Moving From PQA Into StoryThe process:
We take the three structures presented in the story script we are using and we do Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA) with them for reps and to personalize them so that they are interesting to the kids. We sometimes have fun just doing the PQA and never arrive at the story. That is fine. Sometimes, we feel the story calling us and we curtail the PQA. There is no set way.
During the PQA, I ask three students to count how many times I say each of the three structures. Those students are called PQA counters. In the same way that the story writer, the quiz writer and the artist serve to further the story, PQA counters further the PQA. Just the fact that they are sitting there counting reps has an effect on the quality of what is going on in the room.
I try to remember that the structures are the real target of the lesson. My success depends on remembering that one thing. I remember that the PQA and story are merely a delivery device for the structures, and not vice versa, and so I make sure that at least one target structure is included in each thing I say.
When I do the PQA, I always try to remember to take the first bit of information from a student that lends itself to being bent into something weird and I go with it. If I myself try to bend the information into something weird, it is not funny because I am the teacher. That takes a lot of pressure off of me.
My job in PQA, therefore, is to get the reps and to do the personalization work via the circled questions and to be aware when it is time to jump into the script.
I indicate to my students that the PQA is over and that a story is starting by a) erasing the board of anything written on the board up to that point, and by b) standing up an actor. Those two things signal to the class that a story is starting.
To repeat, once we have reached the point where something weird or meaningful has happened about a certain student in the PQA that reflects the awaiting story script, we know that we have found a possible pathway from the PQA into the story, and so that moment would be a good one to try to start a story.
If the kids are doing their job of supplying cute answers, and if I am doing my job of circling creative questions, that moment usually works to connect the PQA to the story. However, it is most important to understand that there is often no such link between PQA and a story.
We can be very successful without having a link in themes and personalities between the PQA and a story. Most of the time, moving into a story is simply a matter of stopping the PQA (it may be boring, the words we are working with may not lend themselves to PQA, etc.), and simply starting the story.
What counts is that the kids hear the target structures repeated many times in varied and interesting ways before the story begins. That is the main thing.
I used to think that I could just create a story from an interesting image or an idea that came up during the PQA, eschewing the actual written story script. I thought a good PQA session had enough power to create a story on its own, with no scripts.
But now I have tempered that enthusiasm. Story scripts like those written by Anne Matava are, in my opinion, de rigueur. We need the scripts. General PQA is just fine, but once we begin working with specific target structures that are connected to a specific story script, we need to use that story.
To explain this further using an analogy, a rebar (short for reinforcing bar) is a steel bar used in reinforced concrete structures to hold the concrete together. In that way, three rebar rods in a piece of concrete would be like the three structures we use to hold stories together.
Now, we could use cheap rebar – insufficiently repeated structures before moving into the story – or we could use carbon based or even cast iron rebar – heavily repeated, highly personalized structures presented for a long time before the story is begun.
I know that if I repeat each structure over 100 times on Monday in interesting and meaningful, perhaps even compelling, ways, then the story will be, as it were, made of tempered, fired, very strong steel. Monday PQA, the way I do it personally to get more reps, leads to two days of a story on T/W.
I have seen this over and over since I started with this approach twelve years ago. Not only are the stories stronger when we get the high quality carbon rebar (lots of reps on the structures), but also I have definitely noticed that kids absent on Monday are pretty much out of it on Tuesday. That says a lot.
The fewer the new words (the rocks in the concrete that the rebar/structures are holding together), and the more the focus of the PQA is on the structures, the easier will it be for our students to be able to focus on the meaning of the story.
We focus on the building and not on the rocks that make it up, and we need the rebar to be strong so that the building/story can be strong.
This is in keeping with what Dr. Krashen says is the way we learn languages – the process should be largely an effortless, fully unconscious process that focuses on the message and not on the medium for its delivery. All that is required is that the language be presented in a way that the learner not feel anxious and that the content be interesting.
The output will come later. It is absolutely true that we learn languages by absorbing them unconsciously, without analysis, over years. We build the language in our deeper minds, selecting what to keep and what to throw out, when we sleep at night after hearing the language during the day. The more quality input early, the more quality output later, and the faster it happens.
We are not in charge of the process. Learning all the rules of a language with our conscious mind is impossible. So we let the unconscious faculty do it. It is folly to force output too early, and if you plan on doing that in your own classroom with first and second year students, then you are attending the wrong conference.
We must continue in our CI instruction to put our students’ auditory and reading focus on the forest and not on the individual trees – that should be our principal interest as teachers who use comprehension based instruction.
Comprehensible input is a natural process. The conscious decoding of individual words is not necessary – in fact it works against everything. The meaning of the individual words can only become clear within a context of chunks of sound, not of individual words. The beauty is in the larger thing, the grove, the forest, the building, the story, its meaning.
The target structures, the rebar rods, thus play a role of supreme importance in comprehension based instruction. They create a situation in which the power of the deeper mind is allowed to decode the message without pathetic interference from the conscious mind.
The floor of the building under construction is analogous to a semester or year of teaching using comprehensible input; it will easily hold more than fifty rods of rebar. Each day we add a one square foot section of flooring. Perhaps the better analogy is to the walls of a building, and each day is like a cinder block – that also needs rebar. You couldn’t put 50 rods into a one-foot section of wall.
The building, thus constructed out of L2 in what must be stressed is an unconscious process, is strong, much stronger than buildings constructed from worksheets and the frequent use of L1 in class, which only serves to confuse the learner’s brain because it doesn’t know which language to focus on in class.
When the students are sitting there listening to PQA, it is like they are watching a still picture that we are adding details to. In PQA there is not a lot of cohesive action, where actual scenes unravel in our students’ minds. Everything is kind of static in PQA – the experience is like taking our students to a museum and showing them different non-moving objects.
When we do decide, usually on the spur of the moment there in the museum, to develop the PQA into little scenes, which I personally call “extending” PQA, we usually don’t extend it very far. Because if we do that (extend it very far), we find ourselves suddenly in a story.
Anyway, usually that kind of extending PQA into a story doesn’t work bc the story, being an extension of random CI (PQA), lacks pre-planned/targeted structures, and, for me at least, I don’t like to do stories that don’t have structures that I have gotten a lot of reps on first (they don’t work as well).
Compare this walking around the museum, with little extended scenes or not going on in there, with real stories, which is like leaving the museum and walking down the street with our classes to watch a real movie. The students now have a deeper, more compelling, set of images to relate to.
In the movie venue, facts and static images are replaced by action. The students want to know what is going to happen. This is big step. It is a whole new kind of comprehensible input, one that is more alive, one that has the potential to bring much greater interest. You know you are in this newer kind of CI when the students sit there and clearly could care less about anything except what happens next.
Sometimes, classes have ended and the kids don’t want to get kicked out of the movie theatre, as they were sitting there wanting to know what was going to happen next and realized that they had to go to their next class. That pisses them off and, when they walk out pissed, we know we have been doing good CI.
They sometimes start arguing among themselves about how that story would have ended if we had had the time to finish it. When we see them wanting to know what happens next, we learn something about this method that can’t be put into words.
Sometimes classes – the really good ones – actually rebel against too many details that I establish while circling a story into existence. They tell me that they really want to get some action going on, with less character description and details like that. They are so right to complain!
They want to see less trees and more forest! We should learn how to drive a story forward “through the trees” to an end point without sacrificing comprehensible input.
For me that means finding an entry path into a forest (the story) and following it through to the other side without getting distracted by too many details (trees). This finding an entry path is the challenge in learning how and when to move into a story from PQA.
Finding the entry path into the story is a big topic. It depends on what was said and which certain students got involved in the PQA and how and when and even if that information carries the potential to be married to the story which is waiting to become personalized (therefore real to the kids) on the stage of the classroom, as it were.
Yet I don’t like to be in a hurry with the PQA, because not enough PQA will make the story weak bc not enough reps were there to build a solid foundation for the story. This is an often forgotten main function of PQA – to get reps on the target structures so that the waiting story can be strong and interesting.
Some classes, anxious to get on to the story, have actually come up with a sign for “Speed Up!” to signal me when I fall into “the pit filled with the trees”. It is a whirling motion with a finger in the air. It is their message for me to move from details (PQA) to action (story).
So, as always, my students are my teachers, telling me to dump the details and get on with the story!
Of course, any comprehensible input is effective, but this flowing from the right amount of PQA into a story, at the right time, is something that we just have to get a lot of practice on. Going from Step 1 to Step 2 of TPRS is quite an adventure!
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