In Defense of the Three Steps – Lengthy Ramble

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36 thoughts on “In Defense of the Three Steps – Lengthy Ramble”

  1. Simple, narrow and deep, the bigness if it all. All the words. My affective filter was rising as I was reading that list. I am more effective in the classroom when I follow the less is more model. Everything you said in your ramble has been my experience. I will keep a copy of this epic post under my blotter at school in an effort to keep myself grounded to what is possible.

  2. I’m honored you’d dedicate a ramble to refuting my ideas. haha. But they’re only that. Ideas. You and others on this PLC have much more years experience with TCI, so that has shown you more truths to this work. I’m searching. And yes, I like to challenge everything. haha.

    I totally agree that language is too big, especially to teach it to unmotivated students forced to be in a language class and being graded.

    I do think stories can be just as simple, slow, in-bounds, use same student jobs, and be personalized and customized as our PQA. Especially, when you think of what we do in PQA as Extended PQA or mini, 1-structure stories.

    Want to hear another thought I’ve had? The 3 steps may be better if reversed. Listening is harder than listening combined with reading. Doing the visual with the auditory as the first step may help students segment the sounds into words. The PQA that could happen in the last step, after all the reps from reading and a tightly targeted story, could be glorious 🙂

    One more thought: how many of us have tried a semi-targeted approach and were able to maintain high comprehensibility and be compelling for a year-long course? With newer TCI methods, such as MovieTalk and L&D, the power of the visual to stay comprehensible and compelling just made things easier on us teachers. This would truly be a “Teach for June” approach, but if we used every 45-60 minute period to deliver non-targeted CI, then I think it’s possible the students are getting “sufficient CI” to acquire under these more “natural” conditions.

    By the way, YouTube Paul Nation’s talk “Is it Possible to Learn Enough Vocabulary from Extensive Reading?” and you’ll hear him base his entire case on 12 reps being sufficient for acquisition!!! From minute 6:56 – “Fairly arbitrarily, but with a little research support, I decided that 12 repetitions would be a reasonable number.” And he mentions Norbert Schmitt’s PhD student who is observing that 7 reps is enough. I don’t know about you, but 7-12 reps sounds like crazy talk.

    1. There’s no magic number for reps. If motivation and interest are high, once may be enough. Students that hear someone say that “shit” means “merde” will remember it forever after, I guarantee you. I tend to agree that, normally motivated students in a fairly interesting context might find 12 reps enough to remember a word, but it would have to be reinforced the next day and the next month and the next semester for it to be truly acquired.

      It seems to me that PQA is another way of saying Conversation. If I’m having a real conversation with my students about something that we all find interesting, I’m fairly certain that they are acquiring language.

    2. Reading first? Maybe if:
      – you’ve got a good foundation of sound from prior study or exposure, or
      – you’re working with an alphabetic language.

      I have actually heard of people who learned to read Chinese without any auditory work (for meaning, not to be able to read anything aloud). Do others hear the language in their head when they read silently? I do for the most part, whether English or Chinese.

  3. Isn’t the Step 2 Story just “Scripted PQA”?

    In that sense, the script helps give you the questions to ask and sometimes you just “tell” the next line in the script and circle it. That’s what I mean by stories being “easier” and “less improvised.”

    That also means that the story can be a restraint on interest or at least restrain the discussion. That’s why I promote “PQA tangents” embedded within a story and a reading – mini personalized stories within a story.

  4. Ben asked: Go look at the elementary teachers’ Forum area on this site. They aren’t talking. Is there an elementary TPRS list anywhere on the even on the internet?

    I joined a Yahoo! group for Elementary school TPRS teachers. There were very few posts, and all of them were about Spanish. I left the group after a while. I think the MoreTPRS listserv is as close as it comes for now with that age category.

    1. I’ve been away all summer -and missed all the fabulous conferences- but will start to be active on the forum under “Elementary” now that school is starting.

      I -do- think little kids learn well with TPRS.
      As young as 4 year olds, even with as little as 15 minutes/day.
      Not because kids are sponges, but because TPRS works.
      They cannot say much, but they understand. And they love it.

      1. Sometimes I wonder how much we could learn in high school with just 15 focused mins. every day. But I guess nobody wants to pay me a full time salary for that. Actually, if you think about it, we are lucky in a 50 min. class to get 15 minutes of real, focused, calm L2 input.

      2. 2 things: 1. Can TPRS be done. 2. Should it be done.

        1. Teachers are saying TPRS can work with elementary kids. In general, what type of modifications have to be made to TPRS? I’ve heard accounts before here. Any simple elementary TPRS principles?

        2. Is it worth it? Our method depends on second language acquisition being the same process as first language acquisition and those brain mechanisms being available to any age student. That said, what are the benefits starting early with TPRS?

        2 things: 1. Older is faster. 2. Elementary classes are usually shorter and less frequent. . . so does what get accomplished with little kids get made up with kids starting in middle school?

        1. I can’t lump Elementary kids together as 1st and 2nd ( 7-8 years for me) and 3rd and then 4th and 5th / 6th are all so so different. The 1st and 2nd grades need slower than slow, but exciting and interesting to them ( which isn’t interesting to us or older kids). We can take advantage of their naturally low affective filters because they want to play and imagine, but within limits. They need lots of hands on activity, moving. My 1st 2nd grade students are acting, using costumes pretending to be characters. They need to take turns and have everything be fair. Time will be taken up with kid interruptions, but you can also use these as teaching moments. You can still PQA you can still circle, you can still make SIMPLE stories, but you need patience, they teach you that if you don’t have it already. The other grade levels gain self control and can listen more but still need /like to move. Same principals apply just do it at their level.

          I personally think it’s all good. The more CI they get the more acquisition happens, their brains are their brains, their acquisition is acquisition, it’s not going anywhere, especially when the CI builds on it and continues.

        2. Thank you Martha. My observations have been similar.

          Eric, great comments. I had the same thoughts at the end of last school year.

          1. TCI works well at any age, as long as you do what Martha is describing when teaching
          the very young. Keep the expectations realistic, and accept a wide range between the
          superstar who can retell a short story, and the kids who have not acquire much.
          By the end of 3rd grade most of my students could read the first chapter of Brandon
          wants a dog, they loved French, and the culture, felt successful and wanted to learn
          more. My colleagues tell me that the CI kids moving on to 4th grade come with a small,
          but solid foundation.

          2. I have asked myself the same question: if older is faster, and little kids get so little time,
          why bother? Like you’ve asked before, Eric, “couldn’t what gets accomplished with little
          kids get made up in upper school?”
          A small private school in New York City did some research on when to start a foreign
          language and concluded that 5th grade was the optimal time. I heard it from their
          divisional head, with no further explanation on how exactly they came to that
          conclusion. They did not teach with TPRS or TCI, at what point I lost interest in their
          I think kids should start as young as possible, there is nothing to loose and we don’t
          know exactly how it affects their brain, makes them smarter? Hmmm. If taught
          with TCI where every minute counts, they will acquire (as Martha explained).
          What I questioned by the end of last school year was whether it was worth -my time- 🙂
          Because of the short attention span, we have to be well prepared and always on our
          game. There are not many bail out moves, no free writes, quiet reading and such. It is
          intensive and rarely can you stick to what you’ve planned on doing. An enormous
          amount of time goes to redirecting kids, but Martha is right, make it part of the lesson.

          I am starting today my 9th year teaching little kids. And you would think I would have
          figured it out by now …

          Thank you all.

          1. Thank you, Martha and Catharina! It’s inspiring. If others here have something to add, please share.

            I had a VERY squirrely 4th grade class last year and it was a challenge to TPRS. Then, my 3rd grade had amazing attention spans and I didn’t have to do nearly as much re-directing.

            In my situation, in which I teach grades 3-8, I’ve actually asked next year to not teach grades 3-4. 3rd grade is scheduled for 30 minutes per week and 4th grade gets 2 x 30 min/week. In this case, my preference for 5th-8th is a balance of acquisition gains with my own mental health.

          2. Those are all good reasons to reduce the time spent with younger kids. At my previous school, though, I could easily tell the difference between a 5th grader who had never learned another language and those who had (the school began at preschool with Spanish, just 15 min. 3x a week). Those with language experience jumped right in and “felt comfortable” with the ambiguity and the new sounds much more than non-learners did.

            For positives, though, I believe there is research on the benefits to brain development of acquiring another language (flexibility, processing ability that carries over to other subjects)

            I think it’s great for little kids to be exposed to languages so they know their language isn’t a monolith. There are many, many languages, and for young kids to develop the belief, through good language instruction experience as a little kid, that they are able to acquire another language is a chip in the monolingual mainstream of the USA.

            I’ve also heard many people believe it’s nearly impossible for adults (or learners after age 14) to acquire a native accent. So beginning early may give more people that opportunity, at least for one other language. (I’ve read Krashen say he thinks it’s very possible to develop a native accent but there are factors that make it less likely.)

          3. That has been my experience too Diane. They have a higher comfort level and better ability to deal with ambiguity.

            I get a lot of feedback from parents that tell me the kids correct their parents and their siblings accents!

            This week I was working with a boy I’ve had since first grade, he is in 6th now. He had written a short story about what he was going to do this summer. The other night he added to it by writing about what he did. He was reading it aloud and he sounded like me.

  5. Great conversation and a good way to go off on vacation! Ben you got my blood racing when you said we can’t do this with elementary. I don’t know why elementary teachers aren’t talking, for me the ideas here are enough food for thought. I think about them and adapt them to fit younger kids. Saying that we haven’t figured this out in elementary is just wrong. Jody taught elementary, she was, is brilliant. I am quietly doing it everyday on a small scale.

    It’s hard, young kids are not wired to sit still and listen for long, but sometimes they will and when they do it’s magical. I usually have to trick them into listening while they are doing something else. They throw my plans out the window so fast it makes my head snap and I have to change everything on the spot. It is messy. Sometimes it becomes “semi targeted” as Eric said, but I pick up the pieces and try to keep it targeted the next time. Yesterday I tried to plan my PQA but they just didn’t have the patience for it for more than a few minutes. They don’t have the self control older kids have. They begged to draw and while they were drawing. I circled the heck out of my targets and by the end of class they could answer all my questions.
    I did a horrible job when I first started this with first graders, I had no idea how to talk with them. Judy said she thinks of PQA as a conversation, with little kids the conversation is inherently different. Now after 5 years, early elementary are often my favorite classes. It is still messy but it works, if having them be in a class where they are hearing and understanding and responding to English ( their L2) 90% of the time is the goal. Eric I understand what you are saying about teaching for June throwing a big net. I have often felt like I am not able to stay as narrow with first graders as it is possible with 2nd 3rd grade and up, but if they stay long enough ( a few years or more) I can really see results, and the older, the more training they have, the easier it is to keep it narrow and deep and the easier it is to have real conversations.

      1. Eric, The list above of what public school teachers have to deal with? I don’t have to do one of those.I have total freedom. I have really small classes. 8 first graders in two groups. My biggest class is 7. I don’t often chime in because I feel like my experience is so different from most of you. I don’t talk pedagogy. I like to read you talking about it but it isn’t my language and I wasn’t trained as a teacher like most of you. I am intimidated a bit. That said, I have been teaching English for 14 years and I saw language teaching at it’s worst in public schools here in Japan, and willingly and then not so willingly participated in it for a good part of my time in public Elementary and Jr. High schools.
        Now after spending time with some of the amazing teachers on here several years ago, having Susie come twice and give workshops, but also go with me to my school and teach with me for several days each time, I know it works. But I am not held to any rigor, and I still flail around. So knowing that if you still want my input I will give my two cents but I don’t feel like I am any expert on How to, I can only tell you what I do in my situation.

          1. I think it would be helpful to a lot of people teaching younger kids. Ben is right that there isn’t a lot of specific discussion about elementary kids (this PLC is the best place I’ve found).

          2. Diane and Eric, I’ve been thinking about this the last few days. I read what Catharina said yesterday in response to a new teacher looking for advice and she is right on.

            If I were to write a How to for elementary it would be, Study the principals of TPRS as she said. The recipe for Coke as Ben sometimes calls it. Get training as he has also mentioned a gazillion times, go to workshops and conferences if you can, do it on line if you can’t, watch videos, read books read lots of blogs. Realize it takes time to learn and there will always be room for improvement .

            I realize that’s probably not what you are looking for. Susie always said “Just talk to your kids.” The only difference between teaching other levels and teaching little kids is how you talk to them. That’s the tricky part. If you have many different age levels you need to learn how to talk to kids who are in different stages of development. You either learn about that through studying child development or from hands on experience. In one day I can have ages from 5 years old to 80. It is adapt or drown. Like Catharina said about using the same materials in slightly varying ways with different ages, the same thing is true of the basics of tprs you just adapt the basics to fit the development of the students.

            I want to quote my oldest dearest friend Carol Keogh Lindsay who studies and teaches child development, and is much more articulate than I am. She says,”And ALL of education should operate adaptively. We start with solid general bases that help provide a beginning point, ( such as TPRS basic principals) then we have to adapt as we get to know our students, their skills, personalities, interests, their theories about how the world works. Then you adapt accordingly, knowing it is a constant moving ballet that morphs endlessly as they get better and change. There just isn’t a script that works because context always, endlessly changes.”
            parenthesis are mine.

            That would be my How to… the other things, the activities and games etc. are bells and whistles that work for some kids, and in some cultures, and for varying amounts of time, but it is the constant adapting the basics that for me is what makes it magic and joyful like Sean said the other day. What gets a huge belly laugh with one class can’t be repeated with another. My biggest stress comes from not being able to get to know certain kids. For whatever reasons they don’t open up, or I have been unable to find a way to connect to them on a level that creates that belly laughing kind of comfort that I have found makes a huge difference in how well we do together.

            Everything that we talk about here on this PLC, can be adapted to fit any age group. Maybe that is why there isn’t much elementary specific discussion. The groups that did ( not here) quickly became about bells and whistles, or fluff, for lack of a better term. So Ben is right that there isn’t specific discussion but maybe it’s because we are getting all the meat we need here. The better the relationship I have with my kids the less I need any fluff because the kids provide the interest themselves.

          3. Thanks for writing, Martha. I think Ben should turn it into a post.

            One thing that was hard for me teaching 4th grade for the first time was that I was a teacher first because I loved Chinese, not because I was drawn to that age group. That just happened with the need of the school. I wonder if other language teachers have the same thing happen. It would probably be easier to go from wanting to teach young kids as your starting place.

          4. Good point, Diane.

            After my first day this school year with the “infamous” 5th grade group, I realize the benefit of having them last year, even if it was just two 30 minute periods a week. The kids all knew how class worked (no norming!) and I was so happy to see kids remembering the gestures and comprehending me as I jumped into a new MovieTalk. At one point, I said to one of the kids who last year gave me attitude, “You DID pay attention last year!” haha. Maybe I’ll keep the 4th graders, even if it does wear me down a bit, and just ask to remove 3rd graders next year.

          5. Yes, I definitely definitely miss having returning groups this school year! I mean my own returning students — ones who know me and how class works. I’ve been re-norming 4 levels/classes this fall. So far so good, though.

    1. I reread what Ben wrote ( well not all of it it was so loooong!) but what started the elementary part of this thread. Ben didn’t say TPRS doesn’t work with elementary, Ben said,

      “We haven’t really figured out a way to reach younger kids in this work. There I said it. Go look at the elementary teachers’ Forum area on this site. They aren’t talking. Is there an elementary TPRS list anywhere on the even on the internet?”

      I still don’t agree. I reach my kids, I think Christina and Diane reach theirs, I know Jody reached hers. Why are we not talking on a forum? I found the forums boring. They didn’t hold my interest. Not sure that indicates we aren’t reaching our kids. We are starting to talk now. Maybe Ben planned this so we would keep things active while he was on vacation…….

      1. I also think that you have been outnumbered. :o) Blissfully happy that you are here and talking. Martha and Jody together are a force to be reckoned with…hearts, minds and souls with a gift for intuitive and intellectual insight AND a clarity of voice when writing. We are blessed.

        with love,

      2. I’m out of elementary ages now, though. I started working at a high school in Colorado in August. One immediate difference: I am much less physically exhausted at the end of the day now. When school’s in, I used to eat about twice as much as in the summer because I was burning calories in constant motion with students. It’s less physically demanding being at high school. So far, so good. I have one overly chatty (off-task and especially, wisecracks in English) but talking with parents has helped reduce those problems. 3 classes are transitioning from a textbook.

        I wrote about transitioning with the students here:

  6. I am definitely not saying that we should focus on more than 2-3 target structures at any given time. That single idea of staying narrow has saved my life.

    However, I am skeptical that PQA must always come before the story. Sometimes it just feels like we’re ready to go and we can get some PQA compare/contrast going during the story. I dunno. I am trying it out some this year in the upper levels.

  7. Speaking to James’ post: Upper levels are very different from beginning levels in my experience. The infrastructure of the target language is so much more dense and interconnected in the advanced acquirer’s brain. It understands SO MUCH by this point that a few new words or structures don’t throw it into a tizzy the way they do for an acquirer at lower levels. Way different. So, I can see why you might do this.

    How do you “know” your group is ready to go, James, if all you have done is write the structure/s on the board with the translation (Step one of step one)? What does that tell you? I really am curious about this. Or are you just saying that you know your the group’s capabilities and trust the story context will be enough for them?

    1. “Or are you just saying that you know your the group’s capabilities and trust the story context will be enough for them?”

      That’s pretty much it. In levels 2-4 sometimes I just get that vibe first thing on Monday of “let’s just get going.” And I know they can handle it (i.e., demonstrate comprehension and ace the quick quiz) so I am trying for those “sometimes”s to just go for it.

  8. I did some kick-ass PQA this week with grades 7 and 8! I couldn’t believe the engagement I got! So many laughs. And it felt much more like real communication, more so than steps 2 and 3. I wish I had had a camera running. It was magical. And this has never happened with my PQA sessions in the past, which is one reason I was turned off to PQA.

    In order to keep it fresh for myself, I do different structures for each grade. I prefaced it for the kids by saying we were going to just hang out, relax, and have a conversation that worked in the phrases on the board. And for the first time I did PQA with the kids (and me) all in comfy chairs in a semi-circle. I could totally do this outside while it’s still warm if I use a small portable whiteboard for any words that may have to be brought in bounds. The less it looks and feels like school, the better!

    One thing that did happen occasionally is that there was a lot of energy behind one mini-scene and the students wanted to extend it into story, once a kid even directly asked if we could turn it into a story, but it would have led me out-of-bounds, so I would move on. In order to continue to get reps, I was creating OWI’s and 1-scene mini-stories. That advice to have structures that create conflict is one of the gems I’ve gotten from this blog. I was using Matava’s “Lazy” (works, boss yells at him, lazy) and “A Day in Court” (had to pay, went to court, believed him) and the structures were perfect. One naturally led to the other.

    I’ve been doing 10 minute bursts of no-English with a Student Timer and the clock goes back to 0 if anyone speaks English, me included. At the end of the L2 burst, we just hang out or do a new short children’s song (La Cucaracha anybody?!). I’m loving songs, btw, and starting classes with them like I think Laurie recommended. Excellent way to start class, especially since I get kids trailing in over a 3 minute period. Those present are gesturing and singing. 10 minute timed L2 is awesome. I can turn my back to the group and no one talks. And I’m not afraid of silence. My kids have played the game a while and we’ve used the 2 words in English rule, but during these timed L2 bursts, there is no English. Maybe the 2-words are only really necessary to get them playing the game and should then be taken away. Because 2 words in English often led to much more English.

    It’s clear how much my kids have progressed in comprehension (and output fluency), since the new kids are totally lost if I teach to the kids who have had me before, rather than teach slowly to the newbies.

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