Someone asked me and Tina in an email how we are different from TPRS. Here is what we wrote back:
It’s a messy business, but the fact is that Tina and I agree that since we made the shift away from TPRS, we are both much happier in our work. We are not saying this should be true for everyone – indeed, it is not true for everyone, but it is true for us.
In January of 2016 we – in quite serendipitous fashion – uncovered a system of teaching languages that we feel is very much more specific than TPRS, much less haphazard and therefore much easier to do, and which more closely aligns with the soul of the research. In short, what we are doing is based on making images and not instructing from a list of words connected to a “curriculum”.
To us the curriculum is the language and so everything we do is almost entirely based on the Three Modes of Communication of ACTFL, especially the Interpersonal Skill, which comprises 65% of our assessment process.
No divisiveness is intended by the rather strong tone expressed below. How else is one to express one’s ideas but to say them out loud, especially when one has tried something and found that it didn’t work for them? The text below provides an honest expression of how we differ from TPRS.
Hit List of 25
I have dropped the following things from traditional TPRS – weights around my ankles for more than 15 years:
2. massed reps (of targets)
3. heavy circling – when I circled kids questions like if a student was in Vermont or Virginia I would very often get an automatic, almost predictable eye roll. The students would shift their body weight and give me an uncomfortable, forced response. The student and I would look at each other and the class would look at us and we all knew that the question was lame, lame, lame. And I would keep up my fake smile going like I was enjoying it but inside I wanted to scream. I hated the heavy kind of circling they advocate at the conferences to where they spend like half a day – or more – practicing it.
4. reading up*
5. PQA – it didn’t take long for the kids to see that I was asking them personalized questions merely in order to try to teach them a structure.
6. establishing meaning (this is not necessary if we are teaching slowly enough and the context is interesting). What I mean here by “establishing meaning” is the practice of saying what words mean before starting the story, because of course in truth we are always establishing meaning as we go along through the story. We are not teaching individual words – we are teaching the language as a whole. The brain does better with that.
7. having kids supply cute answers (puts stress on them, is linked to privilege bc it favors the louder, bolder, and more socially gifted students, and thus divides the classroom into the haves and the have nots). When are we going to stop doing that in America?
8. gesturing as a group (because we forget to do it half the time) so that now I just do light gesturing. (I think of gesturing as a kind of embedded form of TPR during a story but is not a separate activity like TPR.)
9. lengthy undisciplined stories that last more than 25 minutes long. Once the kids know that in class they won’t get to know what happens in that class period they tune it all out and by springtime they are all the way tuned out on stories. Short 25-35 min. stories that actually have an ending are necessary. The students need for the story to end that class period.
10. all the planning. I needed to stop doing too much work for too little money. We should all have a long look at our paychecks and think about doing all that in terms of how much we plan. For what? Our students need 10,000 hours of input to gain command over the language, and we have 125 hours X 4 years in a four year program, and that gives us 1/20 of the time we need to get to those 10,000. I guess we could work ourselves into a burnout if we want. But I won’t. Besides, as soon as we get one principal impressed, they leave and we have to crank up the dog and pony show all over again when the next upwardly mobile bozo shows up for his – why is it always a man who knows nothing about SLA? – two to three year stint making us nervous. Nontargeted CI is about very little planning. It therefore greatly reduces stress and that enhances our mental health right at a time when mental health issues are, like really big spiders with really big spider webs, taking over our profession and turning it into a dark forest, wrapping teachers up in big cocoons, taking all the fun out of life.
11. using celebrities. I don’t know or care who they are, and many of my kid don’t either. Who is Justin Bieber drinking Cheerwine on the beach with? Why is Lady Gaga surfing in Chicago with the principal of my building? Who cares? They are kids! They only care about themselves! And I don’t want a section of the class – the kids who know the celebrities – running the class again. Why not we make our own characters up? It’s much more fun!
12. feeling as if I had to do a story even when I wasn’t having the best day. I always felt pressure to do stories even when I didn’t want to. Now I can work with an image, I can have them read, I can play the Word Chunk Team Game. I got options!
13. trying to finish a story that was too long. Long stories only stay long bc of the few kids of privilege who turn the class into THEIR class bc they have the social skills, learned them at home where the other kids didn’t because of poverty. No more split classes along economic and racial lines. Done with that. NOW we can make equity happen in our classrooms. Now we can reach them all, because everyone can learn a foreign language. We need to quit making a second language only for the few. Now we know how to do it! Piedad Gutierrez has said on the subject of stories that drag out too long: “Very early on we were trained (at the national conferences) that the stories were not important, the content was not important, we were supposed to be doing reps of targets. But the students cared a lot about the stories, because they were invested. The stories were theirs not ours. So I learned to follow the students and finish the stories. The 30 minutes has worked magically for me.”
14. not having a safe set of golden rails for my CI train to go down. Not feeling safe when I’m teaching, like my instruction could go off the rails at anytime. Screw that. I need safety. I was too scared just being in school buildings for all those years. I needed for that to stop. NTCI did that for me. I’m not saying what is best for others here.
15. dominance of the classroom by the few bc of the targeting of lists (high frequency lists, thematic unit word lists, semantic set lists, lists of words taken from chapters in novels for backwards planning, TPR lists.
16. being cute. I can’t be cute anymore. I got too many lines in my face now as I try to embrace what it means to get old after spending almost 40 years in a classroom, which is a very cool process especially knowing that there are people like Tina and Kesha Wise and and all y’all in the world, riding waves, hanging ten, doing it differently, doing it your way. There is nothing in the research on CI that indicates that cuteness is a requisite ingredient of good foreign language teaching. An example is cuing of any kind, like the “Oh no oh no oh me oh my!” thing. I’m even thinking of giving up the Mais bleater. When we cue them, it is like controlling them. That’s not what I want to do. I want to let interesting input drive the class, not the lion tamer thing. Each student will respond in their own way, how they would in a free and open conversation. We need to learn to respect our students, stop treating them like idiots and measuring their process so much. We need to be better. They don’t. Doing that will pack our fourth and fifth year programs with students bc they will actually want to be there.
17. cuing kids to do the “Ohhhh!” move. Some of the kids have no idea what they are “Ohhhing” about anyway, but, more importantly, we are taking away the right of the kid to listen in a quiet and relaxed and focused way and turning them into a kind of performing animal, lions in cages. It’s manipulation and distracts their focus and wears the hell out of us.
18. making the kids create a six panel drawing of a story when they are only in level 1. I think that this is too much for them. Rather, I advocate level 1 classes making two panels (problem and solution), level 2 can do 4 panels on their drawing, level 3 can do the six panels, and level 4 can maybe do 8 panels. No rules. You do it the way you want.
19. high frequency word lists. If a word happens in our instruction, it is probably high frequency, since our students are beginners. The entire HF list thing is just old, for me. I’m not saying it doesn’t work for others. It doesn’t work for me. It makes me nervous as to whether I taught something to children who largely don’t care. That is a formula for mental stress.
20. I don’t do TPR as a class activity any more. I do light TPR in stories. TPR always seemed artificial and kind of lame to me. Like circling and gesturing, it brings up that conscious learning factor in the moments of comprehension, which removes the flow of focus only on meaning. I make instructional decisions very much on intuition and process, and circling and gesturing and now TPR, in my opinion, should be done lightly during instruction, and only lightly, so that the supremely important focus on meaning – which alone drives acquisition – can be uninterrupted and unfettered. I see no pressing need to teach certain “super” verbs early on in the first year. Isolated language is not as powerful as language in context, and so the authors advocate less time spent on isolated TPR of words early on in level one in favor of more and earlier stories. The students will learn the verbs better and faster in context, in my opinion. TPR is really good, but stories are better in my view. Both are excellent. There are no rules or truths in this work – we just need to find a way to find those techniques that work FOR US as “individual teaching artists”, a wonderful term first coined by Spanish Teacher Moco Loco Thompson in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1997. We each get to do what we each want to do to make ourselves understood in our classrooms in the ways that we feels is best for our own mental health. There are no experts – there are just different ways up the mountain.
21. the teacher trying to be the dynamic, in-charge lion tamer with star quality instead of being self-effacing, listening to her students carefully, and rolling with whatever direction the conversation goes. This model of a teacher who uses comprehensible input is not in line with Krashen, Vygotsky, etc. The very image of a lion-tamer super star ball of energy entertainer making kids laugh is just not what teachers can do all day. That image, packaged and sold at conferences by dynamic TPRS presenters, has had a strong deleterious effect on people new to CI for a long time now and the image must change.
22. I’m also not doing what Blaine calls “breakdown”. What is breakdown? According to Blaine, breakdown is when the student either answers the question with confidence or hesitation and when their answer shows hesitation that is called breakdown. And then when we see that Blaine says that we “need to practice the sentence more”**. But do we break down when learning our first language? Looking for breakdown is like hammering the input in one nail at a time when no nails are needed, just waves and waves of pleasant comprehensible input (easy on the student and the teacher both) and some goes in and some doesn’t and then when the students sleep the process of parsing out some words – as ready to be accepted into the growing language system or not – happens. The process is under our unconscious command and so why “practice” it? Why look for things that the kids can’t do? Doing that activates conscious thinking and the affective filter and that is not how the research says it happens.
23. This tags on #22 above. Are actors that talk, repeating after the teacher, all that necessary? Don’t we have enough to do? The amount of speech practice that actors get in a story when we ask them to repeat after us is negligible. Unimportant. Don’t need to do it. Sean Lawler’s style of no drama, no actors showing off, no big effort to get any output, lulling them into a dream like he did w the Matava script in that video from three weeks ago here, is far more effective in my opinion. That said, there is one thing that having the kids speak during a story does, and it is a very good thing if done in a certain way, the way I saw Tina do it countless times over this past summer in workshops. What Tina does is “lock up” emotionally with the actor and make a game of the dialogue. What does “locking up” like this mean? To me it means that when you engage the actor in speech, you don’t go for language correctness, correct point of view, SV agreement, etc. or when you ask them to repeat after you mechanically, while you judge how well the kid did. Rather, you get a kind of smile on your face that invites them to play, to want to repeat the sentence histrionically, for the purpose of laughing***. In this endeavor you always have the director’s cues that are so useful at the most unexpected times in the wall space above the board. In Atlanta once Tina had 150 teachers laughing their asses off and no one new why. I was sitting in the back and couldn’t figure it out. It was something in the repeating, the way she was engaging them beyond the mind level, at the play level, that was just funny.
24. I think that it is wrong to ask new teachers to “dive right in” to stories. The day you create your first story with your class is a day that requires more of you in terms of energy and goodwill than any other. Build community first, and don’t start stories until you are ready, possibly as long as 8 to 10 weeks into the school year. See the new Cycles of Instruction book for more on how to fill those ten weeks.
25. Offered by Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg (italics):
I see the primacy of the Physical Presence/Voice & Vibes as transcending any kind of input, targeted or not. I am training a faculty of newbies so I have lots of observations that run the gamut fresh in my mind. The ‘trato’ – the relational dynamics, characterized by the extra-linguistic skills – are the cornerstone to comprehension, engagement and maintaining attention…Classical TPRS is so loaded with teacher “to-do’s” that it’s hard for the (esp newbie!) to have the mental space to focus on the essential extra-linguistic skills…They need to be front and center!!
This discussion just proves that we are all different and that there is no one way to teach stories using comprehensible input. When I asked kids questions like if a student was in Vermont or Virginia I would get almost an automatic eye roll, shifted body wait and an uncomfortable response. The student and I would look at each other and the class would look at us and we all knew that the question was lame. And I would keep up my fake smile like I was enjoying it but inside I wanted to scream.
*Reading up is where the teachers hand the kids books that they can’t read. When it is in the form of a novel that the class reads together, it is especially onerous to the students who come from less privileged backgrounds. Now Tina and I just do Free Choice Reading to start class for ten minutes. The kids read what they want from a pile of books on a table. The feeling for over the half of the kids when we do class novels is like standing under a cherry tree and being told to jump up to get the cherries. Some can’t jump as high as others. This reduces equity and inclusion in the classroom and divides the class. THAT pisses me off. It is the teacher’s job to pull the branch down so that all the kids can easily do the classroom assignments and thus make it effortless for them, because that is what the research says how we acquire languages – when it is literally effortless. So I say we need to implement more “reading down” in our classes – more collecting like only three chapter books of different VERY LOW LEVEL titles or better yet making our own from our own class stories – they collect fast over the years to make our own personalized libraries. One way to do that is to follow the Mike Peto Reading Wagon down the street.
**for the full article: http://www.mena.northwestern.edu/documents/TPRS-workshop-handout.pdf
***teaching for laughter keeps kids our of their conscious minds. Teaching for correct verb structuring keeps them in their conscious minds. The one aligns with the research, the other not.
This has turned into a long ramble but what the hell. Here is some more rambling, this below on the problem with targeting words in a CI classroom:
Tina has said and I fully appreciate and support her point:
… now I just assume that if they do not get 100% of what I am saying, I am OK with that as long as they are getting the overall message….
This is 100% supported by the research. Krashen and his (35 years of pure) research tell us that we want to establish in our students’ minds the illusion of comprehending the language while their focus is ON UNDERSTANDING THE MESSAGE, not the words. Why?
Because the mind can only focus on one thing at a time, either the message or the words. This is why Tina and I started the FB CI Liftoff site and why we wrote those last two books in what will become a “Natural Approach” trilogy* – all to support this simple idea.
WE WANT THEM FOCUSED ON THE MESSAGE AND NOT THE WORDS**. This creates the “din”. For more search “Krashen Din”.
The tragedy, and that is not too strong a word, is that so many teachers who are interested in CI try to teach the language instead of the message. They focus on certain verbs, certain words, certain verb tenses. No blame. They are teachers so they think they must teach. But all this is not that difficult, not really. WE make it complicated. All we need to do is speak the language to our students so that they understand and enjoy. Testing (“weighing the pig doesn’t make it grow any faster” as Blaine likes to say) is not necessary. We don’t need to fret so much on the “what” but rather just focus on sharing ideas w the kids and THEY WILL ACQUIRE better and do so faster when we do it that way.
*The books are:
A Natural Approach to Stories
A Natural Approach to the Year
A Natural Approach to CALP (ready in 2019)
(hard copies from Teacher’s Discovery; e-versions from this site) http://www.benslavic.com/tprs-ebooks.html
**the argument by the TPRS Old Guard is that the teacher first establishes meaning of the “target words” for the lesson that day from a list somewhere (a semantic set, a high frequency list of words, words necessary to read a chapter in a chapter book, etc.), then uses PQA to teach them (which is very hard for the teacher and mostly boring for the kids and a fatal flaw, actually THE fatal flaw in TPRS, for which I am partially responsible for writing PQA in a Wink! in 2007. We don’t need PQA to teach words from a list, from a textbook. The research demands that we do not target. The research requires that we merely create the “din”. The price we pay when we target is critical loss of interest.
Filed Under: A Natural Approach to Stories (Teacher’s Discovery), Hit List, Nontargeted