On a teachers’ discussion group, the question recently came up:

Any suggestions for teaching numbers up to 100? I know they can naturally come up in stories…but I feel like it doesn’t happen often enough and doesn’t regularly cover every “ten.” Or should I just do more of it?!

The post garnered a number of very reasonable, very nice answers. Sing a numbers song. Use a listen-and-draw where kids have to draw a certain number of things. All very nice, fairly traditional activities. So they must be “proven” things to do that really work, right?

Um…who knows?

Seriously, who knows? Because who is going to test the ability of a kid to pop out the correct number without counting up or down, or singing a song in his head, after doing these exercises? That’s right, nobody. Because I don’t think anyone really believes that the kids — ALL the kids, which is our goal, remember — can do that after doing these exercises. And that’s what acquisition isbeing able to unconsciously and correctly use language. Not “manage to remember it”, even using a snazzy mnemonic like a catchy song.

Acquiring language takes time. Acquiring language takes repetition. And so far, the best  classroom way we’ve found to provide the repetition it takes is through repetition in unpredictable contexts that are meaningful. A song is catchy, and it’s useful for recall, but not as useful for acquisition, because that’s not how the brain acquires language. It’s like repeating the same thing over and over. It helps, but… Sure, we can take bits and pieces we’ve retained from song lyrics and substitute them into language we have in our heads — given the time to do so. It’s easier to do that with a single word from a song where it’s “obvious” where that word is and what it means, than it is to do it by finally running up to the right number and isolating that to use. Try it yourself. Let’s say you’re trying to remember the word “love” in English and your teacher had you listen to the Beatles “All You Need Is Love”. Will it be easier to find that word in that song, or find the word 14 in a counting song?

So, sure. Play the songs. There’s no harm. They will get something from it, and it’s possible that the “external forces” will check some of their checkboxes, too. But do not expect that kids will acquire numbers from the song, any more than they would from using rules. I can painfully construct the French numbers 1-100 but there’s a lot of that looking-up-while-remembering stuff going on. In Chinese, on the other hand, I can pop out any number I want without thinking. Acquired versus not-yet-acquired-and-still-relying-on-rules.

Another piece of conventional wisdom is to have kids do math problems. But doing math in a not-your-strongest-language is just not natural. The only time that usually happens is people who grow up speaking a minority language and then are educated in a majority one. They will probably never had even talked about multiplication in the home language, if everyone was educated in the majority language. But asking kids to do math in the second language “as a way to learn the numbers” is output, and it’s translation. Kind of like the way the STEM teachers had no idea that the kids, doing an abacus competition, would do the math in English then just run to set the beads in the right positions to show the answer on the abacus. Just as we need to respect the ways by which the brain acquires language, we also need to understand the unspoken norms that govern the use of language. This is the same sort of reason why it’s unreasonable to expect two novices to speak the target language together for any extended period of time or about anything other than specifically stuff they know — people always default to the strongest shared language, because in real life, meaning is king.

I’m not  criticizing teachers for suggesting songs and exercises. I’ve done plenty of them in my life. What I am saying is that let’s not forget what really drive acquisition — comprehensible input — and what drives it fastest in the classroom in my experience — presenting comprehensible input that’s interesting and unpredictable, and doing it in a dense manner, i.e., with repetition. Also known as “targeting”. Which means that we need to consider what we’re doing, how much  class time it takes, and what result it will give, and balance those things given our particular classroom situation.

Does it require planning? Sure it does. You have to consciously put numbers into stories. You have to consciously do “product placement” to get those sets of words (clothing, months, days of the week, emotions, holidays, foods, etc.) into stories. But it is not rocket science. It’s just taking a list and checking it more than twice — keeping track of what’s been done and what hasn’t. There are all sorts of software solutions that will help with that. Some teachers are gifted to be able to remember exactly what language their kids have had or haven’t had — many others are not. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do something that works, just because it requires a little planning.

So the teacher who posted that question already had it right, IMO. Often we think we are not teaching “creatively” if we are “only” providing CI in the form of compelling stories or conversation. We see all the “other teachers” with stuff stuck on the walls, worksheets, songs blaring out of the classroom. Those can all be good things, as long as we don’t forget that the main driver of acquisition for spoken language is rich comprehensible spoken language. No song, activity or worksheet can equal it. So while “other” activities might make the teacher feel better, the question would be: how is this making the kids feel in terms of their language progress, not just ‘having fun’?

Many times, going to “other activities” is done in an effort to convince kids they are actually learning something. I don’t know of any other school subject that does that. The gym teacher doesn’t provide “other activities” to keep me convinced I’m getting better at basketball when what I need is more practice. Why should language teachers feel compelled to do so, when what is really needed is more optimized classroom-friendly input?