Targetless Instruction – 31

To view this content, you must be a member of Ben's Patreon at $10 or more
Already a qualifying Patreon member? Refresh to access this content.



75 thoughts on “Targetless Instruction – 31”

  1. Not sure if it qualifies in the authentic communication greatness hall of fame, but the Spanish room at my school has become known as the PLACE FOR BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS because of the lil emergent routine that has developed – I’ve described it elsewhere on the PLC, but it’s akin to Special Chair/Person/house – the celebrant brings up her chair in front of the group and gets to choose a costume (cape, wig, slippers, big feet…) and then a plate and any number of desserts from my dessert bag. If wearing the big feet (and the Tutu), he’ll make a marching circuit around the room before we sing Happy birthday…(with or without cha-cha-chas?)
    The convo naturally employs does/n’t wants, likes, prefers, has, there is, gives, wears…perhaps it’s just all you big-kids-teachers do for your authentic special routines but with lotsa visuals/props, and the class ends up throwing out lotsa suggestions: More cake! He wants chocolate ice cream! The beard!!

    1. I do birthdays too and it is like the “Special Person” but with more costumes. I think that it is a special part of the year for the kids. It is SO looked-forward-to that I did not want kids to be sad that their birthdays are not during school. So this is birthday season as we are working thought the summer birthdays too. Right now we are having a very busy Juneuary, Februly, and Margust.
      We can talk for a long time, at least twenty minutes, about the birthday kid.

  2. Many of us have for some time been teaching “sheltered content” courses, in which the content is from the students lives and from stories that students co-create. We have been mislabeling what we do. We don’t target a “structure” if we take “structure” to mean “rule” (that’s what it means in SLA). And we should also not be “targeting” in the TPRS classic sense of it: a “set of structures” or a “phrase/chunk/formula,” because that impoverishes the input and constrains interesting communication. Shelter (limit) vocabulary. Do not shelter (non-target) grammar.

    We still need to establish meaning and bring words in bounds, but the goal is to communicate – learn something about students or create a story. We limit (shelter) the new words, which has the incidental effect of getting lots of reps on the words. But there are NO grammatical constraints, unless on the rare occasion that grammar impedes comprehension of the message. And when comprehension is impeded, hopefully your class is so interactive, that the comprehension breakdown is evident.

    We’ve long been saying how simple this is: just communicate in a way that is comprehensible. Do lots of comprehension checks (many ways to do that: gestures, drawings, L2 circling, L1 translation, etc.). Let’s elevate the goal of “communication” over teaching language. Since all language acquisition is incidental anyway – it happens as a result of focusing on the message – we never really were teaching anything!!!

    This is a truly SLA-aligned approach. This makes our jobs easier.

    1. “Many of us have for some time been teaching “sheltered content” courses, in which the content is from the students lives and from stories that students co-create. We have been mislabeling what we do.”

      I don’t think we’ve been mislabeling what foreign language largely is: context-based, content-reduced instruction. “Sheltered content” is decontextualized information: information that can not be conveyed without background knowledge and content-area concepts that build in complexity. Content is not from student’s lives, but it is often beneficial to ask students to connect content to their personal lives and experiences. Context is what we already know: what is around us. At the risk of oversimplifying: context is the familiar; content is the unfamiliar.

      This may seem obvious, but content is what you teach after context is mastered (which for most of you foreign language teachers is never-or not for many years). Most of you don’t ever have to worry about content-based language instruction.

      Also, I think we might have two different understandings of the words “Second Language Acquisition.” I believe most SLA educators in America would be ESL and bilingual educators as these educators teach a language for mastery for use in US schools (although technically you could also throw deaf-language educators into this bunch-but most don’t). Second language educators do not necessarily “take ‘structure’ to mean ‘rule’ ” …not from my experience.

      1. Huh?

        Many TPRSers (Blaine included) have been saying they “target structures” when they really just make communication comprehensible. They do this by limiting vocabulary and not grammar, what I am referring to as “sheltering.”

        I see how you interpreted what I was saying, taking “content” to mean “academic content.” By “content” I mean information about students and stories.

        And the way I am using the word “structure” is how it is used in SLA research.
        The grammatical syllabus is by far the dominant scope & sequence in FL instruction – aka “structural-based syllabus.”

        1. I think it’s important we define our terms.

          When I say “target” I mean it in terms of
          1) Teacher purpose: get this linguistic item acquired
          2) Teacher practice: get massed reps right now of this linguistic item

          There are graded readers that have a “Before you Read” page at the beginning of the story where they L1-L2 gloss a few key words to understanding that story (probably those words falling outside the frequency band they are writing within) and they may even include an image of the word. These are NOT the targets as I define “targets.”

          Then, they tell a story within the highest “x” frequency words + those glossed words, but the purpose is to tell a story that can be comprehended and they are not creating “input floods” of those words they glossed at the beginning, i.e. each page is not dedicated to trying to get contextualized reps on the same word, rather the result is spaced reps.

        2. Thank you for trying to explain. I see what you are saying about there being “content” to a story (as in a point to your story-some surprising or new information) and that is technically true, but most Content Based Instruction language educators (myself included) would not be able to participate in discussions on TPRS where the distinction was not made between content-driven academic language verses context-driven social language (like that taught with TPRS). I advise against your suggestion to change our definition of the word “context” to “content”-particularly “sheltered content” (“sheltered” has a different connotation for second language educators).

          1. You are exactly right, Claire, in pointing out that FL teachers focus on the social language rather than academic discipline language. FL teachers do not have the access to an L2 environment in which students can pick up the social language. As an FL teacher, it never occurred to me that I was trying to redefine ELL-specific language.

            As teachers we have to deal have to communicate our doings to other people. If our focus is not on mastering a constellation of grammatical paradigms, then what is it? What are we teaching? That is, what is our content? What is this class about? I think I would not be making myself understood in trying to explain to parents, guidance counselors, curriculum map police or administrators that I do not teach content; I teach context. The content-context distinction is very helpful in discussing the necessary differences between FL and ELL. But the use of specialized vocabulary with non-specialists can be misleading or non-communicative.

            Two of the purposes of language are to express and to understand. We are just trying to use a variety of means to provide enough comprehensible and compelling input that we as teachers are not the only ones in the room doing the expression. We are trying to set the kids up for comprehension and expression by teaching them to negotiate meaning in L2.

            But are stories not content? They may not be Shakespeare or Cervantes but the story is the basis for academic content in Literature, Drama, Music, and Hi-story. Every discipline we have has a story. It is true that we are not at the HS level with our “content”; we are more at the PreK level (at best) of fluency. But we have to start somewhere. Even if we the “content” is math we never get away from 1 + 1.

            So we use terminology in different ways to serve different purposes and we keep negotiating meaning in order to arrive at a common understanding. In the process, I believe we see that we have a lot in common albeit disguised by language.

  3. Think about a graded reader series, which shelters vocabulary.

    E.g. in level 1 there may be 10 books all written within the same 75 words.
    Level 2 expands to 100 words (ideally only adding 25 different words), but each book in level 2 has the same 100 words.

    The key words are glossed at the beginning of the story or within the text. You expect a student to read 5-10 books at each level before advancing levels.

    In the case of teaching beginners, our “levels” are of much fewer words and of smaller increments. But even that should not be prescriptive. The more control, the less natural.

      1. I have found in the last few years that the following has been a huge hit with my kids:

        We read the first half of the book together using a variety of activities.

        Then the book goes into the choices for FVR.

        We don’t finish it in class. :0) It’s a little sneaky, but it works wonderfully. The important info and structures all appear in the first half. The kids who want to know what happens go immediately for that book during FVR. Kids who have trouble ‘getting into” a book on their own already have a starting point. Kids who didn’t connect with it can read something else. And those kids who tend to be oppositional will read it just because I said we couldn’t lol

        Meanwhile, we have created a similar base of structures and historical/cultural background to work with together.

        with love,

        1. That is great! I’m going to do that with level 2 & 3 — we will not be able to finish those books anyway. Still too much left before it’s readable. But not even trying to finish, that’s a nice idea.

          Last year with two classes, I also stopped the books about 2 chapters before the end (because of interest factors and wanting to do other things with them). We made up our own ending to the story, which we found more entertaining. Who knew Anna was in Taiwan to be a spy, and in a sad, unrequited love with a character who turned out to be a mafia figure? My students knew.

          1. I also find this idea extremely awesome and especially creative. Thanks Laurie!!

            Even just reading the first chapter… or the first page… or the first paragraph… or the last paragraph… what a thought that opens up so much more reading potential in my classroom!

          2. The idea of reading aloud just a little bit of a book so students would know what it’s like (and could select for FVR if drawn to it) was an idea I recently read in The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. Isn’t it great? I want to do it next time levels 3 & 4 have FVR time. Just a couple minutes reading something aloud to them before they pick their own. Selection is slim, but there is some degree of choice.

  4. Whenever the desire for communication precedes the selection of structures, the lesson goes great. Whenever the structures precede the desire for communication, the lesson falls flat. Only fear makes me choose the latter over the former.

    1. Excellent analysis.

      I can get the latter to work with happy students who want to be there (ex, most of level 1 and all of this year’s level 4) but it better be about something they will talk about in levels 2 & 3, or it will be a difficult & artificial. It’ll feel like school, in other words. This is a disadvantage to using novels: I can’t gloss very much in Chinese reading, so if I use a novel, I have to introduce almost everything in advance. Reading texts with familiar words already has plenty of challenge — I don’t want anything unknown in the text they read until more proficiency with the language than they reach in high school.

      Makes me rethink the whole thing about published novels as a tool, because using them is the reason I sometimes introduce language that I otherwise would not. Ben, you’ve said that for a long time. I’m starting to feel about published novels the way I did back when I was using textbook content but teaching in through CI means. It stifles things. Plus, the reading material needs to be simpler. Then they can really read it on their own. Chinese needs a massive influx of audiobooks designed for level 1. I’d use them through level 3.

      Where a novel is working nicely is level 4.

      1. I have never backwards designed for a book. Sorry, but to me that would be “yuck.” If the book is easy and high-frequency, then I can just pile on the sheltered CI and there will come a time when the kids are ready for the book. Plus, I don’t shy away from glossing as we read as a class when I sense it’s an unfamiliar word. I simply snap after I read the word and whoever knows the word says it. And we move right on.

        1. Eric, this has become a rant about Chinese, so skip it if you like. I think you’re in a different situation with Spanish. There’s roughly a familiar alphabet with very transparent spelling, and like 30% cognates. Glossing, I will venture to say, isn’t as intimidating as in Chinese, and you can sound out Spanish words even if you don’t know what they mean.

          There is plenty of i+1 for them in Chinese texts that only contain familiar language. Inevitably things come up in reading are being refreshed into familiarity through the context, or as if introduced for the first time for some students. I gloss those words when students don’t recall them, & occasionally clarify a whole phrase or sentence if I can tell they got lost in it. If I allowed in some unknown language, it would be too incomprehensible. I’m aiming for 100% comprehensible which means at most 95% for some of the kids in actuality, 98% for others, 99% for a few. Chinese character literacy is a big influence on how I approach a lot of these things.

          Another issue is the shortage of published books in Chinese for level 1 & 2. There are only a few options now: 6 or 7 short books for level 1 (ex, story books that require 1 class period to read). About that many designed for level 2 by Haiyun Lu or Terry Waltz but they’re better for level 3, I think.

          I write class-related reading material every week for four levels. Though it’s been suggested here, I cannot use the same material for each level. (Well, I could use the same core stuff & adjust for different levels — but then I would have other problems, and it’d be harder to do than just having four different preps.) Having the opportunity for a break by reading something already published is a good thing for me, and it exposes students to a longer storyline with another writer’s “voice” in Chinese. I think that’s good for them, too.

          But my main reason for using published books: my school asks for a list of curricular materials for each level. And it’s been easier to pull out from books than to freewheel with four levels for me. Then my mental energy can go elsewhere.

  5. Something I just thought of when it comes to Sheltering vs. Targeting…

    Even if we avoid Targeting, there’s an important feature of TPRS “structures” we ought not to forget about. It’s in the combination of words (more than one verb when possible) that the idea of “structures” really stands up:

    wants to go
    thought that she
    was almost
    said to him/her that

    So when we establish meaning, it’s still important to link the word into a phrase instead of just isolated words with English below/beside. I fear that abandoning the Targeting of Structures really puts us back in terms of using the idea of “structures.” No?

    1. Lance, it seems this goes back to the double meaning (SLA vs TPRS) of the word “structure”.

      I think the examples you bring up are vocabulary chunking/stringing, and the structure as SLA defines it is the grammar embedded in those individual words (i.e. morphemes) and the grammar their combinations make up.

        1. Why do you need a “structure,” Lance?
          Underlying all of our communication are contextualized “structures.”
          The purpose of establishing meaning, as I see it more like glossing, is to hopefully aid students in processing the input. I don’t see anything special about one word or a chunk. Kids will produce in chunks in the early stages (and later) regardless of whether we target them or not.
          Targeting (and circling) give teachers ways to stay in bounds and stay comprehensible. That is their value.

          1. The same reason phone numbers are grouped by 3, 3, 4. That’s actually only 3 pieces of information we have to store, not 10.

            Are you saying there’s no point in grouping words into chunks?

            I thought that was a huge TPRS selling point…it’s how we can shelter vocabulary (= the stepified targeted 3 structures) by actually using more than just a few limited words because those structures contain more than just one word.

          2. Yes, I am saying exactly that.
            You can group words if you want.
            I do not limit my input to only that chunk. Not even close. I doubt you do, either. Do I need to establish meaning for every single chunk I use?
            I want kids to process each word (ideally every morpheme) anyway.
            If that word order comes up frequently enough in the input, then it WILL be stored as a chunk (at least at first). If the sum of the chunk takes on a different meaning than it’s parts, then I may have to translate.
            I don’t need to speak in taught chunks in order to shelter vocabulary.

          3. Nope, not my point. When you use a new word instead of just establishing the meaning by giving the English equivalent, you put it on the board grouped with something students already know. The Input is non-targeted, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m afraid that once the Input becomes non-targeted, that these good practices will be lost in the shuffle.

          4. I think I’m just pissed off and feel like the rug is being pulled out from under me. This is exactly what traditional “legacy” teachers feel like when people come at them with CI. CI folks say “we’ve got something better and you can choose to make sense of it, or become a dinosaur and let your practices die out with you.”

            I just wasn’t ready to become a dinosaur within the community that criticizes those very dinosaurs.

            It seems like there is always going to be someone more in-the-know of language teaching, and the latest embrace is really down to probably not more than 10 people on the PLC. Maybe I came in at a time when the revolution began just as I felt like I was getting a handle on things, but who knows.

          5. Well, if you advocate a constructivist grammar as would someone of a usage-based approach (e.g. connectionist models), then I imagine you would attribute more power to frequency and more power to presenting language in chunks. Interestingly, this “mental representation” framework also makes acquisition depend mostly on comprehending input.

            I do not support that. I am most sold by the “language is special” and “language learning is special” line of thought. I believe the most developed and most persuasive theory of mental representation for L1 comes from generative grammar (Chomsky) and I think that this language acquisition module is still available for an L2, L3, etc. Formally known as “full access.” Frequency and language chunks do not hold any theoretical status in generative grammar.

          6. ???? A little too obscure for me but this is what I think I got:

            Because of a certain line of though in this case generative grammar, language chunks and frequency do not matter. Similar to the natural approach? If it’s frequent, it will pop up?

          7. I loved what Eric said:
            “Kids will produce in chunks in the early stages (and later) regardless of whether we target them or not.
            Targeting (and circling) give teachers ways to stay in bounds and stay comprehensible. That is their value.”

            Yes, all kids can see the realia/props (you have to target to know what to bring in, right?) the word wall, the images and ideas that keep repeating. Targeting does have value in creating a shared learning experience as well, particularly with a book. People who don’t teach with a good book are crazy. But the only way to know what words need to be on the page are to plan ahead and target.

            That said, like Eric says, different kids pick up on different words at different times, so don’t quiz them on the targets, just use the targets to make the story comprehensible, then ask them about the story.

          8. Eric said:

            …targeting (and circling) give teachers ways to stay in bounds and stay comprehensible. That is their value.”….

            I am of the opinion that we can stay in bounds without any targets to help us do so, but with two important stipulations:

            1. only after the first year.
            2. only if the content we deliver is compelling.

      1. I’m sorry to be the annoying voice of ESL teachers everywhere who are confused:

        “SLA verses TPRS”
        what does this mean?
        I’ve seen similar posts and to me, and any other ESL teacher I’d like to introduce to your brilliant TPRS ways, this reads: Second Language Acquisition is in opposition to TPRS. There might be some misunderstandings here that are keeping ESL teachers away from this wonderful methodology, and that concerns me.
        What is SLA to you? To me, it’s everything I’ve ever read, researched, experienced in my second language classroom, or had explained to me about Second Language Acquisition. What does this have to do with “structures”? I’m not getting it.
        SLA researchers are many and have many voices and opinions. So please help me understand what teachers here mean when they refer to SLA research and how it “defines ‘structures.’” It doesn’t define anything- it’s all over the page. There is no one SLA handbook or set of agreed upon principles, or if there are, the majority of SLA educators and researchers are very much pro-TCI.
        The first things I ever read in my Masters in English as a Second Language Education program were The Communicative Approach and The Power of Reading: my understanding of SLA is 90% Krashen. For me SLA = many voices, many views on “structure” (no clear definition) but the loudest voice is that of comprehensible input. Did I miss something? Do you all know something I don’t about “SLA.”

        I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be annoying -I just want to learn to talk “foreign language” 1. because for the first time (and with no FL background/education) I am a foreign language teacher part time and 2. I would like to share TPRS with other ESL educators. Many of whom would be as confused as I am reading this blog and trying to make sense of “SLA” as you use it. There’s such a learning curve here, the more I understand, the better I can “translate” it for other ESL teachers interested in TPRS.

        Re-reading the above, it looks obnoxious and nit-picky, but I promise, I am genuinely interested in learning from you all… but I am genuinely confused.

        1. Jim was not pitting SLA vs. TPRS, but was pointing out how the two differ in how they define “structure.” The definition from Fluency through TPR Storytelling isn’t like any definition I’ve ever seen in SLA before.

          The lack of definition for “structure” has always been a critique of Krashen’s use of the term 😉

          We can all define it how we wish, then share that definition before we use the term, so we know we are talking about the same thing.

          Since SLA has been traditionally more obsessed with syntax and morphology, I’ve most often seen “structure” when reading work by SLA researchers in regards to grammar rules, whether textbook or generative rules. That is how I use the term.

          As I also pointed out, a “structural-based syllabus” is another term for a syllabus revolving around grammar rules. So, I am averse to calling what we teach “structures.” TPRS has an implicit syllabus organized around “structures,” which to the less-knowledgeable eye will come off as synonymous with a textbook grammar-based syllabus.

          In fact, I’m averse to organizing syllabi around any linguistic items, for multiple reasons. I want to see it organized around the content of our communication, e.g. student info and stories.

          1. No, Krashen doesn’t define “structure” because he choses to say “who cares?” Literally-he titled an article on grammar thusly: “Teaching Grammar: Why Bother?”

            While FLA is obsessed with grammar, SLA researcher Stephen Krashen doesn’t care about grammar. No researcher respected and emulated by second language practitioners cares about grammar (none of the many I have encountered). We care only about reading, reading, reading. If you are a reading teacher, you don’t have to “teach” grammar. Forget about “structures,” that point is moot. Grammar is only acquired through extensive reading. Second language students acquire grammar. They just do. Because they have awesome teachers who give them quality books to read at their ability level. Done.

            Second Language Acquisition, the researchers and practitioners rock. (I just dabbed.)

            Speaking of good books, I’m preparing to roll out Hugo Cabret (a Caldecott winner and almost wordless graphic novel) and I’m thinking this is going to be the best book yet. I’m astonished that there are no good FL books out there, but it’s worth it to write my own if it means avoiding grammar instruction.

          2. Here is what I know based on what Blaine has said to me…you can take it for what it is worth…you do not have to like or believe it.


            “We had to start calling it “targeting structures” because classroom teachers could not figure out how to do this stuff.”

            He meant to say that when it came to rely on the intuition of just CONNECTING with students, at their (i+1) that most teachers could not do it.

            Targeting is teacher-centered IMO and Sheltering is student-centered IMO. Neither one is wrong or bad…it not even worth debating because teachers and students and learning environments all have unique variables.

            For teachers NEW to this, they need to find tangible words and grammar features that could appear on a lesson plan. If you study what LICT books actually does…it would draw conclusions to sheltering language rather than targeting.

            Where this falls in regards to SLA in my mind is simple…we are talking about INPUT.

            And now I will make my big conclusion 🙂

            Novice to Intermediate TPRS/CI teachers “target” language on most days.

            Intermediate to Advanced TPRS/CI teachers “shelter” language on most days.

        2. Claire said:

          …I’m sorry to be the annoying voice of ESL teachers….

          My response as moderator of this blog is that I am sorry that you feel as if you feel the need to apologize, Claire. You are the first person to show up in ten years here with an authentic ESL voice mixed with what is obviously a killer knowledge of TPRS. Not only is that rare, but now you are willing to come out and throw some fuel on the fire of change that we must all go through if are EVER to burn down that weird ass wall between the two so-called camps. The loud clanging of swords here is to me a nice music.

          So Claire no apologies. Just do what you do. Clang away. I for one am hanging on every word, as I have studied almost all of Eric’s recent oeuvre – and that is what it is, a body of work with few to match it from a practicing full time teacher – for years here now. I have learned FAR more from Eric than VanPatten, for example, who for me is of the milk toast variety because he doesn’t put his cleats on every day and show up on the REAL playing field of teaching, the classroom. We don’t know it, but the real work, not the talking and radio show work, is being done by us.

          1. That was my intention: to break down walls.
            Thank you for seeing that.

            Clanging swords excites me, but not if I hurt anybody in the process. I can not duel with Eric because he is so well-informed and articulate. If it wasn’t weird, I would start an Eric Harmen fan club.

    2. I’ve just recently found people online talking about chunks of language as a better way to introduce it — it’s what’s pretty common in TPRS. As opposed to a grammar syllabus, or long lists of semantically-related vocab. Here’s one, an EFL/ESL teacher:

      It’s been fun to find those people. A lot of overlap.

  6. Thank you Eric for clarifying that. Yes Claire, I was simply distinguishing the usage of the term “structure” as it’s used in each.

    Regarding chunking of words, Diane, I couldn’t find the specific article/resource you were referring to.

    I will admit, I only partially understand what you are saying Eric with regard to linguistic models. Keep the explanations/arguments coming please.

    Lance, I was feeling how you may be feeling when all this talk came up about not targeting this Fall. But it was only semantical differences, not really substantive differences, that were at work. The more we “deconstruct” what we do, as Lori F pointed out the other day, I think the better we can defend and articulate what we are doing.

    With your chunk examples (e.g. says to him/her), I think we naturally contextually chunk enough to not have to specifically target those chunks. That being said, watching Grant teach the Matava Story this summer where a kid “did something bad (hizo algo mal)”, I saw the power in that chunk. They had a gesture to go with it and all (frustrated finger wagging if memory serves). It was one item for the students. As time went on in the lesson, and I can’t remember if Grant did this or not but I would think it would be the logical next step in order to contrast facts and check comprehension, that one would ask enough circling-esque questions to further zero kids in on the parts (Did he do something bad or something good? Did he eat something bad? Who ate something bad?). I think this is an example of going from ‘understanding the whole before understanding the parts’. I’d love to hear thoughts on this.

    1. Hi Jim, Here’s a post: (It’s a little technical – responding to some criticisms of people who teach language with a phrase-level approach without regard to ‘grammar syllabus’ issues.) I’m following that same teacher on Twitter (found him through Judy Dubois’ retweets — some have been very interesting & CI-friendly; it reminds me a lot of what our ESL teacher Claire says here).

      Eric just said things to suggest he doesn’t like lexical chunking, and that it’s part of another way of viewing what happens in the mind to build up language ability. But I like it a bunch & I think it’s lovely for Chinese. (Eric, if you see this, I’m interested in why you say there is no theoretical status for frequency or language chunks in generative grammar. I view TPRS as having developed out of generative grammar theories AND advocating for frequency of language (“reps”) and using chunks of language at a time. Isn’t that how Blaine’s textbooks are written? I know enough now to be dangerous about usage-based or emergent grammar vs. generative.)

      Then again, I’m still choosing what language to introduce in classes for the most part. The direction of discussion and subsequent reading is heavily influenced by the students, and what we actually say and do in class is, too. Plus, occasionally there’s a need for something else that comes up. I don’t feel bad about what I’m doing; the kids are majority-happy (most of them, most of the time, and the rest is pretty much beyond my influence). It’s not what Ben, Eric, Tina, and others are now doing.

      Why I like using a phrase instead of a single word: I get more bang for the time and processing needed by the students. They can take in somewhat more at once & get a feel for the way to use it better when I give them a phrase. Also, it is really common at a couple of the classes’ stage of Chinese to see a string of characters they know, but not get a sense of the meaning unless I introduce the whole phrase together. Single words don’t help them so much. Also, people argue in Chinese circles about what really is a “word” in Chinese.

      Ex: “towards front look” = looks up ahead (but they couldn’t tell). It’s kind of a phrase, kind of a word of its own. They knew all 3 characters from other places, but seeing those together didn’t give them the meaning they needed. I mostly introduce phrases of some kind after the initial few months of Chinese class.

    2. Thank you Eric for your reply, but there is nothing to support the notion that Second Language Acquisition is grammar driven. Pick up a copy of Krashen’s Principles and Practices of Second Language Acquisition. SLA educators use this research not to teach a second language, but to help students acquire it. Thus the title “Second Language ACQUISTION.” It is not counter to TPRS. It is extremely compatible and inclusive of TPRS–in fact TPRS has it’s origins in SLA theory.

      “Since SLA has been traditionally more obsessed with syntax and morphology…”
      I have never been more adamantly opposed to an idea than to the idea that SLA is “grammar focused” . It is simply untrue.

      Foreign language is very grammar-centric with the exception of TPRSers like you all, on that Eric and I agree. However, this doesn’t have anything to do with Second Language Acquisition. Foreign Language Grammar-Translation has nothing to with SLA. It is neither second language nor acquisition. I’m afraid you misunderstand what “SLA” is, which will be a problem for second language teachers like myself.

      I’m not going to nit-pick on what you TPRS experts decide to do with words like “structure” or “target” … but I have to defend SLA because that’s what I teach: my livelihood and career is built around it.

      Furthermore, it is very difficult to get my fellow second language educators drink your TPRS Koolaid, when you label it “poison.”

      I love each of you; I deeply appreciate all that I’ve learned on this blog… but the SLA confusion has to be cleared up.

      1. That frequency has no theoretical status in generative grammar is a direct quote from VP’s edited book Theories in SLA. Not at home right now, otherwise, I’d find the page number. But in theory, it would only take one processed exemplar to set a parameter.

        As far as I know, TPRS grew out of a theory of how second language systems develop (Krashen) – transition theory – but not a theory of the nature of language – property theory. Surely, Krashen was influenced by Chomsky, but I don’t think (I could be wrong) he ever did much but name-drop “Chomsky” and “LAD.” In fact, if you accept a UG-perspective, then processing input is the ONLY way that language system can be established. So, BVP and Krashen’s stuff literally falls out of Chomsky’s ideas.

        To also be clear, I am not opposed to chunking and presenting language as chunks. What you establish meaning for explicitly isn’t how it gets acquired anyway. If presenting language as chunks is going to aid communication and get your kids more CI, then yes, please, I want some more 😉

        The way I see Blaine’s LICT curriculum, they’re like graded readers – sheltered vocabulary – and an arbitrary nomination at the beginning of a lesson of a word string that he calls a “structure” that then is not targeted in the story or reading.

        I also still think about what unfamiliar language I may have to introduce, but that comes up as a result of what we want to communicate about, i.e. what info we want to learn about each other or what story we want to tell. In the very early stages, targeting and sheltering may look in practice identical, because you cannot communicate much of anything without the highest frequency 50 or so words.

        Claire, you and I are some how missing each other. I thought I’d clarified. Not sure how else to get it across. I have never said the process of SLA happens from explicit grammar learning. All I’ve said is that TPRS has it’s own unique definition for “structure.” For benefit of the doubt sake, I’ll guess that we’re largely saying the same thing, but the semantics is impeding our mutual understanding.

        I admit it is a bit irritating to have what I’m writing be misconstrued and to have you tell me I need to read Krashen and that I misunderstand SLA. I’ve read Krashen’s 1981 and 1982 books, as well as many others. Good stuff to put on everyone’s reading lists.

        I am speaking about the STUDY of SLA, the FIELD of SLA. Again, the RESEARCH FIELD OF SLA. It was predominated, especially in earlier years, by a focus on how syntax and morphology are acquired. I’ve read vocabulary researchers bemoan that trend, but say that it has in more recent years much improved.

        To have a major hypothesis about providing the next structure students are ready to acquire and then not to define structure, is an issue. The article you refer to of Krashen’s was about teaching grammar in first language classes.

        I would not express myself in those terms (e.g. “Krashen doesn’t care about grammar”), as well as other things said, I would choose to express differently, but I think the main principle behind what you are saying we have in common – acquisition is driven by comprehending input.

        Totally unfair that you are saying someone has labeled TPRS to be poison. WHAT?!!

        Hope you can rest assured that you don’t have to “defend SLA” to me.

        1. Thanks for responding to my questions, Eric. Checking that I understand this: “But in theory, it would only take one processed exemplar to set a parameter.” So, does that mean BVP would say conceivably, processing something once is enough for the mind to add it to mental representation already developing? (My knowledge of technical terms is a bit hit-or-miss, that’s what I mean by knowing enough to be dangerous. Ex, “parameter” means nothing specifically linguistic to me, but “processed exemplar” I got.)

          I want to be sure I understand because it doesn’t sound like my sense of what’s happening. Conceivably, sure — like how sometimes teachers note that bad words or somehow intriguing words “stick” with students after just one significant time hearing it. But that is not the normal process I see. Terry Waltz has an analogy that sure plays out in my classroom & my own acquisition of languages: some words are like big buckets, some are like teacups, some are like shot glasses. You need to keep filling those big buckets a long time before they’re full (the word is acquired) and some need less frequent input before they’re in. I’m paraphrasing her analogy very heavily. I could put Chinese words and phrases into those “container sizes” based on patterns I see from teaching several years with different groups of students.

          1. It just means that UG does not theorize about frequency effects. It could, in theory, take only one exemplar to switch the language system switch to be head-initial or head-final, for example. I’ve also read of “thresholds” – after “x” number of repetitions, a parameter goes one way or another. . . reaching the extent of my current knowledge 😉

            We may also be touching different parts of the elephant. . . syntax/morphology vs. acoustical vocabulary perception, i.e. mental representation in memory and online processing of sound-meaning pairs, the latter of which may be exemplar-based.

            See Barcroft & Sommers, 2005. Fascinating. Also, confirms the obvious: exposure to a greater variability of voice types and different speakers builds stronger lexical representations.

          2. Eric I think this just demystified a few things for me, thanks:

            …In the very early stages, targeting and sheltering may look in practice identical, because you cannot communicate much of anything without the highest frequency 50 or so words….

          3. That makes sense to me too. I have been thinking a lot about starting the year especially with my brand new noobs next August. It just makes it so important to be very intentional and target very useful words at the beginning so that you can use them as the backbone of future untargeted communication.

          4. I’ll play the devils advocate Tina on this one. I’m priviledged to be working at THE honor’s middle school of my whole district. I can be “boring” again this August and do just “useful” words. They will follow along ike this did this year but it comes at the expense of the class being fun.

            My plans next year surround having to be engaging, personal but “sheltering” vocab early on with PSA’s before we go into stories. When I did PSA, I felt like I had more eager ears in class. Of course, it may just be early Spring FEVER for kids at this time of the year.

            Tina, I will be emailing you for some resources, suggestions, strategies that you use in class.

          5. Tina said:

            …it just makes it so important to be very intentional and target very useful words at the beginning so that you can use them as the backbone of future untargeted communication….

            This is so critical. We have to delineate between targeting in level one and targeting in level two. Level 1 targeting implies and supports level 2 non-targeting. The one can’t happen without the other. Thanks for shining a light on this Tina.

        2. Thank you for looking past my “Krashen doesn’t care about grammar” statement-you’re right: that’s an oversimplification. I appreciate that you took the time to read and really hear me when you paraphrased “acquisition is driven by comprehending input.” That’s exactly what I meant. I wish I could say things as well as you. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who would say that.

          I’m afraid you misunderstood: TPRS is not poison. TPRS has amazing potential for proponents of Second Language Acquisition. But with comments from TPRSers like “SLA is grammar-focused”, it doesn’t sound like the feeling is mutual. I appreciated that you’re referring to SLA research, not educators, but it’s still frustrating for second language educators who actively work to align ourselves with good SLA research-only to be told that research is grammar-focused when it is not.

          What I wanted to say was that the magic potion of TPRS would read “stay away” or “poison” if we are not careful. Many of my colleagues are already reluctant to try TPRS and wouldn’t see the goodness inside the bottle because of the rough-around-the-edges labeling. If you are of the opinion that SLA is grammar centric, that is your right. I am of a different opinion. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I only say this because it comes up again and again here and you might not be aware what it sounds like to certain SLA “outsiders.”

          I’m sorry if you felt misunderstood when you said: “I have never said the process of SLA happens from explicit grammar learning.” I know you didn’t say that. I talk about explicit grammar verses implict grammar, because I wanted to defend what I know as a SLA teacher; to show that we believe the same things. I never said you thought explicit grammar was the way to go. In fact I said the opposite on a separate post above where I praised a particular quote of yours that I felt was pity.

          I’m sorry if you were offended, but I was simply defending SLA research, theories and methods ESL teachers embrace about reading because SIOP and CALLA are as near to my heart as TPRS is to you. I defend what I love because it’s a big part of my classroom. ESL teachers don’t use L2 textbooks: at least not the vast majority, and infinitely fewer than FL teachers; we read comprehensible, compelling books because we take the time to employ solid SLA research and methods that take the focus off of grammar. Because I believe SLA research and pedagogy is not grammar-centric, I go to extra effort to find just the right books for my kids, figure out what they are interested in (Blaine’s books are not interesting and I would never use them), preview the text and Lexile, etc. After all that work, I prefer not to read that SLA research supporting the methods I use are grammar driven.

          I’m sure you didn’t intend to cast “grammar-centric” stones; your statement was just a footnote in a longer conversation about structures. I’m sorry to have turned on the drama here, and I hate to think you were irritated or took offense. I’m glad to hear that you see the merits of Second Language Acquisition research and practitioners who buy into it. Thank you for being reasonable and sorry if I got carried away. I’ll owe you a beer if you come to Tennessee this July.

          1. Claire, I would like to communicate with you privately about one of my projects. Could you send me an e-mail at harrell rl at aol dot com (putting everything together and replacing with correct signs). Thank you. Robert

          2. I’ll be in Tennessee. Would love to meet up. I also have an ESOL endorsement. Also teach French. Do you want to group register with Diane n me?

          3. Yes! Yes to all the above and I will room with any lady willing to put up with my snoring. Let me know: cnensor at gmail dot com

          4. Claire, you are MISquototing me. Nowhere did I say “SLA is grammar-focused.” I am not saying SLA is grammar-driven. What I am saying is a matter of the history of the field of SLA. I am saying NOTHING about the actual process of acquisition and NOTHING about instruction. In any case, our side discussion has become a tangent from the topic of this blog article.

            I have sent out a request to Bill VanPatten. Here’s what I wrote him:

            I feel like I’ve read this before and in multiple places. And yet I can’t put my finger on a place to find a quote to support it. . . That is, that the field of SLA has been (at least historically) more preoccupied with theorizing about how grammar (the morphology and syntax) is acquired. There was, (and probably still is, right?) an imbalance, in the number of researchers looking at how grammatical structures of a language are acquired (and as you’ve pointed out there is a bias to operationalize them as pedagogical grammar rules) as opposed to the lexicon, phonology, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, communicative strategies, etc. Can you affirm / deny or modify that statement?

          5. Here’s the first line to the preface of Paul Nation’s 2013 book, which supports what I’m saying:

            “Over ten years ago, when the first edition of Learning Vocabulary in Another Language was published, vocabulary learning was characterized by the then series editors as an area studied by only a few pioneers, Paul Nation being one of them.”

          6. Okay. BVP’s response:

            “What you say is true for instructed SLA research but not for SLA research more generally.”

            So, I followed up with asking:

            So, in the more general field of SLA, there has been an equal balance between the number of researchers, studies, papers and books, and amount of discussion between all aspects/components of SLA? For whatever the reason, l have the impression that in the more general field of SLA there, too, has been a greater focus on the grammatical properties of the linguistic system. For instance, I can see this in SLA introductory books that allot a lot more text space to discussing grammatical structures than they do other aspects, e.g. phonology and lexicon.

            BVP responded:

            “Yes, the most studied properties are morpho-syntactic. But there is significant work in phonology/phonetics, pragmatics, and lexicon. Much less work in semantics. There used to be a lot of research on communication (e.g., interactional stuff such as turn taking, comprehension checks) but not so much now from what I gather. And then there is a growing body of work that is non-linguistic in nature: identity, socialization, and so on. A few people work on variation and sociolinguistic variables.”

          7. VP said:

            … the most studied properties are morpho-syntactic. But there is significant work in phonology/phonetics, pragmatics, and lexicon. Much less work in semantics. There used to be a lot of research on communication (e.g., interactional stuff such as turn taking, comprehension checks) but not so much now from what I gather. And then there is a growing body of work that is non-linguistic in nature: identity, socialization, and so on. A few people work on variation and sociolinguistic variables.”…

            What the hell does this even mean?

          8. VP said:

            …and then there is a growing body of work that is non-linguistic in nature: identity, socialization, and so on….

            Thanks. I never thought about that. I’ll have to look into it.

          9. It means precisely what I was saying. . . more of the field of SLA has been involved in looking at morphology (those smallest units of meaning, e.g. verb inflections) and syntax (word order), what a traditional teacher usually means when they say “grammar.” And the subfield of SLA that looks at how teaching affects acquisition (i.e. “instructed SLA”) has focused more on grammatical structures.

            The non-linguistic work he mentions includes sociocultural theory (e.g. Vygotsky).

            Notice that our terminology, e.g. input, output, processing, etc., are metaphors from a machine-like, computer model, which is impersonal. I think it was Larsen-Freeman where I first read that critique.

          10. Scratch that. It was Firth & Wagner, 2007.

            “. . . the established SLA metaphors of machinery and computation (e.g., input, output, processing)” (p. 804).

            But Larsen-Freeman would be someone to also make that kind of critique 😉

          11. Thank you for clarifying. I’m glad to see that this was just a misunderstanding, and we are in agreement.
            I agree in part with your explanation of the statement: SLA used to be grammar-centric/ grammar-driven.
            It is no longer. That is essential.
            I apologize if you were irritated by my line of questioning. Please consider my perspective: it would very easy for SLA teachers to misunderstand your original statement and in fact read it as very divisive.
            Like I said before, I am convinced this is a misunderstanding due to my lack of experience and background in Foreign Language. As I said earlier, I appreciate your patience and the time and effort you take to clarify your statement.
            I agree in part with the statement that in the United States, Second Language Acquisition started out as grammar-centric. Second Language education started to grow under the shadow of Foreign Language methods. Second language acquisition research started in earnest about the same time legislation (Lau vs. Wade in 1979) compelled schools to provide specialized ESL classrooms. Principals didn’t know what to do with NELB students so they got sent either to SPED (this practice was quickly shut-down as it is an OCR violation) or more often to the Spanish teacher. Second Language Acquisition research became a necessity because the foreign language methods being used at the time (you are right, Eric, they were grammar-centric) didn’t work. Then, as early as the 80s, SLA research and pedagogy branched off and differentiated itself from the old FL ways (largely under the influence of Stephen Krashen) to require ESL methods to provide comprehensible input and a focus on reading as a vehicle for grammar acquisition. Since this time, ESL teachers have spent the last 30-40 years trying to remove themselves from antiquated Foreign Language methods, particularly the Grammar-Translation method that is still being employed in the majority of US foreign language classrooms.

            Unfortunately, the majority of English as a Second Language teachers in the US are still dubious and not altogether enthusiastic about “going back to” a Foreign Language method, even one as awesome as TPRS. I personally know they have no reason to be afraid of TPRS, they don’t. If any of you ever decide to introduce your ESL teacher to TPRS, expect to walk on eggshells until they figure out you are a serious, knowledgeable CBI teacher. I’m more broke-hearted than anybody over this misunderstanding and initial hesitation on the part of ESL teachers, but it’s a real concern. I could be wrong, but from my experience, there could be a very real aversion to statements that accuse SLA innovators of being grammar centric, when we have a hard-fought history of moving away from traditional Foreign Language’s obsession with grammar.

            Eric, please forgive me for making you feel singled out or generally irritating you with my questions: I never meant to misinterpret you. I really wanted to understand your perspective, and I think I do now.
            I know I took what you said out of it’s original context, and this post wasn’t even about SLA research, and you weren’t addressing a group of second language educators (except me)—and so I apologize for choosing the wrong venue for bringing this up. I am sorry for the rant and being off-topic.
            I am very, very appreciative of your patience in explaining your perspective, and I can (to some extent) agree with what you are saying. It’s because I respect what you posted on this thread about grammar in particular… and because I agree with 99.9% of everything you post that I ask about this statement. I wanted to pick your brain but I ended up picking on you, and I am very sorry for that.
            You TPRSers have fought hard to fight for comprehensible input. You are amazing educators who fight against the same thing ESL teachers have fought against for years: the old foreign language Grammar Nazis who are still living in the Dark Ages. So have SLA researchers and practitioners. We are in this fight together.

          12. No worries, Claire. I always knew we were not understanding each other. I appreciate your voice here.

            It boils down this: the field of SLA has spent more time investigating issues regarding morphology and syntax, but there is a better balance today.

            It’s not an opinion. And it doesn’t mean that acquisition is grammar-centric, nor driven by the teaching and learning of grammar. In fact, I don’t see anything aversive at all about saying that researchers want to know how the grammatical system is acquired. That says nothing about the HOW of acquisition and says nothing about the whole of acquisition.

            The contemporary start to the field of SLA is often attributed to Stephen Pit Corder’s 1967 paper, which discussed errors, the internal syllabus, and the concept of intake. Larry Selinker’s 1972 paper about the concept of interlanguage is also cited as the start to modern-day SLA.

            I think the study of second (or third, etc.) language acquisition prior to that was largely an instructed SLA field, i.e. closely tied to teaching. It expanded and is now a field in its own right and the general field of SLA does not exist to solely investigate how to teach language. Which, by the way, is what teachers often don’t understand, since SLA does not always ask the questions a teacher would want answered.

          13. PS: I mentioned CBI, but I meant to say TCI. CBI is the ESL way to Teach Comprehensible Input. Same comprehensible input, two different names. Sorry for the confusion.

          14. Thank you, Claire and Eric, for this exchange of ideas. (Sorry about the misunderstandings, though) It will help me as I interact with our ESL teacher.

            Claire, I am interested in getting your input on a writing project I am doing. As you may know (or maybe not), I have written two books. One is set in the Middle Ages, and the other is a pirate story set in the North Sea area. They are originally written for my German classes, but I have translated the pirate story into Spanish and French (published) as well as English (unpublished). I showed it to our ESL teacher, and she was quite interested in it as something that her male students would find compelling. I would love to get your impression of it. In addition, I would love to get your input as I work on an English version of the medieval story. If you are interested, could you send me an e-mail at harrell r l at aol dot com (converting this into standard e-mail address format). Thanks.

    3. Jim said:

      …watching Grant teach the Matava Story this summer where a kid “did something bad (hizo algo mal)”, I saw the power in that chunk….

      Yeah that is what you and Matava do, Jim. You chunk the right expressions and then give us a guideline for whatever (close to or far from) story we create with our kids relative to the scripts you to genius script writers provide us.

      Chunks with emotional power that are embedded/targeted in scripts lead to successful storytelling. It is the fact that they are embedded in a story that is interesting to teens that is the source of the power and so people like Grant can launch that thing high into the air with little effort. And I know I am all about non-targeted, or so people think, but I have been working from scripts for at least ten years so let’s clarify – I am for what works that day.

      Feeling like a script? Teach from a script, Ben! Feeling like winging it? Wing it, Ben. We talk so much about the What and not nearly enough about the How. Just give me a word and I can make a story about it. And so can just about every person in our community and in the entire world. All we have to do is click our heels and we will be freed from the ridiculous assumption that we can’t make it home without a hot air balloon (of ideas about teaching) that is forever floating, floating just out of our reach.

      Matava is working on her third volume. I’m excited. So Jim are you thinking of a second volume to Tripp’s Scripts?

  7. I don’t know who quoted Janice Kittok saying that even intuitive chefs still have and utilize their favorite recipes (scripts/lessons). I think this is right-on!

    Re another volume… no, instead I’m retooling what I already have, getting rid of less favorite scripts and replacing them with better ones, reformatting all scripts to better support/encourage a less targeted and more flexible approach. You know I look forward to seeing what Anne has coming!

    1. Jim I think it’s going to be an exciting summer if you and Anne can somehow kick out new stuff, in your case an updated and cleaned up version of Tripp’s Scripts and in Anne’s a long awaited third volume of her Story Scripts books. Both would, I am certain, be well received.

  8. Steven Ordiano

    “Jim Tripp has said this about the topic:

    “If I say to myself that I target the storyline vs the structures, I may find myself relax and yet unable to avoid hitting on my targets anyways.”

    My first exposure of TPRS was during my student teaching. I remember that the teacher would know the storyline and NOT have the story memorized. He did it so naturally. Looking back he would not go “wildly” out of bounds. It was more like “noise” adding “and” “so” type of words but always sticking to the storyline.

    He told me to talk naturally to the kids. Only know am I beginning to get it.

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

To view this content, you must be a member of Ben’s Patreon at $10 or more Unlock with PatreonAlready a qualifying Patreon member? Refresh to

CI and the Research (cont.)

To view this content, you must be a member of Ben’s Patreon at $10 or more Unlock with PatreonAlready a qualifying Patreon member? Refresh to

Research Question

To view this content, you must be a member of Ben’s Patreon at $10 or more Unlock with PatreonAlready a qualifying Patreon member? Refresh to

We Have the Research

To view this content, you must be a member of Ben’s Patreon at $10 or more Unlock with PatreonAlready a qualifying Patreon member? Refresh to



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