I was conversing in French with a student after school today. As a French 4 student soon going to France on a trip, she was concerned because she said that she had, up until this year, rarely heard the language in any of her classes up.
A natural language talent (upper 1%), she seemed to constantly to be trying to speak correctly. It was hanging her up. So I had an idea. I told her, as we spoke, that all she had to do was make herself understood. She didn’t have to be correct.
I gave her the image of a tennis player who gets the point even if the ball hits the top of the net and drops over into the opposite court. I explained that, once the ball was in the other court, the responsibility to communicate back to her lay with the other person. It seemed to help.
I wrote a blog a few days ago about how I will never tell my kids that they are wrong, and now I realize that I won’t ever tell them they have to be perfect in their speech, either. I will just tell them to keep trying, without judgement, to get the ball into the other court.
And I’m not going to force them to swing the racket, either. Any colleague that asks, “Well, then, how can the student get any practice? And how will they know if they are wrong?” will get from me a two word answer – “Oh… please…!”
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
14 thoughts on “Playing Tennis”
Beautiful. On the money. Frame it!
Could you clarify what you mean by “I’m not going to force them to swing the racket.” ?
I have heard that output should never be forced, but is output THAT bad? Is it wrong for the teacher to assume all their students would be using the language orally or written in the class. Is it OK for a student not to produce the language at all during the course of the year?
I can’t carry a tune to save my life, but I would really love to be able to sing. If I were in a music class and had the option to be silent the whole year, believe me I will be.
The other day I had my first ‘singing’ lesson. It was very basic and went slowly. At the end I was expected to sing. However it was slow and basic enough for me that for the first time I felt successful. That’s how I saw my role as a teacher; find ways to make the students successful in using the language.
I am often asked to coach students for speech contests. What I think about speech contests is beside the point, BUT I love doing this. In all of my years assisting teaching at the the junior highs, by far the best English students are those that I coach. I credit this to one word, PRAISE.
I always get them to only listen to the speech. I have fill in the blank, puzzle worksheets etc for them to do as they listen so they don’t get bored. I require that they listen to the speech numerous times before even speaking.
Once they do start practicing, I praise them for everything. Of course I tell them how they can improve, but I always praise them. If there are others practicing with them, I get these students to make 1-2 positive comments (NEVER negative) about their classmates speeches. At the end of each practice, I get the students to tell me what they liked about their own speech. Sometimes my students win prizes and sometimes not. However what tickles me the most is that these students really start to love English. I have had one student who continously volunteered for the speech contest. He never placed but he continued to try and he wrote in a school essay that he wants to be an English teacher.
I’ve heard of studies that other TPRS teachers did about retells. The didn’t use them as often but yet when they were tested students did just as well as the classes with retells. However they didn’t have the same confidence. Wouldn’t students be more likely to use the language in town or 0n a trip if they had the confidence. Is it so bad to require output if the goal was to make them more confident?
I also would like to add that I DO make allowances. I realize that some students are deathly afraid to speak. I talk with them and try to find an alternative that will work for both of us. I have had students turn in drawings instead of a retell, opt to answer my questions about the story, or even just count the number of times I said the target phrases. Even still I watch them and hope for an opportunity for them to feel successful.
I believe the point he is making is that we don’t have to be “perfect” before we begin to communicate in any language. This child’s overly active “monitor” is keeping her from communicating very effectively. She is doing so much editing while she speaks that she communicates little. My take on this.
We had a discussion about this about a month ago on this blog and it led to a bit of an intellectual argument and posturing about output. I then tried to curtail such discussion, simply because we who use this blog don’t have enough time to do anything but work together on our TPRS skills, which are hard enough to learn.
But, since you brought it up: it is my firm belief the existence of the affective filter in a classroom immediately implodes all possibility of authentic output. If someone is looking over my shoulder while I am typing, I immediately type shittier. I work daily to insure that my students are neurologically protected from having to feel in the least bit forced/judged to require that their brains create language.
I don’t know how the human brain, with all of the miraculous neurological processes going on inside of it, can possibly do a forced dance. It makes me think of dancing bears. I think it is invasive and intellectually rude.
Forcing output assumes that another person, the teacher, can in some way force an organization of something as complex as output in the form of speaking in the midst of a social setting. I just don’t think it possible. All output should be, in my opinion, natural and spontaneous and not forced. That is what I mean by not forcing them to swing the racket.
The students have to want to say something and that something must be what they want to say and not something that someone else wants them to say. If someone were to walk into my office right now and tell me to say something that they wanted me to say I would tell them to get out of my face. (Does anyone know if stuttering is connected to the forcing of output?)
Your example of singing is a great one. You said that if you were in a music class and had the option to be silent the whole year, [you would] be. I think that is great. You could sit there amidst all that music and just listen.
During that time, because you wouldn’t be forced to sing, you would be making all sorts of positive neurological connections that you would not have made had you been forced to sing. You would not be comparing yourself to others. Someday you would start singing, and it would be of a different quality than had you been forced to sing earlier. It would be more beautiful.
At the end of your singing lesson, you were told to sing and you felt good about it. But I don’t think that that applies to classrooms. What if you were forced to sing in front of thirty-four of your colleagues in a social setting? Would you have sung differently? That’s just my opinion – what the hell do I know?
Even if it was in a choral setting, would you have subtly been comparing your output to those students sitting nearby? Would you have been aware of them? Would you have been riddling yourself with bullets from those guns that teachers issued us in middle school – the “I’m not good enough” guns?
Then you brought up the use of praise with the speech contest kids. Again, I beg to point out that those kids wanted to be there, that they wanted to be better at public speaking and so the rules of that game were immediately different from the foreign language classroom settings that we all find ourselves in. We work in possibly the most difficult and hostile teaching environment possible. What in education could be more challenging than what we do?
Is this to say that in the foreign language that there should be no output? I am not saying that at all. I am saying that there should be no forced output. I am not saying that we shouldn’t say things together chorally. But I won’t make a kid take part.
Today, in my fourth year class, a kid who had never really heard the language for three years, and therefore couldn’t speak a lick, sponataneously did a retell after a story and kicked it. I’m talking afterburners. Would that have happened if I had made her do it? No. It would not have kicked ass. Why?
Because the minute I told her to do it, her brain would have literally changed (again, what the hell do I know about this? – this is just my opinion). The affective filter would have flooded her mind with all sorts of chemicals, or electrical shit or however that works, and it would have been qualitatively different. The ego would have become involved.
Notice that, with our first language, we are blessed to learn it early enough that our egos, our self-judgement, is not involved like it is after middle school. It works better when we are young and haven’t started performing.
Are there kids who naturally can handle forcing out of language. I am sure that there are, but the 1 among 100 or 200 hardly counts. My focus is always on getting all of my kids to learn, to come through four years with me, regardless of how well they perform, especially in the output game. I also don’t pick apple blossom off of trees in spring – I wait until the apple is there and then pick that.
Had I forced her to do a retell, she may have done it, and it may have even sounded pretty good, but what I got out of that kid today, by not forcing her to do the retell, was, I think, so good precisely because it was not forced.
Confidence coming from earlier retells? We would have to look at that one closer. Were the retells in those earlier TPRS studies forced? How was that research conducted? I would need more information. Meanwhile, I’ll just stay with my own highly opiniated beliefs, which you don’t have to agree with.
It’s nice to feel safe, here on this blog, to say what I think. I’m glad I’m not forced to do so. When forced to talk about TPRS, it doesn’t fly for me. Hmmm.
I was thinking a bit about comparing language learning to singing or playing an instrument. I think the two skills are very different, but maybe more similar if we were to talk about a singers or musicians who improvise.
I taught myself to play piano and guitar, but I can’t read music. I can improvise pretty well, especially on the piano. And I am amateur at best, but I can play something that most people would like to listen to for a while, and I make it up on the spot. On the other hand, I have friends who are excellent musicians, WAY more skilled than me, but who freeze if asked to make something up instead of playing the music in front of them. They watch me in awe when I blend very basic chords and scales to invent something new. I’ve tried to teach them and it’s really hard. (I do have friends who are both accomplished in reading music and improvising, of course.)
So, what I take from this is that someone can spend thousands of hours studying and practicing piano. And yet even once they can perform Beethoven and Bach with precision, they may not be able to improvise. Improvisation is a different skill.
I think in the same way, we could have our students spend tons of time memorizing phrases and conversations to practice. Or we could have them write speeches to memorize and give in front of the class. But when they do this, I suggest that they may not be learning to do what we really want them to be able to do with the language— Improvise. It may even create a false sense of security that they may not want to leave later (some of my accomplished musician friends refuse to even try to improvise).
You can’t really teach someone to improvise, at least not in the traditional way. I think the best way to encourage improvisation is to give someone an instrument and set them in a group of musicians who are jamming out. Let them know that they can just listen or they can add something if they want. At first, on a piano, they may just play the occasional bass line, or quick melody. But when they see that it works, it sounds good, they may try something else more elaborate and grow from there. They also need to listen to other people improvising so that they can get a feel for what works well (most of us improvisers are not truly creating anything brand new, we are regurgitating things that we have heard others play, but in different sequences). In our language classes, students always have their “instruments” with them and are able to practice whenever they feel comfortable. We give them lots of input so that one day they can mix the things that they hear and read into excellent improvisational speech.
(Hope I haven’t treaded too far into defending TPRS territory with this one. I promise, I’ll try and reign in my TPRS apologetics in the future.)
The tennis image really works for me. We need to get out there and play without obsessing about if our grip is just right–just get the ball over the net any way you can. I understand the fear that students aren’t learning or won’t be able to speak if their not practicing, but the negative impact of forcing production is way too high in my experience. I had speech difficulties growing up and I would have been spared a lot of pain if I could have been given safe places to speak where I could choose when I was ready. I still think that non-producing students should be held accountable for showing they understand, but we should be flexible.
I also really liked the balloon image for circling in the other post–I’ve heard descriptions of circling many times and each time I hear it again I gain something. Thank you!
Stephen–next to our piano is a book called, “How to Play the Piano Despite Years of Lessons.” It worked to get me doing some basic improv. I have thought about that book a lot as I have developed my TPRS skills. The analogous book for me is PQA in a Wink. TPRS is not always easy for the teacher to learn, for a number of reasons, not the least being that we generally didn’t learn this way. Won’t it be cool when we start getting a cohort of teachers who learned their second language through TPRS and can’t imagine any other way of teaching?
I think you guys have misunderstood Aimee. From what I understood, she wasn’t talking about forcing students to speak! She was talking about encouraging them to speak, to praise any effort they make at speech so that they gain in confidence when they are READY.
I also taught music. 2400 students worth from 6-9th grade, a required course. Gaining self confidence and feeling pride in one’s accomplishments is one of the major goals. Not everyone is a musician, not everyone can sing or play the flute. But they’ll not discover if they have any ability unless they TRY. Some students launch forward while others are scared of their own shadow. Sometimes those that are scared just need someone to invite them in, in a non-threatening way. Forcing the issue of course won’t work. But encouragement and praise DO WORK plus learning techniques to relax are invaluable as well. I personally feel that certain children sometimes need a little boost because they don’t know any better.
I think the teacher has to evaluate what is appropriate for each student.
Hey you can’t play the game of tennis if you’re too scared to pick up a racket and step out onto the court!
I reread Aimee’s comments and can’t tell exactly what she means. Look, we’re starting to argue again. However, this topic does impact what we do, so we need to clarify. Of course, my rant up there started it. Oh well, there I go again. Look, my kids speak, I have one level one kid that won’t shut up. I think he was French in a past life. So, let it be clear that I enourage output when the kids want to say it, and many do. I just don’t force the kids to speak. I must have mistakenly taken that from what Aimee said. That’s probably because I have seen one too many high horsed teachers stand up in front of kids and force outut. It spooked me almost as badly as when I was scared by a fraction in fifth grade. Sorry Aimee if I (we) misunderstood.
I’m sorry if my post sounded like an attack. It wasn’t meant to be. I apologize also for bringing up “theory” when you have mentioned many times that you want to avoid it. Please allow me to try and redirect the discussion. The whole idea of output is puzzling to me. I truly would like to know what you would define as forced output. I know that students speak French in your classes. What I would like to know is how do you set up your class to allow for output. How far into the school year would you go before you ask for a retell? Do you only ask for volunteers? Is there a time when you ask the entire class to attempt a retell (silently to oneself or with a partner?) When you get students to act, how and when do you get them to say the speaking parts? How would you deal with a very shy student? In your experience, do you see these shy students volunteering for a retell when they are ready? Do you ever try to gently push a student into trying? I don’t expect you to answer all these questions and I realize that you are not teaching for output. I am just struggling to see how output fits into the TPRS equation.
(and YIKES I promise to try and do a better job of proofreading my posts.)
Aimee I just wrote and posted another blog, and then one after that will come up when I get a chance to proof it, so there is more to come on this. But, to answer your questions, first, on retells, I just do them like Susie taught all of us. That is, occasionally, during or after a story, we take a minute and ask the kids to tell what we have so far to their hands or a partner.
Now, that was a great question because I think it is going to shed some of the light that we are now looking for on this output question. Yes, I allow them the chance to do retells, and I ask for volunteers for complete retells after the story, or we do it together, each kid with a sentence or so, but there is not one iota of force in those retells.
Ironically, we probably both do the some thing in that regard! This really may just be a silly semantics issue. Next, on actors speaking, let me give you an example. Yesterday, Sha’Nyquil and Sha’Pepto Bismol were acting Anne’s story called The Surprise. Sha’Pepto Bismol is a shy Latina who is just all over the class with clarity of understanding, and, lo and behold, her hand shoots up when I ask for an actor yesterday.
Once we have figured out who is whom and set up the story, etc., this girl had a line, “Close your eyes” that she had to say to Sha’Nyquil. I asked the class how she said that command, and the class decided she said it with anger, so the next thing I know, I was watching a total transformation of personality as this shy girl started laughing and took her elbows out to the sides and leaned in and tried to deliver the line with anger to Sha’Pepto Bismol. It was amazing. BUT, if I had called her up, had demanded ANYTHING from her – even the most minute request that she participate – the energy of the entire story would have been different.
You asked, and I think the strong no to the question is my entire point here, if I ever gently push students into trying. No I most certainly don’t. Even a gentle push is a push. The answer to how I feel about output is somewhere in those words. I respect the affective filter too much, and I respect the miraculous invisible work that is always going on in a TPRS class way too much, to interfere.
Isn’t is so typical of man to mess with things that are sublime? Do we need to do that? Really, the design process that Krashen has described so well is not really something that needs tweaking, that needs our help. My function as a teacher is to speak the language in ways that are interesting and comprehensible to my students, and that’s it.
The output results in my students will follow the input work that I do naturally, in good time, each student moving at their own personal natural speed of acquisition. I need not fret. A magnificent divine natural process of perfect neurology is at work.
Again, why mess with it. The divine natural process of language learning, that magical unconscious process, doesn’t need my help. It never did. I just deliver the CI. I work in humility for a Process that has the thing about languages figured out already. All I have to do is keep the damn English out of my mouth in class and we’ll be fine.