More Tennis

Robert tried to comment on the thread “Playing Tennis” but it disappeared somewhere so I am just putting it here as a regular blog entry:
At the risk of over-intellectualizing the discussion, here are a couple of random thoughts. As much as we may reject the theorizing and academic discussion of which methodology is “right”, etc., there is one question which we must answer prior to our going into the classroom: “What is the goal of my instruction?”
I’m not talking about for any given day – that will follow on its own. At the end of 2/3/4 years, what should my students be able to do? Using our sports/music analogies, we have to ask if we expect to produce NFL, PGA, NBA, NHL, Van Cliburn, Tchaikovsky Competition or similar caliber speakers. No one becomes a Wayne Gretzky, Gustavo Dudamel, Larry Bird or Rafael Nadal without putting in tons of time on the mechanics of what they do. They will also have spent years doing it and invested far more than the average person is willing to invest.
In our careers we will probably meet a handful of students who move to those levels if we are fortunate – and they won’t get there in the four years they are with us. Unfortunately the College Board (AP Exam), politicians who write educational policy and most administrators seem to think exactly that should happen: move students from monolingual to fully bilingual in 480 hours of instruction. (The State of California states that 13 years of acquiring the language, not learning about the language, will still get students only to minors/farm team, not the big leagues. I know lots of people who need to read that statement in the World Language Standards and think about what it means.)
Ben has made it clear that he rejects this hubristic posturing. He isn’t trying to produce the next Cristiano Ronaldo, he’s producing duffers, Saturday quarterbacks, weekend warriors and Stephen Valdeses – inspired amateurs who do what they do because they love it. So he emphasizes just going out there and playing the game at whatever level the student happens to be.
The irony is that he will get more people closer to the advanced stages (see the ACTFL performance guidelines”) this way than through all the “skill drills” from all the “educational service providers” in all the “educational institutions” of academia. I am unabashedly with Ben. He, his mentors and others like Anne have a realistic view of what’s possible.
My goal is that after four years of language my students will:
1. still love the language (today I heard one of my level 3 students talking to his girlfriend. They were looking at some student work on the wall in the hallway, and she had asked a question. I heard the reply, “Because German is the best language in the world.” Yes!)
2. have sufficient acquisition to function at a basic level in the language when they go to a country where it’s spoken (I have had students go on exchange programs and function well in German)
3. understand enough about how to learn a language that they a) can continue learning on their own if they wish, b) know what they need/want to get out of whatever language programs they choose, c) have the ability to advocate for themselves wherever they go. (I am still in contact with former students who are doing exactly that in their university programs.)
Until American students are in programs that emphasize acquisition over the course of 13 years of public school education, we need to concentrate on helping students simply enjoy the game and get to a level where they are not afraid to join in the pick-up games or sit in on the jam sessions.



9 thoughts on “More Tennis”

  1. Ben and Robert,
    This is a fine post; it hits at the heart of the matter: Many of us do not have homogeneous classes of kids who desire to learn all they can in class, will try to speak with other L2 students outside of class, will watch L2 music videos, or will try to read L2 books, magazines, online L2 magazines. What we most often have is a heterogeneous class of teenagers who may or may not give us their time and effort in class. Their L2 progress is mixed.
    Robert hit the nail on the head. Students, especially a Level I or II student, might say something like this: “My grandparents were visiting and said, ‘Say something in German’. The student will say: “I couldn’t think of anything.”…or: “I tried to speak with our German-exchange student, but I couldn’t understand everything she was saying, but I can understand you in class.”
    That is when I have stopped sometimes and have written the “formula” on the board: 80 x 87 x 4 ÷ 60 =464 (80-minutes x 87 classes per year x 4 years÷60 minutes= 464 hours).
    “What is that”, they have asked. My reply: “That is the maximum number of hours that you can possibly learn German in this class, and that is based on four years. Then, subtract hours for early release days (40-minute classes that “count” as a school day), quizzing, testing, mid-year and final exams (that also “count” as time in class), rallies that omit a class, state and SAT mandatory tests, illnesses, being late, families who take students to Florida during school-time and not during a school vacation, and you have much less time than 464 hours.
    I ask them: “How many of you play and instrument, play a sport, sing? How many hours have you done those activities (of course they don’t know the answer, but the “wheels” begin to click when they think of the number of hours in their lifetime that they have devoted to a sport or to playing an instrument). Are you ready to play in the NBA, NFL, AHL? Could you take part in the ESPN X-Games? Could you step in as a guitarist with Eric Clapton or play in a Led Zeppelin reunion?”
    They laugh but see the point. I write up another formula: 14 x 365 x 15=…
    I have one of the students pull out a calculator, type in the formula, and wait for the student to calculate it. I write the answer on the board: 76,650.
    “What’s that?” they ask.
    I tell them that the “14” represents a 14-year old: (14 years x days in a year x number of hours awake: I allowed 9 hours of sleep for all 14 years— (I shoot “low” here to make my point)—“That is the number of hours, give or take a few hundred or thousand hours, that you have been exposed to English. Even as a baby, you heard the sounds of the language, and language was all around you. You could not speak for probably the first two years, but some of that was physical, which is why you may have said, ‘I yike dat’. “You learned to control your tongue later to express an “L” or the “th” (my son used to call our neighbor “Yinda” instead of Linda until he could master the “L”). Now, I assume that with 76,000 hours of English under your belt, you must be all getting an “A” in English”.
    They laugh or groan. “Why not? Gee, with all that exposure to English, haven’t you mastered English? Isn’t it easy to write, to express yourself?…”
    They “see the light”. Students must be fair to themselves and be realistic about their expectations. I have found that when students understand that acquisition takes time—slowly and steadily— but that they can achieve great progress at each level of L2, even with the limited amount of time that we have with them. It gives them confidence that they have learned and are learning.
    In fact, my response to those students to whom adults may request: “Say something in German”: At the beginning of German I, I teach a “Chester the Elephant” story. Because it is so simple and successful, I use it every year. Even my German III and IV students smile and their eyes light up when I mention “Chester der Elefant”. I tell them: “If you ever get the request to “say something in German” again, just tell them the Chester story, even with all the repetition in it. They will be impressed, and you won’t have to answer to that question again.”
    Finally, so that they understand: “That is why I teach TPRS. In all my years of teaching, this gives you the greatest base for learning a language that I have used. My goal is to become a better teacher every year until I retire (which is absolutely true). For you, in order to learn as much as possible and become the best learner that you can be, focus on the stories, try to talk in German outside of class, watch the music videos that we do (I give them the lyrics), sing along with them, tell your parents the stories, etc. Relax and have fun.”

  2. I love that math, Mike! I think it really makes the point clear. Thanks for sharing.
    And Robert, thanks for sharing that your number one goal is for students to “still love the language.” I need to remind myself of this goal every day.

  3. Ben, Stephen, Robert, et al
    Stephen: You are very fortunate so early in your career to have found TPRS. As you have read on this list, it takes time to master, but being a good teacher in any subject does, too. From what I have read from your posts, you have the enthusiasm, love of kids, and attitude to do some great things in your career. Stick with it!
    Ben: Thanks for the Patriots well wishes. The Ravens will come after Brady, and Wes Welker is a huge loss. It will be a tough game, but one I think “we” will win. Then, it is “tough sledding”: Indianapolis or San Diego, both of whom have had great seasons and are healthier.
    Robert (and others): I have included the “Chester the Elefant” story in both German and English (keep scrolling!). I have no idea the how and why (yes, I do), but Chester takes on a life of his own. Kids throw him into other stories. I teach this story in German I after the TPR phase, so the students know quite a few words: movements, room objects, body parts, some colors, etc. After the stories, I will tell you some of the other things I do with this story, but in a “bulleted form”: otherwise the post will be obnoxiously long.
    This is also their introduction to a story. I think after the telling of it that they are excited to think, “Hey, I understood that!”
    I did this story this year at the beginning of week three. One girl blew me away with an incredible re-tell (Go TPRS!), and yes, Ben, it was absolutely voluntary!
    Chester der Elefant
    Chester ist ein Elefant. Chester ist sehr groß. Chester ist nicht grau…Chester ist ein rosa Elefant! Chester ist müde. Er dreht sich um. Er sieht einen Stuhl. Chester setzt sich auf den Stuhl. Der Stuhl bricht. Chester ist traurig.
    Chester der rosa Elefant steht auf. Er dreht sich um. Er sieht einen anderen Stuhl. Dann geht er zu einem anderen Stuhl. Chester ist müde. Er setzt sich auf den Stuhl. Der Stuhl bricht. Chester ist traurig. Er ist sehr traurig!
    Chester der rosa Elefant ist sehr müde. Er steht auf. Er dreht sich um. Er sieht einen anderen Stuhl. Er geht zu einem anderen Stuhl. Er setzt sich auf den Stuhl. Dieser Stuhl bricht nicht!
    Chester ist sehr froh.
    der Elefant- elephant sehr- very müde- tired
    bricht- break traurig- sad
    zu einem anderen Stuhl-
    to another chair froh- happy
    Chester the Elephant
    Chester is an elephant. Chester is very big. Chester is not gray…Chester is a pink elephant! Chester is tired. He turns around. He sees a chair. Er goes to the chair. Chester sits down on the chair. The chair breaks. Chester is sad.
    Chester the pink elephant gets up. He turns around. He sees another chair. Then he goes to another chair. Chester is tired. He sits down on the chair. The chair breaks. Chester is sad….He’s very sad!
    Chester the pink elephant is very tired. He turns around. He goes to another chair. He sits down on the chair. This chair doesn’t break!
    Chester is very happy.
    • Note the repetition, critical in Level I. I ask lots and lots of questions.
    • I have taught by this time “schaut” (looks) and “sieht”(sees). I have Chester turn around. Then he sees the chair(I have instructed the whole class to shout “Whop-whop-whop” like on the old TV show “Six-Million_Dollar-Man”, when he would have that “focus-in-on-an-object” vision) . I also use my fingers in a “V” from my eyes to the object to show “sees”…(Chester only finds a chair that doesn’t break when I sense it’s time/flagging)
    • For “bricht”(breaks), I have pre-taught this word with body parts, PLUS I have them all make a “breaking sound” chhhht (How does one write a breaking sound?) “Break your arm” chhht!; “Break your nose” chhht! Aua! (Ouch!), etc….Therefore when Chester sits down and the chair breaks, they have acquired this word (and they make the sound).
    • I also describe Chester in more detail: short legs, very large trunk, huge ears etc
    • Hamming it up with happy and sad is great. I work in ”sehr”=very
    • I position several chairs around the room so that the actor goes from location to location
    • I use “another” because I have taught this word in the TPRS phase: Touch your little finger; touch the other little finger; point to the door; point to the other door, etc
    • After all these weeks, whenever I say “sees” someone shouts out “whop, whop, whop)
    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

  4. Mike I read that story and your notes with intense concentration. I thought of three things:
    1. The language is simple. It is easy to decode. I’m not sure why you had six target expressions. Was this three per day? Anyway, the expressions are easy to understand, you probably signed and gestured them when explaining them in PQA Step One before doing the story in Step Two, and, because they were simple, they stuck well.
    2. Besides the simplicity, you have the repetitions in there. This is what we seem to have forgotten in the PQA focus that some of us have gotten into in recent months, even years. Blaine has given us these three steps, they rock the house precisely because of the simple and repeated structures, as in fairy tales, and, quite frankly, even though I am a PQA guy, I don’t know why we wouldn’t do more and more of the above.
    3. Besides the crucial simplicity and repetitions, you had great PQA going on. Thanks for the detail in the bulleted expressions. That is exactly, I am certain, what Blaine and Joe Neilson had in mind when they wanted us to PQA expressions. There is lighthearted, personalized, easy to relate to, fun in those expressions, and boy were those kids perfectly ready for the story when it happened.
    Those three things explain the successful retell, of course. There is one caution to mention, however, and that is the obvious comment that the story cannot be told line per line without keeping open a change in direction if it should arise during the circled questioning. The story absolutely must reflect the input from the kids during the circling. Following a written script without personalizing it and including ideas from the class will kill any story.
    I am certainly not saying that we need to abandon any of what we have done with PQA recently. It is the very lifeblood of TPRS, but we don’t ever want to forget what kind of power there is in the three steps, and in good scripts with good PQA like you have above. I will write a blog on this topic of how to balance PQA and stories and post it.

  5. Ben,
    ….and I read your reply with great concentration!
    To your queries: I probably should not have included the vocabulary in the post—that was a bit misleading. Many of the vocabulary words in the story have already been learned. I cut/pasted the story and then translated it for the non-German teachers.
    “Bricht” was one of the few new words, which I pre-taught as I described in the earlier post.
    In our school we have a lot of initiatives, and one of them is literacy. This written story is for after we have told Chester. The vocabulary is there as reminders and for “slower” students. However, I also use this initial story for a bit of pop-up grammar, i.e. What do you notice about Stuhl (chair), and Elefant? Answer: both are nouns and nouns are capitalized in German, no matter where they appear in the sentence….What’s a noun? Sadly, I know some kids don’t know, but one of the students who has had gifted/talented will answer it…
    We translate the story; volunteers read a few lines aloud. (This is valuable because we teachers THINK they know how to pronounce a word when reading it, even if they have heard this word many times). Just the other day, in my terrific German I class, an “A” student was reading the word “allein” (ah-line)=alone. He has had other languages. He looked at it and said, “all-ah-in”, even though he has heard this word countless times and knows the number “one”=eins (the “ei” always sounds like the English “eye”). But, Holy-Right-Brain-Activity, Batman, it was like a new word to him once he was looking at it and trying to read it. After 34 years of teaching, I am learning not to assume!
    Also, “Chester” has been pre-Ben: I never knew about questionnaires so I had never used them at the beginning of the year. I have always done a solid TPR phase, and have done some situations with groups of words. So, “Chester” is that first story, when I know/believe that they are ready to easily understand it. Why does it work? I think because…
    German I students come to me, many already “know” me from a brother, sister, or a friend (and more and more, a mother or father!!!), so they know my personality already (and if they don’t they soon find out). What I try to do from “day one” is to take that fear out of learning a language.
    Through the initial TPR phase, doing lots of reps, smiles, dispelling fear, lots of praise, being zany, applauding, attaching sounds to words, etc., “Chester”-day arrives.
    We teachers are salesmen (-persons). I tell them, “We are going to do a story, and I guarantee that at the end of this story, you will understand it.” Do I guide the story? Yes. Will I do it next year? Yes…Why?
    To me, (this was probably during the seventh class of the year), I (we—I’m including you folks here) have already shown them that my/our class will be, and is, different than any other class that they have.
    By doing “Chester” as I do, they totally suspend logic and disbelief: They learn/get indoctrinated to the magic of TPRS—anything goes.
    Think about it: Chester is an elephant ( a pink one with short legs, huge ears, a long trunk, at that). He comes home. SHOULD he have to look around for a chair? No. SHOULD he have to look around and then “see” another chair? No. And believe me, I am now hamming it up with them, gesticulating, magnifying “look”, he “sees” (whop-whop-whop)… But they don’t question it.
    I love to watch their faces because they are realizing, “I understand this!” They are “watching” poor Chester. They empathize with him. The poor elephant is bone tired and just wants to sit down! Because it is L2, the repetition doesn’t bother them one iota. In fact, I think it is soothing because the affective filter drops. When the chair breaks, I have them say, “Ohhhhhhh”, with such empathy for Chester. I pause, look down at my actor or the “invisible” Chester, who is now “real” in their minds. Even if I have no actor, they are looking at the ground where Chester “is”…
    I ask lots of questions “Where is Chester?” “On the ground”. “Is Chester happy or sad?” “Sad!” “Yes, he is sad….Why?’ “Because he is tired!” “Yes!… Is he tired or VERYYY tired?” “VERRRY tired!” “Yes……” I keep asking questions…Then a longer pause, a shake of my head, a sigh, and then Chester gets up and looks for another chair, and we begin again.
    It works for me and for them. Now, four months later, I give structures and they are putting AK-47s in characters hands (much to my chagrin, but I go with it), describing them, naming them, guiding the ”script”, etc.
    With “Chester” at this point of the year (September), I guide it totally. Because of what I have explained above, I really don’t think I will change that. When we are finished with all of the things I do with Chester, I tell them: “Just think: Two weeks ago, we learned: stand up, sit down, and turn around”.
    It’s like opening a door to Fantasyland, like “setting the hook”. “Now you can understand a story. Isn’t that amazing?”

Leave a Comment

  • Search

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe to Our Mailing List

No spam, notifications only about new products, updates.

Related Posts

The Problem with CI

Jeffrey Sachs was asked what the difference between people in Norway and in the U.S. was. He responded that people in Norway are happy and

CI and the Research (cont.)

Admins don’t actually read the research. They don’t have time. If or when they do read it, they do not really grasp it. How could

Research Question

I got a question: “Hi Ben, I am preparing some documents that support CI teaching to show my administrators. I looked through the blog and

We Have the Research

A teacher contacted me awhile back. She had been attacked about using CI from a team leader. I told her to get some research from



Subscribe to be a patron and get additional posts by Ben, along with live-streams, and monthly patron meetings!

Also each month, you will get a special coupon code to save 20% on any product once a month.

  • 20% coupon to anything in the store once a month
  • Access to monthly meetings with Ben
  • Access to exclusive Patreon posts by Ben
  • Access to livestreams by Ben