by no means has a majority.  If we were looking to move to a “20/80” classroom, moving from 37% input to 20% is the least difficult task.

The amount of Korean in the classroom is a bit of an opaque issue for me.  I am not sure at all if this is a good thing or a bad thing; something that needs to be raise, or lowered.  Much of my co-teachers teaching is done in Korean, and much of the responses from students to his teaching is in Korean as well.  This is not necessarily a “problem” that needs to be fixed.  34% of all class-time might suggest he is not using “TEE” enough (Teaching English in English), but I don’t know for sure.

As you can imagine, the amount of Korean input/output changes drastically depending on who is leading the class.  For the Korean English Teacher’s (KET) class, the percentages look like this:

KET percentage

64% of class time is quite a bit more than the overall statistic.  But, again, whether or not this is a problem is unclear.  Undoubtedly, in the KET-led class, TEE is not a priority.  Contrary to whatever the Korean Education Administration would led you to believe.  Actual academic studies suggest that the average KET’s ability to utilize TEE is affected by external factors, including school culture, social hierarchies and covert shaming.

Anecdotally, when the KET in our classroom attempts TEE, the students often express exasperation or ridicule his attempt.  They feel very uncomfortable for whatever reason, communicating with him in anything other than Korean.  This is not a reason to abandon TEE, but it is a hurdle that must be cleared if TEE is to be used.

As concerns the main focus, input/output, the KET actually has a fairly good ratio (though, of course, far below the 20/80.)  This will change when we look class-by-class below, but I speculate that the reason the percentages are so close, is that the KET utilizes rote memorization and repetition extensively.  “Repeat after me” drills are the main technique for output, though certainly not the only one.  Repetition will give a fairly even 1:1 ratio.  For the Native English Teacher, the graph is certainly very different.

NET input

In regards to the input/output, we can see very similar amounts of NET English Input and KET Korean.  One reason the NET input is lower, may be a result that the NET must struggle to negotiate meaning with the students.  The NET is in no position to simply ramble on about English.  58% however, is probably still indicative that the NET is speaking too much, and that a good portion of that input is not comprehensible to the students (and therefore, the students aren’t learning efficiently) .

The NET does elicit more student-output.  Though the quality of the output is not necessarily the right kind. The class is directed mostly through a textbook, so the type of input/output is fairly scripted.  The activities involved rarely get the students to the point of “free expression” and have many activities of rote memorization and repetition.  The NET isn’t exactly thrilled with that, but he just does what he is told.  The students do produce a certain amount of impromtu output that would qualify under Swain’s definition.  How much? Unclear just yet.

side-by-side NETKET

Class-by-class however, there seems to be random variation in the amount of input/ouput or Korean on any given day.  The data limits any sort of conclusion just yet.  But these disparate numbers with the KET using Korean far more often, and the NET using English input closer to a 40/60 ratio are a little skewed.


The downward trend of Output surprised me initially and certainly goes against my hypothesis that as time goes on, we should expect an increase in student output, simply due to the fact that the observer is also a player in the game.  We can see, however, that the overall percentage of of input for the NET is skewed by one class period where 80% of the class was pure input.  A very boring class indeed.

Whether or not the trend will only widen, contract or fluctuate  we shall have to wait and see.  My initial guess is that this has as much to do with what class is being taught, where we are in the textbook, what day of the week it is, what time of day it is, and a few other relevant factors, as it does with anything do.


Likewise, the KET’s overall percentages are heavily influenced by one particular lesson where he spent 93% of classtime speaking and being spoken to, in Korean.  (There is a lot to be said about an ESL class that spends only 4% of class time giving English input and 0.6% English output, but we’ll avoid it for now).

Interesting is the relationship of input to output.  The KET managed to have slightly higher output than input for a couple of classes, and as I said before, this is in part due to repetition drills, but that would only explain a very close 1:1 ratio.  There must be additional reasons, which could include student free response, or student-directed discussions.  Something worth examining a little closer in the future.


Of course, we don’t have much to conclude just yet, but we have a better idea of what we should be looking at.  The most opaque areas have to do with why any given class can fluctuates so widely between input/output, if this is a problem, whether or not the teachers have the ability to control it more closely (or if the problem is external to the teacher and their control).

What can be fairly assumed right now, is that that the students are experiencing very different English classes between the NET and the KET.  And I don’t just mean the obvious “one’s an American and one’s Korean” cultural difference.  It seems that very different theoretical foundations separate the co-teachers.  The question remains of how this impacts student learning.  Does the back-and-forth disrupt students routine? Or is the effect minimal?

Those questions are beyond the scope of what we are looking at here, but I still wonder if the NET-led and KET-led back-and-forth model is actually disruptive, and would it be better to either fully integrate each teacher in every lesson (requiring far more planning than the KET has time for, in this situation), or instead making the back and forth on the scale of weeks instead of days.  Maybe there is no effect at all.

The 20/80 Experience: A look at English Input/Output at one Korean Middle School


I’ve heard many times (though, interestingly, never in my university theoretical classes) that the ideal amount of teacher input to student output is 20% to 80%.  This magic number actually does not come out of SLA theory, nor educational theory (but has since been adopted).

But, what I have learned about SLA theory over the years doesn’t always seem to jive with the 20/80 rule (as we will explore below).  On the other hand, the 20/80 rule speaks in some ways to me as an educator. (I’m not one for lecturing).  Therefore, I have decided to explore the idea further.  What will follow is a series of posts, over the course of this semester (at least) documenting my class’s input and output; along with any discussion and analysis we would like to have.

This post will serve as an introduction to the actual data and analysis that will follow (with the first set coming tomorrow).  Here, I just want to set the stage.  We will give just a basic overview of what it is I am actually looking at when we say, “input/output”.  and over the course of the study, it should be made more clear and we may even delve into more specific topics.

But first, on the basic level, what we are talking about when we say “input” and “output” is defined by Krashen’s (1982) “input hypothesis” and Swain’s (1985) “output hypothesis”.  For a real introduction, check here and here.

Krashen’s hypothesis is part of a larger theory called the “monitor model” and was itself a response to the behaviorist methodology that dominated most educational theories at the time.  Krashen built his monitor model upon the foundation that Noam Chomsky built with his theory of First Language Acquisition.  Chomsky’s claim is that Language (with a capital ‘L’) is innate to all humans.  That babies do not come into the world as a “blank slate”, but with an evolutionarily-developed capacity for acquiring language.  Similar to how bats have evolved eco-location.

It is this new conceptualization of language-learning, the acquisition of language that led to Krashen’s model.  From Lightbown’s How Languages are Learned: 

“First, in the acquisition-learning hypothesis, Krashen contrasts these two terms.  We ‘acquire’ as we are exposed to samples of the second language we understand in much the same way that children pick up their first language– with no conscious attention to language form.  we ‘learn’ on the other hand through conscious attention to form and rule learning.”

“The input hypothesis is that acquisition occurs when one is exposed to language that is comprehensible and that contains i + 1.  The ‘i’ represents the level of language already acquired, and the ‘+1″ is a metaphor for language (words, grammatical forms, aspects of pronunciation) that is just a step beyond that level” (pg 6-7).

Language input in the ESL classroom is the language directed towards students in the target language.  More specifically, ESL researchers talk about “meaning-focused input”, which is the type of input that students need in order to learn.  Meaning-focused input exists under 5 conditions:

“1. Most of what the learners are listening to or reading is already familiar to them.
2. The learners are interested in the input and want to understand it.
3. Only a small proportion of the language features are unknown to the learners.  In terms of vocabularly, 95 percent to 98 percent of the running words should be within the learners’ previous knowledge, and so nly five or preferably only one or two words per hundred should be unknown to them (Hu and Nation, 2000).
4. The learners can gain some knowledge of the unknown language items through context clues and background knowledge.
5. There are large quantities of input.” (Nation, 2009:3).

Swain’s output-hypothesis was presented as a response to Krashen due to her observation in French-immersion students high listening/comprehension skills, but low speaking/writing skills.  The output hypothesis is sometimes called, “pushed” or “forced” output because part of the learning process is said to happen when a student “notices” (Lightbown, 44) their linguistic limits.

However, the 5 main points are largely the same for the output hypothesis.  What students talk about should be familiar to them, their goal should be to convey a message to another person, only a small portion of the language they use should be unfamiliar, students use other communications strategies (like miming, gesture, body language, intonation, dictionaries, input etc..) to fill in for things they are unfamiliar with and finally, they need plenty of opportunities to produce (Nation 2009:5).

In addition, Swain’s output hypothesis proposes three functions of output that cannot be provided by input.  (1) As students attempt to speak, they notice where their knowledge lacks (not just the teacher). (2) As students attempt to formulate grammatically accurate sentences, they have to formulate hypothesizes about the language they are going to use.  And (3) As students formulate and test hypothesizes about the target language, they provide opportunities for meta-linguistic observation and discussion.  Meaning, when your student is learning the simple past-tense, and they apply ‘-ed’ to ‘fly’ and get ‘flied’, this gives you and your students a chance to talk about language and not just through language (Nation,2009:5-7).

It can seem like they really are just two-sides of the same coin, but there are advocates who would push against the other.  Krashen, for example, would see “the 20/80” experience as a very flawed methodology indeed.  But that’s what this is all about, learning (and making myself feel like I am doing something, or contributing something to this little school).

Next post, the Exploratory data.


Krashen, Stephen D (1991).  “The Input Hypothesis: An Update”.  Linguistics and Language Pedagogy:  The State of the Art.  ed. James E. Alatis. Georgetown University Press.

Lightbown, Patsy M. and Nina Spada (2006).  How Languages are Learned.  Oxford University Press.

Nation, I.S.P. and Jonathan Newton (2009).  Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking.  Routledge, New York.

Pinker, Steven and Paul Bloom (1995).  “Natural language and Natural Selection”.  The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.  ed.  Jerome H. Barkow et al.  Oxford University Press.

Swain, Merrill (2000).  “The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue”.  Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning.  ed. James E. Lantolf.  Oxford University Press.