TPRS teachers, in spite of their high intentions to align with Dr. Krashen’s theories, conduct many of their classes in ways that activate and engage the conscious minds of their students. Since this is what school is largely all about, this is not a surprise.
If it is true that TPRS teachers are largely unable to instruct their classes by appealing to and activating the unconscious minds of the learners, getting them fully focused on the message and not on the form of the language, which is merely the vehicle for communication, then that explains some of the huge competition and conflict that has cropped up over the years between traditional teachers and TPRS teachers.
Too many TPRS teachers think that they are doing TPRS in the way it was originally intended, but they are not. Then traditional teachers see this and rightly claim that TPRS has no business in their school buildings, since it is ineffective and polarizing when done improperly.
The TPRS teachers themselves then get disillusioned. Not wanting to go back to the traditional model, which has no basis in any research, many potentially rock star teachers end up leaving the profession after a great deal of personal stress. Unless we do TPRS in the way Blaine Ray intended, we will only be part of the further downgrading of the art of teaching using comprehensible input.
Since, as stated, languages are learned unconsciously (Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis in which the attention of the learner remains focused on the message and not the language), we must call for the end of five things in TPRS that wrongly engage the conscious faculty of the students and therefore need to be thrown out.
The first thing to throw out of TPRS are traditional Scope and Sequence documents (lists) and the idea of lesson planning in general. The Scope and Sequence is the language itself, which cannot be broken down into parts any more than this sentence can be broken down into parts and still make sense.
Claire Ensor wrote recently:
…the scope and sequence of a foreign or second language classroom should focus on the metacognitive and cognitive processes to acquire language, not just what words and structures are created. If you look at Common Core’s strands, you can see a movement in our country away from the content “what we’re teaching” towards the cognitive processes used for comprehension….
Notice that Claire makes this statement to include English as a Second Language education and not just World Language education.
What research supports this recommendation? Krashen’s Monitor Hypothesis states that when language is studied in terms of consciously learning and memorizing rules, a conscious monitoring function kicks in that tries to edit and correct the form of the language, which, as we state yet again, is not how we acquire languages. We should study grammar/focus on form only after we acquire the language, if we want, but to study the form of a language before we actually know it doesn’t make any sense.
Also supporting this recommendation of throwing out Scope and Sequence and lesson plans in general is Krashen’s Natural Order Hypothesis, which states that language acquisition is a process that can’t be planned, whose acquisition follows a natural order that occurs far out of the reach of what can be grasped through conscious reasoning and is based on generating interest more than planning anything. The Natural Order Hypothesis rejects grammatical sequencing when the goal is language acquisition, so we need to throw out traditional Scope and Sequence documents in favor of something new.
The second thing to throw out of TPRS is the practice of Circling. Circling is one of the reasons TPRS has such a dismal track record in our nation’s classrooms, to the point that the term TPRS has been replaced now with the more generalized term of Teaching with Comprehensible Input (TCI).
As soon as the teacher tries to circle mechanically, the natural flow of language is interrupted and an artificial one takes its place, removing from the equation the core of the reciprocal, back and forth, serendipitous and beautiful free flow of authentic human communication. Circling as it is practiced in many TPRS classrooms makes things robotic and is not natural and therefore does not support genuine human conversation.
What research supports this recommendation? Krashen’s Acquisition-Learning hypothesis states that learning a language requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are not focused on the form of their utterances, but on the act of actual communication.
Students who are taught with circling quickly become very good predictors of the next sentence, which process engages/requires conscious thinking and a focus on form, and the act of actual communication becomes less important than the act of circling.
This is not to imply that we don’t need to repeat our questions; of course we do. But we can’t repeat them mechanically. The term circling does not describe what we must do – communicate real things with our students – and has confused a very large numbers of teachers new to the method.
A better description of what we must do to get extra repetitions on a particular structure would be to just tell the teacher to repeat the question in any way that puts communication first and the language second. In this model, the next question is not the next question on the circling chart, but the next interesting question, the one that elevates the mood in the classroom to one of fun and lightheartedness.
The third thing to throw out of TPRS is the Step 1 activity of PQA. PQA for most teachers puts far too much pressure on them. Questions in PQA often take the discussion into areas that, because they are personal, cause everyone in the classroom (both the teacher and the student) to become uncomfortable. PQA is just too nerve-wracking for teachers and students and favors only certain students, those with high motivation, self-confidence, and a good self-image. As per Krashen’s Affective Filter hypothesis, learners with a high level of anxiety (most kids in schools) are not equipped for success with PQA.
Among all of Krashen’s ideas, the Affective Filter hypothesis has had the greatest impact on my own view of what teaching using comprehensible input can be. When actual human communication is present, students become alive and the classroom takes on a three dimensional feel that really is a lot of fun to be in. Students who shut down emotionally cannot learn the language. They start to resemble cardboard cutouts of people in TPRS classes.
PQA in TPRS never found its potential because the very nature of schools these days is to foster mistrust, memorization, and the gathering of data as more important than the student. This dehumanization which is so rampant in our schools spelled the end of the great potential of PQA. PQA failed because few students in schools are able to go beyond the only model for being a student they have ever known, that of robot memorizer.
The fourth thing to throw out of TPRS is the other part of Step 1, the short first part where we establish meaning and reinforce it by creating signs and gestures to help us remember them. Those things are no longer necessary. If the content is interesting, it is not necessary to establish meaning. And, although it is impressive to start a class when one is being observed with gesturing, it rarely helps in the actual creation of the story, and we can’t TPR our way to fluency. This is not to mention that most TPRS teachers forget to gesture during the story in the first place.
The fifth thing to throw out of TPRS is the targeting of structures. Krashen has written about the advantage of free flowing, non-targeted conversation in TPRS classes. The topic is far too big to go into here. Suffice to say that in my own personal CI practice I have found a new freedom and much higher quality of CI instruction lately and all I had to do was throw out Step 1 and start the class without targets, that is to say, with Step 2. Lesson plans aren’t necessary – we don’t need a plan. What we do need is something that is really interesting to children.
(I now start classes with imaginary creatures created by my students. They are called Invisibles, and they bring such a high degree of compelling interest to the classroom that circling, PQA, establishing meaning, gesturing and targeting structures are just not necessary, let alone a Scope and Sequence chart.)
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