On Use of Tenses in Stories and Readings

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21 thoughts on “On Use of Tenses in Stories and Readings”

  1. Ok, I get this. It makes total sense. My question is about introducing / establishing the process. Do you just do it and it becomes obvious as you go along, or do you establish this as a “rule” explicitly at the beginning of the year?

  2. I recommend not making it a rule, unless you need that for yourself. I’ve had more luck personally by making it a very loose rule. Since my student get so much present tense in first year via the novels, I write up some of my class stories in the past tense to “balance” it out so to speak.
    You can always ask the kids what tense they’d like the story to be written in too.
    Ben, do you still have a link to the Athenian Study on your site? That is a good one for all FL teachers to read, as reassurance and if necessary, ammo.

  3. I took it down. Susie and I talked about it. It may not hold up as one might hope under real scrutiny. Jim, I am not sure we should be too loose on the tense. Just my own thinking. Of course, there should never be rules about how we do things in TPRS, but I have beat my head for years and years against this tense thing, and in my opinion it is best to stay in the past tenses in stories.

    1. Interesting… I’d like to know more about why it might now hold water.
      I agree, it IS best to stay in the past tense in stories (unless it flies in the face of reason doing so). But I so like to have flexibility with the tense of the follow-up readings, my own preference.

      1. I didn’t really mean “rule” but just wondering how to make it clear to students, but I will answer my own question as I process/write this reply…it seems that the clarity comes with slow, compelling, teaching to the eyes, pure presence? I think I’m starting to feel some fear so that makes me look for something to grab onto, like a rule, but that is a false life raft!

  4. I just started teaching in a school that has officially adopted TPRS as its teaching methodology for teaching foreign languages. Today I got handed a list of 250 essential words for level 1, and on that list is 63 verbs. The other department members stated that I (and other teachers of level 1) are responsible for making certain that the students can conjugate those 63 verbs in the present tense by the end of their first year. Question number 1: How realistic is that? Is that too many words to expect out of first-years? Question number 2: Is this the best approach? Would it be better to shorten the number of verbs and expect the students to conjugate those verbs into present and past tense (since we’re doing stories both in the present and past tense)?

  5. This request has nothing to do with TPRS. Moreover, it has absolutely nothing to do with the current research. Laurie said three or four days ago something about how sometimes teachers can’t seem to let go of the past when trying to embrace the new.
    That is what is happening here. Your colleagues are refusing to jump over from the one old cliff to the new one. They’re not even looking over the edge, and yet they are claiming to have jumped over to the other side. They are sadly mistaken.
    Where is your leader on this? What is the district doing to support you and educate you in this change? Surely the teachers you mention above can’t be in charge of making the change if they are handing you verb lists like the ones above. This can’t work for the following reasons and for many others:
    1. Expecting students to be able to conjugate verbs, the very notion of conjugating verbs, is part of the frozen past. We do not do it in TPRS. It’s output, it’s memorizing, it’s shaming, it appeals to only a few of the kids in each class, etc.
    2. Even if the expectation was a mere one sixth of what you describe above, that is, asking the kids to conjugate only the third person singular forms in the present tense by Christmas or so, it is still insane. Yes, our TPRS kids largely can spell those 3rd person forms, having seen them all over the place in readings throughout the first semester, but the focus on spelling words correctly is, in itself, completely foreign to what is best for the kids especially at the lower levels. We just don’t ask lower level kids to be able to spell. We ask them to be able to communicate. We ask them to reach some level of proficiency, which means be able to use the verb forms by identifying them in common speech, by being able to read them, and to be able to use them in ways that are connected to the flow of comprehensible input in class. When we eventually ask kids to write, we care only if they can communicate an idea in the target language. Spelling may become something interesting to concern kids with in third or fourth year classes, once they are ready to begin some serious output.
    3. Even if you shortened the list from 63 down to 30 verbs, you would still be asking these kids to be able to conjugate 30 verbs X 6 forms each X 2 tenses, or 3 if you would expect them to know the imperfect forms as well. At the very minimum, the kids would have to be able to write out 360 correct spellings. This is unrealistic, impractical, and just plain stupid.
    What is described above has nothing to do with TPRS. Sorry about the tone here, but I can’t help it. It just offends me that people would purport to embrace a vastly new and radical way of teaching, and then expect students to be able to do things that have nothing to do with TPRS. It just doesn’t make sense. O.K. I’m done.

  6. Here is an excerpt from an article in Wikipedia about language-learning methods. Note that the experience is from the 19th century; that’s at least how old the realization that conjugation doesn’t work is. Anyone who tries to teach a language through conjugation is two centuries behind.
    In the 19th century, Francois Gouin went to Hamburg to learn German. Based on his experience as a Latin teacher, he thought the best way to do this would be memorize a German grammar book and a table of its 248 irregular verbs. However, when he went to the academy to test his new language skills, he was disappointed to find out that he could not understand anything. Trying again, he similarly memorized the 800 root words of the language as well as re-memorizing the grammar and verb forms. However, the results were the same. During this time, he had isolated himself from people around him, so he tried to learn by listening, imitating and conversing with the Germans around him, but found that his carefully constructed sentences often caused native German speakers to laugh. Again he tried a more classical approach, translation, and even memorizing the entire dictionary but had no better luck.
    When he returned home, he found that his three-year-old nephew had learned to speak French. He noticed the boy was very curious and upon his first visit to a mill, he wanted to see everything and be told the name of everything. After digesting the experience silently, he then reenacted his experiences in play, talking about what he learned to whoever would listen or to himself. Gouin decided that language learning was a matter of transforming perceptions into conceptions, using language to represent what one experiences. Language is not an arbitrary set of conventions but a way of thinking and representing the world to oneself. It is not a conditioning process, but one in which the learner actively organizes his perceptions into linguistics concepts.

    There are flaws with the Gouin series method – it has many similarities to the Direct Method – but it has the recognition that Grammar-Translation doesn’t work.
    Here’s the link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_teaching_methods

  7. Ben,
    I am brand new to TPRS, and I went to my first training workshop today with Von Ray as the presenter. One thing that just doesn’t feel natural to me is his use of tenses within stories. He insists that you use both the past and the present tenses while you tell the story to ask students questions. For example, he will say, “Class, Susan (one of his students) picked strawberries yesterday.” Class: “Awwwww”. To Susan, “Susan, what are you doing? (right now)” Susan, (awkwardly) “I am picking strawberries?” Teacher: “Correct! You are picking strawberries! Class, Susan picked strawberries yesterday.” Class: “Awwww.”
    So, he tells the story to the class in the past tense and then retells segments of the story that involve a particular student in the present, but then goes back into past tense to explain to the class what they talked about in their one on one dialogue.
    For me it would seem more natural to do all of this in the past tense. This is the way we talk when we’re actually telling stories in real life. For example, Teacher: “Class, Susan picked strawberries yesterday.” Class: “Awwwwww.” Teacher: (to Susan) “Susan, did you pick strawberries yesterday?” Susan: “Yes. I picked strawberries yesterday.” Teacher: “Perfect Susan. You DID pick strawberries yesterday. Class, Susan picked strawberries yesterday.” Class: “Awwwwww.”
    Is this the way you do storytelling? The mixing of tenses within stories, at least in the way Von Ray is presenting it to me just does not feel natural. In fact it feels down right awkward to me. I’m really struggling with this.
    I like your idea of telling the story in the past tense, having a student transcribe it for you, and then changing it into present tense to use as a reading exercise the next day. Am I understanding your ideas correctly? I appreciate your help.

  8. Charla it never made sense to me. In fact when Blaine and Von talked about it in their 2012 Las Vegas session I didn’t get it. Your point that it is not natural is the key. I wouldn’t give it a thought. The thing about turning and asking a present tense question to a person in the middle of a story – who remembers to do that?
    The reason I like doing the story in the past is that they get to hear more past and imperfect forms, which are so frequent in language. They get to hear more past forms than they would than if they did the story in the present and the reading in the past.
    Past tense forms are real pillars of language and that is why I tell the stories in the past and write the readings in the present. In the first there years I told the story in the present, but then I realized the value of telling it in the past so I changed.
    Plus stories aren’t normally told in the real world in the present, but in the past. And the kids can get lots of present tense reps in the reading and they also already got a lot of present tense forms in the PQA. It’s the reading in the present that cements the present forms.
    So I agree with you. I don’t even know why Von is still promoting it. It’s probably because he feels it works for him, and that is what counts. There are no rules in what we do and we always do what is best for us. That is what I like about this work – we get to make our own decisions.
    Here is a related PLC article worth reading on this topic from a little while ago:
    And here is the link you mentioned if anybody wants to read that:

    1. Thanks Ben.
      This was super helpful. For me, as a new TPRS teacher, I am going to try out the circling portion of the story entirely in the past tense like you suggested. And if there is dialogue and dramatization during the development of the story, the actors will talk to each other in the present tense, which feels natural. The doctor said to the patient, “Why did you pick strawberries without gloves? Your hands are a big mess now! What do you expect me to do?!” (etc.)
      And then have the students read the story the next class in the present tense. This will be an experimental year for me either way. But for now, this is what I perceive will work for me as a storyteller.
      By the way, I will be teaching 5 Spanish 3 classes this year who have never been taught with this method before. So, that alone will be interesting. For now I am planning on beginning the year with level one structures and vocabulary, but making it more complex by asking “why” so that they have to explain. I hope we can move to level 2 for second and third quarter and end with level 3 structures for the last quarter of the year. What do you suggest Ben?

      1. OK we just had this discussion about switching things all up on kids who are used to playing the (traditional) teacher for a grade for two years and then are asked to do some CI work, which involves real rigor. Since you just joined us here today, Charla, you missed that discussion (last month) but you are in a tough spot. ?
        Charla the basic caution is that what you plan will probably not work. It has to do with the kids suddenly realizing that they will have to work.
        Besides the idea that you will attempt to change kids who won’t want to change (their level of resistance will shock you but we must be honest here so you can avoid problems later), there are two things you say above that concern me:
        1. I agree with your questions about tense. But then you give this example:
        …“Why did you pick strawberries without gloves? Your hands are a big mess now! What do you expect me to do?!” (etc.) ….
        Here is my point – those traditionally taught kids who for two years have not even really heard the language will totally not understand all that language in that example. We have found out in this group over years that students who are in level 3 traditional language classes are pretty much level one students. It makes sense – they haven’t heard the language in comprehensible ways. The classes have always split between a few kids who could do it and a lot of kids who couldn’t. That is not our model.
        So your first caution is to not go out of bounds, as it says in my book Stepping Stones. (Anyone in the PLC reading this who has bought the 2013 version and wants the 2014 latest version – only completed this past week with new learnings from the summer conferences – let me know at benslavic@yahoo.com and I will send the updated e-version to replace your 2013 version of the book.)
        It is going to be sobering to see level 3 kids at that low level but that is what you will see with these kids. I will be blunt. We have to find those articles and that discussion for you and then we are going to have to hold your hand here on an almost daily basis. Those kids are not going to like this change. Why should they? They played the teacher for an easy A by memorizing a few verb charts and now you want to completely upset their apple carts and make them work in a rigorous way?
        2. This also is of concern:
        …I am planning on beginning the year with level one structures and vocabulary, but making it more complex by asking “why” so that they have to explain…..
        My reaction is that they can’t explain. They don’t speak the language. Besides, output comes a long long time after lots of input. So “why” is not a question for these kids. Also, moving them up to level 3 structures by the end of the year can’t happen because there are no levels in this work, there is only what they have heard repeatedly and thus moved into acquisition and what they haven’t heard. I am going now to search for those articles.
        OK I found them. Read these and then we can continue this discussion. Let’s continue it here in the comment fields as others are always in the same boat, as we have learned over the years, which is a great thing because then when we go to deal with these serious issues concerning our instruction we are not alone. Read these bad boys:
        (Charla I know that you understand that I am not playin’ a game of “gotcha” here. I am only speaking directly to an issue that I passionately want you to avoid with these upper level non-CI trained kids because I got myself burned badly with them myself. In my case it was a level 4 class that just thought I was weird. So please take my cautioning, and I hope I get some support on this deal from others in the PLC, in the spirit it is offered, one of heading off a crisis before it begins. I can be blunt and apologize in advance for that, but it is a bluntness born of the desire to serve and help.

        1. Charla, welcome to the PLC! While I haven’t experienced this myself (getting students after they’ve had a year or two in a traditional classroom), I have read lots here about teachers who have really struggled with it. So, I think Ben is doing you a service to make sure you’re prepared.
          I do hope you keep us posted!

        2. Thanks Ben. I value your advice and don’t see it as condescending at all. It’s nice to know that I’m good to take things slowly with my level 3 kids because this will be their first full CI class.
          Also, I do not mind the bluntness. I am a rather direct person myself. So, no need to worry about hurting my feelings.
          I am busy now reading all of your links and the other materials you have mentioned. I’m glad you’re willing to hold my hand a bit this school year. I’m already learning so much.

  9. So I have a related question for the group. Matava and Tripp stories are written with the three target structures above the story in the present. Do you write them on the board for the kids in the present or the past? (The stories are written in both tenses depending on the story, but the targets are usually given in the present.)

  10. I always forget to do the switching thing. It rarely feels right to me. The “new” Von way feels right even less often. Like others, I usually do whatever makes most sense at the time. If it’s a story about what happened to Pavel on the weekend, it’s in past tense. If it’s one of those kid stories, sometimes it’s in present (I say to him, “Get out!” and he goes out but turns around and yells at me) because Russians often tell even historical events in the present.
    Because of mixed levels in my room, one way that I bump up stories beyond the first month in a class where I have some Level 1 is to ask the more advanced kids in the room to retell from a different time perspective, once it’s written.

    1. I do it the Ray-way and it didn’t take long for it to become automatic for me to tell the story to the class in the past and ask the actor questions in the present. I always give an example to the class in the L1, so they know how to better process what I’m doing. “I’ll tell the story to the class . . . Once upon a time, there was a boy, he was tall, etc. . . and then I’ll turn to the actor in the story and verify those facts . . . Are you a boy? Are you tall?”
      I wrote about it more extensively in a comment somewhere, but in a nutshell, I think the more we integrate the tenses the better, rather than having a “past tense day” and a “present tense day.” I think it’s better for acquisition, but it won’t show up as improvement in accuracy for a while.
      Next year, since I’ll have students who have had TCI for 1.5 years, I’ll start working more questions in the past to the actors, which I think Blaine does more of in 2nd year classes (at least he did in a demo uploaded by Mike Coxon).
      I am critical of Blaine’s use of “mastery” since it seems like he wants students to master the first person present form of the highest frequency verbs, then proceed to first person past, but he does so in a manner of forcing actor output. It seems more like a memorized, rehearsed verb form, rather than natural output. It impresses us to hear a year 1 student correctly output his verbs in the first person and it may lead us to think the student has acquired first person verb forms, but a lot of time goes into practicing these specific words and treating select verbs in first person form like a singular vocabulary item. I’m skeptical this is the best way to optimize time for acquisition.
      I still want to try more of telling a story in 3 tenses: the “3 location model” is 3 tenses. If your verb wouldn’t be recognizable as the same verb if in a different tense, then I’d consider it a different structure. You could have a 3 tense story with 1 verb in 3 tenses.

      1. I’ll tell the story to the class . . . Once upon a time, there was a boy, he was tall, etc. . . and then I’ll turn to the actor in the story and verify those facts . . . Are you a boy? Are you tall?”
        This is great… easily reproduceable for us, Eric.
        I’m thinking a lot like Michele these days. I switch back and forth as it seems natural based on what happened a while ago, what just happened, what is happening right now, or what might happen. And when I go slow enough, kids get the tense shift.

  11. Hi Eric,
    You say that “you could have a 3 tense story with 1 verb in 3 tenses.” Could you give an example of how this would work?
    Would this be like having one scene in imperfect, another in simple past tense, and another in present? How do you see this working in an unforced way?

  12. I got the idea originally from the “Halloween” story in Tripp’s Scripts.
    This is the idea:
    Event 1: 10 years ago, Bobby wanted to be a Princess for Halloween . . . past
    Event 2: This year, Bobby wants to be a Power Ranger . . . present
    Event 3: In 10 years, Bobby will want to be a teacher. . . future

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